Michael Krondl’s Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, takes readers on an often fascinating journey of desserts in six “dessert superpower” regions: India, the Middle East, Italy, France, Austria, and the United States. The history of food...even of the icing on the cake as opposed to the cake itself...is as terrific a way to impart knowledge as is the history of fashion. Both are surprisingly good as they give us an accessible way to track changes over time in arenas as diverse as politics, economics, religion, transportation and other technological advances, gender issues, the culture as a whole, and how societies are organized over time.
Though copiously researched, Krondl doesn’t give each of the six “superpowers” equal time, which may satisfy historians more than the casual student of history or foodie. I learned a great many tidbits about India in particular, and I’m glad now to know that they love their sweets; that because there are so many gods/goddesses and avatars, there are lots and lots of sweet-filled holidays; that sweets are more associated with boys than girls; that the lack of Western-type ovens results in lots and lots of fried sweets and none that are baked; and that the circumcision of boys does not occur at birth but rather between the ages of seven and twelve. But I wish more word count had been devoted to the particular history I crave: European and “American.” I realize this says as much about my character deficiencies as it does the book’s, but the history I did learn about the intersection of dessert and culture, gender, economics, politics, and people in Europe and the U.S. was so fascinating I simply craved more.
For instance, I already knew the American preference for milk chocolate as opposed to the French preference for darker, less sweet chocolate, but I didn’t know how Milton Hershey’s deprived childhood played into it. Or that population density...or lack thereof...along with changes in technology, the move from feudal, rural, and aristocratic cultures to urban living and the eventual growth of the middle class tied into when we ate, who prepared our savories and sweets, and for whom they were prepared. Krondl creates linkages out of changes in social economic status, democracy, even the Baby Boom, and his thought-provoking connections deserve study.
It seems obvious that if the mode of dress for an adult male is the same as it is for a 12-year-old boy (jeans, t-shirt, baseball cap), that his palette will differ from an adult male who requires a valet to dress and groom himself. It seems equally obvious that when a culture is focused on maintaining a power structure or Keeping Up with the Rothchilds, different attitudes toward food will develop in comparison to cultures simply sustaining themselves on the frontier...or those with a focus on individuality, portability, and ease of creation. These things seem obvious but only after you begin to actually consider them.
What worked less for me were all the desserts that frankly sounded quite the same to me. Yes, the actual history of the Sacher and Linzer Tortes intrigued me; I was less fascinated with the myriad descriptions of this or that fried sweet. Sometimes a donut, after all, is just a donut. Why not, instead of only focusing on how sugar is refined and how pricing affected dessert, also delve into the varieties of caramel, who invented the creme brûlée, or indeed thought to brûlée sugar?
My only other criticism is that I felt the author gave short shrift to some of the more modern history of dessert, although his insight that today’s restaurant pastry chefs are more innovative than are those at bakeries and pâtisseries was spot on. Sweet Invention wasn’t a perfect recipe for the history of dessert, but it provides ample food for thought.