excerpts from Sweet Invention

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Sugar and Spice

Nuns’ Sighs and Abbots’ Ears

Of course it isn’t merely in Venice or even Italy that the liturgical calendar determines the pastry cooks’ work cycle. Though many of the world’s religions have periods of self-denial followed by indulgence, none can compete with the roller-coaster of feast and fast traditionally called for by the Church of Rome. There are hundreds if not thousands of sweetmeats associated with Catholic holidays. Central Europe has its Christmas cookies, the French their bûche de Noël and galette des rois (“king’s cake,” for Epiphany). In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated with sugar skulls and pan de muerto (a sweet bun often decorated with bones), while in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas Day, is intimately associated with spekulaas or gingerbread, often baked in an anthropomorphic form. Yet, as any careful examination of this list reveals, the Christian veneer on these occasions is often paper-thin. Christianity’s early success as a religion can be attributed in part to the Church’s willingness to absorb pagan beliefs. Thus winter solstice observations were folded into Christmas and fertility rites tamed for Easter. In many cases, the pre-Christian significance of these festivals remained.

    The most symbolic foodstuff in Europe is doubtless bread. It has the same religious connotation as milk in the Hindu world. In the Christian mass it represents the god sacrificed. “I am the living bread,” John quotes Jesus, “which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” But bread was sacred to European pagans as well. For them too it represented rebirth, though perhaps with less meta- physical import.

    As bread rises, it swells into rotund loaves, like a belly swelling with child. In some cases, loaves take a different sort of feminine shape: round with a hole in the center. There is little ambiguity in the plaited ring (like a woman’s hair) embedded with eggs that is traditional to the tsoureki baked for Greek Easter celebrations. Corsica has a similar bread called caccavelli, and Calabria has its cuzzupa for the holiday. Central Italy too has its feminine ciambella or giambella (a large ring-shaped sweet bread), but there is also the masculine, a log or thick baton, which resembles a sweet salame. Breads often take these phallic shapes—think of the Parisian businessman strolling home with his baguette in hand, occasionally taking a love bite out of the end.

    In ancient Rome, the symbolism was much less muted. In Sicily, Demeter, the harvest goddess, was honored by a sweet called mulloi, made of wheat flour, sesame, and honey. It was shaped, appropriately enough for the fertility goddess, in the shape of female genitalia. The Roman-era author Athenaeus described a breast-shaped cheesecake served at bridal showers in Sparta. Priapus, the god of fertility, was typically shown with a swollen phallus. His whole form, or sometimes just the god’s pertinent anatomical feature, was served in the form of a pastry. Roman men ate it at the end of the meal to perk up their spirits—in a manner of speaking. Martial, the Roman poet best known for his satirical verses, suggested it could serve as a more socially acceptable stand-in for men who exhibited a taste for the flesh- and-blood version: “A Priapus of bread: / you can satisfy yourself by eating my Priapus. / Nibble at him and remain respectable.”

    In the more prudish Christian millennia that followed, the fertility symbols remained, though the representation was a little less overt. At Christmas, the round form of the loaves, like Venice’s focaccia, came to represent the rebirth of the sun at winter solstice while, at Easter, another rotund loaf brought to mind the first spring moon that heralded the sowing season. Naturally these couldn’t be just ordinary bread. They were enriched with expensive sweeteners and with eggs, which, beyond their symbolic resonance, also add color and moistness to the dough. With the waning of the Middle Ages, sugar slowly replaced honey as the sweetener of choice and the dough became so rich with eggs and butter that it was hard to know whether to call it bread or cake.

    In Bohemia, where I grew up, Christmas is represented by a vánočka, a long, sweet, plaited egg bread, while Easter has its bochánek, a briochelike cake as round as the full moon, studded with what were once expensive imported raisins and almonds. In next-door Poland you find the babka, typically baked in a ring pan like a bundt cake. Farther east there is Ukraine’s paska (from the Greek word for Easter), which takes on different shapes depending on the particular region. Traditionally the paska would be swaddled in a ritual cloth like a newborn and carried to church in a basket, where it was blessed in a special ceremony following Easter mass. In this and other ways, the veil of Christianity seems especially transparent in Ukraine. The breads are often decorated with pagan symbols like the sun and pussy willows, with their intimations of fertility and spring. These holiday breads or cakes are most likely as old as wheat cultivation in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. They certainly predate any written recipes. Even in Italy, the oldest recipe for an enriched sweet bread can probably only be traced to 1549, to Cristoforo di Messisbugo’s Banchetti. In it he outlined how to make sweet pani di latte (milk rolls) with egg yolks and rosewater.

    The point of bread or cake, of course, is that you don’t merely look at it, you eat it, and, presumably, as you consume it, you absorb its symbolic qualities. This is acted out as part of every Christian Eucharist. It may also explain the anthropomorphic or other symbolic shapes of many desserts. If eating the body of Christ at mass made you a better Catholic, could you not also imbibe a little holiness by crunching your way through a ginger- bread St. Nicholas, or nibbling at “apostle’s fingers,” or gobbling up the “breasts of St. Agatha”? There are dozens of these sweet- meats that reference saints or saintly types.


    Admittedly the motivation for giving heavenly names to some desserts may have been more a matter of marketing than devoutness. Nobody ascribes any symbolic significance to angel food cake, after all. In previous centuries, many convents made their living selling sweetmeats, and giving them names like bolo celeste (“celestial cake”) must have been a smart PR move. Portugal has an especially rich repertoire of convent sweets, which may account for its deep catalogue of ecclesiastically derived pastry names. There are nun’s sighs, nun’s bellies, and nun’s kisses (respectively suspiros, barrigas, and beijos de freira). Saint Catherine gets to sigh as well. Suspiros de Santa Catarina take the form of airy meringues with a sprinkle of almonds. Not to be outdone, Santa Luzia has her own sweetmeat. This is called pitos de Santa Luzia. Pitos is a colloquial term for vulvas; the dessert, appropriately for a saint, takes the shape of a tightly closed package.In Portugal you can also snack on abbot’s ears (orelhas de abade), taste angel tummies (papos de anjo), and lap up seraphim cream (creme de seraphim). Portuguese heaven (céu) is full of both sweet bacon (toucinho do céu) and cheese (quejinhos do céu). Across the border in Spain, a similar collection awaits. In the case of some names it’s hard to know where piety ends and black humor begins. France, for example, has its nun’s farts (pets de nonnes). In the fourteenth century these airy doughnuts were originally known as Spanish farts (pets d’Espagne), which then turned into whore’s farts (pets de putain) in the early 1700s. The nuns came into the picture soon after.

    Edible symbols still exist even when an ecclesiastic connection has become very tenuous or nonexistent. Catholics and Protestants alike devour decidedly pagan candy bunnies and barely Christian chocolate Santas. Thoroughly profane chocolate coins are a traditional St. Nicholas gift in the Netherlands, as they are for many Jewish children for Hanukah. Candy hearts and gingerbread lucky horseshoes no longer need any holiday to express their meaning. And is a birthday cake in the shape of a Barbie not laden with symbolism? In this respect we still have a lot in common with the Romans.