Eating History Josh Macuga interview exclusive, why foods of yesteryear fascinate us all

Josh Macuga
Macuga explores our past as he tries old foods and learns why we ate what we did and more on Eating History. Pic credit: History

Timely and not-so-tasty but fascinating is History’s new series Eating History. Tonight, the new nonfiction series premieres on History Channel, and two intrepid souls who are funny as hell are bringing back our collective past as a nation via trial by fire and tastebuds.

Their emboldened exploration of the long-retired foods that we as a nation used to consume is one for these times.

If you have stared into the abyss – aka your kitchen pantry shelves – you get what I am saying. An expired can of poppy seed filling suddenly has become a challenge to repurpose into something your family will eat, or not.

No can, bag or tin is off limits (well, there are limits as you will see below) as Josh Macuga and Old Smokey dive in and try the squirreled away rations and snacks that we Americans tucked into many years ago.

Think American Pickers meets Fear Factor, this is also a tasty history lesson, as Macuga and Smokey wrap the eye candy and bacon around the filling of some educating new knowledge and historical facts.

Macuga is familiar to those who watch WGN with his interstitial fun show riffing on all things relating to the featured movies.  Eating History plays off the fact that Macuga has a real passion of history, stories and collecting, the perfect storm that led him to also finding Old Smokey by chance via YouTube.

Prior to their meeting, Macuga’s personal story is similar to Mike on American Pickers. He traveled to antique shows with his father and uncle when he was a kid and their combined love of pop culture stayed with him his entire life. He is now obsessed with all things history and trivia, and of course old food tales, recipes and trends of yore.

As his family collected vintage jars and cans for the cool labels, Josh was more interested in what was on the inside. His desire to open and taste these ancient pantry items and snacks has led him to be an expert of nostalgic and historic foods.

He feels the only way to truly understand the past it to taste it. He finds it, learns about it, and then iff they are sure no harm will come, he and Old Smokey dive in and try it.

We spoke to Josh on the phone yesterday about this fascinating new series that not only explores brands from the wayback machine, but has segments with experts that cook up recipes, as the premiere will feature the famous Depression-era peanut butter stuffed onion, a treat made when times were tough and people made it last, wore it out, made it do or did without.

As history tends to repeat, you might find this series relevant for the austerity measures suddenly foisted upon us all thanks to COVID-19.

Exclusive interview with Josh Macuga of Eating History

Josh Macuga and Old Smokey try old things on Eating History. Pic credit: History
Josh Macuga and Old Smokey try old things on Eating History. Pic credit: History

Monsters & Critics: So there’s not a lot that delights me these days, but when History shared the screener with me, I was just like, this is the perfect escapist fun show for the time. Because what we’re all doing right now, we look in our pantry, because nobody wants to go to the store or leave the house.

Josh Macuga: You’ve got that right.

M&C: And I feel like after watching the first episode, it’s like Fear Factor meets American Pickers. How would you describe it in a walking pitch?

Josh Macuga: Totally. I’ve said since day one that it’s sort of like Bizarre Foods and Parts Unknown meets Fear Factor with a little bit of American Pickers. You got it. You got it. So that’s the elevator pitch. As soon as I tell people, they’re like, “Okay. Oh, okay.” That’s their second reaction.

And then, they’re very, very curious. I’ve never gotten the response of like, “Why would they make a show like that?” Do you know what I mean? When you tell people certain shows, like, can’t believe that’s on TV. When I tell people about this they’re like, “I can totally see that. Why hasn’t that been on TV yet?” So yes.

M&C: How did you connect with Old Smokey? Was it through a podcast or he contacted you?

Josh Macuga: Yes. So I had been talking to a couple people and we had tried a couple of different things and then I saw his YouTube channel and I think he saw mine, and then we Skyped.

And I sent him some old food and he sent me an old military ration. And I sent him an old collectors peanut butter jar from the early eighties and he sent me some military rations from the late eighties, early nineties. And then we kind of became friends on that.

