How Strawberry Shortcake Has Evolved Over The Years

Strawberry shortcakes are spring and summer staple desserts in the United States and have a world-traversing past. The earliest record of humans enjoying strawberries dates back to ancient Rome, says Love to Know. Strawberries were paired with cream in Europe as early as the Medieval Ages, according to South African Strawberry Growers' Association (SAGSA). During that time, people served a soup-like strawberry compote topped with sour cream, herbs, and edible flowers to newlyweds as an aphrodisiac.

Like the combination of strawberries and cream, shortcakes originated in Europe, traditionally with a biscuit-like composition, writes Love to Know. The "short" in shortcake actually comes from the 16th-century English word for "crisp," particularly crispy pastries made so by using shortening agents like butter, reports the Chicago Tribune. Shortcakes eventually traveled to the U.S. and were even mentioned in the 1821 story, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." In the tale, Washington Irving describes a table full of desserts, including "sweet cakes and short cakes."

Strawberry shortcakes emerge in the United States

Combining cake and strawberries is an American tradition. According to SAGSA, some Native Peoples of the Northern Hemisphere mix berries, including strawberries, with cornmeal to create strawberry cakes. European colonizers may have observed the treat and later imitated it in the form of a strawberry shortcake.

The first reference to something like a strawberry shortcake appears in a U.S. recipe book published in 1847, according to Love to Know. Then in 1850, Miss Leslie's Ladies Receipt Book includes a "Strawberry Cake" consisting of mashed strawberries and finished with icing. The cake is almost like a pie crust, tough, served sandwich-style in this recipe. The strawberries are mashed and placed between the top and bottom slices of the cake. Icing and fresh strawberries are perched on and the recipe resembles today's strawberry shortcake, explains Love to Know.

And so, the strawberry cake became the treat we recognize today as the strawberry shortcake. Over time, icing or sweetened cream and butter were exchanged for whipped cream, writes National Today, and the "cake" became more like angel food cake or a sponge cake. However, the specifics of the recipe are still up for debate. The differences seem to break down regionally in the U.S., says the Chicago Tribune. Northern states make strawberry shortcakes with a sweeter, cake-like texture, whereas Southern states maintain the biscuit-like crunchy pastry.

The Japanese Strawberry Cake

In the early 20th century, the strawberry shortcake lept across another ocean. According to, Niponica, Fujii Rin'emon, a Japanese baker and confectioner, traveled to the U.S. in 1910 to study Western desserts — often called yogashi, per Smithsonian Magazine. The strawberry shortcake impressed Rin'emon, and he brought the recipe back to Japan. Soon he made the dessert a signature product of his bakery and confectionery company, Fujiya Co., Ltd. After World War II, Japan viewed western-style desserts as delicacies. This allure, combined with improvements to refrigerated bakery cases and at-home refrigerators, helped Fujiya's strawberry cakes rise in popularity.

"It's basically sold on practically every street corner," anthropologist Michael Ashkenazi told NPR. He explains, "This [cake] is part of a whole complex of things that the Japanese adopted from the West, modified to their own needs, and have completely different meaning and different implications for Japanese society than from whatever host society they borrowed it from."

The Japanese strawberry cake eschews its European ancestor's hardened crumbly past in exchange for the lighter, more delicate genoise sponge cake with light cream and strawberries (per Atlas Obscura). The cake combines American and French dessert traditions into one wholly Japanese.

The Strawberry Cake: a Japanese Christmas Tradition

Now, the strawberry cake is a staple dessert at Christmas in Japan. According to Atlas Obscura, Christmas is wildly popular in Japan, though celebrations divest the holiday from its religious roots. Christmas has become something quintessentially Japanese. The snowy wintery imagery remains along with Christmas trees, reindeer, and Santa. Rather than a religious holiday or even a national holiday, Christmas is celebrated more like Valentine's Day in the U.S., says NPR. The holiday is for couples to partake in wintery-themed romance explains. The dessert of choice for the romantic holiday is the strawberry cake.

The dessert's red and white colors not only echo the colors of Western Christmas colors but also reflect Japanese heritage. The cake's white whipped cream and red strawberries symbolize the Japanese flag, and its round, white circular shape harkens back to shrines, explains NPR. The strawberry cake is so ubiquitous that when people say "cake" in Japan, they mean strawberry cake. This popularity has even translated into a cake emoji, writes Smithsonian Magazine.

The Strawberry Shortcake gets a US National Holiday

As the strawberry shortcake grew in popularity in the U.S., the dessert was the main feature of summer harvest parties, reports SASGA. So beloved were these strawberry shortcake parties that petitions began in 2003 to make a National Holiday devoted to the dessert, says National Today. The bids succeeded, and June 14 is officially National Strawberry Shortcake Day in the United States. Festivals and parties celebrate the day with, of course, a lot of strawberry shortcakes.

In early 2022, a unanimous vote by Florida's state senate and state house named the strawberry shortcake the official dessert of Florida. This new status for the strawberry shortcake is to honor the state's strawberry producers, who significantly impact the state's economy. Plant City, Florida, alone supplies the U.S. with 75% of its winter strawberries, according to Southern Living. The city also hosts the Florida Strawberry Festival, which celebrates the region's 2,800 farms by serving nearly 200,000 strawberry shortcakes. While the strawberry shortcake has traversed the globe and transformed over the centuries, the combination of strawberries, cream, and pastry in its many varieties remains a widely cherished dessert.