On Monday, an article in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to publish a study blaming fat and cholesterol for coronary heart disease while largely exculpating sugar. This study, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, helped set the agenda for decades of public health policy designed to steer Americans into low-fat foods, which increased carbohydrate consumption and exacerbated our obesity epidemic.
This revelation rightly reminds us to view industry-funded nutrition science with skepticism and to continue to demand transparency in scientific research. But ending Big Sugar’s hold on the American diet will require a broader understanding of the various ways in which the industry, for 150 years, has shaped government policy in order to fuel our sugar addiction.
Today’s sugar industry is a product of the 19th century, when the key federal sugar policy was not a dietary guideline but a tariff on sugar imports. In the decades after the Civil War, Americans’ per capita consumption of sugar more than doubled, from 32 pounds in 1870 to 80 pounds in 1910. As a result, the government got hooked on sugar, too: By 1880, sugar accounted for a sixth of the federal budget.
To protect domestic refiners, then the largest manufacturing employer in Northern cities, the tariff distinguished between two kinds of sugar: “refined” and “raw.” Refined sugar that was meant for direct consumption paid a much higher rate than did raw sugar crystals intended for further refining and whitening. But by the late 1870s, new industrial sugar factories in the Caribbean began to jeopardize this protectionist structure. Technologically sophisticated, these factories could produce sugar that, while raw by the government’s standard, was consistently much closer to refined sugar than ever before (akin to sweeteners such as Sugar in the Raw today). The American industry now faced potential competition from abroad.
The country’s largest refiners mobilized on several fronts. They lobbied the United States Congress to adopt chemical instruments that could measure the percentage of sucrose in a sugar cargo, and to deem sugar refined when its sucrose content was sufficiently high. Previously, customs officers had judged the purpose of a sugar cargo by its color, smell, taste and texture, as people throughout the sugar trade had done for centuries. Now refiners argued that such sensory methods were ripe for abuse because they depended on a subjective appraisal. They demanded a scientific standard instead — one that would reveal some “raw” sugar to be nearly pure and thus subject to higher tariffs — and they prevailed.
Their plea for scientific objectivity may have sounded sensible, but it masked nefarious aims. Like the tobacco industry in the 1960s, these refiners knew that scientific questions were hard for outsiders to adjudicate, and thus easier to manipulate to an industry’s advantage. If refiners were to bribe a customs chemist to shade his results in their favor — as they were routinely accused of doing for decades, beginning in the 1870s — such corruption would be much harder for the government to detect than it had been when everyone could see and smell the same sugar.
In addition to their lobbying, refiners waged a public campaign to dissuade Americans from eating raw sugar. One of their common advertisements featured a disgusting insect that supposedly inhabited raw sugar and caused an ailment called “grocer’s itch” in those who handled it. Other pamphlets suggested that Cuban factories operated by slaves or Chinese indentured workers would “give the people sugar teeming with animals and Cuban dirt.”
The refiners’ real agenda, of course, was not Americans’ health; it was to maximize their profits from selling sugar. Thanks in part to their influence over both tariff policy and the new methods of customs collection, the big refiners were soon able to form the Sugar Trust, one of the most notorious and successful monopolies of the Gilded Age. By the early 20th century, belief in the health benefits of refined sugar was so widespread that increasing Americans’ consumption of it actually became a goal of federal policy.
Looking back at the industry’s transformation of sugar (an edible substance derived from a plant) into sucrose (a molecule), we also see the roots of “nutritionism” in United States policy. That’s the idea that what matters to human health is not food per se but rather a handful of isolable biochemical factors. As food critics like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle have argued, nutritionism is better at helping processed-food companies market their products as healthy (“with Omega-3 added!”) than it is at promoting our well-being.
Today, the sugar industry remains politically powerful, with consequences for both public health and the environment. The Miami Herald reported this summer, for example, that the industry contributed $57 million to Florida elections in the last 22 years; meanwhile, state officials have resisted efforts to make sugar companies pay for their damage to the Everglades.
If we want to check the power of Big Sugar, we’d be well served to acknowledge the long record — past as well as present — of the industry’s machinations.
Writing that gets under your skin, in your bones, will play in your head and memory like nothing else. While painting, photography, and movies can come at you with a very particular force—an in-your-face power that, when done correctly, unearths hitherto unexamined or marginalized feelings—dramatic literature lives in your ear, and, when it’s truly great, shapes how you shape words yourself.
As a very young writer or, at any rate, as a young person who longed to write, I was especially taken by Edward Albee’s plays, the astringent power of all those speeches and curt one-liners that disinfected or seemed to scour a stage world lousy with illusions. He was a different kind of realist. As the youngest of the three artists who reshaped the architecture of the postwar American theatre—Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller completed the trinity, and were more than a decade older than their younger colleague—Albee didn’t make work that believed only in the story. That is, the playwright wasn’t entirely convinced that telling a story led to anything as trite as catharsis. While Williams and Miller believed their protagonists—and often identified with them—Albee was just as often skeptical if not down right distrustful of what his characters said, and how they said it.
