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The Sugar King

In writing nonfiction, imagination is a critical ingredient. It's the jump-start that makes a writer dive down the rabbit hole to explore why this or that is how it is. Historical nonfiction is a meta endeavor -- following other people's rabbit holes and back-tracking to figure out which histories might be real, and which simply a creation disguised as fact by history writers.

Yet something, real or unreal, sparks the nonfiction writer's imagination. In the case of my book on capitalists in the food industry, it is character: How DID this guy pull off that feat? Considering the pass we are at today in our foodways, why did other people let him or her get away with it?

Here is a riff on how I came to research Claus Spreckels (1828-1908),

the 19th century Sugar King.

First, knowing only his name, I think of innocent joy. Three-year-old I on Christmas Eve watched hard winter stars -- celestial scintilla -- for signs of Santa Claus. Spreckels' name makes me remember sugar cookies that beckon with star-like, winking sparkles, promises of sweetness and comfort. Maybe I saw the Spreckels box of sugar as my mommy made something yummy, like frosting for a cake. I was sure to get a scraper or beater to lick.

Maybe it's because "spreckels" sounds like something with which to decorate cupcakes.

I was one of those dreamy, bookish girls with lingering "baby fat." I thought big rock candy mountains might really be edible.

And if, in the deep recesses of my memory, the only relation to spreckels is "sprechen," even that carries the sweetness of intellectual life. They speak. Thence so much unfurls.

I know, too, now, what a dark history underpins the insubstantial gossamer of the sugar industry's sweet lies. The history of sugar in the last two or three millennia traces the essential unkindness of people to people. Starting where the sugar narrative beings, with its dissemination across the middle east, the knowledge of sugar cane cultivation followed the Koran. (Organized, especially proselytized, religion and sugar are such apt metaphors, one for the other. Each promises gratification, but turns out to be a means for one set of people to ruin the lives of another set of people.) The Crusaders brought the first crystal nuggets of cane sugar to Europe. Desire took fire.

The brutal history of sugar traces a path from a New Guinean creation myth, to Ayurvedic medicine, to a fundamental engine of violent capitalism (aka mercantilism) and the global slave trade, to a pandemic of obesity and diabetes today.

Spreckels, along with the Robber Barron capitalists of late nineteenth century America, amassed magnificent wealth by extending the sugar saga of political domination, and exploitation of land and labor. He engaged in ruthless business competition and took swift advantage of his adversaries' weaknesses. Reading his CV, he does not come across as a sweet guy. Under the harsh light of revisionist history, his ascendency seems to illustrate much that is wrong with unfettered capitalism, including the wholesale displacement of people, unanswerable environmental degradation, and the toppling of governments.

On a personal level, it sounds as if Spreckels were an unremitting control freak. His two youngest of four sons sued him and the two elder sons for cutting them out of the family business.

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