In “Eating History,” food expert Old Smokey and collector Josh Macuga uncover unique vintage foods and edible artifacts that have survived for decades. But their quest isn’t only to see how well the stuff survived—or what it tastes like. Each of these consumables has an intriguing back story, with visionary creators or promoters, and history that captured the American imagination. Here are some of the fascinating facts behind each week’s featured foods:
Eating History: Food Facts
1979 / Fritos
From Roadside Stand to Mass Production: The three main ingredients for Fritos—corn, oil, salt—haven't changed for almost 90 years. In 1932, Charles E. Doolin, owner of a Texas confectionary, discovered a Mexican man at a gas station selling fried masa (cornmeal) chips, popular street food in Mexico. Doolin borrowed $100 from his mother to purchase the recipe for the “fritos” (Spanish for “little fried things”) and began making 10 pounds of them a day in his home kitchen, with her help. Soon he was mass-producing them, using assembly line techniques similar to Henry Ford’s.
Fritos vs. Tortilla Chips: Why do Fritos taste so different from tortilla chips if they are both made of corn? Fritos are corn chips and made of cornmeal, which is ground corn mixed with salt and water, then shaped and fried. The corn in tortilla chips, by contrast, is typically more processed: first, it can be soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution (such as lime water), then hulled, ground and made into tortillas. The tortillas are then cut into their desired shape and fried.
The Changing Mascot: Over the years, the Fritos brand has had several mascots: From 1952 to 1967, it was the “Frito Kid.” For the next four years, it was the “Frito Bandito,” created by Tex Avery (the famous animator behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales) and voiced by Mel Blanc, who also voiced Bugs Bunny. In 1971, the brand briefly launched the short-lived “Muncha Bunch,” a group of snack-hungry cowboys. And a year later, the company introduced “W.C. Fritos,” a character inspired by the famous comedian W.C. Fields, complete with a top hat and a cane.
1913 / Commemorative Civil War Hardtack
Tough Stuff: Hardtack, a dry simple biscuit historically fed to soldiers, dates back to ancient Rome. Made with flour, water, and a bit of salt, it’s baked repeatedly—to suck out as much moisture as possible and to keep it from spoiling.
Battle Camp Recipes: During the Civil War, a daily ration was nine or 10 crackers, depending on the regiment. Soldiers nicknamed them jawbreakers, teeth dullers and worm castles, since they were hard as rocks and often riddled with weevils or maggots from poor storage. Some soaked the cracker in coffee or water to soften it before eating; others crumbled it up into soups. Still others tried smashing them with rifle butts and then mixing in river water to make a mush—which could be cooked into a lumpy pancake if a frying pan was available. For dessert, they sometimes crumbled it with brown sugar and hot water—or whiskey, when available.
Commemorative Crackers: This hardtack was likely collected as a souvenir of a 1913 Civil War reunion event. Between June 29 and July 6 of that year, more than 50,000 veterans convened at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the most pivotal battles in American history. These two pieces of hardtack were found wrapped in the June 29, 1913 edition of the New York American newspaper, with the inscription: "Keep Geo. W. Lewis, Moses Burchest, S.F. Liscom Present / Gettysburg July 1913 / Hard Tack or Bread/ Reunion Anniversary Battle Gettysburg July 1913.”
1930 / Pepsodent
Ancient Toothpaste Was...Crunchy? Research suggests that, as far back as 5000 B.C., ancient Egyptians used dental creams that included crushed and powdered ingredients such as eggshells, myrrh (a natural resin), and pumice (a volcanic rock), along with the ashes of oxen hooves. Ancient Romans tried even more abrasive materials, such as crushed bones and oyster shells, flavored with things like charcoal and bark. In ancient China and India, meanwhile, tooth powders and creams featured ingredients such as salt, ginseng and herbal mints.
Advertising Boosts America's Dental Hygiene: In the early 1900s, few Americans brushed their teeth. That was before a prominent American ad man named Claude C. Hopkins started hawking minty, fizzy tooth-cleaning products under the brand “Pepsodent”—named for pepsin, a digestive agent designed to break down food deposits. A decade after Hopkins’ advertising campaigns about the “Pepsodent smile,” free of ugly “film” (a.k.a. plaque), pollsters found that toothbrushing had become a daily ritual for more than half the population.
Fizzy—and False: This Pepsodent container, from 1930, claims it “contains irium,” which allegedly promoted dental health and good-smelling breath. One ad even claimed it “makes teeth twice as bright.” The problem? Irium was a made-up name for what was likely Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, now a common foaming agent in personal products. In reality, “irium” added zero cleaning power, but helped trigger a psychological reward cycle (fizzing=clean feeling) that helped people develop the brushing habit before bed. By the 1950s and 1960s, “irium” disappeared from ingredients and promotion lists.