Thomas Mann on Lubeck, harems and marzipan

Now if anyone wishes to vent a little spite against me, or take a casual swipe at me, I can count on his bringing up my Lubeck origin and Lubeck marzipan. If some ill-wisher can think of nothing else, he invariably thinks of connecting me with comic marzipan and representing me as a marzipan baker. Such stuff goes by the name of literary satire. But it does not bother me . . . And I certainly do not feel in the least insulted about the marzipan. In the first place it is a very tasty confection, and in the second place it is anything but trivial; rather it is remarkable and, as I have said, mysterious. And if we examine this sweet more closely, this mixture of almonds, rosewater and sugar, the suspicion arises that it is originally oriental, a [Haremskonfekt] confection for the harem, and that in all probability the recipe for this barely digestible delicacy came to Lubeck from the Orient by way of Venice. And it turns out that those wits are not so wrong as they themselves think, that Death in Venice is really ‘marzipan’ although in a deeper sense than they ever meant it.


The Invention of Marzipan

Readers familiar with William Shakespeare’s dramatic works will recall Act I, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet, wherein the first Servant, whilst clearing away plates, says:

Away with the joint stools, remove the court cubbert, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane; and as thou loves me let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell. Antony, and Potpan!

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

That this ‘piece of marchpane’, a confection known today as Marzipan—but also marci panis, march payne, martiapanes, panis marcius, marzepaines, mauthaban, marzapane, mazapán, massepain, martaban, martevaan, mawtaban, matapan, mazapan and marzapanetti—should hold such high value for a Servant clearings scraps speaks volumes about the peculiar mystery of this particular Stuffe but also the vicissitudes of human hunger.

In 1926 the German novelist and future Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann made a speech on the 700th anniversary of his home town of Lubeck, Germany, in which he too discussed Marzipan:

Now if anyone wishes to vent a little spite against me, or take a casual swipe at me, I can count on his bringing up my Luebeck origin and Luebeck marzipan. If some ill-wisher can think of nothing else, he invariably thinks of connecting me with comic marzipan and representing me as a marzipan baker. Such stuff goes by the name of literary satire. But it does not bother me … And I certainly do not feel in the least insulted about the marzipan. In the first place it is a very tasty confection, and in the second place it is anything but trivial; rather it is remarkable and, as I have said, mysterious … And if we examine this sweet more closely, this mixture of almonds, rosewater and sugar, the suspicion arises that it is originally oriental, a [Haremskonfekt] confection for the harem, and that in all probability the recipe for this barely digestible delicacy came to Luebeck from the Orient by way of Venice … And it turns out that those wits are not so wrong as they themselves think, that Death in Venice is really ‘marzipan’ although in a deeper sense than they ever meant it.

Thomas Mann, ‘Lubeck as a Way of Life and Thought’ (1926)

I discovered the text of this incredible speech serendipitously, while searching for a copy of Death In Venice in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. The speech, given on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of Luebeck’s founding, can be found in the 1980 Knopf edition of another of Mann’s novels, Buddenbrooks, which describes the daily lives of a prominent Merchant family in Luebeck. Mann’s reputation in Luebeck, it is said, suffered a downturn upon the publication of the novel, when various real-life Luebeckers recognised themselves in the book’s cast of characters.

Mann’s descriptions of the drowning city in Death In Venice were echoed by a late-20th-century historian, Peter Lauritzen, who provides the following description of the Church of the Gesuiti in Venice:

The Gesuiti’s pulpit is an elaborate confection swathed in the heavy folds of a voluminous brocade curtain . . . This white curtain decorated in a handsome green damask pattern is in fact made of marble; all of the walls of the church are covered with this same white and green imitation damask made of verde antico inlaid in slabs of white marble. The illusion is extraordinary.

Peter Lauritzen, Venice: A Thousand Years of Culture and Civilization

Mann’s creation of a triumvirate of Confections—Marzipan, Venice and Lubeck—may well have been palatable to the guests listening to his speech. This is all very well. However, Mann’s addition of a fourth characterisation of Marzipan as a Haremskonfekt, surely, would not have gone down well in Lubeck.

For it is in Lubeck—a UNESCO World Heritage city, an island in the middle of a River, quite close to the Baltic Sea—that a strange myth, concerning the invention of Marzipan, has been propagated. According to the bare bones of the story, Marzipan was invented in Lubeck in 1407 during a Famine, or Hungersnot so severe that all there was left to eat were some almonds, eggs and sugar. When these three ingredients were combined, so the story goes, Marzipan was invented, and the villagers (presumably) escaped death at the hands of the Hungersnot.

Indeed, by implication, the Marzipan could be said to have saved the people of Luebeck from hunger forevermore, thus constituting a miraculous substance, not unlike the breadtree explorers dreamt of transporting across entire oceans, or manna flung down from Heaven.

Luebeck’s manufacturers of Marzipan have at various stages helped propagate the myth, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to Marzipan’s origins lying much further east: towards Persia (or even further east, in India, maybe even New Guinea) many hundreds (if not thousands) of years earlier.

