The Historical Place of Sugar and Honey

At the suggestion of my publisher, my initial idea of a book about chocolate has evolved into a broader subject which may or may not evolve into a book of some sort. So for the past week or so, I’ve been immersing myself into the history and anthropology of sweets in order to write a passable book proposal.

During the course of the readings, there has been one belief of mine that has been pretty much dismissed or diminished by anthropologists. Foods that we deem as “sweet” have, for the most part, been less of an influence on nutrition and less of an influence on food culture than we in the modern age may believe.

In reading Sidney W. Mintz’s book “Sweetness and Power”, he states that, for the most part , civilizations “have been built on the cultivation of a particular complex carbohydrate, such as maize or potatoes or rice or millet or wheat.” The rest of a cultures food choices have evolved in such a way to make these foundation foods both interesting and varied. Think of the many ways that rice dishes are presented in East Asia, or corn dishes are offered in Mexico, and you’ll have a rough idea on what Mintz is trying to say.

Fruits, at least those domesticated to a point where they could be grown on a regular basis, weren’t as prevalent as some of us would like to believe. Apples have been around since about 8,000 BCE and dates in 6,000 BCE, but the age of domesticated fruits truly doesn’t occur until 4000 BCE with citrus, watermelons, and grapes becoming a farmed crop. That’s 6,000 years into the civilized era. By this time, homo sapiens have already mastered the way of farming the carbohydrates they need to survive.

Because of this “complex carbohydrates first!” trait found in many cultures, simple carbohydrates take on a unique, and at times, even relegated position in food history. Honey, which popped onto the scene at around 5,000 BCE became an exalted product. Many religions incorporated it into their rituals and undertakings, making it one of the first food stuffs to reach (literally) cult status.

Sucrose (or granulated sugar, as we know it) is a recent food product, not hitting the Western World until about 700 AD (give or take) when Muslim expansion brought the sugar cane into the Southern European growing regions. Its influence was so profound upon the Europeans that finding adequate places for sugar crops and plantations was one of the driving forces of colonization into the New World, second only behind the quest for metal commodities.

But while the importance of these sweeteners in food history is absolute, there’s still something about them that separates them from other foods. They are less important than salt, at least from a bio-chemical point of view. But their influence seems greater than other spices in the world.

To me, this is what makes processed sugars so profound. They are venerated, yet we can survive without them. They were one of the world’s pre-eminent luxury items, but now even a child can by a piece of candy for mere pennies. When I see a piece of candy, it’s interesting for me to see what part of history had to occur in order for this candy to exist. What’s even more interesting is that I can now dismiss that piece of candy without consumption, an idea that would have seemed wasteful two hundred years ago.