Food staples’ humble origins


The story goes that on Aug. 24, 1853, a man whose name has been lost to posterity ordered a plate of french fries at Moon's Lake House restaurant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The man was served a plate of fries that he deemed too thick. So he launched a complaint that, perhaps predictably, annoyed the chef, George Crum. Being a chef, and therefore a bit touchy, Mr. Crum decided to exact his revenge by serving the man a plate of fried and salted potatoes that he had sliced as thin as he possibly could.

Thus was the potato chip born — at least, according to legend — and people have been happily munching them ever since.

This information comes to us via the book What Caesar Did for My Salad: The Curious Stories Behind Our Favorite Foods, by Albert Jack. To be perfectly frank, the book does not always seem to be completely reliable (this is not meant to be a ringing endorsement). But when properly verified, some of the information found within is of unusual interest.

Such is the case with the chemist's shop in Worcester, England, in the 1830s, which had been commissioned to make a packet of powdered spices to go with Indian food. The chemists thought they might be able to make a little money by turning the powder into the form of a sauce, so they made up a barrel of it. That sauce was so harshly flavored and unpalatable that they left the barrel in their cellar and forgot about it.

A few years later, they were cleaning out the cellar when they saw the barrel. Being braver than, let's face it, you or I would be, they decided to taste it. As it turns out, the years had mellowed the sauce to the point where it had become delicious. So in 1837, the chemists, John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, began bottling and selling it, naming it for the county in which they lived, Worcestershire sauce.

In one of its longest sections, the book also covers what it calls, with some justification, "the surreal history of breakfast cereal." The 19th century, as it turns out, was a time of health fads and quackery, both of which (along with some help from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church) led to our morning bowl of cereal.

The first breakfast cereal was created in 1863 by Dr. James Caleb Jackson, who ran a health resort in New York called Our Home Hygienic Institute. There, sick people bathed in supposedly healthful waters and ate an essentially vegetarian diet, with an emphasis on whole grains. He took twice-baked graham flour, broke it up into small pieces, and called it Granula. It was so hard, it had to be soaked overnight in milk before it could be eaten.

Several years later, John Harvey Kellogg was running the Battle Creek Sanitarium in accordance with principles of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church: Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and thus must be fed the healthiest diet possible and must be kept free from unclean substances. To that end, he served a vegetarian diet and he developed a ready-made breakfast grain made from wheat, oats, and corn meal. He called it Granola.

After inadvertently giving away the secret of drying grains to the man who would invent Shredded Wheat, Kellogg figured out how to turn cooked wheat into flakes, which he called Granose Flakes.

Later, one of his former patients, Charles William Post, opened up his own sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich., and within four years began selling Postum, a hot drink made of wheat and molasses. Postum, he claimed, could cure coffee-related ailments from juvenile delinquency to divorce. Post's next grain beverage wasn't as successful, until he decided to turn it into a breakfast cereal. Then and now, it was called Grape Nuts.

Meanwhile, Kellogg had a falling out with his younger brother and employee, Willie Keith Kellogg. The younger Kellogg went to form his own company based on the idea of Grandose. But instead of wheat, he used corn, thus inventing Corn Flakes.

Contact Daniel Neman at: or 419-724-6155.