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Collection Connections: ‘Black Cake’ by Charmaine Wilkerson

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Brittany Merritt Nash about sugar production and its relationship to Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.


As many of my viewers know, I focus mostly on traditional, local foods . . . recipes made with foods of local origin, indigenous foods or foods under local production for at least one thousand years. This is why I tend to stay away from recipes that use cane sugar, unless they come from Asia, where, as far as we know, it originated. (Black Cake, 256-7)

I don’t believe that we can fully lay claim to a tradition if we are not willing to recognize what we have taken from other cultures over time, for better or worse. (259)

These quotes come from the conversation between Marble and the CEO of her media production company, which eventually leads Marble to choose the topic of next book: sugar. To help us understand the themes of  Charmaine Wilkerson’s own novel, it’s useful to consider what Marble’s book might have been about—the social, economic, and political facts behind sugar, and the history that ties the Bennett family together.

In Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s History of Slavery and Empire, Andrea Stuart writes that “More than any other commodity in human history, sugar has shaped our tastes, transformed our landscape and influenced our politics” (59). There is an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture devoted to sugar, and that’s because, particularly in the last few centuries, sugar churned the wheels of history. Quoting Black Cake once more

Sugar cane has traveled far from its indigenous territories, having been taken from Asia to Africa and other areas of the world, including the Americas. By the 1600s, sugar cane and the sweet liquid pressed from its stalks had taken hold in the Caribbean, turning some men into kings of commerce and others into slaves. (257)

This pursuit of sweetness would change the trajectory of four continents between the 16th and 19th centuries. The sugarcane plant, which is a variety of grass, was first refined in India around 500 BCE, and then sugar refining spread to China and the Middle East, with a slow migration and cultivation of sugarcane through several centuries, from Asia and the Middle East and then to the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The expansion of the Arab world in the Mediterranean, and the Moorish conquest of Spain, brought sugar to some parts of Europe in 8-9th centuries, and during the Crusades in the 11th century, European soldiers started learning how to process and refine sugar in the Middle East. By the time Spain and Portugal began their exploration and colonization of the Americas in the late 15th century, sugar was still a rare commodity, mostly consumed by royalty and the very wealthy. For the most part, Europeans sweetened their food with fruit or honey, and most did not consume sweetened foods at all except on very rare occasions.

The rareness of sugar in early modern England is confirmed in correspondence such as Richard Broughton’s letter to his father in law, Richard Bagot, in 1590, where he says he was sending sugar and pepper as New Year’s gifts. During this time, sugar was considered a spice—rare and expensive, similar to other spices like pepper and nutmeg and cinnamon, so it would have been a very special and welcome gift and was used sparingly, and not available at all to lower classes.

Letter from Richard Broughton (Richard Bagot’s son-in-law) to Richard Bagot, 1590/1. Folger Shakespeare Library: L.a.258.

Europeans at this time highly valued sugar as a medicinal product, and it was often featured in medicinal recipes. This English cookbook and medicine book, from the late 17th century, contains a recipe for medicine “to quicken a woman,” or to make a pregnant woman feel fetal movements made of raspberries, clove jelly flowers, insect juice, and sugar, with  sugar appearing as an ingredient in several other medicinal recipes in this book.

English cookery and medicine book, [manuscript]. ca. 1677-1711. Folger Shakespeare Library: V.b.380.
The date of this particular medicinal recipe is important, though, because everything changed for sugar in the 17th century. During the mid-17th century, in what was called the sugar revolution, sugar suddenly became much more widely available for Europeans. In many of the English medicinal and recipe books held by the Folger Shakespeare Library, sugar is a common ingredient and there are increasing numbers of recipes for desserts using sugar in English cookbooks by the late 17th century. For instance, a cookbook by a woman named Beulah Hutson in the 1680s includes dozens of dessert recipes featuring sugar such as Paste Royal, a sweetened tart paste calling for nutmeg, cinnamon, two pounds of flour, half to quarter pound of sugar, half pound of butter, and two eggs.

Receipt book [manuscript] by Beulah Hutson. circa 1680s. Folger Shakespeare Library: V.a.684.
Hutson also describes processes for boiling and clarifying sugar and making syrups, highlighting an important point: with sugar more available in England by the 1680s, cooks had to learn how to work with and process it.