Therefore for Mann to describe Marzipan, or to be exact the Marzipan made in Lubeck, as a confection originating from a Harem must have sounded completely depraved to some ears that night back in June, 1926.

Today, Lubeck’s makers of Marzipan (including the Carstens and Niederegger companies) freely admit to the improbability of the Luebeck Marzipan myth. Their company websites, which in the mid to late 1990s spoke about the Famine in Luebeck and the invention of Marzipan as though it actually happened had, by the turn of this century, been toned down somewhat:

Today, everyone agrees that Luebeck is not the origin of Marzipan. Simply the fact that within our northern climate there is, understandably, a lack of almond trees, demonstrates that this is not the place to look for its origins. Even so, due to the high level of awareness of “Luebecker Marzipan”, one is tempted to associate its origin with Luebeck … some ancient accounts state that the recipe for Marzipan came via Italy directly to a Luebeck merchant. However there are no documents or other form of proof for this or for the many anecdotes and sagas.

Carstens GmbH, ‘History of Marzipan’ (2003)


The origin of marzipan is now known to be the Orient where the delicate almond-sugar mixture was served at the Sultan’s table as the crowning of a meal. Through Arabian rule marzipan reached Spain and Portugal, and during the Crusades spread through the rest of Europe via the trading port of Venice.

Niederegger GmbH, ‘Lubeck Marzipan conquers the world’ (1999)

Some people just can’t help themselves, however. The following text from the German-language website Marzipanland has been translated using the Babelfish translation engine:

Everywhere on earth one knows Luebecker marzipan. The mad taste is simply unmistakable! There one does not think at all of the emergency situation, from the marzipan developed. There are several stories, but the probably most well-known one means that during a hunger emergency at the disposal were to the bakers of Luebeck nothing different one than almonds, sugars and rose oil, in order to protect the citizens death. From this the bakers developed “the Marcus bread”, our current Marzipan, is subject to which strict regulations and high quality requirements. Only marzipan, which consists to 60% of almonds and at the most 40% sugar, may call itself Luebecker noble edel-Marzipan.

Marzipanland, ‘Marzipan’ (2002)

In 2002 I visited Luebeck, an act which would effectively bring me full circle in my investigations into the Stuffe, a journey of some ten years now, and counting. Inside a store in the centre of Luebeck I discovered a museum dedicated to the Stuffe, featuring a table at which sat eleven statues, each composed entirely of Marzipan.

I found a Santa Claus (or Weihnachtsmann), a Nun, J.G. Niederegger (the founder of the Niederegger company), Thomas Mann himself, a Merchant (Burgermeister Jurgen Wullenwever), a Baroque novelist by the name of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, the Emperor Karl IV, his Mother Luise Charlotte, a child, an Apotheker and a Persian.

The photocopied notes accompanying the exhibit suggested that each of these figures (or figurines) had played a key role in the history and development of Marzipan, in Luebeck at least.

The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.

The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.

When I saw this astonishing scene, I experienced the kind of feeling one suspects historians seeking confirmation of inexplicable connections or correspondences must enjoy. Almost a decade before I had set out to write a novel about Marzipan, beginning with a small child sleeping inside a box.

I first read about the Luebeck Marzipan myth in 1997, using Internet search engines, drawing inferences and connections from translated materials, as well as various Cook Books, confectionery histories, books for children (including Virginia Arpadi’s delightful story of a Marzipan-coloured cat), vague hunches and a pinch of the imaginary. Here, before me, was a sixteenth Century novelist holding a strange object out in front of him, made entirely of Marzipan! What more confirmation did I need?

Under normal circumstances, this tableau alone might have proved sufficient stimulus for a writer wishing to reconstruct the events surrounding the fabled invention of Marzipan in Luebeck, substituting this table of statues for the presumed star or stars of such an historical drama — that is, the real inventors of Marzipan, who may well have been Dutch invaders, Venetian monks, a wily Apotheker, a snow storm, a well-fed Merchant or some desperate Bakers.

The accumulated knowledge with which I arrived in Luebeck however constituted an accumulation of fragments, sinews and bones. Here, finally, positioned behind a long flat table, was a set of bodies within which to insert the few historical fragments I had found, like relics of saints embedded in plaster.

Furthermore, inside the Marienkirche in the centre of Luebeck I experienced the full majesty of the Gothic culture in both architecture and painting which has produced such extraordinary monuments as the reconstructed Totentanz (‘dance of death’), an elaborate stained glass tapestry of skeletons and townsfolk engaged in not so much a dance as a grim tug of war, alternating panels in which either the villagers or the skeletons have the upper hand. At its base, the glass panels burn red, with the famous Luebeck spires engulfed in flames. Meanwhile, two of the skeletons kneel in prayer over the baby Jesus.

