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"In the fields of the plains of Tripoli can be found in abundance a honey reed which they call Zuchra; the people are accustomed to suck enthusiastically on these reeds, delighting themselves with their beneficial juices, and seem unable to sate themselves with this pleasure in spite of their sweetness." 
Albert van Aachen’s collected accounts of the First Crusade 1096-99 quoted in Salzman, L.F. English Trade in the middle Ages Oxford: Clarendon Press 1931.

 "As a medicine, sugar figured prominently in the antidotes—all of them bootless, of course—for the Black Plague... One prominent medieval medical use involved mixing the finest powdered white sugar with gold dust, then blowing the mixture into the eyes of those afflicted with certain eye maladies,"
Sidney Mintz Sweetness and Power. London: Viking Penguin, 1984.

"Sugar is made in Arabia as well, but Indian sugar is better. It is a kind of honey found in cane, white as gum, and it crunches between the teeth. It comes in lumps the size of a hazelnut. Sugar is used only for medical purposes."
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Books XX to XXIX, AD 77.

"The food of Europe was still regional. The products of other climates were still rarities, verging on luxury, except perhaps for sugar, the most important foodstuff imported from the tropics and the one whose sweetness has created more human bitterness than any other."
Eric Hobsbawn – The Age of Revolution 1789-1848.

FEAST: Sugar

Sugar permeates our daily life, from a visible spoonful in coffee or tea to the hidden grams in a loaf of bread. Each intake of sugar brings with it a boost of energy for the body and a subsequent low, leaving us wanting more. It is desirable, destructive and highly addictive. In the western world we can’t seem to get enough of its sweetness, yet the complex history of this addiction and the global political economy of its contemporary industrial production often fail to register.

Motivated by a desire to learn more about sugar, its histories and its varied contemporary uses, Feast commissioned artist and materials specialist Ellie Doney to develop her research into the sweet stuff. Hosting a series of workshops at Manchester Museum, the Institute of Making and with Museumand in Nottingham, Ellie has explored sugar as an active material; a substance that takes on manifold forms and has a powerful impact on the body and our desires, as well as shaping historical and contemporary cultures.

For Ellie, sugar is akin to the ancient symbol of the snake. Its material properties are slippery and amorphous, crystalline and liquid. It readily shape-shifts in structure. She was also interested in the figure of the snake as it appears in European symbolism, particularly pertaining to health. Sugar first entered western palates as a medicine with European doctors learning of its uses through Arab pharmacology. Rock sugar, sweet lozenges and herbal pills were sold for a multitude of ailments.1 Associated with the development of modern medicine, sugar can be seen to be further intertwined with associations of the snake. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, carried a rod with a single snake, which became a medical symbol from the fifth century BCE.

Illusive and hard to grasp, the snake is also an icon for temptation, luring you in to take a bite of a forbidden fruit that once tasted cannot be forgotten. The sweetness and joy of sugar, the strength of its effect on our desires masks the terrible brutalities and ongoing political and socio-economic consequences of its early production, as well as the harmful effects over-consumption has on the body. The insatiable desire for sugar sparks greed; sugar corrupts. These multiple associations of the snake with sugar weave their way throughout the edition.
Alongside Ellie’s work, Feast Sugar includes contributions from academics, writers, home cooks, artists and researchers that explore sugar as a material that snakes its way through questions of power, desire and exploitation from a multiplicity of dimensions. The edition features the film White Gold; the story of sugar, slavery and settlement in the Caribbean, an introduction to the complex and problematic history of sugar and the slave trade by The National Caribbean Heritage Museum Museumand. The desire and exploitation sugar encapsulates is further discussed in contributions from academic Natalie Zacek whose text discusses the shifting position of sugar from a luxury item of refinement in the eighteenth century to a symbol successfully subverted by abolitionists and Jillian Galle, Project Director of The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery discusses slave-based sugar societies and the plantation owners powerful means of control. The powerful political economy of sugar is touched upon by Caitriona Devery in a history of Irish Sugar production, the development of a sugar beet industry was a defining feature of Irish self-reliance and sovereignty that had a huge social impact on rural Ireland after its independence from the UK. As well as within an article by ‘The Candy Professor’ on the invention of Corn Syrup in the United States. A brief introduction to the new EC Horizon 2020 project SWEET, exploring the risks and benefits of sugar replacements in European diets, highlights the continuing impact of sugar from bodily health to an environmental footprint. Interviews conducted by Ellie with a biotechnologist, a long distance swimmer, a pastry chef and the artist Bobby Baker, bring a range of voices to the edition. In addition, a selection of recipes from British Caribbean women working with Museumand share a personal knowledge of traditional desserts and the comfort a familiar sweetness can bring, resonating with the history of sugar as remedy in medical tinctures. Medical Historian William MacLehose takes us through the history of Theriac, an early anti-venom and panacea, through to modern-day treacle, and artist and academic Hannah Drayson explores sugar's use in contemporary medicine, as placebo. As such, the edition interweaves complex histories of sugar with discussions on its material properties and their values to a range of different disciplines from home cooks to medics and from historians to chefs.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Later sugar was treated as a rare spice, traded by Buddhist monks from its first cultivation in India, around 350 AD, to China, the pre-Islamic Middle East, and then by the thirteenth century ancient Greece and Rome.