Rock and Rolls
Updated: Jul 9
Published in the TLS
We are, it seems, pre-determined to love the taste of all things sweet. Evolutionary biologists argue that survival once depended on our ability to take in quickly high amounts of nutritional energy, a major source of such energy being found in carbohydrates, which include sugar. As frugivores, we generally prefer our fruit as ripe as possible, its degree of edibility being signalled by sweetness, too. While sweetness signals calories, bitterness in contrast may indicate the presence of toxins. It appears that our predilection for sweetness is, like the incest taboo, a cross-cultural phenomenon, and that it is ubiquitous and, in all likelihood, innate: the facial expressions of new-borns, for example, display unambiguous pleasure when sugar is placed on their tongues. We appear, moreover, to have raided beehives for millennia: there is evidence in Mesolithic cave paintings that feeding on honey has always been part of our primate nature. We share our love of sweetness with most other mammals, the sole exception being felines.
Psychoanalysts would mobilize a different model to explain our affection for candies, cakes and chocolates, pointing to the sweetness of mother’s milk, and to the fact that, colic notwithstanding, this earliest of our encounters with nourishment tends to be firmly aligned with comfort and pleasure. Another core function of the consumption of sweets is thus also to provide solace, by transporting us back into the domain of the oral stage where the sensory responses of the mouth and taste buds reigned supreme. As Proust has shown, madeleines and their equivalents can also be the vehicles of memory, taking us back to childhood.
Darra Goldstein, the editor of the lavishly illustrated Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, has commissioned 265 experts, including food historians, chemists, restaurateurs, cookbook writers and neuroscientists, to explore the idea of the sweet from a multidisciplinary perspective. Nearly 600 alphabetically arranged entries cover not only well-known foods, ranging from Black Forest gateau, Eton Mess, halva and marshmallows to Rugelach and zuppa inglese, but also explore regions and religions, the complex story of the sugar trade, chocolate’s transformation into a daily grocery item, the people, the lives of pioneers in the world of confectionery, and the histories of famous brands such as Nestlé, Hershey’s, Mars and Cadbury. There are appendices listing films centred on sweet things (including Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat, Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce); museums (from the Musée du Miel in Gramont to the Museu de la Xocolata in Barcelona); pastry shops (including Café Niederegger in Lübeck, where 300 kinds of marzipan confections are on sale); and songs (The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”, for example: “Sugar, sugar, honey, honey / You are my candy girl / And you got me wanting you . . . ”). Not all is sweetness and light, as Goldstein readily acknowledges: there is a dark side to sugar, to which numerous entries in the Companion pay testimony. While slavery is most commonly associated with cotton, the elegant foreword by Sidney Mintz, as well as entries by Elizabeth Abbott on slavery, Matthew Parker on sugar barons, Peter W. Rein on sugar refining, and Bertie Mandelblatt on the sugar trade, emphasize that the crop that benefited plantation and slave owners in the Americas most was sugarcane. Sugar and slaves were major driving forces of the triangular commerce between Europe, the New World and Africa. Sugar played a major role in the rise of transnational capitalism, and, in spite of its connotations of purity and innocent pleasure, remains a dirty business even today: we learn from Abbott, Daniel Bowman Simon and Marion Nestle, in their entries on the politics of sugar and the sugar lobby, that “big sugar” (no less powerful in its way than “big pharma”) successfully pressured the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2003, to withdraw health guidelines restricting added sugar consumption to no more than 10 per cent of an individual’s daily calorie intake. Such guidelines have real consequences for food labelling, government dietary recommendations, taxation policies, and even for the nutritional content of school lunches. (In 2014, the WHO reintroduced the 10 per cent recommendation, and this time stood its ground.)
Sugar is, of course, also related to obesity and addiction: in the past, our consumption of sweet things was held in check by scarcity, or regulated by agricultural cycles or the periodicity of festive occasions. Sugar and chocolate, moreover, were once luxury items, the prerogative of the nobility and the wealthy. Consumption was extended to the masses only in the nineteenth century, which saw the advent of technologies enabling sugar to be extracted from beets (which could be grown in temperate climatic zones and were cheaper than the tropical sugarcane equivalent), as well as the invention, by Rodolphe Lindt in 1879, of “conching”. Conching – explained in Lindt’s biography as well as in a detailed entry by Alexandra Leaf on the post-Columbian history of chocolate – is a refining process by which cocoa is ground so finely that no solids can be detected on the tongue. It makes chocolate creamier and ushered in the mass production of chocolate bars.
In the twenty-first century, sugar is no longer associated with wealth and health, of course, but rather with its opposites. Sugar- related ailments range from obesity, hypertension and diabetes to dental decay, as we learn in an entry on sugar and health from Jessica Mudry. Sugar, Mudry tells us, was linked to obesity as early as 1715 by Dr Frederick Slare, who wrote that it was “very high a Nourisher” and that it may make women “fatter than they desire to be”. Nowadays, saccharine calories are cheap and versatile, and processed fast foods to which high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS – which also receives a short entry) has been added, as well as sugary drinks such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr Pepper, have been identified as major causes of the obesity epidemic sweeping the Western world. Nestle informs us in her entry on “soda” that a 20-ounce bottle “provides about 250 calories from its 16 teaspoons of sugar”. A 64-ounce serving (as sold in cinemas and fast-food restaurants) could contain as many as “54 teaspoons of sugars and 800 calories”. These are “empty” calories, providing no nutrients whatsoever, and in effect constitute “liquid candy”. Soda consumption, she continues, “declines with education, income, and age” and has thus become an indicator of low social status. And not only are such ultra-processed, sugar-rich foods and drinks cheap and easily accessible, they have the power of “big sugar” and a ruthless marketing industry behind them.
