Like many old millennials (i.e., those of us born in the ’80s), I spent elementary school in an American Girl–obsessed fog. I passed entire weekends scrutinizing every line of description in the Pleasant Company catalog, even though it was exactly the same as last season’s. I reread each doll’s book series (five during my childhood: Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha, and Molly) to the point of memorization. I gave myself early-onset carpal tunnel meticulously snipping each of their paper doll sets.
For the unaware, American Girl, during the ’80s and ’90s, was an immersive history lesson wrapped up in aspirational miniature. Each character, representing one of five distinct periods or themes in American history—the colonial 1770s, 19th-century settlement of the frontier, Civil War and emancipation, Victorian-influenced turn-of-the-20th-century grandeur, and the World War II home front—had a doll, a set of six historical-fiction novels comprising her backstory, and a catalog’s worth of outfits, small furniture, and accessories to collect. Any youngster’s ticket to this world was a perforated postcard you could pilfer from any of the girls’ novels at the library—fill out your address, drop it in the mailbox, and the lush catalog would be delivered quarterly, ready for mad circling of everything you wanted for your birthday or bank holiday. The five dolls all had similar assemblages of objects to complete their worlds: Each had a school lunch, her own favorite doll (so meta), a storage trunk and bed (blanket sold separately), and an elaborate birthday spread with table, dishes, and party treats.
As with any dive back into a wellspring of nostalgia, the problematic undertones of the phenomenon are glaring in hindsight. To start, the cost of admission was prohibitive for many—each of the historic dolls was offered at a base price of $82 in 1994, the equivalent of about $140 today, which, of course, didn’t include any extra outfits, furniture, or accessories; a complete Samantha collection would run you an adjusted $1,700. There’s also a range of troubling treatments of race: Slavery is covered in a thick coat of whitewash in Felicity’s narrative, while for Addy, the sole person of color in the original lineup, its cruelty becomes all-consuming, threatening to overtake her personhood.
Twenty-five years later, the American Girls may be in need of a more modern and inclusive perspective, but their endurance in the aging millennial’s imagination is profound. What was remarkable about the Pleasant Company line was the sincere quality of the dolls and their accessories, an integrity you could sense even at a young age. I remember staring at the intricate paint flecks representing fat and spice in my Kirsten’s school-lunch sausage, and running my fingers along the rough texture of her immortal torn bread loaf. I was careful with these toys, so clearly superior to my Barbies and their factory-molded plastic things.
Beyond the dolls, the American Girl lifestyle was available to expand into your wardrobe and hobbies, like pre-millennial cosplay. You could get a tween-sized dress to match any of those in your doll’s closet (I wore the Meet Samantha dress for fourth-grade school-picture day), or a set of simple craft projects typical of the era (an embroidery-sampler pillow, a weaving loom, fussy papercraft).
And then there was my personal favorite: the set of American Girl cookbooks, promising “a peek at dining in the past with meals you can cook today.” Each cookbook volume consists of three recipe sections: breakfast, dinner, and “favorite foods,” a mishmash of sweet and savory dishes that were either historically significant or specifically referenced within the character’s canonical stories. The last section of each book, and by far the most hilarious to read, is the “Plan a Party” section. To any mom who said, “Okay, fine, I’ll help you push aside furniture in the living room so you can dance to 18th-century chamber music for this Felicity’s Colonial Twelfth Night party,” my awe and condolences.
I collected this whole supplemental set, though it found little use because, without my own kitchen, I remained at the mercy of the culinary whims of the rest of my family. I stared at the food in their pages, looking upon it as a possibility of a future: a someday when I’d have my own kitchen, my own friends to cook for, and enough allowance to buy every last summer strawberry in Kirsten’s Complete Collection.
I did grow up to have my own kitchen, I run in a circle heavily skewed toward history nerds, and even Kirsten is still safely packed with my other childhood artifacts. The cookbooks, however, were Goodwilled away after I left for college. But their memory, and my dreams of discovering what those illustrated recipes actually tasted like, never left.
They just took a 25-year nap until this spring, when I was killing time at a local mall and zombie-wandered into an American Girl store. The original five historical dolls have all been retired by Mattel, which purchased Pleasant Company in 1998. Felicity, Samantha, and Addy were reborn as more limited, much less intricate versions of themselves, without tiny foods or historically accurate dish sets, alongside contemporary dolls and customizable versions that can be made to look like their owners.
