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A Bitter Look at the Sweet History of Brown Sugar

Amari Victoria Stokes was a student in Kelly Alexander’s Our Culinary Cultures course offered in the Fall 2015 semester in the Center for Documentary Studies. Utilizing Rubenstein Library resources, students in the class were asked to explore the history of a culinary ingredient of their choice, find a recipe that exemplified their chosen ingredient, and prepare it for the class. The following is Amari’s research paper submitted for the class.

Ginger DropsTwo eggs well beaten, one-cup brown sugar, two teaspoons ginger, one-cup N.O. molasses (boiled), one-teaspoon baking soda, flour to roll out. Mix in the order given. I poured the molasses into a pot and watched small bubbles form and subsequently burst as the dark liquid began to heat. As the molasses boiled on the stove, I started mixing the ingredients in the order specified in the recipe. After the eggs had been beaten furiously with my new silver whisk, I began to measure the brown sugar for what I hoped would be a delicious dessert.

Sticky and compact, I remember struggling to handle this strange sugar during family barbeques as we seasoned our meat. As I thought about it, I realized besides an occasional pineapple upside down cake, outside of barbeque, I couldn’t recall ever having used brown sugar. Why was that, I asked?

The story of brown sugar begins, unsurprisingly, with the story of sugar. Sugars are natural ingredients found in most plants but what we have come to known as sugar is often extracted from sugarcane and sugar beets. Sugar cane, from the genus Saccharum, was originally cultivated in tropical climates in South and Southeast Asia.1 Neither should it be a surprise that the road from brown sugar to white sugar looks very much like the roads taken to get to white bread, white flour, and white cotton. All have similar histories where the unnatural but white version is preferred or is seen as a higher quality than the browner, natural varieties.2

Three hundred years after being introduced to Europeans by Christopher Columbus in 1492,3 by the 19th Century, sugar was considered a necessity.4 This evolution of taste and demand for sugar had major economic and social implications for the entire world. As a result of this demand, tropical islands were colonized and sugarcane plantations began ‘cropping up’ in record numbers. Consequently, the demand for cheap labor to assist in the labor-intensive cultivation and processing of sugarcane contributed greatly to the transatlantic slave trade, which displaced many African peoples.5

As I turned down the heat on the molasses to allow it simmer, I carefully added ground ginger. Watching the ginger disappear into the creamy brown concoction, I thought back to my ancestors. It wouldn’t surprise me if at some point in history one of them had made the same treat for her master’s children while her own children toiled in the hot sun picking cotton or harvesting sugarcane.

At the heart of the American sugar industry was the Domino Sugar Company. Founded during the height of the Industrial Revolution, in 1807, the company was created by William and Frederick Hevemeyer in the city of New York. The company led industry efforts to gain control of brown sugar production and to restrict price competition in the sugar industry. One of the primary tools used was to mount a smear campaign to denigrate brown sugar, whose refining it did not completely control. By blowing up photographs (taken through microscopes) of grotesque but harmless microbes found in brown sugar, reproducing and then distributing them with warning of the supposed dangers of eating brown sugar, the company convinced the American public that brown sugar was of an inferior quality than white refined sugar.6

The success of this campaign and the widespread adoption of white over brown sugar was evidenced in the widely accepted cook book of 1897, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What To Do And What Not To Do In Cooking, originally published in 1884. An early home economist, Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln was an influential Boston cooking teacher and cookbook author. She was among the first to address the scientific and nutritional aspects of food. At that time, her book was the authority on cooking. In it, she gives detailed descriptions of everything from understanding cooking terms to distinguishing between different cakes based on butter content. In her section about sugar, she makes a clear distinction between brown sugar and white sugar: “All brown sugar and moist sugars are inferior in quality: they contain water and mineral matter, and are sometimes infested by a minute insect. Loaf sugar is the purest.”7 Domino had done its job. Its executives had effectively tarnished the reputation of brown sugar.

To prevent it from boiling over, I quickly took the molasses off the stove. I watched as it oozed into my giant red mixing bowl. Baking soda followed it into the mix. While the recipe in and of itself was not difficult, finding it was an entirely different story. There I was, staring at genuine cookbook from the 1800s. I carefully scanned each recipe looking for the word sugar but then had to further distinguish sugar from brown sugar. Only four of the thousand or so recipes in Mary’s cookbook included brown sugar and among them were Ginger Drops.8 Due in part to the success of the campaign to disparage brown sugar, farmers and workers gave up producing molasses, brown sugar, and sorghum. In the United States, between 1880 and 1915 the per capita consumption of white granulated sugar doubled.9 Brown bashing marketing and advertising had worked. White America had once again embraced what looked like them.

As I added the final ingredient, it became perfectly clear that the history of brown sugar was more than aggressive advertisement but was also an adequate representation of black people in America. My great-grandmother was brown sugar. I am brown sugar. The contemporary artist Kara Walker paid homage to this lost history in one of her thought-provoking pieces that once sat in the remains of the Brooklyn Domino Sugar Refinery, which, after running for 148 years, closed for business in 2004. One has to look no further than the title to know exactly what the piece is about: “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby 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.” Her exhibit consisted of a colossal kerchief-wearing, white sugar-coated, female sphinx measuring 80 feet long by 40 feet high. Yet, despite its white coating, the sphinx’s features are exaggerated black/African features: very full lips, high cheekbones, large breasts, vulva, and buttocks. Fifteen or so “sugar babies,” child-sized, brown-skinned boys, “attendants” carrying baskets accompany her. Walker’s work brought visitors back to the 18th and 19th century slave trade that was built to profit from the insatiable Western market for, among other things, refined sugar and rum.10 As the exhibit continues, the brown sugar babies begin to melt, leaving a trail of melted ‘bloodied’ molasses. The symbolism of blood and loss is appropriate Walker explained in an interview about “The Subtlety,” that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.11

