- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

By Tim Richardson
Bloomsbury, $24.95, 392 pages

Answer quickly now: What is a gobstopper? Do you, genus Americanus, ever crave rhubarb custard and consider it sweet? Or believe that Indian sweets are the best on earth?
Come to think of it, you may not even use the word "sweets" to refer to the collective genre of delectable sugary creations, as author Tim Richardson does in "Sweets," a superlative account of "sucrophilia" with a mention of "sucrophobia" his refutation of health police out to deny him pleasure.
"The world's first international confectionary historian," as he calls himself, Mr. Richardson has reason to allow his British origins to hold sway, although he could have used an American editor to translate some of the expressions and challenge some of his opinions. (The book's subtitle, "A History of Candy," helps modify the Eurocentric view.) The approach is a winning one, nonetheless, and the extensive bibliography attests to the author's diligence. The prose is deft and amusing. And it's hard to refute the factual and anecdotal evidence Mr. Richardson presents in his comprehensive tour of the history, physiology, biology and sociology of candy in its many forms.
We even forgive him the title of his concluding chapter, "The Himalayan Gobstopper," a quick round-the-world survey of favorite sweet items in which the author states that "the world's dominant sweets culture is that of the English-speaking peoples, in economic terms at least. By the 1840s in Britain, the price of sugar matched its status as an everyday commodity, and this, coupled with an increase in disposable income for a large swathe of the population, led to an increased demand for quality sweets."
For the uninformed, gob is slang for both 'large lump' and 'mouth,' depending on which dictionary is consulted. So, in theory, the elusive Himalayan candy is the big mama of big sweets a clever way of introducing us to all the varieties of sweet tooth that exist in the world. We could have done without the list of Mr. Richardson's top ten personal 'favs,' that include rhubarb and custards, violet flavored sweets, and, may heaven forgive him, something called "barfi," described as "rich, milky, multi-flavoured Indian sweet, like soft fudge but refreshing rather than cloying." Barf, indeed. Enough to send you to your toothbrush in a hurry.
A passionate sweets lover who is conscientious to the core, he toured factories when he could many candymakers are protective about recipes and noticeably wary about allowing in observers and attended industry conventions that draw up to 33,000 people at one go. The sampling job must have been prodigious.
The name sugar comes from the Sanskrit word "sarkara," which means gravelly, the author tells us. Sugar cane, which he calls "the source of the most readily available sugar hit on the planet," was domesticated somewhere between 8000 and 4000 BC in Papua, New Guinea, and spread widely from there. A method for extracting sugar from the sugar beet both the cane and beet contain 17 percent pure sucrose didn't happen until the late 18th century and played a less than noble role in the notorious slave trade that went on between New England, Africa, and the Caribbean.
Surprises abound as Mr. Richardson leads us through modern marketing strategies and the many uses to which sugar is put. Who knew that Milton Hershey once created a smaller version of his Pennsylvania base in Cuba in 1916? Called Central Hershey, 60 miles east of Havana, near an immense sugar cane plantation, it was conceived as a a similar cradle-to-grave community. Renamed "Camilio Cienfuegos," the place still exists today in lesser form under public ownership.
Explaining the biology of sugar, Mr. Richardson mentions that its presence in frozen foods help prevent the formation of crystals. And In an especially valuable and intriguing chapter on chocolate, he avoids the word "chocoholic" while hailing its prominence as "the most complicated of sweets." With more than 1,200 chemical components, its flavor in a pure state theoretically rivals a glass of good wine. He credits the Bernachon company of Lyon, France, with producing the finest chocolate, although that, surely, is greatly a matter of personal taste.
It's fun, too, to learn that 10th-century Turkish harem ladies used caramel as a depilatory, and that Aztecs mixed chocolate with blood to offer homage to their gods. Without citing his source, the author asserts that the Swiss-made Toblerone bar is the second most popular airport purchase in the world. (Cigarettes come first, but that might still be the case in these non-smoking times only if duty-free sales are tallied in.) Denmark is said to hold the record for the world's highest consumption of sweets per capita, followed by Switzerland. Again, doesn't explain why but, again, remember that his definition of a sweet extends to chewing gum and mints.
The United States, he claims, has an obsession with peanuts and peanut butter flavors; at the same time, we seem to favor cinnamon flavors more than most countries. The Dutch take a noted delight in licorice as well as soft toffee and chocolate.
Lest one underestimate the book, make note of Mr. Richardson's defense of candy's ability to maintain a powerful hold on our adult imaginations. We're basically drawn to the stuff based on what we were exposed to as a child, he suggests. Candy is a reminder of more innocent times. And it's really not all bad for you since sugar, in its simplest definition, "is a simple carbohydrate that is quickly converted into glucose energy in the bloodstream." Sugar may rot one's teeth, the author reminds us, but "boiled sweets won't make you fat." It's the milk and cream added to many sweets that do the most harm. In the Arab tradition, we learn, sugar was medicinal, a practice carried over into Europe in medieval times direct from Middle Eastern apothecaries.
Who dares argue with innocence? The Greek philosopher Epicurus, who was something of a heretic with his "don't worry, be happy" outlook, believed that pleasure came before civic responsibility. Mr. Richardson goes one more: Sweets offered up to others betokens an altruistic nature. Pleasure earned is pleasure shared.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.

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