Unwrapping the history of America’s favorite desserts

WASHINGTON Stella Parks owes much of her newfound fame to the Oreo.

After all, it’s the classic sandwich cookie that sent the pastry chef and Serious Eats writer on a six-year quest to uncover the history of America’s quintessential desserts — from cherry pie to Twinkies — all of which she published in the bestselling book, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.”

“There’s this tendency to dismiss them you know, real desserts are French or Italian or European, and American desserts are just this junk from the back of a bag, like Toll House chocolate chip cookies or something like that,” said Parks, 36.

“I wanted to pull up their histories and show that these desserts have a legacy every bit as valid as a croissant or panna cotta or some legitimate piece of European pastry.”

For years, Parks poured over newspaper archives, culinary periodicals, old menus and company handbooks to learn the origins of society’s most savored sweets.  

Key lime pie? It certainly didn’t originate in the Florida Keys. Parks said the recipe was born in the kitchen of a condensed milk company on Madison Avenue. It started out as “Magic Lemon Cream Pie,” and Floridians, who were short on lemons at the time, made the citrus swap.

The Oreo? Believe it or not, the cookie is a copycat from the once popular Hydrox. Angel’s food cake doesn’t come from heaven — its origins are a Kentucky kitchen, circa 1839.

And contrary to claims from Toll House that the chocolate chip cookie was invented in 1938, Parks uncovered a “surprisingly modern” recipe from the 1870s.

“I always had this suspicion that [the 1938 date] couldn’t be true. I couldn’t accept that people had not figured out cookie dough plus chocolate is a good thing,” said Parks, one of Food & Wine Magazine’s best new pastry chefs in 2012.

In the 300-plus page “BraveTart,” Parks shares recipes for everything from homemade Milky Ways, to Pop-Tarts, to Wonder Bread, to Fig Newtons. She admits it’s much easier to buy these treats from the store, but cautions consumers that their taste buds may be unpleasantly surprised by the packaged goodies.

“We have these really strong culinary memories of certain foods, and then over time they change, or over time our perception of those foods change,” said Parks, who added that corporations also alter their recipes.

Making them from home “is a way to scratch that nostalgia itch” minus all the preservatives.

Find the recipes for Parks’ Oreo-style cookies, homemade Fig Newtons and elf-inspired chocolate-filled shortbread cookies on Serious Eats. 

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