Whether Michael Krondl’s latest — “Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert” — is a must-read depends not on the size of your sweet tooth but on the extent to which you’re a history buff. The latter may well devour his painstakingly researched exploration of the evolution of dessert in a few key places around the world, places chosen “because I think they have wielded the greatest influence on other societies’ sweet-eating customs.” But given the extraordinary attention to detail he pays to the content and context of, say, baklava, biscotti and Sachertorte — from the economics of ingredient production to nomenclature and etymology — less avid historians may find it hard to see the forest for the trees (or the pastry through all its layers, as the case may be).
This is, in short, a serious read. Though the prose is lively enough, it isn’t sugarcoated by the accompaniment of sumptuous photographs (or illustrations of any kind), and recipes are few and far between. Fair or not, I found myself growing impatient at several junctures with Krondl’s decision to privilege historical depth over geographical breadth: after a bewildering catalog of India’s milk-based sweets or a lengthy tangent about syrup in the age of “A Thousand and One Nights,” for instance, I craved a bite of mochi; a word on the Mexican wedding cookie and its counterpart, the Russian tea cake; or a spoonful of Polish fruit soup.
Which isn’t to say the book isn’t chock full of passages that reflect in fascinating ways on the nature of culinary creativity then and now. Did you know that an early version of baklava was made with lentils? That medieval Italian banquets might start with eels in marzipan and culminate in the presentation of a pie filled not with fruit or custard but precious jewelry? That the trend in contemporary American restaurants toward spiking desserts with savory ingredients was well known to 18th-century European craftsmen, who offered the likes of artichoke ice cream and parsley or celery-flavored crèmes? That the wine cocktails of today were also a thing of the past? Me neither; Krondl does a fine job of exposing the myth that is linear progress. (Speaking of myths, let it be known that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.”)
A certain amount of coherence derives from the final chapter, as Krondl lays the differences between the culture of sweets in America and that of much of the rest of the world at the feet of professional artisans and trade guilds; lacking those, he points out, “in the United States, the story of dessert is very much about mothers and factories.” Here we can discern well the distinction between a macaron and an Oreo, say, or tiramisù and s’mores. Ultimately, though, an overarching narrative about the global development of dessert per se doesn’t clearly emerge. Under those circumstances, I’d just as soon be treated to an array of delectable tidbits from the world round as grow satiated on a handful. Still, Krondl’s complete mastery of the material at hand is undeniable; those with a greater taste for the discrete yet thorough than I apparently possess should by all means indulge.
Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is assistant editor at Sommelier Journal as well as a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver & Boulder” from Globe Pequot. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.
Top photo composite:
Michael Krondl. Credit: Joanne Dugan
“Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert” book jacket courtesy of Chicago Review Press