I have always loved honey. To me honey symbolizes the perfect intersection of craft and nature, grown from patience. It is a sweetness with no false notes. Bees are the original alchemists, spinning liquid gold from dewdrops, flowers, nectar and pollen. It cannot be created in a laboratory. Both bears and beekeepers must be wary of stings. Bees build and fill their honeycombs via untold wisdom about geometry, physics, language, and dance.
I try to use local honey whenever I can. I suppose I’m more of a hunter/gatherer than a farmer/planter, and I’d love to believe that the honey we eat has come from bees stopping by the wilder flowers in our garden. When I can’t find Cambridgeshire honey, I carefully check the jars in the shop, scrutinizing the small print to ensure it is English, or at the very least European. It was with dismay that I learned this autumn of the rise in international honey laundering. Much of the honey cultivated in China is laced with traces of heavy metals and antibiotics used on the bees. Knowing this, the US and several European countries have banned many Chinese honey producers. However, huge amounts of this substandard honey are still smuggled into the US. The honey is laundered via a high temperature filtration that removes all pollen grains from the liquid, thus obscuring its origin. Some studies estimate that as much as 75% of the honey for sale in major US supermarkets honey has undergone this process, making it suspect. In addition many of these laundered honeys have had sugar or corn syrup added to increase sweetness and conceal the poor quality. This is identity theft of the worst kind.
Honey may cost more than sugar, but it promises more, reassures more. While bees make honey, blossoms are pollinated; fruit can grow and berries will mature. Long before the triangle trade brought sugar from the West Indies to the salons of Enlightenment Europe, leaving a bitter legacy of slavery and some of the earliest and most egregious ‘food miles,’ there was local honey. Even in the same region, from year to year, it is never exactly the same colour or flavour; written into its sticky sweetness is a history of that year’s flora, sunshine, and rain. Honey is not a sugar substitute. It is honey.
At our wedding, we gave each of our guests a small jar of honey, along with this poem;
Ancient Egyptian SongThis love is as good as oil and honey to the throat, as linen to the body, as fine garments to the gods, as incense to worshippers when then enter in, as the little seal-ring to my finger. It is like a ripe pear in a man’s hand, It is like the dates we mix with wine, It is like the seeds the baker adds to bread. We will be together even when old age comes. And the days in between will be food set before us, dates and honey, bread and wine.
I come by my love of honey honestly. My dad has always loved honey, too. In my hometown, he used to buy it by the gallon. He’d bring home huge glass jars of local honey that he bought from a guy who would park his truck in a vacant lot where Central Avenue came to a T with Canyon Road. Occasionally people would sell beef jerky or firewood there, too. Some years we bought Christmas trees there. Eventually, in the name of progress and economic development, the county built an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the site. Aside from being an ugly building and charging what seemed a lot to go swimming, it displaced the honey man. Because my dad is fond of that honey and those bees, my mom searched high and low for the guy with the truck. She has been chasing him all over Northern New Mexico ever since, finding him at farmer’s markets and roadside stands scattered around the state.
My dad had a complicated system of distributing his bigger caches of honey into small jars that he stashed in cupboards in the kitchen. He alone appreciated its subtleties. It involved spoons balanced over open jars ready to catch each drop of honey that slid off the spoon. After those gallon-sized glass jars were empty, he would store cookies in them. He’d hide them in his study behind a few sweet-smelling old blue tobacco tins that now housed mechanical pencils, rubber band balls, and stray nuts and bolts. He gave up smoking a pipe at some point in the 1970s and hoarded homemade cookies instead. The tins and jars would sit on the bookshelves, nestled among physics, mathematics, and engineering books. On his large wooden desk stood a nameplate holder. Instead of an engraving with his name, it held a rectangle of dark wood with an ivory-coloured front which boasted the word ‘THINK.’ In small letters at the bottom was written ‘Compliments of the IBM Corporation.’ Nights, if he were reading or working in his study, I’d linger by the door until he’d offer me a cookie. Satisfied, I’d wander back to the front of the house.
