When sugar isn’t sweet

  • Punch Bowl. Made in Staffordshire, England; decorated in Liverpool, England, c. 1760. Inscribed in black on a purple scrolling banner, “Success to the Friendship, Capt. Peirce,” over the ship and the date, “1760.” White salt-glazed stoneware with overglaze polychrome enamels. The Friendship was an English slave ship that departed Liverpool, England in 1760 and arrived in Bonny, Nigeria in the same year. There, the ship acquired a total of 276 enslaved Africans, all likely destined for work in the West Indies. Unfortunately, the final destination and outcome of the voyage remains unknown. The side of the bowl depicts five black workmen loading plant matter (possibly tobacco) into barrels — a scene inspired perhaps from print sources or sketches of plantation laborers in the West Indies. Contributed photo/HISTORIC Deerfield

  • Bin Label. Probably Sanders Pottery, Mortlake, England, c. 1800. Inscribed on the front, “OLD RUM.” Tin-glazed earthenware decorated in manganese purple. Ceramic bin labels, designed to hang in a wine cellar, identified the name of an alcoholic beverage and sometimes a number. These labels proved very popular, probably because they resisted damp better than most materials. The term “Old Rum” probably referred to heavy-bodied rums, which were darker and sweeter and distilled by a slower fermentation process. A staple in the New England economy, most rum was drunk mixed with water, juices, and other alcoholic beverages. It played an integral part in the famous Atlantic Triangular trade with merchants carrying sugar and molassesfrom the Caribbean to New England, distilled liquor to Africa, which was exchanged for enslaved Africans sent to the West Indies. Contributed photo/Historic Deerfield

  • Coffee Pot, Teapot and Chocolate Pot. (Coffee pot made by Worcester Porcelain Factory, Worcester, England, c. 1780. Soft-paste porcelain, cobalt blue; gift of Mrs. Harold G. Duckworth.) (Teapot made by Worcester Porcelain Factory, Worcester, England, c. 1765-1775. Soft-paste porcelain, cobalt blue, overglaze red enamel; gift of Mrs. Harold G. Duckworth.) (Chocolate pot made by Zachariah Brigden, Boston, c. 1760. Silver.) When tea, coffee and chocolate entered the European diet in the middle of the 17th century, they caused a revolution in drinking habits. Initially, all three beverages were very expensive and valued for their medicinal powers. Although prescribed for ailments, these drinks were soon counted among the necessities of life. All depended on the addition of sugar to sweeten their bitter taste. Contributed photo/HISTORIC Deerfield

  • Cruet Stand made by Daniel Christian Fueter of New York, New York, c. 1754-1765; Casters made by Samuel Wood of London, England, 1752-1753. Engraved with the crest of the Van Voorhis family. Silver, lead glass. Cruet frames combined with casters appeared in England in the first decade of the 18th century as part of the French-inspired development of silver objects for the dining table and sideboard. These five-piece frames were intended for the sideboard and were passed around to the diners by servants during the meal. The standard design called for two glass cruets for vinegar and oil, and three silver castors for sugar, dry mustard and pepper. Contributed photo/HISTORIC Deerfield

For the Recorder
Published: 9/23/2020 6:00:09 AM

We tend to think of New England’s role in the institution of slavery as relatively benign. Slavery existed in our area but was less pronounced here than in the American South, and by the mid-19th century, New England was a center of abolitionism.

This mindset sugarcoats much of the region’s actual history, a history that will be highlighted in Historic Deerfield’s upcoming online forum, “The Bitter and the Sweet: The Material Culture of Sugar in Early New England.”

Scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 26 via Zoom, the forum will explore New England’s participation and complicity in sugar cultivation and use between the 16th and 19th centuries.

“Bitter and sweet. I think it’s important to lead with bitter,” said Barbara Mathews, Historic Deerfield’s public historian and director of academic programs.

Central to the forum will be the infamous triangular trade that brought slave-cultivated sugar and molasses from the Caribbean to New England, where it was processed into rum.

The rum was shipped to Africa, where it was traded for enslaved people, who were then sent back to the Caribbean to grow more sugar cane, perpetuating the cycle.

The day will begin with a lecture by Mark Peterson of Yale University in Connecticut discussing the ways in which the sugar trade helped save and bolster the economy of colonial New England. 

Other speakers will include Brandy Culp, of the Wadsworth Atheneum, describing the impact of the sugar trade on various material goods and Justin DiVirgilio of Hartgen Archeological Associates detailing the production of rum.

The day will be rounded out by contextual interpretations of sugar-related objects by Amanda Lange, Dan Sousa and Barbara Mathews, all of Historic Deerfield.

According to Lange, the forum came about after the museum’s recent acquisition of a collection of anti-slavery ceramics, pieces popular among Americans in the 19th century who wanted to avoid eating sugar raised by enslaved people (not unlike consumers today who purchase fair-trade goods).

