Sunday, October 5, 2008

Political Cookery: Watergate Cake

I love a good cake, baked from scratch. True confession time: I also love a decent cake, baked from a mix. I do not turn up my nose about using a mix as a base, and adding in other ingredients to make it sing. In fact, I'm pretty darned fond of that. So are the contributors to the Milwaukee Ward Relief Society Cookbook.
Watergate Cake
Celia Vogl

1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1 pkg. white or yellow cake mix
1 c. oil
1/2 c. chopped nuts
3 eggs
1 c. club soda

Mix all above until mixed well. Grease a 9x13 inch pan. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes.


1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1 pkg. Dream Whip
1 1/4 c. cold milk

Beat until spreading consistency.
Pistachio! A flavor I never really encountered until I moved away from home. No pistachio ice cream. No "lipstick" from red shells. No pistachios.

This cake did not originate at the Watergate. No, nor did Watergate Salad, another 1970s dish with pistachio pudding mix. So...why Watergate? Let's go to The Food Timeline:
"A new Watergate crisis is sweeping the Washington area, but this time only homemakers and a few business men seem to care... The crisis stems from the growing popularity of a recipe for a concoction called "Watergate Cake," which demands large quantities of powdered pistachio pudding mix, both in the layer cake and in its light green icing. Apparently, only one firm, Royal Pudding, a division of Standard Brands, Inc., distributes pistachio pudding in the Washington area. Supermarkets haven't been able to get enough to cope with the demands, which began around Thanksgiving time and was very heavy at Christmas. Store shelves have been regularly stripped of the mix the same day it is displayed...If the sales spurt is not directly attributable to the popularity of Watergate Cake... "The we don't know why this product has suddenly taken off. It's been just phenomenal..." Barry Scher, a spokesman for Giant Foods, placed the blame not only on the recipe, but also on a coincidental shortage of pistachio nuts. "That was about five months ago, the spokesman said, "And as it ended, this recipe began circulating around. We were bombarded. We hate to admit it, but we just can't keep the mix on the shelf. The onset of Watergate cake mania--and the resulting effort to close the supply-demand gap --has tested old friendships and challenged the ingenuity and competitive instincts of many a Washington-area homemaking... No one, meanwhile, seems able to pinpoint the origin of this Watergate, the recipe for which has appeared in a number of newspapers, including the Washington Post. Nor can anyone explain how the cake got its name or why pistachio is the main flavoring. One current explanation leans on the presence of crushed walnuts in the cake--"bugs" in the parlance of kids. Like the Giant spokesman, Harold Giesinger, proprietor of the Watergate Pastry shop, had no thoughts on where the recipe originated-- except that it was not with his bakery. "We haven't invented anything to which we'd attach a name like that," he said. Nor, he added, does his shop rely on pistachio as a key ingredient in any of its products. "A private source may have put it together, " he said of the recipe. Wherever Watergate Cake started, the pudding firm would like more more problems like it. Gagan suspects some people have been buying more pistachio pudding mix than they'll ever use, simply because it's hard to get...Further relief is in sight. Another manufacturer, General Foods, scanning the Watergate-assisted pistachio market, has decided to jump in. Its version is expected to hit the supermarket shelves in March..."
---"A Watergate Cake Mania," Alexander Sullivan, Washington Post, February 26, 1976 (p. B2)
Read more to learn about other (more believable) theories of how the name came about.

I'm just gobsmacked that one cake recipe could cause a run on one flavor of pudding...and then fade into such obscurity.

Have you ever had a Watergate Cake?

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