Not only have American’s favorite desserts changed over the course of history, but so has the meaning of the word dessert as used on menus.
In a series of articles in 1879, Lorenzo Delmonico explained the meaning of courses as presented in a proper French dinner. For a start, he explained, “when people believe that each dish served separately is a course in itself they have got the whole matter dreadfully mixed up.” There were only three courses, he stated. The first two comprised the “whole dinner” and the third, he wrote, “contains only the dessert.” Just how many dishes were presented in each course was entirely up to the host.
Sounds simple, but here’s where it gets confusing: the second course is accompanied by “Entremets” that are “the smaller dishes of the second course, including such puddings and pastries as may be served . . .” The third course – Dessert — comes last and “consists of ices, fruits, nuts, coffee, etc.” Today, we would consider the Entremets as Dessert.
Under Charles Ranhofer, Delmonico’s chef for most of the years from 1862 to 1896, Sweet Entremets continued to be presented with the Roast course, followed by Desserts as laid out by Lorenzo. At Delmonico’s Beaver Street location in 1899, for instance, an a la carte menu listed Entremets consisting of such things as Charlotte Russe, Peach Pie, and puddings, while Desserts included the subheadings Fancy Creams, Creams, Water Ices, Sorbets, Fresh Fruit, and Cheese.
Not surprisingly, cheap eating places had completely done away with courses decades earlier. For instance, at Milliken’s Beefsteak & Coffee Room in New York in 1849, there were only two categories: Dinner (i.e., meat) and Dessert. Dessert consisted of a choice of one custard and seven pies — Cocoa Nut, Plum, Mince, Peach, Apple, Indian, and Rice.
But even in far-off San Francisco end-of-meal choices reflected something like a formal menu, but with a different organization. In 1887, the ever-busy Royal Dining Saloon presented five categories of sweets in this order: Fruit, Puddings, Pies, Cakes – and then Desserts! Desserts included Peaches and Cream, Cranberry Sauce, Apple Sauce, New Comb Honey, Hot Mince Pie, various stewed and baked fruits, and Ice Cream. So, Mince Pie was a Dessert but other Pies were not?
Across the land there were other logic-defying variations. But probably no one really cared about logic. They saw what they wanted, ordered it, and that was that.
Overall, it would be cheap eateries such as Milliken’s that prefigured a 20th-century in which all the end-of-meal categories would be boiled down into one: Desserts. Not only that – the offerings in that category at popular eateries, as at Milliken’s, would remain primarily Pie and Pudding for decades.
But it seems that women preferred cake. As more unescorted women patronized restaurants in the 20th century, and tea rooms catering especially to them opened, this difference in their dessert preferences made itself known. Tea rooms began to specialize in cakes, selling them whole to take away as well as portioned for meals. For example, a pop-up Suffrage kitchen opened in Chicago’s Loop in 1914 offered a 35-cent lunch of salad, sandwich, and beverage, plus a dessert of cake and ice cream for an extra 15 cents. A notice read, “if the luncheon is served to men pie a la mode.”
Of course tea rooms did serve pie, and other desserts too, but it is striking that many lunchroom menus did not include cake. Perhaps for the average eating place layer cake was too difficult to frost, slice, or keep moist when portioned in advance. My sense is that it was also considered a more refined dessert suited to female tastes, whereas pie was an older, heartier, basic food.
Tea room proprietors were well aware of women’s attraction to cake. As Fanny Evans of Mary Elizabeth’s in New York said in 1923, her tea room knew how to cater to American women’s love of unusual salads, creamed chicken, croquettes, and “delicious home-made cakes.” In 1933 the proprietor of the Ipswich Tea House in Massachusetts, a graduate of Miss [Fannie] Farmer’s School of Cooking, prepared special menus titled “A Meal for Men” and “A Ladies Luncheon.” The men’s meal ended with Ice Cream Pie and the women’s finished with Meringue Cake.
In the Depression Americans turned to desserts to cheer themselves up. According to a 1932 NYT story “the American’s Real Desire Is More Dessert,” driven by a wish for glamor, romance, and “the desire for escape from the standardization of the machine age.” Plus desserts yielded high profits. Schrafft’s was way ahead of the game. As early as 1929, the 181 Broadway location in New York offered 34 different desserts!
After WWII, returning soldiers as well as civilians were hungrier than ever for desserts. A 1946 manual advised restaurateurs that a winning menu formula was to have as many desserts as entrees, 7 to 9, but no more than 4 green vegetables.
In the average eating places, apple pie was crowned the favorite American dessert until the 1970s, while layer cakes tended to vanish from the restaurant scene. But pie would not do for luxury diners. As demonstrated on a 1951 menu from Ciro’s in Hollywood, expensive restaurants gravitated to less common, fancier desserts such as Parfaits, Crepes Suzettes, and Baked Alaska. Dessert trays and carts bearing French pastries also came into use, while a flaming dessert was always a possibility worth considering.
In 1996 a National Restaurant Association survey of restaurants found that the most popular desserts were cheesecake and pie. That is, cheesecake of the sort most commonly served today, made with cream cheese rather than cottage cheese. The latter was a very old sweet dish dating back to the early 1800s or earlier. Unlike some other factory-made desserts, cheesecake has the advantage of being regarded as genuine even when it comes frozen in a box. I am somewhat skeptical about this survey, though. How could it be possible that chocolate desserts weren’t mentioned when they had been advancing rapidly in popularity since the 1970s?
© Jan Whitaker, 2023