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Our Most Tantalizing Facts About Food
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Most of us probably just enjoy our food without thinking too deeply about it. But the world of culinary delights holds many mysteries. What’s the secret history of the bagel? What does “continental breakfast” really mean? Which nut has been known to explode during transport, and which favored breakfast item is slightly radioactive? And finally, what’s the difference between sweet potatoes and regular potatoes? The following 25 facts will give you plenty of fodder for your next dinner party.

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Green Bell Peppers Are Just Unripe Red Bell Peppers

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If you’ve ever found yourself in the grocery store struggling to decide between red and green bell peppers, you may be interested to learn that they’re the very same vegetable. In fact, green bell peppers are just red bell peppers that haven’t ripened yet, while orange and yellow peppers are somewhere in between the two stages. As they ripen, bell peppers don’t just change color — they also become sweeter and drastically increase their beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin C content. So while the green variety isn’t quite as nutritious as its red counterpart, the good news is that one eventually becomes the other.

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Pistachios Can Spontaneously Combust

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It turns out there’s a price to pay for how tasty and nutritious pistachios are: Under the right circumstances, they can spontaneously combust. Everyone’s favorite shelled nut is especially rich in fat, which is highly flammable. Thankfully, that only becomes a problem when pistachios are packed too tightly during shipping or storage. It’s important to keep the nuts dry lest they become moldy — but if they’re kept too dry and there are too many of them bunched together, they can self-heat and catch fire without an external heat source.

Though exceedingly rare and easy to avoid if the proper instructions are followed, pistachio self-combustion is a real enough concern that the German Transport Information Service specifically advises that pistachios “not be stowed together with fibers/fibrous materials as oil-soaked fibers may promote self-heating/spontaneous combustion of the cargo.” Don’t worry, though: It won’t happen in your pantry with just a few bags, so you can indulge in the shelled snack without worrying about their flavor becoming unexpectedly smoky.

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Philadelphia Cream Cheese Isn’t Actually From Philadelphia

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The City of Brotherly Love has clear-cut claims on many food origins — cheesesteaks, stromboli, and even root beer. But despite the name, Philadelphia Cream Cheese is definitely not from Philly. The iconic dairy brand secured its misleading name (and gold-standard status) thanks to a marketing ploy that’s been working for more than 150 years … and it’s all because of Pennsylvania’s reputation for impeccable dairy. Small Pennsylvania dairies of the 18th and early 19th centuries were known for using full-fat milk and cream to make rich cheeses — in contrast to New York dairies, which mostly used skim milk — and because the perishables couldn’t be easily transported, they gained a reputation as expensive luxury foods. So when upstate New York entrepreneur William Lawrence began making his skim milk and (for richness) lard-based cream cheese in the 1870s, he needed a name that would entice customers and convey quality despite it being made in Chester, New York, and not Philadelphia. Together with cheese broker and marketing mastermind Alvah Reynolds, Lawrence branded his cheese under the Philadelphia name in 1880, which boosted sales and promoted its popularity with home cooks well into the early 1900s.

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Bagels Were Once Given as Gifts to Women After Childbirth

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After a woman has had a bun in the oven for nine months, presenting her with a bagel might seem like a strange choice. But some of the earliest writings on bagels relate to the idea of giving them as gifts to women after labor. Many historians believe that bagels were invented in the Jewish community of Krakow, Poland, during the early 17th century. Their circular shape echoes the round challah bread eaten on the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. Enjoying round challahs is meant to bring good luck, expressing the hope that endless blessings — goodness without end — will arrive in the coming year. Likewise, in Krakow centuries ago, a bagel signified the circle of life and longevity for the child. In addition to the symbolism of the round shape, the bread was believed to bring a pregnant woman or midwife good fortune in a delivery by casting aside evil spirits. Some pregnant women even wore bagels on necklaces as protection, or ensured bagels were present in the room where they gave birth.

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The Word for a Single Spaghetti Noodle Is “Spaghetto”

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If you go into an Italian restaurant and order spaghetto, chances are you’ll leave hungry. That’s because “spaghetto” refers to just a lone pasta strand; it’s the singular form of the plural “spaghetti.” Other beloved Italian foods share this same grammatical distinction — one cannoli is actually a “cannolo,” and it’s a single cheese-filled “raviolo” or “panino” sandwich. Though this may seem strange given that these plural terms are so ingrained in the English lexicon, Italian language rules state that a word ending in -i means it’s plural, whereas an -o or -a suffix (depending on whether it’s a masculine or feminine term) denotes singularity. (Similarly, “paparazzo” is the singular form of the plural “paparazzi.”) As for the term for the beloved pasta dish itself, “spaghetti” was inspired by the Italian word “spago,” which means “twine” or “string.”

