Here are some food for thought: History Channel has one of the weirdest and most interesting docuseries around, and you’re going to want to add it to your menu for watching TV this weekend.
The Show: The Food That Built America. The premise: a spotlight on the “incredible real stories behind the brands you love,” according to its official login line, foods as specific as Oreos and Cheetos and as generic as hotdogs. The Experience: A fun, educational, and a little silly hour of TV that looks like Drunk History and sounds like [insert horrifying true-crime documentary here].
Granted, I’m late for the picnic. The Food That Built America has been around since 2019 – its Season 2 finale airs Sunday at 9 / 8c – which means I’ve been catching up this spring and summer. But what delicious homework! Each episode sinks into a certain area of American noshing; previous topics include Campbell’s Soup, Swanson’s Frozen Dinners, Kraft Singles, and Pizza Hut. And what I love most is the respect and seriousness with which everyone – from the music supervisor to the re-enactors to the talking heads – takes care of the subject matter.
Take, for example, in the episode “Gum Slingers,” which aired last week and which chronicled William Wrigley’s dominance in the chew gun market. A food historian commenting on the story says, without any irony that I can discern, “He was a little guy who made his way to become one of the kings of chewing gum.” Or gravity, in the McDonalds-vs.-Burger King episode, in which two actors contemplate a fry (see right). Or how narrator Campbell Scott absolutely sells this intro to the Oreo episode, which reads in part: “Two ambitious brothers join forces with a ruthless entrepreneur to throw cookies and crackers into the mainstream… until that betrayal tears them apart. Their fierce competition unleashes some of America’s biggest food innovations, revolutionizing packaged goods, and one final stab in the back spawns the most popular cookie ever made. The Emmy nomination window is always open, isn’t it?
Wait, I haven’t explained to you yet how low budget but serious the pageant segments are, giving them a decidedly community theater vibe. (Think about the story of drunkenness without the snark.) In the episode about Nathan’s hot dogs, I was 80% drawn to the story of how Nathan Handwerker transformed his booth from Coney Island in a national name, and 20% thinking I was sure I saw that one of the actors in the early 1900s flashback forgot to take off his Apple Watch before filming. And that only made the viewing experience more fun!
Most impressive, I learn something every time. thin. time. that I log into The Food That Built America. A century ago, crackers were sold in disgusting barrels! Nathan’s doctors hired doctors to hang out around the hot dog stand making people believe it was a healthy and nutritious meal choice! The process by which Kraft was able to make shelf-stable cheese was really pretty crass!
The end of the season this weekend is for “breakfast barons” like Will Kellogg, who developed a 5-mile-long conveyor belt to aid in the production of his cereal. “Five … miles of grain.” I can almost hear Scott singing now. Who knows what I’m going to find out about the humble cornflake? I can’t wait to find out.