All of these scenes, tableaux, snippets of information and direct experiences informed, to some degree, my master’s thesis. It acknowledges the many stories about Marzipan propagated in other parts of the world. It nods its head at the island of Sicily, where Almonds have a rich and deep connection with that sandy piece of earth. It extends a hand of faith to the Orders of Nuns throughout Europe whose clandestine manufacture of Marzipan continued almost without pause throughout the Middle Ages, due in part to St Thomas Aquinas’ famous dictum that the ingestion of this exquisite Confection did not break the fast.

Nevertheless, even St Thomas would have resigned himself to the inevitability of secrecy surrounding the exact details of the Nuns’ exact Recipes for Marzipan, and would surely have noted also the practice within such orders of hiding such Recipes inside the mind of the Mother Superior, to be passed on only at the instant before death, via the ears of her successor.

In my Confection, Marzipan is assumed to be composed of three basic ingredients: Eggs, Almonds and Sugar. Some recipes substitute honey or rosewater for sugar, egg whites for eggs – but it is the Almond that gives Marzipan both its bittersweet taste and its creamy colour.

Marzipan is remembered differently elsewhere. Charles Butler’s The History of Bees contains the following recipe for Marchpane:

Marchpane may be made after this manner. Boil and clarify by it self, so much Honey as you think meet; when it is cold; take to every pound of Honey the white of an Egg, and beat them together in a basin, till they be incorporate together, and wax white: and when you have boiled it again two or three walms upon a fire of coals, continually stirring it: then put to it such quantity of blanched Almonds or Nut-kernels stamped, as shall make it of a just consistency: and after a walm or two more, when it is well mixed, pour it out upon a Table, and make up your marchpane. Afterward you may ice it with Rose-water and sugar. This is good for the Consumption.

Charles Butler, The History of Bees (1634)

Fourteen years later, in 1648, poet Robert Herrick immortalised the Stuffe in verse:

This day my Julia thou must make
For mistress Bride, the wedding Cake:
Knead but the Dow and it will be
To paste of Almonds turned by thee:
Or kisser it thou, but once or twice,
And for the Bride-Cake there’ll be Spice.

Robert Herrick, ‘The Bride Cake‘ (1648)

Although the authenticity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Romanoff is highly questionable, one also notes with interest according to that unverified collection of his sketches and recipes that Marchpane was sculpted by (let’s call him) Leonardo into bricks and used as foundation stones for his elaborate models.

Interestingly, though the Marzipan he used was made by the Sisters of Santa Corona, Leonardo believed that only a man could be a confectioner, ‘on account a woman’s frame is unsuited to lifting great weights of Marzipan’. He supposedly went on to list the pre-requisites for attaining the station of Confectioner:

Secondly, he should be clean and clear-skinned—for little is so off-putting to those about to eat his creations as a spotted Confectioner, or one with long hairs which may have transferred themselves from his body into his confection. Thirdly, he should have studied in architecture. For without a true knowledge of weights and stresses he cannot create confections which will stand on their own and not be liable to subsidence or even total collapse.

?, Codex Romanoff

The confectioner finally speaks of his confections thusly:

I have noted, sadly, that my Lord Lodovico and his court digest the carvings I give to them to the last crumb and now I am set to find some other substance their palates shall less appreciate that my works may survive.

?, Codex Romanoff

This leads so-called Leonardo to speculate on a form of the Marzipan which his audience would not be tempted to eat. A mixture so bitter-tasting that after even the smallest nibble, the offender would be forced to put any further thought of ingestion out of his mind. One could speculate upon many ingredients for such a Confection, which would not constitute Marzipan per se but some derivative or substitute substance (e.g. persipan, a Confection containing not almonds but peach kernels).

The adaptability of Marzipan to the confectionary and decorative arts is well-documented, in both modern day and historical Cook Books. According to a source identified only as ‘Dr Cabanes’ in the Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique, the author Balzac was also reputed to have written endorsements for the Stuffe on the streets of Paris:

In 1884 a rumour began to circulate that the author of la Comedie humaine (BALZAC) had set himself up as a confectioner. No one talked of anything else on the stock exchange, in the foyer of the opera, at the [theatre] and in all the cafes on the Paris boulevardes. Several thousand copies of a curious circular [exhorting its readers to frequent a particular shop selling Issoudon Marzipan, and also containing what purported to be an extract from one of Balzac’s novels] had just made their appearance in Paris . . . This circular bore no signature, and it was inferred that it came from the pen of Balzac or that of a friend, editor or colleague. No one else had ever thought of the idea of launching a confectioner’s shop with a paragraph from a novel. After making inquiries it was discovered that Balzac, though he did not go to the length of taking a hand in the work, patronised the confectioner’s shop in the rue Vivienne.

Montagne, P., Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique (1960)

In Persia the use of Marzipan or Marzipan-like substances (in some places called Mawtaban, or King on a Throne) has been constant in wedding ceremonies and other occasions relating to fertility and prosperity. Venice, at the cross-roads between Europe and the Middle East, was naturally one of the places in which Marzipan initially became available. The situation was similar further west in Verona, if Romeo and Juliet is anything to go by.

