Photo: pamela_d_mcadams, Getty Images.
You might assume that your favorite treats – Oreos, Girl Scout cookies, toaster pastries, and the like – were the result of marketers, test subjects, and engineers with a profit to turn. But many of the sweet staples we grew up with or (over)eat on a regular basis today have humbler beginnings than you might imagine. Some were even happy accidents.
Stella Parks is an expert in iconic American desserts. In her new cookbook BraveTart, she shares the history of our country’s most beloved edibles and offers up her copycat versions so you can recreate them at home. Parks’ irresistible and versatile recipes for cookies, cakes, pies, doughnuts, and candy are accompanied by tantalizing photos, making this cookbook as enticing to ogle as it is to read. We gathered a few fun facts from the book about the treats that’ll make you nostalgic for a sweeter time in America’s history.
Graham Crackers Were Invented by a Prude
It’s funny ‘cause it’s true: graham crackers were invented by Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, leader of a cohort of “pro-fiber anti-sex crusaders” in the first half of the 1800s. He condemned commercially-made biscuits as well as white flour and finely milled whole wheat flour. His distrust of bakers led to a passive-aggressive retaliation from which the sweet version of the rectangular snacks we now know as graham crackers were born. As any modern taste bud can attest, graham crackers are certainly closer to cookies than crackers, ensuring that everything Graham rallied against is now an essential part of the treat’s recipe.
Thin Mints Are Chemically Engineered to be Delicious
What makes the combination of mint and chocolate taste so good? It’s the chemical effects of menthol; one whiff is all it takes to trigger your mouth’s cold receptors. Cookies didn’t catch on to this miracle of science until the 1930s, but soon, everyone from cookie corporations to local bakeries had a version of chocolate mint cookies. The Girl Scouts added Thin Mints (then called “Cooky-Mints”) in 1937 to bump up sales – and it must have worked, because they’re still a favorite Girl Scout cookie 80 years later.
Pop-Tarts Were Late to the Toaster Breakfast Pastry Party
If you’ve ever eaten a Pop-Tart cold, you know they don’t require a toaster. But the breakfast king, Kellogg’s, didn’t know that in the early 20th century. If they had, they might have started brainstorming on a line of the fruit-filled pastries sooner. While toasters existed prior to World War II, they weren’t the kind we’re accustomed to today; they required supervision, and sometimes a hand to flip the bread slices over. Then, during WWII, toaster factories were used to build bombs instead. So Kellogg’s sat on its laurels and enjoyed the profits from its market-dominating cereal brands. But soon pop-up toasters were developed and competitors created pop-up breakfast foods like toaster waffles and turnovers. When General Foods prepared to debut Country Squares Strawberry Pop-Ups in test markets in 1963, Kellogg’s scrambled to catch up – and when they did, Pop-Tarts quickly outpaced Country Squares’ sales thanks to Pop-Tarts’ high-energy ads and cavity-inducing frosting.
The Crunch Bar Was Created Out of Necessity
Chocolate was a luxury during the Great Depression, and Americans realized that one way to spread out the blissful treat was to melt it, stir in a handful of crushed saltines or soda crackers, and make a “chocolate crunch” candy bar out of it. Nestle ran with the idea – opting for puffed rice as its filler instead of crackers because the former was less expensive – and introduced its namesake Crunch Bar in 1938. It’s remained unparalleled in the market ever since while Hershey’s version, the Krackel bar, has been its stubborn runner-up.
Rice Krispies Treats Were First Made in Ball Form
Oh, those sticky, crunchy, craveable squares! But Rice Krispies Treats weren’t always that way. Back around 1920, before breakfast cereal truly took off, puffed rice was considered a confectionery, and molasses-based, candy corn-like treats called Puffed Rice Balls were the cereal dessert du jour…until Mildred Day came along. She created a sugary delight similar in chewy-crispy texture to Puffed Rice Balls but with fewer ingredients. Made from puffed rice, melted butter, and melted marshmallows, Day’s recipe was quick and convenient: just stir all the ingredients together and press them in a pan. In 1939, her Rice Krispies Marshmallow Squares appeared at a Kellogg’s-sponsored bake sale; the company took note, and soon her homemade creation was printed on cereal boxes everywhere.
Animal Crackers Weren’t Always So Sweet
Animal crackers of old bear little resemble to the sprinkled, pink-and-white frosted varieties we now know. In the early 1800s, cookies and crackers were called “biscuits” and were not the sickeningly sweet snacks common today. For decades, England satiated the United States’ biscuit appetites, and animal crackers were marketed as a way to encourage kids to finish soup. Ah, but leave it to the Americans to turn something innocuous into an addictive treat when Barnum’s Animals Crackers debuted its circus-themed snacks in 1902.
Oreo Has an Antagonistic History
Oreo spent much of its infancy in a brutal battle for consumers’ attention with fellow creme-filled chocolate wafer company Hydrox. We know which cookie won, obviously, but do you know how? Through a PR campaign pushing the “new Oreos,” redesigned and accompanied by a steep price increase. Suddenly Hydrox was considered a “low-budget, fuddy-duddy knockoff favored by penny-pinching grandpas” while Oreo became a household name.
Oatmeal Creme Pies Were Created Out of Desperation
A pair of friends were struggling to make their impulsively-purchased bakery thrive during the Great Depression. Their standard menu items – crispy vanilla and oatmeal raisin wafers – weren’t turning a high-enough profit, so the owners asked their bakers to soften the oatmeal raisin wafers and sandwiched them together with fake cream filling. (Marshmallow creme was all the rage at the time because it “gave desserts a supernatural shelf life, sans refrigeration.”) Thirty years later, one of the bakery owners’ sons joined the business and had the idea to wrap each oatmeal creme pie in cellophane and sell them in twelve-packs. To introduce the new “family packs,” the company gave it a logo and brand-named it after one of the owner’s three-year-old granddaughters. American sweet tooths have been gorging on Little Debbie ever since.