Food historian and chef Michael Krondl's newest book, "Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert," offers a wholly satisfying and erudite journey through the political, religious, cultural and sexual roles that sweets have played on the world's stage. Blending the ingredients of social history, memoir, food literature and travel writing, the book satisfies on multiple levels.
"From a biological standpoint, dessert is frivolous, unnecessary, and even harmful in excess, yet that's precisely why it's interesting," he writes. "When you talk about dessert you step away from analyzing basic human needs to a conversation about culture."
Krondl delves into various countries' food history with gusto, rewarding the reader with much more than empty calories. Who would have imagined that long before deep-fried Twinkies became a heart stopping hit, 14th-century Venetians possessed a fondness for fried foods? They fried cream puff dough sprinkled with fruit and bolstered with a shot of grappa. Medieval Arabs craved desserts that smelled as good as they looked. Recipes called for ladling on the perfumes, including musk and ambergris, a substance produced by the digestive system of sperm whales.
In its chapters, "Sweet Invention" follows the same route that sugar took as it spread around the globe. The author begins in India, which he writes is dessert-obsessed, a place where farmers offer their cows sweets during the celebration of Diwali. In the 6th century B.C., Indians first refined sugar into its simplest form called gur, a lumpy brown substance with a taste like molasses. Krondl explores the impact of the Persians and Europeans, especially the Portuguese, on the Indian diet. The passion for sweets created a discerning eye and taste buds among the populace. "In Calcutta, people could discern the fine distinctions among sweets in much the same way Angelenos can parse the meaning of a passing automobile."
Krondl then departs for the Middle East, Italy, France, Austria and the United States. Each delectable chapter follows the same recipe. He introduces the country's culinary history with a fact-filled and fascinating travelogue and concludes with regional recipes for inspiration. For this reader, the chapter recounting America's whole-hearted embrace of the "culinary industrial complex" was the most disappointing. Krondl does a good job detailing the process and its sad result, but I would have enjoyed reading about a few of the fine bakeries he must have encountered during his travels across the United States.
Sprinkled throughout the text, sidebars explore dessert traditions including ice cream, doughnuts, sex and chocolate, sugar vs. honey, Zuppa Inglese and tiramisu.
This book would be easy enough to devour in one big bite, but don't. Take a slow amble around the globe, fritter away your time with the delightful stories and remember to eat your dessert.
Julie Foster is a freelance writer and book critic in Sacramento.