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Eton-ish Mess

Lanna Apisukh / TODAY
Prep Time:
10 mins

Chef notes

Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, My Culinary Compass, she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.

Compass points: 51.50 degrees north, 0.60 degrees west. Eton College. Eton, Berkshire, England.

While many know of my Francophilia, a few have witnessed another side of me: one that is more Anglo-Saxon. The complexities of my education mean but I spent a great deal of my childhood with friends from the U.K. — friends who have become lifelong companions, in fact some of my oldest friends in the world. It's not surprising then that I can speak of Flanders and Swann, the musicians; "Beyond the Fringe," the show that preceded "Monty Python," and "Belle of the Ballet" from Girl Annual (I still have a few cherished copies). My familiarity with many things British from the 1950s and early 1960s has astonished more than one person. But there it is, all wrapped up with Motown and the Movement and another part of the complexity of me. So, it is not surprising that I know a few things about classic English cooking ranging from a full English breakfast complete with mushrooms and baked beans to Sunday roasts, fish and chips with mushy peas, to Eton mess.

As one who delights in things old and antique, how could I not know about the school founded by King Henry VI under the name of Kynge's College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windesore in 1440 as a feeder school for King’s College, Cambridge. The incredibly competitive boarding school is the best-known public (read: private) school in the U.K., where the annual fees amount to almost $70,000. Students attend classes in black tailcoat, white ties, waistcoats and striped pants, and alumni range from Princes William and Harry, to writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, to actor Eddie Redmayne to Boris Johnson, one of the 20 of Britain’s 55 prime ministers who attended.

How does such an august institution become connected with a dessert that is a muddle of ingredients and goes by such an unusual and unappetizing name? The story, no doubt apocryphal, goes that at one of the garden events given at the august and oh-so-elite school, an overzealous pooch was playing and pounced on a picnic basket crushing the contents: the strawberries, cream and meringues were muddled and mixed — et voilà! — Eton mess. It is the perfect dessert for the height of strawberry season, and with the addition of a few blueberries, becomes red, white and blue, which makes it a perfect way to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee (OK, it’s a bit late for that!), the Fourth of July or even Bastille Day. Put on your garden party hat, grab a flute of Champagne and savor.

Coda: The first African attended Eton in 1964 and left after numerous racial incidents. Dillibe Onyeama became the first Black person to graduate in 1969. His book, "Black Boy at Eton," revealed the real Eton Mess — astonishing racism at the institution. It was republished in 2022.

Technique tip: Soften the meringues by refrigerating for 30 minutes.

Swap option: You can use any in-season fruit.


  • 2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered, divided
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries, divided
  • cups heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon superfine sugar, plus more for finishing
  • 4 medium-sized ready-made meringues, broken into bite-sized pieces


Lanna Apisukh / TODAY

In a bowl, gently mash half of the strawberries and half of the blueberries until lightly crushed.

Lanna Apisukh / TODAY

In a large mixing bowl, whip the cream and sugar to medium peaks; do not over-whip.

Lanna Apisukh / TODAY

Add the crushed meringues and mashed berries and gently fold until almost completely combined; some streaks of white are OK.

Lanna Apisukh / TODAY

Place into a 7-inch glass bowl or divide the mixture equally among 4 glass parfait glasses.

Lanna Apisukh / TODAY

Spoon the remaining berries over the top.

Lanna Apisukh / TODAY

Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then sprinkle with sugar and serve immediately.

Lanna Apisukh / TODAY