Our favorite summer foods, explained

Slide show: From potato salad to ice cream sundaes, a look at the surprising histories of 9 American staples

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

    Ice Cream Sundae

    Oh, the glory of the ice cream sundae. Scoops of frozen creamy custard topped with hot fudge, caramel and strawberry are then adorned with a swirl of whipped cream, nuts and the ubiquitous “cherry on top.” The various components work together beautifully. You’ve got the icy cream melting under the warm sauce, the airy poof of sweet whipped cream, the crunch of roasted nuts and the contrasting sharp bite of the maraschino cherry.

    It’s probably not a surprise that more than one person has vied to be credited with creating such a treat. The one thing everyone does seem to agree on is these ice cream confections were in fact served on Sunday. (Apparently the name originally was “ice cream sunday,” but that was changed to be less blasphemous.)

    Ice cream sodas — ice cream with soda water and a drizzle of chocolate syrup — already existed on the fateful day in 1899 when the sundae may have first been tasted. Because it was illegal to serve soda water on Sundays, the man behind the counter, Edward C. Berners of Berners’ Soda Fountain in Two Rivers, Wis., skipped the soda and gave his customer a bowl of ice cream with syrup. The Chicago Tribune credits Berners with inventing the sundae, but another town makes a compelling argument that in fact Chester C. Platt was the inventor.

    Ithaca, N.Y., has written evidence that a “Cherry Sunday” was created and being sold by 1892: an advertisement in the town paper for such. For sure, Chester C. Platt, co-owner of Platt & Colt Pharmacy, topped vanilla ice cream with cherry syrup and cherries. “Strawberry Sundays” and “Chocolate Sundays” were soon to follow.

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

    Iced Tea

    Is it “ice tea” or “iced tea?” That depends on where you live. In the South, the chilled beverage is called “ice tea.” Everywhere else, it’s “iced.”

    Iced tea did not take its current form until the popularity of black tea took off thanks to the work of the Indian Tea Commission at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. As the legend goes, Richard Blechynden, the head of the commission, watched world’s fair goers pass by his elaborate tea house as the sweltering temperatures made hot beverages unpalatable. Driven to increase the market for Indian black tea in the States, he hit upon the idea of not only serving it iced and, perhaps more importantly, giving it away for free. His booth was soon the most popular at the fair, as the patrons found his golden beverage to be the perfect refreshment.

    Spurred on by his success in St. Louis, Blechynden toured the country giving away more and more iced tea, quickly spreading its popularity nationwide. Brewing the perfect iced tea at home, complete with sweet and often fruity syrups, soon became the hallmark of a great hostess. Iced tea was mixed with all sorts of flavors in delicious punches: lemon, mint, strawberries, cherries, and oranges, whether fresh, preserved, or in syrup form; or, for the more mature palette, brandy and bourbon to give it a little extra kick. And though few still have time for such an elaborate and time-consuming production (early recipes recommend beginning to brew tea at breakfast for service at dinner), iced tea remains an American favorite, available in bottles, cans and even from a soda fountain.

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

    Potato Salad

    The first written notation of a potato salad appeared in 1597, when a chef named John Garrard wrote about dressing roasted potatoes in oil, vinegar and salt.

    Because potatoes were eaten the world over, they have been immortalized in a dozen different salad variations. German potato salad is prepared as a warm salad, with a sweet and sour dressing made from sweetened vinegar with bits of ham and bacon. Greek potato salad also uses warm boiled potatoes, but adds lemon juice and olive oil to the mixture. A cold potato salad with vinaigrette and fresh tarragon hails from France, and the British also served theirs cold.

    The idea of using mayonnaise — much less adding chopped hard-boiled eggs, sweet gherkins, onions and whatever other embellishments the American palate craved — was something wholly unique to the American potato salad.

    In 1886, Juliet Corson (social activist and founder of the New York Cooking School) published “Miss Corson’s Practical American Cookery and Household Management.” The book contained two recipes for potato salad and was one of the first publications to identify a distinctly “American potato salad.”

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.