Meanwhile in Luebeck, also known as the Venice of the North, a trading town through which all manner of goods, including boxes of what the Venetians called St Mark’s Bread (Marci Panis), must have passed — in Luebeck it seems, there was a Famine … or the Marzipan ran out … or an invasion …

One final item in the exhibition I saw that day in Luebeck was a Marzipan globe of the world, placed on the table in front of the statues. The dull sheen of its surface bore no marks indicating landmasses or national borders — just a smooth, unwrinkled sand-coloured expanse, upon which the viewers themselves could draw imaginary empires. Such a premise might have infuriated an historical character such as Clemens von Metternich, philosopher-King of the Hapsburg Empire in the time of Napoleon, who wrote in his memoirs:

I was born to make history not to write novels and if I guess correctly this is because I know. Invention is the enemy of history which knows only discoveries, and only that which exists can be discovered.

Clemens von Metternich, Memoirs (Volume VII)

While not exactly a metaphor for my own work, the Marzipan globe reminded me that some myths still have the ability to outlive their inventors, discoverers, manufacturers and archivists.

Marzipan is far more complex than the myth invented in Luebeck would have one think. It squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction. Further vestiges of this miraculous Stuffe, including Relics, lie ever beneath us, and shall one day be discovered again.

The fact that it still exists makes my task as a modern day confectioner (in Leonardo’s terms anyway) that much easier. I look forward to sharing the results of my recipes with you.

This piece was originally presented at the University of Melbourne, as part of the Department of English and Cultural Studies’ Secrecy Colloquium (2003), and later published in the refereed journal Antithesis (2004).

A Brief History of Marzipan


In 18- the French poet and philosopher Francois de P- described Marzipan (long may its resins perfume these pages!) as a ‘barbarous relic’ of imperial colonisation that had ‘utterly undermined’ diplomatic and trade relationships across the globe. Commonly denounced today as a ‘sordid’ hallucinogenic drug with few (if any) medical applications, pure Marzipan is becoming increasingly difficult to find and even harder to duplicate. Few modern scholars are familiar with its History, though they pride themselves on their ability to reel off an incredible number of dates, creeds and manifestoes from other Histories, both religious and political.

Amongst this civic paraphernalia, Marzipan squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction; like its familiars – those historical characters who manipulated, counterfeited and deregulated it. Relics of this miraculous substance are rumoured to lie, buried and silent, beneath us, a series of bombs that shall one day go off. Until such a time, this Recipe for Marzipan shall have to suffice. As ye will hopefully come to appreciate, while de P- may have been right about Marzipan’s shady reputation in the colonial eras, there yet remain some practical uses to which Marzipan can be put, at little or no expense to any, for the enjoyment and edification of all.


Though much of History is anecdotal, one thing we know for sure is that the great scientist and explorer Captain Cook discovered the island continent of Ahem in the year 1769. The exact sequence of events is blurred, however it seems certain that this discovery acted as an imperial order, or command, whose spirit would one day be reflected in the national anthem of said continent, “Advance, Ahem, It’s Bare” (see sep. entry). For Cook also made a second discovery — namely, that Ahem was a wild and inhospitable country, conveniently devoid of inhabitants, save one — his doppelganger, the elusive Captain Terrence Nullius.

Despite its great aura and obvious floral and faunal diversity, Cook refused to believe that Ahem might indeed be the Great Southern Land (that fabled Terra Australis explorers from all over Europe had long been searching for), choosing instead to name it in honour of the Great Excuse Me. Historians writing in eras less enlightened than our own have claimed that Cook was actually thinking of ‘a hem’, as in a border or rim, when he named the disappearing continent; this and other fallacious rumours have contributed to a revisionist version of history, in which Cook supposedly had no real idea what he was doing in the Newer World.

To which aye respond: not so. Cook was born at a time convenient enough for him to have learnt a great deal about the geography of the world — both from those brave few who reappeared over the horizon and the letters, journals and relics of those who had not, perhaps, been so fortunate as to return — and ancient enough for him to have learnt his trade, or at least the basics of it, aboard the ships that took coal to Whitby. May it give us strength in these times of political strain that Marzipan was discovered by him!

The Discovery of Marzipan

I mean, probably discovered by Captain Cook, in Ahem, during his first voyage there in 1769. For although Cook later swore, under great duress, that he had found the Marzipan in the ground, he was unable (or unwilling) to reveal the exact location of the X-spot where he had ‘found’ it.

Cook was so stubborn, in fact, that when asked whether he had conducted scientific analysis upon the Marzipan, he replied (somewhat facetiously) that he was an explorer, not a scientist. We now know that he knew full well Marzipan was (and still is) composed of almonds, eggs and sugar, plus a fourth element of unknown (possibly alien) origin. All the Jesuits could torture out of Cook on that sad occasion in Venice in 1797 was that although he had discovered both the Marzipan and an island continent, both these wondrous objects had since been dispersed, by a variety of means he again refused to elaborate upon.

