Incredible Food Facts You Won’t Believe
Food is not just essential to our survival. It is an essential part of how we interact with the world. So it's not surprising that it has played a major role in history. What is surprising are the details.
You might be shocked to learn, for instance, that a milkshake was involved in a high-profile assassination attempt, that people were once paid to eat sins, and that one country used blood candy to stave off nutritional problems.
These are the weirdest, wackiest and incredible food facts.
Goats and Other Animals Have Been Used as Wet Nurses
Goat milk is used by some people as an alternative to baby formula when they can't breastfeed. But not too long ago, animals were used by many societies as wet nurses. As in, they directly breastfeed babies.
The practice has been used around the world at different times. Goats, for instance, were used in ancient Europe to supplement a mother's breast milk and in the 19th century as a sanitary alternative given the syphilis crisis.
*These food facts were gathered from "Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide."
Crow Was Once a Favored Oklahoman Dish
Eating crow is usually another way of saying "eating your own words." Why? Because they're both unpleasant experiences. Or at least that's what people think nowadays, but if you lived in Oklahoma in the 1930s, you'd probably think eating crow was mom's Sunday special.
Partly because of food scarcity during the Great Depression and partly because there was a crow invasion, the Oklahoma government, along with scientists, promoted crow as a good meal.
Eventually, the idea took on, creating a food trend that lasted until the prosperity of the 1950s came about.
There's a Town in Honduras Where it Literally Rains Fish
The Honduran town of Yoro has an annual feast where they celebrate by eating fish that fall from the sky.
Every year, the first major storm — which is always so harsh every resident locks up until it's over — fills the streets with fish. The locals collect them after the storm has passed.
There are several religious and scientific theories that explain how it could rain fish, but no one really knows why the phenomenon is possible.
The CIA Tried to Assassinate Fidel Castro by Poisoning His Milkshake
In 1963, the CIA tried to take out Fidel Castro by taking advantage of his famed love of milk.
The plan was to put a poison pill into a milkshake meant for the dictator. Everything was set into motion, but the plan was thwarted because the pill fell apart when the assassin tried to take it out of the freezer where it had been placed.
This was definitely not a Bond-esque plan, yet it was the closest the CIA ever got to assassinating the Cuban revolutionary.
Real Unicorn Horns Were Used to Test Food for Poisoning
Like modern heads of state, kings and queens of medieval Europe also had to worry about poisoning.
The most surefire way they could think to prevent it — other than having a poison tester — was to dip a unicorn horn in the food or drink they were about to consume and see if it smoked.
The coolest part about this fact is not that medieval people believed in unicorns, but that the horns were actually real. They came from the unicorns of the sea, narwhals, and were supplied by Vikings.
North Korea's Best Brewery Was Shipped (Yes, Shipped) From England
In 2000, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who is now deceased, decided that he wanted the country to have a national brewery. So he bought a 175-year-old English brewery and shipped it to Asia.
We're not even exaggerating. Kim's team actually packed every piece of Ushers of Trowbridge Brewery, shipped it to North Korea, and then assembled it. The brewery is still standing and is called Taedonggang Brewing Company.
Apparently, it makes the best beer in the country.
Chile Has a Beer Made With Fog
Hailing from the Atacama Desert region in Chile, Atrapaniebla is another unique beer. Except for this one you can try without feeling guilty about supporting one of the worst totalitarian regimes in the history of humanity.
The beer's name literally translates to "fog catcher" and is a pretty accurate description of how the brew is made. The people that live in and near the extremely arid desert mostly get water by capturing the condensation of the fog that sometimes spreads in the hills.
This water is used for many things, including making this beer. People claim that the rare water gives a unique taste to the brew.
The Knights Templar Really Did Live Longer. And it Was Thanks to Their Diet
If you're a fan of "Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade," then you should be familiar with the Knights Templar, a medieval order of Catholic knights fabled to have lived uncommonly long lives.
In the movie, the old night has been alive for hundreds of years. And while the real knights never lived that long, they did have a lifespan that was double that of males in the 13th century — though that lifespan was only 60 years, which is very low for modern standards.
So how did the Knights Templar manage to live twice as long as their peers? Historians think it was mostly because of their balanced diet, which included eating meat three times a week with fish on Fridays. Grains, eggs and dairy were supplemented for protein on days that were vegetarian.
Basically, your family doctor is right in their rants about the importance of a balanced diet.
Thailand Has a Monkey Buffet Festival
And, no, that's not just a cute name. It's an actual buffet meant for real monkeys.
The festival takes place on the last Sunday of November at the Phra Prang Sam Yot temple in Lopburi. The main event stacks a giant array of beautifully decorated fruits that the monkeys feast on until they're completely full.
Meant to bring good luck, the festival is inspired by a Hindu tale of the monkey king helping Rama, a deity, rescue his wife.
Ethiopia Is the Last Place Where You Can Find Wild Coffee
It is said that coffee originated in Ethiopia before it went on to conquer the world. While you'll find coffee farms pretty much anywhere the climate makes it possible to grow them, the only place left where you'll find wild arabica coffee is in Harenna Forest in Ethiopia.