Receipt book [manuscript] by Beulah Hutson. circa 1680s. Folger Shakespeare Library: V.a.684.
There are also a number of cake recipes, including individual “harte cakes,” or heart-shaped cakes, contained in Hutson’s recipe book. The number of cake recipes in this book is particularly significant. While cakes have been around since ancient Egypt and Greece, along with many other civilizations, ancient cakes would have mostly been sweetened with honey and resemble more of a bread. The Romans later added dried fruit, but their cakes were still more like a bread or a bun. These were the kinds of cakes most common in Europe, until the 17th century, when you would have started to see cake recipes that used more sugar. These cakes were reserved mostly for special occasions.

Receipt book [manuscript]. ca 1700. Folger Shakespeare Library: E.a.4.
For instance, in this recipe book, there is a recipe “To make a very good cake.” The author instructs their audience to combine flour with yeast, milk, and salt, and let it rise until there are crackles on top. Then, take about 2 pounds of melted butter, some spices like mace, nutmeg, and caraway, and ¾ pound sugar, and combine it with the dough, then finish the cake by adding 5 pounds of dried currants. The cake is heavily reliant on the currants for flavor and sweetness, but the use of sugar in the cake, rather than honey, is indicative of changing tastes and availability of ingredients in Europe. It was also during the 17th century that Europeans started to ice their cakes, usually by beating eggs and sugar together, which some of the recipe books in the Folger collections indicate.

It’s important to note that only the more privileged classes would have had access to these handwritten recipe books. Most recipes, for cakes as well as for medicines, would have been passed down by women through word of mouth and by teaching younger girls or other women the recipes and techniques, similar to how Pearl passed along the black cake methods in the novel and then Eleanor passed it down to Benny.

Recipes in the Folger collections that feature sugar bring up a number of questions. Where did the authors of these recipes get sugar? Whose labor created that sugar? Where did that sugar start, and where did it end? What is the story of the “very good cake,” and the other cakes in the Folger collections? What stories do these recipes tell—or what do they leave out?

One is a story of colonization—returning again to this “very good cake,” it’s important to note that the sugar is from the Caribbean, and the spices are from India and Indonesia, all areas under British colonial control or under the power of the East India Company. Even the currants, in the quantity called for in this recipe, were only more common in England by the late 16th century as a result of British trade relationships and imperial power and would soon come to England from the British dominion of Australia. Cakes like this would not have been possible without the British Empire.

The second story of the “very good cake,” and the other cakes and desserts and confections that populated English tables and teacups after the sugar revolution, is of course, one of labor and slavery. Sugarcane is an extremely labor-intensive crop to process and refine. It can only be grown in warm climates, and takes more than a year to be ready for harvest.

Jan van der Straet. Nova reperta. Engraving, ca. 1600. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART Vol. f81 no.13.

An image from the series, Nova Reperta or “The Inventions of Modern Times,” by Flemish artist Jan van der Straet (Stradanus) shows the labor process of turning sugar cane into sugar. The refining process is complex and dangerous. The juice must be extracted from the canes, and then boiled and processed and refined. In this image, a water mill on the left would have turned the rollers that pressed the sugarcane. In the front, they cut the sugarcane into smaller pieces; in the back of the image, men chop down the sugarcane; and in the middle, they are shown boiling and processing the sugar. It was incredibly dangerous work—sugar workers commonly lost limbs and suffered severe burns, and sugar boilers had to be manned around the clock, particularly during harvest months.

The labor-intensive process of growing and refining sugar is one reason why it would have been so rare, and so very expensive, for most Europeans to afford. Yet by the end of the 17th century, while still a luxury product, sugar was available enough in Europe that it was a ubiquitous ingredient in early modern recipe books. In Sweetness and Power, the anthropologist Sydney Mintz writes about how Europeans and Americans transformed what was once a rare delicacy into a commonplace and cheap commodity (148).

They did this through slave labor. While the image by Stradanus depicts what appears to be European men harvesting and processing sugarcane, the people who did most of this labor were enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. As European tastes demanded more sweetness, more Africans were captured and enslaved, and taken to the Americas to work and die on sugar plantations. It was sugar, far more than any other crop or commodity, that fueled the capture of 12 million Africans in the transatlantic slave trade.

