If one ever wanted a fast way of determining the values a society holds in highest regard, he may not have to look farther than the chocolate cupcake on the kitchen counter – or in the case of sixteenth century England, the sugar sculpture on the mantle. Dessert is defined as “the sweet, usually last course of a meal” (“Dessert”). Broken down, this definition provides us with two key elements involved in the historical formulation of dessert. Firstly, it is sweet, as dessert evolved from sugar. Secondly, it is usually the last course of a meal. Dessert’s enjoyment is heavily centered upon its meaning. By examining dessert’s historical evolution in England we see how throughout eras, the meaning attached to dessert has consistently changed to match what society views as most important in life.
Life events are surrounded by dessert related connotations. Pop culture and societal norms reinforce these, making them even stronger and more widely accepted.
Today it is considered commonsense that sugar is sweet; nonetheless, upon its arrival to Europe in 1100 A.D., sugar was classified as a spice (Mintz 79). Grouped together with flavors like ginger and nutmeg, sugar made its first appearances in English cuisine in savory meat and vegetable dishes.
In sugar’s infancy, it represented status and wealth, which was most sought after at this time. Nobility displayed sugar décor, showcasing how it was expensive and rare. These displays, called “subtleties”, were served in between courses and came in various shapes and sizes (88-89). Sugar’s transformation began as it worked its way down the socio economic ladder into the lives of the upper-middle class whose values were more centered in family and comfort. “As a decoration, sugar was obviously important in ceremonial contexts, such as weddings, birthday parties, and funerals, where sculptured sugar could serve to memorialize” (Mintz 122), demonstrating that it is not our love for sweets that motivates us to place them at the center of special occasions, but our desire to attach meaning to everything we do. Little variation amongst recipes existed until Mrs. Glasse published The Compleat Confectioner in 1760, marking a new era for sweets. This time subtleties were more elaborate, and were decorated with “fruits, nuts of all kinds, creams, jellies, syllabubs, biscuits, etc.” (94). As sugar became inexpensive and abundant, a diversification of sweets occurred, which led to the creation of dessert.
In addition to decorative sugar, sugar existed in three forms: “spices and dragées, sweet and sweetened alcoholic drinks, and baked sweet dishes” (131). Sweet alcoholic drinks, such as ale, and sweetened alcoholic drinks, such as distilled honey, largely conditioned the English sweet tooth (132), making them more receptive to the concept of dessert. Baked sweets, which began to appear in English cookbooks in the fifteenth century, are of interest to us, as they are primarily responsible for the standardization of a dessert meal. In England, dessert started out as pudding (133) and was served at the end of the meal in imitation of the French custom. Hence, the word dessert is likely derived from the French “desservir” meaning, “to clear the table” (“Dessert”).
This still does not explain the reasoning behind dessert’s placement at the end of the meal. From a sociological perspective, this order would ensure that dessert is the most remembered dish, as nobility used it to flaunt their fortunes when sugar was scarce. Scientifically speaking, glucose found in sweets increases energy levels when metabolized, producing an energy boost after consuming heavy foods. As mentioned previously, sugar was served as a spice, and food was so heavily mashed “that its distinctive taste was concealed” (Mintz 85). From a culinary standpoint, it was likely served last as flavors and textures became separated in English cuisine. Regardless of the correct explanation, dessert’s role as the final course is vital to its identity. A brownie eaten while running to work does not invoke the same positive response or significance that a true, after-dinner dessert does.
Nowadays, dessert symbolizes what present day society values most. It is difficult to imagine a birthday without cake or a Christmas without pie. Weddings are a perfect example of our dedication to dessert, as we spend approximately five hundred dollars on these confections (Naylor). The desserts we serve legitimize holidays and provide us with tradition, which brings us comfort. We care which dessert is paired with each special occasion because we have attached significance to these desserts.
One would think that most would prefer to indulge on any other day, as on these days cheesecake, cream-puffs, and brownies are all equally appropriate. However, this is not true for most people, as it is the meaning attached to desserts we eat on special occasions and at structured times, that makes them so entirely enjoyable. Dessert always symbolized what society held as life’s most important values. In historical times this was power and status. Today, it is the appreciation of family, tradition, and life accomplishments, such as Christmas gatherings and marriages.
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Buffalo Wing Cupcake, ManCakes Bakery. Personal photograph by author. 2015.
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Life is short. Eat Dessert first. Illustration., Vancouver. Personal photograph by author. 2015.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.
Naylor, Sharon. “Wedding Cake Prices: 20 Ways To Save Big.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/12/wedding-cake- prices_n_3423921.html>.
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