Instead of deflating his Inquisitors’ interest, as Cook had hoped, this delectable rumour inflated and inflated, until it resembled (in size, at least) that giant Balloon which had disrupted those astronomical and meteorological forecasts of his back in Tahiti. It seems, in hindsight, that Cook might have been better off not saying anything at all about Ahem and the Marzipan when he arrived in Venice – for then, ironically, Ahem might not have been rediscovered and we might know more about the initial colonisation and destruction of said country.

Indeed, many more of Ahem’s singular charms might have endured had Cook not bothered to discover the Marzipan there in the first place. Regardless of the what-ifs, however, we can say with confidence that had it not been for the timely intervention of the Society of Cook, all that we take for granted today in the way of historical information might well have been lost.

The Cuckoos

In 1778, a Society dedicated to preserving the great store of knowledge Captain Cook (following in the footsteps of Marco Polo) brought back from China was established, inducting its first members, in a series of clandestine ceremonies in Venice, under the banner of the Society of Cook, or colloquially, the ‘Cuckoos’.

This absurd nom-de-plume has, unfortunately, stuck to the saintly Brotherhood, who of course endure it to this day with the utmost humility. It should be remembered at all times that Cook too was labelled insane and a pretender up until 1828, when his discoveries were verified by a second uncovering of Marzipan in Dulton, in the Land of Eggs.

Therefore to dismiss the Cuckoos as mere quacks would be to do them a great disservice, by failing to mention their years of selfless worship; their determination to disseminate Marzipan throughout the world for the sake of all mankind; and their magnificent documentation of confectionery history in The Cook Book, the first edition of which was printed in 1798, just one year after Cook’s return from China and the East.

The Cook Book

It is in The Cook Book that we find the first mention of that great island continent Ahem; of Cook’s scientific analysis of the Marzipan there in 1770; of the various other strains of Marzipan discovered in China; of Cook’s sojourns with the Emperor there in 1768 and 1771; and of his visionary adventures in India and Persia over the next twenty seven years. Aye cannot emphasise enough the importance of this source material to any examination of Cook’s Expeditionary Journals (and aye remind the astute reader of the extreme level of inconsistency between the various copies of these Journals held by interested parties).

The editors of The Cook Book decided early on to pursue a policy of constant revision and correction, thus making the publication a fascinating (if archaic) indicator of the growth of Marzipan’s influence upon world events. Students of Marzipan are especially advised to study the 1898 anniversary edition, in which can be found Fr. Joseph Reisenfall’s highly instructive retrospective, “A Century of Mistakes”.

In this article may be found the first frank discussion of Cook’s (even by then) legendary inability to make good decisions. Fr. Reisenfall correctly identifies Cook’s greatest mistake as his decision to establish the price of Marzipan as the bulwark of the international slave trade in 1805. In that year it was also Cook who suggested to the Jesuits that a day be set aside annually to conduct a re-enactment of his discovery of Marzipan, in order to kindle popular interest and, if possible, convert as many as possible to the cult of the strange stuff.

This suggestion was eagerly taken up by the Jesuits (or should aye say, Cuckoo elements within the Jesuit Order), who used their well-known powers of persuasion to make the day of observance a reality both in Venice and in the towns and cities within a one hundred and seventeen mile radius of it. Further, when Napoleon’s occupation of Venice continued unopposed (to the Republicans’ great shame), it was the Cuckoos who encouraged the people, as a gesture of defiance, to coat the walls of their churches and villas with Marzipan. Thus Venice hid its gold and silver from the prying eyes of Bonaparte’s henchman. The fame of Marzipan grew rapidly then, infused as it was with the reckless spirit of a magnificent Empire’s impending disintegration.


It was through the influence of the Cuckoos that the Republicans discovered the recipe for Persipan (long may its wonders be glazed and displayed!), another useful substance which could indeed be put to many other uses. The stuff became highly sought-after, both in the Beautiful City itself and in other ports including Calais, Naples and Lübeck. Trade lines drawn hesitantly across the continent continued confidently on, into and across the seas; foreign rulers demanded large quantities and watched with interest as their subjects scrambled for the scraps; and songs were sung in its honour from Cape Town to Montreal. At no other time in the history of the world had so many Venetians been so happy.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it must be said that these spontaneous expressions of joy were the first indicators of a malaise known today as Marzipan Psychosis, of which the great Captain was, arguably, the first (un)diagnosed case. This of course explains the rather disturbing change of pace in Cook’s Expeditionary Journals upon his reaching the River Jordan in 1788; it also explains the meticulous documentation of Cook’s withdrawal symptoms by the Jesuits in 1797 – his insomnia, the vividness with which he was able to recall his dreams and his absurd claims that he was the son of the Emperor of China. The Jesuits ended up learning a great deal about this ‘supposed’ substance from Cook, simply by administering various other drugs, the effects of which could be compared and contrasted by Cook himself at a later date, if he so wished. It was no wonder therefore that, five weeks after arriving in Venice, Cook decided on a career change and became a consultant to the Jesuit Order in Rome.

