Tossing corn ears onto baking stones over a campfire; folding leftover bread dough to mimic hands in prayer; extracting the gooey sap of pink flowering wild plants to mix with honey and nuts. History has plenty of unusual stories about the origins of snack foods across times, peoples and geographies.
Of course eating cultures tend to shift and adapt just as readily as the social landscape around them, and some of these stories have been accorded a mythical quality. All of the examples above, however, show that the oldest snack foods have survived these centuries of change and remained present in the modern kitchen.
Pop the question
Popcorn is perhaps the oldest of all. Archaeological sites in Peru and Mexico recently yielded 7,000 year old maize husks said to be evidence of popcorn preparation and consumption by ancient indigenous peoples. Dolores Piperno, a curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., submitted a highly praised paper on early maize domestication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009. Piperno and her team suggest that corn type, colour and preparation varieties discovered in the archaeological caves demonstrate a pre-existing familiarity with popping corn even in the earliest examples found, making the snack even older than its traceable history.
Interestingly, though it is now regarded as the home of popcorn, there is no real consensus on when exactly North America start popping corn as a snack – some say Native Americans were as well-versed as the Peruvians who came up with the idea; others that they weren’t. It is generally agreed, however, that popcorn had been fully absorbed into American cuisine by the 1840’s. Later still, Glen W. Dickson, cinema owner in the Midwest, installed his first popcorn machines in 1938. “His profits skyrocketed”, writes Tori Avey for PBS online.
Pop go the Peruvians: a snack with a great history (Image credit: By cyclonebill (Popcorn) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Somewhat younger than popcorn, but still decidedly long-standing is the pretzel. Its story can be traced, over hundreds of years, to specific people and some good fortune. In 7th century Italian monasteries, the pretiola – “little prize” – was first baked as an incentive for children who had memorised prayers and completed their homework, and as a tasty reminder of the folded arm posture of the conscientious bible student. The treat also became known as brachiola – little arms – and eventually migrated to Germany, where the name was localised to bretzel and its popularity bloomed with such enthusiasm that this became its spiritual home for centuries to come.
As with popcorn, the pretzel took a further leap into day-to-day commonality when the USA started its own commercial pretzel ventures. The small, hard variant of the snack had already been created by accident by a sleeping bakery assistant in Pennsylvania, but Julius Sturgis – in 1861 in the same state – opened the world’s first dedicated pretzel shop. It still stands today.
Made in Italy: the pretzel started out as a treat for children (Image credit: By Sundar1 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Dating back to 9th century Persian merchants and trading routes across Asia, the samosa is another ancient snack still found in contemporary cooking. Just as pretzels were imported to and adopted by Germany, the samosa found its now traditional home by the cookbooks of migrant Persian chefs employed by Muslim rulers and nobility in Northern India.
Marshmallows are another example of truly ancient snacks. Today’s marshmallow has ancient ancestors: sap extracted from the Althaea officinalis plant (better known as the “common marsh mallow”) mixed with honey and nuts to make up a sweet for Egyptian royalty. Though this might not sound exactly like the marshmallow we would recognise today, we can follow this family tree all the way through to its current branch.
Innovative French dessert chefs in the 1800s whisked the marsh mallow sap and combined it with corn starch and egg whites to form the spongy, doughy, shaped marshmallow we now know. Then in 1948, Alex Doumak invented mechanical marshmallow ‘extrusion’, allowing for industrial production of what had previously been labour-intensive manual work, and in utilising rehydrated gelatin, avoided the need for the marsh mallow plant altogether.
There are plenty of further examples of snacks with a long history: jerky, or at least dry-curing meat, has been with us for centuries. Its name is said to derive from the Quechuan language, spoken by the Incas, and its word for “dried meat”, ch’arki. Ch’arki travelled from South America to North over the 16th and 17th centuries with Spanish explorers, where it was combined with an already-present Native American recipe to become the ‘jerky’ of today.
Likewise liquorice, a plant that grows naturally in hot climates, has a colourful story of royalty, medicine, secrecy and war – it is said to have been a favourite of Cleopatra, Hannibal, and of marching Roman Centurions. Halva, too, is recorded in pre-Medieval Arabic cookbooks. 16th century Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had built a dedicated helvahane in his palace – a kitchen exclusive to the preparation of halva. Its popularity spread across the Mediterranean, Central Asia, India, Egypt, the Middle East and of course much further beyond. It is still popular and found readily today.
Featured image credit: By Kirti Poddar (Flickr: samosa) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons