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The Rise and Fall of the Rice Cake, America’s One-Time Favorite Health Snack

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For many American children of the ’80s and ’90s, rice cakes — stacked in a column and kept in long plastic bags — were an omnipresent feature of home kitchens, preschools, and afterschool programs. I can’t remember the first time I held one, but I also can’t remember a time before I did. Palm-sized disks, they’re the same weight as styrofoam with a scant sprinkle of flavor crystals, salt or maybe cinnamon, dusting the top and coating the crevices between each grain of puffy rice. No matter the flavor, they lack marshmallow stickiness and cloying sweetness of Rice Krispies treats, as well as the bake-sale appeal. There was no right way to bite into a rice cake and definitely no good way to contain the stream of crumbs that rained down from the corners of my mouth.

There was, however, that pleasant, satisfying crunch, like taking a chunk out of a perfectly crisp apple, and that miniscule bit of toasted, sometimes sweet, sometimes salty, flavor mixed in with a slurry of desiccated rice matter. It was interesting enough to take down the whole cake, and maybe even dip into the tube bag for another, and another. After all, I was a hungry kid, and one of those suckers wasn’t going to satisfy my bottomless pit of an adolescent stomach.

It’s that feeling of being just on the border of satisfaction that made rice cakes such a staple in American households like mine during the late ’80s and ’90s. During that period of time, many kids like me became well acquainted with diet fads and foods, to the extent that we sometimes didn’t even realize we were snacking on them. All the adults around me seemed to be perpetually trying to lose a few pounds by going on the Atkins Diet or re-enrolling in Weight Watchers. George Foreman Grills whisked away fat and flavor from meat and chocolate cake-flavored Snackwell’s cookies and Slim Fast shake filled pantries. Rice cakes, for a while, were common in my household and something I turned to on the regular for an easy afterschool snack while waiting for my parents to get off work. I could polish off half a package in one sitting, completely defying any alleged dietary benefit.

Plenty of cultures have their own version of rice cakes, but we can partially thank a botanist named Alexander Pierce Anderson for laying the groundwork for the American rice cake as we know it. Anderson was working at the New York Botanical Garden in 1901 studying the water content of nuclei in starch crystals when, as the story goes, he “discovered” steam-puffed rice. Anderson marketed the product to Midwestern investors who bought into the idea, but eventually sold their shares to Quaker, a Midwestern company better known for its oats. He’d caught the company’s eye by demonstrating his rice “cannon” during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Anderson filled a cylinder with uncooked rice grains and sealed it off, heating the container while rotating it and increasing the interior pressure. When the time was right, he used a sledgehammer to remove the end of the cylinder, sending puffed rice shooting out like a cannon. Anderson and his team offered bags of the puffed rice to the crowd for a nickel a bag; they sold 20,000 pounds of puffed rice, according to the Minnesota Historical Society archive. Quaker used Anderson’s methods to make a variety of cereals and advertised it as “Food Shot From Guns.”

The rice cakes in my childhood pantry came from Quaker, but at the time there were several different companies competing in what the Chicago Tribune referred to as a “rice cake revolution” in 1986. They included brands like Lundberg Family Farms, Hain, and Chico-San. The latter was a macrobiotics company established in 1961 that got its start importing products like soy sauce from Japan and that eventually developed brown rice cakes in the 1970s — the prototype for the larger snack trend. Chico-San’s ads proposed trading bread for rice cakes and using the low-calorie rice saucers as a surface to support jelly, cottage cheese, fruit, and other toppings. By 1984, Heinz swooped in to scoop up Chico-San’s market share. One rice cake lover suggested to the Chicago Tribune that rice cakes topped with beans were better than tacos, a statement that suggests that person had never had a decent taco.

