Throughout human history, the frequency and content of meals has varied. From ancient times, light foods or leftovers were consumed between meals. These tended to be natural, sweet foods that required little or no preparation, such as grapes, figs, or apples. In nineteenth-century America, interest in snack foods shifted from natural foods to prepared commercial foods, with a high salt and sugar content. It is these processed foods that are considered snack foods in the early twenty-first century.
Traditionally, snacks were prepared from ingredients commonly available in the home. Often leftovers, sandwiches made from cold cuts, nuts, fruit, and the like were used as snacks. The Dagwood sandwich was originally the humorous result of a cartoon character's desire for large snacks. Beverages, such as coffee, are not generally considered snacks though they may be consumed between meals like a snack, or along with snack foods. A beverage may be considered a snack if it possesses a substantive food item (e.g., strawberries, bananas, kiwis) that has been blended to create a smoothie.
Snack foods are typically designed to be portable, quick and satisfying. Processed snack foods are designed to be less perishable, more durable, and more portable than prepared foods. They often contain substantial amounts of sweeteners, preservatives, and appealing ingredients such as chocolate, peanuts, and specially-designed flavors (such as flavored potato chips). A snack eaten shortly before going to bed or during the night may be called a midnight snack.
America's first commercial snack foods were peanuts and popcorn, which were cheap, tasty, filling, and eminently portable. Peanut and popcorn vendors sold their products on the streets, circuses, and fairs, and later at sporting events. One successful peanut vendor was Amedeo Obici, an Italian-born immigrant living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In 1906, he, along with another Italian immigrant, formed the Planters' Peanut Company. They constantly improved their products and packaging. To promote their products, the company adopted "Mr. Peanut" in 1917, a logo has appeared subsequently on almost every Planters package. Both popcorn and peanuts were marketed to children and were connected with children's holidays. These characteristics have become standard for snack foods.
Homemade pretzels were probably sold for centuries before they were first commercially produced in 1861. Pretzels did not become an important national snack until the 1930s, when a machine was invented to automate production. Recipes for potato chips appeared in the early nineteenth century. Under the name "Saratoga chips," they were popularized by George Crum, the chef of the Moon's Lake Lodge in Saratoga, New York. First manufactured by John E. Marshall of Boston in the 1890s, potato chips were sold in barrels but quickly became stale after a barrel was opened. Potato chips did not become popular until the 1920s, when Laura Scudder asked employees to iron two pieces of wax paper to form a bag. This set off a packaging revolution that permitted chips to be sold airtight bags. Corn chips were originally a Mexican snack, cut-up, fried, or dried tortillas. The first-known commercial corn chips were the friotes, which were made from fried masa (corn flour) in San Antonio. Elmer Doolin purportedly bought a bag of friotes and then bought the recipe for one hundred dollars. In 1932, Doolin began manufacturing them under the name Fritos. His renamed product was a success, and his sales expanded as far as St. Louis, Missouri. In 1945, Doolin met potato chip manufacturer, Herman W. Lay, who agreed to distribute Fritos, which became popular nationwide, and the two companies merged. The Frito-Lay Company introduced Cheetos in 1948, and continued to grow by introducing new snacks and acquire other snack food companies. Owned by PepsiCo. today, Frito-Lay is the largest snack food conglomerate in the world. Many other chip-based snacks have been developed. Some more famous ones include nachos (1943), a snack purportedly developed in Eagle Pass, Texas, and Doritos, first marketed by Frito-Lay (1966).
Peanuts and popcorn combined to create America's first successful commercial sweet confection. Frederick W. Rueckheim, an immigrant from Germany, combined peanuts, popcorn, and molasses to create Cracker Jack. By 1923 the Cracker Jack Company sold more than 138 million boxes annually. However, sweet snacks had been sold well before Cracker Jack. They fall into four major categories: hard candy, baked goods, chocolate candy, and frozen sweets
Candies have been produced in Asia for thousands of years. Homemade candies, such as lemon drops, jujubes, and peppermints, were produced in Europe by the late eighteenth century. Penny candies were frequently sold in grocery stores. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thousands of candies have been manufactured, including saltwater taffy (1883), first manufactured commercially in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Life Savers (1912), manufactured by Clarence Crane of Cleveland, Ohio.
