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20 may 2017

When I was very young, the only time I ever saw honey was in the form of single-serving tubs that came along with boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It wasn't that my family avoided sweets. These were the 1960s in the American Midwest. We were practically drowning in Karo. Sugar came into our pantry by the sackload, white, light brown, dark brown, powdered, as rock candy. No home was complete without six different syrups to pour over ice cream. Aunt Jemima was a frequent dinner guest and often stayed over for breakfast.

But honey, though we of course knew of its existence and its beehive origins, was a little bit exotic, or as exotic as something can get when it arrives with Kentucky Fried Chicken. Honey didn't seem to have many uses. You couldn't pour it over ice cream or pancakes. Even if you wanted to substitute it for molasses (the main ingredient of the honeyless cookies my mother called "honey cakes"), it was too expensive. In fact, I was never quite sure what the honey tubs in the chicken boxes were for. They held about a thimbleful of honey apiece, just enough to disappear into a roll or slide unnoticed off a chicken wing. They were just sort of there, like parsley on a dinner plate.

As Lucy Long notes in her global history, Honey has been "there" for quite a while. Evidence of honey-gathering and of deliberate bee-keeping goes back almost as far as records of human culture. Long prints a facsimile of a famous Spanish cave painting showing people collecting the honey of wild bees, millennia ago. Residues suggesting apiculture, honey storage, and mead-making are found in archeological sites from Central America to China.

Bees, Long emphasizes, have never truly been domesticated. In this they are like rabbits or peacocks, animals that are comfortable around humans and willing to take the good things that humans rather duplicitously provide, but don't really identify with us as family. And unlike rabbits or peacocks, bees have tiny brains and highly stereotypical behavior. Strains of bees can be programmed to ignore their keepers, but they aren't really going to pitch in and empathize with our projects for them.

Bees make honey – not really for us, but on sufferance. They are good, if somewhat involuntary, sharers. Long notes with bemusement that the ancients, across several cultures, didn't understand that honey was manufactured. Even Aristotle was of the opinion that honey "falls from the air" (24). Prevailing theories credited bees with finding and camping out around this apian manna. One can understand our ancestors' reluctance to observe the honey-making process too closely. Still, it must have seemed odd that the bees always seemed to find the honey before we did.

Honey became central to many a cuisine in historical times. Greeks and Romans were fond of it. The great sweet-making traditions of India and the Middle East depend on honey. Long says at one point that "Chinese cuisine did not feature honey" (61), but she may be talking about a particular era or region. I have used honey in a Szechuan recipe called "Odd-Flavored Chicken," and while the "odd" part tends to indicate that honey isn't pervasive even in Szechuan cuisine, the ingredient certainly appears here and there. China is now the world's largest producer of honey.

As widely reported of late, a lot of Chinese honey doesn't contain much honey, and in some cases none at all. Phoney honey, like ersatz olive oil, includes substitutions, dilutions, colorings and flavorings, and the obfuscation of provenance. And this is not just a problem with piratical Chinese agribusinesses. I bought a $16 jar of local honey at a farmer's market a few years ago, and took it home only to find that it was mostly, or entirely, sorghum syrup. The suppliers were making their first appearance at the market and never made another. You can make a decent, if itinerant, living off of foodies like me with such shenanigans.

Long includes quite a few honey recipes. They are mostly for drinks and sweets. Honey in main courses tends to be in the form of glazes. When present as a flavoring, it can be overpowered; Long includes a tagine recipe that adds two tablespoons of honey to a kilo of lamb, a can of tomatoes, and a dozen figs, among other items. Not much honey in that. She has instructions for making your own mead. They sound like a lot of trouble.

Mead turns out to be difficult to define. In fact it must not have a regulated definition in the US, because a range of drinks from light fruit wines to liqueurs are sold as "mead" in this country. The heart of the category is a hard, fermented drink made from honey in the same way that cider is made from apple juice. But Americans love mixed drinks, and these days you find honey in everything from beer to bourbon.

You find honey in a lot of breakfast cereals these days, too, at least in trace amounts. When I was a kid, 50 years ago, the big sell in cereal was sugar. We had Sugar Smacks and Sugar Pops, and any cereal that wasn't visibly coated in sugar was supplemented from the sugar bowl. This trend proved alarming to health experts, so the big manufacturers went over to honey. Sugar Smacks became Honey Smacks, and every cereal brand spun off a Honey Nut version, and then Honey Bunches, and for a while there you could not buy a cereal box that didn't have a picture of a bee with one of those useless utensils that looks like a corrugated aspergillum, all adrip with honey. Most of these cereals are still made with sugar or corn syrup that has been hastily read a story about honey at some point, but they sure seem a lot healthier than they used to.

One of my favorite cereals is still Honeycomb. Post introduced this stuff when I was six years old, with a theme song that adapted Jimmie Rodgers' 1957 pop hit. That song was one of the few that came to mind when I was reading Long's chapter on honey in popular culture. There aren't many songs about honey. The stuff is too fluid, too relentlessly sweet to make a good lyric. Honey provides some interesting rhymes here and there in the pop canon. Patsy Cline sang "I love you honey / I love your money / Most of all I love your automobile," setting out her priorities clearly enough. Ethel Waters preferred "Sugar," in her hit song of that title, though she admitted that

Funny, he doesn't spend any money
All he can lend me is honey
That he can send anytime
In fact, sugar keeps crowding honey out of the spotlight in pop standards. Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" doesn't use uncompounded "honey" at any point. Even if "Every honeybee fills with jealousy / When they see you out with me," the point of comparison is always:
I don't buy sugar
You just have to touch my cup
You're my sugar
It's so sweet when you stir it up
Nor does honey have much purchase in the literary canon. But Long does mention Shakespeare and A.A. Milne, and quotes Emily Dickinson on the pedigree of honey not concerning the bee (73) – if only by way of showing that the pedigree of honey is a big deal to beekeepers, at least as a branding issue.

With the wrong pedigree, honey can even be poisonous. Long advocates the use of honey as a wound dressing and is agnostic on its anti-allergenic effects, but she also mentions a third pharmaceutical use of honey that I didn't know about: killing people (100-108). If honey is sourced in a concentrated way from poisonous plants like jessamine or oleander, it will be poisonous in turn. There are even legends of armies being defeated after they partook of local poison-honey. I may pay even closer attention next time I'm at the farmer's market.

Long, Lucy M. Honey: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2017.