Category Archives: Food History

Norbert Rillieux: All the Sugar that You Eat and a Bizarre Twist

norbert-rillieux

Norbert Rillieux (undated)
Fun (and Informational) Candy Facts

  • Americans get a small amount (about 5%) of their sugar from candy! Most sugar comes from hidden places, from frozen pizza to granola bars.
  • Through most of history, food had a purpose – it was healthy, a medicine, or used in ceremonies. No junk food!
  • Early sugar in North America came from roots, barks, fruits, and grains, including corn!
  • Most Americans eat sugar from a beet – 55%! – and not the sugar cane. What’s the difference? It’s hard to tell!
  • The abolitionists thought they could get rid of slavery by “boycotting” the cane sugar, which was important to the economy of slavery. They used other sugars instead – the beet was one of them.
  • In the 1800s, most of the candies were made in pharmacies.

If you like sweets, eat sweets, or give gifts of made sugar, you have Norbert Rillieux to thank. His story is remarkable and his legacy regarding cane sugar in specific and sugar in general is profound.  He was born in 1806; his mother was a free woman of color, and his father, Vincent Rillieux, a European American plantation owner and inventor. At that time, 25 percent of African Americans in New Orleans were free and mixed couples often raised families together.

Rillieux was a precocious student – so precocious his father sent him to the famous l’École Centrale in Paris where he studied engineering. At twenty-four, he became the youngest instructor of applied mechanics and later, back home, developing a multiple effect steam-operated evaporator that turned raw sugar into sugar crystals.

evaporator

Rillieux’s Evaporator System

At the time, sugarcane production relied on something called the “Jamaica Train”: a process where slaves ladled scorching sugarcane juice from one boiling container to another. Frequently, these workers were scalded to death or endured debilitating burns. Then came Rillieux’s system, where the evaporator did the work, saving lives, enhancing the quality of sugar and expediting the timing of the sugar evaporating process.

In short, it was of the same magnitude as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. And here is the bazaar twist: Rillieux became the most sought-after engineer in Louisiana: evaporator was embraced by widely by such persons as the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin. Yet, as a “person of color,” he couldn’t sleep at the plantation as a guest or, in some cases, even dine there. As the Civil War drew near, Rillieux faced an increasing number of restrictions, such as the loss of his right to walk along the street. So, Rillieux moved back to France where he died in 1894 and was buried in the famed Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise.

degas

Degas, Suffering City of New Orleans

Eligh Whitney has made his way into the annals of history. Norbert Rillieux is forgotten.  But, an interesting footnote is this: In 1872, French impressionist painter, Edgar Degas was suffering from a bout of artist’s block. So, he decided to visit the home of American relatives in New Orleans. Louisiana, still recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, somehow inspired Degas and fueled some of his finest paintings. The home had belonged to Vincent Rillieux, Senior.  His son, Vincent, Jr, was Norbert’s father. Degas and Norbert Rillieux were cousins.

Source:

Author’s Book “Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure.” (Prometheus, 2016)

“I have always held that Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering and I know of no other invention that has brought so great a saving to all branches of chemical engineering.”

— Charles A. Browne (1870-1947), Sugar Chemist, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Valentine’s Day: Why Hearts?

Vintage Valentine's Day Card - The History of the HeartSo, it’s almost Valentine’s Day and you might be wondering what’s with the cupids and hearts. Excellent question and the answers are many…or none, depending. The origin of the heart, for example, is said to have evolved from the ancient and now extinct plant silphium, used in the fifth century by Romans as a spice and birth control measure – application method unknown.  The plant’s seed pod apparently was heart-shaped.

Heart Shapes on 1545 German Card Deck

Heart Shapes on 1545 German Card Deck

Others claim the heart appeared as a sexual symbol in art around 1250, looking much like an inverted pine cone, while still others say it was an ancient depiction of the anatomical heart. The heart appeared in playing cards of the 1500s and art work (religious and otherwise) of the 14th and 15th century.

Valentine’s Day itself is equally mired in question. According to NPR, the holiday began with the ancient Romans who celebrated a three-day holiday, the feast of Lupercalia from Feb. 13 to 15, where the men sacrificed a goat and a dog, dried their hides and whipped women with them. Apparently the woman lined up for the ritual believing it spawned fertility. Others attributed the origin of Valentine’s Day to two Romans, both named Valentine, who were martyred on February 14th years apart, and yet others to Shakespeare and Chaucer.