The second broad category of sweet snacks are baked goods. Small baked cakes and pastries with sugar had been produced since the late Middle Ages in Europe and likely originated in Arab lands, particularly Baghdad. "Cookies," an American word derived from Dutch, initially referred to sugar cookies flavored with spices. The word was subsequently extended to include other kinds, such as wafers, snaps, and macaroons. Initially, cookies were handmade and were sold in grocery stores. They were first manufactured in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Animal Crackers (1871) and Fig Newtons (1892) were among the first commercially manufactured cookies. Numerous commercial varieties have been manufactured since, such as OREO's, a chocolate sandwich cookie, and gingersnaps. Several chains that bake fresh cookies have emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century, including Famous Amos' in 1976 and Mrs. Field's Cookies in 1977. Many other baked goods were also converted into commercial snacks. Hostess Cup Cakes were first manufactured in 1919. Twinkies were invented by a Chicago bakery manager named Jimmy Dewar in 1930, and were later acquired by Hostess.
The third broad category is chocolate-based candy. In 1847 Joseph Storrs Fry, a British Quaker, invented a process of combining cocoa powder, sugar, and melted cocoa butter that produced a thin paste which could be shaped in a mold. The handmade Chocolat Delicieux - Manger is considered to be the first chocolate bar. J. S. Fry and Company became the largest manufacturer of chocolate in the world. In Switzerland, Henri Nestle developed the process of making milk chocolate in 1867. Another Swiss chocolate manufacturer, Daniel Peter, used Nestle's chocolate to make a milk chocolate bar in 1879. A third Swiss, Theodor Tobler, marketed in 1908 his Toblerone, consisting of a triangular chocolate bar with almond-and-honey nougat. Other chocolate-making companies emerged, such as Lindt of Switzerland (1845) and Belgium's Godiva Chocolates (1926).
In the United States, chocolate candy and caramels became important by the 1870s. These were expensive in part because they were all handmade. Boxed chocolates were manufactured by the 1840s. Early chocolate confection makers included the Walter Baker Chocolate Company and Walter M. Lowney Company, both headquartered in Boston. The Whitman Sampler became a national boxed chocolate by 1907. Retail candy stores have developed, including See's Candy (1921) and Fanny Farmer (1919).
The first American to manufacture chocolate bars was Milton Hershey, who in 1903, began to build what would become the world's largest chocolate manufacturing plant in Derry Church (later renamed Hershey), Pennsylvania. Hershey's Chocolate Bars were the first of thousands of chocolate bars to roll off the assembly line, followed by Hershey's Chocolate Kisses in 1907. Hershey produced many new products including Mr. Good-bar, composed of chocolate and peanuts, and the Krackel, composed of chocolate and rice.
Hershey's success encouraged others to produce chocolate bars. Otto Y. Schnering of Chicago founded the Curtiss Candy Company, which released the Baby Ruth candy bar in 1920. Curtiss later introduced the Butterfinger. George H. Williamson, a salesman for a candy broker in Chicago, opened a candy store and launched the Oh Henry! candy bar in 1920. In the same year, Frank and Ethel Mars of Minneapolis started up Mars, Inc. Three years later they produced the Milky Way candy bar, followed in 1930 by the Snickers Bar, which quickly became America's most popular candy bar, an honor it still holds today. This was followed by M&M's in 1940.
Ices and ice cream have been produced for centuries. Ice cream parlors probably originated in Italy and France and have sold their goods since at least the late eighteenth century. The three major snack products have all been American inventions: the ice cream cone, ice cream bar, and popsicle. The ice cream cone was invented during the late nineteenth century and was popularized at the St. Louis World's Fair. The cone made it possible to consume ice cream without the need of a spoon and cup. Ice cream parlors have continued to thrive and major chains, such as Carvel's (1934), which serves soft-serve ice cream, and Baskin-Robbins (1948), have become very well known.
Handheld ice cream bars quickly became an important snack food in America. The Eskimo Pie originated in Iowa in 1920. In the same year Harry Burt invented the chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar on a stick in Youngstown, Ohio. Ice cream bars became popular during the following decades. The popsicle, frozen flavored water, was first commercially manufactured in the United States during the 1920s.
Many snacks are heavy on calories, fat, and salt. The term "junk food" was popularized in 1972 by Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The concern with empty calories has continued, and of particular concern has been the targeting of youth by snack food companies. As a response to junk food charges, a natural snack food industry developed during the 1970s. This included such snacks as gorp, composed of various combinations of raisins, peanuts and other natural foods, used by hikers and now available commercially in most grocery stores.
The commercial snack food industry is a major component of America's economy. When the total statistics of commercial candy, baked snacks, chocolates, and frozen snacks are combined, the industry sells annually in excess of $75 billion of products in the United States alone.
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