Today, in the United States, we are so used to sugar being present in the foods and drinks that we consume daily. The overabundance of sugar present in modern consumption has contributed to a public health crisis and sugar has now garnered a negative reputation. Although our contemporary view of sugar differs drastically from when sugar was first introduced to Europe, there is one important similarity that remains. Sugar is an extremely effective medium to convey to others one’s power and wealth, because of its visual and consumptive properties. Visually, sugar is easy to mold as evident in the elaborate decorative displays in both the past (e.g. subtleties) and the present (e.g. wedding cakes). Moreover, because these intricate displays are edible, guests acknowledged the power and wealth of the host by consuming the sugar displays.
Sugar was first introduced to Europe around 1100 A.D. and was grouped together with other spices like pepper and ginger. All of these spices were extremely expensive because of how rare they were and only the wealthy were able to afford them. By the fifteen century, sugar imports increased because the wealthy class demand for sugar was increasing, not because sugar had percolated downward to the common class. As a result, sugar became an important part of the Triangular Trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. By the sixteenth century, sugar started to be consumed in a different form: as decoration.
First and foremost, sugar is able to be visually impressive because of its chemical properties. Sugar easily combines with other food components like almond oil, rice, and different gums. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz describes sugar’s properties in his book Sweetness and Power, “The important feature of these [sugar] recipes is that the resulting pastes were used to sculpture forms—forms having an aesthetic aspect but also preservable and edible.” Because sugar could be molded in such a way, the practice of using sugar as a decoration began to spread from North Africa to Europe. Initially, because only the extremely wealthy, like the royalty, could afford sugar in Europe, they were the only ones who could afford to have sugar decorations at their meals. These people included the king, the nobility, the knighthood, and the church. Sugar was combined with other substances like oil and vegetable gums to make a “plastic, claylike substance.” Confectioners could then sculpt grand displays out of this claylike substance, which were called “subtleties.” These subtleties were served in between banquets and took the forms of animals, objects, buildings, and more.
Because sugar was so limited and expensive during this time period, subtleties essentially emphasized someone’s wealth. Not only were the extremely wealthy able to hoard and consume sugar in their daily lives, they were able to explicitly convey their wealth to others by commissioning grand subtleties. Being able to convey one’s wealth with different symbols has always been a feature of the elite, from clothing to language. In this case, subtleties became a new way for someone to convey their wealth to others. Essentially, sugar allowed the wealthy to be in-your-face about their wealth.
Additionally, what makes sugar particularly effective at being a symbol of wealth is because subtleties are edible and, in most cases, meant to be eaten by guests. This property is unique because a lot of physical displays of wealth are physically impressive as in the case of clothing or items molded in silver. However, there are not many edible displays of such grandeur. Furthermore, the edible nature of the subtleties meant that the displays were not meant to last for a long time, compared to items like expensive clothing and silver. Subtleties were often presented at banquets in between courses, destroyed, and then eaten by the guests. In this way, hosts were able to showcase not only that they were able to afford to commission this piece of art but to also destroy it. In turn, guests would be wowed by these sculptures and then would have to accept the host’s wealth by consuming the sugar. Mintz describes this symbolism, “To be able to provide one’s guests with attractive food, which also embodied in display the host’s wealth, power, and status, must have been a special pleasure for the sovereign. By eating these strange symbols of his power, his guests validated that power.”
As time passed, sugar became less and less exclusive. By the late sixteenth century, subtleties expanded between the extremely wealthy classes like the merchant class. This is evident in that subtlety recipes began to appear in cookbooks, so it was no longer an exclusive practice for the select few.
Even though today, sugar is abundant and present in everything we eat, displays of sugar are still common in the form of different desserts. For example, wedding cakes can become tremendously expensive depending on how grand the couple wants their cake to be. Thus, subtleties are not necessarily items relegated to the past and instead, are still relevant today as a display of wealth and grandeur.
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Title-Page: Glasse, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.” n.d. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/bf/d5/d1b945439258ef0255875ef8d3a2.jpg Gallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0014985.html. Accessed March 24, 2020. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Title-page;_Glasse,_%22The_art_of_cookery_made_plain_and_easy%22_Wellcome_L0014985.jpg.