Sugar was extremely difficult to grow in Europe, so Europeans began exploring other sites for sugar production during the colonization of the Americas. The Portuguese first brought sugar production to the Western Hemisphere in the 16th century, in what is now Brazil. On these new sugar plantations, they used slave labor, and increasingly, African enslaved labor by the early 17th century after the collapse of American indigenous populations, but it wasn’t until Dutch traders and merchants introduced sugar production from Brazil to the English colony of Barbados in the 1640s that the sugar revolution really took off. It was the beginning of what would eventually become massive British and French sugar and slave empires in the Caribbean and by the 1650s, sugar grown in Barbados began to reach English markets.

A true & exact history of the island of Barbadoes. Richard Ligon. 1673. Folger Shakespeare Library: L2076.

In Barbados, the landscape of sugar was already apparent in Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes in 1657. A number of sugar plantations dot this map, delineated with the names of planters. On the coast are dwellings that would have belonged to merchants who traded the sugar. In the northern section of the island, in the parish of St. Lucy, enslaved men are shown trying to escape from a white slave catcher.

Historian Hilary Beckles calls Barbados the first Black slave society, because the entire society functioned around slavery and the production of sugar. The mortality rates on most Caribbean plantations were very high, often with life expectancies of only a few years. The whole economy of Barbados was based in slavery and sugar production, the government was controlled by enslavers who profited from sugar, and the cultural characteristics of Barbados were based around slavery and racial hierarchy, even down to Barbadian law. It was in Barbados that the first slave law or code was created in 1661, which then traveled around the Western Hemisphere and was adopted by other Caribbean colonies and by the American colonies. Slave codes defined enslaved people as chattel, or moveable property, and created the racial categories, and ideas and definitions of “blackness” and “whiteness,” that we still live with today, a direct result of the sugar revolution in the 17th century.  To give a sense of how dramatically sugar consumption increased in Britain as a result of the slave trade, in the year 1700 the average British per-capita consumption of sugar was 4 pounds but by 1800, only a century later, it was 18 pounds per person, or a 400 percent increase (Mintz, p. 67).

The image of Barbados, dotted with plantations is the unspoken, unseen story that doesn’t appear in English cookbooks. Every time we see a cake recipe call for sugar, we are seeing the history of colonization and enslavement in the Atlantic world. Every time the very good cake was baked it involved the people whose forced labor created that sugar, on the other side of the ocean. The sugar called for in these recipes and medicines are fragments, remnants, of a larger global history. They are evidence of colonialism and slavery and capitalism and trade, in something as seemingly simple as a cake.

The black cake in the book is a Caribbean variation of the fruit cakes and puddings created during the explosion of English dessert-making after the sugar revolution. For black cake, cooks used ingredients and techniques from the Caribbean such as soaking fruits in rum and blackening the sugar or molasses. In many parts of the Caribbean, such as in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, black cake became an essential Christmas dessert and tradition. Black cake is one of many foods that people in the Caribbean adapted, made their own, and passed down through generations, becoming an important marker of identity and survival.

[To learn more about Caribbean black cake, join us for the Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute]

Returning to the novel, Charmaine Wilkerson uses black cake as a device—a recipe that contains a history, that bonds people and family and identity across diaspora and migration and separation and indeed, that cake, and the sugar it uses, contains multitudes. The island that Eleanor came from is loosely based on Jamaica, which the most lucrative sugar colony in the British Empire in the 18th century. Her mother would have been descended from enslaved Africans, ripped from West Africa to make sugar for European desserts. Her father was descended from Chinese indentured laborers, brought to the Caribbean as cheap labor after slavery was abolished in 1834. The black cake that Eleanor learned to make as a child contained this history, descended as it was from British cakes that used slave sugar. Black cake was adapted and made new by Caribbean cooks and then passed down across generations.

As Marble observes in her book

Sugar cane. A grass with stalks as thick as bamboo, squeezed to produce a sweet liquid that, ultimately, changed the world. (Black Cake, 260)


Brittany Merritt Nash is a visiting assistant professor at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota. A specialist in the history of the British Empire in the Caribbean, her research focuses on the history of health and medicine in former British colonies.


Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and white Words, Words, Words returns on Thursday, February 2 with a discussion of Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth. Registration opens on Tuesday, January 4. We hope to see you then!


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