Thursday, July 17, 2008

'Honey Bearing Reeds'

Cookies, cakes, and pies remain the most popular treats among most Americans. As a matter of fact, a recent survey suggests, few Americans regularly skip dessert. They enjoy dessert at least once a week with most indulging two or three times a week. Favorites include chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream, and apple pie. Why? Simple...Sugar. Fact is, we like foods that give us that sweet taste sensation that only sugar can satisfy. Bakeries, chocolatiers, ice cream makers and countless other businesses are thrilled that we are born with a preference for sweetness. Even in difficult times, individuals prefer sweet over any of the five basic tastes. To what degree depends on various circumstances. Genetic differences in sweet taste perception, age, culture, social and economic status are just a few. Other compounds such as sugar substitutes may alter perception for those with a sweet tooth but, who can deny the pleasure felt with that first bite of a candy bar? Yes, life is sweet. Foods rich in simple carbohydrates such as sugar are most commonly associated with sweetness. Wars have been fought over sugar, people have been enslaved over sugar and sugar has played a large role in many national economies.

The U.S. sweetener market is the largest and most diverse in the world. The United States is the largest consumer of sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrup, and is one of the largest global sugar importers. The United States ranks among the top sugar producers, and is one of the few countries with significant production of both sugarbeets and sugarcane. USDA

Imagine, if you can, a day without sugar. No bread, rolls, muffins, cookies, pies, cakes, jellies, ready to eat cereals, sauces, flavorings, dressings, syrups, most beverages and most other desserts. Sugar plays such an important part in our daily lives and yet, few of us have ever considered how it all began. Does sugar have a nectareous history? There are references to sugar cane in the Old Testament as "honey bearing reeds," but little else was known. Honey was the most generally used sweetening agent but even honey was so scarce that ancient races longed for "The Promised Land" as "a land flowing with milk and honey." Historically, sugar was first sold with drugs and herbs at apothecary shops. Sugar had multiple roles. Not only was it used as a rare a and prized spice but also as a preservative, a luxury, a medicine, an ingredient for pastry and confections and even as an art form. (Edible sugar sculptures, often made of sugar paste, have been featured at elaborate banquets since the Middle Ages.)

The origin of sugar has been lost in the annals of mythology; however, sugar has been held in such high regard by man that it found a place in his earliest written records. Sugar cane or 'honey bearing reeds' are mentioned in many parts of the Old Testament of the Bible. The Prophet Jeremiah mentions an article of great value as 'sweet cane from a far country'. (interesting source)

The art of making sugar from sugar cane is accredited to the Bengalese in about 400 A.D and information regarding "Indian Salt," as it was called, was brought back to Europe by those few adventurous travelers who had journeyed that far successfully. The knowledge of sugar making spread westward into Arabia, Persia and Egypt. The Crusaders encountered it here during the Middle Ages and small quantities were brought back to European countries as a curiosity for Royalty. Cultivation of sugar cane spread rapidly throughout the world following the explorations and discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese all introduced this highly desirable commodity into tropical countries under their control, where humidity and fertility permitted its cultivation. It was introduced into Cuba as early as the sixteenth century, but was not introduced into Louisiana until 1751 by Jesuit priests who carried it from San Domingo. As the practice of taking sugar spread east, it set the stage for the sugar revolution of the seventeenth century.

Sugar became the luxury of kings and queens in the 18th century. As late as 1842, sugar was far to expensive to be considered in any other class than a luxury. An old hand bill printed at the time, listing the prices of food commodities in London, gives the market price of sugar at $2.75 per pound.

Industry Bengal had been a center of trade and commerce, arts and crafts from ancient times. tamralipti, the largest port town of 5th century Bengal is known to have had trade connections with South India, Ceylone (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), Malaya (Malayasia), Persian Gulf, and the Far East. Main industries developed in the period included textiles, sugar, salt, ivory, and metal work. Arab traders played an important role in establishing trading links between chittagong and the outside world in the 8th century. boat building activities developed in Bengal before the start of the Christian era. The muslin of dhaka earned global fame as early as 325 BC. Bengal has a history of exporting textiles, sugar, salt, and jewelry even before 500 AD. handicrafts also flourished around 600 AD. The manufactures, however, were limited to only a selected group of items for long and their expansion and diversification were slow until the 17th century. source

Sweet Taste of Success

I suppose it's probably a good time to reveal why, all of a sudden, I have this craving to post about sugar. Well, anyone who has ever visited before knows there must be an ulterior motive. There is. You see that little die-cut Dixie Crystals booklet at the top of the page? Yes, the one that reads, The Sweetest Sugar Ever Sold. Well, today, July 17, its company is celebrating an anniversary. Imperial Sugar (Dixie Crystals) first produced refined sugar on July 17, 1917. Although the booklet doesn't inform us of this historical milestone (but it sure does have some sweet recipes) the Dixie Crystal website offers a canister full of information about the history of the Savannah Sugar Refining Corporation which was formed in June of 1916 by Benjamin A. Oxnard. When the company began operation it had 19 million pounds of raw sugar at 5 cents a pound.

