Recently, I had dinner with a friend at a funky Seattle café that follows today’s popular farm-to-table movement, sourcing only local, seasonal ingredients from small farmers who ply their trade organically, with the Chef crafting those products into simple, comfort-food style menus that change weekly.
The storefront restaurant was housed in a building that had been given new life in one of Seattle’s resurgent urban neighborhoods. From the outside, it looked like a 1930’s travel postcard hand-painted in pastel colors. The staff numbered two -- the chef and a waitress -- and the tiny little dining area had no more than five tables. The focal point of the room was a 1960’s-era wood stereo cabinet boasting a small collection of albums from the days when spinning vinyl LP’s were how we listened to music. Tony Bennett’s All-Time Greatest Hits (1972) spun during dinner. (At the time, we were the only customers in the place, so we weren’t worried about offending other patrons with a scratchy rendition of “Love Look Away.”)
The setting was perfect for ending dinner on a sweet note with a “vintage” dessert appropriate to the retro stereo, the décor of the room, and the vibe of the neighborhood. We settled on the “Hazelnut Bundt Cake” served with fresh “Honey Ice Cream,” a confection that would have been comfortable reposing on a luncheonette counter in the mid-60’s, (although back then we would have called it a “Filbert Bundt Cake”).
What came to the table was a meek, withered slab of cake; the only redeeming part of the presentation was a cool scoop of golden honey ice cream. A heavy hand with the hazelnuts overpowered the delicate balance of the the cake, rendering it dry and gummy. A thin veil of powdered-sugar glaze did nothing to rescue it from the dry depths of despair.
We turned to the ice cream, hoping it would earn the dish a passing grade, but something had gone terribly wrong in the process of crafting the ice cream. Little ice crystals had formed throughout the custard. Instead of smooth, silky, sweetness, our plea was rebuffed with a mouth of cold sand.
The Chef had made some glaring errors in technique and the results were embarrassing. The urge to use the season’s first fresh hazelnuts in strict accordance with the restaurant’s mission of “farm-to-table” had resulted in a cake so disappointing that it wouldn’t even merit the back table at your local elementary school cakewalk.
No doubt, responsibly raised bees and an organic hazelnut orchard are beautiful things to behold. But sitting in that little café in a building erected decades ago, listening to the bluesy sounds of Tony Bennett, I wasn’t thinking so much about today’s “farm-to-table” culture as much as I was imagining a slice of one of America’s favorite cakes and what a delightful ending to this meal, in this quaint, cozy little setting, it would have been.
Unfortunately, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake wasn’t on the menu.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake once shared Formica-lined diner counters with other luminaries of the cake world like the “Burnt-Sugar Cake with 7-Minute Frosting,” the “Strawberry Bavarian Icebox Cake,” and the often-praised “7-Up Angel Food Cake with Pink Lady Whipped Cream.”
It’s impossible to document the precise day that the first slice of Pineapple Upside-Down Cake was served. We do know that it’s a youngster in the history of cake, with its likely roots in the roaring 20’s. It’s a quintessentially American cake -- the product of innovation by an entrepreneurial spirit with both business and agricultural interests who developed methods for growing, harvesting and canning pineapple on a commercial scale never before seen.
Mr. James Drummond Dole (1877-1958) is widely known as the “Pineapple King.” Armed with an impressive educational resume from Harvard (degrees in both agriculture and business), Dole moved from his home in New England to Hawaii in 1899 and invested in a 64-acre farm on the island of Oahu.
Commercial pineapple canneries of the time employed hundreds of workers to harvest fruit in the fields. Hand labor continued in the canneries where the pineapples had to be peeled and cored by hand. Dole introduced automation, changing the face of the industry. Prior to Mr. Dole’s innovations, the thought of a Midwestern family in the Midwest enjoying a fresh Hawaiian pineapple would have been absurd. But now Americans could enjoy the exotic taste of canned Hawaiian pineapple in all its sweet, tangy, tropical glory within just a few days of harvest. (In the ensuing years, Dole expanded his empire, eventually becoming the steward of more than 75% of the world’s pineapple crop.)
