“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, … “ We sure love sugar because it helps to make our lives sweeter. But over the centuries, sugar has had an unsavory side to it, too. This week, Desiree Bridge of the Southport Historical Society hosted a Zoom and Facebook Live presentation called “The Sweet Life, in which she revealed the history of sugar and other culinary sweeteners.

Dieters know all too well that the human craving for sugar is unrelenting. Desiree explained that as tastes for sugar grew, early sugar operations in the Canary Islands soon moved into the Caribbean, and ships supplied the port cities of colonial America with sugar for tea (another story for another day) and cakes. Molasses, derived from the second boiling of sugar cane residue, was used in cooking.

But production of sugar, as students of history are keenly aware, was inextricably linked with the inhumane practice of slavery. The planting, harvesting, and boiling of sugar cane required significant labor, and the process was only profitable if that labor could be secured through slavery or indentured servitude. The human suffering was intense, as was the environmental damage, since vast areas were deforested to keep the fires burning.

Into the mix came alternative sweeteners: maple syrup and honey, both readily available in colonial America. Maple syrup was derived from tapping the abundant maple trees, then boiling down the sap to a thicker syrup. Honey? Well, the industrious honeybees did most of the work, keeping many species of flowering plants pollinated in the process.

Weaving together history, agriculture, biology, and cooking, Desiree kept the audience engaged with her articulate and good-humored presentation. She shared historical recipes for honey cake, gingerbread cake, maple pie and other glucose and fructose laden delights, and it was clear that live, in-person presentations (with samples) could not come soon enough.

While we salivate in anticipation of that wonderful day, here is the link to the recorded presentation of The Sweet Life if you missed it (or if you’d like a second helping!)