During 1915 and 1916, Benjamin Oxnard wanted to set up a sugar refinery on the South Atlantic Coast as his company Adeline saw a series of setbacks. But, gathering funds was not easy for him and when Jim Imbrie agreed to finance his company, he proposed that it be based in Savannah. After consulting his partner, Richard Sprague, he set up Savannah Sugar Refining Corporation in 1916 in Savannah, Georgia. encyclocentral.com

Bitter Sweet

Farinaceous and vegetable foods are fattening, and saccharine matters are especially so….In sugar-growing countries the negroes and cattle employed on the plantations grow remarkably stout while the cane is being gathered and the sugar extracted. During this harvest the saccharine juices are freely consumed; but when the season is over, the superabundant adipose tissue is gradually lost.–Thomas Hawkes Tanner, The Practice of Medicine, 1869

The history of the sugar trade industry, whether it be from the landscapes of foreign lands or right here in our own backyards, is often filled with bitter consequences. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass described Louisiana's sugar country as a "life of living death." Sugar was immensely profitable to produce but required large tracts of land and a large labor force for production. For these two reasons, the sugar and slave trade became intimately entwined in the European exploitation of the Atlantic Islands. This exploitation of land, capital, and labor was central to business success and would eventually spread onwards to the Americas. Because so much of the slave trade was done illegally it is difficult to estimate the actual numbers of Africans who were shipped as slaves on European vessels. Some estimate the figures to range in the millions. One source states, "Between 1505 and 1888, approximately 12 million Africans were enslaved and transported to the New World for profit." source

Sugar planting, harvesting, and processing is tiring, hot, dangerous work and requires a large number of workers whose work habits must be intensely coordinated and controlled. From the very beginning of sugar cultivation in the New World, there were not enough European settlers to satisfy the labor requirements for profitable sugar plantations. Native Americans were enslaved to work on the earliest sugar plantations, especially in Brazil. Those who could, escaped from the fields, but many more died due to European diseases, such as smallpox and scarlet fever, and the harsh working conditions on the sugar plantations. A Catholic priest named Bartolomé de las Casas asked King Ferdinand of Spain to protect the Taino Indians of the Caribbean by importing African slaves instead. So, around 1505, enslaved Africans were first brought to the New World. For the next three and a half centuries, slaves of African origin provided most of the labor for the sugar industry in the Americas...

As usual, this post has gone on far longer than I had anticipated. I didn't even get a chance to to tell you a little bit about this wonderful die-cut booklet that's a sugar bowl full of recipes. Although it is undated, I'm thinking that it was probably published sometime during the 1930's. I actually have two die-cut recipe booklets published by Dixie Crystals. I shared a few recipes from the other one way back at the beginning of my "blogging career" for National Cookie Month in October 2007. It too is titled The Cookie Jar. I left a link below if you would like to check it out. The scanned recipes are at the bottom of post. The dessert recipe I have chosen today is called Candy Crisp.

Candy Crisp
1/2 c. Dixie Crystals Light Brown Sugar
2 tbs. flour
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 c. drained sour pitted cherries
1/8 tsp. salt
Combine sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt with cherries. Place in 8 inch pie plate. Prepare topping by mixing 1 cup Dixie Crystals light brown sugar with 1/2 cup flour, and 4 tablespoons of butter or margarine. Mix until crumbly and put on top of cherry mixture. Bake in hot oven (400 degrees) about 40 minutes. Note: Canned apples may be substituted for cherries if preferred.

I wouldn't say The Cookie Jar has any "new" or inspiring recipes but it is quite novel and is darned with colorful pictures. The following scanned recipes for uncooked fudge, pulled candy mints and peanut brittle appear on the last page of the book and are accompanied by a simple image. (click to enlarge) And, before I forget, the picture at the top of the page is actually the back of this cookie jar shaped booklet. Enjoy!


  • 1. Shaping Food Preference and Taste of Young Children
  • 2. How Sugar Changed the World
  • 3. History of Dixie Crystals
  • 4. Sugar and Slavery: Molasses to Rum to Slaves
  • 5. How Sugar is Made - the History
  • 6. 124 Ways Sugar Can Ruin Your Health
  • 7. Sugar substitutes—Stevia, Honey, Rapadura, Maple Syrup
  • 8. The Bittersweet History of Sugar Substitutes (New York Times 1987)
  • 9. The Edible Monument
  • 10. History of Sugar Cream Pie
  • 11. Food Network with Sugar Rush
  • 12. Cookie Month (cookie jar cookbook)


  1. What a wonderful booklet--the die-cuts are some of my favorites. Thanks for showing this one.

  2. Hi Kathy,
    Thank you so much for visiting. Yes, I must admit, this booklet is just adorable. I'm really concentrating on die-cuts for my collection. Let me know if you come across any extras!

  3. I couldn't imagine a day without sugar. Its the food 'DRUG' and we all are addicted.


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