The internet might be a crazy place, but sometimes it really works out for people. It has definitely worked out for this show because I don’t think that you could actually get this show done without being able to connect with people on the internet.

Whether it’s a blog or on eBay or YouTube, trying to find some of these amazing old collectors because some of them might have a bunker, some of them might have a trailer, situation like that, and we’ve been able to really track down some amazing products, amazing people, meet some really cool people.

This whole experience has just been an unbelievable adventure through food. It really has been cool.

M&C: You preface your episode with a warning, do not try this at home. But yet people are, they’re not going out, they’re pulling everything out of their pantries.

To what I said before, if a can isn’t exhibiting signs of distress and it looks intact, what do you say to someone at home who’s looking at a can of food that might be maybe a year past its expiration date, what would you say?

Josh Macuga: We’re looking for some of that food that’s like 20, 30, 40 years old. So if it’s like a year to a year and a half… I don’t want a lawyer to come after me, but I think, again, if you don’t see a lot of stress, you open it. It looks good. It smells good. More than likely, you’re totally fine.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the course of this show and over the course of time of trying really old stuff is, there are certain products, usually meats and poultry and fish and such that are going to be a little more dangerous than say like a box of Wheaties from the 1940s or just a can of beans from two years ago, three years ago.

It’s obviously like a crescendo of a sliding scale, where some things are absolutely fine no matter how old it is. It’s just not going to taste very good. And sometimes though, it does taste good. We’ve been shocked by a lot of things that we thought were going to be absolutely terrible and that have turned out great and vice versa.

M&C: Elaborate.

Josh Macuga: Ok. So, I’m a big snacker. I love snacks. I’ve grew up in a potato chip, pretzel kind of a household. My mom was always the, you’re not hungry, you’re bored, get away from the refrigerator. And I grew up Italian and I was always like the kitchen sink. If there was food to be eaten, Josh would eat it.

I’m lucky that I played a lot of sports and I didn’t become morbidly obese, but we had first-generation Pringles that were still awesome. Very salty. I think 70s and 80s we were still putting a lot of sodium on products, which is probably a good thing for us because salt, obviously a natural preservative, and a lot of these things that are high in sodium had been preserved really well over time.

Something that we thought was going to be totally fine and whatever, was the 1970s Frito that really knocked our pants off as far as tasting bad. But Fritos right now are, I love Fritos. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad Frito until I had the Fritos from the 1970s.

M&C: Yeah, that was a bad Frito.

Josh Macuga: Yeah, it was real bad. Real bad.

M&C: I’m of the generation that put Bugles on the ends of my fingers like fake nails too. I feel you.

Josh Macuga:  [laughs] Yes.

M&C: How do you safeguard your health? Let’s rewind it to the premiere. So the 1979 bag of Fritos, the rancidity of the oil, you get a petroleum smells, the chemical process that happens when a vegetable oil or a nut oil goes rancid. It’s a real thing. And it’s a carcinogen, I’m sure of it. How do you protect yourself?

Josh Macuga: We’re not eating giant handfuls of the food. Most likely in most cases, we’re just tasting it, and you get a lot of taste from just a single bite of some of these older foods. We have a medic on set, we have a toxicologist on set.

If it is a very risky situation, they’re in the corner saying no. And then sometimes they’re just like, you’ll be fine. It’s probably not going to be very good, but you’ll be fine. So we do have that secondary, that backup quarterback kind of a situation.

But really and truly, again, we’re not abusing our body with it. I think everything in moderation. So I guess the safeguard to my health is something you just… Really and truly in this show, what we’re guarding against is not dying because of botulism because botulism is real. It can paralyze you, it can kill you. No problem. That’s one of the most powerful biotoxins we have on the planet. And so we have to be very, very safe when we’re doing that.

But for the most part, Smokey is very, very cautious. I’m usually the guy that jumps in both feet in the deep end, but on this show you have to be very, very cautious for sure.