The Manyate Coffee Village was established right outside the forest. Locals often subsist on gathering wild coffee and other sources from the forest. A visit to the village will earn you the true privilege of tasting wild coffee, a culinary rarity that is, sadly, at high risk of extinction.
Some Fishermen in Taiwan Use Fire as a Bait
Jinshan, Taiwan has the unique tradition of fire fishing, a technique in which a bamboo torch filled with sulfuric gas is dropped into the water on a moonless night. The fire draws small fish to the light, making it easy for the fishermen to simply cast their nets for a rewarding catch.
First invented by the Pingpu tribe, the technique is at risk of being lost in modernity. As a response, the local government began organizing an annual Jinshan Fire Fishing Festival, where people can see the visually impressive tradition.
Before Dunkin' Donuts, There Was Spudnuts
The first American donut franchise was one you've probably never heard of. Set up in Utah in the 1930s, Spudnuts reigned the American market for over 40 years.
And since you're probably wondering, spudnuts were exactly what the name describes: donuts made with spuds. Dehydrated potatoes, to be exact.
At one point, the franchise had over 300 stores, with some reaching as far as Japan. However, after a series of acquisitions and scandals, it closed for good in 1979.
There's a Brazilian Church That Is Made Out of Wine
Nothing proves religious devotion more than giving up your personal wine supplies to be used to build a church. And we don't mean to raise the money for it, but rather, to physically build the church.
This is what residents of the Valley of the Vineyards in Brazil did in the early 20th century. When a drought made water scarce, they had to stop the construction of the Capela Nossa Senhora Dad Neves church. But residents would not have it, so they donated hundreds of liters of wine to be used to make mortar to finish the church.
You can visit the beige-and-burgundy chapel and see its curious altar, which is made out of wine barrels.
The Soviet Union Used Blood Candy as Medicine
Let's begin by saying that animal blood is highly nutritious and an ingredient in many dishes around the world. So we don't fully understand why the Soviet Union had to mask the ingredient in colorful candy packaging rather than, say, simply promote eating delicious blood sausages.
For whatever reason, the fact of the matter is that in the late 20th century, the Soviet Union decided to combat health issues like malnutrition and anemia by prescribing a candy bar called Gematogen. It was actually a blood nutritional supplement, and the product was a hit, with kids happily taking it without even knowing they were taking medicine rather than eating candy.
The blood has been replaced by other ingredients now, but Gematogen is still pretty popular.
Persians Had Refrigerators As Early as 400 B.C.
If you think ice cream is a modern invention, think again. The Persians had their ice figured out thousands of years before electricity and fridges were a thing.
The ice rooms, called yakchals, use engineering to bring water from underground into a giant cone structure. Through architectural design and ventilation, the temperatures were kept low enough for the water to be turned into ice.
Sweet treats were made with this ice, but the rooms were also used to store foods that could easily go bad, the same way we use our fridges. You can still see some of these structures in Iran.
The Sandwich Was Invented in China
Rou jia mo, a tasty Chinese street snack that puts meat in bread has been around since 200 B.C. This makes it the oldest sandwich on record, a title that every other sandwich on Earth probably envies.
The U.K. Used to Have People Who Were Paid to Eat Sins
Sin eater was an actual job title in the United Kingdom at one point in time. These poor unfortunate souls would consume bread that had been placed on the chest of recently deceased people. The bread, it was thought, absorbed the sins of the person and passed them onto whoever consumed it.
Sin eaters were social pariahs since they were believed to carry countless sins. They also were paid very poorly for the ghastly job. And before you think this was a long time ago, sin eaters were popular in the U.K. from the 18th century to the early 20th century — that's right, the last known sin eater died in 1906.
There's a Fish That Can Make You Hallucinate
Salema porgy has been nicknamed the LSD fish because when consumed, the fish may give you strong hallucinations similar to those of the drug.
The fish can be found in the Mediterranean and the East Coast of Africa. Most of the time, it is completely safe to eat them without anything out of the ordinary happening. Other times, a part of the fish may take you on a multiday trip. And yet other times, the entire fish will contain the potent toxin that is responsible for the hallucinations.
Scientists aren't sure how or why the toxin appears in certain members of the species.
Pepsi and the Soviet Union Traded Sodas for War Ships
Here's another Soviet Union fun food fact. During the Cold War, Pepsi negotiated a monopoly on American soda in the territory and was paid in war ships.
As absurd as it sounds, this is a real bit of history. Since Soviet rubles could not be used outside of the USSR, Pepsi had to find different ways to get paid, often bartering for goods. In 1989, Pepsi was paid with 17 war ships, which it then sold to a Norwegian company for scraps.
In Malaysia, Oranges Are Used for Matchmaking
Since the 19th century, single women in Malaysia have celebrated the New Year by writing their names or messages on oranges and then tossing them in the water. Single men who are looking for a match, scoop the oranges out, and then try to find the lady who it belongs to.
