Eel in marzipan and goose-liver macaroons may sound like outtakes from Monty Python’s “Crunchy Frog” skit, but in SWEET INVENTION: A History of Dessert (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), Michael Krondl tells us that the eel was offered at a 16th-century Italian banquet while the cookies, known more elegantly as foie gras macaroons, are the creation of a 21st-century Parisian pastry chef. These two dishes show how the relationship between sweet and savory has come full circle — from medieval and Renaissance Europe, when there was no division between them, to their segregation during the 20th century and back again to the current era, in which cutting-edge chefs delight in toying with our expectations.
Krondl’s book attempts to chronicle the evolution of the sweet course by visiting six regions that roughly reflect sugarcane’s spread across the world: India, the Middle East, Italy, France, Austria and the United States. After all, at the heart of dessert is sugar, “the prime mover,” Krondl thoughtfully points out, “of the trans-Atlantic traffic in human beings.” As the author of “The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice,” he is qualified to tell the shameful story of sugar as spice.
Although science has established that our love of sweet things is rooted in evolution, Krondl posits that “dessert is a purely cultural phenomenon.” Thus the Sacher torte, “an edible manifestation of an urban, cosmopolitan Vienna, as smooth and fitted as a little black cocktail dress,” embodies Austria’s tradition of skilled artisanal pastry cooks. Contrast this with America’s “rural and profoundly unaristocratic” apple pie, an expression of our nation’s “almost religious attitude about home baking.”