1550 Danish Heart Shaped Manuscript of Love Ballads

1550 Danish Heart Shaped Manuscript of Love Ballads

One thing is clear: like Christmas, Valentine’s Day was gift-wrapped and sent to the U.S. because of Queen Victoria whose modes of celebration were quickly adopted here. And, like Christmas, Valentine’s Day owes its swank to a combination of turn-of-century marketing and industrialization, which enabled candy-makers and others to pump out cards, sweets and other gifts with relatively breath-taking speed.

Now, for the candy:

Heart-Shaped Candy Boxes: Thank the Cadbury’s for these – the Quaker family, among others, were instrumental in producing the chocolate we know and love today.

Jelly Hearts: We owe these to the 10th century lokum (aka Turkish Delight), the origin of jelly and gummy candies today.

French Chocolate Truffles - Valentine's Candy

French Truffles

Truffles: Started with the French and their late 1800’s penchant for romance and sex. Truffles and soon chocolates of all sorts became the gift of courtship and come-ons. (Thanks Montezuma and his legacy of many wives for the chocolate)

Hard Candies: From lollipops to love hearts, they evolved from medicines.

Conversation Hearts: Once a weeding candy, the stamped impressions were made possible by Daniel Chase, brother of NECCO-wafer maker Oliver Chase. And that’s why they taste so similar!

Sources:

Huffington Post, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/recycled/2007/02/the_shape_of_my_heart.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_(symbol)

NPR, The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day

Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure

Nutmeg: Sure, A Flavoring in Candy but an Aphrodisiac and So Much More

Nutmeg on TreeIf you’re searching for an effective yet tasty aphrodisiac look no further than your local grocery store. The solution comes bundled up in the pit of a more-or-less remarkable spice humbly referred to as “nutmeg.” For thousands of years, the nutmeg has been used to inspire love and lust – even its name derives from the Arabic word “mesk,” or “musky,” as in fragrance.  Today, Americans enjoy nutmeg to limited degrees – in hot cider and apple pie, for example, unaware of the sultry – and dangerous – spice that it is.

But First… Nutmeg: The Early Years

Spice Island Map of 1576

Spice Island Map of 1576?: Porcacchi, Thomaso, ca. 1530–1585? “Isole Molucche.” Copperplate map, 10 × 14 cm. on sheet 30 x 20 cm. Page 189 from Porcacchi’s L’isole piu famose del mondo (Venice, 1576?). [Historic Maps Collection]

Even the early years of the nutmeg is intriguing. It originated in the Indonesian Spice Islands and appeared in the alcoholic beverages of the ancient Romans and Greeks, the cuisine of Byzantine traders, and by the 9th century, sprinkled on the pease pudding of monks in Constantinople. In the 12th century, nutmeg made a much admired presence in the cuisine of Europeans and in medieval and renaissance banquets.

All that is culinary light-heartedness leading to events that unfurled around 1512. In that year, the Portuguese naval commander Albuquerque sent a fleet to find the mythical Spice Islands. They found it all right and returned with nutmeg, among other spices, and a fire in their loins that ignited a bloody round of history that lasted for centuries. In it, the Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch, who founded the Dutch East India Company, who were ousted by the British over 100 years later.

As for the local inhabitants: You can imagine the carnage the ensued from the moment the first European boot made an imprint on the sandy Island soil. The natives were enslaved and abused in a style more or less typical of European conquers for centuries. Their land was looted and destroyed – the Dutch, for example, destroyed the nutmeg trees on every island except the ones they controlled. Eventually, the nutmeg’s roots took hold in Granada, where it still grows today.

Image of Clove Tree

1521: Pigafetta, Antonio, ca. 1480/91–ca. 1534. “Figure of the Five Islands Where Grow the Cloves, and of Their Tree.” From volume 2 of Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. Translated and edited by R. A. Skelton (New Haven, Conn., 1969). (IMAGE OF CLOVE TREE)

History of Nutmeg

1669: Montanus, Arnoldus, 1625?-1683. “Ware affbeeldinge wegens het casteel ende stadt Batavia gelegen opt groot eylant Java anno 1669.” Copperplate map, with added color, 27 x 36 cm. Probably issued in Montanus’s Gedenkwaerdige gesantschappen der Oost-Indische maatschappy in ’t Vereenigde Nederland . . . (Amsterdam, 1669) [Historic Maps Collection].HOME of the Dutch East India Company with its magnificent homes

So why all the fuss?

Most food historians would say the nutmeg’s popularity was because of its flavor. Yes…but… a small amount of nutmeg is, indeed, a tasty addition to food. But in larger doses, the nutmeg acts as an aphrodisiac thanks to a “myristicin” and other compounds in the mescalin family. No doubt those nutmeg-rich banquets had many a happy and lustful ending.

