History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Maple, A Sweetener to Be Thankful For


The other day I had maple pudding for dessert (at Proof, well worth a visit if you’re in DC) and as I savored it, I thought, “Now this a dessert we can be thankful for.”

Was it the smooth, creamy texture?  The deep flavor?  The crunchy Graham cracker crumble and Calvados whipped cream on top?  Nope.  It was that my maple pudding put me in mind of the early antislavery movement.

My fellow early American historians are probably nodding sagely and thinking, “But of course.”  Loyal readers may have an inkling of where this is going.  My new friends, however, may be wondering what the connection between the sweet sap from a maple tree and antislavery could possibly be.

From the 1500s into the 1800s, cane sugar and its by-product, molasses, were produced in the West Indies by enslaved Africans.  A couple weeks ago, I asked whether Indian Pudding should be renamed Atlantic Pudding in recognition of the central role that sugar and molasses played in the creation of the Atlantic world.  Folks, sugar was big business.  The British, Danish, French, and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean all produced sugar – for export to Europe and North America – on plantations that built on earlier Portuguese experience running sugar plantations on Madeira, Sao Tome, and Principe.  To supply labor for the plantations, Europeans developed a sophisticated trade in slaves from Africa:  These poor souls were worked so brutally that they typically died within several years of arriving in the Caribbean.  Sugar cultivation was so profitable, however, that it was more economically rational for planters to import new slaves than to treat their human property better.

Antislavery activists on both sides of the Atlantic well understood that they sweetened their tea and their treats thanks to slave labor.  But prevailing on their compatriots to give up sugar altogether, well, how likely was that to succeed?  Maple sugar might be the answer.  If we could manufacture maple sugar, reasoned Philadelphia philanthropist Benjamin Rush in 1789, we might be able “thereby to lessen or destroy the consumption of West India sugar, and thus indirectly to destroy the negro slavery.”  His fellow humanitarian, John Coakley Lettsom of London, agreed.  “[T]his present pursuit of the Americans, to make sugar from the sugar maple,” Lettsom told a friend, “may promote some change in the Islands.”

Alas, a maple-sugar, consumer-based approach to ending Caribbean slavery failed.  It took government action to dismantle the miserable backbone of the Atlantic economy.  In 1808, the American and British governments banned the transatlantic slave trade and in the 1830s, Britain abolished slavery and emancipated slaves in the West Indies.  Maple sugar was not the answer, but maple desserts always remind me of those early activists who had the audacity to challenge an institution sanctioned by time and Scripture.

My dessert at Proof has given me more history to plumb and a recipe to try to recreate.  One of these days, we’ll get to Sylvester Graham, the nineteenth-century health reformer behind those Graham cracker crumbs.  For now, if you’d like a maple dessert, I can do no better than to point you to my old boss, the supremely talented Gina DePalma’s maple and mascarpone cheesecake.

Happy Thanksgiving!


3 thoughts on “Maple, A Sweetener to Be Thankful For

  1. This dessert sounds delicious. While my sister is bringing the desserts to our Thanksgiving dinner, including Indian Pudding, I’ve been working on the sides. I’m very happy to report that we’ll be having roasted acorn squash brushed with maple syrup, butter, cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg. Earlier this week we tested the recipe–and it’s a winner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s