Sugar has been known for millennia. Botanists suggests sugar was discovered in Papua, New Guinea and has been cultivated for 7000 years. (Wow!) From New Guinea, it traveled west, to India, where the Greeks discovered it. In Sanskrit the word for sugar is karkara. The name changed slightly as it passed through other cultures and ended up with the Arabs who called it sukkur. Not such a leap to sugar.
It was known in Medieval Europe but it was rare and expensive and used as a spice.
What about the Colonies? Well, by 1770 British (including the colonies, ate five times as much sugar as in 1710. That number only increased. At first sugar was used primarily in tea and coffee but was later added to baked goods (especially after the discovery that baking soda and cream of tartar formed a compound that raised quick breads) and candy.
Sugarcane is difficult to harvest (the cutter has to bend over and cut it close to the ground) and change from a sweet sap to granulated sugar. It is a very labor intensive process. The Portuguese have the dubious distinction of being the first to use African slaves but, once the sugar industry really got going in the West Indies, the British and especially the French jumped on the bandwagon. Napoleon’s Jacqueline had brown rotting front teeth from her habit of eating sugarcane.
So, what were the consequences? At the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans we saw the pots hung over fires that had to be stirred constantly to keep the juice from burning. This was a job usually reserved for slave children. Of all the jobs the slaves performed, this was probably the worst.
More about sugar, sugarcane, and rum next.
A beignet is a square of fried dough sprinkled – or in some cases dredged – in powdered sugar. These are a specialty in New Orleans and very good they are too.
But they are also a feature of French Canadian cooking and are eaten in Maine. Because of the Arcadians (who were expelled and went to Louisiana. Arcadians = Cajuns. Does anyone remember the poem Evangeline by Longfellow?) French cooking went as well. There it combined with some Spanish but mostly African cuisine to make Cajun food.
But surely beignets were not eaten with powdered sugar in the 1790s? Well, you can make powdered sugar from regular sugar with a mortar and pestle so yes, probably they were. However, beignets are delicious with regular sugar too. And sugar has been around for millenia. It was discovered/invented in India and went from there to the Middle East. In the Middle Ages it was considered a fine spice and was wildly expensive. The transformation of sugar cane (growing, harvesting and cooking down to the granulated state) is very labor intensive. But, by the early 1700s, plantations – worked by slaves – were already being set up in the West Indies.
From there, sugar cultivation went to North America, primarily southern Louisiana. The slave trade from Africa, already begun in the West Indies, went to the South of the colonies. One of the tour guides said that sugar cultivation – so labor intensive and so lucrative, was primarily responsible for the explosion of slavery. (I would guess cotton comes in second.)
From 1710 to 1770, sixty years, the per capita consumption of sugar went up five fold. Today we eat many tons.
As I have mentioned before, I love attending Bouchercon. Not just because it is fun, although it is, but because it is so inspiring. This time I was put on a panel with other authors I have read, except for the one whose book has just come out. And one of my favorites as well: Laura Joh Rowland. I attended the interview of Harlen Coben by Michael Connolly – two heavy hitters. And the panel on social media. Well, I don’t need to continue. The point is that listening to other writers talk, about problems I struggle with – and sometimes they even have solutions – reenergizes me.
And the opening ceremonies with the faux Mardi Gras parade! Words cannot express. I wish I had taken some pictures but I was so caught up in the moment I never thought of it – even for the dragon float.
Holding the conference in New Orleans was wonderful as well. The people are so friendly and the food is great. We also took a few tours. My two favorites: the Mardi Gras World and the Whitney plantation.
I saw the two pretty plantations: Oak Alley and Laura.
The Whitney Plantation focuses on the lives of the enslaved.
This is detail from the wall listing all the enslaved at Whitney. I did not take many pictures; it was so sad and horrifying.
If you go to New Orleans try to stop by Mardi Gras World