In the 1990s, when Jacqueline Dole was just a schoolgirl, she coveted the Cosmic Brownies she saw in her classmates’ lunchboxes. In late 2019, memories of those fudgy Little Debbie treats led Dole, now in her 30s and the owner of Biddeford-based The Parlor Ice Cream Co., to re-create them in the form of an ice cream flavor.

Dole’s version of Cosmic Brownie – milk chocolate ice cream with brownie chunks – even contains the rainbow sprinkle “meteors” (candy-coated chocolate chips) that are scattered on top of the brownie’s thick layer of frosting. “It’s just not a Cosmic Brownie without those special sprinkles,” Dole said.

Cosmic Brownie, based on the Little Debbie treat introduced in the 1990s, is a new flavor from Parlor Ice Cream, which will begin selling it in pints in April. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Dole

“They were one of the lunchtime treats that I definitely was not allowed to eat,” she said, “but sometimes I’d get lucky and a friend might sneak me an extra one in their lunchbox. It’s kind of fun to revisit them now.”

Dole will be re-releasing pints of Cosmic Brownie in April, as well as pints of Tiramisu ice cream, another ’90s favorite that has been a bestseller for her company. She’s following in the footsteps of food manufacturers, television producers, clothing manufacturers and other businesses that are tapping into consumers’ nostalgia for the ’90s. In addition to the recent reboot of the teen sitcom “Saved By the Bell” on the Peacock streaming service, remakes are also in the works for the ’90s animated series “Rugrats,” the movie “Clueless” – As if! – and the fly Kelsey Grammer comedy “Frasier.”

The food reboots appear to be endless: Dunkaroos, those popular snack packs featuring kangaroo cookies that ’90s kids dipped into a tiny container of frosting, reappeared last summer. The new version of 3-D Doritos had its own Super Bowl commercial this year. Pop-Tarts Crunch Cereal has made a comeback as Pop-Tarts Cereal. And the multinational British company that makes Viennetta ice cream cake (which Dole says is her “all-time favorite frozen treat”) announced in January that it will return to American grocery store shelves sometime this year.

Bars are getting in on the resets as well. According to Esquire magazine, before the pandemic some of the hottest drinks at many bars around the country were spiked juice boxes and “adult” Capri Suns. One bar in North Carolina is known for its nostalgic throwback to Sunny D, the orange drink that, in its cocktail form, is called “DrunkenD.”

Can you say, “Show me the money?”

When it comes to food, consumers can find nods to the ’90s in Maine as well, from a fine-dining dish in Portland to a friend uttering that overused phrase “all that and a bag of chips.” On Valentine’s Day, molten chocolate cake (also known as molten lava cake) appeared on numerous restaurant menus, including at Union in Portland’s Press Hotel, where chef Josh Berry’s version came with red fruit compote and whipped cream. (Oh, snap!) Molten lava cakes are known for their under-baked texture – a gooey river of rich chocolate flows onto the plate when cut into with a fork. At Parlor, Dole paid homage to the decadent dessert with limited edition Valentine’s pints of chocolate ice cream mixed with chocolate cake and a hand-piped chocolate ganache center – a true labor of love.

“Before I started Parlor,” she said, “I worked as a pastry chef, and I used to think I couldn’t handle making another chocolate lava cake for the rest of my life. But stepping outside of it, it’s really a classic. It’s popular for a reason.”

If you can’t wait until next Valentine’s Day for your fix, never fear: A company in Maine makes microwaveable ones in different flavors, which would probably make master chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s head spin. (He introduced the dessert at his New York City restaurant in 1991 and is credited with its widespread popularity in the United States.) Jarva Cakes, a family-owned company, makes molten lava cakes in flavors such as chocolate peanut butter cup, sea salt caramel, and birthday cake, and even has a Lava Cake Club subscription program. Jarva Cakes reflect that under-baked quality of traditional lava cakes – they take just 35 to 45 seconds to cook in the microwave.

As Dole said, ’90s restaurant classics like molten lava cake – and tiramisu and pepper-crusted tuna – are popular for a reason. These dishes may have started off being served on china plates in white-linen tablecloth restaurants, but some became so popular they went mainstream and ended up on the menus of restaurant chains. (Molten lava cake is still being served at Chili’s.) But today’s chefs are not timid about reclaiming the dishes. Ryan Hickman, chef/owner at the Knotted Apron in Portland, served tiramisu chocolate mousse made with mascarpone and the Italian liqueur Averna during Maine Restaurant Week. He wasn’t thinking ’90s at the time, but his menu was Italian and he knew that boozy desserts are popular. It was “received well,” he said, “and I’m sure will make a comeback.”

