Sweetness and Bitterness: A Common Path

For those who are interested in the ethnic and historical origins of foods, chocolate and sugar may be two of the most exciting elements of the traditional English diet (see fig. 1). Linked by their indigenous sourcing and early production during the British colonial period, the bitter taste of chocolate and the ground sweetness of sugar grew in demand and influenced the commercialization of one another. Both, used as food condiments or spices, in medical remedies or as a source of energy and calories share a history of conquest, adventure, social evolution and slavery. Thus, when it comes to England and perhaps other European nations, it is fair to believe that today’s spike in sugar consumption –as suggested by Harvard University professor Carla Martin in her “Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food” class is owed in great part to the expansion and ever-growing demands of the chocolate industry.

Fig. 1. Early 20th century advertisement of a sweet chocolate bar by Fry’s.
Fig. 1. Early 20th century advertisement of a sweet chocolate bar by Fry’s.

Long before Colombus arrived to the Americas, sugar was known in Europe thanks to the Crusades and the conquests of the British empire (SKIL – History of Sugar). The European expansion beyond the Caribbean plateau brought the discovery of the cacao tree and chocolate, highly praised by the natives, according to chapters One and Two from The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. This discovery increased the European interest in the region causing the assimilation of local elements that helped export indigenous recipes, traditions and beliefs to the wealthiest European social groups and consequently, to the British. This is commonly known as “hybridization” and it resulted in the adoption and rapid commercialization of chocolate throughout Europe (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2. 18th century illustration of a chocolate house in London.

Chocolate quickly became a sensation among the British bourgeoisie. The enigmatic cocoa powder traditionally obtained by a long process of selecting cacao beans, drying, toasting and hand-grinding them with an hand made “molinillo” (Presilla 26) was an edible bounty for the wealthy. Early colonizers learned from the Mesoamerican aborigines that chocolate was “food of the gods” and such was the official name they gave to it as described in The True History of Chocolate (D. Coe and D. Coe 18). The belief that it had magical and medical properties head its way into England where soon the chocolate drink and the cocoa powder were used in medical recipes, as sources of energy and as mood enhancers.

Around the same period of time, sugar had also medical and multiple other uses in Britain. Sugar was an “everything” type of remedy or food condiment. The influence of sugar in the Anglo-Saxon world was such that as professor Martin denoted in class, it moved beyond the Hollywood era so we can recall popular movies like Mary Poppins carry the reminiscent of it in song lyrics that talk about sugar and sweetness, as for instance Disney’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” shown below.

“A Spoonful of Sugar” from the Mary Poppins film.

In 1847, the English company J.S. Fry & Sons produced a chocolate bar from the mixture of sugar and chocolate powder with cocoa butter, which according to the authors of the research paper Welcome to ChE: Chocolate Engineering “had a grainy texture and lacked the smooth flavor of today’s chocolates” (Patton, Ford and Crunkleton 2). This, in turn, prompted Henry Nestle and Daniel Peters to experiment further by adding milk to the mixture, creating the first milk chocolate bar as early as 1876 (Patton, Ford and Crunkleton 2).

Henceforth, sugar and chocolate crossed a common path: that of the “bitter-sweetness.” This bitter-sweetness is a descriptive metaphor derived from their combination: chocolate is naturally bitter and sugar is the embodiment of sweet. From the history of their discovery, production and consumption the bittersweet blend evokes a distant grief infused with human slavery which was viewed by its wealthy consumers like the “necessary evil” –as professor Martin puts it, to achieve the finest tasting, sweetest chocolate cup or chocolate bar.

Knowing the historical and socio economical factors that made possible a “rendezvous” of chocolate and sugar, it is possible to find correlation between the sugar consumption and the production of chocolate. Professor Martin illustrates this in class with visualizations of the rise in sugar consumption from the colonial times before chocolate was brought to Europe up to the present times. Those graphs shown by professor Martin reveal a dramatic curve of growth. It is then evident that the discovery and commercialization of chocolate influenced the consumption and demand of sugar. The image below illustrates the period of time in which the sugar consumption rose in England, which coincides with the time in which chocolate began to commercialize during the 1800’s, as well as the corresponding price depreciation per pound (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Spike in sugar consumption after the creation of the first chocolate bar in England during the 19th century.

In conclusion, the social contexts of contemporary Britain, the Anglo-Saxon culture and all of Europe keep sugar and chocolate forever bound in tasty combinations. Often is our own “sweet tooth” that helps move chocolates off the shelves because some of us suffer a disease called “chocolate craving.” Yet, one thing is certain: today’s chocolates are generally sweeter than those of yesterday… either because they have thrice the amount of sugar, or because they no longer come from the bitter tears of slavery.


Works Cited

Chocolate House in London (18th Century). Digital image. “The World of Chocolate.” Worldstandards.eu. 2017. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The Tree of the Food of the Gods.” The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, Inc., 1996, New York, Print. Feb. 2017.

Fry’s Five Boys Milk Chocolate. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Jarrold & Sons, Ltd., 2 Dec. 2005. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

“How Sugar is Made – the History.” SKIL – History of Sugar, 2017. Web. 6 Mar. 2017, http://www.sucrose.com/lhist.html

Martin, Carla. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. 22 Feb. 2017. Harvard University Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Lecture. Mar. 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. 1 Mar. 2017. Harvard University Extension School, Cambridge, MA. Lecture. Mar. 2017.

Patton, Christi L., Ford, Laura P., and Daniel W. Crunkleton. Welcome to ChE: Chocolate Engineering. Strong Point Center in Process Systems Engineering, Trondheim, Norway. 2005. Web. 5 Mar. 2017. http://folk.ntnu.no/skoge/prost/proceedings/aiche-2005/non-topical/Non%20topical/papers/162e.pdf

Presilla, Maricel E. “Natural and Cultural History of Chocolate.” The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009, Berkeley, Print. Feb. 2017.

Real Sugar Prices and Sugar Consumption Per Capita in England, 1600-1850. Digital image.
“Sugar: How Much Is Too Much?” Normal Eating Blog. 18 Jun. 2012. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

Walt Disney Records, DisneyMusicVEVO. “A Spoonful Of Sugar.” Mary Poppins. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.

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