You probably knew that the Cronut was created here in NYC, but you might be surprised to learn about a few edible inventions that hail from Gotham well before the age of social media–induced food frenzies. And, because we know that just reading about food will make you hungry, we’ve included the best places to find each one. From Italian restaurants’ classics to staples of the best brunch in NYC to the universally beloved best desserts, these foods are the products of different influences but never fail to bring people together. And knowing the backstories will help you appreciate the foods invented here in NYC that now and forever taste like home.
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Foods you didn’t know were invented in NYC
Spaghetti is Italian, and meatballs are Italian, but spaghetti and meatballs? That’s 100 percent American. When Italian Americans came to the States between 1880 and 1920, meat was actually cheaper than it was in Italy, so meatballs grew in size. Tomato sauce became popular because canned tomatoes were readily available in American supermarkets, as was spaghetti. A dish that was filling and cheap, the pasta became a centerpiece instead of a side dish like it was back home. And voila! A star is born. For a taste of the classic comfort food done right, head to Le Zie 2000.
Though this dish frequently shows up alongside other Southern soul food, fried chicken and waffles is actually not Southern! For this magnificent creation, we have to thank the jazz musicians who used to play at the 24-hour Wells Supper Club in Harlem back in the late ’30s. Playing shifts at odd hours of the night, the performers often missed both dinner and breakfast; chicken and waffles were combined to satisfy cravings for both. If your mouth is watering just thinking about that crunchy chicken skin, fluffy waffles and sweet, rich syrup, we recommend you head to 24-hour joint Amy Ruth’s. True to the dish’s origins, you can eat it in the wee hours of morning.
General Tso’s chicken
It’s true! You’ve been mistakenly calling General Tso’s chicken Chinese food when in fact, it’s practically as American as apple pie. This dish was the creation of Chef Peng Chang-kuei. Born in China, Peng fled Mao Zedong’s Communist takeover, settling first in Taiwan before landing in New York City. He had been tampering with the recipe in Taiwan, but it was only to please the American palette that it became as sweet as it is today. If you want to try a version that’s higher quality than your average Chinese takeout joint, sample the General Tso’s at Uncle Ted’s Modern Chinese Cuisine. 163 Bleecker St (212-777-1395, uncletedsnyc.com)
The claim to the original eggs Benedict is split between two rival NYC restaurants. One story credits the culinary creation to the chef of Delmonico’s, Charles Ranhofer, who wrote in his cookbook that it was he who invented the dish in 1860. The other story is that Wall Street stockbroker Lemuel Benedict walked into the Waldorf Astoria hungover one morning in 1904 and randomly ordered the dish to alleviate his hangover. Allegedly, the novel combination of ingredients so charmed hotel maître d’ Oscar Tschirky, formerly of—wait for it—Delmonico’s, that he then added it to the hotel’s breakfast menu. Either way, we’re glad it was invented. A delicious serving of eggs Benedict can be found at the very cozy brunch spot Tartine.
English muffins are actually (surprise!) not English. Instead, like General Tso’s chicken, they are the invention of an immigrant, in this case Samuel Bath Thomas, who came to the U.S. in 1874 and opened a bakery. Not actually muffins, they were originally called “toaster crumpets” and later became a crucial ingredient in another NYC food invention—eggs Benedict. We’re willing to bet you’ve only had store-bought English muffins, but you can try delicious sandwiches from the GoGo Grill food truck made on English muffins they actually bake themselves. 10-30 Canyon of Heroes, (646-425-1905, thegogogrill.com)
The aforementioned Chef Charles Ranhofer of the famous Delmonico’s restaurant cooked up this frozen dessert to celebrate the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in the 1860s. Made of ice cream and cake and topped with a warm, caramelized meringue dome, it was originally named the Alaska-Florida for its combination of hot and cold, but the name was later changed to baked Alaska. For this one, why not go straight to the source and try it from Delmonico’s itself—it’s still around and open for business today!
In addition to eggs Benedict and of course the Waldorf salad, the Waldorf Astoria is also responsible for red velvet cake, formerly known as the Waldorf cake. Legend has it that a woman visiting from the West Coast was so taken with the cake that once she got back home, she wrote to the chef asking for the recipe. He obliged and also sent along a surprise bill for $350, the price of his intellectual property. Enraged, the woman disseminated the recipe to get revenge. Of course, the more people learned of it, the more popular it became. Today, at Two Little Red Hens, you can taste fluffy red velvet cake beneath a layer of perfectly thick cream cheese frosting.
The tricolor cookies (or rainbow cookies or Napoleon cookies) that you find in every Italian bakery are neither Italian nor really a cookie. They were invented from scratch by the Italian-American community in the 1900s as a tribute to the motherland. Thin layers of dark chocolate sandwich a dense almond-paste cake dyed in the colors of the Italian flag, each color separated by a layer of jam. La Bella Ferrara has the perfect, not-too-dense rainbow cookie, along with other delicious, authentic Italian pastries and cookies. 108 Mulberry St (212-966-7867)
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Veronica