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Ketchup Was Originally Made Out of Fish

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If you asked for ketchup thousands of years ago in Asia, you might have been handed something that looks more like today’s soy sauce. Texts as old as 300 BCE show that southern Chinese cooks mixed together salty, fermented pastes made from fish entrails, meat byproducts, and soybeans. These easily shipped and stored concoctions — known in different dialects as “ge-thcup,” “koe-cheup,” “kêtsiap,” or “kicap” — were shared along Southeast Asian trade routes. By the early 18th century, they had become popular with British traders. Yet the recipe was tricky to recreate back in England because the country lacked soybeans. Instead, countless ketchup varieties were made by boiling down other ingredients, sometimes including anchovies or oysters, or marinating them in large quantities of salt (Jane Austen was said to be partial to mushroom ketchup). One crop that the English avoided in their ketchup experiments was tomatoes, which for centuries were thought to be poisonous.

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Jelly Beans Have Been to Space

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What do Neil Armstrong, tortoises, and jelly beans have in common? Why, they’ve all been to space, of course. President Ronald Reagan was known for being a connoisseur of the chewy candy, so much so that he provided the astronauts aboard the Challenger shuttle with a bag full of them in 1983 — a gift that resulted in charming footage of them tossing the jelly beans in zero gravity before happily eating them. Reagan was also known to break the ice at high-level meetings by passing around jelly beans, even commenting that “you can tell a lot about a fella’s character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful.”

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Eggo Waffles Were Originally Called “Froffles”

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The brothers behind your favorite frozen waffles took a while to iron out the details of their signature product. Working in their parents’ basement in San Jose, California, in the early 1930s, Frank, Anthony, and Sam Dorsa first whipped up their own brand of mayonnaise. Since the base ingredient of mayonnaise is egg yolks — and the brothers took pride in using “100% fresh ranch eggs” — they christened their fledgling company “Eggo.” Despite launching the business during the Great Depression, Eggo mayonnaise sold like hotcakes, motivating the Dorsas to extend their product line. Soon, they were selling waffle batter — another egg-based product. To simplify shipping, they also whipped up a powdered mix that required only the addition of milk.

When the frozen food industry took off in the 1950s, the brothers wanted to take advantage of the rush to the freezer aisle. Frank Dorsa (a trained machinist) repurposed a carousel engine into a rotating device that could anchor a series of waffle irons, each cooking a breakfast treat that was flipped by a factory employee. The machine allowed Eggo to prepare thousands of freezer-bound waffles per hour. These debuted in grocery stores in 1953 under the name Froffles, a portmanteau of “frozen” and “waffles.” Customers referred to them simply as “Eggos,” and the Froffles moniker was dropped within two years.

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Canada Has a Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve

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A rainy-day cache of sweet, sticky maple syrup may seem more like a luxury than a necessity, but it’s a big deal to Canada, which produces more than 70% of the world’s supply from maple trees grown in the province of Quebec. As such, the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers (QMSP) founded the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve in 2000 to help regulate the profitable business. Covering an area of 267,000 square feet across three facilities, the reserve has endured poor sugaring seasons and the dastardly theft of some $20 million worth of barrels in 2012. And even when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many families to fulfill their pancake cravings at home, the QMSP promised to keep pace by announcing that it would release more than half of its 100 million-pound reserve in 2022.

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Pineapples Were Once So Valuable People Rented Them for Parties

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In the 1700s, party hosts and guests looking to make a statement were in the rental market for a special kind of accessory: pineapples. The message they were trying to send? That they were extravagantly wealthy. Prior to the 20th century, when pineapple plantations made the fruit widely available, pineapples were incredibly expensive imports to Europe (and most other places). In the 18th century, a single fruit bought in Britain could cost upwards of $8,000 in today’s money.

