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Sugar part one: A bitter history

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Propagated on six continents as well as the subcontinent, sugar is produced at just shy of 179 million metric tons globally. It is an ingredient we probably take as much for granted as salt and pepper, but it’s as much a part of our lives as the water we drink and the air we breathe.

But what many of us don’t realize is, its sweetness comes with a very sour history.

Sugarcane was first domesticated in New Guinea around 6,000 B.C. At first, many cultures simply boiled it down to extract its sweet nectar, or simply chewed on the stalk for a sweet treat. And while dates are uncertain, it was northern India that first perfected the production of the grass into a white granule.

And it was this granular form that caused its growth and consumption to move west into the Middle East, where it was referred to by Persian traders as the “glorious reed that produces honey without bees.” Soon after, the British began referring to it as “white gold.”

Entire communities were established solely around the cultivation and production of sugar, so much so that Christopher Columbus deemed it a worthy enough crop to bring with him in his exploration of the New World. Once widely planted in the Caribbean, it was soon discovered that, unlike most uprooted crops throughout history, sugarcane actually grew more prolifically there than in its native land. This had a profound effect on the western world’s legacy as we know it today.

Some historians say, “cod built America,” asserting it was the commercial fishing and production of cod that afforded us the financial independence to break free from Europe. But while cod began building America, Europe and sugar were unwittingly the financial architects.

While the American South was enlisting the practice of slavery primarily for the cotton industry, the growth and production of sugarcane was also a driving force behind this labor practice for the majority of the New World. By the turn of the 19th century, sugar had become so valuable that the life of one slave was considered equal to a paltry teaspoon of sugar.

Unlike America, where plantation owners and families generally had a slave-to-owner ratio they were comfortable with, many British sugarcane plantation owners felt dangerously outnumbered by their slaves and paid for protection from British soldiers. This thinned Britain’s troops throughout the New World to the point that some historians argue that we acquired our original 13 colonies solely because too many of their troops were already occupied protecting their sugar islands in the Caribbean. Additionally, many historians also believe that many battles in and around Revolutionary War time would have had different outcomes for these same reasons.

As Americans, we owe much of our freedoms to the commodity of sugar. It’s a part of our everyday lives and diet. And while it is true it has had negative effects on our bodies, both internally and externally, perhaps that is still a small price to pay for today’s independence.

This is the first in a series of the exploration of sugar. In the coming weeks, I’ll take you through the history of sugar, its effects on society, how it is made, and its affects on the human body.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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