The Tiramisu ice cream cake served at one of Rose Foods’ pizza bagel nights. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Dole

Tiramisu became a thing in the United States in the latter half of the 1980s, but it really took off in the 1990s. Today, it is still a staple of Italian restaurants, but sometimes (as with Hickman’s dessert) takes on different forms – even ice cream. Dole’s Tiramisu ice cream and ice cream cake were created for pizza bagel nights at Rose Foods in Portland, a series of three BYOB events held at the deli in 2018 and 2019. Rose Foods owner Chad Conley says he wasn’t specifically inspired by the ’90s, but Bagel Bites fans take note: He hopes to resurrect pizza bagel nights in the fall.

Gelato Fiasco created a Mainer’s Tiramisu Gelato (it contains Allen’s Coffee Brandy … booyah!) to celebrate the state’s birthday, which falls in March, and offered it in both March 2019 and March 2020.  “We skipped the celebration this year due to the pandemic and construction in Portland, but I imagine we will run the flavor again next (year),” said Bobby Guerette, spokesman for the Brunswick-based company.

The brandy-spiked gelato is now in the company’s “flavor vault,” but you might not have to wait a whole year to try another version. A classic Tiramisu gelato is a more frequent flavor, offered several times throughout the year, according to Guerette. It’s a custard gelato with layers of espresso-soaked ladyfingers and a sprinkling of cocoa.

The tiramisu at Otto’s. The pizza restaurant has sold 36,000 portions of the dessert since it was put on the menu in September 2019. Photo courtesy of Otto Pizza

Otto Pizza began selling a classic tiramisu dessert at all of its locations in September 2019. The desserts, created by Otto master baker Alex Castiello, a third-generation Boston baker with Italian roots, are made at the company’s baking facility in Lynn, Massachusetts, where its pizza dough is also made. Otto spokesman Eric Shepherd says the tiramisu has “been a fairly popular item for us.”

David Turin, chef/owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland, is unapologetic about his pepper-crusted tuna. He put the dish on the David’s menu in 1992, and it’s never left.  He’s never even tweaked it; the only thing that’s changed is the plate it’s served on. “I did get excoriated terribly in a review once for having something so outdated,” Turin said.

Criticize all you want, but Turin considers himself a chef who likes to serve diners what they want to eat, not necessarily what he would like to cook. Younger chefs, he notes, like to experiment a lot, but “very often experimentation is fraught with things that don’t work.”

“You go back to the things that are the classics, and the reason that they’re classics is because they’re really good,” he said. “There’s a big urge in the creative cycle of anything, and food is in that realm, where young people want to differentiate themselves from the past. We’ve had a lot of that with food, where people are so motivated by how a dish looks, they’re just adding and adding and adding ingredients, and garnishes and textures, and you’re like, ‘I don’t even know what I just ate.’”

Chef David Turin makes his pepper- crusted rare tuna. “You go back to the things that are the classics, and the reason that they’re classics is because they’re really good,” he said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Turin likes the simplicity of his pepper-crusted tuna, and the dish speaks for itself – in hella good sales. Even during the pandemic, it’s one of the most popular items on his menu. When he featured it as the entrée in a three-course take-out dinner last spring, it sold out immediately, Turin said.

Ada’s pasta made with sun-dried tomato pesto. Photo courtesy of Jenn Rockwell

Sun-dried tomatoes are still around, too, if less popular than they used to be. Food & Wine magazine called them “the Sriracha of the 90s,” used in everything from sautéed greens and salad dressings to deviled eggs. Today, you mostly find them in foods like pizza and pesto (another ’90s favorite). The magazine blames their decline on farmers drying tomatoes in commercial dehydrators, instead of in the sun, as was traditional, to keep up with demand, resulting in a less intense flavor. In Portland, sample them in Greek chicken sausages at Pat’s Meat Market and in the sun-dried tomato pesto at Ada’s. Ada’s pesto uses Italian sun-dried tomatoes, owner Jenn Rockwell says, because “they’re so sweet and delicious.”

Orono Brewing Co.’s Totally Tubular double IPA is, well, you know. Photo courtesy of Orono Brewing Co.

Even beer labels are paying homage to the ’90s. Tubular, surfer slang from the 1980s, was still such a popular word in the ’90s that the owners of Orono Brewing Co. chose it as the name for their New England IPA. Abe Furth, co-owner of the brewery, said he and his business partners all graduated from high school in the ’90s and most are now in their 30s. The name came out of a brainstorming session, he said.

“We wanted to create this beer that was associated with fun and adventure and community and doing fun things with friends and family,” Furth said. “Tubular fit with that, from the surf slang as well as the tie-in to a decade that was a pretty fun decade for a lot of people.”

Every quarter, the brewery produces Totally Tubular, the double IPA version of Tubular.

Orono Brewing also sells Don’t Feed the Animals IPA, a beer that pays tribute to the Portland Zoo, the cozy Fox Street bar with a ’90s vibe. Furth said Orono Brewing will again collaborate with the bar in April, on a re-release of Don’t Feed the Animals.

Alrighty then. Whatever. Gotta bounce.


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