What We Eat: The Story of Sugar - #102

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF: Twelve thousand years ago in New Guinea, people started chewing on sugar cane to satisfy their sweet tooth. About 10,000 years later, in India, people learned to make solid sugar from the cane juice. A skill that traders eventually brought to the Middle East.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  Starting in the 600s, Arab armies began marching out of the Middle East, and conquering parts of North Africa and southern Europe. When they invaded Spain, they introduced the Spanish to sugar who slowly adopted it. Slowly is the operative word here. Six centuries later and only a few Europeans could afford the stuff.

BURT WOLF: But during the 12th century things began to change. The knights who went to the Middle East during the Crusades came in contact with sugar. It was a basic part of Middle Eastern medicine and gastronomy. They loved it. When they returned to Europe they spread the word.

But the Crusaders did more than just introduce Europe to the idea of sugar. During the early years of the Crusades they conquered large parts of the Middle East; in one area, called the kingdom of Jerusalem, they oversaw the cultivation of sugar cane and the production of sugar.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The mills are still visible at a site near Jericho. The Knights of Malta got into the business and so did the merchants of Venice. As a result of the Crusades, Europeans were able to turn sugar production into a small but highly profitable business.


BURT WOLF: From the tenth to the eighteenth century sugar was considered a wonder drug. Every medicine used during the Black Plague contained sugar. Sugar had become so much a part of medicine that people used the expression, “like an apothecary without sugar” to describe a state of total helplessness or desperation.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During its extraordinary history sugar has had five major uses: as a medicine, as a spice, as a material for making sculptures, as a preservative and as a sweetener. And during most of that history those functions have overlapped. Over 2,000 years ago, an ancient Greek visitor to India reported that he had came across a hard honey,  with a consistency of salt, called saccharon, which people mixed with water and used as a medicine for stomach aches.


BURT WOLF: Sugar has the ability to combine with many other ingredients. One result was the introduction of marzipan, an edible blend of sugar and almonds that could be used to form sculptures.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1200s bakers in England and France began making sculptures out of sugar.  They were very elaborate, brought to the table, admired and eventually eaten.

They were called subtleties and because of the enormous expense of sugar at the time they were only available in the homes of the nobles and leaders of the church.  The most outrageous description of a subtlety that I ever saw was one that was made in Egypt, it was a full sized mosque and it was made to celebrate a religious event.  After the ceremonies were over, beggars were invited in to eat the building. 

BURT WOLF: During the 15th and 16th centuries, subtleties were all the rage. Costly and precise replicas of important buildings and works of art were shaped by bakers who were considered artists in their own right.

The idea of using sugar to embody feelings was so powerful that subtleties have survived into modern times. Decorated wedding cakes, birthday cakes, anniversary cakes, they all commemorate important events and mark their significance. Even the yellow marshmallow chicks sold at Easter are modern subtleties.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 13th and 14th centuries sugar consumption was increasing in Europe and by the 15th century the governments of Portugal and Spain were encouraging entrepreneurs to set up sugar plantations on the Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa. Spain took the Canaries and Portugal took Madeira.

BURT WOLF: On Madeira the Portuguese wanted to produce something that would be in great demand in the cities of Europe — something they could produce cheaper, better, faster, and in greater quantity than anyone else. Honeybees were producing honey and wax for export. Wheat and wine were doing well but nobody was getting rich. They needed something that would bring in the big bucks… and that turned out to be sugar.

The colonists devoted themselves to the production of sugar and by the end of the 1400s, they were exporting almost four million pounds of sugar to London, Paris, Rome, and Constantinople.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Columbus was well aware that sugar cane was a very valuable crop. His mother-in-law owned a sugar plantation on the island of Madeira and Chris picked up a little extra change transporting sugar from there to the Italian port city of Genoa. On his second voyage in 1493 he planted sugarcane on the island that is now known as the Dominican Republic. It was the first sugarcane planted in the Americas.