In even greater quantities the nutmeg causes hallucinations. In fact, the nutmeg was called the “mystic’s spice” because mystics used it to induce visions that your average nutmeg fan could hardly imagine. These mystics also knew when to stop: while nutmeg may cure mild cases of diarrhea and flatulence, too much would kill them.

Sources:

Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value. Bentley, Robert and Henry Trimen. London, Churchill, 1880. (WZ 295 B556m 1880)

UCLA Medical Library.  http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice

Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press: Cambridge] 2000, Volume Two (p. 1823)

Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, 2nd edition edited by Tom Jaine [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2006 (p. 546)

Maps: Princeton University https://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/pacific/spice-islands/spice-islands-maps.html

Art Candy: From Candy Bowls to Christmas Candy

art-candyWhen I think of candy and the idea of giving, I think of the candy bowls grandmothers of a certain generation left out for their children and grandchildren. These women grew up during the Depression and wars when sugar shortages were common and sweets hard to find. Once sugar was available they filled their bowls to the brim with brightly colored sweets, as ornamental as delicious. It’s no surprise some of these candies became standard Christmas fare, such as the art candy, ribbon candy, and candy straws.

Of all these candies, the art candy is the most impressive, in my opinion, with images of flowers and fruits engraved in the sugar base. It’s funny to think that the art candy started at beach-side getaways in England in the late 1800s. The resorts would roll their image and name into the center of the candy and people would buy bags of them as souvenirs. Whether for the winter holidays or summer getaways, though, the art candy is a symbol of love and fun.

Find art candy in our online store

 

Sweets Under Seige: Revolutionary War

Dan in Uniform

Here’s a picture of my handsome husband over there in Afghanistan. The USO gives a little levity to folks like him with shows and, yes, candy, upholding a tradition that started with the Revolutionary War. I send Dan chocolate covered espresso and bourbon balls among the books and aspirins.  My packages are always followed by an e-mail that exclaims: Got IT!  Then a blow-by-blow of what he ate first.

So, why not explore what the troops have enjoyed since way back when starting with the Revolutionary War. The soldiers back then had an unpredictable assortment of food, sometimes nothing, sometimes mouse-nibbled, bug-infested johnny cakes, and sometimes chocolate.

You might imagine that the chocolate was bitter, grainy, and terrible, and I have no doubt  that some of it was, but European Americans of the day enjoyed sugar (grown and processed by enslaved workers in various parts of the world) and spices such as cinnamon (compliments of the Spice Trade). In other words, taste-wise it could take on a Hershey Bar on the battlefield or off.

FYI: In Europe, the cost of the cacao was prohibitive so the well-to-do had to suffice with drinking chocolate. But in North America chocolate was more readily available. Drinking chocolate was still the norm, but eating chocolate was on-the-scene and considered good for health and vitality, as many say today.

In fact, Bakers Chocolate of Boston was already advertising by 1770. Their most famous advertising campaign, concocted in the 1800s, was based on the painting  La Belle Chocolatière or “The Chocolate Girl,” by French artist Jean- Étienne Liotard  in the 1740s. Today, you can find a tasty example of chocolate from 1750, made by  American Heritage – a small division of Mars.

baker's chcolate

Baker’s Girl Based on 1700’s painting

 

 

 

The First Pop and Blam of Bubblegum!

When you think of bubblegum, I’ll bet 10,000 gum balls the Fleer brothers don’t enter your mind. But the Fleer brothers started it all. The story begins when Philadelphia native Frank Fleer, born in 1860, joined and later took over his father-in-law’s flavor extracts company. Fleer was in good company: his father-in-law was a Quaker, one of the oldest, most influential, and ethical players in candy history. Within five years Fleer began making chewing gum, some of which he sold in vending machines in the lobby of buildings.

One of the Fleer company’s most impressive accomplishments was created by Frank’s brother, Henry. He added a candy coating to pieces of chicle – a process known as “panning” that dates

Look Who Made this Classic!

      Look Who Made this Classic!

back to the 16th century “sugar plums” and is responsible for such treats as the jelly bean, Jaw Breaker, and Fireball. He called the pieces “chiclets” and the Chiclet we all know was born. Surprised? Most people think the Chiclet was an Adams gum from the get-go (think: “Adams” on the Chiclet boxes). Actually, the Fleers sold the Chiclet to Sen-Sen and, ultimately, to the American Chicle Company, of which Thomas Adams was a part.

