Go to navigationMenu


The Sweet Obsession of Darra Goldstein ’73

Darra Goldstein '73

Many may remember Darra Goldstein ’73 as the guest editor of VQ’s popular EAT issue, published in the summer of 2013, but she’s better known as the founding editor of the James Beard Award-winning Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. Some have described the journal she edited for 12 years as a culinary version of the New Yorker; it incorporates photography, poetry, and art alongside articles on all aspects of the foods we eat.

Goldstein, currently the Willcox and Harriet Adsit Professor of Russian at Williams College, is a noted pioneer in the field of food studies. She has written or edited more than a dozen books, including four award-winning cookbooks, and her writing on food has appeared in numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Real Food, Food Arts, Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine.

Her latest project, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, is a nearly 900-page volume that examines our obsession with sugar and sweets. More than 250 experts—among them, restaurateurs, food historians, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and chemists—weighed in with entries that not only describe certain pastries, cakes, candies, and their ingredients but also examine them from historic, cultural, economic, and physiological perspectives.

We caught up with Goldstein in the middle of a book tour that has taken her from coast-to-coast.

What inspired you to tackle the topic of sweets?

Oxford University Press originally asked me to edit The Oxford Companion to World Food, but I demurred. I’d once worked on a large, edited volume for the Council of Europe involving nearly 50 countries, and it was politically very charged. I didn’t think I could give countries with celebrated gastronomic traditions sufficient space without marginalizing other countries with less elaborate or well-known traditions. When Oxford asked me for other ideas, I realized that sugar, more than just about any other foodstuff, has determined the course of human history, its pleasures and its pains.

What are the intended audiences for the book and how do you envision people using it?

The book is meant to be dipped into rather than read cover to cover. There’s a topical outline at the beginning that allows readers to easily find the categories that might interest them most, from biography and culture to health, politics, and religion, not to mention kitchen science. The entries are accessible and filled with curious facts, so I see the Companion as a volume for anyone who’s ever been curious about sugar and other sweet things. Not too long ago, the six-year-old son of a friend asked me why “Skittles” didn’t have its own entry, though he was happy to find “Tootsie Rolls.” I was doubly gratified—first, to learn that a determined child could navigate the entries, and second, to know that he’d want to.

What was the most surprising (or interesting) revelation from the myriad entries?

Oh, it’s impossible to choose a single revelation—there were so many! But one entry that continues to fascinate me is on unusual uses of sugar. I never knew that scientists have been able to preserve the waterlogged timber on medieval bridges by soaking them in a 67 percent sugar solution that renders the wood impermeable to water. Or that experiments with 3-D printing are using sugar to build artificial organs. Once living cells have been grown out on a network of sugar fibers that mimic blood vessels, the sugar is dissolved, leaving behind interconnected channels. So, one day the sugar we eat could be used to create the organs that help digest it!

As your introduction makes clear, our fervent desire for sugar has been implicated in everything from the perpetuation of slavery to a rise in the incidences of diabetes, yet sweets continue to inspire an almost romantic obsession in us. How did you address that duality while working on the project?

The dark side of things is almost always in the back of my mind—one reason, perhaps, why I was so drawn to Russian literature in college. So, for the rum we enjoy, we should remember its terrible implication in the slave trade and tell the full story. Or take chocolate. Young children even today, especially in Ivory Coast and Ghana, labor long hours to harvest the cacao pods, a cruelty that continues despite international outcry. Sugarcane harvesting is also grueling, as the artist Vik Muniz reminds us in his “Sugar Children” series—photographs of child workers in Saint Kitts made from drawings he executed in sugar. These hard facts are not meant to diminish our pleasure or make us forswear everything we enjoy, but it’s really important to be aware of rather than oblivious to the costs of our desires.

What were your favorite sweets growing up and how has your taste changed, if at all?

I loved Life Savers, especially during the holidays when they came packaged in special “books.” I loved Passover jellies and Sugar Babies. All of these candies were more or less straight sugar with flavorings, which I’m not as drawn to anymore. I still love fruit jellies, though I now indulge in the form of less sugary pâtes de fruits. My real weakness is marzipan.

--Photo of Darra Goldstein ‘73 by Stefan Wettainen

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, June 1, 2015