Christopher Columbus is credited with introducing pineapples to Europe in the 1490s after voyaging to the Americas. Just one survived his return journey, and the bromeliad quickly had an impact. Dubbed the “king of fruits,” the pineapple became a symbol of opulence and royalty because of its scarcity. Pineapples were featured in paintings of kings, printed on linens and wallpaper, and even carved into furniture. Obtaining a rare pineapple meant the buyer had money and status — and for that reason, the fruit was also often featured decor at parties and events. Eventually, European botanists learned to grow pineapples in greenhouses and reduce their cost. But until the fruits were widely available, many partygoers in Britain would seek out a pineapple for just one night, renting the fruit for a fraction of its full price and sometimes even carrying it around at the party as the ultimate (uneaten) accessory.

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Carrots Weren’t Originally Orange

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Today carrots are practically synonymous with the color orange, but their auburn hue is a relatively recent development. When the carrot was first cultivated 5,000 years ago in Central Asia, it was often a bright purple. Soon, two different groups emerged: Asiatic carrots and Western carrots. Eventually, yellow carrots in this Western group (which may have developed as mutants of the purple variety) developed into their recognizable orange color around the 16th century, helped along by the master agricultural traders of the time — the Dutch.

A common myth says the Dutch grew these carrots to honor William of Orange, the founding father of the Dutch Republic, but there’s no evidence of this. What’s more likely is that the Dutch took to the vegetable because it thrived in the country’s mild, wet climate. (Although the orange color may have first appeared naturally, Dutch farmers made it the predominant hue by selectively growing orange roots — scholars say these carrots likely performed more reliably, tasted better, and were less likely to stain than the purple versions.) The modern orange carrot evolved from this period of Dutch cultivation, and soon spread throughout Europe before making its way to the New World. Today, there are more than 40 varieties of carrots of various shapes, sizes, and colors — including several hues of purple.

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Bananas Are Slightly Radioactive

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Mentions of radioactivity can send the mind in a dramatic direction, but many ordinary items are technically radioactive — including the humble banana. Radioactivity occurs when elements decay, and for bananas, this radioactivity comes from a potassium isotope called K-40. Although it makes up only 0.012% of the atoms found in potassium, K-40 can spontaneously decay, which releases beta and gamma radiation. That amount of radiation is harmless in one banana, but a truckload of bananas has been known to fool radiation detectors designed to sniff out nuclear weapons. In fact, bananas are so well known for their radioactive properties that there’s even an informal radiation measurement named the Banana Equivalent Dose, or BED.

So does this mean bananas are unhealthy? Well, no. The human body always stores roughly 16 mg of K-40, which technically makes humans 280 times more radioactive than your average banana. Although bananas do introduce more of this radioactive isotope, the body keeps potassium in balance (or homeostasis), and your metabolism excretes any excess potassium. A person would have to eat many millions of bananas in one sitting to get a lethal dose (at which point you’d likely have lots of other problems).

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Cheese Is the World’s Most-Stolen Food

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Each year, about 4% of the world’s cheese supply is stolen — making it the most-stolen food in the world. Cheese, after all, is big business: Global sales exceeded $114 billion in 2019. In Italy, Parmesan is so valuable it can be used as loan collateral, according to CBS News. Consequently, the black market for cheese is thriving. From 2014 to 2016, organized crime was responsible for stealing about $7 million of Parmesan. And dairy-based crime definitely isn’t limited to Italy: In 2009, a duo of cheese thieves in New Zealand led police on a high-octane car chase — and tried to throw off the pursuit by tossing boxes of cheddar out the window.

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The Ancient Romans Thought Eating Butter Was Barbaric

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Our friends in ancient Rome indulged in a lot of activities that we would find unseemly today — including and especially gladiators fighting to the death — but they drew the line at eating butter. To do so was considered barbaric, with Pliny the Elder going so far as to call butter “the choicest food among barbarian tribes.” In addition to a general disdain for drinking too much milk, Romans took issue with butter specifically because they used it for treating burns and thus thought of it as a medicinal salve, not a food.

The Greeks also considered the dairy product uncivilized, and “butter eater” was among the most cutting insults of the day. In both cases, this can be partly explained by climate — butter didn’t keep as well in warm southern climates as it did in northern Europe, where groups such as the Celts gloried in their butter. Instead, the Greeks and Romans relied on olive oil, which served a similar purpose.

