Life Is Uncertain. Eat Dessert First

Ernestine Ulmer? Arthur Murray? Earl Wilson? Leopold Fechtner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: T-shirts and bumper stickers present a modern proverb about the precariousness of existence. Here are two versions:

  • Eat dessert first because life is uncertain.
  • Life is uncertain, so eat dessert first.

Ernestine Ulmer often receives credit although that name is somewhat obscure. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated column of Earl Wilson in 1962. The well-known ballroom dancer and entrepreneur Arthur Murray received credit. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Arthur Murray says he always eats dessert first, because life is so uncertain.

The statement above referred to a single person; hence, it was not in proverbial form, but the phrasing evolved over time.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1977 the “Encyclopedia of Ad-Libs, Crazy Jokes, Insults, and Wisecracks” compiled by Leopold Fechtner contained the following three items in a section about food: 2

I don’t eat eggs. I figure if the chicken doesn’t want them why should I?

I always eat dessert first, because life is so uncertain.

When I asked her for three square meals a day, she started to serve waffles every meal.

In 1979 a BBC radio broadcast presented a pertinent anecdote about a woman’s last words. This tale was mentioned in the reference “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”: 3

Expiring in her one hundredth year during the course of a good meal:

Quick! Serve the dessert! I think I am dying.

Paulette Brillat-Savarin. She was the sister of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the celebrated French gastronome who died in 1826. Quoted on BBC Radio Quote … Unquote (6 February 1979).

The remark about dessert in Fechtner’s 1977 book also appeared in his 1980 book titled “Galaxy of Funny Gags, Puns, Quips, and Putdowns”. Thus, the joke continued to circulate. 4

In 1982 an article in “The Seattle Times” of Washington reported that the adage appeared on a sign in a local business: 5

In fact, a sign, donated by a customer, on the cash register of Pacific Dessert, advises: “Eat dessert first. Life is uncertain.”

In January 1986 the saying appeared on aprons at a gourmet food store in Charlottesville, Virginia: 6

“Eat dessert first, life is uncertain” is the quote on the red aprons displayed over the sweet cases at the new Fountain Foods in the Barracks Road Shopping Center in Charlottesville.

In October 1986 an instance with the two phrases reversed appeared in “The Oregonian” newspaper of Portland, Oregon: 7

“Life is uncertain, so eat dessert first” is not only the business motto for Cheesecake Babes Inc., but owner Lyn Pasak’s view of the world.

“I think it applies philosophically to so many things,” Pasak, 35, said.

In 1997 “The Wordsworth Dictionary of Quotations” contained the following entry: 8

(car bumper sticker)
Life is uncertain – eat dessert first

In 1998 a message posted to the Usenet newspaper alt.religion.kibology included an attribution to Ulmer: 9

“Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” –Ernestine Ulmer

In 2000 a message posted to the Usenet newsgroups alt.quotations, inquired about Ulmer: 10

A web search finds that the phrase:
Life is uncertain, eat dessert first.

Is frequently attributed to Ernestine Ulmer. But I can’t find any information about who she is to be remembered/quoted as saying this phrase. Did she write a cookbook? Did she run in a frequently quoted circle (ala Dorothy Parker)?

In 2012 the modern proverb appeared in “The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said” compiled by Robert Byrne: 11

Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.
—Ernestine Ulmer

In conclusion, Arthur Murray deserves credit for this joke based on the 1962 citation although the statement was not in proverbial form. Leopold Fechtner published the same joke in 1977. The phrasing evolved, and the proverb was circulating by May 1982. Ernestine Ulmer received credit by 1998, but that date was rather late.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of the painting “Still Life (The Dessert)” by Pablo Picasso circa 1901. The image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Andrew Steinberg whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, many thanks to researcher Barry Popik for his pioneering exploration of this topic. Popik found citations beginning in March 1986.)

Notes:

  1. 1962 July 18, The Lima News, Eydie Gorme Will Work, Hubby Steve Explains by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 32, Column 3, Lima, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1977, Encyclopedia of Ad-Libs, Crazy Jokes, Insults, and Wisecracks by Leopold Fechtner, Topic: Food, Quote Page 40, Parker Publishing Company, West Nyack, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Dying words, Quote Page 132, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1980, Galaxy of Funny Gags, Puns, Quips, and Putdowns by Leopold Fechtner, Topic: All About Me, Quote Page 170, Parker Publishing Company, West Nyack, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1982 May 19, The Seattle Times, Sweet Finish Makes a Meal by Sheila Anne Feeney (Times staff reporter), Quote Page B1, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1986 January 10, Richmond Times Dispatch, Shopping center food store lets gourmet carryout grow by Ellen Masica (Special correspondent), Quote Page C5, Column 4, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1986 October 28, The Oregonian, ‘Dessert first’ entrepreneur’s motto by Deborah Holton (Special writer of The Oregonian), Quote Page FD10, Column 1, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1997, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Connie Robertson, Entry: Anonymous, Quote Page 16, Wordsworth Reference, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom. (Verified with scans)
  9. Usenet discussion message, Timestamp: Oct 21, 1998, 3:00:00 AM, Newsgroup: alt.religion.kibology, From: Michael J. Sacks @students.uiuc.edu, Subject: Woman bites on mouse in Mars bar. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 21 2021) link
  10. Usenet discussion message, Timestamp: Oct 10, 2000, 3:00:00 AM, Newsgroup: alt.quotations, From: (jc) mag… @rahul.net, Subject: Who was Ernestine Ulmer?. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 21 2021) link
  11. 2012, The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 819, Touchstone: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)