Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert

I live not far from some notable monuments to the American sweet tooth: Down the road is the great complex of buildings that was once the Necco factory, for many years the largest candy factory in the world. In another direction is the former Squirrel Nut factory and in yet another, the former Haviland Candy factory, whose giant, gleaming standpipes labeled “corn syrup” and “molasses” used to fill me with a jubilant sense of the ridiculous. Finally, the still-operating Cambridge Brands factory, maker of Tootsie Rolls and Junior Mints, is on the route of my daily walk and the smell of its labors is one of the wonders of the city. And though I always marvel at the massiveness of an industry devoted to the most frivolous of products, I had not given much thought to its place in world history.

Michael Krondl’s Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert  has immeasurably enriched my understanding. The book is as much about sweetness and culture as it is about the specific thing we call dessert — though it is most assuredly about that too, in its myriad, marvelous, and often bizarre variety. Though sweet foods are not necessary for survival, the pursuit and making of them have shaped the course of history. In this respect, cane sugar has been pivotal in that it was the great spur to the international slave trade and all the arrangements and horrors and dissolutions which that brought about. Still, this “bitter undercurrent to a sweet tale,” as Krondl puts it, is only one aspect of his hugely complex account of the role of sweet things in society. The history of dessert is tortuous and elusive. It involves transmigration and cross-fertilization of cultures, fashion and the forging of national identity, economic, social, and gender relations, advances in communication, technology and chemistry, and is strewn throughout with myth and curious by-blows. 

Krondl looks at sweet things in six regions, of which India is the first. It is there, sometime around 300 A.D., that the extraction and refining of cane sugar was established. A lack of ovens dictated boiled, steamed, and fried sweetmeats, and, curiously enough from our point of view, men rather than women were and are the greatest consumers of sweets on the subcontinent. Next up is the Middle East, whose merchants spread the use of cane sugar into Europe in the early Middle Ages. It was considered a spice and a medicament, and as late as the 14th century, a pound of sugar in Europe cost as much as two pigs. This, needless to say, made it a status symbol; and, as its price fell (with the establishment of Mediterranean and Caribbean sugar plantations), it appeared in practically every dish, sugared fish being especially popular.

In Europe, Krondl looks first at Italy, whose art, fashions, and elaborate cuisine were dominant in Renaissance Europe. He turns then to France, which, out of a growing sense of Gallic identity, rejected the Italian influence in the early 17th century. With the reign of Louis XIV (16431715), French cuisine came into its own: sugar and spice were removed from the main part of the menu; savory dishes became distinct from sweet ones; and dessert as a special course came into being. Austria, its cream cakes and coffee houses, is the final stop before Krondl crosses the Atlantic to our own country where things go downhill fast, in part because we have no traditions that can resist “the culinary industrial complex.” It is, unfortunately, the present American approach to dessert which is winning the world: the mass-produced, single-serving, on-the-go clod of bland sweetness.

Every dessert — its ingredients and techniques, the time and place it shows up, and the social end which it meets — is enmeshed in a web of history. To get a sense of what is involved in pinning down the origin of even one dessert, consider Baba au rhum. Krondl starts by recounting tales of the delicacy’s invention, one being that the 18th century Polish king, Stanislaw Leszczynski, exiled first to Germany, then to Alsace, came up with the name because he was reading about Ali Baba while eating cake soaked in liquor. In fact, baba is Polish for cake and the variety in question was most likely a Kugelhopf , whose origins lie somewhere in the Middle Ages (which constitutes a tale in itself). Baba, however, is considerably more congenial to French ears than Kugelhopf , though it took political exile and a Pole to give the name currency — if, of course, this account is true at all, for it cannot be entirely so. Krondl points out that mention of Baba au rhum doesn’t actually show up until the mid-19th century and for very good reason. Before the Revolution, rum was hard to come by in France thanks to trade barriers set up to protect the country’s own brandy producers. 1789 changed everything; English rum punch came into vogue; and by the 1840s rum began to show up in all manner of French desserts including, voila! Baba au rhum — of which poor old Stanislaw never tasted a morsel.

Confectionary, Krondl says “fulfills the sorts of needs that make our species unique, it feeds the same desires that led us to build Notre Dame and the Taj Mahal, that brought us Chanel and Tiffanys, and, yes, Mickey Mouse and plastic pink flamingos” Put another way, the making of sweet things reflects the impulse to achieve the sublime, the spectacular, the inimitable, and the nonsensical. Thus civilization has seen sixteenth-century Istanbul’s 100-layer baklava, a creation so delicate that a coin dropped from two feet was meant to penetrate them all; a Renaissance Venetian table setting and napery constructed entirely of sugar and indistinguishable in appearance from the real thing; a towering nine-foot Viennese wedding cake; a two-foot tall all-American, green-frosted John Deere tractor cake; and those casualties of fickle taste, blood-thickened chocolate pudding and eel in marzipan.