Prairie Tayles: White Treasure

Nov 24, 2017

Holidays remind many of us of either family or cultural customs that connect us to generations long past. By following old family recipes, we can savor treats our ancestors have served for decades or maybe even hundreds of years. For instance, my husband’s Swiss ancestors have been making and giving Linzer tarts at Christmas time long before they migrated from Switzerland to the United States. After analyzing my own great-grandma’s stash of old recipes, the English side of my family has baked date cookies and breads as well as Christmas puddings for eons.

Inspired by these old traditions, I zipped up and down the grocery aisles loading my cart with enough supplies to sustain a two- to three-day bake-a-thon. As I pushed my basket alongside the loaded shelves, I considered how much easier it is for me to enjoy this time in my kitchen than it was for those women who lived before me. Their stoves required either wood or coal, which required even more labor to stoke and clean them. They even may have milled their own flour. Mine comes already ground and packaged in easy-to-carry five-pound sacks. Most difficult of all for those ancestors would have been saving cash enough to buy sugar and spices necessary to create Christmas cookie platters  like those I share with friends and family.

Speaking of the value of these sweet white crystals, anyone who goes to auctions or watches Antiques Roadshow knows that in the not-so- distant past, the woman of the house or the chief housekeeper locked the family sugar stash away in a good- sized box and hid the key. This practice prevented easy access to anyone inclined to snitch the family’s treasured supply. Ironically, sugar is now affordable while those vintage sugar casks cost investors a pretty penny. What these wooden containers reveal, though, is a time in American history when sugar was as valuable as gold.

Sugar first arrived in the New World with Columbus in 1492. He carried either cane cuttings or seeds from Spain to the Canary Islands. His introduction of this agricultural product triggered slave trade from the very beginnings of European settlement. What a contradiction that something so pleasing to taste buds introduced one of the darkest aspects in New World history.

Slavery wasn’t sugar’s only impact on our America’s development. According to one source, “white gold” as the British referred to it distracted Great Britain’s attention and resources away from the American Revolution. Because sugar growers in the Caribbean feared slave unrest and revolt, English leadership devoted both military resources and funds to that concern. This distraction simplified colonists’ efforts to found the United States of America. This online history lesson makes me look at my sugar canister differently. A now affordable sweetener that flavors holiday baking has a long record of affecting not only my world, but also that of Asia, Africa, and Europe.

As I assemble my sweet-scented cookie plates, I’ll think of long gone women who passed their recipes down to me. I’ll also think about the fact that the sugar I add to those goodies dramatically influenced the world I live in.