The pursuit of chocolate and sugar has been anything but sweet
- Last Updated: 1:14 AM, June 3, 2012
- Posted: 10:51 PM, May 26, 2012
History of Candy
by Kate Hopkins
St. Martin’s Press
Journalist Kate Hopkins, who writes about food on her website The Accidental Hedonist, took a tour of Cadbury World, the famed British chocolate makers’ contrived factory tour.
She watched re-creations of “European explorers meeting the Aztecs of Central America” where “no one had to be concerned with smallpox,” and “re-created Maya gladly told the re-created Spaniards about chocolate: ‘Please, why don’t you have some, as there is plenty to go around.’ ”
“Imagine the reality of chocolate history being represented by a 100,000-seat stadium,” she writes. “Cadbury’s truth would take up about a dozen seats, while the rest of the stadium sat empty.”
As this book details, the tour — which Hopkins ultimately dubbed “an Ecstasy trip gone horribly wrong” — glossed over the vicious truth about the history of chocolate and other forms of candy, including not only how it was inexorably tied to the international slave trade for centuries, but that it remains so to this day.
Hopkins’ book combines the history of candy (including, by necessity, the history of sugar), with her own personal journey to spots throughout the world that played an essential role in this history.
Before becoming a treat, sugar was considered medicine, with early cultures believing that it helped with everything from digestion to fertility. As doctors moved toward prescribing herbs and spices, these were often blended with sugar to, as one popular fictional nanny noted, “help the medicine go down.” Many of these medicinal remedies later morphed into sugary treats.
Early Arabs figured out one especially interesting use for sugar. Boiling it until it turned brown, they rolled it into little balls, and then, Hopkins writes, “These were used as a hair removal product, that, it is supposed, a woman would spread or roll along the area that needed . . . ah . . . pruning. This product is often considered the first recorded instance of caramel.”
Soldiers tasted sugary products in Jerusalem during the First Crusade and brought the taste for them back home, creating the desire for candy in Europe. King Henry II brought sugar into the British royal kitchen in the 1100s, and, “By 1288, the royal family was going through sugar and sweets to the tune of 6,000 pounds in one year.”
As the demand for — and potential profit from — sugar grew, the Portuguese introduced sugarcane to areas from West Africa to Brazil and soon began capturing slaves for its cultivation.
The plantation owners, Hopkins notes, had the blessing of Pope Nicolas V, who declared that “pagans could be used as slaves without violating Catholic doctrine.”
Christopher Columbus introduced sugar to the New World when he brought sugarcane cuttings to Santo Domingo (now Haiti) but most likely missed out on introducing chocolate to Europe when he saw the Mayans obsessing over “almonds” that turned out to be cocoa beans and didn’t bother to investigate.
Sugary treats became the European ideal, at first affordable only by the privileged. Hopkins tells of a royal wedding in 1565 where the Portuguese basked in the glory of their dominance of sugar with a several-tables-long display of a royal voyage including “modeled city gates, shipwrecks, carriage processions and palaces” that was made of an estimated 6,000 pounds of sugar.
Sugar’s popularity soared further as the love for sweets trickled from the gentry to the working class. “The pound of sugar that lasted the whole year for an entire household in the early 1400s,” Hopkins writes, “would hardly have been enough for one person in the 1500s.”
Dominance in the sugar trade shifted to the British, and that trade, fueled by the labor of the 45,000 African slaves the British were shipping to the Caribbean each year by the 1700s, funded the infamous British Navy as well as much of its Army, as the country developed what Hopkins calls “a sugar utopia” driven by its collective sweet tooth.
“The confection industry we know today in the United States,” writes Hopkins, “would not exist without Britain’s commitment to sugar in the 17th and 18th centuries. And that commitment came at a devastating price.”
It would be nice to believe we’ve evolved beyond that awful time, but as Hopkins points out, the world’s cocoa fields “employ” enslaved children even today.
“The worst of the child slavery appears to be occurring in the West African nation of Ivory Coast, which supplies the world with around 40% of the global output of cocoa beans,” she writes, adding that “820,000 children worked in cocoa-related activities in the Ivory Coast during a 12-month period between 2008 and 2009.”
So, while much of this book deals with Hopkins’ — and, by proxy, America’s — love of candy, the takeaway here is that this love is far less pure than we’d like to believe.
“In the end, Roald Dahl got it right,” she says. “Willy Wonka wasn’t the proprietor of a candy shop; he was the CEO of an industrial giant.”Follow @NYPostOpinion