top of page

7 things people used to eat for dessert

Much like fashion trends, culinary tastes have changed over time, and once-common dishes have given way to new ingredients, easier preparation methods, and more refined recipes. Desserts, in particular, have seen a rise in popularity over the centuries. Originally served alongside savory items on the dinner table, sweet dishes were moved to the final course of the meal in 17th-century Europe, and cookbooks dedicated to dessert recipes started appearing around the same time.

The affordability and availability of sugar during this era was largely responsible for this culinary shift, due to the work of enslaved people on colonial plantations in the Caribbean. As chocolate, coffee, and tea were introduced to Europe, demand for the sweet stuff increased as well. Sugar, which had previously been used sparingly as a preservative or to sweeten savory dishes, became the main ingredient in new recipes, leading to an endless array of possibilities for cakes, pies, and other sweet treats. Here are seven old-fashioned desserts that were once commonly served, but are rarely seen today. While some of these foods may seem familiar as the recipes have been updated over the years to accommodate modern tastes, others are reminders of different times in history when people made do with what they had.

Mincemeat Pie

Dating back to Europe’s medieval era,mincemeat pie (or mince pie) was a finely chopped mixture of meat — traditionally mutton — along with dried fruit and spices. The spices and natural fruit sugars helped preserve the food as well as overpower the flavor of meat on the verge of spoiling. By the end of the Victorian era, the primary ingredients of mincemeat pies were fruit, spices, and beef suet, a hard animal fat. While they’re not very common in the U.S. today, mincemeat pies are still a popular Christmas dessert in the U.K., and vegetarian pies are readily available.

Tomato soup cake

The earliest recipe for tomato soup cake dates back to 1922, and some accounts say the dessert was popular among Irish immigrants in New England. The can of condensed tomato soup the recipe calls for yields a moist red-orange cake that doesn’t taste like tomatoes at all, thanks to the cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg in the mix. This unusual spice cake was popular through the 1930s and 1940s, when Depression-era and wartime shortages called for culinary creativity. People sought out affordable substitutes that could stand in for pricier ingredients (such as tomatoes) without sacrificing flavor. In the 1940s, the Campbell Soup Company began experimenting with variations on the tomato soup cake recipe and, in 1960, printed a version on its tomato soup label — the first recipe to appear on a soup can.

Shoofly pie

Shoofly pie is a molasses-based pie with a crumbly, streusel-like topping. No one knows for sure how the pie got its name, but it might be from the fact that its sweet and sticky surface tends to attract flies, or from an early brand of molasses called Shoofly Molasses. According to some sources, the recipe for shoofly pie dates to 1876, originating with a crust-free molasses cake called centennial cake that was served to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Other sources attribute the recipe to the German immigrants of Pennsylvania Dutch country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who may have used molasses in a variation of an older British recipe known as a treacle tart. This sweet and crumbly pie is still popular among the Amish and Mennonite communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Carrot pudding

Before carrot cake, there was carrot pudding. A recipe in the 1591 English cookbook A Book of Cookrye describes carrot pudding as a savory pudding made of chopped liver, breadcrumbs, spices, dates, and sugar that is then stuffed inside a hollow carrot. By the 18th century, carrot pudding had evolved into a sweet dessert baked in a pastry shell, similar to pumpkin pie. Another variation called steamed carrot pudding was made with shredded carrots and potatoes and steamed in a gelatin mold.


Fruitcake dates back to the ancient Romans, who made a mash of barley, dried fruit, honey, and wine to sustain their soldiers in battle. During the early medieval era, it evolved into European yeast breads such as stollen and panettone, which were packed with candied citrus and alcohol-infused dried fruits. The cakelike version that became popular in the U.S. arrived with the British colonists. Preserving fruits for winter fruitcake involved cutting fruit into small pieces, boiling it in sugar syrup, tossing it in granulated sugar, and allowing it to dry. These candied fruits could then be baked in a spiced cake batter. There are dozens of variations on fruitcake, with some recipes calling for the cake to be baked weeks in advance and then brushed weekly with liquor or simple syrup. Though fruitcake is still around, it’s rarely made anymore and ranks as one of the least popular holiday desserts.


Also known as “jumbals” or “jumballs,” jumblesare a type of butter cookie that predates the modern sugar cookie. Historians believe the recipe originated in the Middle East and may have been introduced to Europe by Muslims in Spain and Portugal before it was brought to the New World by 16th-century explorers. Made from butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, jumbles were flavored with rosewater or spices, and then shaped into thick rounds or knots before being baked or boiled. Because they traveled well and could be stored for months, they remained popular for centuries, with dozens of recipe variations. Four jumble recipes, including “lemon jumbals” and “almond jumbals,” are included in Martha Washington’s family cookbook, Booke of Cookery

Vinegar pie

Though it was a popular Depression-era dessert, vinegar pie dates back to the 19th century. Mimicking the tartness of lemons, this sweet and tangy pie could be made all year long by substituting apple cider vinegar for citrus, which was expensive when out of season. As one of several so-called “desperation” or “make-do” pies, vinegar pie could be made from a handful of staples that home cooks usually had on hand. Other desperation pies included buttermilk pie, chess pie, and even water pie.

84 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page