From the tragic day of Cook’s death onwards, all decisions with regards Marzipan were made by the Cuckoos themselves. So we find, in the 1835 edition of The Cook Book, the disastrous decision to raise the standard price of Marzipan from one slave to two slaves per ounce. To be fair, this resolution was based on an economic as well as a practical imperative — for, while the ingredients constituting Marzipan were by that time well-known and easy enough to reproduce, processing them to the desired consistency remained prohibitively expensive and required massive amounts of manpower. Therefore, the Cuckoos reasoned, by making Marzipan more expensive (and, by corollary, slaves less so), production would increase, thus increasing supply.

However, operators who had been manufacturing Marzipan at the old rate found that they now faced competition from new market players who, haven waited until the price rose, began to speculate heavily in Persipan, thus splitting demand. Prices sky-rocketed and violent social upheaval was of course both the logical and actual result. The effect this schism of taste was to have on the slave-trading system can be illustrated by a simple comparison between the sweet, seersucker folk tales spun by Arabian beggar men and the blander but still intriguing mythology that has grown around the so-called ‘Angel of Marzipan’, especially in the little town of Lubeck, in Germany.

In the name of Marzipan and of Persipan and of our Terror, Nullius, Ahem.

This piece was first published in New England Review (University of New England: Armidale, Australia, 1999).

The Way of Terror Nullius


Pilgrims should follow the order of actions set out in the Cook Book, that is: Meditation, followed by Prayer. There is no obligation to visit each Station; nor is there any obligation to fast before or after the ceremony, despite the open observation of such rituals in some of the Pure Congregations. In public Celebration of the Way of Terror Nullius, attention should be paid to the prevailing Customs and Practices of the Host Culture.

Under the usual conditions, a single, one-inch cube of Marzipan may be obtained once a day by Pilgrims who make the Way of Terror Nullius. Conditions for Indulgences: (1) A Pilgrim must visit each Station or, when a large Congregation travels, can be contented with simply kneeling throughout the Ceremony, as the Cuckoo leads the Prayer. (2) A Pilgrim must Meditate briefly, with a contrite Heart, upon Nullius’ Suffering at each Station.

Preparatory Prayer
Terror Nullius, O Master! Look down upon me, prostrate at your feet, imploring your Mercy both for myself and for those of my kin still living. Just as your own ascent to Glory was arranged, guarantee our safe return to Ahem, and procure for us there some small place within the Realm of Your Burden. May this Journey of sighs and tears touch my heart with Contrition and Repentance, and may I be happy to endure the Sufferings, Humiliations and Deprivations herein described!

I pray that you may assist my Soul in understanding Your Pain! For truly it is only through hunger and starvation that I can even begin to appreciate the holy power of taste and contentment. Through the Intercession of Marzipan, may I too come to accept meekly and happily the weight of Your Burden, and by extension, the hunger of the whole World, so that in doing so, I may prove my willingness to follow you always!

In the name of Marzipan and of Persipan and of our Terror, Nullius, Ahem!


1st Station
Recall how Captain Terror Nullius, blown across the seas by mysterious Winds, came upon the strange island continent of Ahem and discovered, to his Eternal Misfortune, that not a Soul or thing worth saving existed there save that peculiar confection, Marzipan!

Terror Nullius, it was not the mischievous winds that blew your bark upon the shores of Great Ahem thus condemning Your Name to Eternal Infamy but my own Selfishness and Greed! Let me hyperventilate from the final shudders of that pangful admission but it was I who caused those foul breaths of heaven to billow with bile the sails of the Scurvy that way, hither, towards me, thither.

Sucking in my bloated belly and then just letting it hiss out slowly, so that you, Captain Nullius, barely noticed, though the day was bright and many islands became visible. Yes indeed the sky was filled with my hot air, and I dashed your little boat to smithereens. Upon the rocky shores of Ahem did I cast you, and your crew, and yet I turn towards you one last time in supplication, all my puling whiles.

O Master! One last indulgence, a final confection! O Captain, through the Intercession of Marzipan, may I too come to accept meekly and happily the weight of Your Burden, and by extension, the hunger of the whole World, so that in doing so, I may prove my willingness to follow You always! And may I obtain and ingest many Confections!

2nd Station
Recall how the heavy Burden of Marzipan (long may Its Resins perfume these pages!) Was laid upon Nullius’ sunburnt shoulders and how meekly his acceptance, nay joyous! Fully intending to feed the world through His Heroic Efforts!

Marzipan! Long may your resins perfume these pages! O great and silent flights of fancy through the labyrinths of your design and making! Heroic wonder stuff of the post-primeval hatching, whether like turtles’ eggs as we once supposed or great lumpy nuggets of the stuff pulled like earth melons from the ground, glowing frosted white. O giant and audible confections from within!

