The true origins of 11 of your favorite fried foods
Like the great American hero Superman, the great American foods like cheeseburgers and chocolate chip cookies have some fairly interesting origin stories. And since Summer is the season of fried foods, we thought now was a perfect time to get the word out on the history behind the stuff that fuels every state fair ever.
Here are the true origins of some of your favorite fried foods, from candy bars to corn dogs. Turns out funnel cake kinda came out of a dark time. Who knew?
Funnel cakesEngland/Normandy - c. 1200-1400
This fun-time carnival treat was ironically invented during a time when very few people actually had fun or knew what it was -- Anglo-Norman cooking manuscripts started making mentions of a sourdough version of funnel cake sometime in the Middle Ages. The cakes were drizzled with sugar syrup and salt, which proves its makers had a sophisticated palate, even at a time when indoor plumbing didn't exist. The funnel cake eventually made its way to America by way of the Pennsylvania Dutch, before overtaking state fairs like a delicious virus (and then it made moves to the buns of this hamburger). Pour out some powdered sugar for our Medieval homeboys.
Mozzarella sticksFrance - c. 1393
It isn’t really known who originated the practice of using mozzarella in these Italian-ish fried cheese sticks, but what is known is that the first documented practice of breading cheese and frying it in oil dates back to Medieval France, when a rudimentary recipe for fried muenster appeared in a guidebook for maintaining a Parisian household entitled Le Ménagier de Paris. Going forth from this revelatory moment in history, fried cheese has taken many forms and gone by many names -- fried curds, fried halloumi, smazeny syr, queso frito -- but it all stems from one French groom who wanted to teach his 15-year-old bride to be a good wife... which, of course, includes frying cheese properly.
French friesBelgium or France - c. 18th century
You would think by the name -- and you’d possibly be correct -- that French fries were invented in France. But both that country and Belgium have made claims to that most classic of sandwich collaborators, and it’s quite possible that Belgium is where they were actually invented -- 100 years earlier than France. You see, potatoes were first introduced to Europe by Spain, who brought them over from the New World and, at the time, owned a portion of Northern continental Europe called the “Spanish Netherlands”, which included Belgium. Did these proto-Belgians cut up the potatoes and fry them in oil? Probably. Which is why we should maybe start calling them “Belgian batons”. No? Just trying to keep the alliteration thing going.
Fried chickenAmerican South - c. 19th century
Folks have been frying chicken in oil for hundreds of years. But the pork fat-fried way that Americans know it (the Southern way, duh)? Well, that's a bit more complicated. While the English were known for boiling or baking chicken (ugh), the large population of Scots (who actually fried their chickens) and West African immigrants (who cooked theirs in palm oil) in the South meant lots of people started frying parts of their chicken -- this time in good ol' American lard, which was widely available due to booming pig populations.
Chicken fried steaksTexas - c. 19th century
Anyone who’s ever had Austrian food or hung out with Schwarzenegger when he’s hungry, can tell you that Wiener schnitzel is a thoroughly delicious and beloved Teutonic food. And it was so beloved by those Austrian people that they brought it stateside in the 1800s, and adapted it to the Southern cooking lexicon by seasoning the breading flour with traditional Southern spices and then frying it in oil that had already been used to fry chicken. Oh, and serving it with gravy. Thus, the chicken fried steak was born.
Onion ringsFort Wayne, IN - 1908
Onion rings were purportedly invented (or at least popularized) either by Texas drive-in chain Kirby’s Pig Stand in the 1920s or by a New York Times Magazine Crisco recipe ad in 1933, but a slightly more legitimate claim is made by the Fort Wayne Sentinel newspaper, which ran a recipe for “French fried onions” written by Fannie Farmer in 1908. However, even Fannie doesn’t take credit for the invention of the recipe, whose origins, it seems, will forever be shrouded in deep-fried mystery.
Corn dogsDisputed - c. 1920s-1940s
The corn dog is one of those things that everyone wants to take credit for, and, as such, there are about a billion claims to it (just like the Iron Throne, AMIRITE?!). Now, obviously, sausages as we know them were introduced to America by German and Polish immigrants, and cornmeal is a popular staple in Southern and Midwestern cooking, so we can extrapolate that it was probably invented somewhere in the South or Midwest. But exactly by whom and when, will probably remain a mystery. What we do know is that a patent was filed in 1927 for a stick-frying apparatus for “wieners” by Stanley S. Jenkins. So, wherever you are, Stanley... thank you.
Toasted ravioliSt. Louis, MO - Early 1950s
This staple of Missouri eatin’ may have primal origins in Italy, but it wasn’t until a St. Louis cook accidentally dropped some ravioli in a vat of hot oil instead of boiling water that the savory delicacy was invented. Fun fact: any food you drop into a vat of hot oil will come out tasting great. Serve up these suckers with some marinara sauce and seasoning, and you’ve got an honest-to-goodness treat that’s about as American as appropriating Italian dishes for our own twisted purposes.
Rocky Mountain oystersNorthern Colorado - c. 1950
Also called “calf fries”, Rocky Mountain oysters have a name that seems a bit out of place, until you consider the fact that they’re not oysters at all, but rather deep-fried bulls’ testicles. Taking credit for the invention of these tourist-baiting local delicacies is Bruce Ruth, who sold them out of his eponymous restaurant (Bruce’s Bar) in an equally appropriate town in Northern Colorado (Severance) starting around the 1950s. Inspired by “turkey oysters”, which are totally not the same thing, Bruce decided to fry up slivers of bull testicles, and they were a huge hit with everyone except the bulls.
Fried candy barsScotland - 1995
The day was... one of the ones in 1995. It was supposedly a gray one, since Scotland’s pretty gray. But inside a chip shop in Stonehaven, a fantastic thing was happening -- the owners of Haven Chip Bar (now the Carron Fish and Chip Bar) were deep-frying candy bars, and the practice was soon picked up by chip shops all over the country. Later, in 2004, the confection made its first foray onto American soil when it was mentioned on The Tonight Show, and American folks have been fryin’ up Snickers bars (and many others) ever since.
Deep-fried TwinkiesBrooklyn, NY - c. 2002
Deep-fried Twinkies are the kinda thing that could only be invented by an Englishman... living in Brooklyn. Christopher Sell, originally from Rugby, England and the owner of ChipShop in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, noticed that the bodega down the street had a surplus of Twinkies. So he did what any red-blooded American would do in that situation: he deep-fried the sh*t out of ‘em. What resulted was a crispy, melty pillow of artificially vanilla-flavored goodness that was then summarily adopted by Texans, and everyone else.