BURT WOLF: The Caribbean islands were perfectly suited for the production of sugarcane. They have lots of flat land, plenty of water and a climate that is hot enough but not too dry. By 1640 sugarcane was the crop of choice in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba.

SIDNEY MINTZ ON CAMERA: It is said that there were over a million people in that region when it was first discovered in 1492, but certainly by the end of the 17th Century, that population had diminished to nothing, really to nothing.  So it was a pioneer area. The one thing it didn't have was labor. And Europeans understood that if they brought in free labor to work on those plantations, that free labor would simply pick up and walk away.  There would be no way to make those men work as long as there was land to be had for the asking.  The only answer you have under those circumstances is somehow to tie down your labor force.  To pin it down.  And slavery was sort of the natural answer.  And Africa was the nearest place from which to get large numbers of people.  So there's an interesting kind of equilibrium between this sort of production and the enslavement of fellow human beings.

BURT WOLF: The production of sugar is a difficult process. It starts with the cultivation of the cane — a tall grass with sweet, juicy stalks that grows to a thickness of two inches and a height of twelve to fifteen feet. It takes nine to eighteen months to ripen. As a rule, sugarcane produces more calories per unit of land in a given time than any other crop in its climate.

Cane looks like bamboo but instead of a hollow center, it’s filled with a sappy pulp. The cane must be cut as soon as it’s ripe or it begins to lose some of the sucrose in the juice. And as soon as it is cut the juice must be extracted or it will ferment and rot.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The sugar cane was brought from the fields to the milling operation where it was crushed and pounded to extract the juice. Then in a complicated series of operations that required both heating and cooling, the sucrose in the juice was crystallized.

To pull this off was a time sensitive operation and it required a great deal of coordination between the workers in the fields and the workers in the mills.  To find a labor force that could do this was always an economic challenge to the plantation owners.

SIDNEY MINTZ ON CAMERA: So the plantation necessarily involved two kinds of labor force.  Unskilled, to do the cutting, and hard labor.  And skilled to do the … if you will, quasi- chemical processes involved in manufacturing the sugar.  Because it takes this particular form, it's an enterprise in which time matters.  And so we have an enterprise very early in human history that involves two kinds of labor force.  Factory and field.  And an element of time ... time discipline.  This made these enterprises really quite exceptional in the history of  industry. You’ve got some of the main features of modern capitalist enterprise, but the real sticking point here is that the labor force for a New World plantations at least, was almost entirely enslaved, and this was true really almost from their very beginnings, until the middle of the 19th Century. 

BURT WOLF: African slaves brought to work in the fields provided a continual supply of free labor. During the 400 years of African slavery, at least 10 million people were shipped to the Americas.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1500s Spain dominated the Caribbean, but the 1600s belonged to the English. They fought the most, conquered the most colonies, sailed the fastest, and basically dominated the entire area. They were also the primary designers of the plantation system. Plantations produced tobacco, rice and cotton; but the most important thing to come out of the plantations was sugar.  And as the sugar supply increased so did England’s sweet tooth.

BURT WOLF: Sugar production in the Caribbean became a key to England’s economic development. To process the sugar, they built mills and then factories to make the milling machinery. They needed to feed and clothe the slave population, so a salt cod business developed and then a textile industry. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The English built ships to transport goods up and back from their colonies. They also put together international trading companies which gave them worldwide economic leverage.

BURT WOLF: International trading companies moved goods and people across the Atlantic Ocean in a pattern called the Triangular Trade. Ships filled with manufactured goods — tools, weapons, and textiles, sailed from Europe to West Africa where they traded their cargo for slaves. The slaves were shipped to the West Indies where they were sold. The profits bought sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco, which were sent back to Europe.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The merchants involved in moving these goods  -- and people -- from place to place made a profit on every transaction. The triangular trade became the basis for all British international commerce. The British were becoming the most powerful businessmen in the world--and in the process, sugar was pouring into their homeland.


