Learn How Sugar Shaped European Civilization

Sugar sculptures of Cybele and Juno
Sugar sculptures of Cybele and Juno
Getty Center

Sugar (and its many derivatives and alternates) is in almost everything we eat and drink, yet originally it was something that only the aristocratic elite could afford — and they often commissioned elaborate sugar and food sculptures to brazenly display on their dining tables.

Whether you were a king, queen or mere mortal, the one thing that’s constant about sugar is the effect it has on your teeth, a topic that will be explored at the Getty Center on Feb. 21 in a lecture called “Royal Cavities: The Bitter Implications of Sugar Consumption in Early Modern Europe.”

Part of the Getty's current exhibit "The Edible Monument" (which runs through March 13), the lecture will be delivered by Joseph Imorde, professor of art history at the University of Siegen in Germany. It looks at the cultural history of sugar from the 16th century until today and how the fast addiction to it affected the mouths of the rich — and then everyone else.

Last month at the Getty, food historian and blogger Ivan Day gave an illustrated lecture on edible table art from the early Renaissance to the 19th century and held two sold-out workshops about making and decorating 18th-century cakes and sugar sculptures.

“Sugar became available in medieval Europe thanks to Arab traders bringing it from Asia into Europe, where it was sold on to Venetian merchants,” Day explained.

They artificially kept the price high by limiting supply, which led English and Portuguese entrepreneurs to start growing sugarcane in their colonies. Utilizing slave labor, this Caribbean– and South American–grown sugar was produced on a vast scale in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Once sugar got cheaper, it started to percolate down the social scale, with 19th-century industrialization and distribution making it available to everyone,” Day said.

Anthropologist Sidney Mintz, who lectured at Yale and Johns Hopkins and died late last year, researched and wrote about the history of sugar in 1985’s Sweetness and Power, a benchmark text in cultural anthropology and food studies.

Before sugar became omnipresent, honey was the sweetener of choice. It fought off the charms of the white and brown crystals for a long time until a soothsayer and futurologist — not a businessman or sugarcane plantation owner — published a book on sugar processing in 1555.

“One man ... really encouraged the fashion in the Renaissance, the period in which true sugar addiction started," the book states. "His name was Nostradamus.”

World War I saw the end of ornamental food — which by then was viewed as old-fashioned, wasteful and even tacky — “but during the 1960s there was a revival of making sugar flowers and a growing interest in amateur cake decorating,” said Day, adding that while the trend has a kitschy element, “Some serious fine and decorative artists have become interested in the medium.”

Day has now returned to England and is back at work on historic food and more period cookery courses — though before he left, we had to ask one final question: What is his favorite chocolate bar?

“Toblerone — no competition.”

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