Unraveling the Origins of a Classic American Dessert
Who Coined the Phrase “À La Mode”?
Have you ever wondered who first used the French expression “à la mode” to describe desserts served with ice cream at American diners? The origins of this phrase date back to the late 19th century, but the exact inventor remains uncertain. While there are numerous claims online attributing its creation to various individuals, the evidence supporting these assertions is notoriously lacking.
Among the alleged contenders are John Gieriet, the former owner of Hotel La Perl in Duluth, MN; Charles Watson Townsend, a patron at the now-defunct Cambridge Hotel in Cambridge, NY; and Mrs. Berry Hall, another customer at the same establishment. According to the stories, Gieriet used the phrase “à la mode” in the 1880s to describe a delectable dessert of blueberry pie and ice cream, while Townsend supposedly followed suit by ordering a slice of apple pie with ice cream in either the 1880s or ’90s. Moreover, Mrs. Hall is said to have suggested the phrase to Townsend.
However, it is important to note that these events are supported solely by a handful of poorly sourced accounts written years after the fact. There is no concrete evidence from the 19th century attesting to Gieriet’s pie and ice cream creation or Townsend’s dessert order. As a language blog, it is crucial for us to focus on written records from the period in question rather than hearsay.
The True Meaning of “À La Mode”
Before we delve further into the origins of the suspect etymologies surrounding “pie à la mode,” let’s explore what the phrase truly signifies. Borrowed from French, “à la mode” translates to “in the fashion” and has been used in English since the mid-1600s. Initially an adjective denoting stylishness, it has also been employed as an adverb to mean “fashionably.” Furthermore, since the 17th century, the expression has featured adjectivally in the dish “beef à la mode,” which consists of braised beef with vegetables and wine served in a rich sauce.
Tracing the Earliest Usage of “À La Mode” with Desserts
The earliest written example linking “à la mode” to a dessert can be found in an article published in the April 26, 1893, edition of the St. Paul Daily News. This article discusses the rising prices of food at the upcoming Chicago World’s Fair, and amidst the discussion, it mentions that the cost of an apple pie “à la mode” had increased by 20 cents—10 cents being the price for an apple pie and the additional 10 cents for the “à la mode” serving. However, it remains unclear whether “à la mode” referred specifically to ice cream at that time.
For instance, an article published on April 6, 1896, in the Duluth News Tribune describes a recipe for “Apple pie a la mode.” Surprisingly, this recipe does not feature ice cream but rather an apple meringue pie served with whipped cream. It involves baking stewed apples poured into a crust and topping them with a thick meringue made of egg whites and sugar. The pie is then slightly browned in the oven and served with a dollop of whipped cream blended with candied cherries and almond flavoring.
The earliest unequivocal usage of “à la mode” with its modern meaning of “served with ice cream” can be found in an article from the Aug. 4, 1895, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune. This article describes a content diner in a Windy City restaurant enjoying a generous slice of pie topped with a chunk of ice cream, referred to as “Pie a la mode.”
Debunking the Dubious Etymologies
Charles Watson Townsend and Mrs. Berry Hall
As mentioned earlier, there is no written evidence from the 1880s or ’90s to support the claims that Charles Watson Townsend or Mrs. Berry Hall had any hand in inventing or naming “pie à la mode.” The first documented source for the Townsend story is an Associated Press obituary published on May 20, 1936. This obituary incorrectly indicates that Townsend originated “pie a la mode” in Cambridge, Mass. (instead of Cambridge, NY), unintentionally creating confusion. The article states that Townsend, while dining at a local hotel, amazed the waitstaff by requesting ice cream to accompany his pie. The Cambridge Hotel allegedly capitalized on this incident, claiming to specialize in the dish and pointing to the exact table where Townsend enjoyed it. However, the AP article fails to provide any additional evidence to support this account apart from the hotel’s dubious claim.
Another account suggests that the pie’s creation took place in the mid-1890s, but no concrete evidence supports this claim. The Hotel Cambridge, previously known as the Cambridge Hotel, used to distribute an information folder to each guest room that included a page entitled “The History of the Pie a la Mode.” This page attributes the creation of the renowned dessert to the late Professor Charles Watson Townsend, a resident of Cambridge. According to the story, one day in the mid-1890s, Townsend dined at the hotel when Mrs. Berry Hall observed his habit of eating ice cream with apple pie. She purportedly coined the name “Pie al a Mode.” Regrettably, this account, accompanied by a photo posted online by a recent hotel patron, lacks any supporting evidence from the 19th century.
The primary source claiming that John Gieriet invented “pie à la mode” in Duluth is a local historian named Mike Flaherty, whose report is on file with the Duluth Public Library. Flaherty’s report was referenced on Wikipedia’s “Pie a la mode” page in 2013, resulting in a change from Townsend to Gieriet as the purported inventor. However, Flaherty’s report, reproduced by the Duluth library, fails to offer any concrete evidence to support Gieriet’s invention or naming of “pie à la mode.”
Although Flaherty refers to an article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press dated May 23, 1936, and an advertisement in the March 26, 1885, issue of the Duluth Daily Tribune, neither source credits Gieriet with inventing or naming “pie à la mode.” The Pioneer Press article merely mentions the AP report crediting Townsend as the originator and notes that Minnesota has its own candidate, without providing any verifiable evidence. The Duluth Daily Tribune advertisement for the grand opening of the Hotel La Perl does mention Gieriet as the proprietor but does not associate him with “pie à la mode.” The absence of any mention of ice cream in the ad or any references to “pie à la mode” prevents us from drawing firm conclusions.
Conclusion: A Historical Mystery, Yet a Timeless Delight
As we examined the origins of “pie à la mode,” we discovered a lack of credible evidence regarding the individuals credited with its invention or naming. The stories surrounding John Gieriet, Charles Watson Townsend, and Mrs. Berry Hall are based on sources written years after the alleged events, failing to meet the criteria of reliable historical documentation.
While we may never find a definitive answer to the question of who first popularized “à la mode” desserts, the phrase has become an integral part of American culinary culture. Ice cream, with its sweet, creamy allure, continues to enhance the flavors of pies across the country. Whether it’s enjoying a slice of warm apple pie topped with a scoop of vanilla goodness or savoring a decadent blueberry pie complemented by a generous dollop of ice cream, indulging in “à la mode” treats remains a delightful experience.
For more delightful food stories and recipes, visit Ice Cream. As they say, there’s always room for ice cream!