Few cake decorations are as common and iconic as the tiny carrot renderings piped onto the cream cheese frosting of nearly every carrot cake sold from pastry cases and grocery store counters in America. The little triangle of orange and a quick squiggle of green at the top is easily recognizable as a carrot, and quickly, graphically signifies to anyone eating it exactly what type of cake it is. But why is it the only food that we decorate with a little picture of itself?
As most culinary school graduates will tell you, the best way to garnish is with whatever is in the dish—strawberry cake with slices of real strawberry, a chocolate cake with shavings of actual chocolate, and carrot cake… well, a raw carrot isn't all that appetizing on top of dessert—which might help to explain how we got the sugar carrots.
“It’s common to a add a visual cue,” says cake expert and author of Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts, Stella Parks, especially in cakes sold by the slice—which is why she assumes the tradition originated in professional kitchens. (In her book, the carrot cake bucks the trend, as she recommends syrup-soaked carrot roses). But The Cake Historian, Jessica Reed, suspects the opposite: that it came from the home kitchen. In reality, nobody really knows where America’s typical carrot cake garnish came from.
Other desserts have atypical toppings, points out Cakespy author Jessie Moore—like how opera cake often has “opera” written on it, and Oreos will top a cookies- and cream-flavored dish. Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding cake histories, Reed says “chocolate and carrot cake are the two most elusive desserts.”
The oft-accepted story for how we got the carrot cake in the first place, as Parks describes in her book, is that Medieval carrot sweetmeats inspired English housewives to employ the vegetable in cakes during World War II, and then brought it home. But one look at the recipe often used as evidence of this history, “and you’ll abandon the notion,” she says.
“It was a desperate glob of boiled oatmeal, reconstituted egg powder, and a few spoonfuls of grated carrot that barely qualified as food.” Rather, Park suggests that modern carrot cake actually stems from a mis-read recipe for currant cake shortly after the first world war. That lines up with Reed’s research. She notes that when Pillsbury was developing their carrot cake mix, they held a nation-wide contest to locate the country’s first published recipe of something like what we now consider typical American carrot cake—the winner was a 1929 issue of The Twentieth Century Bride’s Cookbook.
But both agree that the meta decoration didn’t appear until much later. Reed floats a theory that cake mixes like the one Pillsbury was making might have had something to do with it. In the 1950s, she explains, “baking got a little quirkier.” As cake mixes grew in popularity, people started making more cakes, and “women took decorating more seriously, because that’s where they could show their skill.”
Cake decorating, she points out, had been around since the 17th or 18th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that it really took off. Earlier decorations, she thinks, would have been made with marzipan—which was considered medicinal. Parks agrees, pointing out that even in the 1950s, marzipan was popular, with marzipan bunnies and carrots (likely, she says, mass produced)decorating cakes at commercial bakeries. Her theory is that smaller bakeries or home cooks that wouldn’t or couldn’t purchase this marzipan art started to imitate those designs with icing version.
When and how that shift happened, exactly, is a little unclear, though both Reed and Parks believe it was in the latter half of the 20th century—the '70s or '80s—and that large food producers were likely involved in the popularization. “Now we dismiss that as corporate or stodgy,” says Parks. “But before we had Pinterest or Instagram to give those feelings of longing for cute designs, that slick, well-positioned design work came from manufacturers.” The cream cheese frosting, for example, that often provides a bed for the icing carrots, was pushed for decades by Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
“At one time carrot cake was probably a novel new concept,” points out Moore, “so maybe it became traditional to decorate with carrot motifs to capitalize on the trend.” But even the experts admit there's no definitive start date.
Ultimately, nobody really knows why why carrot cake is the only food we decorate with tiny pictures of itself. It wasn’t part of a grand trend of drawing on foods or left there to demonstrate that it was healthful because it had a vegetable (the healthful carrot cakes, points out Reed, were notably un-frosted). Icing carrots on cake just sort of happened, in homes and professional bakeries around the country, steadily creeping into our collective culinary culture without history or narrative arc. And, perhaps, that mystery is symbolic of a larger issue, laments Parks. “It’s always been a bummer that American dessert hasn’t been treated as a research-worthy category.” The only solution, it seems, is to keep making and eating cake until it’s deemed important enough to fund studying—hopefully while the people who might hold the secrets are still around to spill them.
“Either way,” adds Moore, ending on an important note, “no raisins in mine.”