BURT WOLF: By the end of the 1600s, the English in the Caribbean were sending home over fifty million pounds of sugar in addition to the sugar they were shipping directly to their North American colonies.

SIDNEY MINTZ ON CAMERA: Up until around 1680 it had remained pretty exclusive.  It was for the elite, for the rich and the privileged.  But, from about 1700 onward you begin to see sugar percolating downward in the British social system to poor people, to ordinary people, to everyday people.  And this is the same time when tea becomes important in British life.  It's... we have to keep in mind that tea, coffee and chocolate are all new for Europe in the 17th century. All of them are stimulants, all of them are bitter and all of them are drunk in hot forms or they can be drunk otherwise, too.  And a cup of black tea, which provides a terrific kick in terms of stimulus, with a hell of a lot of sugar in it to provide lots of calories to a population generally undernourished, was very important in British history because it meant to the ordinary working man that a cold lunch of cheese and bread is turned into a banquet.

EDWARD BRAMAH ON CAMERA: The Leisure Gardens are very exciting, because after the plague, when one hundred thousand people died in London, in the big fire, people were only too pleased to go out, on a nice summer's day, and walk, and play games in the leisure gardens, and listen to music, and dance and sing.  And of course it was in the gardens, that they asked for the new drink from China.  Which of course was tea.  And everybody knew that to make tea, you needed boiling water.  And therefore it was a safe drink. There were eight-five gardens around London.  A great social institution of their day.

BURT WOLF: Hot sweet tea quickly became a popular drink throughout England. British business interests pushed tea rather than coffee or chocolate and tea’s victory over the competing drinks had nothing to do with taste. Unlike coffee or chocolate, the teas that were promoted in England were grown in China and later in India.

The British had two million acres of tea-producing plantations in India. They built roads and ports, brought in tools and equipment and imported managers. Within a few decades, they had occupied large areas of the Indian subcontinent. And Indian tea started as a business but ended up as the basis for ruling a colony.

At the end of the 1800s tea was also promoted by the English temperance movement. From a moral point of view, abstinence from alcohol protected the family, and encouraged thrift, reliability, and honesty. From a business point of view, temperance was essential. You couldn’t really have an effective capitalistic culture if the factory was dependent on a bunch of absentee drunks. The major instrument for securing temperance was tea.

SIDNEY MINTZ ON CAMERA: What the tea Temperance Movement in Britain gave to working people was a place to go.  Because they really did not have places of recreation, in their home which were mostly mean and small.  They were provided with tea parlors and with tea gardens and with afternoon teas.  All of these devices built around this particular stimulant which, when heavily sweetened, really made a difference in diet as well.  And I see that movement as closely connected really to labor and also to religion.  Because sobriety was touted, was sold, by the church and it was bought by the British working man in connection with a family activity because tea was a drink that everybody could drink, not just the mother and father but the children as well.  It brought people together whereas alcohol was seen as driving them apart.

BURT WOLF: During the 1700s, sugar developed a more everyday character and became the basis for English sweets — sweets that became treats. It included everything from candy to pastries and puddings.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1760, Hannah Glasse, the Julia Child of the time, published a cookbook for the middle class. It was filled with recipes that used sugar and clearly indicated that sugar was no longer a medicine, or a spice or something that was only used in the kitchens of the wealthy.  

BURT WOLF: There is no biological reason to have sweet foods at every meal. The idea of a final sweet course came into fashion at the end of the 1700s but only among the richest level of European society. A dessert course, usually a pudding, only became part of the common meal during the late 1800s

DEB FRIEDMAN ON CAMERA: For the most part, sugar consumption between the 1790s and the 1830s doubles.  Most of our sugar is coming from Cuba.  And is coming in, in a variety of different ways.  The most expensive sugar would be white sugar.  Very refined.  Comes in a solid cone.  And it's labor intensive.  Because you have to pound it, and sieve it before you use it.  Your next most expensive sugar would be brown sugar, which is coming in as cones as well, but not all the molasses has been removed.  Molasses, as a sweetener, is just a by-product of sugar manufacturing.  The least expensive type of sugar available.  And probably most used commonly for family food. 


