When I was growing up in Los Angeles, an elderly woman across the street named Hattie Hewson made homemade cookies for all the neighborhood kids. Upon our knock Hattie would emerge in a flowery housedress bearing a warm pan of buttery, chewy oatmeal cookies. It was as if she were doing it just for us, which she may have been — she lived alone and didn’t appear to have a family. Our consistent glee may have been what got her through her days.
In addition to the Hattie infusions, sweet stuff was standard fare in my childhood. I remember spending hours separating my Halloween candy into piles and trading particular pieces with my sister as the arsenal dwindled. After school, there was always a kid whose household was more lenient than mine, and we’d spend hours raiding his pantry until our stomachs would feel like they literally were about to burst. When I was thirteen, I spent a summer at a northern California camp run by hippies where the food was so healthy my friends and I would spend hours talking about all the candy we’d eat when we got back home. We ended up discovering a way to break into the camp’s kitchen, but the hardest stuff we could find was a cache of carob chips. We cursed for a second and then scarfed them down.
By my twenties, my relationship with sugar had become more complicated. When I was teaching high school in South Africa, I began suffering from debilitating mid-morning “hazes”: I’d be in class, and suddenly my brain would feel as if it were encompassed by fog, my students’ questions like vague flares. Fortunately I saw a good nutritionist who suggested that I should avoid processed foods, especially sugar, because my high metabolism would churn through them so quickly I’d be left bereft. She said that my hazes were caused by low-blood sugar and warned that I was flirting with hypoglycemia. I eliminated refined sugar from my diet and within a month the hazes were gone. I’ve kept my distance from sugar ever since.
Now that I am a father, sugar has returned. Rio likes candy, what do you know, and I sometimes think the sugar industry has conspired with the commercial-holiday lobby to create a constant stream of junk: Halloween is just the beginning; then there are holiday parades where people throw candy to bystanders from floats; then Christmas with its damn candy canes and stockings; then Valentine’s Day with its candied hearts; Easter isn’t far behind with its ridiculous chocolate eggs. I suppose summer provides some relief. Sometimes I feel like I’m holding a shield over Rio to protect him from all the sugar falling from the sky. Not that he asks for my intervention; a recent short story he dictated to me for a school competition concluded with superheroes saving the planet and then showering the earth with streams of candy in celebration.
Perhaps I wouldn’t care so much if candy didn’t tweak Rio’s behavior. But when he eats artificially colored, processed confections, it’s like he becomes a strange robot with ears that don’t hear and a body that moves in jagged, jerky motions. I don’t notice it when he eats what I consider sweet food: edibles that actually have some nutritional value in them. But give him some Skittles and clear the room.
It’s sad to me how corrupted sugar has become; as Michael Pollan has pointed out, sweetness is actually rare in nature, so humans have always associated its taste with comfort and abundance. I know Hattie’s cookies did that for me. But now confection appears in almost every bowl; I’m afraid we beat the sacred right out of sugar when we learned to “refine” it.
So here I am a sugar cynic, scoffing at the Sour Patch Kids but also trying to remember the wondrous road that used to open up when an adult offered me a sweet treat. At my grandfather’s funeral in 2008, I met for the first time the son of my great Aunt Lorraine, who had passed away a few years prior and who had played an important role in my childhood. I told my cousin Bob about the icy bottles of Coke and plates full of Nilla wafers that Aunt Lorraine would offer my sister and me every time we visited. She so consistently gifted us with goodies that even now I warm at the thought of her. Bob nodded his head and choked back tears as he heard the story, no doubt recalling similar moments with his mother.
When Rio and I returned from my grandfather’s funeral, we learned that our neighbor Cubie across the street had died while we were gone. In the coming months, Cubie’s husband Ollie began mowing the lawn obsessively, seemingly to give himself something to do in her absence. Rio started walking over to visit with Ollie, and he’d inevitably return with tales of cookies and a few uneaten ones in his hand. I thought about discouraging the practice, but who was I to deny Ollie and Rio the pleasure of this sweet memory?