The Periodic Table of Dessert: Questions

Some frequently-asked... well, frequently-commented comments:

Explain why it's done this way.

So you can enjoy figuring it out.

I don't understand the colors.

Do I have to explain everything?

You're missing some elements.

Yes, I know. The exigencies of fitting in all the clever bits, you know. I ran out of space to put more stuff. Such as... mascarpone, neufchatel, cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese, plum, cranberry, currants, malt, rosewater, kahlua, caramel, and no doubt others.

You're missing water.

Water is so essential to cooking that it really does go without saying. It would be like having an entry for "electrons" in the Periodic Table of Elements. Plus, I ran out of space.

Marzipan is just almonds and sugar.

And marshmallow is just gelatin, sugar, and air. But I wanted to fit a few more vertical correspondences in there.

Is it accurate?

That's not a comment... okay, okay. Yes, it's accurate. Stylized, perhaps, but accurate.

Custard contains milk.

The first custard I successfully made contained only eggs, butter, sugar, and lime juice. Very tart; very tasty. In general, milk contributes some butterfat to the custard, but just about any liquid can be used.

Fudge contains chocolate -- really!

Well, no. Fudge is a microcrystalline sugar candy containing butterfat and a moisture content corresponding to "soft ball" stage (235 F boiling point). Chocolate is what you add if you're making chocolate fudge.

How did you come to invent this thing?

What a good question. But it's not a comment. So I'll give it its own section.

The Periodic Table of Dessert: Evolution

Back in, oh, 1988 maybe -- as an undergraduate -- I came across a poster in the library at Carnegie Mellon. (Wean, not Hillman.) It was entitled "Periodic Table of Desserts", created by Naomi Weissman.

It was a very fine thing, but I found it unsatisfying. What Weissman had done was take the standard periodic table, strip out everything but the element abbreviations -- H, He, Li, Be, and so on -- and then choose a dessert which matched each abbreviation. This produced a superficially familiar arrangement; but it had no real structure. It was not periodic. Thinking up a hundred-ish desserts with appropriate letters in their names is tricky, but not subtle.

Joke "periodic tables" of this sort are common. Weissman did one of Vegetables and one of Fruits-and-Nuts, besides the Desserts one. Jonathan vos Post and Christine Carmichael published a "Periodic Table of the Aliments", with a similar structure, in the October 1992 issue of Analog.

(And there are even more "periodic tables" which only loosely, if at all, follow Mendeleev's layout. Tom Weller created an early classic in Science Made Stupid. A quick Web search turns up periodic tables of beer styles, sexual positions, etc, etc...)

I wanted to do something more clever.

The idea percolated around my head until a Usenet discussion floated by when mentioned the "four fannish food groups". (Several quartets were postulated: "salt, sugar, grease, and caffeine" was typical.) Ha ha, I said, why should we be stuck with medieval chemistry? We should have ninety-two food elements. At least.

And then I started working on the structure.

Last updated August 15, 2003.

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