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The enduring mystery (and appeal) of ants on a log
Hello, Snackers. In the last few weeks, several people have suggested I write about ants on a log, not realizing I covered them back in the early days of Snack Stack. So for today’s episode of Holiday Week Reruns, here’s an encore presentation of that post. I will say: IT IS BOTHERING ME THAT I CAN’T CRACK THIS CASE. I’ve solved a lot of food mysteries in this newsletter, but ants on a log are my very own Oak Island.
Also, all of this week’s posts are for everyone, not just paid subscribers, but we’ll be back to the usual programming next week.
Ants on a Log
Celery sticks with peanut butter (or cream cheese or another filling of choice, but usually peanut butter), topped with raisins. No actual ants (usually; keep reading).
Find it in
What’s the culinary equivalent of an Eames chair? Something from the mid-twentieth century, but never really out of style, even today; something with clean lines but also a clear sensibility and a sense of whimsy. What would that be? I humbly submit … ants on a log, the raisin-topped snack that’s been an after-school staple for many American kids since the days of “Leave It to Beaver.”
Which is to say: ants on a log dates to the middle of the twentieth century. But when, exactly, and where and how and who, is a mystery, even after much sleuthing by intrepid journalists. “The Weirdly Untraceable Origin Story of Ants on a Log” read the headline on a 2019 story in Food 52, and similar stories have run in The Takeout and Southern Living; even the damn Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink isn’t quite sure what to make of it, although it’s clear that “celery with stuff on it,” including soft cheese or a mayo-based filling, was very much a thing in the USA starting in the late nineteenth century. Over the years, various recipes and news stories have credited the Girl Scouts with the invention, but when The Food Timeline did the work and called the actual Girl Scouts of America, they said they had the recipe in cookbooks dating back to 1946, but no record of the name “ants on a log.”
Food 52 writer Mara Weinraub did pinpoint the first time this food was called “ants on a log” in print, which appears to be a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on February 15, 1959:
Anne Marie is working on snacks. Popcorn, cheese dips, and the other night, ants on a log have been some of the foods the family has shared.
Note the way it’s just casually dropped into the sentence—the assumption, clearly, is that readers are familiar with the dish. But that’s as close as we can get to an origin story. I also did some database and Google Books searches and couldn’t find any earlier references. [Update, December 27, 2021: Since this post was originally published, I’ve done an even deeper dive into the archives and … still found nothing in print before this.] So here we are, still confused to this day, until the inevitable twelve-part podcast goes deep and finally uncovers the truth.
In the meantime, please know that there are a million YouTube videos of toddlers making ants on a log while being filmed by parents who have clearly watched too much “Top Chef” and have dreams of attaining viral fame for their cute kids. You can picture exactly how those videos go, so instead I leave you with this video of Randy Travis singing a song called “Ants on a Log.” (Or here’s a ukulele cover.)
Get it here
This is very much a homemade thing, so you’ll have to assemble it yourself. (At least one restaurant, New York City’s Empellón, has done a version with actual ants.)
Pair it with
A juice box or oh wait do we have any Capri Sun, Mom?
Will you like it?
The Food Timeline: “Ants on a log”
The Takeout: Ants on a Log: “How did celery, peanut butter, and raisins become a snack time staple?”
Southern Living: “The Mysterious Origins of Ants on a Log”
This has nothing to do with ants on a log, but here’s one of the best food-related essays I’ve read in recent years, which considers the specific cultural meaning of modern steakhouses meant to evoke the “Mad Men” era.