Similarly, representatives from Quaker tell Eater that rice cakes were first launched as “a low-carb alternative to bread” in the mid-’80s. The advertisements also seemed to target women and working mothers with fat-free snacks to be eaten at work, on the go, and while “kickin’ back.” Print advertisements for Quaker Rice Cakes from that period show thin, grinning models lying on their flat leotard-covered stomachs to emphasize the lightness of rice cakes. The message was clear: Eat this and look like these women. In 1992, the rice cake and popcorn cake market was valued at $174 million and growing. The following year, Quaker had bought out Chico-San from Heinz, solidifying the brand’s dominance as major purveyor of rice cakes with 63 percent of the U.S. rice and popcorn market, according to the Associated Press.

As for the actual health benefits of rice cakes, like so many other foods marketed as “better for you,” they’re really just that — marketing. Rice cakes, while low in fat, are also low in most other nutrients and may have less fiber than similar snacking options like crackers. The refined sugars in rice cakes are also digested quickly in your body, potentially leaving you hungry sooner. But none of that really matters if enough people buy into the fad.

But its popularity did wane. As the low-carb trends declined in the mid-aughts, so too did consumer appetites for blandly seasoned grain cakes. Even so, brands trafficking in rice cakes didn’t entirely die out. Quaker reports that it still produces 500 million rice cakes annually, and a representative from Lundberg tells Eater that the company produced 15 million bags of rice cakes (13 cakes per bag) last year. Speaking generally, the most popular flavors from both brands are lightly salted, followed by options like caramel at Quaker and Lundberg’s cinnamon toast.

Rice cakes have even seen a resurgence in their fortunes in recent years due partly to a surging interest in gluten-free foods. Whole Foods, for example, has a section of its cracker aisle devoted to organic puffed rice and popcorn snacks for the gluten-averse or -intolerant. While slightly spiffier, the advertising angle doesn’t seem to have changed much either. Companies like Rice Up still promote rice cakes as a whole-grain option for weight control. Lundberg reports that in the past year the company’s rice cake sales have increased by 14 percent. And, true to its diet snack roots, Lundberg rice cakes tend to sell best in January — right around the time people are working on their New Year’s resolutions by renewing their gym memberships and cutting back on the sauce.

Rice cakes aren’t going away. They’re merely changing with the times. Following the Everything but the Bagel seasoning trend sparked by Trader Joe’s, Quaker introduced “everything”-flavored rice cakes in 2020. Lundberg also touted recent innovations like the chocolate-covered Chocolate Thin Snackers and Organic Rice Cake Minis, a bite-sized version of the original product geared toward adults and kids crunching on the go.

Recently, I located some rice cakes in the aisles of my own grocery store to indulge the strange nostalgia that I had for a food that’s sometimes compared to dry cardboard. It was exactly as I remembered: a circle of airy rice grains smashed together into a remarkably firm plate. It felt like building material, but the kind that would disintegrate after a heavy rain. With each bite, my ears rang with that satisfying crunch and my mouth grew drier. All the downsides of popcorn but none of the good butter grease. And yet I keep eating them — and that’s the beauty of a successful snack, right? Eating it doesn’t necessarily bring contentment. It’s about the experience of the texture and the chase after just a little more of that wisp of flavor.

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The Eater Guide on How to Help During the Crisis

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Not all that long ago it seemed like if the pandemic weren’t exactly over by now, then at least the worst of it would be. But the summer didn’t make things any simpler. Cases continued to spread, and fires and hurricanes ravaged the West and Gulf Coast. As the weather turned colder, more states began allowing indoor activities and face-to-face school. As a result, the virus appears to be surging once more. It is increasingly clear that not only will thousands more Americans likely die as a direct result of COVID-19 by the end of 2020, but the mass misery of the economic devastation it has unleashed — suffering disproportionately endured by Black and Latinx communities — will not lift anytime soon. 

Benefits like the federal $600 a week unemployment expansion ran out or contracted for more than 25 million Americans in July and the federal government has failed to agree on the terms of a new aid package. Organizations that provide food and housing assistance to low-income people across the country, already strained by the last several months of the pandemic and the government’s appallingly incompetent — and at times malevolent — response, are scrambling to meet a tidal wave of need. As roughly 40 percent of restaurants on the brink of closing forever, programs that aid people in the food industry are also seeking further support so they can continue to provide assistance to worker who remain unemployed or underemployed. Groups representing Indigenous communities, undocumented immigrants, farmworkers, and people of color are also mobilizing to get assistance to marginalized people and lay a foundation for a more resilient food system — because while it’s an extraordinary time of need, it’s also not new. 

