Is the Boston Cream Pie really a pie?

Massachusetts’s state dessert has a layered history.

The Boston Cream Pie carries a history beyond its confusing name. Courtesy of Omni Parker House.

The Boston Cream Pie is a confusing dessert in more than just its name. Tracing its local origins is not exactly as easy as pie (or is it cake?).

“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘History is the past agreed upon.’ In which case, there is no history of Boston Cream Pie, because nobody can agree,” Susan Wilson, historian at the Omni Parker House, told Boston.com.

The story of the first Boston Cream Pie is a layered one. Chef Augustine François Anezin first introduced the delicacy at the Parker House — now the Omni Parker House — around the time of the Civil War.


But according to Wilson, the details — down to the French chef’s and dessert’s names — are disputed. 

Anezin’s last name is widely misreported as Sanizan, likely due to a 1925 interview in The Boston Globe where his name was misprinted. The mistake runs rampant, Wilson said, and has even been printed in publications like The Wall Street Journal.

“You see that from the 1920s throughout the rest of the 20th century, and I still see it printed in papers today because people keep copying the past and then keep repeating the error,” Wilson said. 

Chef Anezin’s confection appeared on the hotel’s menu in 1865, but similar desserts began to pop up around the area, with names like American Pudding Pie, Washington Pie, and Chocolate Cream Pie. Although Wilson has scoured historical menus, she said the different pies’ ingredients may never be known.

“One of the essential problems is that menus are not recipes,” she said. “So menus exist and you can find names on menus, and recipe books exist where you can find the name of a thing and then read the recipe for that. But you don’t know at any given time what is meant by that name.”


But is it really a pie? From a historical perspective, maybe. Gerard Tice, head chef at the Omni Parker House, explained that during colonial times, the words “cake” and “pie” were used interchangeably.

“Originally, the cake was baked in pie tins,” he said. “But it’s really a sponge cake. That’s the base.”

Wilson added that despite the confusing name, the dessert has remained consistent over time.

 “It’s never been a pie, never will be a pie. It’s always a cake,” she said.

The Omni Parker House still offers the Boston Cream Pie, in family size, individual, and martini forms. Courtesy of Omni Parker House

Even individual ingredients of the Boston Cream Pie have a history. According to Carla Martin, executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and a lecturer at Harvard University, the dessert was one of the first to use chocolate, but the significance doesn’t end there. 

“This is part of a long history in the Boston and New England area more broadly, of chocolate consumption,” she said. 

In colonial times, New England was one of the only regions of the country to have chocolate mills, which were located in Dorchester, Milton, and areas of Rhode Island. Other regions had to have their chocolate shipped from these mills, which was difficult and costly. Due to the rarity of its production, chocolate and any dishes or beverages that used it were available to a select few. 


“It would have been a relatively exclusive dessert at that time, primarily for the upper middle class. … There’s a lot of material culture that gets formed around these kinds of things,” Martin said.

Additionally, most components of baked goods — sugar and cacao, for instance — came with a hefty monetary and moral price.

“They are all things that were produced as commodities, often by enslaved laborers in colonial settings,” Martin said. “And so they come with a whole host of ethical questions that we need to ask ourselves about as consumers even as we enjoy these sweet desserts, as though it’s a simple thing. They’re far more complex than they look on the plate.”

More Wickedpedia:

While the dessert was popularized in the 19th century, the Boston Cream Pie didn’t pick up the beantown moniker until later, Wilson said.

“It wasn’t till the second half of the 20th century that we see it being called Boston Cream Pie,” she said. “And curiously, that kind of overlaps with Betty Crocker.”

The dish exploded in popularity in the 1950s, when Betty Crocker included it in her Picture Cook Book. Crocker also began making a boxed mix of Boston Cream Pie in 1958, which was sold into the 1990s.

The Boston Cream Pie was declared the official state dessert of Massachusetts in 1996, thanks in part to a Norton High School civics class who sponsored the bill. The cream pie beat out some stiff competition in Fig Newtons, Toll House cookies, and Indian pudding.


The Omni Parker House offers Boston Cream Pies to this day in several sizes, and even in martini form. Tice said that the dessert will continue to be a selling point for the hotel, and even Boston as a whole. 

“It’s absolutely our most popular dessert,” he said. “When a lot of people come to the city, when they come to the Parker House, it’s the first thing they want to try.”

@bostondotcom Is this cake? :cake: Actually, yes. The Boston Cream Pie has a layered history, and tracing its local origins isn’t easy as pie — or rather, cake. Read more about the complicated origins of Boston’s iconic dessert, in the latest Wickedpedia installment at the link in our bio. #BostonDotCom #NewEngland #Massachusetts #BostonCreamPie ♬ Applesauce – Mark Fabian & Alexander Smith & George King & RK Masters


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