For many people of the world, the idea of having a sweet dish at the end of a meal seems a tad bit redundant. After all, why eat more food when a huge meal had just been consumed?
For those of us who come from the Western tradition of restaurants and meal services, the thought of having a slice of pie, a bowl of ice cream, or possibly a slice of cake seems normal. We contemplate these oftentimes calorie-laden dishes without hesitation.
But why? What part of our heritage has determined that these sweetened dishes come last in the meal, let alone arrive on the table at all?
The answer comes from the dinner tables of European monarchs and others in the upper class. Back two to three hundred years ago, meals were served course by course, with each course consisting of several dishes. Each course would have what we would consider three to four entrees, and then an additional four smaller dishes. One could have ones choice of food. Once a course had been finished off, the table would be cleared (remember this, as it plays an important part) and the next course would be served, again with several dishes. Depending on where you lived in Europe and the money you had, a dinner could go on all night, with the meal consisting of several courses. Sweetened dishes were served throughout each course, depending upon the availability of sugar and/or honey.
Keep in mind that sugar as we know it today was an extremely expensive commodity during this time frame, and sweets were used to both please the palate of the guests, as well as communicate to them that the host had wealth and power. It was a subtle method of impressing those on the guest list.
Eventually dinners evolved into three distinct courses, called the premier service, second service, and troisième service. This approach was/is called Service à la française. If you go to higher end Italian restaurants here in the States, you can still see remnants of this type of service on the menu, as the first course is called “Primo”, and the second called “secondo”. But let’s focus on the French here for the moment. Because to serve a meal à la française, the table still needed to be cleared between courses. This action of cleaning the table was called desservir la table. The first dish served after the clearing of the table became known as the desserte,and was almost always a sweetened dish of some sort.
Two things happened which changed the dining world as the Western world knew it:
1) Revolution: Both the American and French revolutions showed the citizens of the Western World of the extravagance of the Royalty. Having chefs who would cook two dozen dishes for a dinner when a country’s lower and middle class had problems cobbling up enough food for one meal a day seemed ostentatious. Those monarchies who had not been overthrown realized that appearance mattered at cut back on the huge meals.
2) The invention of the restaurant: It was the French who came up with the idea of having a place devoted solely for the purpose of serving complete meals to a clientele.
The end result of these developments was that Service à la française, while still practiced by some places, was deemed impractical by others. Service à la russe where each dishes was presented sequentially rather than all at once, became de rigeur.Service à la russe particularly helped restaurants succeed, because cooks could now make meals more cost effective, as each dish was served due to the customers demand.
Within service à la russe, the idea of sequencing the meals meant that the dishes had to come out in a specific order. The sweetened dishes (which by this point had evolved into being served during the troisième service in service à la française was relegated to the last dish served for service à la russe. Because the waiter still had to desservir la table before the last dish, the name of desserte became forever associated with the sweetened dishes that had been served last.