Hunger and poverty have always been the U.S.’s most shameful open secrets. Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, as of 2018 more than 13 percent of people in the U.S. lived below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau, while a full 78 percent of U.S. workers lived paycheck to paycheck. The pandemic and its economic fallout have put those statistics into ever starker relief, as the nation’s working class and its poorest residents have faced the largest health burden from the virus. Several studies have estimated that pandemic-related job losses and increased food costs have roughly doubled food insecurity in the U.S., and No Kid Hungry estimates that one quarter of children around the country could face food insecurity in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus. 

In this guide, Eater has identified a range of programs, organizations, and charities fighting hunger, developing sustainable food networks, and providing support to the roughly 31 million people who are unemployed or are working less than they’d like to be due to this global medical disaster. These are places that are stepping in to do work in their communities where governments and elected officials have left people behind. Collected here are opportunities for giving and volunteering in and around the United States and its territories, at both the national and the local level, as well as in the U.K. Editors have done their best to vet the charities included here, but it’s always important to make sure when you give money or time that the organization you’re supporting aligns with your values and has a transparent, proven track record. If you only have time or resources to give, give it, but monetary donations — especially those offered over an extended period — can be even more impactful because charities tend to know where the greatest need is. If you’ve chosen a group and aren’t sure what’s the best way to help, it’s worth reaching out and asking.

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Trump Teases an ‘EPIC’ Election Night Party at His D.C. Hotel Despite Capacity Limits

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Despite D.C.’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, President Donald Trump’s campaign has teased plans to host a party for election night on Tuesday, November 3, at the Trump International Hotel downtown. Fundraising emails from Donald Trump Jr. include details on a “sweepstakes” to fly a supporter to D.C. for a party described in all-caps as “EPIC,” “ELECTRIC,” and “INCREDIBLE.”

Under D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening restrictions, mass gatherings are capped at a maximum capacity of 50 people. Restaurants are still limited to half-capacity seating with no standing and no countertop service from bartenders. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says she wasn’t aware of plans for the party until Monday, October 26, Washingtonian reports.

The location of the election night party is unclear, but the opulent hotel has multiple ballrooms and event spaces. The hotel includes a location of celebrity chef David Burke’s BLT Prime steakhouse. Lobby-level bar Benjamin serves $23 glasses of sangria and $120 seafood towers. Nearby, more affordable pub Harry’s has already seen pro-Trump crowds openly flouting mask requirements and other protocols meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Trump has consistently downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. After he survived a case, Trump told Americans, “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

On election night four years ago, the recently opened hotel was the site of an impromptu and raucous gathering for supporters watching the numbers roll in on large TVs framing its gold bar. The controversial Pennsylvania Avenue hotel near the White House has been sold out for weeks on and around Election Day at rates going for $1,200 a night, the Associated Press reports.

The fine print in the sweepstakes notes the campaign can move the date of the trip and the location of the hotel stay at its discretion. The prize also includes a photo op with Trump. The supposedly randomly chosen winner, who is subject to a background check, will be responsible for all ground transportation, meals, and all other expenses during the duration of the trip.

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Eater Staffers Pick Their Favorite Instant Pot Recipes

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Now that we are over the sourdough-and-regrowing-scallions part of the pandemic, but in no way over the actual pandemic, we must prepare for The Hunkering. Every winter is a time for stews, roasts, and hearty pasta bakes, but this winter it feels extra important, both because most of us are going to be indoors way more than any previous season, and have completely lost the energy to do anything but throw a bunch of stuff in a pot. Which obviously means it’s time to break out the Instant Pots.

