Hello, Snackers. Are these convenience foods or survival foods? Kinda both, if you ask me.
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It’s almost back-to-school time over here, which means my mind is drifting to notebooks, pencils, new teachers, first-day outfits, and my personal history of racing to the car while clutching a paper napkin wrapped around breakfast hot from the toaster.
For me, in my youth, that napkin-swaddled meal was a Pop Tart—usually strawberry-filled, and always a store brand version, which means they were not actually Pop Tarts, but that’s what we called them—which I ate while half-awake on the ride to high school, which started at the unfathomable hour of 7:15 in the damn morning.
For my kids, it’s Eggos, the name brand, because they refuse to touch any other versions. (“Doug have you tried—” Yes. We have tried every store brand.)
Point is, toaster pastries and toaster waffles are excellent things and I’ve been wondering where and how and when they originated, so I started doing some research. Here’s what I found.
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Any post about the history of toaster-related things is required to open with the quirky story tale of how the electric toaster was invented in the first place. Supposedly it was the creation of one Alan MacMasters, a Scottish man with sensational hair. Versions of this story have appeared in The Scotsman, the blog of a library in Delaware, a site cataloging great British inventions, and elsewhere. It’s all a lie—literally, someone just made it up and stuck it on Wikipedia, where it sat unnoticed for years, repeated as truth by lazy researchers. Input magazine writer Annie Rauwerda recapped the whole tale earlier this year in a long, fascinating piece on “the problems of circular reporting”:
For more than a decade, a Wikipedia article for “Alan MacMasters” told the story of a 19th century inventor of the toaster, complete with a photo and the tale of a drunken epiphany. According to the (now removed) article for Alan MacMasters, he lived from 1865 to 1927; he attended the University of Edinburgh; he studied in the Department of Natural Philosophy. It seemed relatively plausible. It had a handful of citations. But it was completely made up.
This—as regular readers know—is precisely the sort of thing I’ve found over and over in my food history research for Snack Stack. So much of the existing mythology turns out to be false, and it doesn’t actually take that much digging to uncover the messier, more confusing truth; it’s just that no one’s bothered to look deeper before, preferring instead to just keep repeating the that-sounds-good tales that are already all over the internet.
Which brings us to the history of the frozen waffle. As it happens, this invention is also usually credited to one particular person, a man named Frank Dorsa. Here’s one typical version of the story, from Epicurious:
In 1953, Frank Dorsa created a machine that cooked waffles as it rotated, then froze the waffles into what Dorsa called “froffles.” At a time when frozen foods were a mainstay for postwar American families, Dorsa's froffles fit right in with TV dinners and the rise of convenience foods.
Here’s Mental Floss with the same story; here’s Mashed; here’s The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. That last link is via Brian VanHooker at Mel magazine, who wrote an excellent history of the marketing phrase “Leggo my Eggo.”
To his credit, VanHooker actually did a bit of research and learned, as I did, that Dorsa clearly didn’t invent “froffles.” He found prior examples of frozen waffles, going back to 1950, and I’ll point you to several that existed even before that.
I was specifically looking for mentions of frozen waffles designed to be reheated in a toaster, which feels like a key part of the food’s journey to convenience food, no oven preheating necessary. Within these parameters, the earliest version of the product I could find was this ad from the Glen Falls, New York Post-Star in 1947:
Toaster waffles also got a nod in the Minnepolis Star a few months later in 1947 (and here I’ve included some additional context that captures the cultural moment, including a misogynist joke and and a note about a new trend of coffee vending machines)
Frozen waffles debuted in Des Moines and New York the same year, and in 1948, a company in Spokane earned a whole trend piece in the local newspaper, with the headline “Output of Frozen Waffles is Selling Like Hotcakes.” Food writing legend Clementine Paddleford covered prepackaged toaster waffles in a column in June 1948 (they came six to a pack, she noted). Weeks later, the New York Times reported on the trend and crediting a woman named Fanny Herrick with inventing the product—this may well also be incorrect, but if we’re going to wrongly let one person have the glory, it should be her, not Frank Dorsa.
By my count, there were at least six separate brands of toaster waffles—Chef, Herrick, Snow Crop, Lea’s, Nifty, and Cottage—and quite a bit of national coverage, before Frank Dorsa made his first “froffle.” But he’s the one who sold the idea to Kellogg’s and, presumably, earned the most money for the product.
