Exploring the trend everyone loves to hate
In 2009, Bonnie McLoud was thrilled at the reception for her new product at the Seacoast Home and Garden show at the University of New Hampshire. “This is our debut and we’ve already sold out of our peanut butter flavor,” she told the Portsmouth Herald. “The crowds are really great.” Aside from peanut butter, the product came in flavors like chocolate mousse, caramel apple, and maple walnut, all of which were selling well.
That product was hummus. Or at least pureed chickpeas, sans tahini, with chocolate mixed in.
Though Google Archives says some people were searching for the phrase “dessert hummus” as early as 2005, McLoud and partner Chuck McGonagle’s Crazy Camel Dessert Hummus may well have been the first brand to introduce the now ubiquitous — and contentious — product to the market. It appears to be out of business now, but its marketing copy reads like a greatest hits of dessert hummus’s selling points: “High in Protein and Fiber. Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Wheat Free, and Vegan. No Artificial Chemicals, Preservatives, or Saturated Fats. Just a Great All Purpose Dipper and Spread!” The idea supposedly came from McGonagle’s daughter, a “picky eater” who only liked hummus when he added peanut butter.
Dessert hummus is the trend everyone loves to be mad about. Thrillist wanted to banish it in 2018, Bon Appetit hoped it would go away in 2019, and yet at the end of 2021, while pumpkin spice lattes and Icelandic yogurt have faded into the fabric of reality, sweet and other “nontraditional” additions to hummus inspire rage anew. The trend hits every discourse button: diet trends, “health” buzzwords, flat-out disgust at the combination of sugar and chickpeas, and most prominently, cultural appropriation. Is this fusion or stolen valor? And more importantly, who gets to decide?
In 2010, the New York Times reported savory flavored hummus was catching on in America, as brands attempted to get buyers interested in a “foreign” dish. Sabra, which was founded in the U.S. in 1986 but was partially acquired by Israeli food group Strauss in 2005, is the country’s largest hummus brand. Mina Penna, its brand manager, described the plan succinctly: “Take something that’s new to the American consumer, like hummus, and then add ingredients they know and love, like sun-dried tomatoes.” So instead of a more traditional hummus — chickpeas and tahini blended with olive oil, lemon, and garlic — Sabra introduced flavors like olive, jalapeno, and roasted red pepper (and in 2020, chocolate). Other brands like Tribe and Oasis, both of which were founded around the same time as Sabra, also expanded their flavors. “I’m making an American product,” Majdi Wadi of Holy Land told the Times. “And this is what Americans want. Flavors and varieties and guacamole.” Once you’ve opened the doors to buffalo style hummus, sweet chickpea spreads seem almost inevitable.
While dessert hummus was available both through retail brands and through recipes across various food blogs, it became more mainstream in 2017, when the brand Delighted By, created by Makenzie Marzluff, won a deal from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank. Her pitch was that dessert hummus was a “guilt free” sweet snack that could be used as anything from cupcake frosting to fruit dip, freeing customers of the temptation to buy cookies and candy. Marzluff told Eater that she originally got the idea in 2014, wanting to make a “healthier” version of edible cookie dough for a Super Bowl party. Though she certainly wasn’t the first, her brand was the first that most people heard of, and soon other dessert hummus companies took off. “They wanted to capitalize on the trend and our initial success.”
Dave Pesso, co-founder of fast-casual chain the Hummus and Pita Co., says about eight years ago, he was also looking for a “healthy” snack his daughter could enjoy — she loved Nutella, but he wanted to make sure she was eating “good stuff,” so he tried mixing it with hummus. “We worked with it and she went nuts and all the other mothers went nuts and we said, ‘This is something that, you know, we definitely have to put on a menu.’” The Hummus and Pita Co., which opened its first location in New York City in 2012, put dessert hummus on the menu in 2016, and offers it in flavors like cake batter and cookie dough. It also recently debuted its “Chickpea Chiller,” a vegan milkshake with a chickpea base. The company expanded to locations in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Michigan, and has begun franchising across the country.
There are multiple trends at play here. “Plant-based eating has boomed in the last few years, making dessert hummus a super relevant sweet treat,” says Marzluff. In the past decade, more brands have understood that people who have vegan or gluten-free diets need more options. But there’s also been a proliferation of diets like paleo and keto, which have elevated protein into the be-all, end-all of nutrition. Chickpeas have protein in droves, and have become the ingredient to replace something considered “unhealthy,” like dairy or wheat, with protein. There is chickpea pasta, rice, chips, and even butter that you can “eat with reckless abandon!” The word hummus, which has become synonymous with chickpeas, gives the products a veneer of wellness.
