7 Famous Foods That Used To Be Totally Different

by JR Thorpe
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If you're a Nutella fan, you may have been outraged this week by news that Ferrero, the company's owners, have "tweaked" the famous chocolate-hazelnut spread's recipe (which is so popular in Italy that it's practically a religion) to involve more fat, more sugar, and fewer hazelnuts. Nutella purists around the world are up in arms, though it's unclear if the nutritional value or the taste of the product has had any real changes. But it's hardly the first famous food to go through some big changes in its journey through culinary history.

Many of the shifts in food are due to evolutions in taste and production. We no longer do as medieval eaters did and mix savory and sweet elements all the time, for instance, and we have the ability to make jell-o out of a box rather than by boiling pig feet for hours. But some recipes have been so appealing to our tastebuds that they've stuck around in some form for centuries or longer, even if virtually everything else about them has changed. Taste is a historic subject like everything else, and just because you can't see the food of the past in a museum (unless it's been very, very, very well preserved) doesn't mean it stops being relevant. Here are seven modern foods that have had exceptionally strange, or even gruesome pasts.

Apple Pies Once Included Meat And An Inedible Crust

Despite being one of America's signature dishes, apple pies are among the earliest recipes recorded in English in Britain, and modern lovers of pie à la mode would find them deeply inexplicable. A recipe for apple pie (Leshes Fryed In Lenton) is found in the earliest English cookbook, The Forme Of Cury, published in around 1380, and like many other apple dishes it's specified as a dish for the Christian period of Lent in which people fasted and cut out extravagance (and meat) from their diets. The 1380 recipe involves apples, dates, prunes and pears cooked with raisins, "flower of canel" (similar to cinnamon), mace, cloves, sugar, sandal wood and "good powders," which were cooked in an inedible pastry case called a "coffin." Yes, really.

Apple pies of this kind show up in cookbooks across medieval Europe, but sugar was very expensive, so they made up sweetness with everything from the spice "grains of paradise" (aka, pepper), to saffron, rosewater, and cream. When medieval Europeans weren't cooking apples for Lent, though, they put them in pies with meat; apple pie recipes have been found with meat, fish and birds as prominent ingredients. The idea of edible pie crust wouldn't turn up until many centuries later.

Wedding Cakes Used To Be Biscuits Thrown At People

While modern-day married couples face a huge variety of choices for their wedding cake, with fondant and plain sponge or fruit cake being the "traditional" choices, the European tradition of the wedding cake is actually very diverse and didn't necessarily involve cake at all. The ancient Romans seem to have broken bits of wheat cake over the head of brides to ensure fertility, a ritual that merged with other traditions in bridal rituals to become a kind of processional offering: layers of thin wheat cakes might be provided by guests at medieval European weddings, to be stacked in towers. A mock bridal festival for Queen Elizabeth I in 1575 records three young women carrying spiced wheat bridal cakes before the bride down the aisle, which seems much more fun than a bouquet.

The fruit cake we're most familiar with emerged as people shifted the cake recipe to feed more people and added dried fruit, a symbol of fecundity — but in the 17th and 18th century, brides enjoyed a delicacy all of their own. Bride pie was meant to help fertility, and the recipes are, to modern eyes, extraordinarily disgusting. The most famous involves rooster combs, oysters, veal sweet-breads, the palate of oxen, and offal from lamb, combined with a host of other ingredients and baked. Fortunately, depending on your culinary tastes, this was only ever for the very rich in English cuisine and has since died out.

Meatloaf Once Involved Animal Brains — And Was Eaten For Breakfast

The origins of meatloaf are debated, but the Romans definitely had several versions, all of which involved meat-scraps and leftovers bound together and molded; the Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes from the 4th century, has recipes that have a resemblance to modern meatloaf. Their version, however, calls for the scraps from hares and other animals to be mixed with nuts and eggs and cooked inside a pig's intestinal lining. These sorts of dishes were probably moulded into the shape of animals, which appears to have inspired a modern meatloaf dish in Eastern Europe called "false hare." Another Roman recipe involved cooked animal brains.

Food historians also note that once the meatloaf came to America with German immigrants, where it was thoroughly embraced, but had a slightly different place in the diet. A recipe from the 1870s instructs cooks to use whatever leftover meat they had along with milk-soaked bread and eggs, but the end product was actually meant to be a breakfast food.

