Whatever Happened to Baked Alaska? The Fates of Five Once-Faddish Dishes

Categories: Top Five

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The meringue makes it extra fancy.
In the course of researching Turkducken's real age last week, I turned to one of my favorite food resources on the Internet: the Food Timeline. If you're a food nerd, prepare to lose dozens of hours to the fascinating depths of the Food Timeline and its entries on the history of nearly every food or beverage you can think of.

One of my favorite things to do is peruse old foodstuffs that were once the pinnacle of popularity, and have since fallen out of style. During the height of at-home entertaining in the 1950s and 1960s, a dish's status was more or less determined by how expensive and laborious it was to prepare. During the 1970s and 1980s, dieting and calorie-counting diminished the popularity of many of these dishes as the foods of the fit and fabulous became ever more processed into low-fat, sodium-free versions of their former selves.

Nouvelle cuisine reached its height in the 1980s and 1990s -- think of the famous L'Idiot scene from L.A. Story -- and one day, food historians will look back at the 2000s as the decade when farm-to-table food and locavorism was favored above all else. The only question is which faddish foods we're eating now that will have completely fallen out of favor in a generation or two.

Here are five old favorites that have already fallen off the average foodie's radar, and are now resigned to food history timelines and the odd octogenarian-supported restaurant.

5. Steak Diane

According to the Food Timeline, Steak Diane "is an American invention of the late 1950s/early1960s, when French cooking (think Julia Child & the Kennedy White House menus) was all the rage. Rich wine sauces and flamboyant presentation were the norm for many top restaurants."

There are a handful of restaurants in Houston that still serve Steak Diane, places such as Brennan's and Rudi Lechner's. I like Brennan's, but I don't need to point out the one thing that these three restaurants have in common: a certain age demographic, which still wants its steak with a bucketload of butter on top and the theatricality of a flaming dose of cognac.

"The beef, sizzling in a large copper pan with brandy flaming and sauce bubbling," wrote Jean Anderson in American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century, "makes a wonderful show reminiscent of the days when Humphrey Bogart and friends would bound in at midnight following the newest opening on Broadway..." Hollywood doesn't really make them like Bogie anymore, and neither do restaurants create full-on spectacles like Steak Diane (with the notable exception of Gordon Ramsey above).

Gordon Ramsey makes Baked Alaska, too. Go figure!

4. Baked Alaska

"The history of Baked Alaska is an interesting study of food evolution and culinary folklore," says the Food Timeline. "Most food historians generally agree this confection originated in the 19th century. None of them are willing to commit with regards to 'absolute' credit." But no matter which origin story you believe, the fact of the matter is that traditional Baked Alaska is rarely seen in its original form these days: ice cream baked for a short time in a very hot oven, guarded from the heat by a meringue shell.

Baked Alaska reached the height of its popularity during the middle of the last century. Wrote Sylvia Lovegren in Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, "Ice cream pies were very chic [in the 1950s], and baked Alaska ice cream pie was too soigne for words." The feminine look of the thing even mimicked the pastel design aesthetic that was popular at the time.

But ice cream pies gave way to other desserts in the 1960s, specifically cakes: red velvet cake, Black Forest cake and Texas sheet cake soon became the things that everyone brought to potlucks and parties, and ice cream-based desserts began to fade into obscurity.

There are still a few places where you can find Baked Alaska -- like the Oceanaire in the Galleria -- but more common these days are updates and interpretations of the old dessert. Take, for instance, pastry chef Rebecca Masson's individual Baked Alaskas with strawberry sour cream ice cream and a cap of toasted meringue on top.

Location Info

Brennan's of Houston

3300 Smith, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Oceanaire Seafood Room

5061 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Rudi Lechner's Restaurant and Bar

2503 S. Gessner Road, Houston, TX

Category: Music

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47 comments
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Mike
Mike

Five years ago I turned my new wife and her son onto Steak Diane at home. They went beserk-loved it and now have me do it for her birthday every year. I was taught how to make it by Chef Pete Voris at the old Chateaubriand in Dallas many years ago. I think it might be making a comeback:)Mike

MadMac
MadMac

It's funny how people apply status to food and then refer to it (the food) in passing as fashion or fad and not the people. I think it was last season's Top Chef where they slammed fondue. Meanwhile, I just discovered bagna cauda, (from watching Babylon 5 reruns) and I think it's the greatest dish since pizza. An Italian form of fondue, the bagna prominently features sardines and/or anchovies, also long passe' but enjoying new interest for the flavors. Go figure.

mikhastur and Wine Lush, the simple appearance of aspic derails my train of thought but I commend your qualification of the technique.  

WineLush
WineLush

I like aspic. Delish but if you know how to make it. It melts on your tongue. Obviously you had some cheap impatient bastard put some Knox gelatin in yours. Trust me, real aspic is a beautiful thing.

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mikhastur
mikhastur

so wrong about aspic.  if your aspic is the color of sewage or tastes disgusting, you're not doing it right.  aspic is still done well in France where any self-respecting traiteur will offer several items in aspic.  many pates and terrines are also sealed with a layer of aspic.  part of the problem may be that good aspic requires great broth, something about which most americans are, unfortunately, utterly clueless.

Zachary_Bos
Zachary_Bos

The Somerset Club in Boston, I believe may still be doing baked Alaska for its members.

Larry
Larry

Aspic just makes me think of the movie "Dinner At Eight," where a crisis is caused when two servants get in a fight and drop the aspic (which was in the shape of the British Lion).

debonair
debonair

Phew! I though for a moment that Palin was back in the news. But that would have been "half-baked Alaskan",right?

