September 2021

The top 12 weirdest moments in food history

Behind the Book by
Everything you never knew about Patagonian toothfish, Cuban supercows and cinnamon sticks
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In his debut book, Matt Siegel takes intel from nutritionists, psychologists, food historians and paleoanthropologists and weaves together an entertaining account of the food we eat. These 12 surprising food facts offer a taste of the weird, wonderful backstories you’ll find in The Secret History of Food.

1. In 1893, the Supreme Court had to rule whether tomatoes were a fruit or a vegetable. This happened not long after people finally decided that tomatoes weren’t poisonous (a belief that lasted for hundreds of years, owing largely to their botanical relationship to mandrakes and deadly nightshade) and that they weren’t used to summon werewolves (the tomato’s scientific name, Solanum lycopersicum, literally means “wolf’s peach”).

2. People used to think potatoes caused syphilis and leprosy. This was chiefly because of their resemblance to the impacted body parts of the afflicted. Now, of course, potatoes are America’s favorite vegetable, largely thanks to french fries. (Tomatoes are in second place, owing largely to their use in frozen pizza and canned tomato sauce.)

3. Vanilla isn’t very “vanilla.” While vanilla has unfortunately become a synonym for “ordinary,” it’s really anything but. For starters, it’s the only edible fruit to come from orchids, even though they’re the largest family of flowers. Vanilla gets its name from Spanish conquistadors, who named it after the Spanish word for “vagina.” It has to be pollinated by hand using a technique developed by an enslaved 12-year-old named Edmond Albius. And it’s the world’s second most expensive spice behind saffron.

4. The first breakfast cereals were intentionally bland. Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals were created in the 1800s by religious health reformers who believed sugar and spices were sinful and that consuming them incited bodily temptation, leading to such sexual urges as chronic masturbation and adultery—and ultimately resulting in eternal damnation.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Secret History of Food.

5. Our affinity for certain comfort foods begins in the womb. Research suggests many of our adult food preferences are influenced by flavors (e.g., vanilla) present in breast milk and amniotic fluid, which absorb flavors and odors from the parent’s diet. Meanwhile, other food preferences, such as people’s polarized responses to cilantro, go back even earlier to the genetic inheritance of specific taste receptors.

6. People used to believe personality traits and intellect were passed on through breast milk. As a result, early wet nurses were screened for things like breast shape, manners and vices such as day-sleeping and gambling addiction to ensure their milk was “child friendly.”

7. An entire ear of ancient corn used to be about the size of a cigarette. Over thousands of years, corn was selectively bred from a nearly inedible weed into the modern staple many cultures now depend on.

8. There’s a decent chance the honey in your cupboard comes from lawn weeds or poison ivy. And that’s OK. (Though there’s also a chance it’s not honey at all but a mixture of corn syrup and yellow food coloring . . .)

"Cinnamon, it was said, came from giant bird nests and had to be transported using rafts without oars on a treacherous journey that took five years and was powered by courage alone."

9. Fidel Castro was obsessed with American dairy. He spent decades funding the genetic manipulation of a dairy “supercow” named Ubre Blanca (“White Udder”) that produced four times the milk of American cows, was assigned a security detail in an air-conditioned stable and was eulogized with military honors and a life-size marble statue after her death.  

10. No one wanted to eat Patagonian toothfish until they were rebranded as Chilean sea bass in 1994. Now they sell for $29.99 a pound at Whole Foods. 

11. Spice traders used to make up stories about the exotic origins of spices so they could sell them for more money. Cinnamon, it was said, came from giant bird nests and had to be transported using rafts without oars on a treacherous journey that took five years and was powered by courage alone. Black pepper was said to grow in forests guarded by serpents that had to be scared away by setting the trees on fire, which explained why black pepper pods were the color of ashes.

12. The adage “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” isn’t really true. Rather, catching flies depends on a host of complex variables including the age, gender, sex drive, mating status, thirst and stress level of each fly—as well as the concentration of the vinegar, the time of day and the season. (Even then, some research suggests you’ll catch even more flies with beer or human semen, with one scientist calling semen “the crack cocaine of the fly world.”)

Matt Siegel

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