An Archive Of Pre-1900s Alternative American Sweeteners
This archive focuses on types of sweeteners used by lower income Americans of various backgrounds before the advent of cheaply available white cane sugar. The purpose of this archive is to emphasize the story of ownership that rural farming communities, newly emancipated slaves, people from Appalachia, and pioneers (who have all typically had lower income) have over the sweetener they historically harvested, cooked with, or in some other way made their own. Having this in mind, I chose archive materials more likely to have been associated with their social culture and agricultural practices.
With the recent popularity of the farm-to-table philosophy of cooking, which promotes organic, free range farming practices and hyperlocal ingredients, many modern chefs are searching for and becoming inspired by previously abandoned products and techniques in the annals of American cooking. While the effects of this new philosophy have largely been positive, e.g. influencing less reliance on chemicals and better treatment of animals, as well as breeding plants for flavor instead of appearance, there have been a few negative side effects, one of which this archive tries to correct. The farm-to-table movement exists primarily in upscale restaurants, pricing out people at the income level that originally enjoyed this food. As a result, heirloom products and techniques are being gentrified en masse; this is especially problematic for sweeteners because they are deeply connected to social culture and are indicators for everything from economic status to local climates and ecosystems. Current archive materials on sweetener sources from before refined white sugar was cheaply available either omit the detail that these sweeteners were cheaper and more affordable for lower income people or do not provide sufficient cultural context. My archive remedies this by compiling the social, economic, and ecological background for each sweetener.
The archive is split up into sections dedicated to each sweetener I chose - specifically, sorghum, maple sugar, and molasses. The reader is encouraged to click on any embedded links that interest them and compare sweetener cultures as they read through the archive.
A section for molasses in this archive seems almost obligatory because of how deeply it was, and continues to be, ingrained in American tradition. Molasses quickly took hold in colonial America and continued to sustain this popularity; there are two prominent reasons why. The first is that it was the final byproduct of cane sugar, meaning that it was left behind as sugar crystals were boiled from cane juice into white sugar during the initial separation and into various shades of brown sugar in subsequent separations. Incidentally, the process made the final product, blackstrap molasses, especially high in a variety of different nutrients. This meant that before the advent of cheaply available white sugar, lower income people reaped the health benefits of cane juice at the expense of those with higher income. The second reason for molasses’ popularity was that it was a byproduct of the Triangular Trade, which brought molasses to New England for the manufacture of rum; molasses was then traded throughout the rest of the colonies and subsequently became popular among black plantation cooks of the Antebellum South as well as pioneers of the American West, to name just a few groups.
The rich tradition of molasses in American cooking is quite evident today. A classic New England dish, Boston baked beans, relies heavily on molasses for its signature taste. The South, which has a history of inventing alternative pie fillings when produce was not available, uses molasses to make Shoofly pie, a cousin of the English treacle tart. As Americans began using molasses en-masse, they quickly learned that it enhanced the flavor of starchy foods like corn, pumpkin, and sweet potato, all of which were also highly nutritious and easy to grow. This realization is manifested in the tradition of using molasses in cornbread and pumpkin or sweet potato pies. I've included more recipes using molasses from the DPLA below.
I was inspired to include a section about maple sugar because it made such a deep impression on me when I first read about it in the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder during elementary school. Wilder provides a comprehensive account of how sugar was made and how it affected the lives of early settlers in the Northeast. She begins by describing in detail the process of making maple sugar, using the example of her grandfather, in order to frame a vivid subsequent account of the social event surrounding it: a dance. Since the settlers of the Northeast owned large homesteads and were far from each other, they did not have a good method for frequent socialization. Instead, they used occasions where the necessity of having many hands in order to make a large task more efficient enabled them to have an environment where they could hold social events; Wilder’s “maple sugar dance” is in the same category as barn raisings and quilting bees.
An example in the DPLA I stumbled across that further highlights maple sugar culture in the Northeast is a poem called ‘Sugar Maple’ by Charles Sheldon French. I will let it speak for itself in the excerpt below:
An important thing to note about maple sugar is that it was not a crop. The early settlers and the Native Americans who used the sweetener before them did not have to own land or continually invest resources over the length of a growing season in order to reap benefits. This set the bar for access to maple sugar to anyone who had a pot and could whittle a crude spigot. Successfully making maple sugar was also contingent on observing someone else do it previously because written instructions were less reliable and couldn’t be widely circulated. Modern directions detailing ‘soft-ball’ and ‘hard-ball’ candying stages today are hard to decipher, let alone crude country written instructions which not all settlers knew how to read. This made obtaining the process for how to reduce maple sugar a short-term incentive for earlier settlers to be diplomatic to the Native Americans who they were cruelly driving out of their homeland. I've included evidence of how Native Americans had perfected the process of making maple sugar below - note especially the sophisticated maple candy mold.
In the past five years, sorghum has enjoyed a significant surge in popularity because of its novelty, high nutritional value, and historical significance, all of which are elevating it to almost a boutique status. In contrast to this, the American South has loved sorghum since the antebellum era, but for much more practical reasons; sorghum could be used in many different ways. Since it was so easy to grow, its grain became a reliable and cheap staple for slave rations, and post-emancipation, for southern people of lower income. Its cane could be pressed for juice and then reduced to a sugar syrup, and its leaves and chaff were used in animal feed. Southern slave owners applied an ‘everything but the squeal’ mentality to sorghum, to their benefit. An oft-overlooked fact about sorghum, however, is that it was brought to America by slave ships during the Triangle Trade; it is interesting to note here that slaveowners profited from this additional African product.
The process of making sorghum syrup shares similarities with making cane sugar as well as making maple sugar. The sorghum cane was pressed for its juice, then slowly reduced over a low-burning fire and skimmed constantly during to remove scum as it rose to the surface. Then, the final product was bottled and shared to those who helped make it. Like the process for making maple sugar, sorghum syrup making required many hands, which provided the opportunity for social gatherings. I have included a sequential photoset for the process of making, and then enjoying, sorghum syrup. Note the ‘sop sticks’ of sorghum cane used to taste the sorghum, as well as how, interestingly, everyone in this photoset is white; I simply could not find a black gathering for sorghum syrup anywhere online.
Appalachian people as well as the southern black community have proudly claimed sorghum as their own, which is fair because both communities have historically been socioeconomically bound to it, but also because they have made so much innovative progress in using this syrup. Sorghum is used for everything from glazes for roasts to cakes and pies - its fans describe it lovingly as having a nutty, almost caramel taste.
I have included a video that details specifically how sorghum syrup was made. It was interesting to observe how the process, which had slipped into obscurity since the advent of cheaply available white sugar, is carefully preserved here.
I would like to thank PBS for making the Mind Of A Chef series - I would never have known about the farm-to-table movement otherwise. I would also like to thank my friend Daniel Moran for answering farming questions.
―This archival exhibit was created by Danielle Nguyen in Literature and Digital Diversity, fall 2017.