The Awesome History of America's Favorite Junk Foods

The Awesome History of America's Favorite Junk Foods

Burgers, french fries, fried chicken, ice cream, and doughnuts – these American favorites have been handed down from cultures around the world. They might be deemed “junk food”, but that doesn't mean we love them any less! How much do you know about these beloved classics? From their humble origins to their modern-day record-holding heavyweight counterparts, these foods sure have come a long way!


The early hamburger is thought to have originated in Hamburg, Germany, from their popular preparation – a raw, chopped piece of beef. The origin of the very first hamburger as we know it today – a ground beef patty served between two pieces of bread – is disputed. However, it's generally accepted that burgers really took off when they were served at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

  • On average, Americans eat 3 hamburgers a week.
  • White Castle was the first company to mass distribute fast food burgers for 5 cents a pop in 1921.
  • Hamburgers account for nearly 60% of all sandwiches eaten.
  • The first drive-thru window was created by Wendy's in 1970.
  • The biggest hamburger ever served weighed 8,266 lbs. It was cooked in 2001 at the Burger Fest in Seymour, Wisconsin.

French Fries

Spanish conquistadors introduced Europe to Peruvian potatoes in 1537. It took a century for potatoes to gain popularity across the British Empire due to the belief that the spuds were poisonous.  When fried potatoes were introduced to the royal court of France, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, they gained whirling popularity and a reputation for being the favorite fashionable fare of aristocrats everywhere.

  • Americans eat over 16 pounds of french fries every year (more than 2 million tons!)
  • In 2004, 29% of the United States' potato crop were used to make frozen fries.
  • Thick cut fries with the skin on are potato wedges, without the skin, they're steak fries.
  • Thomas Jefferson served the first "potatoes served in the French manner" in the US at the White House in 1802.
  • Potato chips, an equally popular junk food in their own right, were invented in 1852 by disgruntled chef, George Crum, when a patron complained that his french fried potatoes were too thick!

Fried Chicken

Fritters, a precursor to fried chicken, existed in Europe since medieval time.  When cast iron cooking equipment become widely available in the 19th century, along with the increased worldwide production of hog fat, breaded, fried chicken also gained increasing popularity.  Fried chicken became an American staple after Scottish immigrants introduced it to the American South, where it reached new levels of influence and success.

  • Colonel Sanders was the second most recognized public figure in the world in 1979
  • Fried chicken accounts for more than half of all chicken entrées served in restaurants.
  • The world's largest KFC is located in Beijing, China.
  • The average U.S. citizen consumes more than 80 pounds of chicken per year.
  • "White meat" on a chicken is white because of the minimal activity of these muscles. "Dark meat" is a result of the chemical compound, myoglobin, which is needed for oxygen transport / sustained activity.

Ice Cream

Ice cream's origin goes back to 60 A.D. when emperor Nero ordered ice to be brought from the mountains and combined with nectar, fruit pulp and honey.  In the 13th century, Marco Polo learned of the Chinese method of creating ice and milk mixtures and brought it back to Europe.  Over time, it became a fashionable treat in Italy and France, and once imported to the United States, ice cream was served by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

  • Thomas Jefferson's favorite flavor of ice cream was vanilla.
  • During Prohibition, many breweries made it through by converting to ice cream shops.
  • The US produces 1.55 billion gallons of ice cream every year.
  • The ice cream cone was invented by Italo Marchiony in 1896 in New York City.
  • The largest ice cream cake in the world, built in May 2011 by Dairy Queen, weighs 10.13 tons and took over 100 people to create.


Modern doughnuts have two possible origins.  Some believe doughnuts come from the Netherlands in their tradition of sweetened cakes fried in oil.  However, American-born Hansen Gregory claims to have invented the ring-shaped doughnut in 1847 , having grown dissatisfied with the greasiness and raw dough centers of traditional doughnuts.  Either way, these sweet treats became a thoroughly American standard by the mid-19th century and retain their popularity today.

  • At the 1934 Chicago World's Fair, doughnuts were billed as "the hit food of the Century of Progress."
  • Petrified fried cakes with holes in them in prehistoric Native American ruins, suggesting that doughnuts have been invented more than once.
  • Glazed doughnuts are the most popular doughnuts in the US today.
  • Legend has it that dunking donuts first became a trend when actress Mae Murray accidentally dropped a donut into her coffee while dining at Lindy’s Deli on Broadway in New York City.
  • During WWI, countless donuts were served to soldiers by female volunteers in an attempt to give the soldiers a taste of home.

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Photo credits (top to bottom): Honest Cooking, What We Love Most, Ultra Clay, Family Style Food, and Lemon Drops Foodie