Mary Monk's 'Sugar Cane Field' took first place in the Shadows-on-the-Teche Plein Air painting competition.


Every Lent, because of a belief that doing without small pleasures can make you stronger, many people give up sweets in the weeks before Easter. It’s a special sacrifice in Louisiana, where the local cuisine includes bread pudding, beignets, doberge cakes and a hundred other temptations. But the craving for sweetness spans many cultures, as journalist Gary Taubes reminds readers in “The Case Against Sugar,” his new book about the dangers of eating too much of it.

Taubes mentions Roald Dahl, the British author of perhaps the world’s most famous celebration of candy, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the children’s book about the magical chocolatier, Willie Wonka. Dahl came by his interest in confections honestly. The sweet shop in his childhood town in Wales “was what a bar is to a drunk, or a church is to a Bishop,” he recalled. “Without it, there would have been little to live for. ... Sweets were our life-blood.”

As we grow up, the early magic of sugar can become more routine. But children remind us of what the fuss is all about. “I’m thinking of my son’s first experience of sugar: the icing on the cake at his first birthday,” says food writer Michael Pollan, who also appears in Taubes’ book. “I have only the testimony of Isaac’s face to go by (that, and his fierceness to repeat the experience), but it was plain that his first encounter with sugar had intoxicated him — was in fact an ecstasy, in the literal sense of that word. That is, he was beside himself with the pleasure of it, no longer here with me in space and time in quite the same way he had been just a moment before.”

Some animals also have a sweet tooth, Taubes tells readers, although many of them don’t. Cats seem indifferent to sweets, as are chickens, armadillos, whales, sea lions, certain kinds of fish, and cowbirds, he mentions.

What he does not detail is how, for example, we know that armadillos are not exactly crazy for pie. We are left to guess that perhaps it stems from research conducted by a few bored Cajuns on a Saturday night.

Taubes outlines the usual case against sugar: that we eat too much of it, making us fat and more prone to diabetes and other health problems. It’s a warning that cuts both ways in Louisiana, where sugar cane farms are an important part of our culture — and where we have more than our fair share of health issues.

With sugar as with all things, moderation is key, which is what giving up sweets for Lent is supposed to teach the devout.

Presumably, in these lean days before Easter, the earnest among us will have to think like armadillos.