Tag Archives: sugar sculptures

The Transforming Use of Sugar

Since the initial introduction of sugar to the world to now, its purpose has changed dramatically. However, if we track the consumptive changes to sugar over Britain’s history, we are able to see that it had more of a use rather than just as a sweetener in desserts and dishes that we often find ourselves gravitating towards. We can track the historical change in sugar’s consumption by juxtaposing it with who it was often used by. Earlier in Europe’s history around 1100 A.D., sugar was associated with spices such as pepper, ginger, saffron, among others because it was not affordable to many (Mintz, 1986). Therefore, it would make sense why it was used sparingly as many spices are used instead of in large amounts as we do now that it is much cheaper and drastically more available. It is interesting to see how sugar was used in the past though, especially when it was used to season oysters (Mintz, 1986). It is a testament to how preferences in taste can change over time, depending on the social customs associated with certain foods and tastes.

By the 16th century, sugar began to be used as decorative material. The whiter sugar was, the more expensive it was seen to be because pure sucrose was white (Mintz, 1986). Because sugar was an indicator of power in these very visual ways and because it was preservable, sugar began to be used to decorate in wealthier households. It would be used to create sculptures that were both preservable and edible; these would be called marzipan (Mintz, 1986). These decorative pieces would not just be applauded because they were edible and beautiful, but also because they made comments on the political environment through its subtleties (Mintz, 1986). While it may seem odd to us that sugar, something we eat in high volume today, was used to create such coveted pieces of art, it may occur to us that those of high status did this because they wanted to use and showcase their wealth. Not only were they able to afford this expensive commodity to eat, but they were able to put it on display and create social meaning out of it as well. This combined effort would have taken a lot of investment, and so it held symbolic importance.

As time passed, sugar became more available to the public and thus lost some of its symbolic importance and became more affordable. Therefore, it began to take on a new role in society as medicine, especially as it gained its medicinal credibility from sources like a ninth-century Arab manuscript from Iraq (Mintz, 1986). Sugar was not used as a medicine just on its own – it was combined with honey, fruits, flowers petals, hot water, among other ingredients (Mintz, 1986). Specifically in Britain in the 13th century, medicinal tonics with sugar began to pave its way in society. While to us this may seem absurd, to people in Europe, they thought it so necessary and common that they developed an expression “like an apothecary without sugar” to refer to something so helpless or useless (Mintz, 1986). Of course, sugar being used medicinally was not met without controversy or backlash, especially later in history in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Its use as a medicine would disappear especially as it began to be used as a sweetener and preservative. We see remnants of sugar’s reference as a medicinal supplement come up in works of popular culture like the famous song “Spoonful of Sugar” where the lyrics propose that it helps the medicine go down. Meanwhile, many of us would not be able to imagine a world today where we would realistically do such a thing.

Sugar began to be used in conjunction with other bitter tasting substances that were introduced to Britain like tea, coffee, and chocolate, although it is not known when this habit began (Highmore, 2011). Among these three, the success of tea and sugar in Britain seemed to be most closely tied, especially because the production of tea was profitable as it was from a British colony and thus powerful (Mintz, 1986). As mentioned before, sugar was on its way to continuously being more affordable and attainable to the greater public, not just to those with wealth. While it could be used to sweeten certain foods and beverages in Britain, it also began to be used as a preservative. For example, the British learned that sugar could be used to preserve fruit, which began to be consumed in high volumes in the English diet (Mintz, 1986). This preservation of food would help society as a whole with its consumption choices especially because it widened the horizons of what people could eat because it would last for longer. In sugar’s purpose as a sweetener and a preservative, it becomes obvious that its usefulness is paired with other goods that were rising in popularity like tea, coffee, and fruits. This idea reinforced the notion that globalization of goods through trade was becoming more prominent and apparent in everyday choices. 

Throughout history until now, sugar has been ever present in British society, although the form in which it presents itself may change. In terms of sugar’s modern day use in Britain, the government made an effort to reduce sugar consumption by putting a “sugar tax” on sweetened drinks in 2016 (Colborne, 2016). The fact that sugar needs to be taxed because of its common usage is testament to its affordability and availability. This plan of action is reminiscent of other countries such as France, Finland, Mexico, and Hungary that have also taxed sugar-sweetened drinks (Colborne, 2016). The motivation for the sugar tax comes from an effort to lower risks of “type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and common cancers” (Colborne, 2016). Sugar’s role in society may be steady but it is not without efforts to decrease it for health reasons, an interesting development given its previous use as a medicinal property. As we saw throughout Britain’s history, sugar’s value is relative to its social use. It will be important to continue to track the use of goods like sugar because it also serves as a way to gauge society’s current pulse.

