“The Peasant Wedding” (1567) by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I was already in my thirties, that I learned about the relative late appearance of sugar as a daily necessity in global history.  The introduction to this topic came by way of Sweetness and Power, the classic from the late anthropologist Sidney Mintz, which I read for a seminar on trans-Atlantic slavery taught by David Waldstreicher during his last year at Notre Dame.  As indicated by a Hindu religious document, sugar-making probably first occurred in the fourth century. It took another four centuries before sugar appeared in Europe.  The Arabs, especially those along the Mediterranean, played the central role in the early cultivation of sugar in the West.  Their influence came to an end after the Black Death, which hurt Arab cultivation in Crete, Cyprus, and elsewhere.

On the other hand, the Black Death paved the way to the rise of Christian growers, especially the Portuguese and Spaniards and especially in Atlantic islands such as Malta, Sicily, and Rhodes. The Black Death also reduced the available labor force, and opened to a new trajectory towards the use of slaves in sugar plantations.  From that point, it was a matter of time before sugar production and slavery reached Brazil, the West Indies, and colonial America.  The dominance by tobacco in the English colonies should not obscure their sugar plantations from the Chesapeake southward. In Mintz’ words,

The first crop in the New World to win market for itself was tobacco, an American domesticate, swiftly transformed from a rare upper-class luxury into a working-class necessity… But by the end of [the seventeenth century], sugar was outpacing tobacco in both the British and the French West Indies; by 1700, the value of sugar reaching England and Wales was double that of tobacco.

That is to say, it took until the early modern era for sugar to reach most kitchens in Europe and became a necessity of consumption.  As shown in a segment from NPR, tea and coffee reached England during approximately the same period. (The link doesn’t mention it, but chocolate was the third item introduced to England around the same time.)  However, the addition of sugar to tea tipped the drinking custom among the English thoroughly to tea over coffee.

Growing up in Vietnam during the 1970s and early 1980s, I saw that Vietnamese coffee drinkers, all men at the time, typically added sugar or condensed milk to coffee.  Conversely, I never saw a Vietnamese add sugar to tea, not once.  Wondering if there have been any changes since, I put out a querry on Facebook and the Vietnamese Studies Group (VSG) listserv.

Among others, An Tuan Nguyen (University of Houston), who grew up in the central-north city of Vinh, informed me that Lipton and Dilmah were popular in northern tea houses during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some Vietnamese drinkers had them with sugar, said An, “just so we looked cool like the English.” Of domestic products, there should not be sugar in dried green tea (trà xanh), although it was acceptable to have sugar with fresh green leaf tea (chè xanh).  For a time, Lipton was popular enough that prepackaged gift baskets for Tet usually included some Lipton packages, and visitors during Tet would be offered Lipton tea. An added another bit: “Few people know that the habit of squeezing kumquat juice, with sugar of course, into Lipton tea was born out of the Tet tradition.”  Fascinating!

A Lipton ad in Vietnam; it reads, “Bright energy from nature” and “purely from fresh tea leaves” ~ pc

Olga Dror (Texas A&M) pointed out a possible sugar-to-tea connection to the Soviet Union: Vietnamese that studied or worked there might have picked up the habit of adding sugar to tea at the time and brought it back to Vietnam.  From the Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture and The Story of Tea (the latter authored by Mary Lou and Robert Heiss), I gathered that tea made its first appearance in Russia as a gift of some two hundred packages from the Mongol Khan Altyn to Tsar Mikhail Romanov in 1638.  As trade increased between Russia and China, tea later became “the unofficial national beverage.”  Interestingly, as the Heisses note, Russian drinkers back then would hold “a sugar cube in their mouth while sucking in the tea.”  It sounds kind of odd, doesn’t it?  Yet it makes sense to me because the shape of the cube could be inviting enough for one to put it straight into one’s mouth, as one would do the same to an appealing small-bite hors d’ourvre.

From VSG, I learned the following bit from George Dutton (UCLA), who has studied the Vietnamese priest Phillippe Bình, who lived in Lisbon during the early nineteenth century.  Phillippe Bình recorded the following experience:

The tea that the merchants brought back to the West was truly good tea, but they put sugar into both the good and the bad [teas], and then it would always smell and taste very sweet…  For this reason [the first few times] when I went to out to visit people and they invited me to drink the tea I did not say anything but remained silent and drank the tea in the same way that they did. [Eventually] there came a time when I had to say something, and I asked them not to put sugar into my tea, which they regarded as very odd. Then I told them that in my country of Annam, and in the country of China, when one drinks tea one does not put sugar into so that one might know the scent of the tea. But in the West when merchants come back from the East, and people buy the tea… they [first] look at it and smell it, but immediately thereafter they put sugar into it to make it sweet… From that time forward, when I would go to visit people, they would know not to put sugar into my teacup, because they now understood my preference. 

In the era of global sensibility, it is tricky to divvy up “East” and “West” as if they were completely distinct. But such a distinction may apply to sugar and tea: generally, no sugar in tea in East and Southeast Asia; sugar in tea among Portuguese, Russians, English, and many other Europeans. (Milk, of course, was another ingredient for at least some Europeans.)  As Mintz notes in his seminal book, many kinds of spice were added to tea, but they later disappeared due to the growing attachment to sugar.  In effect, sugar became the new spice for tea in Europe.

(On VSG, Joe Berry, a labor historian, added that capitalists fed sugar and tea to laborers in the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries.  Berry wrote: The combination of caffeine and sugar was a very cheap way to get workers more calories and a bit hopped up to work harder when they were malnourished in general and the tea break was invented and seemed like a concession to the workers, but really served the bosses also in this way. This has some similarities with the  custom in GB of paying the sailors a “rum ration” (part of their pay in rum on the ship) so that when they were not on duty they would more than likely be dead drunk and asleep and more tractable in a time when kidnapping folks for the navy and merchant ship crews was widespread. There was a great fear, well founded, of worker revolts and naval mutinies.)

