Friday, March 21, 2008
60. Sugar: A Bittersweet History - Elizabeth Abbott

Do you know the history of sugar? Or how those sickeningly sweet white (or brown) crystals make their way into the bag on the grocery store shelf? If not, Elizabeth Abbott's book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History, will certainly enlighten you. It's one of those items we all consume but most of us rarely consider (unless you're diabetic). Few of us know anything about it other than it's sweet, addictive, and in just about everything we eat.

Ms. Abbott begins with the introduction of sugar to Europe from it's roots in the South Pacific and Asia. At first it was the sole property of the elite: European Royals and nobility. Elaborate banquets designed to impress and display their wealth were filled with sweet treats from statues and figurines carved out of sugar, to even edible dishes and cutlery acting as a sweet ending to the meals. She also explains how, as sugar and sugar production in the overseas colonies became more prevalent, the British tea ritual began and has become a part of their culture. Did you know that Elizabeth I was addicted to sugar? Or how sugar led to the daily rations of rum for British sailors?

Sounds good so far, doesn't it? Sure does, until you begin to read about how that sugar was grown, refined, and made it's way into the tea cups of the average citizen. To put it plainly, sugar was made from the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves brought to the Caribbean. At times, this could be taken quite literally. As with cotton slaves in the southern United States, sugar slaves were beaten, raped, killed, tortured all to increase the amount of sugar provided to the continent and therefore increase the profits for plantation owners, producers, refiners, and distributors. The book works it's way through the history of sugar in the Caribbean, South Africa, Hawaii, the southern US, and the rise of beet sugar in Europe and North America and it's frightening when you realize just how many lives were destroyed simply to supply Europeans (and eventually North Americans) with this addictive sweet.

Ms. Abbott's book focuses almost it's entirety on sugar slaves, at times making one almost forget the subject is the history of sugar. However, sugar's history and the lives of the slaves who died for this ubiquitous sweetner are so intertwined, you cannot discuss one without the other. She finishes off with a bit of history most of us can connect with a bit more easily. The introduction of "fast food" at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, including Dr. Pepper, Hires Root Beer and, of course, Coca Cola. She also examines the practice of distributing sugar laden chocolate bars and candy to soldiers during times of war and looks at the relationship of "Big Sugar" and politics since the introduction of sugar to the west.

During our Fall Reading Challenge last year, I read CBC reporter Carol Off's book, Bitter Chocolate, and it changed my life. I rarely eat chocolate anymore and, when I do, I try to make sure that it's organic free-trade dark chocolate. Sugar has had the same effect on me. Sure, I knew on some level that sugar was prevelant in just about everything we eat here in North America but it never really REALLY bothered me before. Now, I'm much more conscious of reading labels and knowing what's in my food. While "slavery" is no longer a part of sugar, most plantation workers are indentured to their "employers" and it's essentially slavery under a new name. I would recommend checking out the documentary Big Sugar which you can view online in two parts HERE and HERE.

Elizabeth Abbott's book, as with her A History of Mistresses, is meticulously researched with an extensive bibliography and footnotes, and plenty of pictures. It is not what I would consider an easy read - the subject matter, littered with plenty of facts and figures, is at times morbid and disturbing. However, I think it's an important subject that more people should think about. Highly recommended.


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