Dessert anthropology

coffee crunch cake

I just discovered my dream job, and baker and cookbook author Valerie Gordon has it: dessert anthropologist. Gordon's enviable position involves researching and recreating popular items from bakeries, stores, and other places that are no longer in business, where the recipes for iconic dishes have been lost to time. When I was majoring in anthropology years ago, I never imagined putting those research skills to use in the culinary world, but it makes perfect sense. 

Gordon stumbled into this "profession" eight years ago, when she was asked to recreate a specific treat: the Coffee crunch cake from Blum's Bakery, a now-defunct small bakery chain in California. Not a mere coffee cake, the coffee crunch cake had a devoted following. "There's a lot of people that remember that cake," Gordon says. "Probably in the millions? It's an exacting combination of flavor and texture. The way these things come together is really memorable."

Even though Gordon had eaten the cake years earlier, she wanted to talk to other people about their memories of it. She theorized that each person would remember different aspects of the cake, and that by combining these perceptions she would be able to get closer to the original version. Her hard work paid off, and the success of recreating that cake was only the beginning. 

Gordon started researching other desserts that had large impacts, looking at vintage menus at the Los Angeles Library for inspiration. She also frequents online forums, gathering impressions of desserts from as many people as possible. While Gordon grew up eating the coffee crunch cake, she has not tasted most of the other vanished desserts that she recreates. For most of these confections, she only has the food memories of others to guide her. 

Photo of Blum's coffee crunch cake from Sweet by Valerie Gordon

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