Why You Need A Skull-Shaped Sugar Spoon


I came across this skull-shaped sugar spoon a little while ago in the bookshop of the National Theatre in London, and was immediately drawn to it.

It seems to me to be that it could be seen as a good combination of the fascination with the macabre you find all over Louisiana and the English obsession with tea which traditionally would always have a couple of spoonfuls of sugar stirred into it.

“When the spoon is used to scoop sugar,” a description says, “the granules create a skull-shaped mound – a reminder to use less perhaps, or just ghastly fun.”

This duality in the spoon could act as an emblem of the New Orleans see-saw between the Catholic tradition of penitence and an instinct to maximise pleasure as life is short. It also reminds me of the British tradition of telling fortunes from tea leaves, which might promise all kinds of exciting things but are always under the shadow of the one certainty in all our futures.

Using the spoon in London or New Orleans would also be a reminder of the huge problems with obesity in both the UK and America. Obesity is a public health issue, but what can be forgotten is that it’s also a political one – a correlation of obesity with urban poverty due to complex factors including a lack of access to healthy food and the filling comfort of junk food can make body size another way to stigmatise already marginalised groups.

If you go deeper into the politics of the food chain, sugar can leave a very bitter taste in your mouth indeed. The spoon could be a reminder that much sugar reaches London or New Orleans today through unjust systems of global trade.

Going back in history, sugar is closely connected with the murderous horrors of slavery in the US and Caribbean, not only through the economics of its production and sale, but also more viscerally – there are reports of enslaved people being punished by immersion in boiling cane liquid, or by being coated in sugar and left outside to be attacked by flies.

This connection of sugar with slavery might have been most visible in the Americas, but a vast amount of wealth from the sugar trade reached London. The history of the abolitionist movement in the UK, closely associated with London’s Stoke Newington near to where I live, includes the 1791 boycott of sugar from the American plantations.

These days however it is possible, especially if you buy fair trade sugar, to enjoy king cake or Tottenham cake or any other sweet treat without too much of a guilty conscience. The spoon and its symbolism is by no means redundant, though: reminders of a less-than-sweet history are always valuable – and too much of the sweet stuff is still likely to bring your inevitable death just that little bit closer.


A Louisiana Sandwich in London

This Friday, I spied a sandwich in the cafe near my office that I just had to have: a “Louisiana tuna melt”.

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Mmm – doesn’t look that great, does it? And, no, it didn’t match the standards of the legendary Louisiana sandwiches that I’ve been lucky enough to eat over the years.

There’s the quarter-muffuletta from Central Grocery on Decatur, for example – I dare you to try to consume a whole, or even a half, one. I have a big appetite, but this New Orleans-special sandwich, reportedly invented at this very store by Sicilian immigrants many years ago, is bigger.

Done properly, it’s made of mortadella, salami, mozzarella, ham, and provolone, sandwiched together with olive salad on a round Italian sesame loaf with the crisp yet soft texture that’s characteristic of the city’s breads, and which makes them European and not-European at the same time.

It’s my leaving-New Orleans sandwich for some reason – I ate my first one in Memphis after the long train journey up the Mississippi; my second in Louis Armstrong Airport waiting for a flight to Houston; and my third when jetlagged at home in London, improvised from not-quite-right British ingredients but pulled together by a jar of Boscoli olive salad I’d received as a present and carried home in my suitcase.

Then there’s the smoked duck, cashew butter and pepper jelly sandwich served up at renowned New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s restaurant Bayona. Now I have to confess that I’ve never had this one, but I’ve read so many delectable accounts of what it tastes like that I almost feel I have.

I particularly want to try this sandwich because duck is special in my family – we often have it for big-occasion meals, and it’s a favourite of my sister, who now lives very far away, even further from London than New Orleans. My dad, meanwhile, once served up duck to a nephew of a US president, but that’s a long story for another time.

I also crave this sandwich for the way of thinking it seems to represent as well as its flavour – when people write about what can sound like an overly jazzed-up take on a classic PB&J, they often comment that it’s actually simple and good value (currently $15) as well as delicious, which for me is an essential ingredient of truly good food.

Finally there’s my ultimate Louisiana sandwich, the one I go and have without fail as soon as I arrive in New Orleans: the fried shrimp and oyster po-boy from French Quarter deli Verti Marte. Former chef and writer Anthony Bourdain loves it; I love it, and, soft and crisp, spicy and sweet, it always makes me feel like the part of me that lives in New Orleans is home again.

So no, this London sandwich – a hot tuna and cheese combo on focaccia with some red chillis – didn’t quite compare. But actually, it wasn’t too bad. Eating fish on Friday always feels right to me. Melted cheddar on toasted bread is never a bad idea. And the gentle heat of the pepper slices was a tasty and unusual addition to a lunchtime standard.

It was warm and filling, familiar and yet surprising – a good end-of-the-week treat that made me a little bit happier. Its ingredients might differ from those you’d find in a real Louisiana sandwich, but these are certainly characteristics I associate with the food there that I love.

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