'Messy History of American Food' Takes a Deep Look at American Cuisine

Nothing is off the table.

Decades-old bread dough. Cola manufacturer wars. Hypermasculine cheeseburger commercials. The ways Americans have been making, marketing, and consuming our favorite foods have a complicated and fascinating history as old as our nation itself—and sometimes older. As connoisseurs of the weird and the wonderful when it comes to cuisine, Thrillist has long been fascinated with every aspect of what makes our lives delicious. The new Thrillist-produced series Messy History of American Food, coming to discovery+ on May 11, is an examination and celebration of the origins of everything from bread to cereal to chocolate, and nothing is off the table.

You might not realize exactly how much history lives inside the bagel you get at your corner store every morning, or the can of Coke you surreptitiously pop open when you need an afternoon caffeine kick. With episodes focusing on food items as innocuous and broad as "Bread" and "Burgers," Messy History of American Food takes a deep dive into the extraordinary details about the stuff we eat every day—or, in the case of "Wings," the stuff no Super Bowl party is complete without. Did you know there's a bakery in San Francisco that uses a sourdough starter from the 1800s? Or that Coke wasn't the only carbonated soda drink that used to be laced with, erm, suspicious substances? The show presents these factoids with a combination of archival footage intercut between interviews with chocolatiers, soda enthusiasts, and Thrillist's own food experts to give you the run-down on all the messy details.

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But, because the show is committed to honesty, it's not all fun and games. Messy History takes care not to gloss over the darker details, such as the origins of Native American fry bread, which was originally cooked using extremely unhealthy cast-off ingredients they were given after European settlers moved their tribes to reservations and annexed their hunting grounds. There's really no way to explore the whole history of something as multifaceted as the food we eat without facing the reality of why it is the way that it is, and that willingness not to shy away from those stories makes for a far richer experience.

There's an unmistakable—and timely—theme running though many of the episodes of the show: mainly how most of the food items we take for granted as everyday elements of our own lives are the products of immigrants. Most things we think of as purely "American" are hardly that at all. Polish Jews brought bagels to New York City. Korean restaurants have created their own take on chicken wings. Sourdough came from the Mexicans who traveled up to California for the Gold Rush. Everything we have comes from somewhere else, and carries with it many generations' worth of social complexities and innovations.

Messy History of American Food brings all that to the fore and more, and, with its half-hour episodes, gives a light but thorough investigation of the subjects in each of its installments. You'll learn why Hershey's chocolate tastes the way that it does, why "sliced bread" was such an earth-shattering invention, and why exactly so many burger chains decided that the best way to market their product was to film supermodels eating them while washing cars. That bowl of cereal you have every morning? You'll never look at it the same way again.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.