They are hot garbage.
The dolls and their accessories now look like the same generic plastic playthings sold in cheap sets at Target. There is a “Grand Hotel” set with jointed plastic fold-outs and wall decals, with stickers representing potted plants and elevator doors. The bright outfits and shiny mermaid sheaths evoke all the history of a Bratz doll. The modern American Girl line, bought and demolished and “reimagined” by Mattel, has nothing setting it apart in a crowded toy aisle full of what used to be imitators of art. You can still dress like them, but you’ll look just like any other fashionista walking out of Justice.
The sad sight of what my childhood obsession had become reminded me of my dormant ambition, and, with the magic of online shopping, I assembled used copies of my bygone cookbook collection and prepared to answer what I’d always been dying to know: Which American Girl’s cuisine reigned supreme?
From each cookbook volume I picked one recipe that, I felt, both encapsulated my personal nostalgia and adequately represented the character’s story and era. If I had a strong memory of hungering for a particular dish, or if I clearly remembered how it appeared within the chapter books I checked out 42 times from the library, it earned a shot at defending the doll’s culinary honor.
I set only one rule for myself before I started: Don’t alter the recipe. With most recipes I use from adult cookbooks and dubious Pinterest posts, I adapt the steps based on my intuition and adjust flavors based on my own taste. To get an authentic version of each American Girl recipe’s intention, I promised myself I’d stick to plan.
Kirsten’s St. Lucia Buns
Kirsten, a 19th-century Swedish transplant to the American Midwest, was the only American Girl doll I’d owned, so it seemed fitting for her to kick off the showdown. Her crisscross St. Lucia buns are a plot point in Kirsten’s Surprise, and a fake pair of buns was included in her Christmas accessory set. For some strange reason I had owned the St. Lucia Dress and Crown (sold separately), but failed to collect the tray set, which included buns and a Yuletide candle. In the Winter 1994 Pleasant Company catalog, they’re listed at a whopping $14, so apparently seven weeks of saving up my $2 allowance was a bridge too far.
I screwed up early on, in step 2 of the recipe, because I had two mixing bowls out and I accidentally sprinkled the yeast into the bowl I’d just washed, still ringed with a bit of dishwashing liquid, rather than the one holding a quarter cup of carefully lukewarmed water. I have never advanced past the Adequate Baker stage, and bungling a kid’s baking recipe this early in the game put my ego in check real fast. Just because the methods were adapted for supervised children doesn’t make them foolproof.
Surprisingly, the recipe called for saffron, which is a pretty luxe spice for a child’s recipe, though historically accurate—saffron is widely used in Swedish cuisine, and especially holiday treats, due to the country’s role in the global spice trade, with its earliest recorded appearances in Sweden dating back to the 1300s. I couldn’t imagine Kirsten’s family having saffron in the wilds of 1854 Minnesota, but apparently the Pennsylvania Dutch had been cultivating it since the colonial days, so I guess it’s technically possible. Just a little tough to picture that precious saffron jar on the prairie at a time when a mouthful of hard candy was a holiday splurge.
The recipe demands that you knead the dough, which develops a marvelous sunshine-yellow color because of the saffron, for five to 10 minutes. This made me consider deep questions, like how long I would have had the patience for this at age nine before whining so much my mom would come over to finish it out.
The illustrations on how to curl the ends of each bun up to make the signature shape were a lifesaver, as I’m terrible at deciphering such things from text. With each curled end topped with a raisin, what went in and came out of the oven looked astonishingly like the eternal version peddled in the catalog. Warm from the oven, the buns had a muted sweetness that was cut by the grassy, pungent saffron, which, frankly, I wished I’d halved. But Kirsten came strong out of the gate, giving me a nailed-it baking-challenge victory. With less of that pesky saffron, these buns would be a new brunchtime staple.
Samantha’s Apple Brown Betty
Let’s be real: Samantha’s cookbook is a sham. Even the text within the book clearly states that Grandmary’s household was run by servants. “Oh, but Samantha lent a hand!” the book proclaims. Sure. I’m sure Grandmary was totally down with her princess chilling in the kitchen with the help. Upper-class households in 1904 were super progressive like that.