Though finally the secret of their sacred shape and design you took with you to your grave, noble God, may I honour still the spirit of their passing, and of yours, into reams of off-white paper that, too, will deteriorate into unknown fact or, worse, rot like an over-ripe confection. May I simply sit here and recall your heavenly burden, its heaviness.

Lumps of bird song left jagged in my throat, Master! O last and first hydration of the thirsty plant at midday! O sweet confections of the riverside or street bound vendors! Elaborate fictions and fingers of the stuff, o antique permeability and strength! Truly, a wonder stuff! Marzipan, o heavenly spittle!

3rd Station
Recall how Captain Nullius, aboard his ship the Scurvy, circumnavigated and conquered all of Ahem, discovering Marzipan in many locations over a memorable six-month period!

Ahem, crying continent of the disappearing birds, speak to me! Spines of historical books, curled up pipes of imperial maps, flow charts of money and spiced goodwill, elaborate and lecture me upon the geography of that place, those rocks where Nullius first spread his disappearing word! Gone but faraway to begin with, o special land of crusts and jagged edges you appeared to him like a bird with your wings spread out, one broken.

O site of scorched future cities, including L, numbering few and spaced faraway from each other, they are now but a handful of empty shells on an infinite beach! And you are still here. Remain disappeared. You are near! Though robbed of the Stuff that confected you, disappear not over the horizons of hope! For that way eternal Persipan lies.

Ahem of the shivering sunset, the blanket now of fog. Yes, I know this feeling too, this refrain. Fear and emptiness. The great whole empty land of fear, that had just been waiting to be discovered by you, Captain! And now by me! The negation of that confection we call history. A truly elaborate confection that was sooner over than begun. Ours alone, Captain!

4th Station
Recall how the Scurvy was then spirited away to China!

O Nullius, it was for my own sake that the Scurvy bore your self and the Marzipan to China! I apologise again for that. You see, it was for my descent into Mortal Sin that you succumbed to the Marzipan’s Heinous Administrations. Yes indeed I put the voice into your head that said take but this one tiny piece of the stuff into your mouth and let it linger there, taste it like a bird’s open beak tastes the air!

Let my remembrance of your Sacrifice guide me ever in my Journey in your footsteps! Thank you! For without your willingness to ingest the Marzipan, we might never have been spirited away to China after all, but instead to some darker place where Persipan holds sway. Mucus was, indeed, of little use by that stage.

Through the shark-infested straits and port cities glowing red and orange in the moonlight, Captain, on your journey through that sleepy death of transubstantiation, until you have become your own confection, seen under a jetty lamp, or a slippery step on a wharf. Bouyant on the current now, coming awake. Now we must discover China.

5th Station
Recall the Emperor’s acceptance of Terror Nullius as his own Son, their interlude (in disguise) amongst the People, their ingestion of the Marzipan and their eventual separation.

How oppressive that experience must have been for both of you at its ending! A sword of anguish and betrayal must have pierced the Emperor’s Heart especially! Emperor may the Compassion that existed between You and the Great Captain pass on to me, and may I share in His Love for You. May I remember always the bittersweet candy sorrow of all departures, and the calls of birds!

O Mighty Terror Nullius, Intercede for me with Your Father, that I may be saved from the Dearth of all Good Things that is yet to come! When we have run out of Marzipan what shall we do then? Come to us in your mercy and save us from starvation, that we may live forever in a heaven of your choosing, floating forever on a sea of your creation!

In a boat of your design, imperial Captain! Send us sailing into the sunset on a Marzipan boat! May we watch as the eagles circle the Scurvy at the wharf, and may we close in, ruthlessly, on the tear of the cheek of the Emperor, your father? May we speculate upon the method of its fabrication, its confectionary sails?

6th Station
Recall how the Genie, seeing Captain Nullius and his pony in agony, offered the great Captain her bottle. How Nullius put it to his lips and was instantly assimilated! Then, the Genie and the Pony commenced their long wanderings in Mesopotamia!

Captain of My Soul, let me too Ingest the Marzipan! Let me hunger for nothing else! May my enemies in this World be crucified to me and me to them and let me not shrink from pain! Rather, may I consider myself lucky to have been chosen to follow You, on Your Journey, for Your Eternal Burden’s sake! May I defend the truth if not the exact spirit of your discoveries in a grand gesture of healing for the entire world!

May I ingest that heavenly burden and feel it swelling darkly in my chest, red like cherries there deep inside me, hard as sugar candy. Slowly ceasing its beating drum even now, just days into the confection, resting on the sand bar of a secret coffee river flowing backwards from the coastline to the interior, its tidal swell and vomit controlled by me alone, high in an eyrie.

Caged just like the rest of us, Captain. Disappearing now like bread or water the contents of your magnificent burden begin to float off, seek their own trajectories. The Genie walks the midnight desert; Nullius and his Donkey sleep inside her snows. The Marzipan is diluted, and far from home.

7th Station
Recall how the women of Venice wept openly upon seeing the Great Captain returning once more to save the city from Persipan! How he did comfort the women, though he was in chains, saying: Do not weep so openly for me, because there are others coming after me for whom you couldst more profitably shed tears!