Works Cited

Chrisman-Campbell, K. (2015, November 26). Instagramming Your Thanksgiving Dinner: A 16th-Century Tradition. Retrieved March 24, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/11/the-16th-century-origins-of-food-porn/417639/

Colborne, M. (2016, May 17). Britain’s “sugar tax” tackles obesity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4868617/

Highmore, B. (2011). Introduction: Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness – Sugar on the Move. New Formations, 74(74), 5–17. doi: 10.3898/newf.74.introduction.2011

[Jean Belmondo]. (2017, June 23). A Spoonful of Sugar – Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins in 1964 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_L4qauTiCY4.

Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York.

A Sweet Taste of Power: the Rise, Fall, and Legacy of Sugar Subtleties

Sugar is so prevalent in society that one does not often stop to consider its purpose. But as anthropologist Sidney Mintz discusses in her book Sweetness and Power, sugar has historically played many roles as medicine, spice, preservative, decoration, and sweetener (77). One particularly fascinating employment of sugar as a decorative emerged in the Middle Ages through the creation of sugar sculptures called subtleties. When sugar was an incredibly rare substance, subtleties were served at banquets as both edible art and symbols of power, but once it was available to the masses, subtleties became obsolete. The legacy of subtleties, however, can still be seen in the tradition of serving a wedding cake.

A Feast for the Eyes

Sugar sculptures were first created in the 11th century Middle East by artists called sukker nakkasarli (Abbott, Kindle location 336). They would combine highly refined sugar, almonds, and water to form a clay-like paste that could then be molded and baked into various forms (Mintz, 88). Sultans and caliphs alike commissioned the sculptors to create edible table decorations for their sumptuous feasts. As sugar spread from the Middle East to Europe, so too did the practice of sugar sculptures. They appeared in French courts in the 13th century, soon followed by those in England, Italy, and Germany. The European elite specifically referred to them as ‘soliltees,’ or ‘subtleties’ in English (Bovey, the Medieval Diet).

In their purest sense, subtleties were edible art. They were brought out between banquet courses to entertain, amaze, and delight one’s guests (Mintz, 88). This may seem surprising to a modern audience accustomed to eating dessert after dinner, but in the Middle Ages, food was not divided and served by flavor. Many believed sugar could even prepare the stomach for a feast, and so, a specific subtlety called a ‘warner’ was sometimes presented as the very first dish (Bovey, the Medieval Diet). This practice is captured by a 15th-century French illustration of a royal banquet hosted by Richard II for the Dukes of York, Gloucester, and Ireland (Chronique d’ Angleterre). As can be seen below, the distinguished group of men are seated around a table. A servant is walking into the room, carrying a ship made entirely of sugar- a subtlety- which they will admire and devour before proceeding to their next course. A boat is just one example of the shapes subtleties were forged into, but there are many others. From animals to churches, to palaces and heroic figurines, the variations were endless.

Richard II dines with dukes, an example of a Medieval feast

A Not So Subtle Display of Power

Subtleties were more than just beautiful decorations, however, but emblems of wealth and power; only those of status could afford to craft, serve, and eat sugar in such gluttonous quantities. The nobility, acutely aware of this connection, were motivated to display sugar in ever grander presentations. Consider the image below, an engraving of the feast served at the Duke of Jülich’s wedding in 1587 (Hogenberg). Rather than just one subtlety, the Duke had an entire table filled with sugar figurines. In one corner stands a replica of his castle, in another, a forest of trees, animals, and fruits. Even his coat of arms can be found throughout the table. It would have cost a staggering amount of money to produce such a display of sugar, but that was precisely the point.

