The Big Idea: Stella Parks

I’ve eaten Stella Parks‘ desserts, and, oh, man, they are so good. So I’m delighted to give her space today to let her tell you about her debut cookbook BraveTart, which examines and celebrates a branch of America’s culinary tradition Parks thinks is overlooked and underappreciated. Is she right? Read on.


When people hear that I’m a classically trained pastry chef or that I work at a place called Serious Eats, most everyone will ask how I got my start. I can’t help but imagine they want to hear about a magical summer in France or else how I learned to bake at my mother’s side. Maybe they want me to say that I always loved Julia Child, or that I saved up my allowance to buy my first croissant. Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way at all.

I grew up in suburban Kentucky, my summers spent with Puddin’ Pops on the porch, my winters passed one mug of Swiss Miss at a time. I loved the tongue-scorching sweetness of a McDonald’s apple pie from the drive-thru window and the muffled scrape of a plastic spoon against the bottom of a chocolate pudding cup (the tinfoil lid curled back and licked clean, natch). At the supermarket, I learned the heft to a tube of cookie dough, the lightness in a bag of marshmallows, and the rattle of rainbow sprinkles in a plastic jar. That’s how I got my start—somewhere between the milk-logged squish of an Oreo and the snap of a Crunch bar.

Sure, it sounds a little trashy compared to that whole Proust thing with madeleines and tea, but I find those bites are just as transportive, little triggers that send me flying back through time. Chances are, if you grew up in America, you’ve got some memories like that as well. Maybe it’s the a dollop of Cool Whip on pumpkin pie, the sticky fingered bliss of an ice cream sandwich, or that familiar slab of birthday cake on the conference room table. Those shared experiences, however mundane, connect us across most every demographic.

It’s a common phenomenon, but a culinary tradition we pay little respect—we call it junk food. Truth is, mass produced snacks have a lineage as respectable as any other. Animal crackers, vanilla wafers, and Fig Newtons all date back to the 1800s, and even newcomers like Rice Krispies Treats, Reese’s Cups, and Milky Way bars are nearly a hundred years old. For anyone raised in America and alive today, these sweets have always been a familiar part of life. Yet they’re not really ours; industrial formulas are subject to change or even cancellation outright (RIP, Coke Zero; adios, Magic Middles).

So when I set out to write a cookbook about American desserts, I knew I couldn’t leave the “junk food” behind. It had damn well earned a place at the table—right alongside “proper” American desserts like devil’s food cake, chocolate chip cookies, and apple pie. With that mandate in mind, I spent nearly six years writing, researching, and developing recipes for everything from Snickers to snickerdoodles. In the end, I don’t think of it as a cookbook so much as a culinary time capsule, stuffed full of recipes, vintage images, history, and photography to tell the story of American desserts as a whole.


BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author on Serious Eats, Twitter, and Instagram, or on tour.

12 Comments on “The Big Idea: Stella Parks”

  1. Oh Yum! This takes me back to the Tasty Freeze chocolate shake – I don’t think it was actually called a shake, and maybe it tasted a little bit like Wendy’s Frosties. There’s a whole story there, but I won’t bore you with it. Just know that one short blog took me right back to the beginning of my memory. it may be junk food, but it’s very much a part of my life.

  2. I was going to come back to add a comment on the ARC discussion a few days ago because I heard Stella Parks on MarketPlace last night. I’ve usually no interested in reading cookbooks but the stories of how these foods came to be could be very interesting.

  3. Cool…makes me want to go hunt down one my old favorites…the Mallo Cup…official candy bar of Altoona, Pa. (…suck on it Hershey!).

  4. You had me at “Fig Newtons”.

    Since I already bookmarked Stella’s recipe at SeriousEats, I should just buy the book.

  5. As a Gilligan’s Island fan, I always wanted to try a coconut cream pie as a kid, but for some reason that dream came true. But there’s a recipe for it in this book, so I’m going to get it just for that. And the Nutter Butter cookies.

  6. I suppose this should be sad, but I’ve been disappointed so many times tasting the treats of my childhood, that I no longer feel much nostalgia. Too many such treats, of course, were rather awful, even back then. I remember nearly flavorless Yankee Doodle cupcakes and the weird waxy fillings in most Hostess and Drake products. There was the fake buttery taste of most store bought cookies and the overly intense synthetic flavor of anything supposedly fruit flavored. Was chocolate milk as bad as I remembered? Do I really want to know?

    Even treats I enjoyed disappoint. Were they always like that, or have they been reformulated to taste bland, overly sweet and oddly fatty? I vaguely remember Snickers bars, for example, as having saltier peanuts inside contrasting with the caramel, but now they taste like mush. Hershey bars used to have a rich cocoa and chocolate flavor. Now they taste like some kind of homogenized sugar and Crisco mix. Did they bring back the World War II formulation? I still like chocolate. I just need a more powerful, and usually more expensive, fix.

    A few things are unchanged though. Bit O’Honey’s are still good when I can find them. Oddly, they were my mother’s favorites too, when she was a child in the 1920s, nearly a century ago. Ditto for half and half cookies. The few bakeries that still sell them sell a good version, possibly because they were never picked up as a product by any major food brand.

    This gives me hope. I’d like to believe that Stella Parks has created an imaginary cookbook, that is, a cookbook that captures one’s imaginations and memories, not the actual flavors and textures of one’s childhood treats. Even as a child I was often disappointed in my food. Why be disappointed as a grownup? If Stella Parks has a recipe for what a Yankee Doodle was supposed to taste like, not what it actually tasted like, perhaps this is a cookbook worth exploring.

  7. This is going on the library hold list for sure – we love reading cookbooks.

  8. Dear Stella,

    This is a wonderful thing you have done.

    Where does Bravetart fall in relation to the classic “The Junk Food Cookbook?” Do the two complement? Compare? Contrast?

    pax / Ctein

  9. @ctein, since my background is as a pastry chef, the focus is centered around everything that falls under the baking umbrella (from breads to candies and ice cream as well as cookies and cakes); as I recall The Junk Food Cookbook is predominately savory, with a good handful of dessert. I don’t imagine there’s much overlap, but if you’re curious to browse a bit, the Amazon preview of my book is super generous. My recipes also include weight measurements, so there’s a lot more precision than a typical cookbook.

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