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June 26th, 2018

Melville’s Cookies

BY Christian Ford

Sometimes, if you listen carefully when you think you don’t need to, you learn things.  This happened to me just the other day, when my daughter was cooking using one of my recipes and she asked, “What kind of sugar?”

“White,” I said, then added — because I wanted to teach a concept instead of just answer a question — “White is the default.”  She didn’t even pause.

“So even the sugar is racist.”

It wasn’t a joke, but it wasn’t a revelation, either.  To be a child of the 21st Century is to be unsurprised by endemic wrongness, from lockdown drills to baking cookies.  But as a parent raised in a different time, these moments are jarring, emphasizing the gap between our two versions of childhood.  It would be comforting, I suppose, to blame it entirely on the downward curve of the shared social narrative, but that would be a kind of willful blindness.  The sugar isn’t the only white thing in the kitchen.

I once volunteered at a Second Harvest kind of place, an institution that gathered unused food from the restaurants of the city.  Much of what we had to pass on to those in need was unexceptional, but the bread stood out.  Almost all of it was lovely, rustic artisan loaves with exceptional taste and texture.  The reason I knew the taste of the bread that I was supposed to be giving to the needy was that many of those in need wouldn’t take it.  “Have any white bread?” they would ask, and as often as not, I’d reply no.  Faced with the choice of rustic bread or no bread at all, no bread usually won out.

What was I looking at, there at the counter, with an unwanted loaf of bread from the La Brea bakery in my hand?  A class signifier, for one thing.  This was a long time ago, and the artisan bread resurgence was just beginning and these rediscovered goods were expensive.  But beyond that, I was looking into other childhoods, tastes conditioned by growing up in times and places where bread meant white bread, and those choices echo back to other choices made by people long dead and even longer forgotten.

White bread was once a luxury good.  Partly that’s because to make white flour you have to discard much of wheat.  But in the time when white bread was born — a time when baking was less predictable and the existence of yeast still unknown — white breads and cakes rose higher and felt lighter on the tongue.  For those with the money, it was worth it.

But there was another reason why white bread appealed.  Bakers, as the source of the Europe’s staff of life for centuries, were viewed with suspicion because no one really knew what went on in those hours before dawn when they baked.  White flour made it easier to spot sawdust, dirt and god-knows-what other fillers the baker might be substituting for expensive wheat.  Of course, even that was no  guarantee against other, whiter, adulterants — it wasn’t just the beanstalk’s giant who ground bones to make bread.

The whiteness of the sugar far predates that of bread, emerging ages ago in India.  But for us, sugar is inextricably linked with the West Indies, island paradises made coral-ringed hells by European planters and merchants.  Sugar was not white when it left the slave plantations of the Barbados and Cuba and Antigua and dozens of others.  The final refinements were left to factories in the north.  But when they were done, they had produced the perfect sweetener, stripped of any character or flavor beyond its single note of sweetness.

White sugar was from nowhere, from anywhere, a food converted into industrially uniform component that, curiously enough, was sold in something called a loaf.  That’s an interesting name for it, because sugarloaves didn’t look much like a loaves of bread.  Instead, what they most closely resemble to our eyes are artillery shells.  The resemblance is uncanny, in fact, and that’s somewhat disturbing when we consider that when the sugarloaf came to be, cannons were still firing balls.

There’s something in this, the intersection of sweetness and slavery, the eerie twinning of the central colonial product and an icon of the violence required to maintain colonies.  But what, exactly, I cannot tell.  I’m reminded of Herman Melville writing in Moby Dick, that it “was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”  He was wrestling there with the dual nature of whiteness in his culture, a culture that I share, but which was much less disguised in his time.  “It is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity,” and also “the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.”

Melville refused to reconcile the two, recognizing that there you can’t reject the evidence of your tongue telling you that the purity of sugar’s one note is almost religious in its ineffability, any more than you can ignore what your eyes say about how white is the color of bloodlessness and death.  He, unlike me standing in my kitchen with no good answer, would readily admit that the sugar is racist, the cookies are delicious, and that the white whale has signed his name to the recipe.