December 2, 2010
Have you ever eaten zits?
Gross, right? But a century ago, the term didn’t refer to hormonally-induced epidermal horrors. It was simply a brand of cheese-covered popcorn!
According to the new book “Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History,” by William Woys Weaver, a Philadelphia company called Tassel Corn Foods made a snack called “Cheese Zits White Popcorn” in the 1920s.
Weaver provides a photo of the label, and offers this explanation of the word’s evolution:
This company also introduced the term ‘zits’ into American slang. Originally, the term…referred to a type of popcorn covered with powdered cheese. Zits were a popular snack at movie theaters, so doubtless sometime during the 1940s Philadelphia teenagers made this snack a moniker for something quite different. The term has since gone mainstream.
He also notes that Tassel used a type of corn with a naturally buttery taste, so that the company didn’t have to add butter to its popcorn products. That heirloom variety, called Pennsylvania Butter-Flavored Popcorn, still exists today—so why can’t we get that in movie theaters?
There are many other intriguing tidbits in Weaver’s book, too. Here’s just a few:
1. Bananas were once viewed a luxury food by Americans, so exotic that they deserved their own special glass dishes.
2. Being fat was considered a good thing in late-19th century America. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, a 442-pound teenager named Frank Williams was displayed as “a specimen of American achievement.”
3. “Magnetized” food used to be marketed as health food for babies. It may have actually contained powdered magnets—yikes!
4. Constipation was such a problem around the turn of the 20th century that the inventor of shredded wheat wrote a tract titled “The Vital Question and Our Navy,” about how to make things, um, go more smoothly on the high seas. The temperance movement may have unwittingly contributed to that problem, because it promoted baking-powder based breads based on a belief that “the consumption of alcohol in all its forms, even in natural yeast for bread baking, was a sign of moral decay.”
5. The term “moxie” got its start as a medicinal drink for women, marketed by a Lowell, Massachusetts doctor. It apparently had a “peculiar” taste, which may explain why the term is now a slang synonym for gutsy behavior. As Weaver puts it: “If you could stand to drink Moxie, you could face just about anything.”
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