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Feed your nostalgia with these classic desserts

  • January 22, 2021

Desserts change, but our sweet tooth doesn’t. Our taste for fatty, sweet, creamy, salty, chocolatey treats is hardwired into our DNA. But what desserts we crave aren’t just dictated by our hunger, but also by trends. Here are some of the most popular desserts broken down by decade.

1900s | Ice cream cones

Need necessitates creativity and innovation — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / ahirao_photo

So many advancements in food technology have either been invented, introduced or popularized by the World’s Fair, and the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri was one of those instances. We have the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Expo in St. Louis to thank for introducing puffed rice cereal, French’s mustard, and the popularization of cotton candy and hot dogs.

But one of the most notable inventions to come out of that show was the ice cream cone, which was invented by accident. The story goes that an ice cream vendor ran out of cups to serve ice cream and a pastry maker in a neighboring booth offered him a thin waffle cone to serve ice cream in. So the next time you grab an ice cream cone, remember that you’re holding an object of ingenuity and innovation.

1910s | Strawberry shortcake

The trinity of cake, strawberries and whipped cream come together in this classic dessert — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / pamela_d_mcadams

Shortcakes date back to at least the Elizabethan era. But the modern concept of strawberry shortcake, layering slices of strawberries with sponge cake and whipped cream, came about when a French pastry chef replaced the customary sugary frosting topping with heavy whipped cream instead.

The light dessert became so beloved that during the 1910s, it was commonly found on menus throughout the United States.


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1920s | S’mores

S’mores is short for “some more” which is true because who can ever eat just one of these? — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / bhofack2

You can thank the Girl Scouts for inventing camping’s favorite bonfire treat. The first recipe for s’mores was found in the 1927 Girl Scout guidebook “Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.”

The combination of chocolate, marshmallow and graham crackers were already popular at this time, thanks to Mallomars which first appeared in 1913, and Moonpies which were first made in 1917. So by the time s’mores came around, the world was already hungry for them.

1930s | Jell-O salads

Fruits, vegetables, and yes, even meats like this pork and beef Jell-O salad, were a common way to stretch ingredients during the Great Depression — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / kudryavtsev

Though Jell-O salads are mostly known as a mid-century dish, they were introduced decades earlier and became wildly popular, especially during the Great Depression. Depression-era home cooks trying to stretch their ingredients relied on Jell-O to make food last longer.

Lime-flavored Jell-O was introduced in the early 1930s and the flavor worked well for many sweet and savory salads. It was a flavor that paired well with both fruits and vegetables.

1940s | Twinkies with vanilla filling

Twinkie, the famous cream-filled sponge cake, used to be filled with banana cream — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / bhofack2

Did you know that, before the 1940s, Twinkies had banana cream filling? But a banana shortage during World War II forced the company to develop a vanilla filling instead. Twinkies have had vanilla filling ever since. In recent years, Hostess has brought back the banana cream-filled Twinkies, but it’s just not as popular as the tried-and-true vanilla filled ones.

1950s | Ants on a log

Ants on a log has been a popular after-school snack for decades — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / pamela_d_mcadams

Ants on a log, the peanut butter-filled celery sticks with a line of raisins on top, is another invention of the Girls Scouts of America. The first recipe, simply called “celery sticks,” can be found in a Girl Scout cookbook from 1946.

Although, celery sticks being used as a vehicle for a variety of fillings dates back to a 1911 cookbook called “Catering for Special Occasions with Menus and Recipes,” where stalks of celery were filled with Roquefort cheese and seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika.

Though both celery concoctions are pretty tasty, ants on a log became a very popular childhood snack throughout the 1950s.

1960s | Pineapple upside-down cake

Pineapple upside-down cakes are as beautiful as they are delicious — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / bhofack2

The pineapple upside-down cake had a moment in 1925, when the Hawaiian Pineapple Company held a contest to see who could make the best pineapple recipe, inviting nearly 2,500 pineapple upside-down cake entries. But the delightful dessert made a comeback in the 1950s and 1960s in a big way.

The gorgeous presentation of caramelized pineapples adorned with cherries atop a vanilla cake made it a popular dessert for parties. You were considered the host with the most when you brought your guests a pineapple upside-down cake.


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1970s | Carrot cake

Despite not being the healthiest dessert, carrot cakes were part of the “hippie food” health craze — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / bhofack2

It’s believed that carrot cakes derived from carrot puddings which were made in Europe during the Middle Ages. Carrot cakes became very popular in the 1970s, during what’s referred to as the “Hippie Food” era. The rise in alternative lifestyles and the focus on health and wellness led to more vegetarianism and more fruit- and vegetable-based diets.

Though carrot cakes are not quite considered health foods, especially by today’s standards, it was still one of the decade’s most popular desserts.

1980s | Cheesecake

The cheesecake possibilities are virtually endless — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / LauriPatterson

Cheesecakes are in no way new, but in the 1980s, there was a cheesecake renaissance in the United States. Several cookbooks were published focusing solely on cheesecake and the many ways it can be made and enjoyed.

In 1972, the Cheesecake Factory opened, slowly expanding over a decade, and opening America’s eyes to the numerous cheesecake possibilities. Plus, delis and diners across the nation had cake displays filled with eye-catching cheesecake desserts. It truly was a decadent decade.

1990s | Viennetta

A post shared by Chef Craig Wong (@craigwong)

For millennials, nearly every childhood birthday party memory involves an ice cream cake. Ice cream cakes were all the rage during the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to companies like Friendly’s and Carvel, but the height of ice cream cake excellence was the Viennetta.

This sophisticated ice cream cake was made of layers of fudgy chocolate and vanilla ice cream arranged in an ornate design. It was available at grocery stores, as well as some fast food restaurants. This nostalgic sweet is poised to make a comeback in the U.S. in 2021.

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