Dec 08, 2019 Last Updated 6:31 AM, Nov 9, 2017

A Delicious Encyclopedia: The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Category: Pastry & Baking

The Oxford Encyclopedia explores the world of sweets across time.


Our affinity for sweets, pre-history to the present, haut to humble, Hershey to Hermé, is the enticing subject of a notable new 900 page culinary compendium: The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. There are close to 600 alphabetical entries, à la mode to zuppe inglese, in this super-sized encyclopedia, encompassing all aspects of sweetness including chemistry and biology, technology and trade, tradition and ritual, culture and aesthetics.

The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Editor-in-chief Darra Goldstein, founder of the illustrious magazine Gastronomica, enlisted a cadre of 265 experts, neuroscientists to pastry chefs, to write the lively, anecdotal text, which is enhanced by numerous illustrations and specialized appendices. The book is as addictive as its subject, “a tantalizing delight that is impossible to put down,” says pastry chef Pichet Ong. Entries range from fascinating trivia (did you know that the frisbee is named for baker William Russell Frisbie’s pie tins? The 16th century origin of “baker’s dozen?”) to serious food for thought.

The Companion explores the ways in which our taste for sweetness – for better and for worse – has shaped and been shaped by history; how even scent and sound influence our perception of sweet. Along with the story of the evolution of sugar from rare luxury to basic commodity, there are a variety of related essays, among them the development of artificial sweeteners starting with saccharin in the 1870’s; natural sweeteners including agave, stevia, pine sap, birch xylitol; and yellow, fine crystal Japanese wasanbon. You can also read about sugar painting, blowing, sculpture, war-time rationing, riots during the French Revolution, and the invention of sugar cubes in Moravia in the 1840’s.

In his saccharine-sweet confectionery landscapes, many featuring cotton-candy clouds and nude women awaiting the viewer’s pleasured gaze, American artist Will Cotton explores desire and the needs that fuel our consumer society. Candy Curls dates to 2006. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND MARY BOONE GALLERY, NEW YORK.

While there are no hands-on recipes in the book, desserts and candies are described in detail. Zabaglione is traced back to Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera of 1570; the distinctive lattice decoration that characterizes the Austrian Linzer Torte was depicted in recipes dating back to 1653; and Life Savers were created in Cleveland, Ohio in 1912.

That there are no geographical boundaries for our sweet tooth is evident from entries about the Indian ball-shaped rosogolla, Chinese New Year sweets offered to guests on an octagonal “tray of togetherness,” sweet soups from central Europe, the Arab origins of nougat, and Boston cream pie. The Companion offers insights into traditional customs beginning with Christening parties at birth, concluding with Day of the Dead commemorations. There are many pages devoted to holidays. Valentine’s Day, of course, inextricably linked to sweets, morphed from a pagan fertility ritual to a saint’s day, and is serendipitously cross referenced in the encyclopedia with aphrodisiacs, associating love, sex, and sweetness.

The American chocolate company Baker’s was an early proponent of mass advertising. This ad plays on chocolate’s Latin name, Theobroma (food of the gods), as cocoa is offered up to the Aztec king in a solid gold cup.
This portrait by the South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa (1960 –) captures the proud grace of a sugarcane worker, who engages directly with the viewer, machete and cane stripper in hands silvered with dirt. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK.

Biographies abound. The letter ‘M’ for example, features 19th century New York chocolatier Henri Maillard, British Victorian ice cream authority Agnes Marshall, and 16th century Italian-born Catherine de Medici and her influence on French cuisine. Contemporary culinary luminaries pitched in to provide their expertise: Bill Yosses on the effects of aroma on taste, and on the elaborately decorated and filled meringue, the Vacherin; Jim Dodge on cookies; Nick Malgieri on cake; Peter Reinhart on sweet breads. Maricel Presilla contributed a five page discourse on pre-Colombian chocolate.

Colorful Indonesian kue, traditional bite-sized desserts, are often presented on a platter called jajan pasar (“market treats”) and given as gifts during Javanese holidays. PHOTOG RAPH BY GUNAWAN KARTAPRANATA.

Following the alphabetical entries, four bonus appendices on films, songs, pastry shops, and museums evoke different sensory perspectives. Looking through a dessert lens, movies illustrate “different ways that sweets can be used to heighten the flavor of a film’s narrative fiction or feed the premise of a documentary,” among them American Pie, King Corn, and the Keystone Cops, faces full of cream pie.

Considering that musicians “have cast the words ‘sugar’ and ‘sweet’ and seemingly every dessert, juice and candy in unexpected ways,” a playlist of 50 mostly American songs references Elvis Presley’s Cotton Candy Land, Kelis’s Milkshake, and the Beatle’s Savoy Truffle.

The table in German artist Georg Flegel’s Large Food Display (ca. 1630) is resplendent with fruit, nuts, pastries, and, at the center, sweetmeats and ragged comfits in a silver compote. It conveys wealth and cultivation, while also recognizing symbols of Christian faith.

The selection of pastry shops is relatively small, highlighting mostly venerable establishments around the world, a list that most readers could readily lengthen by many pages. The final appendix on museums is a lure to travelers to explore institutions like the Museo del Turron in Alicante, Spain, the Thai Dessert Museum, or Schimpff’s Candy Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

As Goldstein writes in her introduction, “The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets will carry you across many thousands of years, and around the globe many times.”

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