Keeping It In The Family

In researching the history of the ice cream cone, I came across the remarkable story of two brothers who’ve been credited with creating the hamburger, a peanuts-and-popcorn snack à la Cracker Jack and the ice cream cone.

While many have said each was their idea, corroborating sources suggest brothers Frank and Charles Menches could make a rightful claim. That’s because the Menches brothers were traveling concessionaires who started working the fair circuit in the late 19th century. Back in 1885, Frank and Charles were selling ground pork sandwiches. But when they arrived in upstate New York for the Erie County Town Fair, the local butcher was unable to provide the meat they needed. As an alternative, he offered up ground beef, something that was rarely used at the time.

Having no other option, the Menches brothers bought five pounds of ground beef and returned to their stand where they proceeded to fry up some patties on their gasoline stove. Finding the beef to be a bland substitute for their usual pork patty, the brothers chose to season it with coffee and brown sugar. Yet despite its unusual flavor, this new creation became a surprise hit with the locals.

Of course, Frank and Charles didn’t limit themselves to sandwiches. By 1893, they’d moved on to the World’s Fair in Chicago. This time they were selling caramel-coated peanuts and popcorn, complete with a prize in the box. While their “Gee Wiz” sounds similar to Cracker Jack, Frito Lay contends the creators were different people — who were also coincidentally in Chicago for the fair.

That wasn’t the first time multiple parties at a World’s Fair said they were the legitimate creators of something edible. At the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, the Menches brothers were two of many who supposedly invented the ice cream cone. As the Menches family tells it, Charles was attempting to make waffle cups, but was having a hard time forming them without a mold. He then saw Frank using a sailor’s fid, a conical device meant to splice tent ropes. Inspired, Charles started using the fid to roll up his waffles as soon as they came off the griddle — giving birth to the ice cream cone.

By all accounts, the cone was a huge hit and as news of it spread demand soared. So much so that many companies were rushing to produce equipment that made ice cream cones. Even the Menches brothers got caught up in the craze, returning to their native Akron to open the Premium Ice Cream Cone and Candy Company.

Whether the Menches were the true originators of all three — or just had the same ideas at the same time as others — I was impressed that they came up with so many iconic foods. It’s quite amazing to be responsible for a first, much less three.

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About Chris Boyles

I eat. My words.
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