Cake Walk: A Stroll Through America’s Junk Food Museums

It’s a well-kept secret that Americans are junk food aficionados. What with all our time spent in fitness pursuits and our outstanding universal healthcare system, it might come as a shock that some of us sneak the occasional treat. Luckily, for those of us who might not like to taste but still like the scene, this country of health-food nuts and cardio kings does offer a wide variety of museums dedicated to that little-known American art form – the carbohydrate.

From the newly opened Pizza Brain museum in Philadelphia to the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Americans have preserved our carb-laden legacy for time immemorial. Here are five museums serving up eye candy, and in one case, actual candy.

Pizza Brain
Philadelphia, PA

Opened in September 2012, Pizza Brain in Philadelphia is not your average artisanal pizza shop; it’s also home to the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia. “If you think about it,” says co-founder Bryan Dwyer, “pizza really is this like life force, the great communicator and equalizer.” The inspiration for the shop and museum came from an exhibition of pizza art that Dwyer commissioned two-and-a-half years ago. One chef, a couple investors, a mountain of pizza paraphernalia, and a Guinness World Record later, the shop and museum serve the good people of Philly, who continue to bring in items for display. (The collection now numbers in the thousands.) Dwyer’s current favorite: a custom-made wooden toilet seat, painted as a “giant pizza creature” and autographed by the artist. Other items include photos, videos (“Mystic Pizza,” anyone?), and a variety of ‘za-loving action figures.

Kuyper Cake Collection, Southern Food and Beverage Museum
New Orleans, LA

If you’re a cake aficionado, you may already be aware of the drama surrounding the famed Kuyper cake collection – the 150 specimen cakes (that is, frosting on foam “cake”) amassed by Frances Kuyper, the “Cake Lady,” over decades at her Pasadena home, where she hosted cake decorating lessons. When Kuyper passed away in 2010, the fate of the cakes was uncertain. Susan Holtz – of the Culinary Department of the Occupational Center in the Division of Adult and Career Education of the Los Angeles Unified School District – rescued them and in late 2012, donated them to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. “We pretty much saved it from the dumpster,” says museum president and director Liz Williams. The collection currently consists of about 75 cakes, half of which are displayed on a rotating basis as part of “Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar Exhibit.” Williams’ favorites include a cake replica of the Great Barrier Reef, a cake covered in pansies, and a replica of the Pasadena City Hall. The exhibit as a whole speaks to “sugar as a medium to do something that’s really extraordinary,” says Williams.

Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum
Le Mars, IA

Like others on our list, the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor and Museum in Le Mars is home to treats both edible and otherwise. While you could try to munch on their larger-than-life ice cream sundae statue or one of their interactive exhibits about the history of Wells (who makes Blue Bunny), they wouldn’t be as tasty as the ice cream, and you’d probably perish. The first floor holds an ice cream bar with seating indoors and out, while a “grand staircase” takes you up to a second level of seating and exhibit kiosks, historical photos, videos and other pieces. In 2012 alone, 184,000 people visited the parlor and museum, where the leading flavor is, inconceivably, vanilla.

Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum
Vicksburg, MS

Perhaps the most “American” of beverages, Coca-Cola was first bottled in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1894 at a factory owned by the Biedenharn family. And while the Coca-Cola no longer flows like wine here, visitors can stop by the original plant for a refreshing glass of history. In 1979, the Biedenharn family, who had sold the building years earlier, bought it back, renovated it and donated it to the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. Hundreds of pieces make up the collection, which features a reproduction of the bottling process, including carbonation and bottle-filling (which was a dangerous gig to have in the plant, as apparently bottles tended to explode); original bottles; sales equipment like mini-coolers and advertising literature; commemorative glasses, trays, pocket knives, lamps – you see where this is going. There’s even a showcase on Coca-Cola and Christmas. According to foundation executive director Nancy H. Bell, “What we think of today as what Santa Claus looks like is really from Coca-Cola advertising.” Well, now we’re re-evaluating our entire childhood, so thanks, Nancy.

Schimpff’s Confectionery and Candy Americana Museum
Jeffersonville, IN

You think you love candy? Well, we guarantee that Warren and Jill Schimpff of Schimpff’s Confectionery love it more – a lot more. Warren is a fourth-generation candy man and owner of the store, which has been making and selling sweets at the same location since 1891. For nearly 50 years he and his wife Jill have been collecting candy and candy-making memorabilia. Thirteen years ago they decided to move their collection to the store: tins, tubs, crates, glass toy candy containers (some with 70-year-old candy still inside), barrels, jars, boxes, advertising, candy-making equipment, including turn-of-the-century brass drop-roll dies for hard candy making, ribbon candy machines … the list goes on. “It’s the history of the U.S. candy industry as told by its advertising and packaging,” says Jill. One of Jill’s favorites is still in use today – a 1921 candy vending machine. Jill personally leads free tours of the store and museum for groups large and small. And after gazing on thousands of pieces of candy history, it would take an iron will to leave without a few homemade sweets at the Schimpff’s store. Go ahead, we won’t tell.

[Photo Credits: Pizza Brain: Marie Alyse Rodriguez; Kuyper Cakes: Southern Food and Beverage Museum; Blue Bunny: Wells Enterprises, Inc; Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum; Schimpff’s Confectionery]