Investigating the history of dessert is a little tricky. Science leans toward an evolutionary foundation to explain our desire for sweets while others, like food historian Michael Krondl, believe it to be a more cultural phenomenon. If you sit in this corner you can begin by breaking down the etymology itself. According to his book, the french noun “dessert… originates from the verb desservir, or un-serve… In other words, le dessert was set out once the table had been cleared of the dishes that made up the main part of the meal.”
This term first emerged during the mid-1500s when you could find delicious options like the medieval Italian eel in marzipan. At this time, it was commonplace for sugar to be added to savoury dishes, so one needn’t worry about compromising nutrition and satiating a sweet tooth by having eel two nights in a row. Monday you could eat eel and Tuesday you could eat anchovy salad with cream pies dusted in sugar. By the mid-1700s, a rule had come about banning sugar from salty dishes, but this didn’t stop the dish combinations allowed by service à la française, which is the custom of serving many dishes at the same time. Eventually, service à la russe rose to popularity during the 1800s. With one dish being presented at a time, this mostly reflects the delivery of courses as we know them today. All concluding with one delightfully sweet creation.
Krondl notes how “the world’s confectionery arts have not only mirrored social, technological, and political revolutions, they have also, in many ways, been in their vanguard.” This makes sense when we travel back in time even further to 500 BC India and consider the process of sugar cane refinement essential for the international trade of sugar. Ultimately, other countries were able to produce the sweet gold for themselves and allow for a myriad of options we can all enjoy today.
Luckily for all the sweet tooths out there, the market for desserts continues to grow due to the commercialization of baking and food production. Many stores exist and specialize in desserts like ice-cream, pastries, cakes, and more. May we never forget the history of dessert!