Mr. Dole’s contributions were monumental advancements for the American food industry. The introduction of canning fresh pineapple in a sugar-water syrup gave the home cook a delicious new product at low cost that would result in the birth of the Pineapple Upside Down Cake.
Dole was also an early adopter of the new art of advertising canned food products to America. Hand-painted billboards, colored posters in shop windows, and magazine and newspaper ads were just a few of the forms of advertising used to promote the wondrous flavors of Dole pineapple. Yet Dole needed something more -- something big -- to advertise the virtues of his canned pineapple to American home cooks. He would find that big break in a recipe contest.
In 1925, Dole ran a national advertising campaign, offering up prizes of $50 for each of the 100 recipes that would be selected for the cookbook featuring dishes using his pineapple products. The contest was a rousing success, garnering upwards of 60,000 entries -- including somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 recipes for Pineapple Upside-Down Cakes. One of those found its way into Dole’s cookbook – and the overwhelming number of Upside-Down Cake entries in the contest tells one that cooks had been baking the cake at home far earlier than 1925.
Prior to 1925, home cooks might have used fresh pineapple (a rarity in those days) in their cakes, or maybe they used homemade canned pineapple (also rare); most likely, Dole’s product was a convenient replacement for a variety of other fresh or preserved fruits. But it was Dole’s ad campaign that garnered national publicity for his new packaging, and formalized the name for this delicious new cake. Dole’s gift to America’s kitchens would go on to inspire thousands of new recipes using pineapple.
While Mr. Dole was harvesting and canning pineapples in the Hawaiian Islands, some 2,500 miles to the North, in the small college town of Corvallis, Oregon, Ernest H. Wiegand, Professor of Horticulture at Oregon State College (today Oregon State University), was developing modern technology for brining and processing maraschino cherries on a large scale for distribution in America, obviating the need for importation of a European luxury.
Into the late 1890’s, the Italian Marasca cherry was served in fancy cocktails at exclusive hotel bars, and was known primarily to upper class Americans and the royal families of Europe. Marascas were beyond the means of most Americans since they were imported; preservation in liqueur added even more to the cost.
Since the turn of the century, American cherry producers had been experimenting with cost-effective methods of preserving cherries, substituting American grown Queen Anne and Royal Anne cherries for the more expensive Marascara varietals. They tinkered with different flavoring agents like almond extract as a substitution for the liqueur and began adding red dyes to give the cherries a more attractive appearance. When Prohibition came in 1920, importation of Marascas stopped, yet America had developed an appetite for little red gems in their highballs and shots of bathtub gin.
Some camps will argue that Professor Wiegand was looking for ways to get rid of excess cherries that weren’t good enough for canned pie cherry production or for fresh eating cherries. Others say he was trying to develop a cherry due to the limits of Prohibition.
However, the studious Professor was simply experimenting. He wasn’t trying to make political statements or setting out to make a profit. Ever the typical tinkering Oregonian when it came to agricultural improvements, Wiegand was attempting to develop a brining process that could operate on a large scale and would result in a sweet cherry with a crisp crunch and bright red appearance.
Sound scientific research and development in his Corvallis campus laboratory during the 20’s led Wiegand to a modern method for processing maraschinos, a replacement for the soft fruits that were were being marketed in lieu of the Italian original. Wiegand’s cherries – with stem attached so they had the appearance of ripe red cherries just off the tree -- would change the candied cherry industry in America.
Professor Wiegand’s maraschino cherry technology was introduced in 1925, the same year that Mr. Dole’s recipe contest blazed through America’s kitchens. Today the production process hasn’t changed much from the formulas Professor Wiegand developed more than 80 years ago; today, Wiegand Hall on the campus at Oregon State serves students studying food technology and horticulture.
The cake that won the 1925 contest was not garnished with maraschino cherries. They were most likely added to the recipe in 1926 or 1927 when the “new” style of maraschino cherries were first bottled and found their way to market shelves.
