How We Got to Dessert
By DAWN DRZAL
Eel in marzipan and goose-liver macaroons may sound like outtakes from Monty Python’s “Crunchy Frog” skit, but in SWEET INVENTION: A History of Dessert (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), Michael Krondl tells us that the eel was offered at a 16th-century Italian banquet while the cookies, known more elegantly as foie gras macaroons, are the creation of a 21st-century Parisian pastry chef. These two dishes show how the relationship between sweet and savory has come full circle — from medieval and Renaissance Europe, when there was no division between them, to their segregation during the 20th century and back again to the current era, in which cutting-edge chefs delight in toying with our expectations.
Krondl’s book attempts to chronicle the evolution of the sweet course by visiting six regions that roughly reflect sugarcane’s spread across the world: India, the Middle East, Italy, France, Austria and the United States. After all, at the heart of dessert is sugar, “the prime mover,” Krondl thoughtfully points out, “of the trans-Atlantic traffic in human beings.” As the author of “The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,” he is qualified to tell the shameful story of sugar as spice.
Although science has established that our love of sweet things is rooted in evolution, Krondl posits that “dessert is a purely cultural phenomenon.” Thus the Sacher torte, “an edible manifestation of an urban, cosmopolitan Vienna, as smooth and fitted as a little black cocktail dress,” embodies Austria’s tradition of skilled artisanal pastry cooks. Contrast this with America’s “rural and profoundly unaristocratic” apple pie, an expression of our nation’s “almost religious attitude about home baking.”
Unfortunately, Krondl’s fascinating cultural account is embedded deep within another, far less digestible one. Somehow he fails to draw the crucial distinction between a history of dessert, certainly an ambitious enough subject, and a history of individual desserts. After a seemingly endless trudge through the “thousand and one sweet layers” of Middle Eastern cooking, I reached what Krondl calls the “smoking gun” — that kasutera or “castela cake” was introduced into Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century — and my first thought was, “Hand it to me, quick.”
“The French noun dessert,” Krondl explains, “originates with the verb desservir, or un-serve, that is, to remove what has been served. In other words, le dessert was set out once the table had been cleared of the dishes that made up the main part of the meal.” Although the term appears a couple of times in the late 14th century, it would not attain its current meaning until roughly 1900.
Medieval European cooks added a lot of sugar to their savory dishes, and at that Italian meal in 1529 featuring the eel in marzipan, Krondl reports, “anchovy salad was served alongside sugar-dusted cream pies.” By the mid-17th century, however, when La Varenne wrote “Le Cuisinier François,” a weak “Maginot line” had been established between sweet and savory. Sugar was banned from salty dishes, but sweet foods were still served concurrently with meats and fish. Yet the breach had been opened and would be widened further by the gradual replacement, 150 years later, of “service à la française, the custom of serving numerous dishes simultaneously, . . . by service à la russe, where one dish followed another.” A century of Russian service ultimately resulted in dessert as we know it.
Today we have the surreal experiments of a generation of young “molecular gastronomists” inspired by Ferran Adrià of the legendary — and, lamentably, recently closed — restaurant in Catalonia, El Bulli. At one such meal, “oysters come with a gin and tonic foam, barnacles sit atop cubes of watermelon, seared foie gras is served with cherries and octopus.” Mmm. Just like Grandma used to make.