Snack Food Redemption

Author traces path of peanuts, popcorn, pretzels to respectability

Pretzel cart

NEW YORK -- When it comes to American eating, snacking is ubiquitous--at home, at work, everywhere. But snacking wasn't always such a regular or accepted part of the American eating routine. Snack foods once drew suspicion and even scorn--that is, before they were redeemed.

Abigail Carroll, the author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, traced the path of snack food from scorn to redemption for The Wall Street Journal.

The original American snack food was peanuts. A South American native, it arrived in North America via slave ships and showed up in African-inspired cooking on southern plantations. After the Civil War, peanuts traveled north. There they took their place alongside beer at baseball games and became a symbol of the cheap and rowdy upper balconies, dubbed "peanut galleries," in vaudeville theaters. These associations didn't lend the legume a very prestigious image, nor did its inherently messy nature.

Popcorn, also originally from South America, was a slightly less controversial early American snack, and rural 19th-century children took great pleasure in growing, harvesting and popping it in long-handled, wire-mesh baskets over a fire. Though not as messy as peanuts, popcorn still proved enough of a threat to cleanliness that movie theaters kept it out for decades.

Peanuts and popcorn also bore the stigma of being sold by street vendors of questionable hygiene. The peanut vendor's shrill steam whistle drew the ire of many, and the fare itself, often sold uncovered and dust-exposed, was prone to draw the public's suspicion.

So how did snack food change from a dubious indulgence to a respectable, even standard feature of American life? Commercialization. As the food industry began mass-producing snack foods, snack foods shed their negative associations and consumers dropped their suspicions.

It was most likely the Dutch who introduced the pretzel to North America, via New Amsterdam, in the 17th century. Vendors, who sold pretzels from baskets or stacked vertically on poles, were notorious for hawking their wares uncovered. In addition to its association with seedy street vendors, the pretzel bore a strong tie-in with saloons.

Packaging helped clean up the pretzel's reputation. It helped remove the peddler and the cracker barrel from the equation, while at the same time providing a blank canvas on which to apply a logo, advertising copy and compelling visuals--all helpful tools in constructing a new kind of reputation for a once questionable snack.

Makers of various snack foods "dressed up" their products, giving them a sense of glamour and sophistication. Mr. Peanut, that lanky anthropomorphized goober in top hat and tails, gave Planters a classy look. Dips gave partygoers something special to do with crackers and other dunkables.

By midcentury, snacking had become an all-American pastime, eventually emerging as an internationally recognized emblem of American life, and setting the stage for the snack food explosion of the 1980s.

Click here to read the full Wall Street Journal article.