Bo Lönnqvist is a professor in European Ethnology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland where the classical tradition of pastries and coffee shops still survives. His book Pastries: A Study of the Cultural Expression of Luxury follows the rise and imminent fall of the pastry. Sina Najafi spoke to him over the phone.
Why a book on the cultural history of pastries and why this book now?
My idea was to approach the history of European luxury through such a small and bizarre thing as the pastry. For this I had to take a long perspective and go from country to country. The utmost periphery of this story is Scandinavia, especially Finnish pastry culture, which has been preserved until today. So I see the movement as a cultural process where the meaning of such a small thing changes all the time as it moves from one context to another. At a symbolic level, these shifts happen through things such as ritualization, aestheticization, and miniaturization. My interest as a cultural anthropologist is to connect the concrete material level with the symbolic level, and the way meaning is shaped between these two levels. You can have a long historical perspective on pastries because its history in Europe is well documented, but you can also approach it through fiction, traditions, and personal accounts.
In looking at cookbooks from previous centuries, you discuss how pastries, tarts, buns, cakes, and pies were once all placed under one category. Up to the 18th century, the boundary between them seems very open. But what is a pastry proper?
A true pastry has a bottom like a cakes, it has to be filled with a jam or cream filling, and the third element is the glazing, which can be decorated. There are variations on this. It can, for example, be a ball of chocolate, but there must be something hidden inside, some kind of surprise.
The pastry proper develops in Venice. From the early Middle Ages until the late 18th century, Venice was one of the focal points of European fashion and luxury goods. We know that in the 17th century, the pastry cooks or confectioners in Venice consisted of immigrants from the poor valleys in the Graübunden province of Switzerland. After an edict passed in 1603 that allowed people from Switzerland to settle and work freely in Venice, these immigrants established themselves quickly as pastry chefs and developed the art to a new high point and organized themselves into guilds. All of this is connected to the introduction of coffee and the new custom of eating pastries with coffee, as opposed to the prior arrangement where you had a pastry as a dessert at the end of dinner with a glass of liqueur or wine. Coffee had been known in Constantinople in the 1550s but only reached Venice in 1645. At first, it was only sold in pharmacies as a drug. Around 1680, a man from Graübunden opened the first coffee shop in Venice. By the early 1700s, the Graübunden immigrants ran 105 enterprises in Venice. But then the Venetians became jealous and when the edict expired in 1766, it was not renewed. Thats when these people left and pastry culture spread through Europe. We have a lot of documents about the pastries made by these Graübunden pastry chefs when they arrived in Scandinavia. There was resistance at first, of course. When the Swiss bakers showed up in Scandinavia in the early 19th century, the local bakers would ask the city not to allow these foreigners to work there, claiming that their own breads and sweet things were enough for the public.
The whole spread of pastries was part of the process of civilizing the upper classes. Luxury was no longer just to fill your belly with more food than anyone else, but to recognize a little thing like a pastry. This was more a class phenomenon used to delineate the border against the lower classes. The lower classes still had to eat when they could and starve for the periods in between.
This is also the moment when the names of pastries became more sophisticated. They were named more and more often after famous emperors, kings, or queens. There was a similar move in fashion. In Paris, Marie-Antoinettes fashion designer named every one of the queens hats after a famous actress. There are also influences from the Far East; the idea of decorating objects with seashells, for example, leaves its mark on the culture of pastries.
But if you look, the names were simply given by one individual baker to a new creation and they have stayed. At one level, there is no rationality to these things. The Sarah Bernhardt pastry was invented by a Norwegian baker! And a pastry can also have different names in different countries.
What makes a pastry named after someone become accepted and spread as a recognizable item to order and buy?
Look at the Alexander pastry invented in 1818, which is the first Finnish pastry to be named after someone. At the time, Alexander I, the czar of Russia, was a very popular ruler in Finland, and people had expected him to visit Helsinki on two occasions and he hadn't made it. He was supposed to come in 1818 and the Swiss pastry makers had already created the pastry in his honor, but he ended up coming in 1819. But you see, the pastry had to be associated with some other things; Alexander had decided that Finland could keep its old laws and language. There is Alexander Street in Helsinki, and so on. A whole complex of things came together.
When did the tradition of naming pastries after a famous person end?
It goes on all the time, but now its connected to some specific celebration. For example, for the 100th anniversary of Alvar Aaltos birthday in 1998, the leading baker in his hometown invented an Alvar Aalto pastry. But its difficult for an Alvar Aalto pastry to make it because then you need a whole Alvar Aalto movement.
Its surprising that some of the great pastries named after famous people, such as the Napoleon, are baked in a pan and then cut. Is there a cultural distinction between a pan-cut, democratic pastry and individual pastries?
The development of pan-cut pastries is again tied to the rise of coffee houses. At that point you had to streamline the production of pastries.
You write that the pastry will disappear in the next millennium. Why? And has this possible disappearance anything to do with you writing this book?
Cultural anthropologists turn to studying things as they are disappearing. I have written a book on toys, and in that case, I came to understand at the end that it was the child who was disappearing. The disappearance of the pastry is a question of a whole world coming to an end, both concerning the work of craftsmen and the question of eating as a whole in the West. With the new fitness trends, sweet things are less popular nowadays. But its also the wienerbröd thats coming and getting rid of the pastry.
It would be ridiculous to have a Meryl Streep pastry now, but maybe the Sarah Bernhardt pastry sounded somewhat ridiculous back then. If you had to name a pastry after someone, who would it be?
It would be Christina, the 17th-century queen of Sweden. Im fascinated by her. She abdicated her throne and went to Rome and became a Catholic. She was in Rome at the time when these Swiss bakers started in Venice.
What else are you working on?
I have just finished a study of the potbelly of the Finnish man, which continues to exist despite all the health trends, despite Nokia, and despite what doctors are saying. Im interested in such paradoxes in culture.
Are you a pastry eater yourself?
Yes, I have a potbelly myself and I like to feed it.
Bo Lönnqvist is a professor in European ethnology at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. He contributes a column on cultural criticism to Hufvudstadsbladet, Finland’s largest Swedish-language newspaper.
Sina Najafi is co-editor-in-chief of Cabinet.
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