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Sweet Potatoes Aren’t Potatoes

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Sweet potatoes and common potatoes share part of a name and the spotlight at Thanksgiving meals, but the two are entirely different plants — and sweet potatoes aren’t even potatoes. While both root vegetable species are native to Central and South America, they’re classified as unrelated. Sweet potatoes belong to the Convolvulaceae family, a group of flowering plants that’s also called the morning glory family. Potatoes belong to the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, and are cousins to peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. Both species get their name from an Indigenous Caribbean term, batata, which eventually morphed into the English “potato.” By the 1740s, “sweet” was added to the orange-fleshed tuber’s name to differentiate the two root crops.

Meanwhile, yams are biologically unrelated to either sweet potatoes or common potatoes. These tubers belong to the Dioscoreacea family, a group of flowering plants usually cultivated in tropical areas. Luckily, you don’t have to know their scientific classification to distinguish between the two non-spuds at the grocery store: Sweet potatoes have tapered ends and relatively smooth skin, while true yams are generally larger with rough bark and a more cylindrical shape. At most U.S. grocery stores, what you’re seeing labeled as a yam is probably actually a sweet potato.

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Nutmeg Is a Hallucinogen

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Today, nutmeg is used in the kitchen to add a little zing to baked goods and cool-weather drinks, though at various times in history it’s been used for fragrance, medicine … and its psychotropic properties. That’s possible thanks to myristicin, a chemical compound found in high concentrations in nutmeg, but also produced in other foods like parsley and carrots. Myristicin is able to cause hallucinations by disrupting the central nervous system, causing the body to produce too much norepinephrine — a hormone and neurotransmitter that transmits signals among nerve endings. While the idea of conjuring illusions of the mind might sound intriguing, nutmeg intoxication also comes with a litany of unpleasant side effects, including dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, and heart palpitations, so don’t try this at home.

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Honey Never Expires

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As long as it’s stored properly, honey will never expire. Honey has an endless shelf life, as proven by the archaeologists who unsealed King Tut’s tomb in 1923 and found containers of honey within it. After performing a not-so-scientific taste test, researchers reported the 3,000-year-old honey still tasted sweet.

Honey’s preservative properties have a lot to do with how little water it contains. Some 80% of honey is made up of sugar, with only 18% being water. Having so little moisture makes it difficult for bacteria and microorganisms to survive. Honey is also so thick, little oxygen can penetrate — another barrier to bacteria’s growth. Plus, the substance is extremely acidic, thanks to a special enzyme in bee stomachs called glucose oxidase. When mixed with nectar to make honey, the enzyme produces gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, byproducts that lower the sweetener’s pH level and kill off bacteria. In most cases, honey can be safely stored for years on end — just make sure it’s in a sealed container (and check out these five other foods that almost never expire).

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Misting Produce Is a Clever Way To Make You Buy More

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Many grocery stores display produce in open cases fitted with tiny jets to periodically bathe the veggies in a cool mist. (Some supermarkets even pipe in the sound of thundering rain to add to the rainy vibe.) The purpose behind misting is not to keep produce clean or extend its shelf life — it’s a clever way for grocers to make the fruits and vegetables look fresher and healthier so consumers purchase more. Water clinging to leafy greens also adds weight, which increases revenue for the store when vegetables are sold by the pound.

Ironically, misting actually shortens produce’s shelf life because water allows bacteria and mold to take hold. Misted veggies will likely not last as long in your fridge as those that weren’t misted in the produce aisle — which is another, perhaps sneakier, way to get you to buy produce more often.

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Plant Milks Have Been Around for 5,000 Years

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For years, dairy producers have sued alternative milk companies for using the word “milk” on their packaging — but history is not on their side. Evidence suggests that Romans had a complex understanding of the word “milk,” as the root of the word “lettuce” comes from “lact” (as in “lactate”). Many medieval cookbooks make reference to almond milk, and the earliest mention of soy milk can be found on a Chinese stone slab from around the first to third century CE. However, coconut milk has the longest history; archaeologists have recovered coconut graters among relics from Madagascar and Southeast Asia that date back to around 3000 to 1500 BCE.