A few years ago it seemed like electric multicookers, especially the Instant Pot, may have just been a fad. But the fact that in one appliance you can cook anything from soup to pudding to bread makes it pretty ideal for cooking during quarantine fatigue. Eater’s staffers rounded up our favorite go-to Instant Pot recipes, perfect for the many nights when you’re in the mood for something delicious, but you know, wanting to do as little as possible to make it happen. And as Eater Dallas and Eater Houston editor Amy McCarthy noted, you could always go with “just some fucking chicken breasts,” and let the machine do the rest.


Beef barley soup: This is the first that comes to mind. It’s basically a textbook version of this classic soup, and perfect for chilly weather. It’s low-lift, reasonably quick to put together, and freezes well. — Missy Frederick, cities director

Dakbokkeumtang: I make this recipe when I’m craving a savory chicken dish with the volume turned up. All that delicious flavor comes from the sauce. It’s a perfect balance of sweet and spicy from gochujang and sugar. Doenjang and oyster sauce adds another layer of depth. Typically to make this Korean comfort dish, you would need to watch over the pot, making sure that the chicken pieces are soaking up the sauce. But everything is done in the Instant Pot, so the result is fall-off-the-bone, tender chicken with potatoes that just break apart with no effort at all. Also, who doesn’t love a dump-everything-and-press-the-button recipe?! — James Park, social media manager

Mac and cheese: I make this one once a week when I’m lazy and cooking sounds hard. I use whatever cheese is in the fridge, add a little brown mustard to the mix, and usually skip the milk or add it at the very end. Would suggest you grate the mozzarella or it becomes a blob. — Brenna Houck, editor at Eater Detroit

Chinese poached whole chicken: Basically, I get a whole chicken every week, and I got tired of roasting it. This recipe is a really easy — not entirely foolproof, but a good enough way to poach a chicken whole in about 40 to 50 minutes, with not too much work on my part. You can use it specifically as white-cut chicken over rice with, say, a ginger scallion sauce, but just as often I pull the meat off the carcass and use it for meals throughout the week. Two caveats: You really do need an instant-read thermometer to tell when it’s done, and I find it’s much better to salt the chicken 24 hours in advance (I use the method in Salt Fat Acid Heat), so it has enough taste. And after poaching the chicken and pulling off the meat, I often toss the carcass right back into its cooking liquid, cook it on manual for another 60 minutes, and end up with a bunch of chicken stock. — Meghan McCarron, special correspondent

Kosha mangsho: This is a traditional Bengali goat or lamb stew in a heavily spiced, yogurt gravy, and it’s intensely rich and comforting. This recipe uses a pressure cooker to save time, but on the offchance you landed on this page and don’t have an Instant Pot or the like, you can still just simmer it in a large pot. — Jaya Saxena, staff writer

Lemongrass coconut chicken: The sauce is unbelievably tasty for just a few ingredients and it comes together so quickly. The labor to flavor ratio makes it one of my go-tos when I get bored with cooking or can’t be bothered to put in much effort. It’s also great over rice or any other grain. — Brittanie Shey, Eater Houston and Eater Dallas associate editor

Basic chicken noodle soup: I make a basic chicken noodle soup in the Instant Pot probably every week in the winter: The base recipe is two chicken breasts, a carton and a half of broth, a few cups (I eyeball it) roughly chopped diced celery, carrot, and onion, and whatever spices you want. Cook everything together on high pressure for 25 mins. You can quick-release the pressure and remove the chicken breasts, and shred them — while you’re shredding, set the pot’s saute function so the broth remains boiling and add egg noodles. Once the noodles are cooked, dump the shredded chicken back in and you’re done! This is perfect because frozen chicken works just as well (and at the same cook time), and you can experiment with any leafy greens at the end (throw them in when you add the noodles) and any noodle types you want. — Erin DeJesus, lead editor, Eater.com

Pork chile verde: This recipe is very good; I found it last year when I had a truckload of tomatillos from my garden. It is a great comfort food and works well as stew or tacos. — Brenna Houck, Editor at Eater Detroit

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