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Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert

Michael Krondl

(Chicago Review Press; US: Oct 2011)

Michael Krondl’s Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert is rich and dense, much like the food it describes. Unlike most sweet treats, however, this book makes a point and it’s an interesting one: dessert is important—and in a good way.


Granted, that may be a bit of a simplification. To expand: sweets aren’t necessarily making us fat, dessert isn’t gender specific or just for kids, and even cheap chocolate can be culturally significant.


The first part is simple enough to explain. Krondl relates in a note “For what it’s worth, there seems to be no correlation between eating sweet foods and obesity. In fact, studies have shown that lean people eat more of their calories as sugar than obese people do. Fat is another matter altogether, and, given how much butter and cream many desserts contain, the cheesecake diet has yet to prove its efficacy.”


The other points take a lot longer to explain, but I do think there is (or at least should be) a connection between all these issues. In the United States at least, desserts—along with candy and anything else with sugar (soda and cereal)—seem to get a bad rap. At best they are a guilty pleasure, and at worst—well, words like sin come to mind. Krondl has a different philosophy.


Traveling in Belgium, he bicycles to Damme and visits Patisserie Tante Marie, a place he describes as “nothing especially quaint”. There he observes two ladies who are eating the café’s dessert tasting plate with “the kind of look you see in the eyes of a Beethoven devotee listening to a particularly profound rendition of the master’s final quartets”. And he concludes:


... that dessert could be great deal more than merely a pleasant ending to a meal, a frilly encore played after the weighty symphony was done. That the dessert itself was the purpose, the goal, the raison d’être…Too often, our puritanical culture dismisses pleasure as, at best, a means to an end and, at worst, a sign of moral turpitude, an indicator of weakness…And yet, is a life of abstemiousness worth living? Is pleasure so inessential? I looked to the women’s lips, still pursed in rapt attention even as they finished the final bit, and had my answer.


And perhaps also found the motivation this book—although Krondl admits it may seem “churlish” to over think desserts. He maintains, however, that “When you talk about dessert you step away from analyzing basic human needs to a conversation about culture. A discussion about dessert is more like a dialogue about painting and sculpture than it is about such staples in our diet as bread or rice or even salt”.


So Krondl defines dessert (Belgium waffles are; blueberry pancakes aren’t), but he also suggests defining dessert is like defining pornography—we know it when we see it. Krondl identifies the “superpowers” of the dessert world (and for some reason it makes me very happy to hear superpower and dessert in the same sentence).


A chapter is dedicated to each of these superpowers: India, the Middle East, Italy, France, Austria, and the United States. To other countries—such as Spain, Mexico, Japan and Brazil: Krondl “can only humbly apologize” and state that even his appetite “is not without limits”.


Each chapter is an interesting hybrid of food writing, travel writing, history, and cultural criticism, and each includes interviews, first- person observations, detailed research, and a recipe. Often Krondl includes small details and back stories: a brief discussion of a Turkish newspaper headline that reads “Baklava Tension Increases; Protests Planned for Istanbul”, the story of Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie told in a sidebar, or Miss Catherine Beecher’s thought (in 1850) that “A woman should be ashamed to have poor bread far…more so than to speak bad grammar, or have a dress out of fashion”. We learn the history of the wedding cake, how iPhones are “transforming pastry”, and that Marie Antoinette didn’t really say “Let them eat cake”.


Krondl even manages to make American pre-packaged desserts (i.e., Froot Loops and Krispy Cremes) significant: “Mass production has given us an enormous variety of both candy and dessert at a very economical price. In the United States, sweets have long been available to everyone, not just to upper-crust ladies and their lap dogs.” 


The book spends most of its time looking back—examining the history of desserts, the cultural and geographical influences, and the people who not only first created these confections, but the ones who still make them today. The last chapter, however, looks forward and notes that now some of the hippest dining spots showcase such delights as candied olives, foie gras crème brûlée, and “pistachio cake served in a puddle of arugula soup with Kaffir lime ice cream on the side” on their dessert menus. But just like their classic counterparts, societal shifts can be blamed for some of these changes.


Now, as Krondl notes, the best pastry chefs work in restaurants, not pastry shops because “people hardly entertain at home any more; they eat out at restaurants. But even then, it’s for lunch or for dinner. How many ladies still meet up with their friends over coffee and cake on a weekday afternoon?” And, as Krondl further suggests, when we do dine out, we tend to spend more time on our phones than we do actually talking with the people around us.


By the end of the book, I can’t help but feel a little jealous—the more historied desserts so beautifully described and detailed (like baklava, gingerbread, and tortes) just seem much more appealing than the candied olives and gin and tonic jellies that Krondl believes are the future of dessert. Still, the book is a pleasure to read or—perhaps more accurately and much like many of the desserts Krondl discusses—to be savored slowly with a lovely cup of tea and not a text message in sight.

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