Grim's Grub: This sugar has a sweet, sticky, dark and tragic history

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Though many have revolted against carbohydrates, especially sugars, for the past 15 years or more, sweeteners have long shaped the history of the various people across the globe.

This is because sweeteners have long been important and desirable in trade, especially when cooking methods were limited. So sugar, like salt, would make a lot of things palatable before technology made our globe so much smaller.

I'm sure you know that Native Americans cherished their maple sap and maple sugar in our region. Egyptians virtually worshiped honey. In warm climates, sugar cane products reigned supreme, including both white sugar and the byproduct of its production, molasses, which was long considered a more attainable sweetener back when refined white sugar was just so expensive.

The production of molasses goes back to 500 B.C. in India and once was exclusively the byproduct of refinement of white cane sugar. Juices from the cane were boiled to concentrate it, and the thickened, dark syrup was drained off at different stages. The product became molasses, from the Portuguese "melaco," derived from the Latin "mel," for honey.

The first recorded use of the name is in a 1582 Portuguese book. I said it was once just produced from cane sugar, but it can now also be produced from beets and sorghum, though the last isn't technically the same.


In European countries, back when spices were a huge trade with enough monetary value to encourage Columbus to voyage across the globe seeking a shorter trade route, molasses would have been the favored sweetener for those who couldn't afford the refined white cane sugar. One molasses product that has left its mark on literature, in historical fiction and nonfiction alike is “black bread."

Molasses long served as a sweetener that would improve the flavor of breads made from low grade wheat flour and flour extenders like rye, commonly eaten by lower class citizens. In Russia, it was called Borodinsky bread, seasoned with caraway and coriander, and it came to represent the plight of the working class shortly after the Napoleonic Wars.

In the U.S., molasses was similarly used in long storage corn-based breads called “Journey Cakes." A teacher in elementary school made some for my class to try forever ago, but I haven't been able to find a similar recipe anywhere.

In other parts of the world, molasses was an important ingredient in making cheap alcohol, including rum. Even George Washington had a recipe for a molasses beer made while on the war path. It was furthermore used much as we use maple syrup on Johnny cakes and in long storage gingerbreads. Japan and England still use it as a flavoring syrup. Japan calls it “black honey” while England calls it "treacle."

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you may recall the poor neighbor boy, Walter Cunningham, drowning his vegetables and meat with “syrup." Sweets, even molasses, would have been rare and valued by destitute families like Walter's. It's worth noting all the children in Scout's class kept their lunches in molasses buckets, except Walter, whose family couldn't even afford molasses. That tells you how valuable molasses once was in the U.S..

In addition to a food product, molasses has been useful in the production of ethanol. Aside from the affordability and accessibility of refined sugar, its use in production of ethanol and biofuels is perhaps part of the reason it's not as popular on dinner tables today. On Jan. 15, 1919, the storage of molasses for ethanol production led to a deadly disaster in Boston. Imagine, if you will, a large storage tank filled with 2.3 million gallons - 13,000 tons of thick, dark molasses in one giant stadium-like vat in a Boston neighborhood. Now imagine if such a tank were to burst, sending all of that molasses through city streets in a massive, 35 mph wave.

That's what happened at the Purity Distilling Company in Boston, resulting in the “Boston Molasses Disaster," also known as the “Great Molasses Flood,” among other names. It resulted in 21 deaths and 150 injuries, proving that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Sweet Molasses Bread


Adapted from

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 2/3 cups buttermilk
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup blackstrap molasses

Heat the oven to 325 degrees and grease a 4x8 bread pan.
Combine the dry ingredients in one bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg and molasses. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir together until combined. Try not to overbeat the mixture, even though it will be difficult to stir.

Spoon the batter into your bread pan and even out the top with an oiled knife. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, then turn it onto a rack to cool.

George Washington's Molasses Small Beer

Take a large sifter full of bran hops to your taste. Boil these for 3 hours, then strain out 30 gallons into a cooler. Put in 3 gallons of molasses while the beer is scalding hot, or rather draw the molasses into the cooler and strain the beer on it while boiling hot.

Let this stand until it is little more than blood warm, then put in a quart of yeast. If the weather is very cold, cover it over with a blanket and let it work in the cooler for 24 hours, then put it into the cask. Leave the bung open until it is almost done working. Bottle it that week it was brewed.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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