An additional impetus, she noted, was Brandy Culp’s current work on an upcoming exhibition relating to the history of sugar.

Lange described the forum as spanning a number of disciplines and interests. “I guess you could say it’s a combination of a lot of different factors: slavery, social justice, food history, things we’ve acquired,” she said.

The forum was originally scheduled to take place in person in April but was rescheduled to Zoom when the coronavirus shut down large gatherings.

Lange and Barbara Mathews both said they view the Zoom format as a challenge but also as an opportunity, based on early enrollment.

“I think Zoom has helped us overcome the sort of rural location where we are,” Lange said. “We are getting people who would probably not have hopped on a plane and come to Deerfield.”

Lange and Mathews explained that beyond building ships and making rum, New England supported sugar cultivation in a number of ways. New Englanders manufactured and exported wood to the West Indies.

To a large extent, New England also harvested the food consumed by enslaved people growing sugar in the Caribbean. “We (were) provisioning these West Indies islands,” said Barbara Mathews. “They were monocultures.”

“Who was supplying the food for the enslaved people?” asked Amanda Lange. “The Connecticut River Valley and New England.”

Sousa will focus on 19th-century anti-slavery ceramics in the forum, he told me. He will also show off and discuss an unusual 18th-century punch bowl, which might be called a pro-slavery item. “It basically celebrates the success of the slave trade, the monetary success that came as a result of the trade,” he said.

The contrast between that piece and the anti-slavery goods popular a century later, he suggested, demonstrates an evolution in popular sentiment about slavery in New England.

Barbara Mathews will concentrate on illustrating what she described to me as “the role that sugar has played in creating a global economy.”

“It’s very much implicated in the growth of modern capitalism,” she added. “You cannot separate the story of sugar from the story of slavery and the millions of people stolen from their homes and forcibly transported to live lives of abject horror.”

Later during the forum, Culp will discuss the human cost of sugar production. “I’m going to talk about the history of the (sugar) trade and concentrate on its human (aspect) and then discuss goods that were generated around the trade, the human cost of how sugar was produced. You have to think about sugar as (being) as addictive now as it was then,” she said.

Culp specializes in studying what she called “the commodities that changed our material world.” Sugar is, of course, a prime example. She and her colleagues at Historic Deerfield use historical objects (ceramics, silver, even houses) to illuminate personal, social, and economic life in the past.

“When you talk about (sugar-related objects), you have to understand that sugar was made possible by the abduction of enslaved individuals and their relocation to other parts of the globe. It’s a dark history, a dark truth,” she told me.

Amanda Lange’s role in the forum will be to focus on the types of sugar used in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries. She will touch on the ways in which, and vessels in which, sugar was used here. Lange was kind enough to supply the recipes below for typical colonial sugared drinks.

I learned a lot from talking to all four of the people I interviewed, and I’m sure the forum will be fascinating. The one-day event will take place online between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 26. Registrants will be able to view the forum again online for two weeks after it takes place live.

Participation costs $60. To obtain more information and register, visit historic-deerfield.org/events/2020/4/4/the-bitter-and-the-sweet-the-material-culture-of-sugar-in-early-new-england-2dt9p or call Julie Orvis at 413-775-7179.

A Variation onDr. Salmon’s Punch

Amanda Lang informed me, “Punch was a favorite beverage of colonial New Englanders. This simple, early recipe for punch appears in “The Husbandman’s Jewel” by Gervase Markham, a 1695 collection of remedies, recipes, and household and agricultural hints.

“The original recipe contained brandy — but dark rum is an easy, delicious, and typically New England substitution.”

2 quarts water

1 ½ cups lime juice (for a less tart version use a combination of lime, lemon, and orange juices)

¾ pound granulated white sugar

3 pints dark rum

Nutmeg to taste

Combine and dissolve the water, the juice, and the sugar; then mix in the rum. Stir the ingredients well together, and grate in some nutmeg. Serve at room temperature or over ice. Garnish the punch bowl with sliced lemons, limes, and oranges. 

Note: The drink will be deceptively strong. If you wish you may add ginger ale, Champagne, or Prosecco. Serves 16.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

Lange notes, “A cup of hot chocolate in early New England would have had a variety of different spices included in it (cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, nutmeg, etc...). Their version of chocolate was grittier than what we encounter today because it was stone ground at mills.”

3 cups whole milk

1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon (preferably Vietnamese or Ceylon)

6 ounces semisweet chocolate (preferably Taza or Mars American Heritage Chocolate), finely chopped

3 tablespoons demerara or granulated sugar

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pinch kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Bring the milk and the cinnamon to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally and making sure milk doesn’t boil, until the cinnamon is floral and fragrant, about 10 minutes. 

Whisk in the chocolate, the sugar, the vanilla, the salt, and the cayenne pepper. Cook, whisking frequently, until the mixture is smooth and creamy and the chocolate is melted, about 5 minutes. Serves four.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.




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