Column: Recalling the days before 'snack foods'WORTHINGTON — There once were two red-enameled canisters on a shelf in the basement. I don’t think they were tin, but they were a light metal. I think they were not gallon-size. Maybe three-quarters of a gallon.
WORTHINGTON — There once were two red-enameled canisters on a shelf in the basement. I don’t think they were tin, but they were a light metal. I think they were not gallon-size. Maybe three-quarters of a gallon.
The red canisters are gone. They got away somewhere along the way. Probably given away. I remember them well because they caused excitement when they arrived.
The canisters were Christmas presents to the family. I think one came one year and one came the next. They were filled with potato chips.
In that time — yes, a long-ago time — potato chips were prized and rather rare. They were not something people chomped on every day. Potato chips, in a red canister, still were something you could give as a special treat at Christmas time.
I was going to write, “I don’t know the history of potato chips.”
Well, I do; I just looked it up. Potato chips are traced to 1853 and a hotel at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, potato chips were still a novelty in the years before and through World War II. Chips were available at grocery stores. People knew of them. But potato chips were apart from life, not a part of life. In the time when I was given a handful of potato chips from a red canister on Christmas Day, I had friends who never had tasted them.
Of course potato chips came in only one flavor, the one now labeled “Original.” Or, “Classic.” Though they might be made a special Christmas treat, chips were more likely to turn up at a Fourth of July picnic. Potato chips were part of a menu half-a-dozen times a year.
Potato chips never were notably expensive. No one gasped at the price. They were never necessary, however. Mothers experimented with making chips in their kitchens, and some of the experiments were successes. There were some great homemade chips. There were many that were nearer to being fried potatoes.
This all came up in a conversation and someone wondered, “What did people do for snack foods?”
Snack foods. That phrase had not yet been framed. People ate apples. Ice cream. Sometimes they made fudge. Oh — and people ate popcorn.
People eat popcorn today. They certainly do. Still, by one measure — compare the bags of chips in a supermarket with the bags of popcorn. Popcorn lags far behind.
Some families used poppers. There came to be electric poppers and stovetop poppers. Most commonly, families put some manner of grease in a deep pan, clamped on a lid and shook. They often filled half an enameled dish pan with popcorn. Each one had his own bowl. The family sat, ate popcorn and listened to the radio. (What did Baby Corn say to Mama Corn?” Baby Corn said, “Where’s Pop Corn?”)
Popcorn required salt and butter. Real butter and no sea salt. If you weren’t at home — well, there was popcorn on sale along every main street, there was popcorn at ball parks and amusement parks, there was popcorn at every movie theater. Nickel-a-bag.
Sometimes — you never really knew — a mother or a sister would be moved to boil up some caramel and pour it over a new batch of popcorn. Cracker Jack first was sold at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. (I looked this up.) Still, long before there were bags of caramel corn on grocery shelves, Americans across the local region knew caramel corn well. On special occasions, they munched popcorn balls.
Cracker Jack sprinkled peanuts in its caramel corn. On the home front, in kitchens and living rooms, peanuts must be thought of as The Other Snack Food. Most commonly, these were peanuts in the shell. Depending upon your age, you might have to put a peanut between your teeth to get the shell cracked. (Two peanuts were out walking when one was assaulted. Salted. Get it?)
Planters (and Mr. Peanut) had peanuts in transparent bags on the market for five cents. Those were very good.
Mr. Peanut or Mr. Goodbar? Or a Hershey bar with nuts? Or a Snickers bar? It was a tough choice for kids to make. Often enough, they fell back on licorice.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.