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Lead book review

From ambrosia to zabaglione — now with added slavery

The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets is a rich but extremely politically correct confection

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets Darra Goldstein, with a foreword by Sidney Mintz

OUP, pp.888, £40

Should sugar be taxed? Some of the contributors to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets seem to think so. Sugar certainly appears less appealing than it used to. Its negative effect on our teeth is undeniable, and it now takes the rap for many of the ills we formerly blamed on fats, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. But sugar is also now bound up with politics, because of its historical connection with slavery. Our awareness of this we owe to the groundbreaking, imaginative scholarship of Sidney Mintz, whose 1985 Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is easily the most frequently referenced work by the 265 contributors to this massive volume.

It is a mighty endorsement of the editor Darra Goldstein’s enterprise that Mintz has written the long foreword to it. He ties the emotive appeal of sweetness to our mammalian and primate nature, which is about as fundamental as you can get. (Goldstein, in her introduction, claims there is at least one exception to the rule that mammals crave sweet tastes — cats; she hasn’t met my three cake-nibbling moggies.) Even our vernacular reflects the emotional tug of the sweet: we call our beloved ‘sweetheart,’ ‘sugar’ or ‘honey’; compliments can be sugary, but never salty; and contrast ‘sweet talk’ with what we mean by salty language.

However, as Mintz says, ‘At some point the whiteness of sugar probably became an ideal, because white — at least in some places — suggested purity.’ You can see that nowadays this won’t wash; and this Oxford Companion is, inevitably, the most politically correct reference book you’re ever likely to consult. Sugarcane originated in New Guinea, but the first crystalline form of it that could be traded occurred in North India about 500 BCE. It was wildly expensive, used in religious rituals, treated as a precious spice (rather than as a mainstream foodstuff) or as a medicine. This was still the position in the UK, as Jill Norman’s entry tells us, from the time of its appearance in the 11th century until it got cheaper in the second half of the 16th century; indeed sugar, which came in large, hard cones, was kept under lock and key.

Sugar dropped in price when production moved to the Caribbean lowlands, with their ideal soil and climate conditions. But even these could not make growing, refining and trading sugar any less labour-intensive; and so the workforce became enslaved Africans. Owing to the American Civil War, we think of cotton as the crop associated with slavery. Not so, says Mintz:

The crop that benefited the slave owners in America the most, and the one that used the largest number of slaves, was sugarcane. Plantation slavery in the New World lasted more than three and a half centuries, and it was involved with the killing or enslavement of an estimated 13.5 million Africans and African Americans.


Before getting indignant about the Americans, however, it’s chastening to read Matthew Parker’s entry for ‘sugar barons’, the British families who owned and profited hugely from extensive plantations in the Caribbean from the mid-17th to the beginning of the 19th centuries. Beet sugar made some difference to the political situation, as it allowed both the US and the UK (and other northern nations) to be a little less dependent on cane-sugar importers. Though, as Mintz also says, the US

solved many of its own sugar problems, intentionally or not, through war, when it scooped up Spain’s old sugar colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific regions during the Spanish-American War (1898–1899).

One of these was Cuba, whose economy was trashed by the US economic blockade now just ending. Will this rescue the island? Hard to say, for while cane sugar still dominates the market, two-thirds of all sugar is now consumed in the country that produces it. In Elizabeth Abbott’s long entry on the politics of sugar we learn that in 1891 the American sugar plutocracy, with the help of the US Marines, overthrew Lili‘uoklani, the Queen of Hawaii, and then in 1900 annexed the whole country. President Grover Cleveland apologised, and so did Bill Clinton.

‘Sweetness and light’ obviously does not characterise the culture of sugar, and you can see why this volume has had to be structured a bit oddly; so that, though there are no separate entries for ‘white chocolate’ (I hate it, and wanted to know its history) or ‘Quakers’ (who were instrumental in developing the chocolate trade), there are entries for ‘race’, ‘plantations’, ‘slavery’, and ‘biofuel’, while even the entry for ‘sugarcane’ by the eminent scholar Jessica B. Harris is more political than botanical.

There is also, and unsurprisingly, a slight American bias to the organisation, so that ‘cookie’ (US) is not cross-referenced to ‘biscuit’ (UK). It is also a problem, occasioning quite a lot of repetition, that the many entries containing the word ‘sugar’ come so late in the alphabet that we don’t get to the first of them until page 663. Few will read the volume’s nearly 600 entries straight through sequentially, but for the next edition I hope the editor might increase the cross-referencing and cut some of the repetition that is bound to occur when the entries are each by a separate hand.

The authority of the contributors is astoundingly high. Many (as I did not realise, until I read the list), including the editor and two of her five-person editorial board, are members of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery (disclosure: of which I am standing down as chair this summer), who constitute the scholar foodie first eleven. The Symposium’s founder, the late Alan Davidson, drew on the same body of expertise for his indispensable, million-word Oxford Companion to Food, now in its third edition and the
spiritual father of this and many other Companions.


The entry on ‘slang’, written by Jonathon Green, is bracingly rude, though a little difficult to understand sometimes, as he appears to treat slang as almost a distinct language. Still, it’s cheering to learn that ‘tart’, applied to women, was in 1859 ‘a term of approval applied by the London lower orders to a young woman for whom some affection is felt’. ‘Tart’ was then a term of approbation for a young woman in her finery, but not when preceded by ‘raspberry’, ‘cherry’, or ‘treacle’, which makes it rhyming slang.

Mark Morton’s ‘sexual innuendo’ entry is properly shocking, quoting Bessie Smith’s 1929 song, ‘Kitchen Man’: ‘When I eat his doughnuts/All I leave is the hole/Any time he wants to/Why, he can use my sugar bowl.’ Even Ivan Day’s learned entry on ‘sugar sculpture’ has its naughty bits, ‘membra virilia, pudendaque muliebria … formed of pastry or sugar’. Raymond Sokolov points out that the ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ of the utopian children’s song is actually ‘a raunchy place with lakes of gin and whiskey, cigarette trees and a hobo’s whore’.

Len Evans’s entry on ‘unusual uses of sugar’ shows the book’s breadth. Formerly the sticky stuff was used to make fake window glass for Hollywood ‘stunts in which an actor had to be defenestrated’ and more recently, in the UK, sugar helped ‘to preserve the remains of three medieval bridges found near Leicester’.

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