    Love to hate it, or hate to love it, mayonnaise is one of those fundamental sauces that have helped to define American cooking in the 20th century. This delicious and occasionally fluffy condiment can trace its origins back to 18th-century France.

    According to culinary legend, mayonnaise was first created as a celebratory dish following the conquest of the tiny island of Minorca, which exists a few miles off the coast of Sicily. Back in 1756 France and Great Britain were yet again engaged in one of their ever-so-frequent wars for continental power. The Seven Years’ War had just kicked off, and Spain thought this would be a great time to try to get the tiny island they had lost to Great Britain almost 50 years earlier. French and Spanish forces had overrun the entire island except for the tiny hold out town of Port Mahon. The Duke of Richelieu arrived on Minorca in the spring and immediately tried to take down the small British fort. Richelieu’s siege lasted for almost two months before the fort finally surrendered.

    To celebrate the end of the siege, Richelieu issued orders for a banquet. His personal chef planned to include a sauce of cream and eggs as one of the many dishes to be served. However, after realizing supplies of cream were running low, Richelieu’s chef substituted olive oil for cream and came up with mayonnaise!

    As with most historic recipes, it’s almost impossible to know the real story. However mayonnaise was first created, it quickly became a staple of high cuisine in France. Mayo’s arrival in the U.S. is even less certain; however, by the late-19th century, cookbooks across the U.S. had recipes for mayonnaise sauce.

    For the most part, mayonnaise was considered a delicacy in 19th-century America, and in particular as a great addition to salads. The price of imported olive oil made mayonnaise expensive for most home cooks. As cross-Atlantic shipping grew cheaper, and famers in Florida and California began to produce domestic olive products, mayonnaise sauce grew in popularity among U.S. citizens of every economic background.

    In 1903, Richard Hellmann arrived in the U.S. from Germany and within two short years he and his wife would revolutionize the world of mayonnaise. Hellmann’s wife supposedly created a mayo sauce that was a prize feature at Hellmann’s deli in New York City. By 1912, Hellmann was selling the “blue ribbon” jar by the crate load. On the other side of the country, Best Foods was creating a popular mayonnaise following in California. In 1932 the two companies merged and an enduring and delicious mayonnaise empire was born.

  • title=''

    Corn on the Cob

    If you can boil water, you can make corn on the cob. It’s one American dish that is truly native. Slathered with butter and lightly salted, it’s the go-to vegetable for any barbecue. When Columbus first encountered the Arawak tribe in the West Indies, he learned the word “maize,” which translates to “that which sustains us.” It was first domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found the remains of early maize ears in caves near Tehuacan, Puebla (in Mexico) dating to 2750 BC. Aztecs and Mayans cultivated it in central and southern Mexico, and between 1250 and 1700, the Americas embraced the food.

    Corn was instrumental in turning nomad tribes to agrarian societies. Early Native Americans are responsible for breeding the hardy ancestor of the corn we now eat today. Corn can be grown in a variety of climates and can be used in a variety of ways. The corn cob first reached Europe when Columbus brought it back with him to Spain after his trip to the Americas. Native Americans taught settlers the basics on how to plant the crop and cultivate it. Early settlers in America might not have survived if it hadn’t been for corn. Even now, it’s the most widely grown crop in America.

    By the 1960s, with the popularity of backyard barbecues, corn on the cob found its place in American hearts. Of course, there are just as many ways to cook it as there are to serve it.

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.


    Rare, well done, covered in cheese or slathered with ketchup — everyone has his or her own favorite way to make a hamburger. And who do we have to thank for this delicious addition to the American diet? Kublai Khan of course!

    No one knows who exactly first created ground beef, but one popular theory traces the origins back to the days when Mongol horsemen were busy invading pretty much everywhere. These horse-bound warriors would supposedly ride with raw meat beneath their saddles. After constant movement had tenderized the meat, the horsemen would eat the raw protein without having to dismount. This precursor to steak tartare eventually made its way into Russian culinary cuisine and from there onto German plates. This myth may be a bit of a stretch, as the practice of mincing meat into small pieces was a well-established culinary tradition in almost every European culture. But, then again, who really wants to argue with Kublai Khan?

