My sweet tooth defined my childhood. Yellow watermelon so sugary it made my teeth ache. Snow cones dripping neon blue at the pool. Cinnamon rugelach made by my grandmother’s hand, the pastry meltingly tender. I can still remember the frisson of frozen Sugar Babies popped lazily into my mouth, as though summer—life itself—would never end, and the first lemon meringue pie I made for my father, glorious even though it wept. Apples and honey and honey cake at the Jewish New Year; macaroons (my madeleines!) and fruit jellies at Passover. Taste is a locus of memory that helps us recapture our past and connect us to the stories of others. While tasting occurs entirely in our heads—in our mouths, our noses, and brains—it is also part heart. And when the taste is sweet, it triggers a powerful, positive response in nearly all mammals (cats being the notable exception).
The Human Condition
Sweet memories, however, don’t really explain the degree to which humans crave sugar, or the way sweetness holds us in its thrall. To understand this captivation, we need to look deeper into the past, when a taste for sweets was more advantageous and calorie sources were far less abundant than they are for most of us today. Our ancestors needed to differentiate between sweet foods that promised a high dose of energy—fast calories for survival—and foods that tasted bitter, and were more likely toxic. And so we adapted accordingly. Our positive response to sugar is thus hard wired: when given a sugar solution, newborns put on a happy face (see the photo accompanying the “Sweetness Preference” article). Gazing deep inside the brain, as today’s technology enables us to do, we can actually see our reaction to sugar: the same parts of the brain light up for sugar that light up for cocaine. No wonder craving feels addictive! We are hardwired for pleasure, too, a characteristic that inevitably inclines us toward excess and extravagance.
In earlier times, succumbing to excess, or giving in to temptation, was either held in check by scarcity or regulated by agricultural cycles and religious calendars. The ripe, sweet fruits of the harvest; the candied-fruit-studded cakes of Christmas; the myriad doughnuts and other fried foods of Carnival—all were special treats to be anticipated and savored only periodically, typically once a year. But excess today is quotidian, and most of us quite literally enjoy too much of a good thing. Where sugar was once rare, prized not only for its sweetness but also for its preservative properties, it is now ubiquitous. Yet our craving has only intensified. And so we are faced with an array of health problems, such as tooth decay, diabetes, obesity, and a predisposition to certain cancers. Recent studies show that nearly 70 percent of the added sugars in the U.S. food supply come from processed foods. Western consumers, especially Americans, have been conditioned to seek out ever-sweeter tastes. Even condiments like ketchup, once pungent and vinegary, are increasingly cloying on the palate. These changing tastes reflect sugar’s changing meanings. As a luxury substance that provided energy and beneficial heat (in the humoral system of medicine), sugar represented wealth and offered a promise of health. Today, both of these associations are reversed. Though sugar still marks social class, it is no longer the delight of the elite, but rather the scourge of the poor.
Our Sense of Excess
Only in the late nineteenth century was sugar fully democratized, thanks to the affordable technology of extracting it from beets. The fine white crystals seem utterly mundane now, but a tour of an old-fashioned bakery with its sugar figurines allows us to glimpse the grand role sugar had in the past. Idols were made of sugar, and the miniature plastic models of brides and grooms that perch atop modern-day wedding cakes barely hint at the fantastic sugar sculptures that once symbolized power and wealth. The eleventh-century court of the Fatimid caliph delighted in table ornaments crafted of sugar, as did the Byzantine emperors, whose confectioners were renowned. Spectacular statues of sugar, pastry, and marzipan dazzled the eye at fifteenth-century European feasts. So towering and finely wrought were these constructions that the French chef Marie-Antoine Carême, famous in the nineteenth century for his elaborate pièces montées, declared architecture “the first among the fine arts,” with confectionery its principal branch.
Both architecture and immoderate excess characterized the royal dessert table set on 29 June 1672 to celebrate the baptism of the future Russian tsar Peter the Great. As described by A. V. Tereshchenko in his Byt russkago naroda (1848), the conceits included
a cinnamon spice cake (kovrizhka) made with sugar in the shape of the Muscovy coat of arms; a large, cone-shaped cinnamon spice cake decorated with colors, weighing 2 puds 20 pounds [92 pounds]; large, molded sugar confections shaped like eagles with the royal orb, one white and the other red, each weighing 1½ puds; a 2-pud swan of molded sugar; a half-pud sugar duck; a 10-pud sugar parrot and an 8-pud sugar dove; a sugar Kremlin with infantry, cavalry and two towers, with eagles soaring above them, and the city molded into a square surrounded by cannons; two large 15-pound horns made of sugar and flavored with cinnamon, one red and the other white; two large marzipan cakes made with sugar, one on 5 rounds, the other made with hard candies; two candy spires, one red and one white, each weighing 12 pounds; 40 dishes of sugar decorations depicting infantry and cavalry and other figures, half a pound on each plate … in all there were 120 dishes on the table.
We marvel at such staggering extravagance, particularly in a land of widespread hunger. But sensorial wonder quickly yields to other, more practical, questions: How was sugar transported from the tropics to Moscow? Did the Russian masses know the taste of sugar? How was it colored red, and why was red such an important color? The histories of trade, commerce, dyeing, status, culinary technique, and spices are all hidden in this display, begging revelation, not unlike Blake’s world in a grain of sand. It is such histories that this Companion aims to expose.
