These beloved desserts preserve sugar's history

The smell of smoke and boiling sugar filled the air as I pedaled a bicycle along the shore of Myanmar's Inle...

Posted: Oct 15, 2018 9:12 PM
Updated: Oct 15, 2018 9:12 PM

The smell of smoke and boiling sugar filled the air as I pedaled a bicycle along the shore of Myanmar's Inle Lake.

It was December, which is sugarcane season here. Since the cut cane must be processed quickly after harvesting, small-scale producers were hard at work as field workers carried heavy bundles from nearby farms. When an old man beckoned me in, I paused to watch the process.

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Consumer products

Continents and regions

Cooking and entertaining

Europe

Food and drink

Food products

Kinds of foods and beverages

Leisure and lifestyle

Sugar

Sweeteners

Caribbean

Human rights

Human rights violations

International relations and national security

Slavery

Sweets and desserts

The Americas

The sugarcane was pressed through a pair of heavy rollers powered by a diesel generator, the juice funneled into a series of bamboo baskets set over coals. It looked like hot, heavy work to stir the thickening sugarcane juice, which would eventually cool into a brown mass shot through with tiny crystals.

I broke off a piece of brown sugar and savored the full, rich flavor.

Recipes tell sugar's history

That fresh lump of sugar was perhaps close to what the world's earliest sugar makers produced: it was unrefined, dense and the product of hard manual labor. Sweet as it is, sugar's sticky path through history is full of stories of war and conquest.

While the story of sugar could fill a library of history and travel books, there are bits of the tale in kitchens around the world. Sugar has followed in the wake of the world's armies, from the Arab conquest to European colonialism, and it's left a trail of recipes behind it. It's history, as preserved in cookbooks and on handwritten cards.

That is partly thanks to the central role of sweets at celebrations.

Sweet holiday traditions

"In all the major religions, holidays have sweet foods associated with them more than any other kinds of foods," said Michael Krondl, the author of "Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert."

"They were special, they were expensive, and they weren't the kinds of things you can have on a day to day basis," Krondl writes.

And when cooks bake gingerbread or whip up a mincemeat pie for a special meal, they're keeping history alive.

"Holidays often preserve what the everyday loses," wrote anthropologist Sidney Mintz in his book "Sweetness and Power." The nature of holidays, with traditions that are passed between generations, means that their distinctive foods can be a window into the past.

Not that the ingredient lists and instructions are unchanged — far from it. Cooking techniques shift quickly, but whether it's a unique spice blend or flavor combination, many recipes still have a story to tell about human history. Learn the stories behind the sweets, and you'll bring that history to life each time you crack open a cookbook.

Medieval sweets

Start with a tiny, sweet bite of marzipan, the sugary almond paste that many bakers shape into colorful fruits, animals, and figures. An early version appears in the "Kitab-al-Tabikh," literally the "book of cookery," a 10th-century cookbook that chronicled delicacies of the Baghdad court.

Both of marzipan's main ingredients, sugar and almonds, were carried into Europe by the Islamic armies that marched across north Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula. During the furthest extent of Arab rule, sugar was cultivated across the Mediterranean, and different takes on marzipan remain important in those former Islamic strongholds, including Sicily, Cyprus, Malta and Spain.

A spoonful of sugar?

When sugar arrived in Europe, though, it was rare and precious — and it was considered medicinal, one that could cure everything from sore throats to the bubonic plague. Europe's black death might be far from your mind while stirring up dough for a gingerbread house, but the earliest recipes for gingerbread were seen as medicine, rather than a sweet treat.

"Sugar was coming in in quantities that were comparable to spices," said Krondl, who noted that in the early days of sugar in Europe, it was often sold by apothecaries. "And it was used a lot by those apothecaries. Like the song goes, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Like recipes that remain popular today, classic gingerbread was scented with aromatic cloves, cinnamon and ginger, some of the spices whose high value and portability helped inspire Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus' first trip across the Atlantic, when he was searching for a quicker route to Asian spice markets.