Despite the violence of their words, Albee’s characters do not speak freely; they are always hedging their bets because life is disappointing, and who wants to have less of what they already have? The best that Albee’s characters manage to do is steel themselves or bulwark themselves against the fake, often within hollow conventions like marriage that his domineering women and seemingly passive men cling to and talk about wryly, and with more longing than their shared bitchiness would ever let on. Like many of us, Albee learned to cope—to build the defenses he felt were necessary to survive—while sitting on his mother’s knee. But he was rarely, if ever, coddled as a child. In an interview with Lillian Ross that appeared in this magazine in 1961, after three of his first short plays were performed in New York and abroad—1959’s “The Zoo Story”; and “The Death of Bessie Smith” and “The American Dream,” both from 1961—Albee told the reporter a bit about his background:
Born in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 1928, and came to New York when I was two weeks old . . . I have no idea who my natural parents were, although I’m sure my father wasn’t a President, or anything like that. I was adopted by my father, Reed A. Albee, who worked for his father, Edward Franklin Albee, who started a chain of theatres with B. F. Keith and then sold out to R.K.O. My father is retired now. My mother is a remarkable woman. An excellent horsewoman and saddle-horse judge. I was riding from the time I was able to walk. My parents had a stable of horses in Larchmont or Scarsdale or Rye, one of those places. I don’t ride anymore. Just sort of lost interest in it. My parents gave me a good home and a good education. . . . I went to Choate. . . . I was very happy there. I went on to Trinity College, in Hartford, for a year and a half. I didn’t have enough interest in it to stick it out for four years. . . . After a year and a half, the college suggested that I not come back, which was fine with me.
Memory has a way of trivializing the truth—and smoothing over the past—in a way that is misleading. Albee’s mother may have been an excellent horsewoman, but her skills did not extend to mothering. She treated her only child as something of an accessory, and lived for herself—for her idea of power. The best and most troublesome of Albee’s female characters are her. After Albee left home, he never saw his father again, and he had no real contact with his mother until seventeen years before her death. By then he had made a different kind of family—with like-minded gay men such as the poets Richard Howard and James Merrill, who had troubled relationships with their mothers, too, men who could go toe to toe with Albee in the Village bars they frequented, places where language was a performance in itself, and cruelty a badge of honor.
One gets the sense that, growing up and beyond, Albee was rather proud of his put-downs; he wanted to hurt the world he could never show had hurt him. For all the tension and confrontation in his plays, there’s a lot of avoidance. Mystery informs his best-known play, the 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” While Pamela McKinnon’s superlative 2012 production brought out so much in the famous text—including the fact that the warring married couple, George and Martha, were very turned on by one another—it only increased our interest in why, for instance, Martha drank, lied, cheated. Unlike Williams and Miller, Albee did not believe in backstories—that the child was, artistically speaking, father to the man—and when his characters “share,” none of it is cozy. It’s as if, when he left home, Albee wanted to be a different person—a person who would not describe his past as the past was attached to other people.
But, of course, we are always attached to other people: our relationships to them are, to some extent, who we are. Albee learned cruelty at home—one could call his domestic dramas the living room of cruelty—and he wrote most exquisitely about how cruelty can, for some, make a home. As a young artist, he borrowed too heavily from Ionesco—an early and permanent influence, along with Beckett—who thought characters existed for the sole purpose of making theatre. Albee was attracted to that idea, but he was also an American, which meant that storytelling of one sort or another was in his blood. He erred on the side of theatre as theatre when he came out with “Tiny Alice,” in 1964. I am very fond of this piece, which purports to be about the richest woman in the world—the Alice of the title—but what it’s really about is unfathomable. (Sir John Gielgud, who starred in the original production, told Albee that he didn’t know what the play was about. Albee said he didn’t really, either.) To my mind, the play is about meta theater, and role-playing; it borrows quite a bit from Jean Genet’s 1957 masterpiece, “The Balcony,” especially when it zeroes in on organized religion, another form of theatre. Here’s how it opens:
Lawyer: Oomm, yoom, yoom, yoom, Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Um? You do-do-do-do-um?. . . .
The Cardinal enters
Cardinal: Saint Francis?
Lawyer: Your eminence!
Cardinal: Our dear Saint Francis, who wandered in the fields and forests, talked to all the . . .
Lawyer: Your eminence, we appreciate your kindness in making the time to see us; we know how heavy a schedule you . . .
Cardinal: We are pleased. . . . We are pleased to be your servant . . . if we can be your servant. We addressed you as Saint Francis . . .
