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.