Pineapple Layer Cake

The state of the art of pineapple around the turn of the last century.

Did you ever get a new haircut and look in the mirror and it suits you so well that you have trouble remembering what your hair looked like before? Well, recipes can be like that, at times. Sometimes, an ingredient can become so associated with a particular preparation that we have a difficult time thinking of it any other way.

That’s kind of the effect that pineapple upside-down cake had on pineapple. If you asked 100 people, Family Feud style, to name pineapple recipes, the top five answers would look something like this:

Name a recipe that Americans prepare with pineapple.
Survey says… Yesterdish says…
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake All hail the king of American pineapple preparations. Dates to about the mid-1920s.
Tropical Drinks Absolutely. Pineapple punches were popular with the British in the 19th century. We didn’t regularly make them, though. American-created cocktails with pineapple started to show up in the 1920s; we didn’t really categorize them as tropical until the 1940s, and then those were popularized in the 1960s, along with the rest of tiki culture (see the recipe for Waikiki ham balls for a bit about tiki culture).
Roasted pork/lamb/beef Yep. Most of these recipes started to appear on American tables in the 1930s, after the Depression forced the price of pineapples down. Park Avenue Lamb Chops, for example.
Banana Split/Ice Cream Sundae Mmm, well, the ice cream sundae does date to the 1880s, but only with chocolate sauce. The original banana split does include pineapple sauce, however (see the comment on banana split cake), and that was invented in 1904. Still, to call a banana split a pineapple recipe is a bit of a stretch, but okay, why not.
Fruit salad Well, it depends on what you mean by fruit salad. Recipes for shredded pineapple salads, some with mayonnaise, started to appear around 1910. If you mean a salad with mixed fruit (that would later be named fruit cocktail), canned versions didn’t include pineapple, but you can find recipes for homemade preparations going back to 1901.

Wasn’t that fun?! (Well, I enjoyed it, anyway.)

But here’s the thing. Pineapple was well known long before it was generally available to Americans; George Washington enjoyed pineapple in 1751 in Barbados, for example. Additionally, pineapples started to become regularly available to the American public around 1880, when steamships started carrying pineapples (sometimes preserved in glass jars, sometimes fresh) from South Asia to American shores.

(Don’t misunderstand, we knew what pineapple was before the 1880s; but it was like the McRib. Sometimes they had it, sometimes they didn’t, and it was out of your control.)

So if we had pineapples decades before the top five things we can think to do with them, what did we do? Based on this table, we made pineapple syrup, we ate them from cans, and we ate them fresh when we could get them.

But we did quite a bit more, including pineapple shortcake, pineapple beignets, and of course, the now deposed king of pineapple desserts, the pineapple layer cake.

Here’s a very fancy version from the June 11, 1890 edition of The Vermont Watchman, created long before its inverted, brown sugar-enriched cousin was a twinkle in James Drummond Dole’s eye:

Pineapples for Tea.

A pineapple cake is an excellent layer cake. Make a nice cup cake with one cup of butter, two of sugar, four eggs, a cup of sweet milk, three large cups of flour and two teaspoonfuls of cream of tartar and one of soda.

Beat the butter and sugar to a cream, and the yolks of the eggs, then the milk, in which the soda has been stirred, and then the flour and cream of tartar, and finally the whites of the eggs, beaten stiff. If the cake is made in this way it will be fine in grain and rich as pound cake, but if it is carelessly stirred together it will be a coarse, poor cake.

Bake it in seven layers for a pineapple cake. Chop a pineapple fine and cook it with three-quarters of its weight in sugar; add to it while hot a quarter of a box of gelatin, which has been soaked an hour in cold water. When cold, the pineapple mixture should be thick enough not to run. Spread it thickly over layers of the cake, place them together, and ice the top layer thickly with a white icing flavored with lemon.

If you wish it for a party you can decorate it with a wreath of confectioners’ icing, and set a bright plume of pineapple leaves in the center of the cake. If there is more pineapple preparation than can be used for the cake, let it form in a bowl an cheap it in shining pieces around a white blanc-mange for a dessert. It is a very delicious and pretty dish. — Southern Correspondence.

[NOTE: I added the line breaks for legibility. — Adam.]


Of course, just because you could find a pineapple didn’t mean you knew what to do with it. Consider this helpful educational blurb from the April 30, 1909 edition of The Ogden Standard (from Ogden City, Utah):

Pineapple Information


Do you know that you can use pineapples to flavor ice cream, sherbet, to make pineapple short-cake, pineapple jelly, pineapple layer cake, pineapple fritters, pineapple pie, pineapple tarts, pineapple turnovers, puddings, Brown Bettys? In fact they can be used as are strawberries and other fruits, and are excellent mixed with strawberries canned or preserved. Nothing is healthier than pineapples at this time of the year.

So what changed? The cost of pineapple, for one; in 1910 a two-pound can of pineapple cost about 30 cents, equal to about seven and a half dollars in modern currency. At the same time, an entire pineapple cake could be had for about a quarter from a bakery, and a pound cake for a dime. Once the price of pineapple started to decline, we could afford to put more pineapple actually in the cake.

But the other major change was when the Dole company invented a machine to slice the pineapple in 1911. See, canned pineapple until that time came crushed, chopped, or in solid blocks. Once the pineapple could be had in attractive, geometrically perfect rings, it seemed a shame to chop them to bits and hide them inside the cake.

From the box of A.D. from Lutz, Florida, by way of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, and originating in Ohio in the 1920s.

Pineapple Layer Cake


1/2 cup shortening
1-1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs, separated
3-1/2 tsp. Royal baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2-1/3 cups flour

3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. pineapple pieces
1 tsp. melted butter
1 can pineapple, drained]

Cream 1/2 cup shortening; 1-1/2 cups sugar; 2 beaten egg yolks.

Sift 3-1/2 tsp. Royal baking powder; 1/4 tsp. salt; 2-1/3 cups flour.

Add alternately 2/3 cup milk, 1 tsp. vanilla and fold 2 beaten egg whites.

Filling: 3 cups confectioner’s sugar, 1/4 cup milk; beat until smooth. 1 tsp. lemon juice, 1 Tbsp. pieces pineapple. Add 1 tsp. melted butter. Spread between layers. Sprinkle pineapple, drained well.

Put pineapple on top, while soft.

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