The dishes that Samantha ate from immaculate china as servants watched were apparently very basic, consisting of the dated ideas of what constitutes fancy American food: roast beef, whipped potatoes, lemony green beans. It’s mostly stuff you’d find at a hotel dinner buffet at your company’s holiday party, complete with gristly slabs of meat basking underneath a heat lamp.
For a second time, I was terrible at following directions. The recipe is explicit about how careful you must be while peeling apples, and tells you to seek the help of an adult. First apple, I nearly took off all the skin from my left ring finger. I am as useless as Samantha in the kitchen.
This apple brown betty was essentially apple lasagna, but carefully reading the directions only confused me, and I was so wrapped up in artfully scalloping the apple slices that I forgot to sprinkle them with cinnamon and dump in the milk. (I was distracted thinking about how badly I wanted to add salt, but I stayed true to my mission and refrained from doctoring this simple recipe with my fancy grown-up spice notions.) So I pulled one of those smooth yank-the-thing-out-halfway-through-add-missing-components-and-put-back-in-oven-like-nothing-happened moves.
Samantha officially beat Kirsten in the smell department. Apples and cinnamon trump saffron dough any day.
The apple brown betty was good, but I’d used panko instead of regular bread crumbs because I have the pantry of a Pacific Northwest millennial, and the panko had a sharp texture that wasn’t great. It was distinctly soft and bland, sort of like Samantha’s character arc. I used the leftovers the next morning as topping for French toast, a way more successful and enjoyable use of sweet, cinnamon-y mush.
Molly’s Vitamin A Salad
Good golly Miss Molly, your cookbook suuuuucks. Which is immensely disappointing, because her storybooks are some of the best of the series. Twenty-five years later, I can still recite the Camp Gowonagin chant (“Gowonagin, Gowonagin, Gowonagin and try!”). Unfortunately, she was a fantastic character set in a midcentury culinary wasteland. Her cookbook is full of ephemera on World War II food rationing and victory gardens. There were two separate variations on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches included as recipes.
I remember gravitating toward Molly’s cookbook as a child because I loved her so much as a character. I made the Volcano Cheddar Potatoes one night because they looked great in the pic, but they suffered from a strict rationing of cheese (only a pinch, to make the tepid lava cap). I never followed up with the accompanying meatloaf, with its oatmeal stretcher.
If I was going to commit to Molly’s world, I had to commit. I had to brave Peak Molly with the most outrageously period-defining recipe: vitamin A salad, in the “dinner” section. That’s right, savory and sweet Jell-O, with foods from the four government-defined food groups, designed to sneak as many vitamins as possible into unsuspecting children—the zucchini cupcakes of 1944. This was the only recipe that led my husband, Matt, to vocally retch as I shopped for ingredients. “Lemon Jell-O? Cottage cheese? Those carrots aren’t for this, right?”
As I scooped heaps of cottage cheese into lemon Jell-O mix, I could feel the blunt force of “fuck it” from Molly’s mom, working all day at the Red Cross, then home with a pack of kids, a husband overseas, and no modern dishwasher. These little bastards need calcium? Veggies? And we’ve used up our two teaspoons of butter for the week?
I could imagine poor Mrs. McIntire flipping through the lush portraits of brimming victory-garden vegetable beds in the brochures and postcards that served as the 1940s Pinterest, shouldering overworked women with an ideal that worked out only in the still shot. What happened when the lettuce seeds never sprouted, or the tomatoes didn’t flush red? Is that what got us here? To a “salad” made from last year’s canned apricots and the couple of carrots that the early frost didn’t kill?
I set my Bundt pan full of Jell-O in the fridge and recoiled. It could have doubled as human vomit. The recipe said to refrigerate for several hours or overnight; I waited about six hours. It fell apart when I turned it out on a plate, which would have been heartbreaking when I was a kid. Then again, what kid would want this abomination to turn out? This puts into perspective the fact that Molly’s book series begins with her at the dinner table, trying to stomach the puréed turnips that her brother called “cold, moldy brains.”
I had a bite or two. It was actually less disgusting than I had feared. The apricots were pleasant, the carrots were all right, and the cottage cheese was chunky and bizarre. Ninety-five percent of the collapsed Jell-O ring went in the trash. Molly fell to the back of the pack, as in off the map and into a formless void of shame.
