In the end, the first sugar I had eaten in seven weeks was a sour cherry turnover.
My neighborhood coffee shop, Gladstone Coffee, serves breakfast treats baked by the owner’s mother. She makes a delicious chocolate-orange scone, and Everett, my five-year-old, goes on and on about her lemon bars. Before I’d given up sugar for Lent, I’ll admit to often feeding my family with the shop’s pastries on a weekend morning. Truman, the almost-three-year-old, is partial to the oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies, and Monroe, now eight months old, will nibble anyone’s crumbs hungrily.
I had spied the cherry turnovers on Thursday. Four days I’d been thinking about them. I used to have quite an affair with the blueberry turnover, and I’d had a fling with a couple of peach turnovers in the summer. As I’d given up processed food for my local-eating endeavor, and now sugar, I’d found nothing allowable in most coffee-shop pastry cases.
I gave up sugar because of Marissa. Sort of. I was a senior in high school in that gray February of 1991, and I visited Washington and Lee University. Marissa was from Oregon, too, so the organizers of this competitive scholarship weekend had me room with her. She was telling a friend that she had given up meat for Lent, and there I was, in her luxuriously small dorm room, worshipping at the altar of College Freshmen. “But you’re a vegetarian!” her friend said. “Yes, I know, but I’ve really been wanting meat lately,” she replied.
It was in this spirit that I gave up sugar. I’d already given up most sugar; I wasn’t eating candy bars, or gummy bears, or breakfast cereal, or any of the thousands of other things in my grocery-store aisles with refined sweeteners. But I have always had a raving sweet tooth, and in the absence of processed food, I was baking nonstop. Cupcakes and brownies and sugar cookies, oh my! All with a healthy scoop of white sugar. I was only being a little bit picky about my sources, too, often subbing in the generic grocery white-as-white version when I ran out of the organic stuff.
The thing about sugar: there just isn’t much good mojo there. It is a crop born of slavery, for one. I can remember still the little triangle in my social-studies book: ships brought slaves to the Caribbean, traded their human cargo for sugar, then sped the raw materials to Europe for distilling. Next the boozy sailors headed back to Africa with rum to ensnare more slaves. To plant these sweet plantations throughout the hot zones of the world (the Caribbean, Brazil, India, and China are all major producers today), rainforests were leveled, wetlands drained, commercial irrigation moved in. The erosion by itself would be bad enough, were it not for the obvious multi-faceted environmental impact of the deforestation of our most precious tropical zones. Do you know that in the Philippines, at least a third of the known species of snails and birds have been wiped out because of sugar? Mmm-hmmm.
And then there are the bateyes. If you’ve read Plenty, you know that the book opens with a discussion of the bateyes, the slums where sugar-plantation workers live in the Dominican Republic. Let’s just take a few of the words off the description of the documentary “The Sugar Babies,” about these awful places. There we have “human trafficking” and “a form of modern slavery” and “horrific living conditions” and “extreme poverty” and “travesty” and “children suffering from severe malnutrition.” It doesn’t seem much different in Brazil, or Pakistan, or the Philippines, and can you only imagine what it must be like in India and China, countries not known for their fantastic treatment of the poor? “Indentured servitude” is the nicest description I’ve read.
Reading about the refinement of cane certainly doesn’t bring me swinging back up from my sugar low. Oh, no. The way I’ve come to look at food is to distrust a process the more chemistry, modern machinery, and very high temperature heating is involved. If the process is designed to make the end result as colorless and finely textured as possible? It’s as suspect as possible.
White flour isn’t great, what with the well-tuned mills that remove every bit of nutrition they can. Sugar goes through processes known as “affination,” “carbonatation,” “decolorization,” and “boiling” before being heated, then cooled, to dry. I haven’t yet seen a calculation of how much carbon is emitted in this machinery-intensive program, but I’ve seen photos of sugar refineries, and they’re all belching white smoke, and how.
Not that anyone’s offering up sugar as a nutritious choice, but it’s clear that it’s pretty awful all the way around. Giving it up seemed like a good exercise in deprivation; reducing the consumer group of sugar by one is a tiny step in the right direction.
At first it was awful, terrible, hard (though probably not as hard as one hour in the bateyes). I used a heavy hand with the Portland Wildflower Honey, glopping it on my already-honey-sweetened oatmeal bread along with fat lumps of butter. I poured teaspoons full of estate-grown maple syrup in my tea at night, and a glug of organic cream, too. I bought a jar full of Valrhona cocoa nibs and grabbed a handful when I couldn’t take the cravings any more.
Gradually I started enjoying my hardship, experimenting with honey and maple syrup in baked goods and eating more apples and pears, often spread with rich stinky cheeses. I kept searching online for sugar-free recipes and found nothing, so I set myself free from the cookbooks and used them for general formulas, determining a rough ratio of flour:butter:eggs:milk for a cookie or cake and then simply dumping in honey, maple syrup, local walnuts and hazelnuts, organic oats, peanut butter, cocoa nibs.
Scones were so rich with honey and butter and sugarless fruit spread that I couldn’t imagine missing the sugar. Cookies seemed like a hippie experiment gone awry, but still satisfied; Everett soaked his with more honey, having decided to accept my insanity as temporary. When Gilda, our chicken, stopped brooding and started laying eggs again, we made honey cake in her honor rich with orange eggs and butter, and it was devoured happily by the family.
When Easter was approaching, I looked critically at the shelves filled with candy at the drugstore, sweeping down it with an empty feeling. I used to wander this aisle filled with desire, and now, everything just looked so wrong. My friends were plotting their exploits as the Easter bunny while I mixed up another batch of extemporaneous honey-sweetened cookies, my best yet: peanut butter oatmeal hazelnut. They were amazing.
And now it was Easter. I was free. I sat down on the pink couches with my cherry tart and my coffee and I gingerly took a bite. There was white sugar sprinkled all over.
I was underwhelmed. After three or four bites, my tongue started tingling uncomfortably. I felt as if it was a chemical reaction with my rejuvenated tongue, almost like an alcoholic drinking a half-glass of wine after months on the wagon. It wasn’t right.
I finished my coffee, trying to wash the taste of chemistry class out of my mouth. I brought the rest of the turnover home where it was eaten happily by my hungry husband, who has been making the occasional secret trip down the candy aisle. And grabbed a peanut-butter-oatmeal cookie.
I’ll stay off sugar, but for the occasional bite of really great chocolate or a scoopful or two in birthday cupcakes. And I won’t talk about it much, but I’ll keep a jar full of my hippie cookies, and I’ll find the exactly right ratio of flour:eggs:butter:milk for my honey cakes so that one day my boys will wake up and realize they, too, are loosed from the pull of that wicked white crystal.
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An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite