Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The symbolism of sweetness

Given the evolutionary origin of religion among humans, it is no surprise that symbolism would also be attributed to sweet foods. Across many cultures, sweetness prevails as a positive symbol, representing joyous occasions and victories. In recognition of these sweet symbols, we’ve compiled our favorites from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets into a gallery we hope you’ll enjoy perusing as much as we enjoyed creating it.

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Why do we prefer eating sweet things?

Is the “sweet tooth” real? The answer may surprise you. Humans vary in their preference towards sweet things; some of us dislike them while others may as well be addicted. But for those of us who have a tendency towards sweetness, why do we like what we like? We are hardly limited by type; our preference spans across both food and drinks, including candy, desserts, fruits, sodas, and even alcoholic beverages.

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Down the doughnut hole: fried dough in art

Fried dough has been enjoyed for centuries in various forms, from the celebratory zeppole of St. Joseph’s Day to the doughnuts the Salvation Army distributed to soldiers during World War I. So important were doughnuts for boosting troop morale that when World War II came around, the Red Cross followed closely behind the US Army as it advanced across Europe, offering doughnuts from trucks specially outfitted with vats for deep-frying.

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Darra Goldstein on the history of sugar

Sugar has had an important hand in many facets of history, not all of it fun and games (but certainly not all of it dreary, either). Did you know fudge played a huge part in American women’s college education? or that slavery in sugar plantations was rampant? We asked Darra Goldstein a number of questions on sugar and its history, unearthing the good, the bad, and everything in between.

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Five unusual ingredients in sweets

Though many of us are familiar with the use of fresh fruits in desserts, flavorings in candy, and other ubiquitous ingredients, a great deal are unusual. They’re unusual in the sense that they’re “not commonly occurring,” or that we believe them to be so. With that, here are five ingredients you might find, but not expect, in your next dessert.

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Going sour: sweet words in slang

Slang—mocking, sneering, casting a jaundiced eye on the world’s proprieties—is by its nature sour. It finds approval hard, congratulation challenging, and affection almost impossible. Yet even if slang’s oldest meaning of “sugar” is money, and the second oldest a euphemism for the most common term for defecation, slang, for all its skepticism, cannot resist the tempting possibilities of “sweet.”

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Real change in food systems needs real ethics

In May, we celebrated the third annual workshop on food justice at Michigan State University. Few of the people who come to these student-organized events doubt that they are part of a social movement. And yet it is not clear to me that the “social movement” framing is the best way to understand food justice, or indeed many of the issues in the food system that have been raised by Mark Bittman or journalists such as Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan or Barry Estabrook.

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Are you a sugar scholar?

How much do you know about all things sweet? Are you an obsessive “Top-tier Sugar Scholar”? Or are you a dabbling “Sugar Novice”? No matter your level of scholarship, if sweetness and obscure facts are your game, we have just the perfect quiz for you.

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Foods and festivals of Ramadan around the world

On 17 June, the new moon signaled the start of Ramadan (or Ramzan as it’s called throughout South Asia), the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar in which observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during daylight hours. Increased religious devotion sets the tone for the month as Muslims gather for special prayers, acts of charity, and Qur’anic recitations in gratitude and devotion to God.

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Sweetness around the world

No matter where in the world you go, pastries are a universal treat. From Turkish baklava to Italian cannolis, French croissants to American cherry pie, these morsels of sweetness are a culinary tradition that knows no borders. Whether you’re boarding an overseas flight or hanging around the neighborhood, we’ve hand-picked several pastry shops from the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets to add to your personal itinerary.

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Darra Goldstein on food scholarship

What do Russians poets eat? When does food heritage become international politics? How has sugar been used as medicine? Darra Goldstein, the editor-in-chief to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, shares her insights on how a three-year project transformed into the lively compendium of all things sweet. She takes us through the process of what it was like to oversee 265 contributors and over 600 entries, and the journey she took to get where she is today.

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ZaSu Pitts, the little-known confectioner

Silent-screen star ZaSu Pitts is usually remembered for her extraordinary name, her huge eyes, and her fluttering fingers, but not many know that she also put her nimble fingers to confectionery use, crafting elegant candies that were famous on Hollywood sets.

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The 12 sweets you need to know about (and try)

Have you ever tried vinarterta? How about gugelhupf? Whether these are familiar or completely foreign to you, this list of sweets are a must for everyone with a sweet tooth. All the sweets, cakes, desserts, and treats on this list come from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, so give them a go and try one, some, or all!

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A sugar & sweets music mixtape

Incorporating the idea of sweetness in songs is nothing new to the music industry. Ubiquitous terms like “sugar” and “honey” are used in ways of both endearment and condescension, love and disdain. Among the (probably) hundreds of songs about sweets, Aaron Gilbreath, essayist and journalist from Portland, Oregon, curated a list of 50 songs, which is included in The Oxford Companion of Sugar and Sweets.

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The history of chocolate [infographic]

From its journey to Europe from the New World at the beginning of the sixteenth century to its modern-day iteration as we know it, chocolate climbed its way into the hearts and homes of people all over the world. In its long and fruitful evolution through time, we’ve pulled together a timeline of chocolate’s history from Europeans first encounter with the substance with the Aztecs through the Heirloom Cacao Initiative in 2014.

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