© Denzil Green
Many people think that "in the good old days", every meal ended with dessert. That, however, was actually a very narrow period of history starting in the mid-1800s on, when people could provide it because they could afford it regularly, either because they were well off in the Old World or because the abundance of the New World was making everyone a king at his own table. Then at the end of the 1900s, dessert started disappearing again as an expected part of meals. People no longer needed the extra food energy for a trip back outside after the meal to finish bringing in the hay, and in fact, they began looking for ways to reduce food energy intake. And, people were jaded by the concept. It was no longer special.
The concept of dessert only became possible when European cooking started to think of a clear divide between savoury and sweet food (see the entry on French Food.) The final course of a meal started to approach what we think of as dessert amongst the very wealthy in the 1700s in France, who would serve cheeses and meat pâtés, but also fruit, and pastries, Rich hostesses would lay out visually awe-inspiring dessert tables. Then, starting in the mid-1800s, a newly-created middle-class in Europe and in the New Worlds had a significant population of women who had the time to make dessert: they didn't have to work, because their husband brought in enough income, and thanks to the decreasing cost of sugar, they had affordable access to a key ingredient for a sweet course to finish off the meal with.
Still, dessert was a "big deal." It took money and work to make it, amidst all the other kitchen chores such as cleaning ashes from ovens. Bakeries were for the well-off, or very special, "count them on your one hand", treats of a lifetime. When children were told that they were about to behave themselves out of dessert, it actually meant something to them. Fruit was reserved for desserts. It was a big treat, as most fruit only appeared on the table a few times a year when it was in season. Apples were a godsend, as they were one of the few fruits that could be stored in an ordinary root-cellar.
The overabundance of desserts, available any time of day, even when not at a table, started in the mid 1900s, and picked up steam in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, people look at a restaurant's dessert menu, and yawn at items such as cheesecake, Crème Brulée, tiramisu and Death-By-Chocolate cake. Dessert has become such a "maybe, maybe not" afterthought, that many restaurants now have even surrendered in the desserts department and just outsourced them all.
In Britain and in North America, dessert was something that was pretty much mostly made at home. In France, however, desserts are seldom made at home, perhaps owing to the abundance of patisseries seemingly everywhere within easy walking distance. Since the 2000s, though, the French have been an experiencing a fad for one home-made dessert: good old British crumble. They like the simplicity of making crumbles, which can be knocked together in under 20 minutes. They are as likely to serve them with a custard sauce as they are a caramel sauce, particularly apple or pear ones.
Many people who are a deft hand at turning out other parts of a meal are daunted at the thought of making desserts, because desserts -- so we are invited to believe by food stylists and photographers -- are supposed to be visually perfect, and visually impressive. Mashed potato is far more forgiving, and is never meant to be on display. Through lack of practice, even something such as a cake becomes stressful. There's even now a book called "Desserts for Dummies" (by Bryan Miller.) Consequently, given the stress, and the uncertain demand for it amongst those they would be making it for, many people who turn out meals everyday just avoid thinking about making a dessert, and when it is present, it's something put into the cart at the supermarket.
There are two worlds of desserts, though: homey and fine-art. The fine-art class of desserts is a skill you have to work on and hone over the years, and requires additional kitchen tools to tackle the steps involved properly. But, a rustic looking, down-to-earth made-from-scratch apple pie may end up being more visually impressive, if only because of the novelty of it, and the look of genuine authenticity.
Sweet desserts are generally based on pastry or milk, with notable exceptions such as gelatins. They can be made with fruits, even vegetables: carrots and beets are right up there as the sweetest of vegetables, which is why they appear in some dessert recipes.
Sometimes a savoury item is served for dessert -- such as cheese. People tend, though, to call this a "cheese course", because the word "dessert" is now strongly associated with sweets.
Chinese cooking doesn't do sweet desserts as part of a meal at all. Instead, desserts are served at separate times, often tied to a special occasion. But then, Chinese food still doesn't have the clear division of sweet and savoury that Western cooking acquired.
Literature & Lore
-- Erma Bombeck (21 February 1927 – 22 April 1996)
The word "dessert" is considered by some people in England to be "common" or "vulgar"; the better-educated classes will say "pudding" if only to reinforce their sense of otherness. North Americans have no difficulty with "dessert" at all, except when they hear it being called "pudding" and are served cake.
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-- Robert Burton (English scholar. 8 February 1577 – 25 January 1640). From "Anatomy of Melancholy" (pt. III, sect. II, memb. 3)