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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre

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OFFEE calls for sugar," resumed Uncle Paul the next day. "Who can tell me what sugar is made of?"

All remained silent until Emile rather hesitatingly ventured to say:

"I have heard, Uncle, that it is made of dead people's bones."

"And who told you that, you simple child?"

"Oh, a friend of mine," replied Emile, in some confusion at this strange notion, the falseness of which he now began to suspect without being able to explain it.

"Your friend," said his uncle, "was making game of your credulity when he told you any such ridiculous story as that. Sugar has no lugubrious origin of that sort, although there is a grain of truth in what your friend said. To purify sugar and make it white as snow, use is made of animals' bones after they have been burnt to charcoal, as I will explain to you presently. But these bones, as soon as they have played their part, are thrown away and not the slightest trace of them is left in sugar as it comes to us. It is probably this use of bones in the manufacture of sugar that has given rise to the singular idea you repeat after your friend.

[181] "Then there isn't one of you that knows where sugar comes from. But you do know at least many kinds of fruit that have a very sugary taste, such as melons, for example; grapes, figs, and pears."

"Melons are so sweet," put in Claire, "one would think they were preserved in sugar. Very ripe pears, too, are just as sweet; and so are grapes and figs."

"If these various kinds of fruit have the sweet, sugary taste to such a high degree, it proves that they contain sugar in their juice and in their pulp."

"And yet we don't sweeten them; we eat them just as they are."

"We do not sweeten them ourselves, it is true, but somebody does it for us; and that somebody is the plant, the tree that bears them. With a few poor materials which the roots derive from the soil, ad with the drainage from the dunghill, the plant, an inimitable cook, concocts a certain amount of sugar and stores it up in the fruit for our delectation. Emile was inclined to believe, rather against his will, that sugar was made from dead people's bones; but here we have quite a different explanation of the matter: I tell him that the toothsome dainty really comes from certain filthy substances mixed with the soil under the form of manure. Before becoming the exquisite seasoning of the peach, fig, and melon, the sugary matter was nothing but foul refuse. This ignoble origin is not peculiar to sugar: everything offered us by vegetation is derived from a similar source—everything, even to the sumptuous coloring and the sweet perfume of flowers. To effect this [182] marvelous transformation man's skill would be powerless; the plant alone is capable of such a miracle. Out of a few materials which the earth, water, and air supply, it makes an infinite variety of substances having every sort of flavor and smell—in fact, all imaginable qualities. For that reason I have called it the inimitable cook. Man, then, does not really manufacture the sugar; it is the plant, the plant alone, that produces it, and man's work is limited to gathering it where he finds it ready-made and separating it from the various substances accompanying it.

"I have already mentioned several kinds of fruit as containing sugar, the melon in particular. Often other parts of plants contain it too. Chew a stalk of wheat when it is still green, or of reed-cane, or the first blade of young grass. You will find they have a slightly sugary taste. There is not a blade of grass in the meadow but has its stalk preserved in sugar. In other plants it is the root that becomes the storehouse of saccharine matter. Couch-grass, the commonest week in our fields, has a very sweet root. The enormous root of the beet is sweeter still, being a veritable candy shop, so much sugar does it contain. You see how widely dispersed sugar is throughout the vegetable kingdom, although few plants lend themselves to the industrial extraction of this precious substance, because they contain so little of it. Two plants only, incomparably richer than the rest, furnish nearly all the sugar consumed the world over; and they are the sugar-cane and the beet-root.

