It Needs No Deserving. So Why Call it Dessert?

Dessert was originally a French term for the last item to be placed on the table after the main course has been cleared away. It is now used in both French and English to denote a sweet treat at the end of a meal. This word is not to be confused with its close relatives discussed below.

The term dessert reminds us of when to eat it. Sweets are best consumed at the end of a substantial repast when your system is already busy processing fats, fiber, acids, and other meal components. While digestion proceeds at a slow and deliberate pace, you have the perfect opportunity to top things off with something sweet.

Because you’re far from famished, the sugar in the dessert will digest and metabolize slowly. The results are that your blood glucose level (“blood sugar’) will remain relatively steady, which is best for your health.

There is much confusion about how to correctly pronounce and spell dessert. No wonder: the term has several look-alikes with entirely different meanings… and three of them sound the same as dessert. You can only tell them apart by context, and it helps if you speak French.

Among the gazillion words that English borrowed from French are the nouns desert (pronounced identically to dessert, and meaning a thing deserved); and desert (pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, and meaning a very dry place). There is also the verb to desert (meaning to abandon someone or something, and pronounced like… dessert.)

This confusion has given rise to many errors and, perhaps worse, puns. The English phrase “just deserts,” denoting a fair reward, is often dragged improperly into culinary discussions. Certainly, most of us find eating dessert to be a positively rewarding experience. And does it really matter whether we “deserve” it?

The “just desserts” twist is particularly interesting: More often than not, “just deserts” refers to punishment for bad deeds. Could a man’s evil deeds be quantified in terms of cakes, pies, and é claims?

Maybe… if the remedy were correctly applied. This line of inquiry leads inevitably to comedy’s inexhaustible pie-in-the-face gag!

It should be a cream pie, as codified during the 1950s by the slapstick comedian and early television star, Soupy Sales. Soupy’s face was decorated with cream pies more than 20,000 times during his career, and people never got tired of it.

So, maybe save some cream pies for the evil-doers. But tonight – Have you said your prayers and eaten all your vegetables? – a little something scrumptious needs no deserving.

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