The origin stories behind bubble gum, Big Macs, and Hershey Kisses and more.
Pennsylvania did not merely invent the polio vaccine and the Ferris wheel; it has also contributed to innovation in the American culinary arts. I’m talking about delicacies like bubble gum, the Big Mac, and the best drink named after a person (no, not the Shirley Temple or the Roy Rogers—the Arnold Palmer). Here’s a look at eight treats, snacks and entrees that originated in the Keystone State.
Chewing gum is not mere centuries old—it’s thousands of years old. The Mayans and Aztecs were known to chew chicle, produced by the sapodilla tree, and a 5,000-year-old piece of chewing gum made from birch bark tar and embedded with teeth marks was found in Finland in 2007.
But bubble gum in particular is less than 100 years old; it was invented in Philadelphia in 1928 at the Fleer Chewing Gum Company. Fleer had been trying for years to create a gum thin enough that it could be used to blow bubbles, but it was Fleer’s accountant, Walter Diemer, that finally cracked the recipe. Diemer’s original gum turned out a dull, non-appetizing gray, so he added pink dye to the concoction, as it was the only color he had on hand. And thus, the traditional pink bubble gum—soon to be named “Dubble Bubble”—was born.
This McDonald’s favorite was invented in the Pittsburgh area in 1967. Franchise owner Jim Delligatti created the double-decker sandwich to appeal to local steelworkers who didn’t feel full enough after eating a regular McDonald’s burger. But the top brass didn’t appreciate the experimentation; they tried to stop Delligatti from creating new menu items, including the special sauce.
He pushed back and, of course, management ultimately relented. You probably already know what happened next. By 1968, the Big Mac was in McDonald’s stores nationwide. In 2007, Delligati opened the Big Mac Museum, a small exhibit inside a McDonald’s in North Huntingdon, PA. Delligati passed away in November 2016 at age 98, but his legacy looks strong enough to survive for many years to come.
The banana split was invented in 1904 at a pharmacy in Latrobe, PA. Back then, pharmacies sold soda water, but once they began adding flavored syrups and ice cream to the soda, these drugstores became treat-selling social sites. David Strickler, a soda jerk at the Latrobe pharmacy, wanted to build a sundae that would attract the students from nearby Saint Vincent College. He sandwiched three scoops of ice cream between a banana which he split in half lengthwise then covered it all with more fruit, marshmallow sauce, and crushed nuts.
Other towns have claimed that they are home to the true inventors of the banana split—pharmacists in Boston as well as towns in Ohio have said they created a similar sundae around the same time—but all of these claims took place after 1904. That means PA is once again the top banana.
The Arnold Palmer
This classic drink—part unsweet iced tea, part lemonade—was a favorite of Pennsylvania golfer Arnold Palmer. While he may not have been the first person to mix the two drinks together, he may as well have invented it given that he popularized the mixture to the point that it now carries his name. Perhaps this started because he once ordered the drink at a golf course in Palm Springs, and a woman who overheard his order and thought it sounded good then asked for “an Arnold Palmer.”
Palmer also liked to order it in his hometown of Latrobe, PA, to the point at which staff at the Latrobe Country Club would reportedly get one ready for him as soon as they saw him arrive.
Back up, Maine. Other states may claim the confection called the whoopie pie…but readers of The Keystone know better. The two soft cookies with cream sandwiched between are definitely Pennsylvanian. Just ask The New York Times! According to the paper of record, “Food historians believe whoopie pies originated in Pennsylvania, where they were baked by Amish women and put in farmers’ lunchboxes.”
Of course, if you live in Western Pennsylvania, you know these little beauties as “gobs.” Whatever you call them, we should all be in agreement that they’re delicious.
OK, Pennsylvania didn’t invent the pretzel—that looks to have happened in 7th-century Italy—but the state has at least had a strong hand in the popularization of the modern pretzel in North America, thanks to the Pennsylvania Dutch, who brought the twisty tradition with them from Europe. The first commercial pretzel bakery opened in Lititz, PA in 1861, and the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery is still in operation today! In fact, Pennsylvania makes 80 percent of the pretzels sold in the U.S. to this day.
These distinctive milk-chocolate morsels were first invented in 1907 in—you guessed it—Hershey, Pennsylvania. The foil-covered chocolate cones were wrapped by hand, including the tissue paper “identification tags” inside the foil wrapper, before the process was automated in 1921 — but at least they kept the paper plumes we all know today.
In case you were wondering, the town was named after Milton Hershey — businessman, humanitarian, philanthropist and chief of the chocolate empire. The company now makes 70 million Kisses every day—each of them right in their honorific hometown.
Root beer gets its unique taste from the root bark of the sassafras tree, which is native to North America. Since before the continent was colonized, indigenous peoples have been using sassafras root bark to make medicinal teas. It was from these teas that root beer was first developed among colonists, and later sold in pharmacies to the American public. The mixture of herbs and soda water was one of a number of “small beers” such as ginger beer and birch beer — both also non-alcoholic — that colonists created from the limited supplies they had.
Initially, the drink’s fizz didn’t come from carbonation but from fermentation. It wasn’t until 1875 that Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires developed the first commercial root beer in the U.S. by creating a liquid formulation for a carbonated root beer beverage, which he introduced at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibition.