|The Secret of Everyday Things|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|Fascinating conversations with Uncle Paul reveal the mysteries behind the dyeing and weaving of cloth, the lighting and heating of homes, the processing involved in bringing oil, coffee, tea, spices, and other foodstuffs to the table, and the power of water in all its manifestations. Excellent as follow-on to The Story Book of Science. Ages 11-14 |
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
"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
"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.
 "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
"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
 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.
 "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
 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
"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
"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
"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,
 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
 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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