Ryan Taylor Boiled sugar and candied mice


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By Ryan Taylor

Things were certainly different in the past. This can cause confusion for family historians.

One of my distant aunts married a man named Isaac Youen, whose occupation was 'sugar boiler'. Isaac is an interesting guy. He was born in Australia when Sydney was still called Botany Bay, so either his father was a soldier stationed there, or one of his parents was among the early convicts transported to Oz. Isaac's name is an odd one, and so is his occupation.

Or so I thought. How could anyone make a living out of boiling sugar, and what for?

Not long ago, the online discussion group on Norfolk (England) genealogy included a query from someone else whose ancestor was a sugar boiler. Another lister jumped in with the explanation: a sugar boiler made candy. It was a simpler word for confectioner.

I learned the truth of this when visiting the Castle Museum in York, England recently. As I walked along its recreated Victorian street scene, there was a powerful smell of sugar. Following my nose, I was led to one of the shopfronts, which advertised "Mary O'Malley, Sugar Boiler". Her candies were displayed in the window.

The Castle Museum was one of the first to make the museum-going experience more vivid by adding smells to the sights in their Victorian scenes. Their livery stables smelled leathery and their dairy milky.

They have cut back on the smells recently, somewhat outshone by the more recent Jorvik museum of Viking life, also in York. When you enter Jorvik you are advised, "You're going to see a Viking village, and you're going to smell it, too!" And you do.

Isaac's son Isaac was also a sugar boiler, but both generations are somewhat elusive, not appearing in every census. Old Isaac does come home to die, but his children all vanish.

A Norfolk group lister speculated that candymakers might have found a ready market for their wares at fairs. Since fairs and circuses travelled around England, the candymaker might have followed. They could come home to make the candy, then go on the road again. It would be fun to discover a relative who followed the circus, if I can't have a high-wire artist or clown in the family.

Frances Hoffman of West Montrose recently discovered some old dietary customs which we no longer follow. An enquiry about ancient cures for asthma turned up a recipe for candied mice, which were regarded as the perfect therapy. One woman even said her aged relative would take a candied mouse as a preventative. They were hung by their tails in the boiling syrup.

In some 18th century letters, a woman wrote to her sister of her family's delight in a platter of 'sucking rabbits,' which she describes as 'not much bigger than mice and fat as butter.' Hoffman writes, "I wonder what a dish of these little creatures would look like when served up? Did they retain their ears, etc, or were they stewed up with a mix of other things?"

I was reminded that herons were once the food of choice for very grand banquets. They were awkward to cook, being so tall, so boiling instructions had the body in the pot while the neck and head hung outside. The chef was assured that, once it was done, the tendons which held the neck together became soft and the whole head would simply pull off.

It makes stuffing a turkey or baking a ham seem quite tame, doesn't it?

Rootsweb sponsors over 29,000 lists similar to the Norfolk one mentioned above. For a complete list and subscription information, go to lists.rootsweb.com. They are all free.

Posted May 10, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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