Gary McLean // Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Fashion is often thought to be the defining quality of a generation. But the dinner table can give just as many clues about a period in time as clothing. Sweet and savory gelatin-based foods were as characteristic of the 1960s as bell bottoms, go-go boots, and drop-waist dresses. Low-fat diets and farm-to-table foods represented the '70s as much as peasant blouses, military surplus clothes, and frayed jeans.
But unlike the cyclical nature of fashion endlessly repeating itself, food innovations tend to build upon one another. We probably wouldn't have the Big Mac if the Whopper hadn't come out more than 10 years prior. Food fortification, which started in the 1920s, continued to progress well into the late '90s. And food preservation and safety advanced from a relatively simple state into flash-freezing, controlled-atmosphere packaging, irradiation, and even bans on certain food dyes—evidence of growth over the decades in food technology and our interest in what we eat.
Stacker curated a list of some of the biggest moments in food history from the last 100 years, drawing from various studies, food and agriculture policies, and other major changes documented by academic researchers and government agencies. We also researched the histories of major food corporations to learn about their contributions over the last century.
1921: Refrigerators become household appliances
It got a lot easier to keep food fresh at home in the 1920s when the refrigerator became an essential appliance for every kitchen. Manufacturers produced about 5,000 refrigerators in the U.S. in 1921, according to The Washington Post. By 1927, that number had jumped to 6 million.
1922: Chimichangas are invented
El Charro Cafe, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, invented the chimichanga in 1922. The deep-fried burrito was created by accident when founder Monica Flin plunged a burrito into bubbling fat, creating a delicious mistake many have enjoyed ever since.
1923: Mars releases Milky Way candy bars
The Mars company debuted Milky Way candy bars in 1923. Despite the galactic name, the brand was actually inspired by malted milkshakes, which were extremely popular at the time.
1924: Iodine is added to table salt
Producers began voluntarily adding iodine to salt in the U.S. in 1924 to curb the number of Americans with goiter. The move was promoted by many national health organizations, such as the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association.
1925: Speakeasies serve up finger foods
Tens of thousands of speakeasies popped up in New York City alone by 1925 after bars and saloons in the country were shut down during Prohibition. Some started offering finger foods alongside clandestine cocktails to boost sales.
1926: America gets its first canned ham
Hormel introduced the United States to its first canned ham in 1926. The company launched its most famous product, Spam, a decade later.
1927: Girl Scouts publish the first s'mores recipe
While the idea for a graham cracker sandwich with a roasted marshmallow and chocolate had been around for some time, the first s'mores recipe didn't make its debut until 1927 in "Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts." The guidebook, intended to teach kids how to be good Girl Scouts, referred to the recipe as "Some More"—a name that stuck for at least another 40 years.
1928: Clarence Birdseye perfects flash-freezing
Inventor Clarence Birdseye developed a double-belt freezer to flash-freeze foods in 1928. The appliance helped frozen meats and produce maintain peak ripeness while preserving them for longer than they would otherwise be edible.
1929: Oscar Mayer invents first 'branded' meat
Oscar Mayer created its signature yellow band in 1929, making its products the first "branded" meat available on the market. The label is still used on the company's packaging.
1930: First chocolate chip cookies are baked
Ruth Graves Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie in 1930, apparently by accident. At the time, she and her husband ran the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts.
1931: Transcontinental train trips popularize Brunch
While the concept of brunch had been around since the late 1800s (if not earlier), it first became popular in the U.S. in the 1930s. Hollywood stars on transcontinental train journeys would often stop in Chicago for a late morning meal during that time, and restaurants across the country picked up on the trend.
1932: 3 Musketeers Bar is invented
The newcomer to the candy aisle in 1932 was the 3 Musketeers Bar. The original candy contained three distinct nougat flavors—strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla—in one package. High vanilla and strawberry costs during WWII caused Mars to alter the bar to contain only one musketeer: chocolate.
1933: Milk is enriched with vitamin D
Milk producers began enriching their products with vitamin D in 1933, either by irradiating the milk or adding irradiated yeast to the cows' feeds, in response to recommendations from health groups. Seven years later, they would start using vitamin D concentrate to enrich the milk—a technique that's still used today.
1934: Heinz launches tomato breeding program
Ketchup purveyors Heinz started a special tomato breeding program in 1934. The company recognized that the quality of ketchup depended on growing high-quality tomatoes.
1935: Kraft Foods buys Vegemite
Already beloved by Australians, Vegemite became American-owned and produced when Kraft Foods bought the recipe and manufacturing instructions for the yeast extract in 1935. The recipe has since been slightly adjusted to include less salt.
