June 18, 2024


Built General Tough

How some of America’s favorite fast foods became popular

Food Americana

A former insurance agent was the genius behind White Castle; Academy Award-winner Yul Brenner had a starring role in making sushi popular; and a US president’s trip to China is one reason we order Kung Pao chicken in America. 

Those are just some of the nuggets served up in the new book, “Food Americana: The Remarkable People and Incredible Stories Behind America’s Favorite Dishes” (Mango Publishing) by David Page, the creator of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” 

Page looks at what and who shaped dishes, often imported from other countries, into unique American offerings. Here are a few historical tidbits to share at cocktail hour:

 Li Hongzhang was a Chinese government official who visited America and led the craze for Chop Suey.
Chinese government official Li Hongzhang
Getty Images

Chop Suey and Kung Pao Chicken 

At first, the Bohemians — the hipsters of the 1800s — were the only non-Chinese to venture to Chinatowns across the United States. But that all changed when Li Hongzhang, a senior Chinese government official, visited the US in 1896. Newspapers went wild and chronicled his every move, including what was on his plate: chop suey. 

Hongzhang spent a little more than a week in the US, traveling to West Point, Philadelphia, and Washington. (He purposely shunned California because of its mistreatment of the Chinese.) Meanwhile, New Yorkers went China mad, flocking to Chinatown to buy curios and eat chop suey. By the 1920s, every large city and town had a Chinese restaurant. 

Fast forward to 1972, when millions tuned in for President Richard Nixon’s official visit to China and his meeting with Premier Mao Zedong in Beijing. When US families saw Nixon dig his chopsticks into a nine-course meal, a new food craze was born. Restaurants stopped serving so much chop suey and began to offer Kung Pao chicken along with other spicy Sichuan and Hunan fare. 

The popular television show "Shogun" turned Americans on to everything Japanese, including sushi.
The popular television show “Shogun” turned Americans on to everything Japanese, including sushi.


Japan’s most primitive form of sushi is thought to have originated in the 8th century, but the dish didn’t reach the US until after WWII when Japanese execs first came to Los Angeles. In 1964, Kawafuku, the first sushi restaurant in the country, opened in LA’s Little Tokyo. 

But it was Hollywood that really helped raw fish take off. In 1970, Osho became the first sushi bar to open outside of Little Tokyo, located next door to 20th Century Fox. “The King and I” star Yul Brynner and his pals ate lunch there daily, and he and his entourage attracted more stars, which in turn gave rise to more sushi bars. 

A decade later, American viewers tuned into “Shogun,” a hit TV miniseries set in 17th century Japan, leading to a “massive wave of popular interest in all things Japanese,” said Page. “We put sushi on the map,” series star Richard Chamberlain said. 

Then came a 1977 Senate report recommending Americans eat more fish. After that, sushi — seen as a food that “healthy, beautiful people” ate, according to “Sushi Economy” author Sasha Issenberg — was really on a roll. 

White Castle revolutionized the burger business.
White Castle revolutionized the burger business.
Getty Images; Shutterstock

White Castle 

Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram, a former insurance salesman and real-estate agent, opened the first White Castle in 1921, in Wichita, Kan. 

The building was designed to combat the image of the horrifying conditions at meat factories portrayed in “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel. With hospital-white exteriors and stainless-steel and porcelain interiors, the castle looked sparkling clean. The burgers were cooked in full view, so customers could see the meat was safe. White Castle standardized everything about selling burgers — the buildings, the buns, the way the beef was ground and pressed. “If you didn’t put the word ‘white’ in your hamburger restaurant, you weren’t going to sell burgers,” says “Hamburger America” author George Motz. 

Colonel Sanders was 65 when he finally hit gold with his magic fried chicken recipe.
Colonel Sanders was 65 when he finally hit gold with his magic fried chicken recipe.
Bettmann Archive; Shutterstock

Kentucky Fried Chicken 

Colonel Harland Sanders (an honorary title) had operated a busy roadside cafe/service station in Corbin, Kent., on US-25E, a route between the Midwest and Florida, for decades. But when a new interstate highway opened, the traffic disappeared — and so did his customers. 

At 65, Sanders had to start over. So, in 1955, he decided to franchise his fried chicken, a top seller at his cafe. To sell more chicken fast, he reduced the cooking time from 30 minutes to nine by switching from a pan to a pressure cooker, which he sold, along with seasoned flour, to franchisees. By taking a cut of 5 cents per chicken, Sanders finally had success beyond his wildest dreams — and completely reinvented the fried-chicken business.