Origins of the Popular Desserts that May Surprise You


A full meal is never complete without desserts. But long ago, ordinary people didn’t eat desserts. Sweets and cakes were offered to deities by the ancient Mesopotamian people. Time passed and they became available for mere humans, but only for the upper-class society. Alexander the Great and Emperor Nero enjoyed their crushed ice flavored with honey or fruit, but their servants had to sprint up to the mountain to get some ice and prepare it.

Thank goodness, we now exist in the 21st century where we are able to enjoy wide varieties of desserts available — ice cream, cakes, pies, sorbets, chocolates, parfaits — you name it! You might be enjoying your sweet treat now but you probably don’t think about how it came to existence. Here are some surprising backstories of the popular desserts you enjoy:
Ice cream float

1. Ice cream float

In the early 1900s, you can order an ice cream float in pharmacies in the US. As carbonated drinks were marketed as a miracle cure, most pharmacies had soda fountains. The pharmacist or employee that serves it was called soda jerks, and they would create a “cream soda” by combining soda water with some heavy cream and a tablespoon of vanilla syrup.

Legend has it that the first ice cream float was created in 1874 by accident by Robert McCay Green, a pharmacist at the Philadelphia Exposition. On a hot day, Mr. Green ran out of cold ice for the flavored sodas he was selling and substituted it with vanilla ice cream. The rest is history.


2. Sweet potato pie

The sweet potato pie was popular among wealthy white people in the southern United States, but it was the black slaves who were doing the planting, harvesting, and cooking. Even though slaves were working with sweet potatoes in big houses, most of them did not have the right equipment or heat sources to bake a pie properly. It was only after slavery ended when black people had access to better equipment and key ingredients.

In the early 20th century, a black scientist – not a farmer or a chef – came up with his own recipe for the sweet potato pie, which featured sliced rounds instead of the regular mash. He was George Washington Carver, who developed more than a hundred uses for sweet potatoes. His research helped popularize the crop, and recipes began to circulate across the country.


3. Popsicles

This summer indulgence was actually created by an 11-year-old boy named Frank Epperson by accident. One night in 1905, he accidentally left a glass of filled with water, powdered soda mix and a wooden stick for stirring – outside their house overnight. When Frank found the glass in the morning, the mixture was frozen solid, so he ran the glass under hot water and removed the ice pop using the stick as a handle. He called his creation “Epsicle” and continued to create it to share with his friends, and later on, with his own children.

Epperson filed for a patent for his invention in 1923. That time, he still called his frozen treats “epsicles,” but his children called it “Pop’s ‘sicles.” The latter name stuck and the Popsicle brand name was born.

Snow cones

4. Snow cones

The American Industrial Revolution made ice commercially available in the 1850s. Ice houses in New York would sell ice to Florida. They would use wagons carrying ice blocks to transport the ice, passing through Baltimore where children would run up to the wagon and ask for small scrapings of ice. Mothers started to make flavoring as they expect their children to go home with the ice they received. The first flavor they made remains a favorite in Baltimore: the egg custard, which is made up of eggs, sugar, and vanilla.

The snow cones remain as a Baltimore tradition today and it has become a popular refreshment treat at the movie theaters.


5. Chocolates

Long before cocoa was used to make chocolate candy bars, it was brewed as a bitter health tonic mixed with water, honey, vanilla, chili peppers and other spices in Central America. The Aztecs and Mayans believed that the dark elixir had medicinal properties that can cure different ailments. When the Spanish brought the concoction back to Europe in the 17th century, the cocoa was developed into a sweetened drink. Its nutritional and aphrodisiac benefits were discovered and were mostly enjoyed by the European elite.

When the cocoa powder was invented in 1828, it quickly gave way to the first chocolate bar. Decades later, the Swiss created chocolate candy and introduced the world to milk chocolate and chocolate fondant.


6. Jelly

This jiggly dessert is made more popular by Jell-0 in the 1960s, but its origin stretches back centuries. One of the first evidence of gelatin-making started with boiling down scraps of animal bone and skin to release collagen. The most typical gelatin was calf’s foot jelly, which was obviously made out of calf foot, and was used in savory dishes during the early 1400s. Collagen-rich pig’s ears and feet were also boiled and then filtered into specialized bags.

In the 18th century, people started to flavor gelatin with sugar, lemon juice, and mixed spices. The mixture was called Jelly. Eventually, animal parts were not used anymore for stabilizing the jelly because the fruit juice contains pectin, which is found in the cell walls of all fruits.

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