Rather than losing popularity, the practice has spread throughout the country. Matchmaking is facilitated by phones and social media handles, which are what most people write on the oranges today.
Ethiopia Has Churches That Produce Holy Honey
Lalibela is famous for its astonishing rock-hewn churches, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The other major attraction of the region is the sticky sweetener produced by the Holy Honey Church. Since the fifth century, the church has taken care of a colony of bees.
Locals believe that the bees and the honey harvested from them are holy and have spiritual and physical healing properties.
A German Once Set Up a Coconut-Worshipping Cult in Papua New Guinea
August Engelhardt set out to Papua New Guinea in 1902 to establish the Order of the Sun. He and 15 other Germans formed the cult, which based its belief system on worshiping the sun and eating only coconuts.
Why coconuts is anyone's guess, though Engelhardt made many flimsy arguments about it being the actual flesh of Christ and the importance of its round shape. As could be expected, most of the cult members got sick after spending time eating only coconuts in the tropics.
Those that survived left the cult, except Engelhardt, who is thought to have continued his coconut-worshipping ways until the tragic end of his life.
Quebec's Biggest Robbery Involved Millions Worth of Maple Syrup
It's almost cartoonishly stereotypical, but between 2011 and 2012, a group of sleek smugglers pulled an Ocean's Eleven on the maple syrup reserve.
We're not even joking. The group stole barrels of excess maple syrup, smuggled them, emptied them and then returned them to their place. By the time someone noticed, about 18 million Canadian dollars worth of maple syrup had been stolen. Most was recovered, but part of it was successfully smuggled abroad.
If you ate maple syrup sometime in those years, there's a (slim) chance that it was smuggled in the Canadian Maple Syrup Heist.
'Fight Club' Sound Effects Were Made With a Raw Chicken
How do you successfully recreate the sound of someone getting punched without actually punching anyone? For a movie like "Fight Club," the sound effects team tried many things, until finally settling on a raw chicken stuffed with walnuts.
The effect, as anyone can attest, is very believable. We would've never guessed that a raw chicken was receiving the punches rather than Brad Pitt.
In Italy, Parmesan Cheese Is Used as Collateral for Loans
If you ever doubted how much Italians value cheese, here's proof.
In some regions of Italy, a roll of real Parmigiano-Reggiano (not the fake thing we all buy at the grocery store) is so valuable it is accepted as collateral by banks giving out personal loans.
And that's not where it stops. Interest rates are given depending on the quality of the cheese.
Tea Was Used as a Currency in East Asia
Just like Italians have their cheese, Asians have their tea. Beginning in the ninth century and up until the early 20th century, tea was used as actual money. Or, to be more precise, bricks made with tea.
The compacted tea bricks came in different sizes and had a value stamped on them. In this way, they were basically edible coins, kind of as if chocolate coins had real monetary value.
And let's be honest. It makes a lot more sense for money to be something useful rather than a random piece of paper.
Pad Thai Was Invented in the 20th Century by a Dictator
Pad Thais are popular inside and outside of Thailand. In fact, the dish may be the Thai food that foreigners know the most. That's because it's the country's national dish. You can thank military dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram for that.
When Phibunsongkhram overthrew the royal family and took power in 1939, he instituted a bunch of random mandates. One was that everyone was forced to love this new noodle dish called pad Thai.
The irony is that people do love the dish and have kept on eating it long after the end of Phibunsongkhram's reign.
Mao Forced Chinese Citizens to Eat in Communal Canteens
Sure, communal meals are always good for the heart and soul, but not necessarily when they are forced and when you have no other choice. To encourage a socialist spirit, Mao Zedong sent out soldiers into houses to destroy kitchens and cooking supplies. He then made communal canteens where everyone ate as much as they could.
If this sounds like a dream, let us remind you of the Great Chinese Famine that happened right around this time (1959 or 1961) and killed an estimated 30 million people from hunger.
Some have speculated that the canteen system played a part in the famine, given that people were not able to cook at home and that the traditional stockpiles used by farmers in times of scarcity had been made illegal.
Unsurprisingly, not many of the government officials who oversaw and ate at the canteens died of hunger.
There's an Oyster Vending Machine in France
No one loves their fresh oysters like the French do. This is why the owners of L'Huitriere de Re in Ile de Re had the genius idea of making fresh oysters available 24/7.
They made a special vending machine that dispenses fresh oysters at any hour of the day or night. We can't really see why anyone would need oysters at 2 a.m., but to each their own.
Athletes Used to Think Champagne Was an Energy Drink
Up until the mid-20th century, people, including doctors, thought alcohol was better than water for dehydration. Yes, less than 100 years ago, people still had not caught onto the fact that alcohol dehydrates you.
This wasn't great for everyday folks, and it proved particularly harmful to athletes, who turned to champagne and brandy for a mid-race pick-me-up. Olympic runners swore by the drink's benefits, probably because they were too drunk to feel pain.
We are glad to live in a world where we know a bit better.