You might recall an era in the United States when raisins from California danced the Grapevine, peanuts (and their butter) were welcome in school cafeterias, and celery was tolerated not revered. Before celery became the vessel for drinkable wellness, it was a conduit for spreadable and, as history can attest, sometimes questionable combinations. Seemingly absent from Instagram feeds today are recipes like Fannie Farmer’s “Celery with Roquefort” (chilled stalks filled with butter and cheese), which debuted in Catering for Special Occasions with Menus and Recipes (1911).
While cookbooks confirm that the American practice of stuffing celery began in the early 20th century as an appetizer for parties and adult gatherings, it didn’t become a vital part of lunchboxes and playdates until decades later. The most famous (at least for the coloring-book crowd) is, of course, ants on a log.
The snack is portable, playful, and eminently satisfying. Its assembly rests on three convenience foods that happen to be good for you: sliced celery, peanut butter, and raisins. Some early recipe variations substitute cream cheese or commercial cheese spreads for the peanut butter, but the classic combo is the G.O.A.T., something to wax nostalgic about. And every second Tuesday of September, at least since 2014, it’s something to celebrate on a national scale.
But this isn’t a story about the merits of the snack. This is a story about its elusive origin.
The ancestry of the phrase itself has a layer of uncertainty. Long before it was associated with the snack, “ants on a log” had currency in America as a political metaphor for a group of people undergoing change:
“Ants on a log, floating down the river (to the waterfall), and each ant thinking he was steering.”
According to Barry Popkik, an etymologist and editor of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, the “ants” in this case often represented ineffectual politicians. It’s unclear who first coined the term, however. “The saying is sometimes credited to author Mark Twain,” writes Popkik, “but there is no evidence that Twain ever said it.”
Unsurprisingly, the officiant behind the snack-phrase union is equally as opaque. Andrew Ruis, author of Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States, could only place the origin around sometime in the mid-20th century. As he explained, “Food dishes tend to evolve out of other dishes, so origins are often murky.”
A hypothesis tracing the recipe origins to a product cookbook proved null. Sun-Maid (which represents about 40 percent of the raisin industry), Dole, the California Raisin Marketing Board, and even the Girl Scouts had no knowledge of the ants on a log inventor. (Sun Valley and the Raisin Bargaining Association did not respond to requests for comment.)
As it turns out, its beginnings are a bit upside down, if not backwards. A recipe for “Stuffed Celery Stalks” appeared in the Good Housekeeping Cook Book (1944) with seven iterations, the second of which instructs log builders to “lay seedless raisins end to end in celery stalks” before filling them with a mixture of cream cheese, top milk (the upper layer of milk in a container enriched by whatever cream has risen), spec pepper, and paprika. (There’s no mention of any “ants” or “logs” of any kind.)
The first print sighting took place on February 15, 1959, when the Star Tribune published a story about encouraging children to help out in the kitchen: “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.” The piece references the snack as a graduation from the more elementary task of frosting baked cookies.
Some magazine and newspaper articles attribute ants on a log to the Girl Scouts, and even more websites claim that the recipe is popular with Girl (and Boy) Scouts. But none can confirm a history with concrete evidence or even dates. According to food historian Lynne Olver, a representative of the Girl Scouts of America told her, “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.’”
The mastermind behind the snack remains mysterious, but that hasn’t prevented creative spin-offs. The most basic variations play on the name: “Ants on a Slip ‘n’ Slide” (an added layer of honey), “Fire Ants on a Log (cranberries), “Ghost Ants on a Log” (mini marshmallows), and “Ants on Vacation” (no raisins). While “gourmet”, “grown-up”, and “fancy” updates modernize the classic for home cooks, restaurants are now reinventing the dish for fine-dining audiences.
In 2017, New York City’s Empellón added a literal interpretation to its seasonal menu, featuring chicatanas, or flying ants. (Most famous in the state of Oaxaca, these ants are a regional delicacy.) Twain, a restaurant located in Chicago that closed in May, served a version of ants on a log with celery, duck liver peanut butter mousse, and bourbon cherries.*
Though the exact origin of ants on a log remains untraceable, it’s worth noting the brilliance behind the combination. Certainly there have always been strategies to make children eat their vegetables—but few have the capacity to nourish, entertain, and kickstart an interest in the kitchen, the way ants on a log continues to.
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Correction, Sept. 30, 2019: This post has been updated to reflect that the restaurant Twain is no longer open.