Our ancestors were wise to use natural sweeteners in moderation, like maple syrup, agave nectar and honey. We should avoid sugar when possible, whether we have diabetes or not.
The earliest historic mention of honey was in 2100 B.C. The honeybee is believed to have originated in southern Asia, although some scholars say Africa. About 12,000 varieties of bees exist in the world, yet only a few called Apis mellifica store honey. There were many bees native to North America, but few honeybees until the early mid 1600s. Indigenous people called them “the white man’s fly.” By 1800, honeybees went off into the wilderness, built their hives and crossed the Mississippi River.
American Indians enjoyed a different kind of honey prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors. The Mayans and Aztecs ate honey from a bee, Melipona beecheii, that used hollowed out logs as hives. The honeybees of today mostly use the nectar of clover and alfalfa. Modern beekeepers are delving into new varieties such as orange-blossom, raspberry, buckwheat, linden, sage-blossom and many more.
The term “busy bee” is an understatement—it is estimated that it takes 160,000 bees to produce one pound of honey. The life span of a bee is four to six weeks, in which she can only collect about a teaspoon of nectar. They must die of exhaustion. So many generations of bees are involved in the production of a single jar of honey. All bees are valuable; they pollinate all types of plants that produce our food while they gather nectar. Sadly modern-day pesticides kill them off.
Honey is a very valuable food and medicine. When I had a sore throat as a child, my mother would give me a couple spoonfuls of honey and lemon juice. Some healthcare professionals agree that consuming honey rather than cane sugar may improve blood glucose control in diabetics.
Honey retains its moisture and does not freeze. It is used in the tobacco and baking industries to keep their products moist and fresh. A general rule of thumb when buying honey is the darker, the more flavorful. All honey imparts the distinctive flavor of the flowers from which it is made. One of the world’s favorite flavors is thyme. Clover honey is the most available commercial type and is light-colored and thick. Although honey does not freeze, it does ferment. In the mid-1500s, a drink called mead, also called “nectar of the Gods,” was made from fermented honey.
And honey even has roots beyond the gastronomic and medicinal. There is even a legend saying that Cupid dipped his little arrows in honey before shooting unsuspecting lovebirds.
Nowadays, people often enjoy honey drizzled on yogurt, bread or fruit salad. It also serves as good substitute for sugar in some recipes. We keep it on the dinner table. For dessert, we sometimes dab a little on a small roll. I like to combine honey with butter, and spread it across warm cornbread.
When my kids were little, I made them “sundaes” of plain yogurt, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with wheat germ. It’s a delicious and healthy treat. (Honey is only safe for children over the age of 1 to eat.)
3 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I use Meyer lemons, any will do)
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/3 cup light tasting olive oil or vegetable oil
Whisk together in a small bowl until emulsified. Store, chilled, up to five days or use right away. If chilled, let it stand at room temperature for 15 minutes and whisk before serving. It’s delicious served on spinach, most salad greens or even asparagus.
Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.