Holding court in a dated, 30,000 square foot abandoned industrial space, at the center of “A Subtlety” the giant white sphinx stares at you. “A Subtlety” is meant to serve as a critique of perceptions of black women’s bodies. Culture critic Yesha Callahan of the Root writes, “History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.”12 This mirrors Mary’s Johnson’s sentiment about the uses of brown sugar. Brown sugar “is good for fruit cake, but for all other varieties use the finest granulated or powdered sugar.”13 Just as brown sugar is only good for fruitcake, perhaps black women’s bodies can only be sexualized.

With all the ingredients in, my mixture slowly spilled into the pan, the sticky substance occupied every crevice. My apartment was filled with the sweet, succulent aroma of ginger as my drops began to bake in the oven. I thought back to the passage where Mary reinforced the inferior quality of brown sugar to white sugar. Her “white is right” mentality extends past sugar as it is pervasive in American society as well. Black peoples have always been seen as inferior and have been taught to think the same of themselves, and thus have been limited in their place in society. The whiter you are the better you will be. Blacks have been trying to assimilate into white culture from the time they were stripped from their homelands. Light skinned black people would attempt to “pass as white” to ensure better economic and social opportunities for themselves. Light-skinned black people were seen as less black and thus more valuable than their darker counterparts who measured their color and therefore their worth against the shade of a brown paper bag. Hair straightening products and bleaching creams were just a few of the other ways in which the white European ideal was mimicked. Black women were prized for how closely they could fit the white mold. A fashion magazine editor once lauded the famous Somali-American model, Iman, as being a white woman dipped in chocolate.14 Using white as the standard is not unique to the fashion industry. Similarly, black dolls have historically been made with the same cast as white dolls with the added features of dark hair and darker complexion, but without any of the other defining features of black people. Commercial brown sugar is made in a similar way. Molasses is added to refined white sugar to control the ratio of molasses to sugar crystals and to reduce manufacturing costs. Commercial brown sugar contains from 4.5% molasses (light brown sugar) to 6.5% molasses (dark brown sugar) based on total volume.15

I took the Ginger Drops out and allowed them to cool. I thought about the different sugars I had used for this recipe. Traditionally, sugar cane is crushed and heated which allows impurities to be separated out. These are removed and the juice is boiled down and solidified. This solidified product is brown sugar. Brown sugar is again dissolved, boiled, and filtered. Molasses is the drainage of the raw sugar. Granulated sugar is brown sugar refined again.16 The sugar refining process mirrors the cultural landscape of Americans today. What was once black eventually becomes white and in turn black culture is perceived as acceptable only when appropriated by whites (as white sugar is given regulated amounts of molasses). From Elvis and his guitar to Kylie Jenner and her cornrows, black creativity and innovation is repackaged for massive white consumption. But just as commercial brown sugar is white at is core, cultural appropriators neglect to acknowledge the stories of struggles so prominent in black culture. It’s cool to act black but not to be black.

I tore off a small piece of my sweet confection and popped it into my mouth. Sweet and moist, the drops had the consistency of a brownie but the taste of gingerbread. The recipe for Ginger Drops could be a testament to Mary Lincoln’s innovation in cooking or the Domino Sugar Company’s successful smear campaign, but it better represents the stories of black bodies. Brown sugar does not have to be limited to fruitcakes or Memphis barbeque. It can be used wherever white sugar can be used. Its quality should not be determined by the amount of molasses in it but should instead be celebrated in its natural state and not only after it has been “refined”. Black peoples are pushing back against their assumed inferiority, celebrating their diversity, breaking down barriers, and now emphatically chanting, “Black Lives Matter.” If you have ever had a sweet tooth or enjoyed a sweet treat you are part of this narrative. You are brown sugar.

Notes:

  1. Kiple, Kenneth F., and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. “Sugar.” The Cambridge World History of Food. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 284.
  2. Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. (New York: Penguin, 1985), 285.
  3. Abreu Galindo, Juan de, and Alejandro Cioranescu. Historia De La Conquista De Las Siete Islas De Canarias. (Santa Cruz De Tenerife: Goya Ediciones, 1955), 385.
  4. Mintz, 186.
  5. Fryer, Peter. Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction. (London: Pluto, 1988), 252.
  6. Eichner, Alfred S. The Emergence of Oligopoly: Sugar Refining as a Case Study. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1969), 68-69.
  7. Lincoln, Mary Johnson Bailey. Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884), 458.
  8. Lincoln, 388.
  9. Cummings, Richard Osborn. The American and His Food. (New York: Arno, 1970), 114.
  10. Cornish, Audie. “Artist Kara Walker Draws Us Into Bitter History With Something Sweet.” NPR. (16 May 2014).
  11. Cornish.
  12. Callahan, Yesha. “Reactions to Kara Walker’s A Subtlety Prove a Black Woman Will Be Sexualized, Even in Art.” The Root. (Root, 28 May 2014).
  13. Lincoln, 371.
  14. Cadwalladr, Carole. “Iman: ‘ I Am the Face of a Refugee'” The Guardian. 28 June 2014.
  15. Figoni, Paula. How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 82.
  16. Lincoln, 438.



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