Morey Soffo
Morey Soffo

When I transferred from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Four in late 1979, then deployed to Camp Covington, Guam, my Hail-&-Farewell party menu for myself and my replacement at the CPO Mess included Baked Alaska.  I don't remember having it since.  The fact that it was included by whoever planned the menu should serve as conculsive proof that there have always been Gays as integral members of the Armed Forces. 

Aardvark
Aardvark

 I had all of these(except the aspic) on cruises in the last 4 weeks! So they are not dead and gone but alive and well on the high seas.....and no I am not 70 years old lol

Lynne Olver, editor
Lynne Olver, editor

Great article! Glad you find our Food Timeline useful. If you have questions about other foods (popular or not) let us know. Service is free and welcomes everyone. Lynne Olver, editorThe Food Timelinefoodtimeline@aol.com

obbop
obbop

What?? No spam recipes???  Sacrilege!!!!!

esther
esther

i look forward to the day when this post is titled "whatever happened to molten lava cake and creme brulee?" when are those going to disappear?

Stephanie
Stephanie

Baked Alaska looks easy. Now, just to convince my husband that I really do need a culinary blowtorch.. :)

apoorcitizen
apoorcitizen

There was a local restaurant that had baked Alaska on its menu but it closed back in the 80's when the owner died. It was a dish sized sponge cake topped with homemade strawberry ice cream, covered in a rich meringue coating, then toasted. It would serve a hearty person or two normal people. They were small but very tasty except the $20 price was a killer. My wife made these at home several times and they were really a treat for that special dinner.

Guest
Guest

How can you call yourself any kind of writer at all if you don't even know the difference between "Throws" and "Throes?" 

It looks like they're giving out degrees to anyone these days.

Thursday Girl
Thursday Girl

Dude. Maybe it's just because I'm stoned, but that Baked Alaska video is the fucking filthiest thing I've seen in weeks. "It's Christmas ... be generous with your meringue ..."

LOL!!!!!

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

I think tableside preparations have fallen out of favor with the move toward efficiency in restaurants and the demise of the professional waiter.  Too much training involved, and too much time away from other guests.

Dietary trends are an obvious factor, but I think even greater is issue of bored reviewers.  So often you'll see a standard described as "boring" or "tired" even if its execution is excellent.  Professional critics eat out far more than the typical patron, and I think they berate dishes that many patrons would enjoy, and swoon over novelties that might not appeal to most diners.

The result is a restaurant that's great for a critic or a foodie, but doesn't offer as much for the typical patron.  Not surprisingly, these places don't seem to last very long.  Laidback Manor, anyone?

Erin
Erin

Branch Water Tavern had a Baked Alaska on their menu that was yummy - not sure if it's still available. The Lobster Thermidor at the Rainbow Lodge (recipe featured in Houston Classic Seafood cookbook) and at Oceanaire is delicious!

Christina Uticone
Christina Uticone

I have some experience with baked Alaska. Not the dessert ;-)

Corey
Corey

Haha had steak and lobster in a ton of garlicy butter last night, bucking your so called trends.. :)

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Sangeli99
Sangeli99

Chiefs were always spoiled and gays in the Seabees come on that's blasphemous!

Morey Soffo
Morey Soffo

If you go to the Safeway by the Mormon temple in Honolulu you can find Instant Poi. 

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I also feel that I should have expanded the list to include fondue. Next time, next time...

mikhastur
mikhastur

creme brulee is a classic that will likely rule eternally.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I feel like the molten lava cake, for sure, has begun its downhill slide...

MadMac
MadMac

Call it a cigar tor-- wait, you really have to sell a man on the necessity of incendiary devices?

_sramsey68
_sramsey68

I didn't find the article badly written, I just wondered about the state of the American school system since the writer knew the sprit of the phrase but not the spelling.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Will you be generous with your meringue this Christmas, Rebecca?  ;)

MadMac
MadMac

Really, really late to this little gem of a party, so I'll take it further explanation isn't forth (or fifth) coming?

Larry
Larry

Definitely. I remember when fondue was a big fad, and everybody had to have a fondue pot and little spears.

dwightbrown
dwightbrown

"I also feel that I should have expanded the list to include fondue."

Well, except from what I can tell, The Melting Pot chain is doing okay.

Now crepes, that's a different story. I remember there being a crepe boom in the 70s-early 80s. (And, yes, I have fond memories of the Magic Pan.) Now, it is hard to find savory crepes on a menu anywhere. Dessert crepes, you can still find in some places, but not crepes stuffed with beef bourguignon, or chicken and mushrooms, or...

(The only two places I can think of that serve crepes today are the Original Pancake House chain, which isn't open for dinner, and a crepe trailer in Austin. That's it.)

esther
esther

we were in hawaii recently and it's very much the hot ticket on every dessert menu. that, and new york cheesecake. no joke.

John K.
John K.

La Madeleine has 2 savory crepes, and 1 sweet one.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Melange Creperie? CoCo's Crepes? Both are doing very well right now; Melange even opened a second location in the Heights last week.  :)

MadMac
MadMac

Sadly, no. I welcome the cheesecake, (any variety) as a port in the storm of a dessert menu gone wrong and all too often, it's not there. At Jardiniere's in SF, we were served an honest-to-God deconstructed Milkyway bar. I would've preferred, (and paid the same price for) a regular Milkyway bar.

John Seaborn Gray
John Seaborn Gray

New York cheesecake is on every damn dessert menu. A crime, when you almost never find the far superior French variety offered.

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