excerpts from Sweet Invention

dessert dictionaryDessert_Dictionary.html
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The Need for Dessert

There is a great deal to say in favor of the joy elicited by the chilly smoothness of ice cream or the buttery tang of a lemon tart; nonetheless, pleasure provides only part of the explanation for the pastry cook’s art. It may seem churlish to look for a reason for dessert beyond the sweet delight that it gives, but that is, in large part, what this book is about.

    While the liking for sweetness is undoubtedly evolutionary in origin, dessert is a purely cultural phenomenon. From a biological standpoint, dessert is frivolous, unnecessary, and even harmful in excess, yet that’s precisely why it’s interesting. 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 of our diet as bread or rice or even salt. It fulfills the sort 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 Tiffany’s, and, yes, Mickey Mouse and plastic pink flamingos. It resembles both fine and decorative arts in another way as well, in that it has historically been the preserve of the elite. That said, an éclair or a slice of baklava was always a much more affordable luxury than a ruby pendant.

    Food history is, at times, a ragged discipline, drawing in elements of social history, economics, and even considerations of artistry and fashion. It would be neater, for example, to follow the example of art historians, or scholars of the applied arts, who usually limit themselves to the rise and fall of aesthetic movements, to the influence of one artist upon another. This would result in a clean, linear narrative narrowly focused on the subject at hand. And yet, even though I appreciate the scholarly virtues of such an approach, it doesn’t quite satisfy my curiosity about the subject. I am fascinated by the way the culinary arts interact with society at large: with religion, gender, class consciousness, and national identity, to name a few topics broached in the following chapters. I just can’t ignore the reality that the European taste for sweet foods and beverages caused ripple effects that were felt around the world. Sugar was the prime mover of the transatlantic traffic in human beings. In Europe, the sweetener was a rare and expensive spice before the slave plantations of the New World made the raw stuff of the confectioner’s art widely available, if not necessarily cheap. The biscotti of the Italian Renaissance as much as the cream tarts of Marie Antoinette’s France were made possible by the sweat of enslaved Africans. Does that make des- sert immoral? I don’t think so, but it does lend a bitter undercurrent to the sweet tale.

    Unlike cooking, which for most of its history was less an art than a daily chore carried out by women with little time or money, the creation of sweetmeats has long been reserved for special occasions where cost was no object. As a result, it was often a narrowly defined craft practiced by male specialists. Imperial Rome and Abbasid Baghdad both had professional sweet mak- ers and their pastry shops. In Renaissance Venice, confectioners not only had to know how to concoct a batch of marzipan but were also expected to be skilled sculptors, sometimes working hand in hand with noted artists to create ornate sugary monuments. In France, pastry chefs constructed edible edifices that would make even the most elaborate of today’s wedding cakes look like a fourth-grade craft project. It was no hyperbole when the famed French pastry chef Antonin Carême declared patis- serie a branch of architecture. Because the work of a pastry chef is highly technical, it takes years of practice to get right. This is one reason why many people who are perfectly happy roasting a chicken or cooking up a batch of stew turn to a professional when it comes to an ornate dessert. The explanation for this is simple. Even dedicated amateurs are unlikely to frost a cake more than a few times a year. Compare that to the dozens of pastries iced and decorated in any modest pastry shop day in, day out. Enthusiasm and even talent only go so far as a substitute for years of training. With all respect to Carême, rather than architecture, I think better analogies to confectionary are decorative arts like jewelry making or fine cabinetry. A gorgeous dessert also has something of a virtuoso musical performance, perfectly crafted but also impermanent and fleeting.

    Confectionary, like other applied arts, has long been tossed about by the whims of fashion. Perhaps because it is so superfluous (at least nutritionally speaking), the trends in pastry tend to come and go faster than in cooking as a whole. Certainly sweet makers have been under pressure from their patrons to keep up with the competition but also to innovate. Not that every generation is as inventive as the next. It seems that pastry often goes through a golden age when there is aesthetic ferment in other cultural disciplines too. Italy certainly went through such a phase in the Renaissance, when painting, sculpture, architecture, and confectionary were all reexamined and reinvented. So did Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when every aesthetic seemed up for grabs. In comparison to these two revolutionary moments, the court of Versailles was perhaps less artistically innovative. Decorative painting, porcelain manufacture, tapestry making, and cuisine nonetheless flourished, encouraged by the pressures of social competition and royal largesse. Similar cases could be made for other laboratories of sweet invention such as medieval Baghdad or nineteenth-century Calcutta.

    Throughout history, cultures have found many uses for des- sert. Sweets were fed to the gods in ancient Mesopotamia and continue to be the preferred sacred offering among Hindus. Meanwhile, in Europe, numerous pastries take the form of anthropomorphic fetishes consumed with more or less pious devotion. Southern Italy has its Saint Agatha’s breasts, Portugal its angel bellies, and throughout northern Europe, gingerbread saints are gobbled up throughout the winter season. Almost everywhere, religious holidays are marked by eating cookies and other sweetmeats. Jews celebrate the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) with honey-sweetened treats, Christians bake Christmas cookies, and Hindus shower friends and family alike with sweetmeats during Diwali.

    Around the globe, life’s passages are marked with confections both simple and complex. In Muslim countries, newborns are traditionally given a taste of a date or of honey in a ceremony called tahnik. In India, a child’s first taste of solid food is sweet rice pudding. In the West, birthday cakes mark the passing of each year. And once it’s all over, in many parts of the Catholic world, the living munch on bone-shaped treats to remember their dear departed.

    In our age of cheap sugar, it is hard to imagine desserts being used to score points in the competition for power, but there was a time when Renaissance princes weighed down their banquet tables with gilded sugar sculptures just to show off their opulence. Patronage of the sugary arts was just one more way to keep up with the Joneses. A rare reminder of that long-gone era are our multistoried wedding cakes, which still recall a time when ornate sugar work decorated the tables of royalty. But cakes and tarts are also put to more subtle uses, as the ladies in Damme inadvertently made clear. In Europe, women of a certain class have long used the afternoon pause between lunch and dinner to socialize over coffee, tea, and patisserie. In the West, dessert is an accessory to femininity. After all, aren’t girls made of sugar and spice and everything nice?