13 Popular Foods People Hated Eating 100 Years Ago
Culinary trends are just as fickle as fashion. Find out which gourmet foods you love used to only be fed to animals or prisoners.
Tomatoes were once so feared that they were called “poison apples.” Their bad reputation was all a tragic mistake, however: Wealthy diners ate the fruit on pewter (made with lead) plates; the acid from the tomatoes leeched lead from the plates, sickening diners. Even people who didn’t use pewter plates avoided the fruit because tomatoes are part of the deadly nightshade family. Today, however, we love tomatoes, eating them in everything from pasta sauces to pizza to salad. “They are a great source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant,” says Earl L. Mindell, RPh, MH, PhD, a registered pharmacist, associate professor at Chapman University, and author of The New Vitamin Bible.
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You’d never guess it today but one of the priciest dishes on fancy menus—lobster—used to be so universally disliked that it was only seen fit to feed to prisoners. And even then there were laws restricting how many days in a row they could have it, lest their punishment be considered too harsh. So how did the crustacean undergo such a radical image change? “Let’s be honest, it’s one of the most Instagrammable foods there is!” says Julia Werth, a registered dietitian. But besides making you look posh in pics, the high-protein crustacean has also become much more scarce in the last century, making it more valuable, she adds.
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Kudos to whichever adventurous human decided this bitter green was edible. No one is exactly sure when kale was first discovered as a food source but it only became popular in the last couple of decades. These days it’s earned the coveted “health halo” and is in every store, everywhere. Why? Cooking techniques! “We now have the luxury of modern cooking appliances and the time to spend cooking—a century ago their only option was to eat it raw or throw it in a stew and hope for the best,” Werth says. “Today we make it into chips with an oven or hide it in a smoothie with a blender or use other recipes to make it taste good.”
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This humble tuber has had quite the wild culinary ride through human history. When it was first introduced in Europe, skeptical peasants and royalty alike wouldn’t touch it. Eventually, they adopted it as edible but then it was seen as peasant food (and it was often the only food for the poor). Today, however, the potato is the fifth most important crop in the world and is eaten in a mind-boggling number of ways from curly fries to mashed potatoes to a starch additive in processed desserts. “Unfortunately they’re mostly popular—at least in North America—as French fries,” Mindell laments. “However, if you eat them baked, with the peel on, they are a healthy source of fiber and potassium.”
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Chocolate lovers, cover your eyes: When the beans were first introduced it was in the form of a bitter drink that was so far from today’s hot chocolate as to be unrecognizable. Today’s crave-worthy candy version only became popular in the last few hundred years. Thankfully you can indulge your sweet tooth in a healthy way by eating dark chocolate in moderation, Werth says. “Dark chocolate has been shown in research to lower your risk of heart disease and is full of antioxidants,” she says.
There’s nothing trendier these days than bone broth (and don’t you dare call it “just soup”), but a century ago, leftover bones were given to the dogs. “This is pretty much regular broth with a new, fancy name,” Werth says. But she’s glad it’s popular now: “It’s high in protein while being low in calories and fat, making it the perfect comfort food.”
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Back in the days when nothing went to waste, every part of the animal from skin to hooves was used for something. But about a century ago, we started becoming more wasteful, prizing only the muscle meat (hello steak!) and ditching everything else—including the nutrient-rich organ meats like the liver and heart. Thankfully these foods are making a big resurgence as people recognize how healthy they are for you, Werth says. “Plus, there’s the adventure factor; you’re seen as cool, funny, or even brave for eating them,” she says. “This might be one thing we can truly thank reality TV for!”
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Again, oversupply rendered this delicacy “poor people’s food.” That is, until around 1910, when the sturgeon population crashed from overfishing and the once plentiful eggs—they used to be served as bar food—were impossible to find. This lead to several generations of Americans who may have heard of it but never ate it. Recently, however, it’s gained popularity as part of the “champagne and caviar” aspirational lifestyle you see all over social media, says Werth. Its scarcity has made it emblematic of luxury, although she suspects it’s in more pictures than actual tummies.
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People have been eating cabbage as long as they’ve known of its existence, but it was never considered a truly sought-after food in the United States until recently. As Americans have imported more and more international cuisines, we’ve discovered the joy of traditional recipes based around the veggie, like kimchi, sauerkraut, steamed dumplings, stewed cabbage, and lo mein, Werth says. We also have a lot more varieties of cabbage to choose from on the average grocery shelf, adding to its culinary flexibility. “Many of these recipes use fermented cabbage which provides healthy probiotics,” she adds.
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Around 1900, oysters were so plentiful that their shells were used to pave Pearl Street in New York City (which explains the name); people ate them daily as a cheap source of protein. However, like the sturgeon, they quickly became overfished, to the point where they were considered functionally extinct in the New York harbour and other popular harvesting grounds. Scarcity means higher prices and a higher status so now, instead of being seen as the poor man’s beef, they’re prized as gourmet foods. “Oysters are a good source of zinc, which may explain why they are considered a sexual stimulant,” Mindell explains. “There may be some truth to that as men’s prostates are rich in zinc.”
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This plant grown high in the Andes was cultivated for centuries by native people for its nutrition and taste. Yet hardly anyone outside of the small region even knew of its existence. It was “discovered” in the 1970s and sold as a health food, but it didn’t really catch on until the last decade. Now it’s so popular that the Peruvians who farm it can’t afford to eat it. There’s a good reason for its new status as a superfood though, Werth says. “It’s the only plant food that is a complete protein, containing all the necessary amino acids,” she explains. “As vegan and vegetarian diets have risen in popularity, they’ve increased the demand for quinoa.”
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In the 1800s and prior, lard was used for everything from cooking to making soap, but as industrialization took over, the fat dropped in popularity in favor of other fats, like butter. Then, in the early part of the last century, shortenings like Crisco took over. Recently, however, scientists have discovered the transfats in most shortenings are hard on the heart. With people looking for a less-processed fat, lard is making a comeback, Mindell says.
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This staple of health food bakeries and Reuben sandwiches used to be considered food fit only for people so poor they couldn’t afford wheat. But it rose in popularity thank to the blending of cultures, Werth says. “Rye bread is often used in Jewish cuisine, and they made it popular in America,” she says. It’s a good thing, too, as the whole grain bread is high fiber and can aid in weight loss, she adds.
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