Professor’s Wiegand’s cherries quickly became the signature garnish for Mr. Dole’s cake. These two unlikely partners — the businessman from Hawaii and the Professor from Corvallis — changed food technology and food production in America and, by a simple twist of fate, perfected an American classic, the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake.
In the years since Dole’s 1925 recipe contest, cooks have concocted all manner of variations of the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, including such dreadful sounding dishes as the “Orleans Fruit Cake” -- a 1957 entrant in the 9th Grand National Pillsbury Bake-Off.
The Orleans Cake is loosely based on the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake -- fruit placed in the bottom of a pan and a sponge-cake batter poured on top. But that’s the only distant relationship between the two. The Orleans cake replaces pineapple with pecans and watermelon-rind pickles. Watermelon-rind pickles, a delicious accompaniment to a tuna-salad sandwich, have no business in a Pineapple Upside-Down Cake.
Cooks have also tampered with the proven taste foundations of the Pineapple Upside Down Cake by adapting the technique for savory dishes -- all efforts resulting in questionable results. In a recipe for “Pineapple Upside-Down Ham Loaf,” (in the 1942 edition of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook), the cook is instructed to mix combine dry mustard, vinegar and sugar and sprinkle this mixture in the bottom of a baking dish. Canned pineapple slices are placed on the dry sugar mix, and on top of that, a layer of ground cooked ham, pork shoulder, eggs, milk and cracker crumbs -- a sort of Hawaiian meat loaf if you will.
This is an affront to the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. (Personally, I’ve never understood the affection for the pairing of ham and pineapple, in cakes or on pizza, and calling it “Hawaiian.”).
To the uninitiated, a Pineapple Upside-Down Cake appears to be an unwieldy concoction that is difficult to re-create, but from a technical standpoint, the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake is actually quite easy to make. The list of ingredients is typically no more than 10 or 12, all of which can be purchased at any supermarket. Still, the guises in which cooks cloak the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake are endless. In a rush to create the latest trendy derivative of this famous cake, we are subjected to such concoctions as the Daffodil Upside-Down Cake, the Fuzzy Navel Upside-Down Cake, (apparently a blend of peaches and liquor), Pineapple Upside-Down Mini Bundt Cakes and a regional favorite of the upper-Midwest, the Pineapple Upside-Down Wisconsin Gouda Cake.
Fresh cherries -- even the original, noble Marasca -- are a poor substitute for Wiegand’s maraschinos, when used to stud the rings of pineapple in an upside-down cake. They leak juice when baked, watering down the sticky caramel syrup that binds the pineapple to the cake. Fresh cherries don’t have the snappy crunch or that sweet taste of the maraschino.
No, only maraschino cherries will do for your Pineapple Upside-Down Cake -- and they must be red -- not green or one of the new-age fluorescent colors of maraschino cherries that are becoming popular in markets today. Day-glo blue cherries were definitely not a part of our food culture in 1925, nor should they be today when you make your special cake.
A few weeks after the Hazelnut Cake disappointment, I wrote my friend to tell him I was writing about Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, wondering if he had any special memories of Pineapple Upside-Down Cake when he was growing up in 1950s Philadelphia. To my surprise, I learned that his Mother had never baked him one. “Why,” she asked, “Would I make you a cake upside-down when I can make you one right-side-up?”
Ida Richman was only being practical -- why would any sane homemaker go to the trouble of baking a cake upside-down? What if upside-down cakes required special pans, ovens or mystical techniques? And I suppose we fear that which we have not baked -- and let’s not parse the argument that all cakes are baked “upside-down” and then turned out, before being slathered in frosting.
We needn’t pity her son. A childhood bereft of this iconic dessert did not scar the dear boy for life. Still, I hope that the next time I have dinner with Ida’s son Alan, dessert will be a nice slice of Pineapple Upside-Down Cake.
David Ross lives in Spokane, but works a one-hour plane ride away. When he's not tending to his day job -- or commuting -- he writes about food, reviews restaurants and does food presentation. He is on the eGullet Society hosting team.
Photos by the author.