Culinary history is often about as murky as a badly-made bone broth. Several people can invent a recipe at the same time; a dish can disappear in one continent and appear, apparently unrelated, on another, decades or centuries later; and whenever a recipe is successful, you can count on at least two people squabbling over the rights and glory. That goes double for the history of desserts, because people the world over are obsessed with sweet things. Do you really know the bizarre, inspiring history of your favorite tasty treats?
The custom of naming deserts for celebrities has, unfortunately, died out. (Can you imagine a Nicki Minaj? Would it be a balancing collection of voluptuous choux buns?) But it used to be the height of fashion to get yourself a namesake sweet thing on the best menus of the time. Dame Nellie Melba, one of the world's finest opera singers in the 19th century, knew she'd really made it when Peach Melba was invented for her by the famous chef Escoffier at the Savoy in the 1880s. And Battenberg cake, a weird criss-cross of pink and white sponge, was created to mark the marriage of a granddaughter of Queen Victoria to Prince Louis of Battenberg. (Unhelpfully, the cake is disgusting, but apparently the marriage was happy. Maybe that's why wedding cake is terrible.)
Today's desserts don't have the same glamour — cronuts, anybody? — but some of the sweet things you've been eating all your life have a very interesting, contentious, even alcoholic history. And yes, dinosaurs are involved.
1. Chocolate Chip Cookies
These treats are so ubiquitous it seems faintly bizarre that anybody could have ever "invented" them. After all, it's just chocolate chips in cookie dough! But you would be wrong, my friend: these delicious cookies aren't even a hundred years old yet. And they're actually a pretty serious entry into the world history of female inventors.
Unusually for a dessert, we know exactly when and where chocolate chip cookies were created. They were the invention of Ruth Wakefield, a nutritionist and chef at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass., who in 1936 altered her chocolate cookie recipe to include "drops" of semi-sweet Nestle chocolate. (It's sometimes reported that it was an accident, but Wakefield always said she did it on purpose.) The results were runaway success and one of the world's first individual-corporate endorsement deals — all the more remarkable considering that Wakefield was a woman.
After the recipe was published in the Boston news, Nestle and Wakefield struck a historical agreement: Nestle would publish Wakefield's recipe on the packaging of their chocolate chips, and Wakefield would receive full credit, $1 million (a whopping sum at the time), and a lifetime supply of Nestle.
Maybe you've never heard of this one, but it you have Australian and New Zealander friends, you'll know this legendary dessert by heart. (Even Martha Stewart's version comes courtesy of Aussie actor Geoffrey Rush.) It's a meringue "crown" the size of a platter, filled with cream and any fruits you like, and can be made more complex with several crowns at once. However, it's also the center of a decades-long intercontinental fight over its origins.
One thing is clear: it was definitely named for Anna Pavlova, the most famous ballerina of the early twentieth century. It was created to honor her performances — but who came up with it? Australia and New Zealand have both fought over the honor, because Pavlova visited both countries in the 1920s. It's become so vicious that the Oxford English Dictionary actually had to weigh in with historical evidence. The winner? New Zealand, where the recipe appeared in 1928; Australia didn't catch up until 1935. You'll still find us arguing at dinner parties about this.
Full disclosure: I hate this concoction. British people and Southerners tend to love it, though — a layering creation of cream, custard, nuts, jelly, and fruit, all poured over cakes or biscuits soaked in liqueurs. It was originally invented in Victorian England, and trifle is still seen as a (somewhat old-fashioned) fancy dessert food in the U.K. today, but it had a rather strange second life when it got to America.
Many American cooks in the 1700s still relied on British recipes, which is why trifle gained such a foothold in the American South — but they made two very interesting alterations. One was that, presumably because of the problems of storing things, American trifle was made with stale cake rather than fresh. (Early colonial America was no picnic.) The second was its new name. Hilariously, the amount of liquor in the soaked trifle seemed to create a trend when served to genteel, teetotal American men of the church. Hence its New World moniker: Tipsy Parson.
4. Tarte Tatin
The famous tart recipe — which, if you've ever made it, seems bewilderingly simple (a nest of apples on a sheet of puff pastry with caramel holding it in place) but really isn't — is one of France's most opulent exports. What you may not realize, however, is that, like many of the world's great inventions, tarte tatin may actually have been invented by accident. At least that's how the legend goes.
According to myth, tarte tatin was first made by the Tatin sisters, Fanny and Caroline, in France's Loire Valley in the 1880s. Fanny reportedly forgot to line the base of her apple pie with pastry dough, resulting in a layer of caramelized apples in a pan with a puff pastry "lid" and nothing underneath. She improvised, flipped the pie over so the apples were on top, and history was born. (It seems pretty unlikely, because puff pastry tarts were pretty popular in France for centuries before that, but hey, who's going to let the truth stand in the way of a good story?)
The owner of Maxim's popularized it by putting it on his menu in the 1930s, and claimed that he had got himself hired at the Tatin's restaurant in Lamotte-Beuvron as a gardener purely to learn the secrets of the tart's recipe. The dates don't line up, but it's another pretty good myth.
5. Carrot Cake
Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting is probably the first "vegetable" cake that any of us ever tasted, chocolate-beetroot fanciness be damned. And it's had a seriously long history — right back to medieval banquets. Its sweetness made it a desirable ingredient in the pre-sugar age, according to the Oxford Companion To Food. But its real run at fame came with rationing, the Second World War, and a wealthy American with a dinosaur obsession.
With huge rationing on sugar across the United Kingdom during the war, carrots were frozen to be used as "ice creams," but the Ministry Of Food also published pamphlets encouraging families to use the sweet veg in cakes (which, without sugar, were probably about as palatable as bricks, but never mind). You could grow them in your back garden and get a tiny fructose hit.
Carrot cake's entrance into American cookbooks was also, according to legend, driven by wartime problems — though the difficulty was excess, not scarcity. In the 1950s, after the war, a shipping magnate and fossil enthusiast named George C Page was reputedly bothered by a huge excess of canned carrots, which had possibly been produced for the American troops. Seeking to get rid of them, he hired culinary experts to figure out uses for the erstwhile ingredient — and they came up with carrot cake. Page is now much more famous for the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, filled to the brim with fossils.
We have no proof for his carrot-loving role, but carrot cake had reached America before that: the World Carrot Museum (yes, I know) records that George Washington himself ate some in 1783.