On the origins of apple pie a la mode

apple pie a la mode

It seems obvious. But someone had to do it first.

While skimming through some info for the post earlier this week about the Philly's Apple Pie ice cream at Stewart's, we came across a story about the origin of pie a la mode -- which has a local connection.

The story goes that it was invented (if that's the word) in Washington County in the 1890s (the exact date is unclear) at the Cambridge Hotel by a regular diner there named Charles W. Townsend, who liked to eat his apple pie with vanilla ice cream.

cambridge hotelFrom Linda Stradley's history of apple pie for What's Cooking America:

Mrs. Berry Hall, a diner seated next to [Townsend], asked what it was called. He said it didn't have a name, and she promptly dubbed it Pie a la mode. Townsend liked the name so much he asked for it each day by that name. When Townsend visited the famous Delmonico Restaurant in New York City, he asked for pie a la mode. When the waiter proclaimed he never heard of it, Townsend chastised him and the manager, and was quoted as saying; "Do you mean to tell me that so famous an eating place as Delmonico's has never heard of Pie a la Mode, when the Hotel Cambridge, up in the village of Cambridge, NY serves it every day? Call the manager at once, I demand as good serve here as I get in Cambridge." The following day it became a regular at Delmonico and a resulting story in the New York Sun (a reporter was listening to the whole conversation) made it a country favorite with the publicity that ensued.

There are a few things about this story that make us smile.

One, thank goodness someone had the good sense to pair apple pie with ice cream. And two, we love how this upstate guy Townsend gets all snooty with the people at Delmonico's in New York City.

Mr. Townsend died in 1936 at the age of 87 (let no one tell you that pie and ice cream are bad for you). His obit in the New York Times notes two things about him -- that he was a "onetime concert pianist" (other reports indicate he was a music teacher) and that he "inadvertently originated pie a la mode."

Alas, there's some conflicting evidence about whether Mr. Townsend actually did come up with the pie and ice cream pairing. Barry Popnik's The Big Apple has gathered up a handful of historical references to the dish. A few of those references include mention of the combo showing up in 1893 at the World's Fair in Chicago, which might have scooped the good Mr. Townsend.

The Cambridge Hotel is still open -- and you can eat there. And, yep, the first thing on the dessert menu is pie a la mode.

By the way: "a la mode" is French for "in the fashion" or "in the style."

pie photo: Flickr user stu_spivak
hotel photo: Flickr user dougtone

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