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Diner Desserts

Martha Stewart Living, August 2007

Recipes
Sour-Cherry Pie
Carrot Cake
Cheesecake with Blueberry Topping
Chocolate Cake with Coconut-Pecan Frosting
Banana Cream Pie
Chocolate-Peanut Butter Pie

When Walter Scott quit his job to sell food from a horse-drawn wagon in Providence, Rhode Island, in the mid-19th century, he knew what he had to do to succeed: make dessert.

Scott baked several varieties of small fruit pies during the day -- including apple, cranberry, huckleberry, and mincemeat -- and then peddled half-pies to night-shift workers, along with sandwiches, for 5 cents each, says Richard J. S. Gutman, curator of the Johnson & Wales University Culinary Archives & Museum in Providence. Carts like Scott's soon flourished and eventually evolved into the sleek, silvery structures commonly associated with the classic diner era of the 1950s. As America's car culture took hold, these establishments spread along the country's highways and into cities' burgeoning suburbs, attracting families with their homey cooking.

Diners advanced from 19th-century sandwich carts to a modern restaurant icon largely because of their desserts. In the early days, diners were a man's domain, says Daniel Zilka, director of the American Diner Museum in Providence. They were places to have a slice of pie, a cup of coffee, and a cigar. Women didn't eat out as frequently, and when they did venture out, they visited tearooms that offered daintier desserts. It wasn't until the 1930s that diner operators introduced booths and waitress service to court female customers, says food historian Michael Karl Witzel, author of "The American Diner" (MBI Publishing; 1999). "Booths were considered more ladylike than lunch-counter stools, to say nothing of being more comfortable if you were wearing a dress," Witzel says. Diner owners also expanded the dessert options considerably, adding towering layer cakes, puddings of all sorts, and other fancier sweets they thought might appeal to women.

It worked. During the 1940s and '50s, diners were enjoying their heyday -- and brandishing their desserts like Tiffany jewel displays. Glass cases backed with mirrors showed off all manner of pies. Customers seated at the counter enjoyed an eye-level view of glass-domed stands. Menu boards featured an abundance of options including custard, gelatin, ice cream, cobbler, and pudding. A 1946 menu from the Center Diner in Delaware touted six desserts on the regular menu and another four among its daily specials. By 1953, with Americans flush with postwar prosperity, many diners offered nearly two dozen desserts, whether a 20-cent piece of custard pie or a fruit-topped cheesecake for 50 cents a slice.

Diners fell out of favor after the 50s, succumbing to the convenience and novelty of ordering milk shakes at drive-ins. But chances are fast-food restaurants have never inspired anyone to dream of a dessert once ordered -- or to attempt to replicate it, years later, at home.