Christmas Mince Pies Were Once Twenty Pound Monstrosities

Mince pies, or Christmas pies, are often two-bite nibbles for the festive season involving "mincemeat", which rarely involves any meat at all but is a mixture of candied peel and spiced dried fruit. The originals, though, involved meat in great quantities, and weren't exactly diminutive delicacies. From the 11th century, the idea of spicing meat for festivities entered England via the Crusaders, who'd been to the Middle East and brought back spices. It's suggested that the first mincemeat pies might have meant to represent holy subjects like the gifts of the Magi, but it's not clear. What is known, though, is that they were massive, often weighing up to 20 pounds.

While some modern mince pie makers include suet or chopped beef in their recipes, their versions pale next to the preferred meat of the 19th century: neat's tongue. Otherwise known as cow's tongue, a mince pie wasn't viewed as proper unless it involved at least one that had been boiled in broth for at least two hours and then sliced finely. If you couldn't get that, goose was acceptable, but tongue was the fashion for a surprisingly long time. Yummy.

Salads Were Sandwich-Esque - Or Thought To Be Poisonous

The history of the salad is a long one: the word emerges from the Vulgar Latin for salt in the Roman Empire, because the earliest salads were combinations of pickled or preserved vegetables (which would probably not look out of place on an expensive restaurant menu today). The Romans also loved covering theirs with vinegar, but as the Empire got more decadent, so did the recipes: Roman recipes for salads include a "bread salad" in which vegetables, sweetmeats and cheese were layered between coverings of bread and covered in a dressing of white wine, pennyroyal, mint, coriander, raisins and (of course) vinegar. Think "very wet sandwich."

But after the Romans, the people of the medieval period in Europe weren't very keen on the idea of raw fruits and veggies at all. The most famous of the medieval cookery books, The Boke of Kervynge, which was written in 1500 as a guide to cooking for the nobility, says, "Beware of green sallettes and rawe fruytes for they wyll make your soverayne seke.' (Beware of green salads and raw fruits, for they will make your master sick.)" They were thought to be cold, dangerous, and peculiar.

Marshmallows Were Originally Syrup

The fluffy modern confection beloved of marshmallow fans of today is a very long distance away from its first appearance in the culinary world. Ancient Egyptians made concoctions using the boiled elements of the marshmallow plant (the roots or sap) with added honey and nuts, a treat that was apparently restricted to the nobility. It was not particularly fluffy, but would probably have been good on pancakes. The modern marshmallow evolved in 19th century France, in which confectioners produced pâté de guimauve, made by mixing dried marshmallow roots with egg whites and sugar and solidifying them into a lozenge which was meant to help sore throats. However, the process of drying the marshmallow roots was so labor-intensive that producers substituted gelatin, meaning that modern marshmallows are in fact misnomers: they don't contain any real marshmallow at all.

Jellies Were Flavored With Fish & Animal Blood

While the Romans appear to have known about how to make sticky, firm substances from boiling the ears of animals (one recipe from Pliny the Elder involves bull genitals), it wasn't until the medieval period across Europe and Japan that the phenomenon of wiggly, form-holding jellies began to make an appearance on the dinner tables of the wealthy. They set them using gelatin from animals like pigs (though texts warned that this sort of jelly "cooled blood") or isinglass, which is obtained from the stabilizing organs of fish. These jellies were used to preserve meat and fish; one recipe for a fish-day feast, for instance, involved fish-flavored jelly that had been spiced with saffron and lavender before being poured over the fish to set.

While medieval Islamic foods seemed to restrict their jellying activities to jams and fruits, over in Japan in around 1660 the jellying properties of a seaweed known as kanten, also called agar-agar, were discovered and spread rapidly. But jellies on their own became a serious form of frivolity in the post-medieval period in Europe; jellies showed up flavored with animal blood and dyed black, covered in gold, and moulded into more and more elaborate forms. By the nineteenth century, jellies and "flummeries" (a gelatin-based milk dessert) were piling onto tables in huge, fanciful molds. They were definitely, by this point, sweetly flavored desserts, but savory foods preserved in aspic, a jelly of meat stock, were also very fashionable. It's not so long ago that a fashionable dinner table would have been entirely covered in jiggly, shiny food.

Foods may change, but when there's a good idea at its core, people will run with it for thousands of years. Hey, maybe today's food truck, gimmicky food-loving world could do with a bit of a historical food revival. Flummery and tongue pie, anybody?