Still, what was the status of sugar in Europe before the early modern era?  Two weeks ago, an early-morning chance encounter with my history colleague Bryan Givens at Pepperdine led me to Herman Pleij‘s study of Cockaigne, the imaginary land of plenty popular among medieval Europeans.  Prof. Pleij calls his book Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life, and, not surprisingly, the perfect life included an abundance of food and drinks.  Among other aspects were freedom from political and religious hierarchy and subversion of sexual mores. (Check out this review from The Guardian.)

Life was hard for the medieval serfs and peasants.  It’s not that they did not have enough food to eat; they normally did.  But luxurious food and drinks were usually out of their reach.  As seen from the painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder on top of this post, even a wedding banquet was consisted of merely soup, porridge, bread, and beer.  Compare it to the abundance shown in his other painting below, in which a roasted fowl makes up one of the four corners around the banquet table. There is little community in the latter painting, but the people sure ate to their tummy’s content.

“The Land of Cockaigne” (1567) by Peter Bruegel the Elder

The differences are night and day, and indeed one of the poems about Cockaigne calls the imagined land “always day” and “no night.”  It accounts for the harshness of life with a series of no’s.

I say in truth, without doubt,
There is no land on earth its equal.
Indeed, there is no land under heaven
Which has so much joy and bliss.
Many a pleasing sight is there;
It is always day, there is no night.
There is no conflict or strife;
There is no death, but life forever;
There is no lack of food or clothing;
There no woman is angry at no man;
There is no snake, wolf, or fox;
No horse, cow or ox;
There is no sheep, no swine, no goat;
There is no dirt, God knows,
Nor horse-breeding farm nor stud farm.
The land is full of other goods.
There is no fly nor flea, nor louse,
In clothing, village, bed or house.
There is no thunder, no hail,
There is no vile worm nor snail,
And no storm, rain nor wind.
There no man nor woman is blind,
But all is play, joy and mirth;
Well is it for him who can be there!

In other words: a utopian and heaven on earth, where human beings are free from labor, diseases, shortage, both natural and man-made disasters, etc.  In this vision, food and drinks serve as a reflection of egalitarianism.

There are private rooms and large halls;
The walls are all of pies,
Of meat, of fish, and rich food,
The most pleasing that a person can eat

Rich food fit for princes and kings.
One cannot eat enough of them,
And can eat justifiably, without blame.
Everything is shared by young and old,
By the proud and fierce, meek and bold.

Sweets figure large in this land of limitless abundance.  There isn’t any chocolate (or tea or coffee) because most Europeans did not taste them at the time.  But sugar certainly appears in these accounts.  One of the prose compositions about Cockaigne includes this passage about the forest in the utopian imaginary land:

Tarts grow on oak trees and pancakes grow on birches, and anyone who’s hungry, or just feels like it, can easily pluck them for they hang low down on the trees.  On the ash trees grow delicious pies. Sweet grapes may be plucked from the hawthorn, and cooking pears also grow in plentiful supply: they are very soft and extremely delicious, and when it snows in the winter they are sprinkled with sugar from the sky.

Then along rivers:

There are willows on which white bread grows in abundance, and the rivers beneath these trees flow with sweet milk.  The white bread constantly falls into their currents, so that all may eat to their hearts’ content.  There are also fish swimming in the water, all of which are wonderfully prepared: boiled, roasted, or grilled to perfection.  And they swim so close to the shore that they may be caught with one’s hand.

That is water below earth.  How’s about the sky above?  This description is equivalent of a nightmare for advocates of animal rights today, but it was a delight for the medieval peasants.

Chicken, geese, pigeons, snipe, and other fowl, all of them already roasted, fly just as obligingly over the whole country. And those people who are famished but too lazy to catch them just have to open their mouths, and these roasted fowl fly right in by themselves… Pigs thrive to such an extent that they walk around in the fields already roasted, with a knife stuck in their back. If one feels like taking a bite, one can straightway slice off a piece of meat and stick the knife back in again.  And there are just as many gooseberries lying around on the ground as stones.

Dazzling are the images of ready-to-eat flying creatures, and images of human mouths wide open to let the delicious meat fly straight into them.  Rarely are gluttony and its cousin sloth celebrated and elevated so brilliantly as in the land of Cockaigne.

In a way, Cockaigne exists today at those massive buffets in Las Vegas or elsewhere in the world.  Carving stations provide plenty of roasted beef or bird, and knife-ready carvers ease the burden of having to cut out a piece of meat.  Plus other sorts of well-cooked meats and seafood past the carvers. Plus stir-fry and pasta stations a few steps away.  And potato, bread sticks, pizza, rolled-up sushi, and several different kinds of soup.  Then salad bars of greens, fruits, jello, plus rice and pasta salad.  And, of course, the dessert corner of cakes, pies, tiramisu, ice cream, and more fancy jello. Depending on the premises, non-alcoholic drinks, including of course hot and iced tea, may be included in the all-you-can-eat cost while beer and wine and bottled water are readily available for a fee. (The ordinariness of water from the medieval poem quoted above – “Water there serves no purpose / Except to be looked at and to wash with” – is only half-true in these actual lands of Cockaigne.)  When we think more about it, Peter Bruegel’s vision of three automaton-like men lying around in second painting is simultaneously satisfying and frightening, perhaps because it inadvertently reflects our own time.

I couldn’t find an appropriate spot in this post to insert something from a recent article on feast and political power by Brian Hayden, professor emeritus of archaeology at Simon Fraser University. It’s definitely worth a read, both article and the comment section.