From Oreos to margarine: Five terrible foods -- and how we got stuck with them
There are some foods that are so vile that it defies belief that they ever got created -- let alone stuck around through always-changing markets and tastes. Necessity is the mother of invention, in some cases with shortages and substitutions, but imitation can be flattery, or just cooked up to make a buck in a free, open market -- either way, some of the nargiest edible inventions that people have come up with keep hanging around despite being basically inedible curses upon humanity, and here's a list of five terrible foods -- and how we got stuck with them.
Nothing will make fish sticks fancy.
5. Fish sticks
Fish are not spawned bearing bread crumbs, but somehow sticks of minced--often inferior -- white fish globbed with breading came to be an American household staple, and public school children are force-fed them so they'll grow up believing that fish should be rectangular, hand-held and bite-sized. Even the most expensive, well-produced fish sticks aren't very good, with burnt-potato-tasting crusts and salty, watery insides. We got stuck with these thanks to our British friends across the pond -- probably in retribution for Yorktown -- as a direct result of the invention of the plate froster in 1929, the first quick freeze method for food. To make sure it worked, food needed to be in slim rectangular cuts, and since Brits love fish, it was picked as the go-to experiment.
Unfortunately it did work, and today, fish are put through machines to debone them and peel the skins off, then cut into fish pulp, formed into frozen slabs, whacked into pieces, breaded and par-fried, re-frozen and boxed or bagged up.
And no amount of chives will fix these...
4. Instant mashed potatoes
Don't lie -- we've all made instant mashed potatoes in a pinch and most of us have gotten stuck picking at them at someone else's house as well, trying really hard to pretend they were delicious. Now it must be said that Potato Pearls aren't so bad -- they cook up fluffy and have a good flavor -- but those ubiquitous plastic zip bags full of dry flakes almost always turn into grainy mush that smells like carpet fibers, and they never, ever truly replace the exquisite beauty of form and function that is the real, actual mound of gravy-dripping, steaming hot mashed potatoes made with whole potatoes.
We got mashed potato flakes foisted on us when a Canadian scientist named Edward Asselbergs constructed the dehydrated flakes while working for the Department of Agriculture in Ottawa. The powdered food technique he developed was used thereafter to add protein to foods for people in nutrient-deficient countries, and of course, to create easy-to-make foods for military field rations and camping enthusiasts.
Vanilla ice cream by itself is a creamy, fragrant confection, and oranges are full of sweet-tart, summer-scented juice. But when you force them together into a frozen, hellish marriage of convenience you get an unpleasant, semi-milky, part-acidic bar of flavors that produce little else but cold, cough-syrup-flavored burbs.
There are an insane number of differing accounts on how these got started, but I think it's fair to say that whoever dreamed up dreamsicles should be chained to a post and gnawed on by rats. Popsicle popularized them, so I give them most of the blame. Then again, the company's other frozen creations bring balance to the forces of evil (fudgesicles, bomb pops and those new "Yosicles" with frozen yogurt) so I can't condemn Popsicle too harshly.
2. Sandwich cookies
I hate Oreos. A lot. There are people who eat them and love them, but I have no idea why. Sandwich cookies in general are abhorrent -- two crusty, stale wafers of varying flavors crammed with some sort of filling that has the consistency of old shortening and enough sugar to turn your mouth into a limestone cavern.
Nabisco cooked up the concept in 1912, probably by sending some of those mad scientists you see in cartoons into an evil-genius laboratory with buckets of powdered earthworms, concrete dust and some sugar. Nabisco is cagey about how the name "Oreo" came about, but the company did us all one better in 1987 and introduced its signature sandwich cookies dipped in delicious fudge -- making them quite iconic, but even more grotesque, what with the waste of good fudge and all.
As a kid, I didn't know the difference between a tub of margarine and a stick of real butter. As an adult, I learned, and a methed-out team of plow oxen couldn't drag me toward a knife's worth of the stuff now. Real butter is far superior to margarine in every way: better consistency, lower melting point, and the taste is all salt and cream, whereas fake butter is sloppy, and tastes like a mouthful of sour oil.
We have the French to thank for margarine. In the 1860s Emperor Louis Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could create an acceptable substitute for butter that could be used for army rations and to feed poor people, and French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a concoction he called oleomargarine, brewed up from beef fat. Mège-Mouriès patented the concept in 1869 and tried to sell it to poor people, but they weren't having it, so he died penniless. Served him right. Unfortunately, others picked up where he left off, and thanks to technological advances in the hydrogenation of vegetable materials to make oils, oleomargarine was produced from a combination of animal fats and hardened and unhardened vegetable oils at the turn of the century until the depression era and WWII rationing dried up the supply of meat fats.
There was a crazy race between manufacturers to see which one could make a product that came the closet to resembling real butter (I would argue that none of them got there) and dairy farmers who produced real butter pressured politicians to make laws governing the use of the word "butter" on anything that wasn't actual butter. Margarine has become more popular with today's health issues linked to over-consumption of saturated fats, vegetarians and vegans can it, and it seems to sell just fine. But it will never replace the fat-filled joy of being spread on an equally unhealthy white dinner roll, and shoved into my mouth as often as possible. I find it funny that traditional French cuisines and desserts use exorbitant amounts of real butter since they started this whole margarine ball rolling, but who knows what modern scientists will come up with next.
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