The deep-fried revolution
"Really, fried foods like French fries, onion rings, and fried chicken probably played into the advent of the mozzarella stick as much as anything else," Jensen said. "Think about fried food: It's not exactly fast food, but it’s fast enough. It’s something that can be uncomplicated to make. It might be impossible to pinpoint the exact moment in time the mozzarella stick rose to deep-fried prominence, but I have to believe someone with a deep fryer was looking for something new besides French fries, chicken, and onion rings that could be made in little kitchens in bowling alleys or bars. They saw the public latch onto mozzarella cheese and took it from there."
Jensen, like Gennari, noted that mozzarella sticks really weren't common before the late 1970s and early 1980s -- and both believe they first arrived in bowling alleys and sports bars, primarily.
Dr. Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at NYU, posited that the rise of mozzarella sticks (and other quick, fried foods for that matter) was likely due to an influx of new frying technology in the late '60s and early '70s that made frying foods cheap and efficient. This not only allowed fast-food joints to grow like weeds, it also allowed smaller kitchens -- like those in sports bars, dives, and bowling alleys -- to embrace the glories of deep fryers.
And fried food and cold drinks just go together exceedingly well, so it made sense for these establishments to base their menus around them.
"Mozzarella sticks, as well as hamburgers and fries, go well with cold beer or soda. It's a temperature and texture contrast, balancing out and cutting the salt fat of the mozzarella stick," Bentley said. Basically, bars, chains, and other restaurants considered putting mozzarella sticks on the menu a sure thing.
"Deep fat-fried items taste good to most people, are pretty durable, and can keep for a while in a warming tray. Melted cheese is pretty lowest-common-denominator food -- that is, will appeal to most everyone," she added. It sounds like perfect bar food because it is. And while it would be nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact birthplace of the mozz stick as we know it today -- no tall tales abound, as with chicken wings -- it's a safe bet that it was birthed in the back of a dimly lit kitchen by a curious/bored chef likely wearing polyester.
The success of the mozzarella stick in smaller establishments caught the attention of chains like Applebee's. In fact, mozzarella sticks were one of the first appetizers on Applebee's menu, alongside other staples like French fries and onion rings. And in the New York Public Library's database of historic restaurant menus, the earliest mention of mozz sticks was in 1987, at the Chicken Ranch in New York City.
People's positive response to mozz sticks -- a conceptual novelty at first -- paved the way for more experimentation with deep-frying unusual items.
"Mozzarella sticks probably jump-started the 'deep-fried revolution,'" Jensen said. "That was the point where people decided, 'hey, we can deep-fry almost anything and people will dig it!' It became the prototype for bar food."
If it wasn't for the upstart success of the mozz stick, we might not have things like fried pickles, or -- for better or worse -- any of the state fair fodder we shamelessly love to indulge in. The first real deep-fried experiment worked, and it continues to work to this day. You can see it in everything from the rise of tater tots to the increasing stunt-foods arms race. Would there be a Naked Chicken Chalupa or Cheetos Chicken Fries without mozzarella sticks? Maybe not.