A Dark History of Sugar by Neil Buttery (Book Review)

by Sam Bilton on June 6, 2022 No comments

I don’t possess a sweet tooth. I feel quite smug writing this but really I’m kidding myself. Sugar is everywhere from natural sources like fresh fruit to the savoury sauces on supermarket shelves it invades. So while I may happily eschew chocolate bars, sugar is simply nigh on impossible to avoid.

What is the essence of the book?

This is the latest in Pen & Sword’s ‘Dark History’ books (you can read about Emma Kay’s Dark History of Chocolate here). It explores the history of sugar production and consumption primarily from a British prospective. The early origins of this ingredient are explored through to the horrific exploitation of indigenous populations and africans to grow the industry and culminates in the impact sugar has had on our health today.

About the author

I first became aware of Neil Buttery through his blog Neil Cooks Grigson (now known as the British Food History Blog) as we both share a great admiration for this food writer. Buttery has been studying and writing about the history of British food for over a decade. You may have caught him on Channel 5’s The Wonderful World of Cakes or perhaps listened to The British Food History Podcast. 

Who will like it?

This book will appeal to anyone who wants to find out more about the more challenging aspects of our past. If you like your history delivered in a thorough but succinct manner then you will love this format. It would be a perfect place to start if you were just beginning to investigate the history of sugar and has a great bibliographic note section.

Who won’t like it?

A Dark History of Sugar is not a comfortable read but it is an important one. You really do have to have a desire (and at a times a strong stomach) to get beneath the skin of this subject to appreciate the book. If a more general, perhaps less intense approach, to food history is more your thing perhaps this book is not for you.

What do I like about the book?

The history of sugar is a complex and, at times, a harrowing subject. It would have been no mean feat to expertly condense such an intense topic into 200 pages of prose and for that alone the author deserves praise. Buttery’s telling of sugar’s turbulent history is eruditely and compassionately written. ‘Enjoyable’ is perhaps not a word I would use to describe this book as the topic itself is deeply unsettling at times but Buttery’s prose is a pleasure to read. All that said, there are a few lighter segments in the book like the description of real, albeit dead, mice suspended in sugar syrup until crisp to be consumed by children as a sweetmeat (or does that part of the text merely appeal to my sense of the macabre?).

Where can you buy it?

A Dark History of Sugar by Neil Butter (Pen & Sword Books, Special Offer Price £16)

Sam BiltonA Dark History of Sugar by Neil Buttery (Book Review)

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