Felicity’s Chicken Pudding
Even though it wasn’t specifically mentioned in a Felicity story, I had to make the chicken pudding from her cookbook. It had always captivated and perplexed me, just as Felicity herself captivated and perplexed me. I remember asking my mom if I could get Felicity with my year’s worth of saved allowance and birthday money, and being steered strongly toward practical Kirsten, with her infallible work ethic and cotton bonnets. Felicity’s prissy outfits and accessories were some of the most expensive in the catalog—she had a goddamn pony, for Christ’s sake.
Savory pudding wasn’t in my family’s recipe repertoire, and, although those conceptual illustrations on The Great British Baking Show are tempting, I’d yet to dive into Yorkshires or meaty pasties. Everything in the recipe was a bit disconcerting. No seasoning on the chicken breasts? Poaching them in a pan? NO SEASONINGS, besides the salt in the batter and cooking water? Wasn’t pepper at least part of 1774-era America? If Kirsten was making it rain with saffron, couldn’t a rich Virginian on a plantation round up some herbs? Every instinct was telling me to add some Cajun spice or seasoning salt, but no. In the name of authenticity, I resisted.
What I couldn’t say no to was pulling the chicken eight minutes before the recipe-recommended half hour had elapsed. Thirty minutes of poaching seemed like a very long time for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. When I pulled and cut them into fourths for the pudding, they were perfectly done, affirming that sometimes you have to go off-cookbook and use the knowledge you’ve accumulated in the years since you fit the target age bracket.
Once the chicken is in the baking dish, you pour a pancake-like batter on top of it and bake. I checked it 20 minutes in, and it actually looked kind of good, puffing up like a big chicken Dutch baby.
In the end, the chicken pudding wasn’t the worst of the bunch. We agreed that it was screaming for some sharp cheddar or Gruyère, maybe some fresh herbs or scallions, or some nice maple syrup as a chicken-and-waffles riff, but it tasted like salty chicken and biscuits. It was only after finishing the recipe and tasting it that I broke my moral code and dumped on as much Cholula sauce as it could hold. Felicity was pacing Samantha for the title of “edible” as Kirsten headed toward the finish and Molly sat in traction.
Addy’s Hoppin’ John
Picking just one dish from Addy’s stellar collection was tough. I’d always wanted to try the hush puppies and the chicken shortcake, and the sweet potato pone, and the corn casserole. But after I’d forced him to eat chicken pudding, I gave Matt a vote, and Matt was into the hoppin’ John and its inclusion of bacon along with rice and black-eyed peas. A perfect side dish for springtime barbecue.
The recipe includes the dangerous-for-children instruction to reserve bacon fat, which was promising. (The runner-up fried-fish and hush puppy recipes called for hot oil, something I still get nervous about.) Addy’s cookbook pushed its beginner users further than any other, with ingredients and techniques that required a risk correspondent with their flavor rewards. And Addy herself was always the bravery, brains, and brilliance of the pack, facing the true life-or-death stakes of escaping slavery for freedom in the North. Ninety years after Felicity was allegedly “helping” the family’s Virginia slaves in the kitchen, Addy was ruling the Underground Railroad and throwing down the liquid gold that is bacon fat.
The cookbook doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of specifying what kind of “rice” is required, but I went with long-grain basmati, as I’ve found it fares better in pilafs. Midway through the cooking process, you add the beans and—here’s the key—the reserved bacon fat. (Not to mention the revolutionary combination of salt AND pepper.) The grains plump and finish in the smoky, salty elixir, and crumbled pieces of bacon are stirred in before serving.
Let me tell you about this rice.
We didn’t just finish our plates; we went back for more. I warmed up a cup of leftovers as I was writing this. I ate it cold out of the fridge. It’s a deceptively simple, transcendent side. The crunch of the bacon and creamy beans provide every textural happiness as all the flavors sing.
With no reservations, I proudly crowned Addy a winner and added her cookbook to the shelf of kitchen tomes I actually use. Addy’s unforgettable chapter books, pattern-forward dresses, and enduring recipes make her a viable candidate for Pleasant Company Supreme Queen, and of all the original American Girls, she makes the strongest argument for bringing the historical pack back as more nuanced, complicated versions of their ’90s caricatures. The fact that American Girl veterans so clearly remember these human facsimiles and their stories all these years later is a testament to their power, and to the importance of looking to the past not for nostalgia or novelty, but with a fearless eye into what we can do better—an openness to the progress we’ve made and can make, in our kitchens and in our inherited world.