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“The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets”

We dive into sugar and spice and everything nice, or not so nice. In The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, editor Darra Goldstein shares the powerful ways sugar has played a role in our world, both good and bad.

Read excerpts from the book.

The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Edited by Darra Goldstein


The Midwest (U.S.) is the area of the United States encompassing Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Long before this official definition, however, Midwesterners themselves were characterizing the region and its food. In 1842, for example, Mrs. Philomelia Ann Maria Antoinette Hardin published the wonderfully titled Every Body’s Cook and Receipt Book: But More Particularly Designed for Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Wolverines, Corncrackers, Suckers, and All Epicures Who Wish to Live with the Present Times, giving the Midwest its first truly regional cookbook. Hardin’s book, purportedly the first printed west of the Alleghenies, wasn’t a collection of recipes that she culled from cook sin the East Coast or England. She speaks to the stomachs around her, with recipes for “Hoosier Pickles” and “Buckeye Rusk.” Here is her recipe for “Wolverine Pudding”:

A quarter pound of buiscets [sic] grated, a quarter of a pound of currents cleanly washed and picked, a quarter of a pound of suet shred small, half a large spoonful of pounded sugar, and some grated nutmeg; mince it all well together, then take the yelks [sic] of three eggs, and make it all into balls as big as turkey’s eggs; fry them in butter of a fine light brown

This was a dessert to get a Wolverine through a Michigan winter, and if readers lived in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, or Illinois, they could find recipes to satisfy their sweet tooth, printed alongside “Valuable Rules” for making medicine, raising honey bees, or cultivating fruit trees. Hardin’s book firmly roots its advice and recipes in the region now called the Midwest. See PUDDING.

Read more about Midwestern sweets.

Reprinted from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets edited by Darra Goldstein with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.

Cracker Jack

Cracker Jack, a confection made of popcorn, roasted peanuts, and molasses, was among the culinary wonders introduced at the 1839 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, alongside Pabst beer and Juicy Fruit gum. By 1896 Frederick and Louis Rueckheim, brothers and German immigrants who had started a local popcorn and candy business in 1872, had perfected the recipe and called it Cracker Jack—slang for “excellent” or “first-rate.” They applied for a trademark on 17 February of that year, and it was issued 36 days later.

The brothers’ marketing acumen was evident from the beginning, when the firm rolled out a national promotional campaign with the simple, alluring slogan, “The More You Eat, The More You Want.” Cracker Jack was originally sold in large wooden tubs to retailers but, its wax-sealed package, which was developed in 1899, allowed consistent portion size and, more important, kept the contents crisp and fresh. That innovation, followed by moisture-proofing three years later, was suggested by Henry Eckstein, a friend and former general superintendent of the soap and lard manufacturer N. K. Fairbank Company. He did not actually invent the packaging, but paid a German scientist $500 to teach him how to make wax paper— and then improved the process. The change (and subsequent advertising push) caused sales to skyrocket; the company was rechristened Rueckheim Brothers & Eckstein in 1903.

The new name coincided with expansion into a factory that covered an entire Chicago city block. By 1912 the company employed about 450 women and girls and 250 men and boys. See CHILD LABOR. That same year, redeemable coupons for adult clothing and goods such as watches and sewing machines, which had been given away with each box of Cracker Jack, were replaced by tiny trinkets and other prizes for children. With the success of this marketing ploy, the firm, which also made marshmallows and candies, became the Cracker Jack Company in 1922.

Read more about Cracker Jack.

Reprinted from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets edited by Darra Goldstein with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.


Twinkies, officially Hostess Twinkies, the small, mass-marketed, extra-sweet, oily, packaged snack cakes, have one of the most recognizable brand names in American consumer product history. Infamous for their 45-day shelf life, and for the long list of artificial ingredients making that shelf life possible, Twinkies are known to many as the epitome of processed food. Fittingly, the Twinkies label touts color and texture, not flavor or taste, with a banner proclaiming “Golden sponge cake with creamy filling.” Foodies may deride them, but Twinkies sell by the hundreds of millions ever year, as they have for generations.

If the president of the United States decides a sweet snack cake is important, then it must be so: President Bill Clinton included a Twinkie in the millennium time capsule in 1999. When Twinkies’ longtime corporate owners, Interstate Bakeries Corporation, went bankrupt in 2012, almost every major media outlet featured the story. It was big, national news. And when private equity firms Apollo Global Management and C. Dean Metropoulos and Company paid $410 million for the rights to Twinkies (and their chocolate siblings Ding Dongs and Ho Hos, among others), and then brought the snack cakes back to life in July 2013 with a nostalgia-based marketing campaign, that comeback story once again garnered headlines in every major media outlet around the country. Money talks. Twinkies matter. No other snack cake is as significant, well known, beloved, hated, or celebrated both as a cultural icon and symbol of everything wrong with our food habits as Hostess Twinkies.

Read more about Twinkies.

Reprinted from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets edited by Darra Goldstein with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.


brownies, small squares of rich chocolate cake, originally contained no chocolate. Molasses-based recipes for individual cakes called brownies appeared in both The Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) and The Sears, Roebuck Catalogue (1897). In 1893 the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago featured a chocolate bar cookie with apricot glaze for the Columbian Exposition, and it is this cookie that the Palmer house claims was the first chocolate brownie. This brownie was envisioned as a smaller, lighter dessert to appeal to women; it is still served at the Palmer house today. Little evidence exists for the folklore that brownies were a culinary accident, resulting from missing baking powder in a fudge cake recipe. The origin of the cake’s name is similarly uncertain, though the color of the bars may account for it, or they may have been named for a popular 1887 children’s book about elves (aka brownies).

In 1904 and 1905 versions of the recipe using chocolate appeared in a number of community cookbooks in both the Midwest and New England, including a recipe for Bangor Brownies in cookbooks published in New Hampshire, Boston, and Chicago. Between 1904 and 1910, the amount of chocolate called for in recipes increased although molasses-flavored recipes called “brownies” still appeared as late as 1926. Blondies—vanilla or butterscotch brownies—made their debut in the 1950s, sometimes frosted with chocolate or studded with chocolate chips. British tray bakes (when chocolate) bear a distant resemblance to brownies, as do the no-bake Canadian Nanaimo bars. In the United States, 8 December is National Brownie Day.

Reprinted from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets edited by Darra Goldstein with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.