A lavish subtlety display at the Duke of Jülich’s Wedding

Sugar Looses Class

The price of sugar would continue to drop, and as it did, subtleties became less an indication of power and more ornamental. As sugar percolated down to upper-class families in the 16th century, high-end cookbooks began including subtleties. For example, Patridges’s 1584 Century Cookbook contained a recipe for marzipan, and Robert May’s 1660 The Accomplisht Cook provided instructions for making a subtlety in the shape of a ship (Mintz, 92). But by the mid-18th century, sugar was cheap enough for even the middle-class to enjoy, and they, too, were interested in making subtleties. This historic moment is reflected by Hannah Glasses’s 1747 the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, in which she includes a recipe for a marzipan ‘Jumball’ and a hedgehog (Mintz, 93). Glasse’s publication was no ordinary cookbook, but something explicitly written with the lower-classes in mind. She dedicates the opening lines of her book to them:

“I believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon: but as I have both seen and found by experience, that the generality of servants are greatly wanting in that point, therefore I have taken upon me to instruct them in the best manner I am capable: and, I dare say, that every servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good cook, and those who have the least notion of cooking cannot miss of being very good ones” (Glasse, i)

The average family could suddenly use sugar and cookbooks to create cakes, biscuits, and most importantly, sugar sculptures. The wealthy abandoned subtleties once they no longer embodied power. As sugar became increasingly ordinary, they were eventually forgotten by the masses.

Lingering Traces

Despite this decline, one example of a subtlety still exists today: the wedding cake. At the majority of western weddings, it is customary for a couple to serve a wedding cake with white frosting, multiple tiers, and edible decorations made of sugar paste, marzipan, or buttercream (Wilson, 70). On the one hand, the cake is just a tasty treat to eat, but on the other, it is something to be visually admired and adored. It is a modern-day subtlety, and typically, the richer the couple, the more impressive the sugared display. Just consider when England’s Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011. As can be seen in the video below, their cake stood at three feet tall and weighed 220 pounds. It had eight tiers, was covered in white fondant, and adorned with 900 sugar paste ribbons, bows, flowers, and leaves (Galarza and Hatic, A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes). It was a public display representing the English crown’s wealth, the tradition of matrimony, and the harmonious match of the couple themselves. The average wedding cake is not nearly as extravagant, and yet, they nonetheless exist.

The popularity of subtleties fluctuated with the changing price of sugar; when sugar was expensive, subtleties were embraced by the rich as artful, edible declarations of power, but once cheap, they were tossed aside and now appear only at special occasions like a wedding. But the history of subtleties represents a much larger narration- the idea that what people eat reflects back on them as individuals. Subtleties no longer appear on the dining room tables of the elite, but other items have taken their place. Just consider the role of caviar, a well-aged wine, or a Kobe beef steak. These dishes are beautiful, delicious, and too expensive for most to afford. Over time, these may also decline in popularity, but the tradition of using food as power will not.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. Duckworth Overlook, 2008.

Bovey, Alixe. “The Medieval Diet.” The Middle Ages, The British Library, 30 Apr. 2015, http://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/the-medieval-diet.

Galarza, Daniela, and Dana Hatic. “A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes.” Eater, Eater, 18 May 2018, http://www.eater.com/2018/5/18/17340392/cake-royal-wedding-meghan-markle-prince-harry-william-kate-elizabeth-history.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.

Wilson, Carol. “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History.” Gastronomica, vol. 5, no. 2, 2005, pp. 69–72., doi:10.1525/gfc.2005.5.2.69.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

Chronique D’ Angleterre (Volume III). The Dukes of York, Gloucester and Ireland dine with King Richard II. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 5 Apr. 2018. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Richard_II_dines_with_dukes_-_Chronique_d%27_Angleterre_(Volume_III)_(late_15th_C),_f.265v_-_BL_Royal_MS_14_E_IV.jpg>.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. N.p.: n.p., 1747. Internet Archive. Internet Archive, 24 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/TheArtOfCookery/page/n5&gt;.

Hogenberg, Franz. Table setting for the wedding of Johann Wilhelm, Duke of Jülich-Cleves and Jacobe, Margravine of Baden, 1587. Digital image. Getty Research Institute. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <http://primo.getty.edu/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=GRI&afterPDS=true&institution=01GRI&docId=GETTY_ROSETTAIE17130&gt;.

Royal Wedding Cake on Show. Dir. On Demand News. YouTube. YouTube, 22 July 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trb1oenjgNc.&gt;.