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Sugartime: The impact sugar has had on our culture

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Ruby Tandoh writes in Eater:

In a romantic oil painting by Will Cotton, Katy Perry lies naked on a cotton candy cloud, a whisper of pink spun sugar draped over her butt. The landscape bulges and billows with emphatic softness, dominating the painting except for a hint of blue sky. Perry offers a look both languid and post-orgasmic, lips parted, her hair nostalgically curled like a 1950s pinup. When the painting made its debut on the cover of Perry’s 2010 album Teenage Dream, it sat somewhere between commercial pop and high-art comment on all of the above. The uncomfortable excess of Cotton’s work was used to sell uncomfortable excess. And it all hinged on sugar.

Sugar is sprinkled everywhere in our language. When children are good and happy, they are cutie pies. Cool stuff can be “sweet, man.” Our crush is a sweetheart, and our sweetheart might be our honey. “A spoonful of sugar,” as Mary Poppins croons, is a bribe, something to help “the medicine go down.” Sugar is leisure and celebration — what British birthday would be complete without the stickiness of cake frosting on fingers? It is, according to Roland Barthes, an attitude — as integral to the concept of Americanness as wine is to Frenchness. In the 1958 hit song “Sugartime,” to which Barthes was referring, the sunny, smiling McGuire Sisters harmonize sweetly, filling their mouths with honey: “Sugar in the mornin’ / Sugar in the evenin’ / Sugar at suppertime / Be my little sugar / And love me all the time.”

And like anything pleasurable, sugar is often characterized as a vice. The flood of industrial sugar into packaged food has real public health consequences, but predictably, the backlash has taken on a puritanical zeal far beyond reasonable concerns. Sugar is “America’s drug of choice,” one headline claimed. “Is sugar the world’s most popular drug?” wondered another. Even those selling sugary food winkingly parrot the language of addiction — consider Milk Bar’s notoriously sticky, seductively sweet Crack Pie. A drug that decimated predominantly poor, black American communities is now a punchline for middle-class white indulgence.

For black Americans, sweetness was an essential ingredient in Jim Crow-era stereotypes designed to keep newly emancipated people from their rights. Those stereotypes persist — and even generate profit — today. The racist trope of watermelon-eating African Americans, popularized in this era, framed black people as simpletons and children craving nothing beyond a sweet slice of melon. Aunt Jemima, a character derived from minstrel shows, is the apotheosis of the happy, nurturing “mammy” stereotype, empty and filled with sweet syrup, her smile used to sell sugar for PepsiCo. “The shelf on which i sit,” reads Lucille Clifton’s poem “Aunt Jemima”:

between the flour and cornmeal
is thick with dreams
oh how i long for

my own syrup
rich as blood
my true nephews my nieces
my kitchen my family 
my home

And sugar’s history is brutal. The artist Kara Walker tackled a profoundly different collision of femininity and sweetness than Katy Perry on a candy cloud when she conceived of a 35-foot sugar sphinx inside the former Domino Sugar Refinery in 2014. Titled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, Walker’s sculpture was the single largest piece of public art ever shown in New York City. A crouching black woman made from 40 tons of glistening white sugar, surrounded by life-sized figurines of black boys carrying bananas or baskets, she hunched forward on her toes, knees, and forearms, her lips, breasts, butt, and labia swelling round in cartoonish extravagance — an uneasy reflection of the fetishization of black women’s bodies and the commodification of their flesh. The sugar sphinx, the artist wrote in the work’s full title, was “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

Sugar is survival. It is a respite for palates swept clean of childish joy for too long. It is sexual desire and pleasure, and also temptation and sin. And it is a commodity, one historically produced with some of the most brutal labor practices on the planet. In the Western imagination, sugar is pleasure, temptation, and vice — and in modern history, it is original sin.


Sweetness is a primal pleasure, like warmth or softness. Our desire to find, taste, and consume it is profoundly natural, but our quest to make more of it, to cook, bake, caramelize, and fry our way to sweet — that is profoundly human. Our love of sugar is shaped when we’re gummy infants, and follows us through adulthood into gummy old age. One study found that when sweet solutions were injected into the womb, fetuses, whose nutritional needs are entirely met by the umbilical cord, swallowed more amniotic fluid. When bitter solutions were injected, less was swallowed. Another study found that anencephalic infants — babies born with much of their brain mass missing, and who rarely live longer than a few hours — reacted positively when a sweet substance was placed on their lips, and grimaced when given something bitter, even though they lacked the part of the brain typically responsible for taste.

