October 13, 2011 by markstani
Maybe Michael Krondl’s paean to the world’s best desserts ought to carry a health warning. It’s impossible to push through his ‘Sweet Invention – A History of Dessert’ without experiencing a serious sugar rush.
Then again, in this calorie-counting, desperately dieting generation, what’s so wrong with that? Using the example of two ‘perfectly coiffed and fashionably trim’ ladies tasting desserts in a Belgian pastry shop, Krondl opines:
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. We are repeatedly told that immortality – or at least a long life – comes from self-denial. And yet, is a life of abstemiousness worth living? Is pleasure so inessential? I looked at the women’s lips, still pursed in rapt attention even as they finished the final bite, and had my answer.
Krondl’s history is sliced into six portions, loosely frameworked around the spread of sugar’s influence from its original refinement in India, across the Middle East and Europe and ultimately to the United States, where the anti-calorie backlash is most obviously embraced.
Krondl examines the – literally – God-like influence of Indian ghee and the complexity of Turkish baklava, where he is told: ‘the learning process is like a university, it takes years to learn.’ Blending contemporary travelogue with historical research, Krondl keeps his narrative, unlike so much of his subject, impressively slimline.
In western Europe, Krondl comes across the sanguinaccio, an Italian chocolate dish thickened with blood, as well as Viennese tortes and teetering Parisian pastries. He winds up in the States – ‘the sweetest place on earth’ – where cup-cakes come mega-produced and dessert is less a patient, ancient art and more a divine right to be devoured as big and fast and sweet as possible.
‘Sweet Invention’ underlines Krondl’s status as a food historian of considerable repute. His book is as close as it gets to a definitive history of dessert. Only, be warned: it won’t work wonders for weight loss any time soon.