Blibber Blubber: The Ill-fated First

            Blibber Blubber: The Ill-fated First

As part of the deal, the Fleer gum company could continue making chewing gum, only the gum couldn’t contain the critical component, chicle. Three years before, Frank had experimented with doing something the big three of the early gum universe – Wrigley, The American Chicle Company, and Beech-Nut – had not attempted: make a gum that could blow bubbles. He succeeded, using natural rubber latex, and launched the first bubble gum ever, called Blibber-Blubber. Shortly after, the Blibber-Blubber bubble popped. The texture was grainy and broke apart and the bubbles were hard to make. Worse, the gum adhered to skin with the ferocity of superglue. By the time Fleer sold his business to American Chicle in 1909, he didn’t have much to do.

But in 1913, Frank Fleer rose again, this time with the Frank H. Fleer Corporation in Philadelphia. The company made candy and trading cards featuring such celebrities as Babe Ruth, Gloria Swanson, and Mary Pickford. All the while, the pursuit of bubble gum continued, even after Fleer retired and his son-in-law Gilbert Mustin took over the business.

During the late 1920s, the company’s cost accountant, 23 year-old William Diemer would sneak into the lab after hours and play around with the bubblegum recipe. He wasn’t a cook, chemist or scientist and didn’t aspire to any of these things. What drove him was probably curiosity mixed with a sense of adventure. Numerous batches failed until finally, he got it right. Well, almost right. The gum didn’t stick and he could blow bubbles, but not if he let the gum sit overnight. In 1928, after more fiddling, Diemer figured it out, and added pink dye, the only coloring he could find in the lab. That’s why bubblegum is pink to this day.

He presented his creation to the company and Mustin dubbed it the misspelled Dubble Bubble. When they were ready to market the gum, Diemer himself went into shops to teach shopkeepers how to blow bubbles, so they could teach their customers to blow bubbles, who would teach their kids to blow bubbles, and their kids, their kids … and an American tradition began!

The Dubble Bubble has lived a long and fruitful life ever since, even appearing in the rations of GIs during World War II. It rose above competition from Topps, who made Bazooka just before the War and took off in the ‘50s, and Baloney made by the Bowman Company of Brooklyn New York, an early maker of trading cards. Today, Marvel Entertainment Group produces 15 million pieces a day. As for Frank Fleer – he died in 1921 and never lived to see his bubble gum succeed. William Diemer never trademarked his invention, never invented new confections, and never left the company. Instead, he became a senior executive and had a career which his wife said, after his death in 1998, was happy.

double bubble

How the Chewing Gum Saved Baby Food and Possibly Ham

Bartlett Arkell was born into a prominent family in 1862. His father was a publisher and state senator, and Arkell carried on the tradition as an editor for 11 years. He left to co-found The Imperial Packing Co, which produced packaging for hams, bacon and lard. No doubt he had help from his friend and mentor, bacon baron Arthur Armour.

Soon Arkell became company president, and under his direction the company excelled. After a friend said the name “Imperial” was ill-suited for an American ham, he changed it to Beech-Nut conjuring images of the American tree and the smoky flavor of his hams. He pioneered the use of glass and vacuum-packed containers and branched the company into everything from peanut butter to soup. Around 1910, Arkell’s brother-in-law, whose own brother helped start the American Chicle Company, suggested that Beech-Nut enter the chewing gum arena. So, they did.

As a person, Arkell was a devote patron of the arts, active supporter of the Canajoharie, New York community where he lived, and a great employer, giving his turn-of-century employees health benefits, pensions, and bonuses. And, like all success in the chewing gum world, Arkell was also a stealth marketer. Among his stints, he hired a traveling circus to showcase his candy and gum and created the personas of the convincingly attractive “Beech-Nut Girls”.

Earhart on the Beech-Nut Plane

Earhart on the Beech-Nut Plane

But the pièce de résistance was when he contracted Amelia Earhart to fly a plane brandishing the Beech-Nut name from New Jersey to Oakland and back. With funding made possible from the publicity from this flight, and additional support from Beech-Nut, Earhart was able to fly from New York to Europe in 1932 and Hawaii to California in 1935 and embark on the around-the-world flight in 1937 that was her end.

Eventually, Beech-Nut became one of the three biggest gum companies in the nation, along with the American Chicle Company and Wrigley’s Gum. During the Depression, when Beech-Nut’s food profits faltered, the chewing gum kept them alive, accounting for $11 of the $18 million in profits that year. In 1931 they introduced strained baby food which they are most known for today.

Bartlett Arkell  Photo: The Arkell Museum

Bartlett Arkell
                                Photo: The Arkell Museum