Blue, green or pink, this sweet treat creates a festive mood for those who decide to try it at least once. The topic of today’s I-ATE Food Term of the Week is cotton candy – a guilty pleasure of people with a sweet tooth. It is a fairy-like sugar confection resembling cotton with a touch of food colouring.
It is easy to get lost in the numerous cotton candy flavours: chocolate, vanilla, bubble gum, watermelon, and many more. Made of air and sugar, it evokes childhood memories about careless golden times, when your parents could make you happy by buying you this sweet treat while walking in the park on a sunny day.
Why is cotton candy so beloved?
The process of making cotton candy is the real magic: it seems that a sweet ball appears out of nothing. However, from the scientific point of view, everything is simple – due to the high temperature, the sugar melts and turns into a syrup. Then, the machine spins the syrup and pushes it through tiny holes that shape and cool the syrup. Afterwards, the liquid sugar gets solid again. At this point, an operator takes a paper cone and collects the crystallized sugar threads. Once the fluffy ball is big enough, you can enjoy its taste!
The origins of cotton candy
The probable invention of cotton candy dates back to the Renaissance period in Italy. Experienced Italian chefs of that time melted sugar in a pan and then created sugar strings. It was a time-consuming and intensive process, so hand-spun desserts were available only for wealthy people at that time.
However, technical progress made cotton candy affordable for everyone in the 19th century. Ironically, a cotton candy machine was invented by a dentist in 1897. Now we can only wonder whether he was planning to get more patients as a consequence of their consumption of cotton candy. Together with the confectioner John C. Wharton, the dentist William Morrison invented the machine that spins heated sugar. However, seven years passed until the inventors made this device available to the public. In 1904, they presented their machine for making sugar treats at the seven-month-long St. Louis World Fair. Morrison and Wharton packaged cotton candy in wooden boxes and named the product “fairy floss”. The term “cotton candy” appeared later in the 1920s, when Joseph Lascaux, another dentist, invented a similar machine. The name “fairy floss” faded away, except than in Australia, where it is still prevalent.
Cotton candy across cultures
In many countries, cotton candy is famous under different names. For instance, in the Netherlands, children ask their parents to buy suikerspin, which literally means “sugar spider”. A very unusual name for this sweet treat, isn’t it? In France, kids love eating barbe à papa, which corresponds to “papa’s beard” in English. As mentioned above, in Australia, cotton candy is known as fairy floss. In the UK, this sweet is called candy floss. The name for cotton candy in Greek is μαλλί της γριάς (mallí tis griás), literally translated as “grandma’s hair”! In Italy, it is called zucchero filato, meaning “spun sugar”. In South Africa, the word spookasem indicates cotton candy and literally means “ghost’s breath”. In Argentina, it is called copo de azukar, which is translated as “sugar flake”.
The next time you decide to go to a carnival, do not forget to buy some fluffy, airy cotton candy to make your day unforgettable!
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The Burkett Blog. 2021. A History of How Spun Sugar Became Cotton Candy. [ONLINE] Available at: https://blog.burkett.com/2019/05/15/a-short-history-of-how-cotton-candy-came-to-be/ [Accessed 21 May 2021].
Written by Olena Khomiakova, Schuman Communication Trainee Terminology Coordination Unit. Currently she is enrolled as a Master student in Learning and Communications in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg.