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10 Popular Foods Once Considered Unfit To Eat

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1. Potatoes

When you think potatoes, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A side of fries? Eating them all mashed up and buttery with gravy on Thanksgiving? If you were a Frenchman during the 18th century, your answer might have been “leprosy” and “rampant, unchecked sexual urges,” since consuming potatoes was believed to lead to both of these things—probably because the starch was thought to resemble lepers' feet and testicles.

Potato cultivation was actually banned for a time until French agricultural pioneer Antoine-Augustin Parmentier began promoting the potato in the late 18th century. Parmentier gave potatoes a PR campaign boost by serving potato dishes to the likes of Benjamin Franklin (whose sexual appetite was famously always intact, potato or no potato) and hiring armed guards to protect his prized potato patch.

2. Tomatoes

It’s hard to believe that the tomato, so versatile and central to European cuisine, was thought of as poisonous on the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries. The savory fruits had a reputation for killing the elites of society, and for good reason, since quite a few upper-crust folks did fall gravely ill after eating them. However it was actually their pewter plates, high in lead content and made even more potent by acidic tomato juice, that were the culprit.

So what turned the corner for the tomato? Among other things, the invention of a cheap and undeniably delicious new dish called pizza, in the 1880s, is said to have helped the so-called “poison apple” gain Beatles-like levels of popularity.

3. Tuna

Tuna is currently the most widely eaten fish in America, but it took some crafty PR campaigning to bring the tasty, healthy saltwater fish to popularity. At the turn of the century, yellowfin and skipjack—the two darker tuna varieties most widely eaten today—were avoided by fishermen and largely thought of as “junk fish” due to America’s preference for lighter meat.

But once World War I and the Great Depression rolled around, the widely-available and efficient protein source was slapped with the label “chicken of the sea,” and Americans started eating tuna by the literal boatload. The rest is smelly, oily history.

4. Lobster

These days, lobster pretty much serves as shorthand for “fancy food.” But as anyone who’s read David Foster Wallace’s treatise on the American delicacy, Consider the Lobster, knows, the marine crustacean was once considered unfit for human consumption and was mostly eaten by prisoners and the poor. In fact, up until the 19th century, the abundant creatures were considered a nuisance and frequently ground up as a fertilizer after washing up on the East Coast.

So how did the massive, near-insects get fancy? Part of the shift has been chalked up to the American railroad, which spread the food well beyond the Northeast, where they were most abundant. Lobster was also one of very few foods that wasn’t rationed during World War II, which made it a more regular part of the American diet. It should also be noted that dipping anything in melted butter never hurts.

5. Hamburgers

With the rise of gastropub culture over the past twenty years, burgers have gone from greasy fast food fix to a gourmet American dish. But since being invented around 1900, the burger has come even further. Due to the nature of the meat industry during the early 20th century (as famously explored in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) hamburgers were widely viewed as unclean food for the poor.

In his landmark book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser touches on the rise of hamburgers in America, largely crediting White Castle—which used "white" to give the impression of cleanliness—as the chain that helped burgers become a quintessential American meal. Steak 'n Shake also positioned itself to change perceptions of ground beef, calling their burgers “steakburgers” and grinding their meat within public view to show off their untainted product.

6. Oatmeal

Oatmeal: tasty for breakfast, even better in a cookie. But back before oats could be found in pantries across America, they were considered strictly animal feed in the States. It wasn’t until a German immigrant named Ferdinand Schumacher marketed his ground oats as an alternative to breakfast meat that the food started to catch on as a morning meal.

Schumacher’s Akron-based empire (which would eventually become part of Quaker Oats) expanded even further once the Civil War took hold. The federal government put in oatmeal orders quicker than Schumacher could supply them after Union soldiers gave an initial order of his product rave reviews.

7. Peanuts

Thought to have been brought to North America by African slaves, peanuts were once considered food fit for only the poorest poor and livestock. Peanuts started taking off as an American staple following the Civil War, and there’s a good chance you recognize a few of the names involved with the pro-peanut shift.

First, there’s PT Barnum, whose circus started selling “Hot Roasted Peanuts” in the late 19th century—baseball stadiums and food carts would soon follow suit. There’s also the famous African American botanist George Washington Carver, who advocated for switching from cotton crops to legumes during the early 20th century and developed some 100 recipes involving the peanut. The undeniable, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth deliciousness of peanut butter, popularized a few years later, cemented the peanut as an omnipresent American ingredient.

8. Garlic

Garlic makes pretty much everything tastier, and pretty much everyone smellier, as well. The “smellier” part has led the pungent vegetable to be viewed as uncouth in England for centuries, and stigmatized in the United States until surprisingly recently.

Because of its odor, the English have long viewed garlic as a vulgar food and considered its smell unacceptable, especially on the breath of young, courting couples, and have only gotten on board with the ingredient over the last few decades. For many years, the United States borrowed the anti-garlic attitude of its mother country, and it wasn’t until Polish, German and Italian immigrants settled in massive numbers that public perceptions started to shift in favor of the once forbidden vegetable.

9. Portobello Mushrooms

The story of the portobello mushroom is yet another reminder you should never underestimate the power of great PR campaign. Until the 1980s, the large, meaty mushroom—which is really just the common agaricus bisporus (aka crimini) mushroom, left to grow and mature—was considered an unsightly waste product to be tossed in the trash.

It wasn’t until the 1980s rolled around and when raw, dark and whole foods started to come into fashion that these earthy shrooms were tagged with the schnazzy Italian-sounding name “portobello” and marketed as a healthy meat replacement to be stuffed with cheese, veggies, and bread crumbs, or marinated and covered with cheese steak-style.

10. Chicken Wings

It’s hard to think of any food Americans eat more voraciously in the 21st century than the almighty wing, particularly come football season. While wings have been enjoyed in various regions both in America and around the world (hey, if it’s edible, people have found a way to eat it), they were largely thrown away as scraps, used for broth, or generally considered far less valuable than the leg and the breast in much of the country prior to the 1960s.

So what happened in the 1960s? Someone in Buffalo, New York deep fried and threw some hot sauce on the suckers, and people pretty much lost their minds. The regional delicacy gradually swept the nation, to the point that we now consume 1.25 billion wings on Super Bowl weekend, an amount that the National Chicken Council Reports that would circle the earth twice if laid end-to-end.

All images courtesy of iStock.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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