1936: The first American health food store
It became easier for Americans to find healthy, natural foods when Sawall Health Foods opened its doors in Detroit in 1936. Still open today, it bills itself as "the oldest family-owned and operated natural food store" in the country.
1937: Kraft creates boxed mac and cheese
Kraft Foods in 1937 launched its now-iconic boxed macaroni and cheese. The 19-cent product had enough food for a family of four, which made it extremely popular during the Great Depression. Around 8 million boxes were sold that year, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
1938: French dressing hits grocery stores
Milani's 1890 French dressing hit grocery store shelves in the U.S. in 1938, making it the first French dressing to go mainstream. While it takes its name from the European country, French dressing is actually an all-American condiment.
1939: Government launches food stamp program
To help low-income families afford food, the federal government launched a food stamp program in 1939. It was in effect for four years, after which the country switched over to ration stamps.
1940: Government formalizes definition for enriched flour
The Food and Drug Administration developed a standard definition for enriched flour in 1940 to help reduce the rates of nutrient deficiency in the U.S. It required that flour producers add thiamin, iron, riboflavin, and niacin to any products they labeled as "enriched."
1941: General Mills creates Cheerios
General Mills invented the cereal now known as Cheerios in 1941. Originally called "CheeriOats," a "puffing gun" gave the cereal its iconic, donut shape.
1942: 75% of all white bread is enriched
Around 75% of all white bread sold in the U.S. was fortified with added vitamins and nutrients by mid-1942. Enrichment of white bread was voluntarily accepted by industries associated with bakeries and their products.
1943: Pizzeria Uno dreams up deep-dish pizza
To satiate the hunger of Midwesterners, Pizzeria Uno created the first deep-dish pizza in 1943. The sunken, thick-crust pie with sauce on top became famous in Chicago.
1944: First frozen dinner is born
The year 1944 marked the birth of the world's first frozen dinners: Strato-Plates. Created by W.L. Maxson Co., the meal featured meat, a potato, and veggies "on a paperboard tray treated with Bakelite resin." Frozen dinners allowed airlines and the Navy to serve their crews and passengers a hot meal.
1945: Sliced bread makes a comeback
Commercially baked bread was sold as unsliced loaves starting in 1943 due to a shortage of steel during World War II. Sliced bread finally made a comeback in 1945 when the war ended.
1946: Free lunch becomes available in schools
A federal law led to the creation of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. The initiative would bring free and low-cost lunches to qualified students in schools across the country.
1947: Pepperidge Farm opens state-of-the-art bakery
Margaret Rudkin's dream of a new, state-of-the-art bakery for her company, Pepperidge Farm, was finally realized when she cut the ribbon on a new space in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1947. The bakery helped her streamline production and make Pepperidge Farm the brand it is today.
1948: General Mills reveals secret ingredient for chiffon cake
Los Angeles insurance agent Harry Baker invented chiffon cake in the 1920s, keeping his recipe under lock and key for 20 years. General Mills bought his recipe in 1947, and a year later, they revealed the delightfully airy cake's secret ingredient (vegetable oil) in Better Homes and Gardens.
1949: Cake mixes make it big
More than 200 food producers were churning out cake mixes by the end of the 1940s. The majority came from Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.
1950: Controlled-atmosphere packaging increases shelf life of food
The 1950s brought along the development of controlled-atmosphere packaging. This allowed producers to regulate the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the packaging process to help delay the spoilage of fresh foods.
1951: Bananas Foster is born at Brennan's
Celebrated New Orleans restaurant Brennan's needed a way to use surplus bananas in 1951. So it invented Bananas Foster, a dessert made from bananas flambéed with butter, liqueur, brown sugar, and cinnamon, then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
1952: Backyard grilling becomes popular
George Stephen, a welder, invented the Weber charcoal kettle grill in 1952. The inexpensive appliance would help propel backyard grilling into a beloved pastime in the U.S.
1953: Eggo Waffles pack the freezer section
Eggo Waffles made their way into the freezer section of grocery stores in 1953. At the time, they were called "Froffles"—a mash-up of the words "frozen" and "waffles." They were rebranded as Eggo two years later.
1954: California dude ranch invents ranch dressing
Hidden Valley Ranch, a dude ranch on the central California coast, invented ranch dressing in 1954. It became an instant hit with guests, who took bottles of the creamy dressing home as souvenirs. Less than 20 years later, the brand was sold to the Clorox Company for $8 million.
1955: Green bean casserole originates at Campbell's
Home economist Dorcas Reilly developed the first recipe for green bean casserole in the Campbell's Soup Co. test kitchen after a journalist at the Associated Press asked for an idea for a vegetable side dish. The now-iconic dish is whipped up for Thanksgiving in 30 million homes each year.