It didn't take long for sugar to follow in the wake of his ships.

The sugar islands

Columbus brought sugarcane on his second trans-Atlantic voyage in 1493, then transported enslaved Africans to tend the fields. (Infectious disease, warfare and enslavement killed so many native Taíno people that the Spanish quickly faced a labor shortage, according to Mintz.)

By 1516, just 24 years after Spaniards first set foot in the Americas, sugar produced by enslaved people was being exported back to Europe. England established extensive colonies in the Caribbean islands, which are sometimes referred to as "sugar islands."

Their plantations produced goods that read like a baker's shopping list, including sugar, molasses, coffee, rum, nutmeg, chocolate and coconut.

Trans-Atlantic fusion cuisine

All through the modern-day Americas, people enjoy traditional sweets with roots in the earliest days of the "Columbian exchange," when ingredients and cultures from two distant worlds combined.

In Brazil, locals nibble goiabada — that's a sugary, thickened guava paste — and in the markets of southern Mexico, you can pick up brilliant figurines shaped from mazapan de pepita, or pumpkin seed marzipan. In each case, the recipes are a reminder that military colonization of the Americas was accompanied by efforts to bring European religion to the new world.

The cross followed the sword, but sugar came too.

By 1747, the area that's now Mexico already had 45 convents. Many of those religious orders brought recipes for the sweets that had long been made in their European convents back at home — sweets that were heavily influenced by Arab traditions.

They were quick to swap in local ingredients. The quince paste that Arabs brought to Europe became guava paste in South America. Almonds in marzipan were replaced by pumpkin seeds.

Slavery's bitter legacy

But as the new world sweets tradition developed, the Caribbean sugar trade unfolded as one of the darkest chapters in human history.

There are echoes of both the origins and the brutality of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in a sweet, boozy bite of Jamaican rum cake, which still graces island tables at Christmas dinner and other celebrations. With the base of a traditional English fruit cake, Jamaican rum cake is aromatic with the spices that inspired Columbus' early journeys, and soaked with Caribbean rum, which became a profitable byproduct of island sugar plantations.

It was the massive scale of the Caribbean sugar trade — and the enormous human suffering that trade incurred — that finally transformed sugar from a rare, precious commodity to something that Europeans expected as a regular part of their diet.

By the time working-class Brits could afford to stir sugar into each day's tea, the world's sugar production was a far cry from the small-scale industry I saw by Inle Lake. Consumption shot up in Europe and the United Kingdom, where importers prized pure, white sugar over unrefined cakes of simmered cane juice.

The recipes of rebellion

But even as sugar slavery gripped the Caribbean, voices of dissent bubbled up in kitchens and dining rooms. Anti-slavery activists demanded a boycott of slave-produced sugar, and reworked their favorite recipes to use honey and maple syrup.

Sugar boycotts didn't overturn slavery.

You can find a taste of that era's activism, though, in a dense slice of Elizabeth Margaret Chandler's honey tea cake recipe, which she published in "Genius of Universal Emancipation," an abolitionist newspaper.

The cake, like Chandler, eschewed cane sugar as the product of the slave trade. The American writer penned poems about the cruelty of slavery and the impact of the sugar trade that still resonate with modern-day movements to bring justice to the food system.

"I cannot feed on human sighs, or feast with sweets my palate's sense," wrote Chandler in one of her poems about sugar and slavery. "While blood is 'neath the fair disguise."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 445047