Foods exceedingly rich in sugar and fat (as ice cream, cakes and candy inevitably are) do not occur in our natural foodscape and can trigger addictive responses. An entry on “Addiction” by Ashley Gearhardt lists these as: “diminished control over consumption, continued use despite negative consequences, elevated levels of craving, and repeated relapse to problematic behaviour”, all of which are key markers for both substance abuse and eating disorders. The entries on addiction, soda, sugar and health, the politics of sugar and sugar lobbies, among others, leave no doubt that public policies akin to those created to deal with tobacco and alcohol are urgently needed.
This all feels a very long way from the primitive chocolate landscape described by Maricel E. Presilla in a thorough entry beginning with the pre-Columbian history of chocolate: in Aztec and Maya society, chocolate – like sugar – was served to only the highest classes as a beverage. From there, Presilla traces its origins and introduction into the Old World in the mid-1500s, when conquistadors brought it to the court of King Philip II of Spain, after which it soon became a luxurious import available only to European royalty and nobility. In the 1600s, chocolate became available to other classes owing to the proliferation of coffee- and chocolate-houses, yet it remained more expensive than coffee and thus a drink for the elite. It became widely available and affordable only towards the end of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, chocolate bars arrived on the market. The entry on “candy bars” by Steve Almond tells the tale, familiar to many, of how the US military came to shape the history of confectionery when it asked Hershey’s and other companies “to produce a single-serving portion of chocolate for the ration kits given to soldiers”. Through “automating their factories, establishing a national distribution system, buying out competitors, and stockpiling raw ingredients”, Milton Hershey and his chief rival, Forrest Mars, were to dominate the US market for decades. Both men receive dedicated entries here. As a young man, Joël Glenn Brenner writes, Hershey set out to seek his fortune mining silver in Denver, Colorado. But instead of precious metals, he discovered a recipe for caramel, which became the foundation of his vastly successful empire. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, he developed a method for mellowing chocolate with milk, thus reducing its cost, and in 1900 he left the caramel business behind to focus exclusively on the production of chocolate. Hershey also built a community around his factory in Pennsylvania, which was “as wholesome as his chocolates”. He provided insurance and retirement benefits for his employees, and invested generously in amenities for the chocolate workers’ settlement. Less wholesome, however, is that by the 1980s, 90 per cent of the chocolate bars on the US market were produced by one of three multinational corporations: Hershey’s, Mars and the European giant Nestlé. (The final decades of the past century, in contrast, saw the rise of high-end artisan, single-origin chocolate – see the entry here on Valrhona – which is characterized by an emphasis on superior-quality beans, questions of terroir and traditional production techniques, as well as the inclusion of a high percentage of chocolate solids.) Various entries in the Companion are dedicated to the powerful symbolism of sweets and the metaphoric ubiquity of sweetness. Think of our most affectionate terms for loved ones, for example – honey, sweetie, sugar pie, sweetheart. Sweets feature prominently in children’s literature, too, to which a lengthy entry is dedicated (taking in Hansel and Gretel and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and we also learn about fictional saccharotopias for adults, such as the land “flowing with milk and honey” promised to the Israelites in the Bible, as well as the Land of Cockaigne – that “legendary place of sweet-cramming debauchery and compulsive insobrietry” – immortalized by painters such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Tellingly, as Raymond Sokolov – the author of the entry on “fantasy” – explains, the etymology of Cockaigne is thought to derive from the German word Kuchen (cake) or the Latin verb coquere, meaning “to cook”.
The Companion abounds with such curious theories and facts. Who knew, for example, that the familiar plastic flying toy known as the frisbee was named after the American bakery manager William Russell Frisbie, whose popular flat pies were sold in tin plates with his name imprinted in bold letters on the base? Or that the expression “to eat humble pie” is related to “umble” pie – a poor man’s dish containing deer offal? Or that early lollipops, first manufactured in Canada at the end of the nineteenth century, were pieces of hard candy stuck on the end of a slate pencil “meant to keep school pupils’ hands clean”? We are also treated to one of the foundation myths of the Viennese Kipferl: “During the 1683 Turkish siege of Vienna, the early-rising bakers supposedly heard noises beneath the ground, which turned out to be the attackers tunnelling under the walls. Alerted, the city was saved, and the bakers created a crescent-shaped pastry in imitation of the crescent of the Turkish flag”. Such entertaining historical details sparkle in many of the entries. Only very occasionally is the uninitiated reader’s knowledge perhaps slightly underestimated: we are informed, for example, that chewing gum “is made of any number of cohesive and sticky substances that people chew but do not swallow”, and that “masticating merriment ensues when it is fancifully packaged to resemble everyday articles like checkbooks, tubs of sidewalk chalk, combination locks, and laundry soap”. We are also told that “bonbons, or bon-bons, are small candies. The name is French, a duplication of the word bon, meaning ‘good’”. On these rare instances of flatness one wishes that slightly more creative air had been worked into the mix, inspired, perhaps, by Samuel Johnson’s charmingly inaccurate dictionary definition of a mouse (not of the candied kind one might expect to encounter in Goldstein’s book) as “the smallest of all beasts; a little animal haunting houses and corn fields, destroyed by cats”.
The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets is part of a wider contemporary academic trend that has seen the rise of food studies as an increasingly important discipline: the post-high-theory cultural-historical turn. Everything is now graced with a history, including such mundane items as jelly beans, fortune cookies and Nutella. Yet it is precisely such products which lend themselves so well to the illustration of the complex interplay of commerce, tradition, taste, biology and psychology. ----