A History Of American 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.

1. 1900-1910: Devil’s Food Cake & the Hershey Bar

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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.

2. 1910-1920: Biscuits & Penny Candies

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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.

3. 1920-1930: Nuts about Candy Bars

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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.

4. 1930-1940: Semi-Instant Baking

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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.

5. 1940-1950: The Age of Pies & Cakes

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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.

6. 1950-1960: Donuts & Hot Fudge Sundaes

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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.

7. 1960-1970: Wild ‘n’ Crazy Cakes

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Cake mixes and no-bake pudding pie kits mean more time for food decoration. Frosting products and the increasing popularity of food dyes yield wild, ornate creations that sometimes look better than they taste. The moist, crimson-tinged descendant of Devil’s Food, Red Velvet, becomes an official favorite.

8. 1970-1980: Anything Goes

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A dessert free-for-all, the ’70s saw pineapple as the star ingredient in ambrosia and upside-down cakes. Exotic, alcohol-infused desserts contrast with Jell-O molds and cheesecake. Suburban sprawls and ice cream trucks make prepackaged frozen desserts a favorite with kids, along with new candies such as Pop Rocks, Starburst, and Twix.

9. 1980-1990: Fro-Yo & Pudding Pops

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Just like their flapper predecessors, citizens of the Me Decade don’t have time for crazy desserts. Frozen yogurt chains become the ideal stopover after business meetings and Jazzercize, while the “topping” factor makes for an even more customizable experience. Bubble gum, chewy candies, and lollipops start to look like novelties, and Bill Cosby becomes the face of Jell-O.

10. 1990-2000: Cookies & Brownies

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Candy starts to masquerade as nutritional bars, while cookie franchises and Pillsbury’s OneStep Brownie, packaged in a cooking pan, mean a return to classic, down-home favorites.

11. 2000-2010: Cupcakes

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Krispy Creme’s rapid expansion brought about a new and improved donut, and in the kitchens, a wave of nostalgia produces the Red Velvet cupcake, with the cupcake craze continuing through today.

12. 2010-2020: ???

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It’s a little too early to tell what this decade’s favorite desserts will be, but whatever they are, chances are they’ll involve bacon or macarons. (Hopefully both.)

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