    Popular history suggests the hamburger patty made its way to the U.S. along with waves of German immigrants back in the mid-19th century. However, in his book “The Hamburger: A History,” Josh Ozersky points out that precursors to the modern American hamburger were popping up in English-language cookbooks as early as 1763. And the earl of Sandwich supposedly revolutionized lunch when he paired meat with thin slices of bread back in the 18th century. However they got across the Atlantic, hamburgers were here to stay by the late 19th century.

    Buns and burgers came together like … well, ketchup and fries in 1891. According to family legend and state lore, on a warm June day in Oklahoma, Oscar Weber Bilby built himself a grill, popped on some ground beef patties, and then plopped the whole delicious mess in the middle of one of his wife’s famous homemade yeast buns. The creation was so popular, Bilby began to share it with his neighbors every year around the Fourth of July.

    The hamburger didn’t acquire the American icon mantle until fast food came to roost in the early 1920s. One Walter Anderson quit his job as a fry cook in Wichita, Kan., and founded the hamburger chain White Castle. For the most part, ground beef was still considered a necessary but unappealing evil in early 20th century. Local butchers had been known to grind up expired meat as a way to sell it past its expiration. Books like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” left many Americans scared and unlikely to trust mass-produced meat. Anderson took it upon himself to revise the image of the hamburger. He set up a clean shop with public demonstrations and large discounts. Within 10 years, White Castle had revived the image of the hamburger and pioneered the fast-food restaurant franchise. From there the hamburger took off.

    In the 1950s chain franchises like McDonald’s took the hamburger across the U.S. and into foreign markets as a culinary ambassador for Uncle Sam.

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

    Soft Pretzels

    The most popular rumor in the historical pretzel debate claims that the salty snacks were first created sometime around 610 C.E. in either northern Italy or southern France. A monk supposedly took bits of leftover dough from the kitchen and twisted the ropes into a set of praying arms. The baked snack served as both a way to teach prayers and to reward small children who would be fed the treat. The name “pretzel” comes from the Latin word “pracatio,” which means “prayers.”

    The pretzel may have been made by those who pray, but its universal appeal meant that it was quickly adopted by those who fight.

    One popular pretzel legend states that in 1510 Turks from the Ottoman Empire were yet again laying siege to the city of Vienna. In an attempt to break the stalemate, the Turks began digging tunnels under the city walls at night with the hope of creating a surprise attack. Vienna’s bakers were early risers and on their way to the shops they detected the heinous plot and alerted the city’s military. After saving the day, the bakers received a special coat of arms from the people of Vienna. This heraldic reward can be seen today as most bakeries in Germany and Austria have a plaque that shows two lions standing to the left and to the right of a giant soft pretzel.

    A suspiciously similar rumor puts the story in the 1600s and says that the bakers of Vienna created the “croissant” as a dessert celebrating the defeat of the Turks (hence the crescent shape of the pastry). It’s possible that bakers saved Vienna twice, or the two stories might have become blended. Either way munching on a pretzel seems like a pretty good way to celebrate victory.

    In Europe soft pretzels had became mostly associated with German and Austrian cuisine. Not surprisingly, the tasty snack arrived in the United States along with waves of German immigrants sometime in the mid-19th century. The first commercial pretzel bakery in the U.S. was established in 1861 in Litiz, Penn., where it still operates today as Julius Sturgis’ Pretzle Bakery. According to the Sturgis legend, the company recipe was a gift from a grateful traveling hobo who received a warm meal and friendly welcome from Julius Sturgis himself back in 1851.

    Sturgis’ snack was a huge success, and pretzel factories soon began blooming across Pennsylvania and the U.S. In 1933, the Reading Pretzel Machinery Co. introduced the first automatic pretzel-twisting machine, and the pretzel business was off and running.

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

    Cotton Candy

    Since the St. Louis fair of 1904 Americans have been fascinated by cotton candy. The fluffy pink stuff, originally called fairy floss, is a common sight at fairs, baseball games and circuses. However, this summertime airy treat has been creating sticky fingers for longer than most would imagine.

