Wednesday, March 15, 2023


Why do we have desserts?  I have a theory.

Cuisine is an interesting phenomenon.  A lot of people think - as I noted before - that fancy cuisine means expensive ingredients.  But the opposite is really true.  Sure, the most expensive thing on the menu is "surf and turf" - a filet mignon with a lobster.   Ironically, that is one of the easiest items to prepare.  Cooking a lobster requires only that you are prepared to commit crustacean murder.  Cooking a  steak means being able to time it just right.  There are no fancy sauces or ingredients to combine.

On the other hand, highfalutin' French cuisine (and indeed falutin' cuisine of any nationality) is mostly comprised of how to make something really good out of awful ingredients.  The French invented their sauces to hide the plebeian source materials.  And it is true of any culture - people go to elaborate lengths to make food appetizing, even when it isn't.

If you think about it, eating is an unnatural act.  You are putting foreign substances into your body - substances that your body often has trouble dealing with.  Nevertheless, you need this "nutrition" to survive, and having a surplus of calories in your life, historically, was the ultimate luxury one could have.  In fact, in many parts of the world today, getting enough calories to survive, on a daily basis, is a real challenge.  Not all succeed at it.

I noted before that once your calorie count drops below a certain level, the human brain reverts to an animalistic mode.  Civilization is something that only people with full stomachs can enjoy.  When you are starving, or even have low-blood-sugar, the lizard brain takes over.  This is why Karens get angry at shopkeepers right before lunchtime.  Stuff a cookie in their mouths and they immediately calm down.

We live in an era of cheap and readily available food - and it freaks people out that in recent months, prices have gone up and some food items are in short supply.  This has never happened before, right?  Well, not exactly.  In fact, we need only go back one generation to an era where food shortages were a way of life and the struggle for caloric intake was real.

Today, we have the luxury of worrying about being overweight, overeating, and eating too many rich foods which are not good for us - in the long run.  But not so long ago, infant mortality and childhood illnesses decimated the population.  Go to any graveyard and see how many children's graves there are from that era - barely 100 years ago - as well as the graves of their mothers who died in childbirth.

So it was no shock that my Mother was concerned when I was born that I didn't have a "healthy appetite" and was "dangerously underweight."  She went to a doctor and he prescribed that she buy some Guinness beer and put it in my baby bottle.  And it must have worked, too!  I am no longer dangerously underweight.  Guinness - it's got vitimins!

There was this obsession, back in that era, of "cleaning your plate" and eating all your food.  Parents were taught that fat baby was a healthy baby, and perhaps in the era of childhood diseases, fat kids had a better chance of surviving rickets or whatever the fuck they came down with in that dystopian era. Even among adults, being overweight was a sign of prosperity.  The mythical "Mr. Moneybags" was always depicted as a rotund individual, with a tophat and spats, lighting a cigar with a $100 bill.  There were no skinny millionaires, except perhaps Rockefeller.

So what does this have to do with dessert?  Well, the traditional Western meal comprises a number of dishes and courses (and indeed, this is also true in other cultures).  There are appetizers, salads, breads, entrees, vegetables, soups, and so on and so forth.  And when you are finally stuffed to the gills and "can't eat another thing," they offer you this tasty, caloric, sugary delight known as "dessert".  Dessert is rarely fried potatoes or a salad.  The closest you can get to that is a fruit-and-cheese platter.

The idea, I believe, is to get that last bit of caloric intake into your gullet at a time when eating more food - taking more foreign material into your digestive tract - seems "unappetizing."   Even sharks stop eating when they are full.   So they offer you this candy-delight to tempt you into eating "just a little bit more" to top off the tank, so to speak, in terms of calorie count.

Of course, back in the day, desserts were time-consuming to make and used expensive ingredients, starting with sugar.  Today, well, we eat desserts for breakfast - we start the day with a pastry or a sugary cereal or some other form of dessert-for-breakfast.  And it doesn't get better as the day goes on.  Today, well, we don't need to be tempted to eat - we are presented with tasty, inexpensive choices all day long.  Thirsty?  Hydrate with a 110-calorie sugar-water drink!  This is a "normal" thing to do, after all.

I am not sure what the relevance of this all is, other than it struck me that the most temping item on the menu is left for last - when you are most full - and this is by design.  In order to tuck away that last bit of caloric intake, the food has to be made the most tempting.

Maybe there is a lesson in there. Maybe not.