Lawyer: Oh, but surely . . .
Cardinal: . . . as Saint Francis . . . who did talk to the birds so, did he not. And here we find you, who talk not only to the birds but to—you must forgive us—to cardinals we well . . . . To cardinals? As well?
Lawyer: We . . . we understood.
Cardinal: Did we.
Lawyer: We find it droll—if altogether appropriate in this setting—that there should be two cardinals . . . uh, together . . . in conversation, as it were.
Cardinal: Ah, well, they are a comfort to each other . . . companionship. And they have so much to say. They . . . understand each other so much better than they would . . . uh, other birds.
Given Albee’s interest in the stage as an arena for ideas, it seems strange that critics and audiences rejected important works such as “Box” and “Quotations From Mao Tse-Tung.” Those short plays are all about voice—indeed, “Box” is a monologue starring a woman we never see—and also the logical extension of an experimentalist who, throughout his life, worked within fairly conventional structures. Albee continued to work hard even as, inevitably, he began to lose favor with the critics. He knew theatre was as much subject to trends as anything. In his 1962 essay “Some Notes on Nonconformity,” he put out this warning: “One must always mistrust fashion, because it is, as often as not, arbitrary; and the assumption that one can become informed of, and participate in, the intellectual temper of our time through reliance on any breathlessly composed list of fashionable far outs is funny and sad—and, what is much worse, terribly conformist.”
Albee did like plot and ideas, and often in his work the idea was the story. Listen carefully to Agnes at the beginning of “A Delicate Balance,” from 1966. The drama is about her body—and her mind. In no uncertain terms, she lets Tobias, her husband of many years, know how much he disgusted her at one point, but not before she talks about a thought she has had: What would happen if she lost her mind? Agnes is sister to Nancy in Albee’s underrated and fantastic, in all senses of the word, “Seascape” (1975). There Nancy sits on a beach with another husband of many years, and it doesn’t take her long to goad him into talking about a past that he doesn’t want to share while she belittles him for taking more risks—risks she probably would have been averse to when she was younger. What Nancy is really talking about, though, is her life. And the bitterness of compromise that is part of life:
Charlie: Well, we’ve earned a little . . .
Nancy: . . . rest. We’ve earned a little rest. Well, why don’t we act like the old folks, why don’t we sell off, and take one bag apiece and go to California, or in the desert where they have the farms—the retirement farms, the old folks’ cities? Why don’t we settle in to waiting, like . . . like the camels that we saw in Egypt—groan down on all fours, sigh, and eat the grass, or whatever it is. Why don’t we go and wait the judgment with our peers? Take our teeth out, throw away our corset, give to the palsy . . . the purgatory before purgatory.
Life as a way station between the worse and the worst. Marriage and security as a holding pattern between many kinds of deaths. I don’t think Albee ever wrote an “out” gay play, though “The Zoo Story” and his 1966 adaptation of James Purdy’s “Malcolm” contain more than their share of homoerotic feeling. But, for me, the gayness was always there—the high-dudgeon witchery of a very smart queen who “read” the world. (One wonders what Albee made of gay marriage.)
Part of Albee’s genius was figuring out ways to bring his brilliant gay talk to an audience that, at the time, may not have known what informed his ice-cold torrent of words against coupling, against convention. But his gay fans knew what was going on. We unearthed Albee’s aesthetic by putting his words in our queer mouths and laughing. Once, long ago, on a trip to Amsterdam with my closest friend, we read aloud from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” over and over again. Calling ourselves George and Martha during the readings was, of course, part of the camp. The names didn’t matter. What did was Albee’s revenge against a world that said George and Martha, in all their awfulness and vindictiveness, were normal, while we weren’t.
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Calling this “the greatest day of my life,” a visibly moved Barack Obama held a news conference on Friday to thank Donald Trump for granting him U.S. citizenship.
“The issue of whether or not I was a U.S. citizen has been a dark cloud over my existence for as long as I can remember,” a tearful Obama told the press corps. “Only one man had the courage, wisdom, and doggedness to make that cloud go away: Donald J. Trump.”
The President, who had to halt several times during his remarks to compose himself, praised the Republican Presidential nominee for “never giving up” in his quest to prove that Obama was born in the U.S.
“A weaker man would have said, ‘I don’t need this in my life,’ but Donald Trump was always there for me,” the President said. “Over the past five years, barely a day went by when he didn’t call me and say, ‘Barack, I don’t care what a bunch of crackpots say. You were born here, and I’m going to prove it once and for all.’ “
The President said he planned to spend the day celebrating his U.S. citizenship with his family. “It’s great to be an American, at last,” he said.
When asked if he had any message for Trump, the President paused for a moment. “Just this: I love you,” he said, a tear trickling down his cheek.