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How the Ladies of the Church Dessert Committee Renamed This Popular Cake

Southern Living logo Southern Living 2/20/2019 Melissa Locker
a group of people posing for the camera © Ralph Crane/Getty Images

Watergate Salad, that love-it-or-hate-it combination of pistachio Jell-O pudding, marshmallows, pecans, pineapple, and Cool Whip, has been a staple at Southern tables for years. Its bright green cousin, Watergate Cake, which features all of the above, plus cake mix and club soda, can easily and frequently be spotted at church potlucks and Easter feasts. However, some Southerners may not know it as Watergate Cake, thanks to the hard work of the women putting together the church cookbooks.

Watergate Cake is rumored to have been inspired by the salad, but with a nod to the 1970s’ political drama that wracked the nation and lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. You see, the cake version has icing to “cover up” any mistakes and, like politics, is chock full of nuts. Of course, there are other versions of the story that say Watergate Cake was the signature dish of the Watergate building’s restaurant. Or perhaps it had been a bake sale staple since the early 1950s and 1960s when homemakers started to come up with creative ways to use instant food. Wherever the origin story of the shockingly green cake, its name is a reminder of a dark time in our country’s political history—and that was a bit too much for at least one group of church ladies.

Related video: Things Every Church Hostess Knows

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A few years ago, AL.com ran a delightful story about the joy of cooking from a church cookbook, which everyone knows has the best recipes for hot dishes. In the article, the author recounted how her mother submitted a recipe for Watergate Cake to her church for inclusion in the cookbook. However, the name gave the women on the committee some pause. So they reached out to the author’s mother and asked if they could perhaps change the name from Watergate Cake to “Pistachio Pudding Cake.” While the new name lacked some of the zing of the original, it gave would-be cooks some hint of what the cake contained without eliciting memories of that "terrible time in our history."

The next time that you’re flipping through the church cookbooks in your collection and run across a recipe for a pistachio pudding cake with marshmallow icing and loads of nuts, beware that you might be cooking up more drama than intended.

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