But hummus is, of course, more than the “healthy, high-protein” snack it’s been reduced to in the American grocery store, and that reduction is why the conversation around dessert hummus has been so contentious. In America, outside of Middle Eastern populations, hummus was a countercultural “health food” in the ’60s and ’70s, and about a decade ago, its popularity went more mainstream. But “the first known recipes containing mashed chickpeas and tahini come from cookbooks from the 13th and 14th century, from Syria and Egypt, respectively,” says Dr. Dafna Hirsch, a professor at Open University of Israel who has written about hummus’s co-option and symbolism. “There is no successive history of the dish, but the current version is usually considered ‘Levantine,’ namely coming from the area of Greater Syria (present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine).” Hirsch notes that there is no tradition of sweet hummus from any of these cultures. “In this region it is pretty much considered an abomination,” she says, and making it “is not respecting the tradition of other people.”
Dessert hummus’s popularity of course turns sour in the context of America’s long tradition of racism and Islamophobia, as well as its tradition of consuming the cuisines of people it discriminates against. After all, the brand name “Crazy Camel” points to Middle Eastern aesthetics as it belittles them. But Pesso says the combining of influences is the nature of food in America’s melting pot after a certain point, and often it’s a good thing.
“We believe hummus and pita are like bagels and cream cheese, bread and butter. It’s as American as anything else now,” he says. “Growing up as a kid, I used to have to take two trains and a bus with my mother to go to the specialty Middle Eastern Mediterranean store to buy hummus or grape leaves and stuff like that. Now, you just go down to the supermarket, there’s aisles and aisles of all different flavors and brands.” He’s faced purists saying the dessert hummus is wrong, but his customers enjoy it, and besides, who put them in charge? “Hummus means chickpea and tahini. It doesn’t necessarily mean oil, garlic, savory.”
However, many dessert hummuses don’t include tahini — they are basically pureed chickpeas with sugar and other flavors. Food studies writer Anny Gaul disagrees with Pesso’s assessment from an etymological standpoint. While she acknowledges the word hummus itself can most simply be translated into “chickpeas,” she argues the word carries other linguistic and cultural meanings that cannot be applied to just anything that uses chickpeas. Regardless of the recipe, hummus has historically been made with ingredients like tahini, vinegar, lemons and sumac. That is, savory. “If you’d like to make a vegan dark chocolate brownie batter chickpea dip, fantastic. Whatever,” she writes. “But don’t call it hummus.”
Even when these concoctions aren’t called hummus (Pesso calls Hummus & Co.’s sweet chickpea dip “chickpea shmear”), the association is there. The central issue is not so much etymology as it is ownership, and what that ownership confers. The basic arguments of cultural appropriation regard people who have no connection, knowledge, or respect for a culture using the aesthetics for their own profit, or messing with traditions they have no right to. But that argument rarely accounts for people like Wadi or Pesso, who are riffing on their own families’ traditions. Instead, the stance of tradition versus innovation belies a very real fear — that that playfulness will permit those outside the community to play as well, and steal, and bastardize, and disrespect. But unlike wearing a sari as a costume or sports teams having Native American mascots, it is not inherently disrespectful to cook or eat a cuisine different from the one your parents cooked. It is, in fact, one of the great joys of being human. Often, cultural appropriation with food comes from people who have the best of intentions, which makes it harder to parse.
“I completely understand why the conversation around cultural appropriation exists,” says Marzluff. “However I do not personally think it’s wrong to invent new products containing chickpeas.” She notes that multiple dessert hummuses on the market are made by hummus companies that “have Israeli investment in one way or another, so clearly they don’t think it’s wrong either.”
But Israel’s relationship to hummus is its own quagmire, as Dr. Hirsch has written. In her article “Hummus: The making of an Israeli culinary cult,” she defines hummus as “an Arab dish adopted by Jews in Israel” and turned into a national symbol. “I can see why some peoples — especially those whose cultural production and heritage have systematically been devalued, and at the same time robbed by the West — would mind that Americans (or Israelis…) call hummus their own,” she says.
Gaul says that acknowledging hummus’s origins doesn’t have to mean never innovating on the form. In fact, she references a recipe for hummus made with pomegranate molasses inspired by a meal at a restaurant in Jordan. But she says there needs to be “an accountability to the people and cultures that gave us a particular dish or recipe or cuisine,” which raises the question: Who gets to decide what accountability looks like, and when it has been sufficiently given? There is no one authority that can say hummus is accepted or respected enough to be deconstructed and reimagined until it’s nearly unrecognizable and sold by non-Levantine people, just as there was no person who could decree non-Italians could make pizza or there could be a quesadilla on every fast-casual menu.
The variety and innovation in American cuisine was born out of both cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, out of exoticism and respect, exploitation and collaboration. The difference is that now, we’re watching the conversation happen in real time — and that the conversation is happening forcefully at all. Slowly (too slowly) more people are keeping these questions in mind, or using them as a starting point to learn the histories and cultural relevance of the foods they were introduced to in totally removed contexts. Dessert hummus might be here to stay, and you might see that as either evidence of people running amok with things they don’t understand, or the beauty of cultural exchange and creativity. It’s probably both.
Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.