M&C: Is there anything that you guys will refuse to try that people send you for the series, that you absolutely will not even go there?

Josh Macuga: Smokey’s a texture guy, so he hates things like oysters. He always said he’d never eat an eyeball. So like a cow eye or something like that.

I’m still on the search for some of those items that have been on a bucket list, like an original box of Cheez-Its, which are one of my favorite snacks. Some old Hostess or Tasty Cakes kind of a situation, some of those sweets… If it doesn’t have a seal and it’s not from a company and somebody sends you a canned good from the basement or something or a jar of preserves, we’d probably say no to that because we have no idea whose hands have been in what.

But if it’s been done in a facility, we’ll more than likely take a look at it. But again, if it’s like a homemade product, unless we’re at their house and we’ve met them and they seem like good people, then we’d probably steer clear.

M&C: Talk about what you hope people learn about us as a country, especially going through these hard times right now. There’s a real timeliness to your show. People are making things do or they’re doing without, that was that old depression, make it last, wear it out, make it do or do without, what is your intention for this series for people who are watching it at home?

Josh Macuga: I think the beautiful thing about this show is it’s for people of all ages. Men, women, children, everybody can learn something really cool and get a really… It’s a fun experience.

I think it’s one of those water cooler shows where you go to the cabinet at work and you pull out a can of Pringles or you pull out an onion from the store, and you’re like, hey, have you ever seen Eating History? They eat the peanut butter stuffed onions from the depression. We should maybe try that.

The cool thing is that each item has its own really cool story of how it changed how we eat food and how we consume. A lot of these food items have absurdly long and colorful histories because if they’re still around on shelves today, more than likely they’ve been around for a very, very long time.

And so being able to tell that story… at the end of the day, I’m a storyteller, and being able to taste the history, just adds that extra bit of storytelling to an already rich history.

M&C:  It’s not just Eating History that you do. And I know that on your Twitter it says you’re working hard to be the next host of Jeopardy. It’s because you have so many interests, whether it’s movie, cinema, sports, food, you’re a man about many things. And what, right now, film-wise, while people are trapped at home, television and film, what would you steer them to with your recommendation?

Josh Macuga: My dream job since I was 10 years old is be the next host of Jeopardy. So I have a lot of Jeopardy saved on my DVR, some favorites, some classics. Netflix obviously has old Jeopardy, so if we’re stuck inside we might as well learn. So I obviously can’t recommend it highly enough.

I do watch a lot of documentary series. I just watched that Tiger King, which is insanity. Unbelievable. I really recently really loved, I’m Not Okay With This. It’s based on a comic. It’s on Netflix. It is really well done. Only seven, 30-minute episodes, but quick binge, really fun.

The wife and I just watched Onward, which is that new Pixar movie, which was a lot of fun. Bad Boys for Life is coming out on-demand in a couple of weeks on the 31st. I’ve watched the second season of Narcos Mexico, which I thought was really well done. And Hunters, the Al Pacino show where the hunt Nazis? I loved that.

We were shooting all through the Star Wars craze, so I finally got to watch Rise of Skywalker and loved that.

I’m like the easiest critic in the world. I will watch and consume just about anything, read anything, do anything, which is probably how I got into trying and collecting and eating old foods.

Saying yes is way easier than saying no. If you tweet at me or you Instagram me, I will more than likely give you my recommendations. So many right now.

There’s so many good things to consume along with Eating History. I’m not extremely choosy on what I do. I really enjoy doing just about everything. But it’s a difficult journey to shoot this show. Every day’s an adventure.

If I didn’t have so much pride in this show, I don’t think you’d hear the passion behind my voice. I have so much pride in the work that we’ve done, and I hope we get more and more seasons to really explore the food history, not only of this country, but of the world, because I think there’s so much rich history out there to really get into.

Eating History airs Wednesday, March 25, at 10/9c on History.

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