I try not to think of celery too much, except chopped up in tiny pieces for mirepoix or in less tiny pieces to add crunch to a salad. Or maybe that experiment you had to do back in grade school where you stood stalks of celery leaves-up in glasses of colored water to show how plants absorb water.
But in the course of the past week, Ants on a Log has come up in Takeout staff discussion on three separate occasions. Perhaps you remember that summer camp or preschool delicacy? Remember peanut butter smeared into the inner rib of a stalk of celery garnished with raisins? Three times in a week seems a mystical enough frequency that it was worth looking into. (Translation: I thought about Ants on a Log for the first time in years and it finally occurred to me what a weird combination it was, and then I wondered who the first person was who came up with it.)
Credit—or blame—for Ants on a Log goes to the Girl Scouts, which makes sense, I guess: Girl Scouts are kids. It’s also a basic food preparation (cooking badge!) that contains protein, which is good fuel for hikes, where you can see things like ants on logs. However, when the food historians behind the wonderful collective project The Food Timeline reached out to the Girl Scouts of America, they received this response: “That recipe is indeed found in Girl Scout cookbooks as far back as 1946. However, there is no mention of raisins in any of the cookbooks. The recipe is called ‘celery sticks.’ I found no mention of it being called ‘Ants on a Log.’”
Other sources similarly came up empty. The Oxford Companion To American Food And Drink settled for a vague reference to the 1950s, sometime between a the advent of the cream-cheese-in-a-celery-stalk appetizer and the introduction of celery to the Bloody Mary cocktail. Over at Food52, Mara Weinraub found a reference to Ants on a Log in a 1959 article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about children learning to cook: “Anne Marie is working on snacks. Popcorn, cheese dips, and the other night, ants on a log have been some of the foods the family has shared.” (This is an achievement: Anne Marie had recently been promoted from frosting cookies.) Weinraub, The Food Timeline, and (implicitly) The Oxford Companion To American Food And Drink all conclude that the inventor of Ants on a Log has been lost to the mists of history. Alas.
Still, I discovered one thing in my quest for information about Ants on a Log: it needs to take its place in the annals of American culinary history. Along with the Bloody Mary and the sad crudites people put out at parties in order to feel virtuous, it is the last gasp of our two-century-long love affair with celery. Yeah, it was strange for me to learn this, too. But back in the day, celery actually had an honored place on our dining tables.
In the beginning, celery was a bitter green called smallage, valued only for its seeds and leaves, which were used as seasoning. But by the mid-17th century, English botanists had figured out a way to breed a sweeter stalk, and the Brits brought it with them when they colonized America. Food historian Andrew Smith writes in The Oxford Companion For American Food And Drink that “celery stalks were used for a variety of culinary purposes: fried or stewed and sauced and served as a vegetable, added to soups and sauces (the latter used especially for turkey and other fowl), and immersed in seasoned vinegar for pickles.”
Early in the 19th century, a new tableware fad emerged: the celery glass. To a modern eye, it looks like any other tall, decorative glass, perhaps one that would be good for serving an ice cream sundae. People used them as an attractive way to display stalks of celery on the dining table. They were popular as wedding gifts. Eventually, though, they grew passe and were replaced by rectangular celery dishes. And then, at the turn of the century, someone looked at the inner rib of a celery stalk and realized, “Gee! I could stuff this with cheese!”
It’s entirely probable that no single person came up with this idea. I’m sure everyone who has looked at a stalk of celery at one point has considered using it as a spoon or a scoop or something like that. But it was Fannie Merritt Farmer who codified the use of celery as a serving vessel in her 1911 book Catering for Special Occasions with Menus and Recipes. The recipe for Celery With Rocquefort read in its entirety:
Select short tender stalks of celery, leaving on leaves, wash and chill thoroughly. Work three-fourths tablespoon butter until creamy and add one and one-half tablepoons Roquefort cheese. Season with salt, pepper, and paprika and spread on inside of celery stalks. Serve on crushed ice.
From then on, the sky was the limit! Anything squishy enough to nestle into a stalk of celery was fair game. Cream cheese was a favorite, but enterprising cookbook writers also suggested chicken salad and ham salad and canned salmon mixed with mayonnaise. Stuffed celery should always be garnished with olives or capers.
What are peanut butter and raisins but a kid-friendly version of cream cheese and olives (also known, by the way, as Ticks on a Stick)?
I found no explanation for the decline in popularity of whole stalks of celery, but I believe it has something to do with the shattering of the myth that it contains “negative calories.” If you didn’t actually burn calories eating it, what was the point?
The expression “ants on a log” dates back to the 19th century. The earliest explanation I could find dates from 1896, quoted by the Washington correspondent of the Chattanooga Times. “Ants on a log on fire at both ends change position, but gain nothing until they abandon the log.” It was used quite a bit in the early 20th century as an expression of futility.
I’m sure whoever named the snack wasn’t thinking at all of the chaos that always accompanies trying to corral a group of children into doing anything, whether it’s sitting in a circle for story time or going on a hike, and just meant it to be descriptive.
National Ants on a Log Day, by the way, is celebrated the second Tuesday in September.
Persuaded by a few random friends who had fond childhood memories of ants on a log, I decided to give it another shot, only without the ants because The Takeout is firmly anti-raisin and I had none in my apartment. (According to Wikipedia, this variation is known as Ants on Vacation.) The celery made an excellent peanut butter delivery system.