11 Desserts That Changed the World

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1. The Pastries That Cost Santa Anna His Leg

In 1838, a French pastry chef living near Mexico City claimed that Mexican army officers had ransacked his bakery. When his demand for reimbursement was ignored, he appealed to King Louis-Phillipe, who was already irked at Mexico for defaulting on loans from France. The whole thing escalated rather quickly, and retired Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna came out of retirement to fight for his country’s honor. His ankle was shattered by cannon fire during battle; consequently, most of his leg had to be amputated.

Why it changed the world: Santa Anna’s leg was buried with full military honors and ended up representing his commitment to Mexico, which helped propel him to higher power in Mexico.

2. The Milkshake That Almost Killed Castro

“Death by Milkshake” was just one of the many ridiculous ways the U.S. conspired to assassinate Fidel Castro in the 1960s. Castro was a frequent visitor to a hotel that served specialty milkshakes, and he almost always treated himself to one of the tasty treats when he stopped by. The CIA arranged to have a restaurant worker slip poison pills into his shake during a visit, but the plan was thwarted when the pills, stored in a freezer, disintegrated or burst when the worker tried to access them. Despite the fail whale, it’s said that this attempt was the closest the CIA ever came to actually assassinating Castro.

Why it changed the world: Thanks to this milkshake malfunction, Fidel Castro’s Communist regime was allowed to continue.

3. Marie Antoinette’s Non-Existent “Cake”

Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” comment made the French queen look cruel and heartless, damaging public opinion of her and definitely not making many people very sympathetic to that whole guillotine incident. Even though those famous words are often still attributed to her today, it almost certainly didn’t happen.

Why it changed the world: Had the public not harbored such resentment toward Marie Antoinette, she may have survived the French Revolution instead of being sacrificed to it.

4. That Time Hitler Tried to Kill Churchill with a Chocolate Bar

In 1943, one of MI5’s most senior intelligence chiefs wrote to an illustrator friend asking him to draw an “explosive slab of chocolate.” He wrote, "We have received information that the enemy are using pound slabs of chocolate which are made of steel with a very thin covering of real chocolate. Inside there is high explosive and some form of delay mechanism … When you break off a piece of chocolate at one end in the normal way, instead of it falling away, a piece of canvas is revealed stuck into the middle of the piece which has been broken off and a ticking into the middle of the remainder of the slab.”

The plot was foiled, of course, and Churchill lived to enjoy many pieces of non-lethal chocolate.

Why it changed the world: Had one of MI5’s intelligence officers not uncovered this plot, WWII could have lacked the leadership of Winston Churchill simply because he wanted to satisfy his sweet tooth.

5. JFK's "Lost in Translation" Moment

In 1963, John F. Kennedy went to West Berlin to show U.S. support for West Germany after the Berlin Wall was constructed. In his very famous speech, Kennedy declared that “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner!'" The oft-repeated legend contends that while Kennedy meant to say “I am a citizen of Berlin,” what he really said was “I am a jelly-filled doughnut,” because citizens of Berlin use the term “Berliner” to refer not to themselves, but to a breakfast pastry injected with preserves. Some linguists suggest that Kennedy wasn’t actually wrong, but others continue to debate the issue, and still the legend persists.

Why it changed the world: For decades after Kennedy’s flub-that-wasn’t-really-a-flub, respected journalists and media outlets have used it as an example of terrible wordsmithing by clueless Americans. Some also use it as an example of how Kennedy endeared himself to Germans, who understood and appreciated the overall sentiment and took his supposed mistranslation as a somewhat adorable flub.

6. How a Pie Inspired One of the World’s Favorite Pastimes

Before the Wham-O company renamed the plastic disc they purchased from inventor Fred Morrison, it was known as a "Flyin' Cake Pan." When Wham-O took over, they christened the toy the "Frisbee" to capitalize on a diversion Yale students had invented where they threw tins from the local Frisbie Pie Co. back and forth.

Why it changed the world: Without the Frisbee, who knows what hobby would be preoccupying disc golfers and golden retrievers everywhere?

7. The Cake That Saved the Future President of Ireland

In 1916, Eamon de Valera found himself incarcerated because of his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, an uprising in which people of Ireland tried to assert their independence from British rule. De Valera managed to make a copy of the hail chaplain's master key by stealing it and making a wax impression using melted-down church candles. He sent the impression to his friends on the outside, who fashioned a metal key and sent it to him, embedded in a cake. Unfortunately, the key didn't function. They tried again, however, and de Valera's second attempt at escape was successful.

Why it changed the world: Eamon de Valera went on to hold many leadership positions in Ireland, including becoming the third President of Ireland from 1959 to 1973.

8. The Way to Abe Lincoln's Heart

Legend has it that Mary Todd called this recipe her “Courting Cake” and made it for Abe many times when they were dating. 

Why it changed the world: Had it not been effective and Abe had married another woman, who knows if he would have been accompanying her to Ford Theater that night, or even if he would have ever run for President?

9. All Chocolate on the Western Front

About a week before Christmas in 1914, Germans soldiers near Armentieres smuggled a “splendid” chocolate cake into the British lines and proposed a brief cease-fire. They then invited their British counterparts to join them for an hour-long concert from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. to celebrate their Captain’s birthday. The delivery and subsequent celebration was one of many holiday halts during WWI, including the famous Christmas Truce.

Why it changed the world: Even if it was for a mere 60 minutes, the shared dessert caused a brief window of time where warring soldiers saw each other as humans instead of enemies.

10. The Cake that Smuggled a Manuscript

In 1934, Jan Petersen wrote a fictionalized version of the violence that killed more than a dozen residents on the streets of Berlin. He called it Our Street: A Chronicle Written in the Heart of Facist Germany, and baked it into two cakes in order to smuggle it out of Germany. As he tried to cross over into Prague under the guise of going on a ski trip, SS guards stopped him and inquired about the strange size of the cakes. "Well, you know what women are, don't you?" Petersen told them. "I told my wife I was only going away for three days, but she would go and bake me two whopping big cakes. It'll take me a week to eat one." The machismo bluff worked, and Petersen was able to get Our Street out of the country.

Why it changed the world: Petersen's daughter believes his account helped the world realize what it was like inside Germany during WWII. "Too many people think the whole German population was in agreement with Hitler, which is not true at all," she said. "Also, so many young people today have no concept of the hardships and bravery shown by many people who were prepared to risk their own lives to prevent the rise of fascism—not just in Germany, but worldwide."

11. Cookie Monster Changes His Stance

For decades, Sesame Street's Cookie Monster devoured dessert at speeds that made competitive eaters wonder what they were doing wrong. Then, after 35 years of happily consuming carbs, the googly-eyed muppet abruptly announced in 2005 that cookies weren't going to be part of his daily diet going forward. "A cookie is a sometime food," he sang, while adults everywhere wondered what happened to their childhoods.

Why it changed the world: It didn't change the world so much as it showed us that the world had changed. It put the problem of childhood obesity at the forefront, and also showed us that even cartoons and puppets needed to model good behavior for kids (looking at you, Wile E. Coyote).

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January 13, 2014 - 10:11pm
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