Sugary (and Corn Syrupy) Blast From the Past: A Look Back at Our Nation's Favorite Desserts
From banana splits and Eskimo pie to cake kits, ambrosia, and bacon-laced cupcakes, American society has always craved something to satisfy its ever-present sweet tooth. But what defines our taste in desserts? Cleverly packaged free "recipe books" published by companies like Pillsbury and Del Monte, for starters. While ingredients come from a brand level, recipes have always belonged to the consumers. From 1900 through the present day, Americans have been as much seduced by homemade, labor-intensive creations as they have by the much less time-consuming candy bar, and more often than not, the categories overlap. Here are just a few highlights of the most popular desserts of the last eleven decades.
1900-1910: Devil's Food Cake & the Hershey Bar
The 20th century kicks off with a race for the best Devil's Food Cake, a brand-new American recipe responding to the Victorian-era Angel Food Cake, with the unofficial centennial candy, the Hershey Bar, a key ingredient. The ice cream cone means a portable contender, and the banana split and hot fudge sundae set the stage for popular American desserts throughout the next 100 years.
In Philadelphia, Whitman's breaks open its sampler box in 1912, the same year the National Biscuit Company introduces Oreos and Lorna Doon. Individually-wrapped "penny candies," peppermints, and Eskimo pie are also favorites. Meanwhile, commercial corn oil for home cooking means more Devil's Food Cake.
1920-1930: Nuts about Candy Bars
It's the "Roaring Twenties," and who has time for baking? The devil gets out of the kitchen and into the Jazz Age; Americans crave pre-packaged convenience in the form of raw nuts and candy bars, including Baby Ruth, Oh Henry!, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Butterfinger, and Mr. Goodbar.
1930-1940: Semi-Instant Baking
Craig Stephens "Twinkie #4"
Candy bars are still going strong with the introduction of Snickers, Mars Bars, Kit Kats, and Rolos, but since there's a Depression, folks are heading back to the kitchen. A "Red Devil," the result of mixing baking soda, buttermilk, and cocoa, creeps up in recipe books as a Devil's Food Cake spin-off. Nestle Toll House introduces its version of the chocolate chip cookie, while Hostess Twinkies make their cream-filled, sponge-cake debut.
1940-1950: The Age of Pies & Cakes
A Fine Madness Collectibles Courtesy Adam Scott Crispo
Pies and cakes take center stage in the '40s. Wartime rationing means more at-home baking, but at least ready-made pie crust mix and instant whip make it easier. As baking time gets shorter, the list of prepackaged candy only gets longer, with brand-new M&Ms, Junior Mints, and Almond Joy gaining momentum throughout the war years and beyond.
William Rosenberg opens the first Dunkin' Donuts, ensuring the popularity of the sweetened, fried dough cake for decades to come. Hot fudge sundaes make a big comeback, as Pillsbury introduces refrigerated cookie dough for a quick, favorite snack with that "fresh-baked" appeal.