The Dark Side
No matter where sugar was introduced, it became an object of desire, enthralling. Yet beneath the idea of allure lies the core meaning of “thrall,” which points to the darker sides of sugar. Because even as sugar pleases, it subjugates. Though sugar can be cast into marvelous forms, it has historically cast people into thralldom—not only addiction, that bondage to excess, but also slavery. The once pure notion of sweetness, considered the most perfect of virtues (Matthew Arnold’s “sweetness and light”), has been forever tainted by the triangular trade of slaves, sugar, and rum; by the punishing labor in the sugarcane fields and the sugar plantations themselves; and by the exorbitant riches of the sugar barons. Sugar’s associations with the brutalities of the slave trade have been powerfully explored by artists like Vik Muniz (in his “Sugar Children” series, 1996), Maria Campos-Pons (Sugar/Bittersweet, 2010), and Kara Walker (A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014).
Such cruelties are not ensconced in the past, however. The damage continues in the child labor used in harvesting cacao beans, in the sugar-heavy diet that undermines health in African American communities, and in the stereotypes still associated with certain forms of sweets. Although many cultures have abandoned disparaging names for candies and overtly racist imagery on packaging, negative connotations persist in the popular imagination, especially in the United States. Indeed, the very essence of sugar—its refinement from molasses brown into pure white—suggests a prevailing attitude about purity and goodness that is not easily overcome. Since these histories cannot be overlooked, they, too, are part of this work.
So, how to create a compendium that would bring all this together, to celebrate the allure of things sweet while recognizing the despicable aspects of human activity; to laud sugar’s ability to inspire creativity and technological innovation while also acknowledging its detrimental effects? How to marvel at the symbolism of the sweet in ritual and art while at the same time confronting the menace of addiction and the cynical manipulations of sugar lobbies whose sole purpose is to ensure that sugar remains a profitable force in the world economy? The notion of the sweet has brought richness to language and art, and of course to the realm of gastronomy. But is it possible to exalt pleasure without trivializing its costs? Such questions concerned me as I began to conceptualize what an encyclopedic companion to all things sweet could be. With the help of the project’s brilliant editorial director, Max Sinsheimer, and of our inspired editorial board, the Companion grew to nearly 600 entries that explore the human predilection for the sweet from every possible angle. These entries reveal how the desire for sugar has, over the ages, led to great changes in culture, society, and technology—for better and for worse.
Food historians, neuroscientists, chemists, philosophers, art historians, cookbook writers, and pastry chefs have contributed entries, each writing in a distinctive style and voice. The work’s geographical scope and chronological sweep begin in prehistory with the human proclivity for the sweet, and then move through centuries of culinary and industrial developments into the present day, when sweeteners both natural and artificial define our diets. Along the way, aesthetics, agriculture, technology, and trade are examined in relation to human desire and endeavor.
In addition to covering topics that one might expect in a book about sweets (the history of candy, the evolution of the dessert course, the production of chocolate), the Companion includes less well-known material that I hope will offer a sense of discovery and delight. Readers will learn about “sugar of lead” (lead acetate), prescribed for stomach troubles in the nineteenth century, and about beaver extract, beloved by the modern food industry for the sweet taste it imparts. Did you know that the silent-screen star Zasu Pitts wrote a charming cookbook, Candy Hits by Zasu Pitts, or that the bakery manager William Russell Frisbie has been immortalized in the popular sport to which his pie plates lent their name? Such unexpected facts abound.
Taste is often dependent on culture, and the ultimate definition of “sweet” remains elusive. There are no fixed rules about when sweet foods should be eaten, and fashions continually change. In Tudor England, dessert tables were sometimes laid in separate “banquetting houses” to create a visually ravishing end to a fine dinner; in contemporary American life, breakfast might be the sweetest meal of the day, with its sugar-laden cereals and syrup-soaked pancakes. European traditions of special daytime breaks with sweet foods—the fika, the Kaffeeklatsch, the Jause—continue, if in diminished form, probably because they are as much about sharing friendship as about sharing food. Even the distinction between sweet and savory remains slippery. Just as these flavors comingled in medieval feasts, desserts at high-end Western restaurants today subdue the sensation of sweet with ingredients like rosemary and bacon. No encyclopedia, then, can claim absolute definitiveness. But this one comes close. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets will carry you across many thousands of years and around the globe many times, affording glimpses deep into the brain as well as stratospheric flights into the world of sugar-crafted fantasies. Like a kid in a sweet shop, you may wish to marvel at the variety before you choose from among the offerings. Let the taste of one sweet thing lead you to another, and then return for more.
The enormity of this project calls for enormous thanks. At the top of the list is Max Sinsheimer, editor extraordinaire, who oversaw the project from inception to completion with grace, efficiency, insight, and humor; he has been wonderful to work with. Associate editor Michael Krondl brought exceptional knowledge of food history to the project, and he labored above and beyond expectation. His irreverent wit kept our spirits light in moments of heavy lifting. Area editors Ursula Heinzelmann, Laura Mason, Jeri Quinzio, and Eric Rath were invaluable—their erudition, attentiveness, and devotion are reflected throughout the entries. I’m also grateful to the staff at Oxford University Press: Damon Zucca, whose enthusiasm for the project was crucial; Brady McNamara, who brought visual delight to the Companion; Brad Rosenkrantz for coordinating production with such professionalism; and Emily Wordsman for her adept, cheerful labors. And, of course, I can’t fail to mention the contributors who are the heart of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets—all 265 of them! It has been both thrilling and educational to work with them, none more so than my husband, Dean Crawford, who deserves special thanks.