In the current age of abundant, industrial food, this sweet tooth is considered hedonistic. But our love of sugar is about survival: Where food was scarce, sweetness offered a clue it contained a large number of much-needed calories, just as an aversion to bitterness kept us away from many toxic plants. Even the breast milk that humans produce is sweet.

In nature, sweetness often accompanies ripeness, in just-picked peapods and baby corn cobs as well as melon slices and punnets of late-season cherries. As chef and author Samin Nosrat explained to me, “At the farmer’s market … one of the highest compliments is to say that something is very sweet.” Unlike the sledgehammer thwack of candy, natural sweetness is in constant flux, according to Nosrat, receding from the moment the fruit or vegetable is picked. “Peas,” she said, “can taste totally different from one day to the next.”

Cooking unlocks sweetness in wondrous ways, and we’ve become experts in harnessing that power: Red bell peppers are sweet when they’re roasted, and onions yield to a sticky, caramelized tangle if cooked slowly. Entire meal courses are devoted to candies, chocolate, cakes, ice cream, and pie. These foods — from sticky slabs of ginger cake to root beer floats — are joy that unfurls across the tongue. Molecules responsible for sweetness fit with protein receptors on the taste buds like pieces of some honeyed jigsaw puzzle.

It is also a pleasure contained in its own little box. For American and western European palates, sweetness occupies its own lonely niche in our cooking, sequestered and scrutinized. We have steaks and lobster rolls and quiche and potatoes and pizza … and then dessert separately, afterward. We eat vegetables and milk and bread … and then ice cream as a treat. Sugar is craved one moment, and controlled the next.

We’ve not always had such polarized tastes. Capon (a type of castrated cockerel, bred for eating), blanched almonds, rice, lard, salt, and sugar were the cornerstones of a medieval blancmange, or blank mang, as it was written in the 14th-century The Forme of Cury, one of the earliest-known collections of English cookery writing. The blancmange Brits are familiar with today is a sweet milk custard, set like a jelly, often in a decorative mold. The medieval version is a jarring admixture of sugar alongside meat. And this was in no way an unusual dish. Sweet courses were interspersed throughout a meal, and dishes such as frytour of erbes, or honeyed herb fritters, whose recipe is also archived in The Forme of Cury, straddled the sweet-savory divide. With such a strikingly different culinary grammar, the idea of a monolithic, wondrous, dreadful sugar would hardly have made sense to medieval cooks. Sweetness was not a behemoth category in itself, but a seasoning, no different than salt, or a pinch of spice.

In many cultures, this sugar-salt symphony is still foundational. “The food I grew up eating every night — that is to say, Persian home cooking — is all about balancing the plate with sweet and sour, salty and rich, crisp and soft,” says Nosrat. “Fresh and dried fruits — pomegranates, sour cherries, dates, raisins — all regularly found their way onto our dinner plates. So I have always been drawn to a little sweetness in my food.”

Food writer Yemisi Aribisala explained to me that Nigerian tastes demand sweet with an acidic counterbalance: “There won’t be any kind of dessert accompanying meals in most homes. People will snack on star apples (which are very tart) or cashew fruits, almond fruits, or guavas. I can’t even bring to mind one common fruit that is like the European apple, with considerably more sweetness than tartness.”

Some vestiges of this approach to flavor remain in Western cooking — sugar coaxes out flavor in everything from ketchup to honey-glazed ham — but these happy harmonies are largely erased by rigid taxonomies. In a 2016 article in the Charlotte Observer, Kathleen Purvis documented the disdain that white Southerners often hold for their black neighbors’ cornbread: light, cakey, and sweetened with sugar, compared to the paler, more savory cornbreads that cater to white tastes. Food writer Ronni Lundy once commented that, “If God had meant cornbread to have sugar, he would have made it cake.” Rather than finding value in the million ways that good taste can manifest, we are drawn into a polarized debate, where blackness is sweetness and excess, and whiteness is tasteful restraint.


How has sweetness — something we are evolutionarily programmed to like, for survival — come to stand in for sex and escapism and hedonism? Humans are metaphor machines, and our mouths are liminal places where food and words mingle, where hot dogs, tagliatelle, and Nigerian puff puff meet “my name is,” memory, and “I.” True synesthesia — the blurring between one sense and another — is relatively rare, but its logic pervades our language, so that trumpets might sound hot, or sadness taste sour. One study found that honeycomb toffee tastes less sweet when eaten whilst listening to a “bitter” soundtrack than when eaten whilst listening to a “sweet” soundtrack. And our senses don’t just crisscross randomly — “How come silence is sweet but sweetness isn’t silent?” one paper asked.

No sugared association is stronger than that between sweetness and . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 August 2018 at 11:25 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food, Memes

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