Notes From My Knapsack 12-11-14
Tell of holidays gone by
Listening to a radio program about holiday cookies, one caller noted that she'd been trying to make some old family recipes, and had noticed something odd.
These cookie recipes, many from the Old World, a few from early days here in the New, didn't call for much sugar. And they weren't very sweet.
The guest on the program, a chef and author of cookbooks, confirmed the caller's impression. "No, those older recipes aren't that sweet. Yes, everything today is sweeter." She went on to hint that, in her opinion, today's recipes might even be too sweet.
You've no doubt heard it already, that we put sweetener in everything. High fructose corn syrup in our ketchup, our fruit snacks, our vegetables, emphatically so in processed foods. And our tastes, in general, are more to the sweet, from the sauces we want for our nuggets to the desserts we consume – death by chocolate, crème brule, tiramisu, lava cake with extra chocolate sauce.
Shocking, isn't it, that diabetes is a problem? There are many triggers and vulnerabilities, but first and foremost, we're dealing with an addiction to sugars in general that we have yet to really confront.
During the holidays, sweets and sugarplums are part of the very essence of what we think of as a traditional, old fashioned Christmas. But the truth is that, a century and more ago, what they called sweets we'd call a bit dull, not too tasty, un-sweetened sweets.
Gingerbread was common, and it was more bread than ginger, and precious little sugar to sweeten. Sugarplums were nuts or seeds, almonds or cardamom or cinnamon bits dipped or "plumbed" into a sugar syrup repeatedly, to put a hard candy coating on the heart of the treat. You could suck on a sugarplum for some time, and the total amount of sugar in one sugarplumb would disappoint most Oompa Loompas, let alone modern children.
We have a Sugar Loaf in Granville, a conical hill. There are a number of them from Massachusetts across to the Mississippi valley, where they peter out because by the time Euro-American settlement rooted itself across the Big Muddy, sugar had become at least somewhat processed, and cheap. Sugar loaves were not known there.
In 1805 and for a generation or two after, sugar came in great hard lumps; think your canister of brown sugar if it had gotten damp and neglected and a solid block you couldn't soften in the microwave. They were melted, poured out into cones of sweet goodness, such as it was, and once cooled to room temperature were nearly indestructible and very transportable. These piles of solid sugar-ish-ness looked like . . . Sugar Loaf. If you wanted to cook with some, or put a bit in your tea, you took knives and cutting tools and even a chisel, and knocked a piece off the intact sugar loaf, piece by piece until it was gone.
It was dear, that hard nasty sugar was, and you didn't use it up freely or fast. So the snickerdoodles and gingersnaps of that earliest era had a taste more tangy than sweet, were more bready than chewy – but back then, any sweetness was a treat. Let that memory sweeten our appreciation of the Christmas season, and perhaps motivate us to a bit of restraint, as well.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your old school cookie recipes at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.