Can Treats Save Civilization?

07/15/2011 02:36 pm ET | Updated Sep 14, 2011

Treats are costly and/or fattening and/or obtainable only in one tiny spot on Earth. Your treat and my treat might not be the same, yet the word "treat" triggers in both of us a throbbing thrill. And now...

Are treats on the brink of extinction?

Homeless, we no longer order Cristal. Jobless? Tiramisú takes a hit.

Treats are under attack in other ways as well. Treats have lost meaning lately in a West bloated and spoiled by the easy ubiquity of what was once novel and special and reserved only for tender moments when we merited rewards.

Yes -- frappuccinos killed the treat.

Shorn of their scarcity, are treats still treats? I think not.

The morphing of treats from rare to everywhere reflects the bigger picture in which we are trained to love ourselves no matter who we are or what we do. When sky-high self-esteem is mandatory, the words "merit" and "reward" become anathema, because they imply judgment, as if some people and things are good but some are bad.

Suspending judgment, we need never reserve special treats for special times. Rather, we must demand whatever we want, whenever we want it. And we are beseeched to want it all the time. This is capitalism, after all. Companies do not want us to consume their rich, fattening, costly products only once a year. Treats make nearly no economic sense.

Thus we have reached a moment in history at which two forms of extinction are converging on the treat. This is dangerous. Is there still time for one form to obviate the other? Will poverty force us to save special things again for special times? But will it take another Great Depression to save treats, which will restore our sense of values, but then we'll be destitute?

It matters, because a culture devoid of treats is doomed.

A culture in which treats have lost their meaning and/or a culture in which no one can afford treats is a rudderless zombie culture that does nothing and does not know why. That arcane concept of deserved rewards -- treats as a meritocracy -- was how things used to get accomplished. When I work hard and succeed, but only then, I can have milk and honey, said our ancestors as they built aqueducts. Treats are goals tagged to higher goals. Treats elevate us. Treats civilize us.

Without treats, what do we become?

Angelique Fry doesn't want us to find out. In 1982, she cofounded Divine Delights, a California-based baking company that supplies petit fours glacé -- that is, minuscule iced cakes -- to Neiman Marcus, Balducci's, and other stores.

"We do more business on the East Coast than in our own backyard," says Fry, a California native. "Maybe that's because there's more of a tradition for European-style, highly decorated little things back East, while people out West tend to like their desserts plainer and not particularly decorative."

West Coasters are also biased against colorful desserts, says Fry, whose bestselling pastries are pastel pink, yellow and green.

Best eaten with bare fingers in two bites, petits fours "remind people of gentler times gone by" but are now seeing a resurgence, Fry says, "because afternoon teas are coming back into style.

"Along with these very social teas comes a desire to return to the old-fashioned treats that Mom and Grandma served. In that sense, we're trending backwards" -- rebounding from 21st-century chipotle-flavored caramels to these unapologetically fussy 18th-century anachronisms, the French poodles of pastrydom.

Every batch begins with three thin layers of almond pound cake.

"It's a very traditional frangipane in that it doesn't have a lot of sugar, but lots of almond paste, whole eggs and butter -- which makes it expensive -- and just enough flour to hold it together."

Baked in 18-by-24-inch pans, the layers are then spread with ganache and stacked. The filled, triple-layer behemoth is weighted gently as it cools, so that the layers won't later slide apart while being subdivided into shapes -- ovals, diamonds, circles, squares and hearts -- with cookie-cutter-like devices. An enrober conveys the outermost icing. Final flourishes are added by hand to create flamboyant edible gems.

If we all ever become too poor to afford such things even at special times or if we all become too narcissistic to see them as treats, we're sunk.

Images Courtesy of Kristan Lawson and Divine Delights.