St. Louis' Gooey Butter Cake Was Created Totally By Accident

St. Louis, despite only being the 70th-largest city in the United States, is known for regional foodstuffs far outstripping its population size. Some of this is historical legacy. As the traditional "Gateway to the West" (the city's nickname, and the reason the Gateway Arch exists) during the period of American westward expansion, it saw a lot of communities moving through, some of whom settled and introduced surprising food diversity to Missouri's second-largest metropolis. Granted, some of their culinary habits can feel like they border on anti-semitism (see: how St. Louis cuts bagels). But others are just wildly delicious, even if they're not exactly health-conscious.

The grandaddy of them all is St. Louis gooey butter cake. Made with cake flour, sugar, eggs, and enough butter to grease a slip n' slide, it's one of the city's pride and joys, referenced or featured in TV shows. But the wildest part of gooey butter cake isn't how good (or how unhealthy) it is — it's that its creation was apparently the result of a cooking oopsie by a baker who read the instructions wrong. That's right — gooey butter cake was created by accident.

There are multiple origin stories for gooey butter cake, but more than one suggests an accident

As with many foods, there are multiple possible origin stories for the creation of gooey butter cake. What's interesting, though, is that more than one of them attributes its creation to an accident. Though there are different people who claim credit for its original creation, every story intersects at some point with John Hoffman of a bakery called St. Louis Pastries in the 1930s. And every story seems to agree that's the location where it gained popularity, making Hoffman the obvious inflection point.

The first story is simple but believable: Either Hoffmann or possibly an employee got the ratios of flour and butter mixed up while baking a regular cake. The second story is a little more complex. Supposedly, St. Louis Pastries had two different types of butter: a gooey butter and a deep butter. The deep butter was typically used for cakes, while the gooey butter was used for pastries such as danishes. An employee of Hoffman's mixed up the two types of butter, resulting in gooey butter cake. And because it was the middle of the Great Depression and times were tough, the bakery just decided to go with it. 

However it was invented, gooey butter cake soon became a regional staple — even if it took decades for it to catch on elsewhere.

St. Louis's other regional delicacy was an accident, too

This isn't the only time a famous dish was created by accident. Popsicles were invented when an 11-year-old boy accidentally left a sugary drink mix outside overnight, causing it to freeze. Nashville hot chicken was supposedly created when a jealous woman decided to punish her boyfriend by adding a ton of cayenne to his lunch. Worcestershire sauce was created after being left in a cellar and forgotten about for two years.

Incredibly, this isn't even the only time a signature St. Louis foodstuff was created by accident — at least, according to local legend. Aside from gooey butter cake, the other dish the city is known for is toasted ravioli. Everyone seems to agree that it was first created at Angelo Oldani's restaurant in the 1950s, and sources are unified on the story behind its creation. 

As the tale goes, Oldani told a new employee to prepare some ravioli. Seeing a pan of boiling oil nearby, the cook assumed Oldani meant the ravioli was supposed to go in there and dropped them in. The end result was the perfect mix of Italian cuisine and southern culinary sensibilities — all because of unclear kitchen communication.