BURT WOLF: When the price of sugar dropped during the mid-1850s sugar became the preservative of choice for jam manufacturers. Suddenly their products could be mass-produced and were inexpensive enough to attract a large audience.

They became extremely popular with the lowest economic groups in England; bread and jam fed working class children for two out of three meals. 

The English factory system promoted the use of jams for a number of reasons: it was ready to eat so it didn’t take time away from work, it did not require heating so no money was spent on fuel, and it provided a large number of calories at a very low price.

SIDNEY MINTZ ON CAMERA: As more women went out to work the need to develop foods that would be available to the children in particular who might be home without their parents and to speed up food production at dinner became important.  One of those products was the factory production of jam.  Because jam, unlike butter, doesn't go rancid.  You can leave it on the table.  A kid can get home and buy store brought bread and smear it with jam.  In no time at all there was hardly a Scottish youngster that could eat bread without jam smeared on it. And this was important, again, in helping to develop a schedule, a time schedule, that suited the factory rather than the family, that suited the industrial work day, in the same way that tea was the first pause that refreshed.  So jam on bread became the second pause that refreshed.

EDWARD  BRAMAH ON CAMERA: You needed a hot drink in the middle of the day, and tea, with the milk, and the sugar, gave them the energy to complete their jobs during the course of the day.  And of course, it became fashionable for the women in the homes to use sugar, coming in from the West Indies, in all their culinary skills, and their baking, so there was a great interest in sugar.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Many authorities believe that the sugar plantations that developed in the Caribbean were an early form of modern capitalism. It required a great deal of investment, much of which came from Dutch investors. They operated on borrowed money which came from big city banks.  The managers were not the owners, the criteria for their success was not their size but their true profitability, they established a system of international trade and they did away with feudalism which had been the economic system in Europe for hundreds of years.  They did, however, have one major problem, they operated with slave labor and that was very confusing to economic theorists, especially guys like Karl Marx.

SIDNEY MINTZ ON CAMERA: The fact that the labor force of these enterprises was enslaved, is a really difficult issue, and it was one that if it didn't baffle Marx at least it puzzled him.  He was very doubtful about whether sugar plantation owners were in fact capitalists, and he indicates his doubts in what he writes.  So it's a kind of contradictory feature.  But I would say yes, they were capitalist enterprises, because I think what matters is what capitalists were doing.  Not whether or not their labor force was enslaved. Because surely the money that was made from the sugar plantations of the West Indies eventuated in support to capitalist banks in England and France and the Netherlands.

DEB FRIEDMAN ON CAMERA: You don't find a black influence in the diet here in New England.  Partly because we don't have a slave population that is doing the cooking for us.  Interestingly enough, we have an influence on the diet because of anti-slavery.  Slaves are the ones that are producing the sugar.  So, if you were involved in abolitionist society, you would be looking at foods that don't have sugar or alternative sugar, to use in your cooking.  Because of your very strong beliefs in abolishing slavery.  So when you look at prescriptive advice books, and prescriptive cook books, starting in the 1830s and '40s, you can find a very strong influence of abolitionists by an increased use of things like honey and people that are using honey to a great extent are abolitionists.

BURT WOLF: For centuries, no other commodity on the world market wielded as much political influence. Sugar affected almost every aspect of government policy from wages to wars in much the same way that oil does today.

Sidney Mintz also points out that:
“In many ways sugar is an ideal substance. It serves to make a busy life seem less busy; in the pause that refreshes it seems to ease the change between work and rest; and it provides a quick sensation of fullness and satisfaction. No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much and the poor learned to love it. It is symbolically powerful.”

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Today, one out of every ten calories is taken in the form of a sweet and the number’s increasing. Looks like the good life is still the sweet life. And we owe it all to Columbus or maybe to his mother-in-law.  After all she was in the sugar business before he was. For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.