[183] "The sugar-cane is a large reed two or three meters high, with smooth, shiny stalks having a sweet, juicy marrow. The plant came originally from India and is now cultivated in all the warm countries of Africa and America. To get the sugar, the stalks are cut when ripe, stripped of their leaves, made into bundles, and then crushed, in a kind of mill, between two cylinders turning in opposite directions a short distance apart. The juice thus obtained is sometimes called cane-honey, which shows you how sweet it is. it is put into large kettles and boiled down to the consistency of syrup. In the course of the process a little lime is added to clarify the syrup and separate the impurities from it. When the evaporation has proceeded far enough the liquid, still boiling, is poured into cone-shaped earthen molds; that is to say, molds having the shape of the sugar-loaf. These molds, turned point downward, have at this end a small hole that is kept stopped up with a straw plug. As soon as they are full of syrup they are left to cool slowly. Little by little the syrup crystallizes and becomes a compact mass, after which the straw plug is removed and the small amount of liquid that has not hardened escapes through the hole at the point, drop by drop. This first operation gives raw sugar, commonly called [184] brown or moist sugar. Its color is not yet pure white, and there is something disagreeable about the taste. To make it perfectly white and to free it from certain ingredients that mar the perfect quality of its flavor, it undergoes a purifying process in factories called refineries.



"In France sugar is obtained from the beet-root, an enormous root with white flesh, cultivated in vast fields for the manufacture of sugar in several of our northern departments."

"The beets I usually see in the field," said Marie, "have red flesh. Do they also contain sugar?"

"Yes, they contain some, but less than the white beets. Besides there red coloring would add to the difficulty of obtaining perfectly white sugar. So the white beets are preferred. The roots are carefully washed and then reduced to pulp under large graters worked by machinery. Finally this pulp is placed in woolen sacks and subjected to pressure. The juice thus extracted is treated like that of the cane and yields a similar raw or brown sugar, which must be refined in order to attain perfection.

"The process of refining is based on a certain property of charcoal which you must learn before going farther.

"Let us take from the fireplace some very light coals, well calcined, and reduce them to coarse powder. Next let us mix this black powder with a little highly colored vinegar and strain the mixture through a piece of very fine linen or, better still, through filter-paper placed in a funnel. The linen, [185] and still more the paper, will retain the charcoal to the smallest particle, the vinegar alone passing through. But what a singular change will have taken place! The vinegar, at first of a dark reddish hue, has become limpid, showing hardly a trace of red; as far as color is concerned it looks almost like water. But it has lost none of its other properties; its pungent odor and strong taste are the same as at the beginning. Only the color has disappeared. This experiment teaches us something of great interest: charcoal has the property of bleaching liquids by taking to itself the coloring matter contained in them.

"This property is carried to its highest development in a charcoal made from the bones of animals and called for that reason animal charcoal or bone-black. Filtered through this substance in powdered form, vinegar and red wine become as colorless as water, without losing any of their other properties. A few words will tell you how this curious charcoal is made that takes the color out of liquids so easily. Throw a bone on the fire: soon you will see it flame up and turn quite black. If you waited too long, what is now charcoal would be burnt up entirely and the bone would in the end become quite white. But withdrawn before being wholly burnt up, it is as black as common charcoal. Reduce this charred bone to powder, and you will have real bone-black.

"Well, it is by means of half-burned bones, bone-black in fact, that sugar is refined. Bones of all kinds of animals, refuse from the slaughter-house, kitchen remnants, carcasses found in sewers, all are [186] carefully gathered up and converted in kilns to bone-black for the bleaching of sugar until it assumes the whiteness of snow."

"That, then," said Emile, "is what started my friend's jest. Sugar is not made of dead people's bones, but bones turned into charcoal are used to whiten it."

"Yes," his uncle agreed, "that undoubtedly accounts from your friend's odd notion."

"If it were not for their being burned in a hot fire in the first place," Emile continued, "I should be disgusted to think of bones picked up anywhere being used in sugar-refineries. Fire purifies them; otherwise I should stop eating sugar."

"Banish all repugnance on that score, my child. These bones are so thoroughly calcined that not the slightest trace of their former impurity remains. Let me tell you how they are used. The brown sugar, be it from cane or beet-root, is dissolved in hot water and the syrup thus obtained mixed with the proper quantity of bone-black, which draws to itself the impurities that give raw sugar its yellowish color and unpleasant taste. This mixture is strained through thick woolen cloths which act as filters. The charcoal remains above with all the impurities it has contracted, while the syrup passes through as limpid as the water that gushes from a rock. The sugary liquid is then boiled down and finally poured into cone-shaped molds, where it hardens into sugar-loaves of irreproachable whiteness and flavor."

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