There was a time when nobody ate dessert—at least, no ordinary people. Sweets and cakes were the fare of gods, offered up by ancient Mesopotamian peoples to their deities. Later, desserts trickled down to humans, but only the very upper crusts of society.
That’s not to say that people didn’t consume anything sticky or sweetened. The most historic sweetener is honey and dried fruits like dates.
Other ingredients for desserts existed in the past, like sugar and cocoa—but you may be surprised to know that these were consumed not for pleasure but for health.
Along with sugar and cocoa, a handful of other quintessential dessert elements enjoyed life in an apothecary’s chest.
The breaking out of sugar and cocoa from doctors’ bags into the popular world of modern desserts involved war. Indeed, wars of conquest played no small role in uncovering the basic ingredients of what we now use for dessert.
This is the story of how we came to eat like gods and kings.
The Wars That Brought Us Dessert
Ten thousand years ago, according to National Geographic, the history of sugar began on the island of New Guinea, when humans began cultivating sugarcane. Stems of sugarcane were pickled and gnawed on for their sweet juice—a juice that was considered an all-purpose remedy. It could soothe every illness and raise any depressed mood.
Slowly, sugar and its magic spread from New Guinea to Asia. By 500 AD, Indians were distilling sugarcane juice into powder. This sugar was still not used for dusting cookies, but as a prescription for headaches, stomach flutters, and impotence.
From India, sugar traveled to Persia, where it emerged on the royal menu. Sugary treats became the exclusive privilege of rulers and their dinner guests.
When the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century, sugar was taken as part of the bounty. Arab conquests spanned a mammoth territory, and sugar (along with Muslim domination) was carried all the way to Spain.
As sugar entered Europe, it remained a delicacy that only the elite could afford. Still, the demand for it grew, and by the 15th century, countries like Spain and Portugal began searching for new sources of sugarcane—which led to the discovery of the New World.
Christopher Columbus, a sugar merchant commissioned by the Spanish crown, brought the sugarcane industry to Central America during his second voyage in 1493.
As sugar plantations sprung up on colonial lands, so did the use of slave labor. England, France, and the Netherlands joined as sugar-producing imperialists. Meanwhile, the world supply of sugar grew and it became cheaper. Soon, sweets were no longer the exclusive hoard of kings and company.
The democratization of sugar was followed by industrialization, which brought new wealth and newer tools, like semi-closed ovens.
Baking, once a niche commercial activity done by professionals, entered the homes of the middle class. Wealthy people could think beyond baking subsistence foods like bread and start making cakes and biscuits.
The Chocolate Cure
The history of chocolate echoes that of sugar: an ancient drug that was discovered and disseminated through war and conquest.
Long before cocoa was used to make chocolate candy, it was brewed into a bitter health drink in Central America. Both Mayans and Aztecs believed that this dark elixir had mystical properties and could cure many ailments, from lethargy to anemia.
When Spanish conquistadors brought the concoction back to Europe, cocoa developed into a sweetened drink. By the 17th century, drinking cocoa was trendy among the European elite and was valued for its nutritional, medicinal, and aphrodisiac benefits.
When a Dutch chemist invented cocoa powder in 1828, the first chocolate bar soon followed. Several decades later, the Swiss became the first crafters of chocolate candy, introducing the world to milk chocolate and chocolate fondant.
Desserts That Were Tonics
In the early 1900s, you could visit an American pharmacy and order an ice cream float. This was because soda water—originally a popular tonic—was dispensed at the pharmacy.
Flavors and syrups were later added to the soda water, which was topped with giant scoops of vanilla ice cream.
Many more ex-drugs have reincarnated as our modern desserts. Rhubarb, the natural partner of strawberry and pie, was an old-fashioned laxative. It was also used to reduce fever, ward off plagues, and even worked as an insecticide.
Love cinnamon cookies? Cinnamon has been used for centuries to treat gastrointestinal problems and urinary infections. It relieves cold and flu symptoms, plus it’s anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. During the Bubonic Plague, sponges soaked with cinnamon and cloves were placed in sick rooms. It’s also an embalming agent—the ancient Egyptians used cinnamon for mummification.
How about some licorice candy? Licorice, another folk remedy, reduces inflammation and can treat aches and pains. Armies of the past chewed on licorice to abate thirst. (Pro-tip: black licorice candy is flavored with licorice extract, but red licorice candy contains no licorice at all, according to a food scientist at New York University.)
And sugar, the definitive element of dessert, is actually antiquated first-aid. Sugar was once used to pack wounds, a technique that some modern physicians are rediscovering.
Today, most desserts are no longer an expensive rarity (unless you count Gold Opulence Sundaes), and doctors won’t prescribe soda water or chocolate (no linkable exceptions, sorry!). But although sweets are now ordinary and easily available, having a dessert can still make one feel like a king.