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March 26, 2010

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Tilleul permalink
    March 26, 2010 6:44 am

    It’s difficult to get away from sugar in the US. It’s everywhere, in breads, in ketchup, in a can of beans. The versions with little or no sugar are rare and more expensive. I do think this contributes to an obesogenic society. To me, this means that our environment is set up so that the easier, cheaper, common ways of doing things add to our weight. How much weight probably depends on a lot of factors including metabolism.

    Have you seen this video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth”? I don’t agree with everything he says, but he presents some very interesting science about sugar, basically that fructose is as hard on our livers as alcohol, but without the buzz. I’d like to hear what you think of it if you watch it.

    • March 31, 2010 5:30 am

      Yeah, not only is sugar everywhere, but we’re often not even aware of the actual amount in processed foods. One of the things Andy Bellatti, who writes the small bites blog, got me in the habit of doing is to check labels for all the different types of sugar in a product. Because what companies will do is use 4 different kinds of sweeteners so that sugar doesn’t appear as the first ingredient. So you’ll have hfcs, brown rice syrup, dextrose etc… Organic stuff is super guilty of this and a lot of people are unaware because we have this idea that organic=healthy.

      However, I don’t think sugar is poison. I’ve watched the Lustig video previously and while I’m not qualified to argue with him in terms of biochemistry, it all just sounds very alarmist to me. Not to mention you can look at Australia which has a similar proportion of fat people to the US and similar rates of metabolic disorders etc… and they eat almost no HFCS. Alan Aragon had a good post discussing this with a really great discussion in the comments where Dr. Lustig even shows up.

      • Tilleul permalink
        April 9, 2010 6:28 pm

        Thanks for the link — very interesting discussion, and more interesting links. I just spent the last last hour reading and bookmarking. I appreciate seeing a more moderate take on the subject. Sorry I didn’t see your reply sooner — I thought I had set up comment notification but apparently it didn’t take.

  2. March 26, 2010 6:57 am

    I think this is a fascinating story.

    I also think that humans have an inborn preference for sweetness — especially concentrated forms of sugar. The idea that your great-grandmother would have joined you in eating the sweetened Kool-Aid is probably right on.

    Why? Not because she was (or you are) morally bankrupt. But because we like sugar. For a reason.

  3. Miara permalink
    March 26, 2010 9:49 am

    I had a related realization about my grandparents a few years ago, not about food, but about daily activity.

    They had a wood furnace, and a wood stove for cooking. Do you know how much effort it takes to haul and split enough wood to warm a house and cook with? I do, because my brother and I did it one summer. It took the two of us a solid week (8 hour days) to cut and split (no stacking) enough wood for one winter. Except for a brief period where his son and soon to be sons in law had done it, my Grandfather and a friend had done that every year, and for a significant number of those he used a handsaw to cut lengths from the logs, while we had a chainsaw. And we were working from logs that he’d ordered delivered, instead of having had to go fell and transport them ourselves the way he had done 20 years earlier. And that’s just the beginning. When you’re burning wood for heat and cooking, there’s additional effort devoted to hauling wood from wherever it’s being stored to where it’s going to be burned, and loading the furnace, and hauling ashes away, and…

    I push a button on my wall or turn a dial on my stove for heat.

    And it went on in that vein: Grandma had a wringer washer that she refused to replace, and dried laundry on a 50′ clothesline (they get heavier as they get longer, it turns out). They lived in a rural area, the mailbox was a half-mile away, and they walked to it every day, because gas was expensive, and cars were less sturdy and tires cost a lot to replace. They traded vegetables from their kitchen garden (because having a garden was a rational decision when stores only had a limited and slightly wilted selection of the things that grew in your climate) for milk from a couple on the next 10 acre lot who had a couple of milk cows. The floor covering in their entire house was linoleum, and Grandma washed it – on her hands and knees – twice a week – no Scooba or vacuum for her. She made bread a couple of times a week with no mixer, much less a bread-machine.

    It just went on and on, the parts of everyday living that required so much more energy than it takes me to do their contemporary equivalents.

  4. March 29, 2010 10:50 am

    I totally hear you although I actually love sugar cane… Jamaicans (which I am) still eat sugar cane regularly as a snack/treat till this day, but don’t know if I would sleep with it under my pillow. šŸ˜‰

    But I think you’re absolutely right, it’s all about access. And the access that we and kids have nowadays is insane.

  5. Anna permalink
    March 31, 2010 5:51 am

    Expression of genes is often affected by environmental factors. So, grandma had right genes but not right environment. You have both. Some have right environment but not right genes. It is what it is, but one implication for me, is that free will is not as big a player as we like to think. It is a factor–you can lose some weight–but no amount of free will will get you skinny when you are dealing with both genes and environment that favor obesity. There is wiggle room you are taking advantage of, but you know there are limits if you want to stay mentally healthy.

    • April 12, 2010 3:09 am

      “…but no amount of free will will get you skinny when you are dealing with both genes and environment that favor obesity.”

      Genes we have no control over, but we have some control of environment. It’s difficult, but not impossible. It’s helpful if you define “skinny enough” in a way that falls within the physically/mentally possible.

  6. April 27, 2010 8:05 pm

    Yes, living the standard American lifestyle will make you fat, unless you have lucky genes, or actively work against it. Sad but true.

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