A look at the history of sugar, from art and language to 3-D printing

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Darra Goldstein is editor in chief of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, an 888-page reference guide to all things sweet. "The book is really a compendium of human desires, a cultural history of desire for things that are sweet and what it has caused in the world, in both the realm of pleasure and also of pain," she says.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I imagine that pulling this together with all of these contributors had to be like herding cats.

Darra Goldstein
Darra Goldstein (Photo: © Caleb Kenna)

Darra Goldstein: It was a bit like herding cats, but since we've always had cats, I'm used to herding them. I have great technique.

LRK: You have 888 pages that are full of everything: sugar science, baking techniques, death, sex and politics. But is there an ongoing story here? Do you see a link between all of these other than sugar and sweet?

DG: I do, yes. Sugar is what ties it all together, or the idea of the sweet. But to me, the book is really a compendium of human desires, a cultural history of desire for things that are sweet and what it has caused in the world, in both the realm of pleasure and also of pain.

LRK: Examples?

DG: I always would like to go to pleasure first. Those are the beautiful confections that have been created over the years and throughout the world, not just with sugar, but with honey and with other forms of sweeteners. Then we think about how sugar, because it's so malleable in its different forms, has been used to create gorgeous sculptures. We can think about art and representations of sweet things in art. And language too -- the terminology and the words we use every day for our loved ones: sugar, honey and sweetie pie.

But then we get to the dark side: the slavery, the plantations, the sugar barons, the problems with what some people consider addiction to sugar and the health problems that result.

LRK: Why do you think that sweets are so tied to celebrations -- not just in the Western world, but it seems in most of the world?

DG: Part of it has to do with the fact that we, evolutionarily speaking, have been drawn to the sweet. Those things that have ripeness and have sugar in them will give us energy and they'll enable us to survive. So we celebrate survival with sweet things.

The ritual foods that are used -- if you think about Ramadan, for instance, and having sweet dates to break the fast, or you think of the Jewish New Year and dipping apples in honey, or at funerals too, where you have dishes like koliva, which are grain and are usually sweetened. It becomes part of our collective memory.

LRK: You rarely leave a wedding without some sort of little favor to take home. It's usually something to do with sweets.

DG: It is. That's actually one of my favorite entries in the book is to think about the history of confetti, which is such a pallid shadow of what it once was. We throw paper now, but originally it was candied nuts or candied seeds. It was a sign of status. It was very expensive to do. It was also a sign of fertility or the presumed fertility of the couple and wishing them to procreate well.

Then during the 18th century, these little bits of confetti, because they were so expensive, were made of plaster. There's this wonderful passage when Goethe went to Rome during carnival season. He saw people's suit coats spattered with plaster that had erupted against their coats and they were covered in dust. Some of them had to wear wire masks to protect their faces.

Before paper confetti was invented, people threw candied nuts and plaster
Excerpt: Before paper confetti was invented, people threw candied nuts and plaster

LRK: The spirituality entry was very interesting to me -- this idea of a sugar high, that happiness, that feeling we get when we eat sugar, and how that figured into religious rituals.

DG: Yes. You also think of that Matthew Arnold phrase about sweetness and light, and the idea of purity and a kind of transcendence. I remember in graduate school reading about the Russian saints and their lives. If you were that saintly, when you died, a sweet smell was supposed to emanate from the body instead of the smell of decay. It is very closely tied up with ideas of a better, other world.

LRK: What's your favorite entry in the book?

DG: I really like the one on unusual uses of sugar because I learned so much from it. For instance, I had no idea beyond the kitchen that sugar was used as a preservative. I make jam; we know that if you add sugar, things won't spoil so rapidly.

But scientists have found that if you take waterlogged timbers from medieval times that are starting to rot or have rotted already and suspend them in a 67-percent sugar solution, then it creates an impermeable barrier and the bacteria can't get in. They've been able to use sugar to help preserve architectural monuments.

They're making fabric from sugar now. They take green tea that has been lightly sweetened. The sugar attracts the bacteria, so it collects on top and forms a thick raft, which they can lift off, dry, and then sew and cut into various patterns. It's a kind of bio-couture.

What fascinated me most and I have the hardest time wrapping my own head around is 3-D printing with sugar. Early on, they were using sugar and extruding it, making all kinds of nifty little sculptures. But now they're using it to build artificial organs. They grow living cells on this sugar solution that they've put through the 3-D printer to create fibers that mimic blood vessels. Then the sugar is dissolved once the cells have grown on it, and interconnected channels are left behind. The idea is that one day the sugar we eat could be used to create the organs that help to digest it. It's this beautiful circle.

From This Episode: 
Sweet Talk
Published: 
July 31st, 2015

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