It’s been a while since I had a dirt dessert. But I can dreamily recall grade school potlucks with dessert tables full of translucent trifle bowls showcasing layers of chocolate pudding, whipped cream, crushed Oreos, and gummy worms. To me, a pudding lover, they were brilliant creations.
Dirt desserts are referred to and presented in various ways: as “worms in dirt,” served as individual dirt cups, as large-format dirt cakes or dirt pudding. You can find recipes on mom blogs, teaching resource websites, and the corporate archives of various food brands. Now that I’m an adult (and without children), I’m less enticed by the taste and playfulness of dirt desserts, but I’m still drawn to them by nostalgia.
Dirt desserts make complete sense as a tool to educate or provide a thrill. They are simple to make and call for readily available ingredients. Teachers can assign them as a fun and interactive way to learn about agriculture or the environment. For example, the School Garden Project of Lane County, Oregon, a nonprofit organization that develops on-site gardens and provides curriculum resources offers a unit—aptly titled “Fun in the Dirt”—that focuses on decomposition, soil structure, and waste reduction, and ends with a Dirt Cup Party. The pudding is meant to represent clay sediments, the Oreos sand sediments, and the gummy worms, well, you can figure it out. “For those who are willing, now add tiny torn up pieces of a leafy green like kale or spinach,” the lesson instructs. “This represents mulch or worm food!”
The most common holidays associated with dirt desserts are Earth Day and Halloween. In celebration of the latter, parents might decide to make pumpkin patch dirt cups with their kids, which means the addition of pumpkin-shaped candy corns.
But when, how, and for what purpose were dirt desserts first invented? The answer is not so straightforward.
According to The Food Timeline, a historical resource developed by the late reference librarian Lynne Olver, dirt desserts most likely originated in home kitchens in the 1980s Midwest. “None of the articles we checked attribute this recipe to a particular person or food company. Nor do they reveal the story behind the name,” Olver writes. She includes the earliest printed example of a recipe—from a 1988 issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette—for Kansas Dirt Cake, in which cream cheese is mixed with margarine, beat with confectioners’ sugar, folded with Cool Whip, then combined with a pudding mix that’s sandwiched between a base and top layer of Oreo cookie crumbs, and frozen overnight. Due to similarities in published recipes, Olver likens dirt cake to a children’s version of the mud pie, a dessert first concocted in California (though it’s often associated with Mississippi) that generally includes fudge and a cookie crumb crust. “Whatever the case,” she adds, “it was an immediate hit. Dirt cake was served at class parties, Brownie meetings, birthday parties and the like.”
The corporations arrived on the scene not too long after. In 1993, Jell-O capitalized on the dirt dessert craze with a print ad introducing Jell-O Pudding Dirt Cups as a “terrific Snacktivity.” “Play in the dirt with your kids,” the advertisement read, alongside an illustration and a recipe. The next year Jell-O released another version, this time subbing gummy worms for gummy dinosaurs to create “Prehistoric Pudding.” Both recipes call for Cool Whip, which, like Jell-O, is owned by Kraft Heinz. What they do not specify as an ingredient are Oreos, instead opting for the more generic “chocolate sandwich cookies.” According to spokesperson Lynne Galia, the first reference of Dirt Cups in Kraft Heinz’s recipe database is from 2002. (Interestingly enough, Kraft acquired Oreo’s parent company, Nabisco, in 2000 before spinning it off in 2011 to form a separate snack company, Mondelez International.)
A Dirt Cup recipe was one of many “Snacktivities” published by Jell-O in a 2000 cookbook for kids and to date, Kraft’s recipe site My Food and Family has issued upwards of ten dirt dessert recipes ranging from Zombie Hand Pudding Cups to Forget-Me-Not Cones. Most include “vanilla creme-filled chocolate sandwich cookies, finely crushed”; though some, like the Dish of Dirt and Graveyard Dirt Cups, list Oreos specifically. Karo Corn Syrup also lists a recipe for Worms and Dirt Cereal Bar Treats on its website. Oreo’s recipe site, on the other hand, yields zero results for “dirt cup,” “dirt pudding,” or “dirt cake.”
National chains have created their own dirt cups. Friendly’s take on the dish, Worms & Dirt Friend-Z, swaps pudding for ice cream. In 2015, Krispy Kreme unveiled a limited-edition Oreo Dirt Cake Doughnut as one of three “campfire-inspired treats” as part of a summer-camp-themed campaign. Galia acknowledges that restaurants and food services may use Kraft’s recipe, but it’s difficult to track those dishes down.
The dirt cup has even made its way into fine dining. Fabián von Hauske Valtierra, the chef-owner of New York City restaurants Wildair and Contra, remembers his first encounter with a dirt cup quite vividly. The year was 1996 and the place was Disney World, specifically at a restaurant inside The Land Pavilion at Epcot Center. The Land was where park guests learned about agriculture and environmentalism. Von Hauske Valtierra ate his dirt cup after having fried chicken biscuits and mashed potatoes. “I was obsessed with it. It was a dream,” he says. Since he grew up in Mexico where chocolate pudding wasn’t available in stores, the trip to Disney World catalyzed a mission to get his hands on Jell-O pudding during each subsequent trip to the U.S.
At Wildair, one of von Hauske Valtierra’s most prized creations is a chocolate hazelnut tart. He describes the filling, piped in a ribbony pattern inside of the crust, as “like a mix between a dirt cup and Ferrero Rocher in texture.” When he and his business partner, Jeremiah Stone, decided to pivot their menu to serve feel-good dishes during quarantine, it was a no-brainer to create his version of a dirt cup. First he repurposed the tart filling as a pudding base, then he made his own Oreo-like cookie crumbles, added a bonus hazelnut praline crunch, and topped it with cherry Haribo gummies purchased from the local bodega. It was a hit. “I think everyone who ordered [from us] ordered the Dirt Cup,” von Hauske Valtierra says.
Although Wildair has reverted back to serving a more standard menu of shared seafood plates and serious desserts, you can always buy dirt cup kits from Jell-O.
The best part about dirt desserts, though? Anyone can make one, so long as they have pudding, cookie crumbs, gummies, and maybe whipped cream. Let your imagination run wild. What else do you want crawling in your dirt?