    At its base, cotton candy is no more than spun sugar. As far back as the 1400s Italians delighted in making spun sugar desserts by hand. The method was laborious and involved melting the sugar, then using a fork to make strings of sugar over an upside down bowl. After the sugar dried, they were able to gather the fibers and serve them as desert. Even up through the 18th century European confectioners made spun sugar webs painted in gold and sugar nests for Easter eggs. The skill required made this primitive cotton candy too expensive for the masses.

    Nashville candy makers John C. Wharton and William Morris are believed to have patented the first electric cotton candy machine in 1897. The machine was perfect for collecting the delicate cottony strands onto paper sticks or into bags. It worked by utilizing centrifugal force to spin and melt the sugar through holes in a screen, where the fibers could be collected on the other side. The two candy makers put their invention to the test during the St. Louis World Fair and were greeted with throngs of curious fairgoers. The machine was soon produced in mass quantities because it was portable, the process was novel, and the appeal was widespread. Cotton candy became the perfect fair food.

    While it is argued that Thomas Patton was the first to create the cotton candy machine, he did receive a patent for his gas-powered model. And in 1900 Patton is credited with creating a love match between Ringling Bros. Circus and cotton candy. A day at the circus was now just a little bit sweeter.

    Ironically, dentist Josef Delacrose Lascaux is another contender for inventor of cotton candy. He never received a patent for his machine but was said to have given cotton candy out to his patients at his Louisiana dental office. That’s one way to keep business going.

    During the 1920s cotton candy became the universal name for candy floss. The sugary treat continued to grow in popularity, and in the 1970s cotton candy machine became an automated giant that could bag the candy on a massive scale. Cotton candy is no longer just a fair food; it can be bought at the grocery store or even made at home on a personal cotton candy machine.

  • title=''
    Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

    Bubble Gum

    Gum isn’t allowed in school — which might be why Americans tend to pop their first piece at a very tender age. They come by it honestly: Archaeologists have determined that the very wise ancient Greeks were among the first Europeans to chew recreationally. A resin produced from a small shrub that grows along the Mediterranean, called mastiche, was the ancient version of Juicy Fruit. The resin was collected, boiled and then chewed by the Greeks. Recent discoveries in northern European bogs also point to the harvesting of mastiche and more resin chewing in Germany and Scandinavia, as early as the Middle Stone Age.

    Across the Atlantic, ancient Mayans chewed sap from sapodilla trees, while North American tribes did the same with the sap from spruce trees. Americans retained a strong interest in chewing, and by 1848 John B. Curtis marketed the first commercial chewing gum in Maine. State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum was quickly followed by other flavored gums.

    On Dec. 28, 1869 William F. Semple of Mount Vernon, Ohio, received the first U.S. patent for “a new and improved Chewing-Gum.” Semple wanted to include rubber with this new chewing gum, but he made sure to note this would be a non-vulcanized compound.

    The true turning point in the evolution of chewing gum came in 1888, when the Thomas Adams Gum Co. introduced the first vending machine to sell gum in a New York City subway station. Both the “tutti-fruity” flavor and the machine itself were a hit. Other rival companies popped up shortly thereafter. In Chicago, William Wrigley Jr. began manufacturing gum in 1892. The Lotta and Vassar flavors are lost to history, but with the introduction of Juicy Fruit and Spearmint in 1893, Wrigley changed the world of mastication. In 1899, Franklin V. Canning created the Dentyne gum brand in New York.

    The idea for a “bubble” gum first appeared in 1906 under the brand name “Blibber-Blubber.” Unfortunately for gum lovers, “blibber” never made it to the market. Chewers across America had to wait until 1928 for the first bubble gum to be sold in stores. It was an accident! Walter Diemer, who was an accountant at the Fleer Chewing Gum Co. in Philadelphia, had been fooling around with chewing gum recipes in his spare time when a batch seemed oddly stretchy and less sticky than others. The formula was a hit, becoming “Double Bubble” bubble gum. Diemer, who was 23 years old at the time, never received royalties for his creation. He said he didn’t care, and he remained at Fleer until 1985. According to the British newspaper the Guardian, “After his first wife died in 1990, Diemer rode a big tricycle around his Pennsylvania retirement village and gave bubble gum to children.”