Submitted by Susanne Bacon
I grew up on exactly one candy a day as a little child. None if I hadn’t behaved. It was not tough. It was what I was used to. Christmas, Easter, and birthdays therefore meant something extraordinary for their mere abundance of sugar treats. And some very rare days I would receive ten Pfennigs as a four-or-five-year-old to walk to the mom-and-pop grocery store in our street to figure how much I could get with it.
Breakfast was German rye bread (by the way, not the American version with caraway seeds that is sold as German) with a spread of butter and home-made jam and a cup or two of hot cocoa. Fridays, my mother baked cake for the weekend. Every once in a while, we had German pancakes, crêpes a little thicker than the French variety, spread with sugar and with a compote on the side. And when we went out – which only happened very rarely – one glass of sweet soda was pretty much the limit (free refills were unheard of in European gastronomy). That was pretty much all the sugar my mother would permit us children to have. Apart from all the seasonal fresh fruit we ate.
Coming to the US my very first time as a teenager, I was thrown by the variety of sugared cereals that each and every household seemed to keep around – even with colorful marshmallows, oh my! As a teenager, I enjoyed it, of course. Today, I keep it to oatmeal and yoghurt again, maybe with a spoon of jam or some fresh fruit. Rather a savory open sandwich, though. But sugary cereal for me is simply … too sweet. I guess that my body was given an imprint in my childhood as to how much sweetness it can stand. And it isn’t very much. You will find that a lot of Mid and Northern European visitors and/or immigrants of my generation feel the same way.
These days, as places in the US raise a tax on sugared sodas to whatever purpose they claim, I still find that a whole lot of sweetness is added to food items that for a German are quite unexpected. Just take a look at bread labels and see how much sugar or corn syrup is added to this staple. And I have had sandwiches where I simply winced about the bread’s sweet flavor – it doesn’t work for me at all, especially not when eating some savory topping. And, of course, there are the very obvious items as well: honey-glazed ham, maple syrup infused bacon, candied cranberries in salads, thick layers of icing on cakes. I instinctively abstain from these.
I sometimes wonder whether these are remainders of early pioneer day preservation methods, when salt was probably quite rare, but sugar – as in honey or maple syrup – available. For obvious reasons, pioneers would have to have traded for imported salt before greater resources became available through salt mines, Syracuse in New York probably being the oldest. You can only start mining once you are safely settled. In Europe, that tradition goes back to the medieval ages. Salt was that widely used for preservation that it actually is still reflected in the Swabian word “Gesälz” (pronounce guh-‘zells), meaning “salted” and signifying jams. Originally it described anything salted down – interestingly it stuck with the least likely to have ever been preserved with salt: fruit!
Whether it is a matter of what we have gotten used to over the centuries, whether adding corn syrup to as many items as possible is in order to support the corn industry, or whether it is just a matter of very individual taste – I find it interesting, because the consumption of sugar in the US is simply striking compared to where I come from. And it is quite hard to evade eating it, unless you check each and every label for the contents.
I have started baking my own bread every once in a while. The German bakery here in Lakewood uses original recipes from overseas, too. Every once in a while, I buy American bread to console my husband’s American taste buds. He compromises on my weird tastes a lot, too, as it is. I admit to having baked cupcakes and topped them with icing in the past. I won’t pull a face or get picky when I am invited and there is sugary food on the table. But you will never find Ambrosia with marshmallows or Jell-O coming out of my kitchen. My taste buds seem to have made enough sweet memories back when – even with only one piece of candy a day.
Peg Doman says
I really enjoyed your story on sweets. When I was 16, we moved to Germany and lived first in a little village outside Bitburg called Wolsfeld. I was amazed at how different the desserts were. Most desserts were tarts in a sponge cake under layer with glazed fruit for the topping in German restaurants and everything baked seemed to be flavored with strange things, like almond and anise. In America, we flavored most things with vanilla, occasionally almond or lemon. I also remember when we went to visit Mama and Papa Weber after we had moved to Trier NATO housing, they served us tiny glasses of sherry which was totally foreign to our tastes, having never had alcohol in any way before. When we moved to Ramstein outside Kaiserslautern, another NATO base, the PX had the American stuff like chocolate bars, Coke in the snack bar and sweet cakes and cookies, the regular stuff!
I remember sugared cereal. My mom only bought cereals that she considered healthy, like Cheerios, corn flakes and Wheaties, and occasionally when she felt she had to take more care with our diets, it was oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. I hated oatmeal, I mean hated oatmeal, even with brown sugar on it. I’d let it sit until it was cold and gluey and detestable before being forced to eat it. However, as I got older, my one-year-older sister and I would make cookies from scratch and cakes from mixes. The only times we really had homemade cake was when it was someone’s birthday and Mom made sponge cake, not very sweet, and Crisco white frosting; she used Crisco because it was a really white frosting. She also decorated the cake with whatever colored elements the birthday child wanted: Happy Birthday, swags, flowers, stars to hold the candles, and she even made cars and trucks for my younger brother Joe’s cakes. I must admit I would sometimes spend my milk money for candy bars at the drug store on the way home from Holy Rosary school.
When my kids were young I didn’t buy sugary cereals and stuck to my mother’s choices but I would buy each of the three a box of whichever sugary mess seemed appropriate. It was wrapped in Christmas paper and had stick on bows. They didn’t even have to wait for breakfast to eat a serving. They could eat the the whole thing at one time as a snack on Christmas morning. It was gone by the end of the day.
Well, thanks for the trip down memory lane. I have great memories of Germany. I loved the buildings that were 500 years old, the history, the stately castles, even the ruined ones. I love history and it was as if were living in a museum. I loved going to the village church on Sunday morning and hearing the congregation singing in proud voices, and all in tune! I loved cobblestones, small villages, a vacation at Eibsee,visiting the Zugspitz, Fasching, especially Fasching! Thanks again
Susanne Bacon says
Wow, Peg! You give me the goosebumps with such an incredible response. Thank you, thank you so very much. And I can really “see” what you describe. Also the places you went to. How much fun. And your mom sounds like she must have been quite the cake artist. I rarely bake at all (being more the savory kind of person), and I’m far from any of the accomplishments in cakes you describe … 🙂
Joan Campion says
I agree with you as there is much to much sugar in the food in America at least in the last decades. It is most likely due to commercial interests as in ‘ sugar sells’. I share your revulsion to most commercial breads. Growing up in an Italian community along with a few German Jews I was used to honest bread from the Italian bakeries baked fresh daily and the same with the Jewish Rye from the Jewish bakery. And the Jewish bread had caraway which is still the only way I’ll eat it. It was my errand to collect the fresh loaves for my dad. Same with other choice items. I could get Berliners year around and they were so good. That and other choice pastries but none sweet like now. Leaving NY for points West including Alaska there were no such choices and I too resorted to baking my French Bread and Kaiser rolls and pastries. Chocolates from Europe are better too. Dark is best.
Only in recent years has any good bread been available out here. Less sugar means better health.
Susanne Bacon says
I agree – there has been a lot of change in the bread industry these past eight years 9that’s what I’m able to observe, since I came here only in 2010. Back then, the only “safe” bread (no sugar, no molasses, no syrup added) was to be gotten at Hess Deli and Bakery, it seems. These days, there is a wider choice available, and I’m very happy about it. Still, I keep baking my own bread every once in a while to make the variety a big wider. Your bread story is simply beautiful, by the way. Thank you.