Snacking, while not unique to American life, is very much tied to American culture. And like so many other things we enjoy, our favorite snack foods have influences from many other cultures. Historically, snacks have also represented divisions in socioeconomic levels. There’s a lot more to that bag of pretzels than salt and dough.
As a writer building a world or setting a scene, don’t forget or ignore the cultural significance of food. We don’t necessarily need to see your character eat every meal, but food has the power to bring people together or divide them further. Does your main character always know what fork to use, or does it cause them embarrassment during a gathering? Do members of your ensemble cast bond over a shared favorite indulgence? Perhaps things in your political thriller hinge on a diplomatic dinner going well, only to discover that the menu includes massive cultural faux pas.
Food can be the source of simple sustenance, great joy, or emotional struggle. However, it can be easy to overlook in the grand plot scheme. Readers don’t usually want to read through a six-course meal. But using food, a seemingly minute detail, to enhance worldbuilding or showcase a class divide is realistic. What foods are common to the culture of your Fantasy world? Do your characters fight for every scrap of food to avoid starvation, or do they live in a world of indulgence and opulence where food is more about showing off than survival?
If characters have enough food in their day-to-day lives to also be concerned about snacks, it says something about their economic standing and food scarcity. In the U.S., snacks are a big industry, and we certainly have our favorites. Let’s look at a few.
Here are 10 Things About Snack Foods:
- In Western European history, after silverware or utensils became prevalent, any food eaten without the use of proper utensils was considered lower class. This didn’t change until sometime in the early 1900s. Those cucumber finger sandwiches that your great-aunt likes to serve at parties would have marked her as a poor peasant woman less than a century and a half ago.
- Peanuts came to the United States through to avenues. North from South America where evidence of their cultivation predates the arrival of Europeans, and across the Atlantic from West Africa during the slave trade. Knowing their origin, it’s not a surprise that they were first prevalent in cuisines in the Southeastern United States and didn’t become common in the North until after the Civil War. However, once their popularity spread it didn’t take long for them to become the preferred snack at early baseball games and even vaudeville theaters.
- Popcorn has been around for thousands of years. Evidence backs up cultural histories that say Native nations in the United States and Mexico began making popcorn over fires for anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. It wasn’t called “popped corn” until the mid-1800s and the modern day microwave popcorn bag was patented by General Mills in the early 1980s.
- Pretzels came to the U.S. with German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania who would become known as Pennsylvania Dutch. The origins of the pretzel in Europe are disputed, but that hasn’t affected their popularity in America. Though, until the late 1800s and early 1900s they were closely associated with street vendors and saloons which made them decidedly lower class. However, as ballparks and concert halls began to sell them, they gained popularity across the board. With new strides in packaging and manufacturing processes since the 1950s, pretzels became one of the most popular snacks in America.
- The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair debuted Dr. Pepper, waffle cones, and cotton candy. It also popularized “carnival foods” like hot dogs and hamburgers.
- The most popular cookie in America, the Oreo, was first sold in 1912. The origin of the cookie’s name and who actually came up with it are both points of dispute, but they got their embossed design in 1952. There are more than five patents associated with the original Oreo cookie.
- Candy bars such as Mr. Goodbar, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, and Mounds, along with other candy treats like Mike & Ike and Reese’s peanut butter cups all gained massive popularity in the 1920s during Prohibition. They were a feel-good treat that could still be enjoyed in public while alcohol had to be consumed behind closed doors. Prohibition also saw a rise in a new drink, 7-up, though since the first incarnation of the recipe included a mood stabilizer that’s probably not surprising.
- Girl Scout Cookies started as a simple bake sale fundraiser and only included one flavor, sugar cookies. However, in the late 1930s the orders started to become so large and so common that they had to begin outsourcing the baking to commercial bakeries. Considering the nation was still largely suffering the effects of the Great Depression, that was quite the impressive feat.
- M&M candies were introduced in the 1940s. The candy coating was designed to be a little more heat resistant than tradition candy bars because they were specifically meant to be shipped to soldiers serving in World War II. Tootsie Rolls also appeared on the market for the same purpose. Anybody who could spare the money could send a sweet treat to their loved one to remind them that someone back home cared.
- Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Graham Crackers were invented by different men and at different times, but for the same reasons. Both Kellogg and Graham believed that indulging in decadent foods somehow led to sexual promiscuity. Corn Flakes were meant to be sustenance without flavor so that one could eat without carnal temptation following. Graham Crackers held the same purpose, but modern incarnations include so much added cinnamon and sugar that they wouldn’t be recognized by their inventor and namesake. And he would be beyond appalled at the use of his crackers as part of a beloved sweet snack like S’mores. The scandal!
There you have it. Sex, drugs, and cookies. Never underestimate the power of food.