1956: Dove launches chocolate-dipped ice cream bars
Dove launched its now-famous chocolate-dipped ice cream bars in 1956. At the time, the company was an ice cream and candy shop with four locations.
1957: Burger King introduces the Whopper
Burger King created the Whopper in 1957—more than a decade before McDonald's launched its Big Mac. The original price was just 37 cents.
1958: First Pizza Hut opens
Wichita, Kansas, welcomed the first Pizza Hut in 1958. The original location has since been turned into a museum at Wichita State University.
1959: Professor invents machine-harvestable tomato
Jack Hanna, an agronomy professor, bred a "hardy, tough-skinned tomato that could be more readily harvested by machines" in the late 1950s. It would pave the way for machines to start gathering the majority of tomatoes in California in the coming decades, improving farm efficiency.
1960: Gelatin makes its way into every meal
Knox published "Knox On-Camera Recipes," its collection of "gel-cookery" recipes in 1960. It offered ways to use gelatin in every meal, from the classic gelatin salad dessert to a savory dish using mayonnaise and shrimp paste.
1961: 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' becomes bestseller
"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" became an instant sensation when it was published in 1961, propelling author Julia Child into the limelight. The home cook got her own TV show two years later.
1962: 'Silent Spring' raises awareness about pesticide risks
"Silent Spring" hit bookstores in 1962, sparking worries about the potential risks of pesticides used on food. Author and environmental activist Rachel Carson called for an end to the practice of using DDT as a pesticide on food crops.
1963: Irradiation of flour gets FDA approval
The Food and Drug Administration gave food producers the green light to begin irradiating wheat and wheat flour in 1963. The technique would help eliminate pests from the products.
1964: Buffalo wings debut at western New York bar
Teressa Bellissimo, owner of Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, invented buffalo wings in 1964. Now a Super Bowl staple, the wings were created on a whim after the bar received a delivery of chicken wings instead of the necks they had ordered.
1965: Pillsbury Doughboy makes first TV appearance
The first commercial featuring the Pillsbury Doughboy aired in 1965, helping increase sales of canned refrigerated dough. An instant hit, the mascot earned an 87% recognition factor with customers in just three years.
1966: Peet's Coffee founder debuts French roast coffee
Alfred Peet, the man behind Peet's Coffee & Tea, jolted Americans out of their preference for light-roast coffee when he introduced a French roast in 1966. The java was inspired by European-style coffee, which was darker, less acidic, and sometimes even slightly burnt.
1967: Pop-Tarts are frosted
It didn't seem like Pop-Tarts could get more popular after the first shipment of the breakfast treats in the U.S. were wholly snapped up within two weeks in 1964. However, Kellogg's took things to the next level in 1967 when it debuted the first frosted Pop-Tarts. Today, some of the brand's bestsellers include Frosted Strawberry and Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon.
1968: The Big Mac goes national
A year after McDonald's franchisee Jim Delligatti devised the Big Mac, McDonald's took the double-decker burger national in 1968. The Big Mac helped turn low-grossing locations into some of the most profitable in the McDonald's system.
1969: Californians go wild for 'Animal Style' fries
Legend has it that In-N-Out invented its famous "Animal Style" fries in 1969 because the chefs at the Baldwin Park, California, location needed a name for the sauce that its boisterous surfer clientele put on their food. It's one of the best-known items on the fast food chain's secret menu today.
1970: Nutrition expert tells Senate that cereal isn't healthy
Is cereal part of a balanced breakfast? Not according to nutrition expert Robert Choate, who told a Senate subcommittee that "breakfast cereals aren't good sources of nutrition," according to the Food Industry Association. Cereal makers responded by adding vitamins and nutrients to their products.
1971: Chez Panisse kick-starts farm-to-table movement
Chef and food activist Alice Waters cut the ribbon on Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. The legendary restaurant, which focused on local, sustainable agriculture, is widely credited with launching the farm-to-table movement.
1972: First female chef heads big-name hotel kitchen
Leslie Revsin was hired as a "kitchen man"—a low-level position—at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1972. She would rapidly climb the ladder and go on to become the first woman to lead the kitchen of this famed hotel, as well as a cookbook author and television chef.
1973: Shuck Yee invents fortune cookie folding machine
Fortune cookies became a mainstay in Chinese takeout after inventor Shuck Yee developed a machine to crimp the dough into a distinctive crescent shape in 1973. Legend has it that Japanese restaurateurs in Los Angeles or San Francisco first invented the fortune cookie in the 1800s.
This article has been re-published pursuant to a CC BY-NC 4.0 License and include a hyperlink to the following URL: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/?ref=chooser-v1.