My great-grandmother spent her childhood on a large farm whose main crop was sugarcane. When I was much younger, one of my favorite things was to sit in her kitchen sipping coffee-milk (a drop of coffee, lots of hot frothy milk with a spoonful of sugar) and listen to her tell stories about growing up on the farm. Most particularly I loved hearing about harvest time. She didn’t do any heavy labor on the farm, but the kids would help out by fetching water or running messages between workers. The kids all wanted to help not because back then kids were so much more responsible than today (dag gummit) but because of how they were paid. In sugarcane. The boy or girl who was judged to be the most useful would get several big stalks of sugarcane. The way my great-grandmother described the ecstasy of eating sugarcane and the lengths kids would go to get some as well as the bargaining, wheedling and outright thievery to get their hands on other kids’ haul convinced my young self that this must be one of the most amazing things in the world.
So when attending some kind of outdoor festival with my mother I saw a stall selling little stalks of sugarcane I was sure that I was in for one amazing treat. You can imagine my confusion when, after working to get into the damn thing, the only thing it tasted like was sugar. Ummm wow? My great-grandmother had slept with these things under her pillow and had got ants in her bed and hair in order to protect the precious cane from her siblings. The children on the farm had run themselves ragged in Louisiana summer heat in the hopes of getting just a little bit more.
I didn’t get it. And at the time that was it. But recently during a discussion (argument) with some people irl about the food environment and personal responsibility, the story popped back into my mind. Both my great-grandmother and I had/have a big sweet tooth. The difference was that when I was a little girl I could just go into the pantry and grab the jar of pre-sweetened kool-aid and eat it with a spoon (although it tasted better if I ate it with my finger.) The sugarcane stories didn’t make sense to me because in the food environment of my childhood sugar was everywhere. My great-grandmother’s world included candy, cakes and other treats of course – she was born in 1895 – but it wasn’t a world where she could have a steady supply of sweet treats and packaged baked goods and wash it down with fizzy sugar water on top of it.
But you know what? If she could have eaten that way as a child, she would have. That’s the thing that these people I was arguing with don’t get. People don’t change that quickly. A hundred years ago when she was growing up, my great grandmother sat and dreamed of sugarcane. She invented saints names and would tell her mother that they must bake a cake in honor of saint so-and-so her did some stuff (her very devout mother was not amused.) The difference between me and her wasn’t restraint or responsibility. It was access.
My great-grandmother cooked and ate in a way that would make the Michael Pollans of the world stand up and clap. She grew up eating that way after all and those habits followed her into adulthood and into a world where she saw food options expand beyond her wildest dreams. But it’s not hard to imagine that the little girl who begged her mother not to throw away her sugarcane even while she was scrubbing ants out of her hair might have joined me in sticking her finger into the kool-aid jar. Would she have been a fat little girl with a kool-aid stained finger just like me? I don’t know. I know many of her grandchildren are part of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and all but a handful of her great-granchildren are fat as well. Whatever is hereditary about fat is definitely present in that part of the family and yet neither her nor her siblings were ever big people.
I don’t have any brilliant way to end this. So I won’t try.