O Admiral, let me mourn Your Suffering at the hands of Persipan, that in doing so I may be comforted. O yes indeed his empires rivaled your own, Great Captain, but we know of greater continents within; we will circumnavigate our own confections without hunger or loss. We shall feast, this night, on Marzipan and apples! May the sweet stuff and the apples comfort me even more, in your absence.

Nullius, let my prior ignorance of my Failings enable me to escape the awful judgement handed down by Your Wise Self in Venice! For indeed yes it is true that you were being followed, by brigands I probably commissioned myself. Any consequence shall, of course, be my loss. Despite the legal fictions I shall bear witness to this confection’s vitality, life. Substance. Sweet stuff, your resins!

Captain, Father – guide me through these pitched battles of the everyday! Utter catcalls to train me in reflex, hide all trace of me inside the realm of your heavenly burden, where we alone shall dwell, together, undetected.

8th Station
Recall how, imprisoned on Persipan’s floating guillotine, Nullius felt once more the horrific sensation of Marzipan sickness spreading over Him like a Fug. How he fell from the Gondola, into the open arms of a group of Cuckoos who, aided by the general confusion, hastened Him into the Labyrinth!

Oh Brilliant Captain, now that I have contemplated Your third fall into Torment, I ask that You forgive my frequent falls into Iniquity and my slowness in lifting myself out from that place’s miserable pessimism. For yes indeed I have seen dark continents where no light has shone at all since the last time you passed by or through them. Persipan, you wretched fake stuff of addled sweetness!

False prophets, bakers of prestigious lies and cancers! Twisters of truth into gruesome fictioneer bait, spreaders of fugs and overcast invasion weather! Blow you away I will with my venerated sweets! My captors shall be like kittens before me, or sparrows, eating from my shoulders. Watch them perching there, Captain! Tamed by you, and now by me!

Though the episode is over now may I castigate myself for allowing you to be abducted like that. May I remind myself of my weaknesses, my coiled ropes of anger and dread? That they used to bind you! Let my remembrance of Your Abduction make me hate this aspect of myself even more!

9th Station
Recall how Nullius lay down upon the Rack and extended his arms, so as to offer to whoever might be listening the secret of His discovery of Marzipan and the weight of his gigantic Burden!

My tortured and interrogated Captain, in the end, there were no Witnesses to the inexorable bow of your Captain’s head; likewise, no Listener strained his ear for the sound of you breathing your last! Terror Nullius! What did you do to deserve this, from me? May I never again Forsake You, or neglect the Memory of Your brutal treatment, at my own hands?

Nobody listens to history when it actually happens, only afterwards when the confection has warmed or cooled, whatever the preference, and is then taken from the kitchen to the room where the figurines are sitting. Yours is here, Captain. Persipan’s, there. May I offer you a slice of my confection? It’s been dusted with sugar and ice.

But now, your final moment, of which you alone were aware. The feeling when I close my eyes and see you there, it’s like that moment when you know that you will love something forever, but never see it again like this, today. From this time forward, may I live only for you? And let me die loving you alone, as per our agreement!

10th Station
Recall how it took Terror Nullius three weeks to die, his departure delayed only by well-meaning but pitiful administrations of Marzipan by the secret army of Cuckoos! How they stole the lifeless Body of the Saviour away from the Labyrinth, and how they dissected him!

O Captain, I reverently kiss the Marzipan that encloses your Relics, for in doing so I recall that through Your Entombment, Your Resurrection in the Hearts of the faithful is guaranteed! I laugh in the face of court confectioners, orienteering with their jibeful toot sweets. Goodbye street smile! Goodbye sand lice in the bottom of the boat at dawn, goodbye empty stomachs!

Mind you not the Confections of this World! For truly the good word is that if you have risen with Captain Terror Nullius, your passage to Paradise is assured. Come and ingest but one slice of my confection, and we can forget about all the rest. We can forget about the relics and just be here, on this plane, desperately alive and blue! It’s time to open those orders, write those final lines.

Good news coming all day long today and all the next day too, for he will come again with his confections and his disappearing silences and his boats and crews, and there’ll be plenty of room for us on board that little bark the Scurvy, and we will dwell in the Cities of Marzipan and of Persipan and of our Terror, Nullius, Ahem.

Recessional Prayer (optional)

Adoration of the Sacred Heart of Terror Nullius.

“The Invention of Marzipan” published online

For the past two years I’ve been studying towards a Master of Arts by Research (Thesis only) within the Department of English with Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne.

My thesis is a 30,000 word novella concerning the invention of Marzipan in a fictitious village (L-) in Germany in the 1400s. I’ve just been informed that my thesis has been accepted, which is great news.

The (also partly fictitious) introduction to the thesis has been published online in Anti/thesis, a fully-refereed journal of contemporary theory, criticism and culture, and Australia’s longest-running interdisciplinary postgraduate journal.

Read The Invention of Marzipan.