The True Origins of GEEK Food

Potato Chip: 1853, Saratoga Springs, New York

In the summer of 1853, American Indian George Crum was a chef at an elegant resort in Saratoga Springs, New York. On Moon Lake Lodge's restaurant menu were French-fried potatoes, prepared by Crum in the standard, thick-cut French style that was popularized in France in the 1700s and enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson as ambassador to that country. Ever since Jefferson brought the recipe to America and served French fries to guests at Monticello, the dish was popular and serious dinner fare. At Moon Lake Lodge, one dinner guest found chef Crum's French fries too thick for his liking and rejected the order.

Crum cut and fried a thinner batch, but these, too, met with disapproval. Exasperated, Crum decided to rile the guest by producing French fries too thin and crisp to skewer with a fork. The plan backfired. The guest was ecstatic over the browned, paper-thin potatoes, and other diners requested Crum's potato chips, which began to appear on the menu as Saratoga Chips, a house speciality. Soon they were packaged and sold, first locally, then throughout the New England area. Crum eventually opened his own restaurant, featuring chips.

Hamburger: Middle Ages, Asia

Tartar steak was not yet a gourmet dish of capers and raw egg when Russian Tartars introduced it into Germany sometime before the fourteenth century. The Germans simply flavored shredded low-grade beef with regional spices, and both cooked and raw it became a standard meal among the poorer classes. In the seaport town of Hamburg, it acquired the name "Hamburg steak." The Hamburg speciality left Germany by two routes and acquired different names and means of preparation at its points of arrival. It traveled to England, where a nineteenth-century food reformer and physician, Dr. J. H. Salisbury, advocated shredding all foods prior to eating them to increase their digestibility. Salisbury particularly believed in the health benefits of beef three times a day, washed down by hot water. Thus, steak, regardless of its quality, was shredded by the physician's faddist followers and the Hamburg steak became Salisbury steak, served on a plate, not in a bun. In the 1880s, the Hamburg steak traveled with a wave of German immigrants to America, where it acquired the name "hamburger steak," then merely "hamburger." Exactly when and why the patty was put in a bun is unknown. But when served at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, it was already a sandwich, with its name further abbreviated to "hamburg."

Doughnut: 16th Century, Holland

The hole in the doughnut's center appeared in the first half of the nineteenth century, the independent creation of the Pennsylvania Dutch and, farther east, a New England sailor. Hanson Gregory, a sea captain from Maine, is said to have poked holes in his mother's doughnuts in 1847, for the practical reason (also stated by the Pennsylvania Dutch) that the increased surface area allowed for more uniform frying and eliminated the pastry's soggy center. Today Hanson Gregory's contribution of the hole is remembered in his hometown of Rockport, Maine, by a bronze plaque, suggesting that in America, fame can be achieved even for inventing nothing.

And another necessary GEEK food:

Aspirin: 1853, France

Aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, is a man-made variation of the older remedy [salicin, made from willow bark and the meadowsweet plant]. It is the world's most widely used painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug, and it was prepared in France in 1853, then forgotten for the next forty years -- rediscovered only when a German chemist began searching for a cure for his father's crippling arthritis.

For information on when things originated, you might want to check: Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. paperback. 463 pages. $13.00. ISBN 0-06-096419-7.

Sent to me by Vicki Betts who adds:

"Sorry, pizza isn't in the book. Other foods include pretzels, popcorn, peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, sandwiches, Melba toast, ketchup and other sauces, pasta, pancakes, pie, cookies, animal cookies, Graham crackers, chocolate chip cookies, chewing gum, ice cream, and ice cream cones."

Editor's Note: And here's something Geeks already knew but didn't tell us...

CHEESEBURGER MAY HELP INHIBIT SOME CANCERS (from the Chicago Tribune 2/5/96) -- The article reports on research at Purdue University which shows that a polyunsaturated fatty acid called conjugated dienoic linoleic acid, which is found in hamburger and cheese, can inhibit skin cancer in mice. The research was published in the Nutrition Reviews journal.

Thomas R. Fasulo, Editor