When we were sick, my dad would make us ‘honey-lemon’ – his name for a hot toddy. Sometimes with whisky, more often without. To this day, even when not sick, I’ll make honey-lemon as a comfort drink for myself or my kids (we donate the whisky to my husband). One of the biggest offenses in my parents’ kitchen was, and still is, to stick a dirty knife, perhaps one just used to butter toast, into a clean jar of honey. If he discovered any tell-tale crumbs floating in the viscous amber liquid, my dad would grumble ‘Contaminated!’ and set about remedying the transgression. An even worse crime would be to throw away an almost empty jar with the thinnest film of honey still clinging to the sides and bottom. He mines those final sweet drops by filling the jar with an inch of boiling water and swirling it around until the honey washes free, then expertly tipping it into a mug to drink later. To my father, wasting honey is tantamount to wasting grains of rice.
I didn’t always understand how important it was that his honey be local to him. I used to buy him speciality honeys from wherever I lived or visited: lavender honey from Washington State, honey with walnuts from Spain, heather honey from Norfolk, England. He would always say, ‘Thanks very much, little girl.’ Then he’d put it somewhere. The next morning I’d see him eating his steamed buns or flour tortillas with New Mexico honey.
Before the honey man started parking his truck at the vacant lot, our family occasionally bought honey from a place just north of Durango, Colorado. It was about a five hour drive to Durango. One year when my older brothers and I were still school-aged, a colleague of my dad’s offered us the use of a cabin in Silverton, a nearby mountain town. It seemed like such a convenient idea: we would drive up on a Saturday morning, visit the honey farm, stop at a supermarket, stay overnight in the cabin, maybe take a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and drive home later on Sunday. It sounded great!
My mom packed a picnic lunch of salami sandwiches on brown bread, potato chips, cookies, Victoria plums pilfered from the vacant house on 1st street, and cans of coke in the big yellow Igloo cooler. We drew straws to distribute the seats in the station wagon among the kids: two in the back seat, one in the ‘way back.’ We had overnight bags stuffed with pajamas, books, puzzles, toys, and games for the car ride. Soon we set out, listening to a cassette tape of American folk songs. I sang along, more heartfelt than tuneful, to ‘Oh Shenandoah’ and ‘This Land is Your Land’ until my brothers’ complaints prevailed and I was shushed. I remember arriving at the honey farm and tasting different kinds of honey on saltine crackers. My dad bought 10 or 12 tins, the size and style of ½ gallon paint cans. We lined them up in the way back of the station wagon, stacking them two deep in a few places, made a brief stop at a grocery to get food for dinner and breakfast, and continued to the cabin.
The cabin was a dump. This house must have been an inherited inconvenience, before people ‘did up’ second homes. This was when Colorado mountain towns still had gravelly streets and unkempt yards, populated with scraggly lilacs and wild weeds. Maybe it had been the property of a mad old maid of an aunt who hadn’t bothered with marriage, updated wiring, or any other conveniences. The front door was blocked and all the curtains drawn and dusty. We entered from the side door, going up wooden steps with peeling paint and no bannister. In the kitchen, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling lit up the table with a dark green oil-cloth cover on which stood an ancient, already opened, box of Rice Crispies. Above the stove was a wood plank for a shelf, stacked with a leaning tower of pots and pans. The ceiling showed the exposed rafters of the simple wooden roof, no insulation evident. The floor was an avocado green linoleum, cracked and curling a bit at the door verges.
My mom turned on a tap to find running water that was slightly rust-coloured but ran clear after a few minutes. She plugged in the freezer/refrigerator and opened its doors to air out the dankness. Ever an adventurer, she began trying to figure out what to make for dinner. My brothers and I were racing through the rooms, sliding on round rag rugs, releasing clouds of dust as we bounced on chairs and sofas, claiming rooms and beds, chasing away our fears with bravado and argument.
My father didn’t say a word. He looked around the cabin, then went to the car and got the quart of praline-pecan ice cream, his favourite, from the paper bag of groceries. He sat down on the wooden steps and began to eat the ice-cream. After warily edging past the box of Rice Crispies, I joined him. We shared it in the late afternoon sun of an early autumn day.
When we had finished, he stood up and said, ‘Let’s go home.’
Forget the haunted cabin, forget the train ride, forget roughing it, forget convenience. We had our honey. We could go home now.
With a combination of surprise and relief, and only a token amount of protest, we climbed back in the car, and left Silverton. After a little while, we stopped in another town, had pizza and shared a pitcher of coke for dinner. We drove through the night on those high mountain roads. It must have been 2 am by the time we pulled into our driveway. I don’t remember arriving home or stumbling into my own familiar bed. What I do remember is lying in the back of the station wagon, surrounded by tins of honey, looking up through the windows and marvelling at the bright, bright stars.