A Brief History of Food on a Stick
From Turkish kebabs in the middle ages to Jimmy Dean Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick! in the 2000s, food on a stick has defined cultures.
If there were a breakfast food that could be said to encapsulate everything the rest of the world hates about America, it would have to be Jimmy Dean Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick (or On A Stick!, as the packaging insists). Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick is a breakfast sausage that is enrobed in pancake batter and then deep fried to achieve maximum caloric potential. Its genius is that it manages to combine everything that’s “wrong” with American eating habits in one compact, sausage-shaped form—it is devoid of nutritional value, six grams of iron notwithstanding; its recommended method of preparation is microwaving; it looks vaguely obscene; and it’s on a stick.
As the exclamation point betrays, it’s the on a stick part that is the most important thing about Jimmy Dean Pancakes and Sausage; more important, even, than the deep philosophical debate over whether the batter coating should count as a pancake, singular, or pancakes. “Because everyone should have a little more fun in the morning,” the Jimmy Dean website claims coyly. But the good people at Jimmy Dean are right. Food on a stick is automatically more fun than food that’s not on a stick. It’s also more American. Case in point: the Iowa State Fair, where there are more than 70 different foods on a stick available, and where presidential candidates are legally required to be photographed with a pork chop on a stick in order to participate in the state’s caucuses. With its seamless integration of flavors and textures, Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick represents the apogee of food on a stick; the end result of thousands of years of stick-based culinary innovation. Let’s take a look at the other iconic foods that paved the way.
People have been cooking food on skewers for, unsurprisingly, thousands of years; in pre-Neolithic China, both cooking and eating were accomplished by the use of a single wooden stick, which would later become two sticks—the forerunner of chopsticks. But the first recorded use of the word kebab to describe meat grilled or roasted on skewers was in Turkey in 1377. From there, the kebab moved west and north with the Ottoman empire, spreading to South Asia, North Africa, and the Mediterranean coast. It would be the last word in food on a stick for the next five hundred years.
Frank Epperson was just eleven when he left a glass of water and powdered soda mix outside with a mixing stick in it—and came back the next morning to find it frozen solid. Patented in 1924, the Popsicle was marketed as “a drink on a stick,” with the double-stick version, which allowed two people to share a single frozen treat, peaking in popularity during the hungry years of the Great Depression.
1929: Corn Dog
Arguably the most iconic food on a stick, the corn dog, introduced by German immigrants in Texas, was originally stick-free. In 1929, it was included in a patent filed by Stanley S. Jenkins of Buffalo for a “combined dipping, cooking, and article holding apparatus,” along with meats, fruit, and hard boiled eggs.” The resultant food product on a stick for a handle is a clean, wholesome, and tasty refreshment,” the patent description concluded, blissfully unaware of the deep fried Snickers bars of the future.
1945: Porcupine Shrimp
Food on a stick came into its own as modish finger food speared on a toothpick. In the modestly titled Favorite recipes of a famous hostess, New Orleans society maven Daisy Breaux Calhoun noted that “a pretty way” to serve a shrimp hors d’oeuvre is to “take a small head of green cabbage and stick the shrimp on toothpicks all over it, like porcupine quills.”
At the height of what historian Harvey Levenstein has dubbed “The Golden Age of Food Processing,” the experts at General Foods, disheartened by the possibilities for innovation afforded by “normal” vegetables, created Rolletes, a nightmarish mixture of pureed carrots and peas frozen on a stick that could be easily warmed up and served by a busy housewife (1). Almost seventy years later, Bill Bryson would wax nostalgic about Rolletes in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.
2016: Breakfast on a Stick
Following the game-changing introduction of Pancakes and Sausage on a Stick in 2006, a new wave of breakfast foods on a stick has presented an existential challenge to our notions of what breakfast can be. See: yogurt on a stick, French toast on a stick, and muffins on a stick. As Jeremy Crutchfield, a concessionaire at the Iowa State Fair, puts it: “Anything you put on a stick usually sells pretty good.”