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.