In 1951, 1.5 million pounds of tapioca spilled into the East River when a pier holding a shipment from Brazil collapsed in the early morning hours. (The headline in The Times: “Tapioca à la East River.”)
It wasn’t the first time that the flavorless pudding base — the powder or granular “pearls” of dried cassava root — made headlines. Before World War II, all of the tapioca that Americans consumed came from Java; once the Japanese invaded the island, the supply was cut off. The Times’s food reporters treated lists of scarce wartime ingredients like those of casualties and kept close tabs on the tapioca situation. In the meantime, General Foods came up with a substitute made from sorghum, called Minute Dessert, which The Times declared an acceptable but hardly flawless substitute. To pudding makers across America, relief came at last in 1947, when the United States began importing tapioca from Brazil. Thus the drama on the pier.
Today, tapioca pudding usually means a creamy blend of tapioca pearls, milk, sugar and vanilla. But before and after the war, one of the most enduring ways to prepare tapioca was a blend of the pearls (cooked in water or fruit juice) and fresh fruit, served with whipped cream. There are recipes for this in The Times going back to 1876.
In 1949, the curiously named Strawberry Tapioca Flamingo appeared in the paper. It built on the original recipe by making one layer with half of the tapioca-and-fruit mixture and a second layer by combining the rest with whipped cream. (If you’ve ever had Jell-O fluff, you’ll understand how a family of desserts can arise and then be corrupted.) It’s a delicious combination and pretty too, with bits of strawberry suspended in the clear pink jelly and a poof of cream and jelly on top. It’s so good that the editors apparently couldn’t resist running the same recipe again two years later when there was a record strawberry harvest.
The Times recipe appears to have been “borrowed” (with minor improvements) from one that appeared in a booklet put out by the Minute Tapioca Company in 1931. I learned this from the consumer historian Jan Whitaker on one of my favorite sources, the Association for the Study of Food and Society’s Internet mailing list, where you can get personalized answers to questions about anything from the culinary uses of breast milk (once a hot topic) to the healing properties of rambutans. There was much speculation among the experts on the site about the “flamingo” part of the recipe: since the dessert is really from the 1930s, it would seem to have been a precursor to the flamingo cocktails popular in the 1940s, as well as to the lawn flamingo invented — as every schoolchild knows — in 1957.
I asked Michael Laiskonis, the executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin, to give the Strawberry Tapioca Flamingo a modern interpretation. He had a lot of ideas. The dessert reminded him of trifle, so he pondered turning it into a more proper trifle, garnished with tapioca. He considered a vacherin surrounded by a sauce of tapioca and coconut milk. Finally he settled on a brightly flavored strawberry-and-basil soda, in which large tapioca pearls bounce around the bottom of a tall glass while a ball of strawberry sorbet hovers above them. His creation took the flamingo further into both the past and the present. The quick-cooking tapioca used in the 1949 recipe was a modernization of the long-cooking pearls. And the long-cooking pearls are now back in vogue, most commonly as the foundation of bubble teas. Tapioca may never have the following it did when it was scarce, but now it has style.
1949: Strawberry Tapioca Flamingo
This recipe appeared in The Times in an article by Jane Nickerson.
Today, a looser concoction of tapioca is preferred, so if you want the dessert lighter, add 1/4 cup more juice to the tapioca cooking liquid and 1/4 cup more cream to the topping. If you like a neater presentation, the strawberries may be cut into small pieces rather than crushed.
1 pound strawberries, hulled
1 cup sugar
About 2 cups pineapple juice or water
1/3 cup quick-cooking tapioca
Scant 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup heavy cream, whipped.
1. Lightly crush the strawberries. Add the sugar and let stand at least 30 minutes.
2. Set a strainer over a bowl and drain the strawberries. Set them aside. Add enough pineapple juice or water to the strawberry juice to make 3 cups total.
3. In a saucepan, mix together the juice, tapioca and salt. Bring to a full boil, stirring constantly, then remove from the heat. (The mixture will be thin. Do not overcook.)
4. Fold the drained strawberries into the tapioca mixture. Cool, stirring occasionally. The mixture will thicken as it cools.
5. When the tapioca mixture is cool, divide half among 4 coupe glasses. Chill the glasses and the remaining tapioca mixture.
6. Fold the cream into the remaining tapioca mixture, then pile lightly into the glasses. Serves 4.
2007: Strawberry Tapioca Soda
By Michael Laiskonis, executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin.
For the strawberry juice:
1 pound strawberries, hulled and coarsely chopped or mashed
5 large basil leaves, torn
1/3 cup sugar
Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon
Juice and grated zest of 1 orange
For the tapioca:
¼ cup large tapioca pearls
3 tablespoons sugar
1 10-ounce can club soda, chilled
Strawberries and basil leaves, for garnishing
Strawberry sorbet, or other sorbet or ice cream.
1. For the strawberry juice: Toss together all the ingredients in a large bowl. Cover, place in a warm area and let stand for 4 hours, then chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
2. Cook the tapioca: In a medium saucepan, bring 6 cups water to a boil. Stir in the tapioca, reduce heat to a steady simmer and cook until there is only a pinpoint of white in the center of each pearl, about 1 hour. Stir occasionally to prevent the pearls from sticking to the bottom of the pan or to each other.
3. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the sugar and 1/3 cup water until the sugar has dissolved. Let cool. Drain the tapioca and rinse with cold water. Stir into the cooled syrup and chill.
4. Strain the strawberry mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to extract the maximum amount of juice. You should have about 1 1/3 cups.
5. To assemble: strain the tapioca from the syrup and divide it among
4 tall glasses. Add 1/3 cup strawberry juice to each glass. Divide the club soda among the glasses and gently stir to combine. Top with a scoop of sorbet and garnish with strawberries and basil leaves. Serve immediately, with a large straw or long spoon. Serves 4.