Our Sense of Excess

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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Only in the late nineteenth century was sugar fully democratized, thanks to the affordable technology of extracting it from beets. The fine white crystals seem utterly mundane now, but a tour of an old-fashioned bakery with its sugar figurines allows us to glimpse the grand role sugar had in the past. Idols were made of sugar, and the miniature plastic models of brides and grooms that perch atop modern-day wedding cakes barely hint at the fantastic sugar sculptures that once symbolized power and wealth. The eleventh-century court of the Fatimid caliph delighted in table ornaments crafted of sugar, as did the Byzantine emperors, whose confectioners were renowned. Spectacular statues of sugar, pastry, and marzipan dazzled the eye at fifteenth-century European feasts. So towering and finely wrought were these constructions that the French chef Marie-Antoine Carême, famous in the nineteenth century for his elaborate pièces montées, declared architecture “the first among the fine arts,” with confectionery its principal branch.