Eat snacks! Get lost!
If you’d like to read some Greatest Hits, scroll to the bottom of this post or click the little footnote link at the end of this sentence.1
Snack Stack is a curiosity-filled newsletter about the cultural history of snacks around the world.
It’s food writing but it’s also for anyone with a deep curiosity and a love of getting lost and exploring new places and going down rabbit holes of history and culture.
Posts draw on everything from dense academic research to scanned newspapers from the 1800s to goofy YouTube videos—I condense the best stuff into a thoughtful package just for you. It’s smart, it’s intriguing, and sometimes it’s a little bit off-the-wall. If podcast comparisons help, think of it as Radiolab or 99 Percent Invisible or Song Exploder … but for snacks.
Each email focuses on one specific snack, celebrating it on its own terms but also considering it as a lens into larger and more complicated stories like cultures intersecting (bunny chow in South Africa, patties in Jamaica, dorayaki in Japan), sociological studies of teenagers (an interview with a groundbreaking researcher who examined illicit snack sales in high schools), moral panics (the alcoholic soda Chelsea, Pop Rocks, goldfish-swallowing), or decades-old mysteries I’m pretty sure I solved (six-foot-long sandwiches, string cheese, seven-layer dip).
About the snack fan who writes it
Snack Stack is a one-man publication run by me, Doug Mack, a travel and food writer whose byline you may have seen in places like The New York Times, Slate, or Travel + Leisure.
My most recent book is The Not-Quite States of America (W.W. Norton, 2017), a history-rich travelogue about the U.S. territories/colonies, which Smithsonian named one of top ten travel books of the year. I have a degree in American Studies and a nerdy, often obsessive interest in history, sense of place, the inner workings of culture, and how little things can tell a big story if you look closely.
I live in Minneapolis with my wife and two daughters; you can read more about me at my main website or find me on Twitter, where I often post about snacks, parenting, life in the Midwest, and random other things.
How it works
Fresh snacks drop every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. (Sometimes the posts are on more of a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule, depending on what else is going on in my life. I have a day job and young kids, so the calendar gets full. 🤷♂️)
The midweek post is always free and public. It’s usually a deep (DEEP) dive into the history of an American snack or a snack-adjacent topic, with lots of original research and reporting and sometimes a bit of personal essay or cultural commentary.
Paid subscribers get an additional two posts per week, which are a delicious platter of small bites: brief introductions to lesser-known snacks around the world (and their histories), spin-the-globe Google Maps quests for snack stories on random side streets, or themed round-ups of intriguing snack stories from around the internet. I try to keep it eclectic and interesting, mixing savory and sweet and spicy and impossible-to-categorize.
*PUBLIC RADIO VOICE*
Snack Stack is funded entirely by support from readers like you. It requires many hours of research, writing, and reporting, along with resources like newspaper database subscriptions and books used for research. If you enjoy the newsletter, please chip in to help me continue this work.
A paid subscription is just $5 per month (or $52 per year), which is a lot less than you spend on actual snacks.
People really like Snack Stack (and you will, too!)
Open rates are typically in the range of 55 percent to 65 percent, way higher than most newsletters. Snack Stack has also been featured in all kinds of places (like The Kitchn and Adventure Journal) and was chosen for the highly selective Substack Food Writers Intensive fellowship.
Frequently Asked Questions
Snacks are joy. Everyone loves them and everyone snacks in different ways and that’s pretty cool. They’re the ultimate comfort food, something you turn to again and again to get you through the day, essential not because they provide sustenance but because they offer familiarity and satisfaction.
Snacks are a low-key wonder. You probably don’t think about them too much, but if you do stop and look a little deeper, there’s usually a riveting tale. I mean, at this very moment, Hollywood is working on a movie about the origin of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which turns out to be a whole complicated, contentious thing.
Snacks are highly specific to places and cultures, building on beloved flavors and ingredients—they’re localized populism in a ready-to-eat format. Right now, around the world, there are countless people munching on chapulines, prawn crisps, cokodok, poffertjes, Little Debbie Mini Panda Donuts, and a thousand other things crispy and gooey and sweet and savory and curiously tangy. Snack Stack is your introduction and a teeny-tiny window into places and cultures you might not know much about—and, for the snacks you do know and eat regularly, it offers a fresh perspective by way of the deep-dive backstory.
Snacks provide a break from the bustle of life, and I want this newsletter to serve the same function.
Are these, like, normal snacks or ~weird~ ones?
You’ll know some snacks and others will be new to you or might find not your personal tastes. But you will not see the words “weird,” “bizarre,” “exotic” (ugh), or anything like that here. What’s odd to one person is usually a mundane fact of life to other people—it’s all subjective and dependent on what you’re used to, and that variation is good and delightful and worth understanding and appreciating.
What do you consider a “snack,” exactly?
We use a broad definition, one that includes packaged corporate products, things you prepare yourself at home, and foods you buy from a street vendor. It’s less about the serving size or format than an informal vibe—snacks are typically finger food and usually represent a pause in your day rather a more planned, formal meal.
Is any of this sponsored content?
Absolutely not. I do not accept money or products or any other compensation from the makers of the snacks I write about. It’s seriously just whatever I think is interesting on a given day.
What’s your favorite snack?
Tortilla chips and maybe a good salsa, something with a real kick.
How about you? What's your favorite snack, or one that has special meaning to you? I’d love to hear about it—or any story ideas, suggestions, feedback, or just a quick hello.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
These are some of my own favorites and a good place to start if you’re new here.
Some notes on anxiety and parenting during a pandemic, by way of a personal history of microwave nachos.
I started investigating a mystery about strawberry bon-bons—and in the process of solving it, I found a long-forgotten candy-based courtship ritual that was once common across the USA.
It’s everywhere in the Midwest but often maligned outside the region. But what’s the history of this specific way of slicing pizza? My research revealed new and intriguing parts of the story.
A cultural history and a consideration of the stories we tell ourselves about food—and why it’s important to realize that we sometimes get those stories wrong.
A reader asked me to look into the history of an obscure Boston-area regional specialty. It turned out to be a tangled tale of colonialism, assimilation, appropriation, and the origins of Chinese-Polynesian food in midcentury America.
Why do so many high school students sell snacks and candies to their peers? And why do schools prohibit this entrepreneurship? I spoke to a researcher who conducted an intensive study in one Chicago-area school.
In Lonavala, India, amidst the celebrity wax museums and water parks, one tourist treat is ubiquitous: a type of peanut brittle called chikki.
How one Welsh snack led to the invention of many much more popular foods in the USA.
In the early 1980s, gummi bears and gummi worms arrived in the USA at the same time—and the latter changed candy as we know it, in ways that haven’t been pieced together before.
As an experiment, I tried spinning the globe and finding a snack bar at random, to see if the foods for sale told a deeper story. They sure did, in ways I never expected.
For decades, a mystery has persisted in the world of sandwiches: Which of two competing brothers invented the six-foot-long party hero? It’s an issue that tore their family apart, leading to lawsuits and endless acrimony. I dug deep in the archives and found the answer.
What can sprayable cheese tell us about the overlap between gender politics and food in the USA? A lot, it turns out.