Diner food is a staple in the U.S.A., but where do these iconic dishes come from? Find out the true history of your favorite comfort foods below – and prepare to feel hungry.
“American as apple pie“? Not quite. The earliest recorded recipe for apple pie appears in a English cookbook from 1390, but it really became popular during the 16th century, when sugar was more readily available.
Apple pie à la mode, however, is distinctly American. It was invented at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County, New York, some time in the 1890s. Professor Charles Watson Townsend regularly dined on apple pie with ice cream at the hotel’s restaurant, and one day a diner next to him dubbed it “apple pie à la mode.” When he went to New York City and supped at Delmonico Restaurant, he requested apple pie à la mode – which, of course, no one had ever heard of. Townsend made a stink, shaming the ritzy restaurant for not having a dessert that could be found even in a small town.
Funnily enough, a reporter was sitting nearby and overheard the exchange. Delmonico’s added apple pie à la mode to its menu, the reporter wrote about it in the New York Sun, and the dish has been a favorite ever since.
Meatloaf is an ancient dish, and has been enjoyed in various forms in ancient Rome, the Middle East, and Germany. But modern meatloaf as we know it today really came into popularity during the Great Depression. Cheap cuts of beef were ground, then breadcrumbs, oats, vegetables, eggs, and other cheaper ingredients were added to help stretch the meal. For this reason, it was popular during World War II as well. After the war, as women sought jobs outside of the home, meatloaf remained popular due to its versatility and the ease of making it.
Liver and onions has its roots in British cuisine. Liver, a relatively inexpensive cut, is often served with sauteed onions, which can help cut the metallic taste of the liver. Though liver and onions isn’t as popular as it once was, you can still find it in diners accross the country – especially in the south and upper Midwest.
The Reuben sandwich, comprised of corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, and swiss cheese on rye, is a relatively modern invention. Sources disagree on its true origin, however.
One story claims that Lithuanian grocer Reuben Kulakofsky invented the sandwich in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1920s. He and his poker buddies snacked on the sandwich while playing cards, and one of them added it to the menu of a hotel he owned. To this day, Omaha celebrates Reuben Sandwich Day on March 14th.
The other story has it that the owner of Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York City, Arnold Reuben, invented the sandwich around 1914. Supposedly, he created the dish for Broadway actress Marjorie Rambeau, who came to the deli around closing, when they were low on ingredients.
Either way, I think we can all be thankful that somehow, somewhere, the Reuben was created.
The sandwich originally consisted of a ground beef patty, caramelized onions, and melted cheese on rye or sourdough bread, which was then cooked on a griddle until the cheese melted. Today, tuna melts are are equally popular, and other fillings can be found too.
Corned beef became popular in the U.S. in the 1800s, when Irish immigrants, looking for an affordable substitute for the pork bacon they ate at home, settled upon Jewish corned beef brisket. Its popularity flourished, but corned beef hash is both older and more recent a creation than that.
Hash, a mixture of chopped meat, potatoes, and other vegetables, has long been enjoyed as a way to stretch meager meat portions in times of hardship. It was popular throughout Britain and many countries of Europe during the 18th century, and recipes for it have been recorded in cookbooks in the U.S. as early as the 19th century.
Corned beef hash really sprang into popularity, however, during WWII. Corned beef and canned corned beef were popular meat options as rationing made the cost of finer cuts of meat go up. Thrifty cooks would turn leftover corned beef from dinner into hash for breakfast. When rationing got even tighter, corned beef hash became popular for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Soon, it was a common part of the American diet, and today it’s enjoying something of a renaissance as even upscale restaurants often have some form of hash on their brunch menus. And for good reason – it’s delicious.
Justina Huddleston is a food writer living in Los Angeles. When she's not writing for Menuism or SheKnows, she spends her time in the kitchen creating both virtuous and decidedly junky vegan food. Buffalo chickpea pizza, anyone? She's also been known to eat a plain block of tofu or beans straight out of the can for lunch, but somehow those culinary adventures don't make it to her Instagram. You can follow Justina on Twitter or see what's cooking in her kitchen on her blog A Life of Little Pleasures.