Monday, March 08, 2010

sweetness and light

There are times when I become unexpectedly obsessed with a certain flavor, a single ingredient or, somewhat more rarely, a single food, and it becomes the prevalent note of nearly anything I make until the fever passes and I move onto more varied fields. Notable examples have included lime juice, black pepper, and fettuccine alfredo from a box (I'm looking at you, sophomore year of undergrad), but a few years ago what I craved more than just about anything was honey. Which was odd, because up until that point my relationship with the golden liquid had been rather strained; it tasted too sweet to me, it set my teeth on edge, and the flavor was so strong that I almost felt headachey if I ate more than the tiniest amount. It was something I sometimes managed to keep on hand for mixing with lemon juice in case of a sore throat, but other than that I used it rarely and I'll admit that, after my brief obsession, I went mostly back to my honeyless ways. I had, however, developed an increased tolerance for the particular sweetness of honey, so different from sugar, and I was more willing to use it in things even if I didn't often remember to.

Which is good, because it turns out honey is awesome, and that basically every civilization prior to right now has widely acknowledged it as pretty much the greatest thing since before sliced bread was a twinkle in a yeast's eye. Records of wild honey collection are present everywhere from the bible to cave paintings, in Asia, Europe, Africa, India, and the Americas, from at least 6000 BC onward. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks kept "domesticated" hives--bees can never be truly domesticated, merely housed and catered to--built from local materials, and apiaries were a fairly standard part of everyday life in Europe starting in at least the seventeenth century. Wild hives were once so important that the maps to their locations were jealously guarded and passed on in wills. Honey has been used as a medicine and a preservative--it has antibacterial properties, and contains a minute amount of hydrogen peroxide that enables it to admirably preserve meats and such that have been submerged in it--and along with bee pollen has served as a major daily food source for plenty of peoples over the centuries.

Bees are also pretty neat. They communicate by dancing--the only Nobel Prize ever awarded to an entomologist was given to Karl von Frisch in 1973 for this discovery--pollinate the plants that lead to at least a third of our daily food intake, and happily provide us with as much honey as we give them the space to create. Bees have been feted as messengers of the gods, and used as weapons during war and as self-defense for individuals; imagine a hive full of angry insects lobbed at you or a pissed-off nun siccing her hive on you (both real happenings) and the term "biological warfare" has another meaning. All worker bees are female, with the male drones just hanging around waiting to maybe mate with the queen during her generally singular flight, and occasionally the worker bees are "dragged to the entrance... and dramatically pushed out" when a fertile queen is already in residence as this effectively renders them functionless hive members. Bees provide humans with honey, pollen, wax, propolis, and venom, which has potential medical uses for a variety of diseases including arthritis. Honey, too, is coming back as a healing agent, with medical professionals using it as a treatment for burn victims instead of chemical healers with excellent results, including faster, less painful healing. The description of how hives are constructed from scratch is one of the most awe-inspiring things I've read lately.

All this and more I learned from Holley Bishop's Robbing the Bees, one of the first books I tackled from my newly-expanded bookshelves, and I'm a convert. Honey is packed full of vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and amino acids, and trace amounts of pollen for protein; refined sugar contains virtually none of these benefits, and because most people experience complex sugars as less sweet than simple sugars like honey you have to eat more of the refined sugars while also losing out on all the good stuff in simpler sweetners. Refined sugar is actually responsible for the downfall of honey, and the average person (as of 2005, when my book was published) consumes 152 pounds of refined sugars and corn syrup every year as opposed to just over two cups of honey.

I eat honey every day now, and bee pollen as well. (Although I keep that to a minimum, because apparently too much can make you feel sort of crazy; the recommended beginning dosage on my bottle is a mere 1/4 tsp.) I've even been using it on cuts instead of neosporin, with good result. I'm already excited for the summer farmers markets; Chicago has a honey co-op as well as a number of other local producers to draw from, and I'm looking forward to sampling their wares. It's true that honey is more expensive than sugar, and I also don't yet know how to incorporate it into baking gracefully, but I'm making an effort to take at least a portion of my daily sweetness from this nuanced and somewhat anachronistic source. Bishop describes it as "a sweet, condensed garden in your mouth," and what could be more seductive as winter draws to a close? On grey days, I dream of the flowers, the effort, the sunshine in every drop, and as I drink my tea I smile a little more widely than before.


Z said...

"the greatest thing since before sliced bread was a twinkle in a yeast's eye"!!!

ammie said...

I'm glad somebody thought that was funny... Humor is somehow the scariest thing to put out on the internet.

erica said...

hmm...i never knew bee pollen could make you crazy. i'll have to watch out for that!

Lauren said...

"Honey's amaaaaazing!"