School retirees get sweet-talked during history presentation on sugar

Julia Harrison speaks at a Sno-King School Retirees presentation Thursday.

The Sno-King School Retirees organization invited the public to join them for a sugar-filled afternoon Thursday featuring cultural anthropologist Julia Harrison.

The retirees organization partnered with Humanities Washington’s Speaker Bureau to bring Harrison’s tempting talk, “Sticky Subject: The History and Culture of Sugar” to the Edmonds School District’s Educational Service Center in Lynnwood.

Harrison noted she was born with a sweet tooth and an inquisitive nature to match. From an early age, she found her favorite part of traveling to be seeking out and experiencing the local desserts wherever she went.

This led to an interest in the cultural and religious significance desserts held in that region, and she turned her passion into a master’s degree in applied anthropology — and the enviable job of studying sweet foods and the history behind them.

Julia Harrison

During her talk, Harrison guided attendees on a journey through culture and time to explore  human relationships with sugar. The stories she shared ranged from 8,000-year-old cave drawings depicting the gathering of honey to the invention of ninja balls (small portable balls of sugar and spice used by Japanese ninjas as fuel for their adventures).

Harrison also covered the demand for sugar that fueled the slave trade and how the lasting impact shaped those regional cultures. Flaunting one’s access to sugar has been used as a demonstration of wealth and status throughout time, she said.

In contrast, Harrison also described the exponential growth of sugar in the modern diet and the ease of access to sugar we (over?) enjoy now.

A slide of sugar facts from Harrison’s presentation.
Sugar facts from Harrison’s presentation:
– 90% of people have a sweet tooth
– 75% of processed foods have hidden sugars in them
– Sugar cane was the primary sugar source until 1830, when sugar beet became a replacement. It now contributes 40% of the world’s output.
– The life expectancy of a slave on a sugar plantation was only 10 years.
– Often an ax was left near the sugar cane rollers that squeezed the juice from the cane, because it was common for slaves working in the fields to get an arm stuck in the roller and they would need to cut it off to get free.
* In 1598, Queen Elizabeth I was reported to have teeth that were blackened and rotting from the excess sugar in her diet.
* Sweets are often used in various cultures to balance out negative emotions. At Chinese funerals, guests are often given a bag of sweets to help ease their grief.
* After the war, there was a black market for sweet potatoes in Tokyo.

* At one garden party, as a display of wealth, a nobleman had a large stag made from sugar. He used a golden bow and arrow to shoot the stag in the heart and when he did, it bled dessert wine for his guests.

More information on Harrison, her other projects and artwork can be found on her site. To explore more events and offerings from Humanities Washington, please visit their website,

— By Judy Hendrix 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.