Reported Deaths: 5955
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin924911470
Ramsey39703735
Dakota32788331
Anoka30811360
Washington20004225
Stearns17775185
St. Louis13546240
Scott1189996
Wright11548102
Olmsted1035775
Sherburne815765
Carver691436
Clay648478
Rice600166
Kandiyohi552871
Blue Earth538033
Crow Wing479673
Otter Tail453464
Chisago449732
Benton416785
Winona386246
Douglas372466
Nobles366746
Mower362328
Goodhue343657
Polk327756
McLeod323144
Morrison310043
Beltrami308746
Lyon299835
Itasca282643
Becker281738
Isanti281141
Carlton278143
Steele27119
Pine265113
Freeborn241320
Todd230929
Nicollet223336
Brown213734
Mille Lacs212845
Le Sueur208515
Cass206123
Meeker198533
Waseca188816
Martin169126
Wabasha16883
Roseau165316
Hubbard148338
Redwood139227
Renville136539
Houston135313
Dodge13304
Chippewa130832
Cottonwood126518
Fillmore12215
Wadena119416
Rock109512
Sibley10797
Aitkin107133
Watonwan10618
Faribault104615
Pennington97715
Kanabec97218
Pipestone93823
Yellow Medicine93314
Murray8655
Jackson85010
Swift83018
Pope7355
Marshall70115
Stevens6978
Clearwater68514
Lac qui Parle65616
Lake62915
Wilkin6229
Koochiching59010
Lincoln4821
Big Stone4543
Unassigned43468
Grant4257
Norman4228
Mahnomen4087
Kittson37019
Red Lake3164
Traverse2473
Lake of the Woods1801
Cook1130

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 303065

Reported Deaths: 4267
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk45335447
Linn17673274
Scott15356163
Black Hawk13648236
Woodbury12945175
Johnson1202149
Dubuque11300149
Pottawattamie8934112
Dallas881171
Story863434
Webster467471
Cerro Gordo462968
Sioux453356
Clinton448361
Warren437538
Marshall425561
Buena Vista391529
Muscatine386177
Des Moines380641
Plymouth348868
Wapello340898
Jasper319658
Lee313530
Marion301752
Jones269649
Henry263230
Carroll253034
Bremer242048
Crawford228122
Boone216217
Washington214231
Benton208544
Jackson190831
Mahaska190736
Tama185657
Dickinson184226
Delaware172236
Kossuth170543
Clay166019
Wright162724
Fayette159522
Buchanan158023
Hamilton157829
Winneshiek154819
Harrison154462
Hardin153929
Cedar151419
Clayton150748
Butler146424
Page143715
Cherokee138127
Floyd137936
Mills136016
Lyon133632
Poweshiek132324
Hancock128824
Allamakee126827
Iowa122822
Calhoun12209
Grundy120026
Jefferson119524
Madison11869
Winnebago118229
Mitchell115634
Louisa114130
Cass112541
Chickasaw110512
Emmet110231
Sac110215
Appanoose109638
Union108122
Humboldt104219
Guthrie102224
Shelby101326
Franklin101218
Unassigned9210
Palo Alto9019
Keokuk84325
Montgomery84022
Howard82519
Monroe80518
Clarke7817
Pocahontas77211
Ida73830
Greene6887
Davis68721
Adair68620
Lucas6468
Osceola6349
Monona63316
Worth5983
Taylor5919
Fremont5036
Van Buren49412
Decatur4784
Ringgold4269
Wayne41421
Audubon4108
Adams2953
Rochester/St. Mary'S
Cloudy
23° wxIcon
Hi: 26° Lo: 20°
Feels Like: 17°
Mason City
Cloudy
24° wxIcon
Hi: 28° Lo: 17°
Feels Like: 12°
Albert Lea
Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 26° Lo: 16°
Feels Like: 13°
Austin
Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 25° Lo: 17°
Feels Like: 14°
Charles City
Cloudy
23° wxIcon
Hi: 27° Lo: 18°
Feels Like: 14°
A big temperature swing is on the way
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

John Marshall ready for 2021

Image

Is the City of Rochester paying men and women equally?

Image

LWVMN asks for "truth and consequences" for state lawmakers

Image

Sports Overtime Part 2

Image

Sports Overtime Part 1

Image

Plans for polar plunge

Image

Equal work and equal pay.

Image

Aaron's Friday Night Forecast

Image

Mega Millions jackpot soars to $750 million

Image

Increase in 2021 travel plans

Community Events