What Is Dessert

In a recent New York Times article, journalist Anahad O’Connor referred to granola bars as dessert in discussion of our national food habits.

This caused a great deal of debate over whether granola bars are simply a snack or if they can also be classified as dessert.

By definition, a granola bar is "a bar made of a mixture of oats and other ingredients (such as brown sugar, raisins, coconut, or nuts) that is eaten as a snack,” whereas dessert is defined as "a usually sweet course or dish (as of pastry or ice cream) usually served at the end of a meal.” In this instance, that doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from being a dessert, as granola bars can be sweet and eaten at the end of a meal.

On his blog in 2009, Stanford University linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky made the case against granola bars being labeled as dessert:

“If I have a donut from Dynamo on the way to the gym, that's not dessert. That's just lack of willpower. To be a dessert you have to appear after something else, something savory, i.e., be in a certain order in a structured meal . . .

The word comes from French, where dessert is the participle of desservir, to de-serve, that is, to "remove what has been served". According to Le Grand Robert de la Langue Francaise it was first used in France in 1539. In its original usage, dessert meant what you ate after the meal had been cleared away; fresh fruit or the kind of dried fruits and candied nuts that used to be called 'sweetmeats' . . .

This idea of reserving sweet dishes for the end of a meal is thus a recent development . . .

How, then, did dessert develop its modern sense of purely sweet dishes? An answer comes from culinary historian Jean-Louis Flandrin's analysis of French cookbooks over time, Arranging the Meal: A history of Table Service in France. Flandrin carefully annotated the presence of sugar in each recipe, and found that as French cuisine develops from the 14th and to the 18th century, main courses become more and more savory rather than sweet, and sweet dishes slowly shift toward the end of the meal.”