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It was a big moment for frozen foods. “Swanson debuted frozen TV dinners during the 1950s, and the tagline ‘Just heat and serve!’ became a hallmark of convenience,” Caitlin Kearney wrote in a blog post for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 2016. “As more women worked outside the home—but were still assumed responsible for cooking—they turned to TV dinners that required little effort to prepare and serve.”
But while dinner preparation and entertaining get much of the attention in academic writing about postwar convenience foods and gender roles in the kitchen, breakfast was absolutely part of the story, too. This is also the time when prepackaged sugar cereals like Frosted Flakes were becoming “part this complete breakfast” in millions of households.
Frozen waffles were part of the same trend, helping busy families have a smoother morning, as Coldspot Freezers reminded consumers in this 1952 ad (which, again, predates Frank Dorsa’s “froffles” and indicates quite a bit of consumer awareness and market saturation):
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Right around this time, some genius thought to take prepacked breakfasts to the next level and created toaster pastries. A company in Abilene, Texas seems to have been the first to advertise frozen pastries, in 1955, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were intended for the toaster, which is what we’re looking for today. The key detail with the most familiar form of toaster pastries, come to think of it, is that they don’t need to be frozen.
This appears to be a case where the large companies really were the first to the market, because it took some serious R&D to make the product work.
I found a remarkable story by Steve Hymon, published in 1994 in the Chicago Tribune, about the cultural legacy of Pop-Tarts, on the occasion of their thirtieth year on the market. It was a long, splashy piece, on the front page of the paper’s Tempo section, diving into the product’s role as a “forever cool” snack and “a staple of ‘The Late Show with David Letterman’ (‘You know, kids, after sex enjoy a tasty Kellogg’s Pop-Tart’).”
Just fascinating stuff all around, but what most captured my attention was this section on the origins of toaster pastries as a product. It’s long but I couldn’t bear to trim out all the intriguing details.
In 1957, Post came out with a breakfast drink mix called Tang, which had many of the same ingredients as orange juice but could be stored indefinitely at room temperature. Not long after that, Post’s pet-food division came out with Gaines Burgers, a development not unrelated to the Pop-Tarts story.
Gaines Burgers were a novel concept because the dog food was semimoist but didn’t have to be refrigerated—a convenience many humans coincidentally sought in their breakfast food.
In 1963, the Post research and development department, using some of the same technology that made Gaines Burgers possible, figured out a way to keep fruit filling moist while inhibiting the growth of spoilage-causing bacteria. The obvious application: a fruit-filled pastry that could be shipped and stored without having to be refrigerated.
On Feb. 16, 1964, Post unveiled its new product, Country Squares. The food industry oohed and aahed; the business press buzzed; grocers waited expectantly.
But Post was slow getting Country Squares onto store shelves. “They kept fooling around with it in our labs,” recalls Stan Reesman, a retired Post food technician who invented the cereal Fruity Pebbles.
In September 1964, just six months after the public unveiling of Country Squares, Kellogg introduced Pop-Tarts in several test markets around the country. Reesman insists Country Squares were superior, but he says, “We could see the handwriting on the wall.”
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In just over one week, we’ll be back into the morning routine of school days, with Eggos in hand as we all shuffle out the door for drop-offs and meetings and whatever else is on the agenda. We’re not morning people in this house.
If we were better at getting up and moving, perhaps we could enjoy a more leisurely and elegant meal—say, a lovely spread of cut fruit and fresh croissants and blissfully creamy yogurt imported directly from un petit country farm in the South of France. But this is not the reality in which we live. Sometimes you just have to do whatever you can to keep going, and that sometimes is every single morning in a house with two young kids. So while I fully acknowledge that it’s not ideal to eat convenience foods for breakfast (our lunches and dinner are better, I promise), I’m glad they exist. No thanks to Frank Dorsa.
Want more snacks?
Snack Stack has also been (ahem) popping up in all kinds of other places!
Read my thoughts on state fair novelty foods in The Toronto Star
Listen to me talk about the history of the Minnesota state muffin on Minnesota Public Radio
Find me on the Smithsonian Magazine website on Monday, with a republished version of the recent state foods piece
On Wednesday, I’ll be joining Bill Oakley for a live chat about steamed hams for his Steamed Hams Society (for Patreon members only)
More coming soon!
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