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“Continental Breakfast” Is a British Term for Breakfast on the European Continent

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Many hotels offer guests a free “continental” breakfast with their stay, but what exactly makes a breakfast “continental”? The term originated in the mid-19th century in Britain as a way to distinguish the hearty English breakfast — typically consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, and beans — from the lighter fare found in places like France and other Mediterranean countries in continental Europe. It typically consists of pastries, fruits, toast, and coffee served buffet-style. As American breakfasts also tended to feature outsized helpings of protein and fruits, the “continental” moniker proved useful for hotels on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

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Chickens Might Be Among the Closest Living Relatives of the Tyrannosaurus Rex

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Dinosaurs still live among us — we just call them birds. Today, scientists consider all birds a type of dinosaur, descendants of creatures who survived the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period. And yes, that even includes the chicken. In 2008, scientists performed a molecular analysis of a shred of 68 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex protein, and compared it to a variety of proteins belonging to many different animals. Although proteins from alligators were relatively close, the best match by far belonged to ostriches — the largest flightless birds on Earth — and the humble chicken.

Following the initial 2008 study, further research has proved that a chicken’s genetic lineage closely resembles that of its avian dinosaur ancestors. Scientists have even concluded that a reconstruction of T. rex’s chromosomes would likely produce something similar to a chicken, duck, or ostrich. Meanwhile, some archaeological evidence supports an idea that the earliest human-raised chickens may not have been eaten, but instead revered and possibly even used as psychopomps, aka animals tasked with leading the deceased to the afterlife.

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Botanically speaking, a nut is a fruit with a hard shell containing a single seed. The true nuts you might encounter in the produce aisle include hazelnuts and chestnuts. Many of the products sold as “culinary nuts” belong to other botanical classifications. Cashews, almonds, and pistachios are drupes, a type of fruit with thin skin and a pit containing the seed. (Peaches, mangos, cherries, and olives are also drupes.) And the jury is still out on whether walnuts and pecans fall into the nut or drupe category since they have characteristics of both. Some botanists call them drupaceous nuts.

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Tomatoes Have More Genes Than Humans

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We humans have somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 genes — a sizable number to be sure, but still considerably fewer than the 31,760 in everyone’s favorite nightshade, the tomato. Though scientists still aren’t sure why tomatoes have such a complex genome, an emerging theory relates to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Around the time those giant creatures disappeared from Earth, the nightshade family (Solanaceae) tripled its number of genes. Eventually the superfluous copies of genes that served no biological purpose disappeared, but that still left a lot of functional ones; some believe the extra DNA helped tomatoes survive during an especially perilous time on the planet, when it was likely still recovering from the aftereffects of a devastating asteroid.

Humans, meanwhile, have two copies of every gene: one from their mother and one from their father. The number of genes doesn’t necessarily imply biological sophistication, but rather how an organism “manages its cells’ affairs” — simply put, humans make more efficient use of the genes they have.

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Gummy Bears Owe Their Shape to Dancing Bears

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In 19th-century Europe, it wasn’t uncommon to see trained bears frolicking down the streets in celebration of a parade or festival. Called “dancing bears,” these animals would skip, hop, whirl, twirl, and perform an array of tricks. Fast-forward to the 1920s, when German candymaker Hans Riegel was searching for a clever way to sell his gelatin-based confections to children. Recalling the two-stepping bears of yore, Riegel decided to make an Ursus-shaped candy called Tanzbär (literally “dancing bear”). The snacks were a huge success. Today, you probably know Riegel’s company as Haribo.

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Egg Creams Contain Neither Eggs nor Cream

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Foods tend to get their names from their appearance or ingredients, though not all are so clear-cut. Take, for instance, the egg cream, a beverage that has delighted the taste buds of New Yorkers (and other diner patrons) since the 1890s. But if you’ve never sipped on the cool, fizzy drink known for its chocolate flavor and foamy top, you should know: There are no eggs or cream in a traditional egg cream drink.

According to culinary lore, the first egg cream was the accidental invention of Louis Auster, a late-19th- and early-20th-century candy shop owner in New York’s Lower East Side. Auster’s sweet treat arrived in the 1890s, at a time when soda fountains had started selling fancier drinks, and it was a hit — the enterprising inventor reportedly sold upwards of 3,000 egg creams per day by the 1920s and ’30s. However, Auster kept his recipe well guarded; the confectioner refused to sell his formula, and eventually took his recipe to the grave. The origins of the drink’s name have also been lost to time. Some believe the name “egg cream” came from Auster’s use of “Grade A” cream, which could have sounded like “egg cream” with a New York accent. Another possible explanation points to the Yiddish phrase “echt keem,” meaning “pure sweetness.”

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