Although it was in 1926 that A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh exclaimed "& the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey. And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it," humans for as many as 10,000 years have been wondering why a bee makes honey. No less a thinker than Aristotle seemed equally bemused and puzzled at the bee's handiwork. "One cannot well tell what is the substance (the bees) gather," he said, "nor the exact progress of their work." To metaphorically dispose of this imponderable question, honey has been romanticized by poets and idealized by writers. In Greek mythology it was believed that Zeus was brought up secretly by nymphs on milk and honey. In the Old Testament the Promised Land is pictured as flowing with milk and honey. Vergil refers to honey as "heaven's gift."
About 1625 European settlers introduced the forefather of today's honeybees (Apis mellifera) to the New World. Not everyone was delighted with their immense proliferation. In 1830s, Washington Irving described their remarkable growth throughout the West by writing that the "Indians consider them the harbinger of the white man, as the buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and buffalo retire."
Up until the middle of the 19th century, honey was an important source of sweetening in the American diet. With the Industrial Age, the use of honey in cooking dropped off as the systems for manufacturing sugar guaranteed a consistency that was impossible to reach with beekeeping.
Today, the National Honey Board touts the health benefits of honey. A recent study commissioned by the board showed that honey taken after exercise helps to reduce the normal post-workout drop in one's blood sugar level. A spoonful of honey soothes and coats a sore throat. Honey warmed with lemon juice and water combats a cold. And honey, since the days of Cleopatra, has been used in cosmetic products.
But for all it's suggested health-giving benefits, whether on toast for breakfast, on a saltine as a snack, or as a flavoring agent in baking, honey continues to be an ambrosial sweetener. Most often used in the liquid form, the lighter color has a milder flavor while the dark is bolder in taste. Crème or spun honey can be spread like butter. Comb honey is the way honey is produced by the bees. Cut comb honey is liquid honey that has been packaged with chunks of the eminently eatable honeycomb.
With the vast number of varieties of honey coming from many different flowers, it is difficult to analyze honey nutritionally. Perhaps we should embrace that measure of mystery. After all, delving deeply into those things that beget joy and passion does have a
way of making the magical seem mundane. Are we more fulfilled from knowing that the moon is not made of green cheese?
For those interested in recipes using honey, log onto honey.com. The following honey barbecue sauce can be used as a glaze to brush on poultry, pork, or tuna steaks near the end of cooking time. It can be also used as a dipping sauce for roasted chicken wings.
Helen's Honey Barbecue Sauce
½ Cup honey
¼ Cup Dijon-style mustard
2 Teaspoons fresh thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried
1 Teaspoon curry paste (or to taste)
½ Teaspoon coarse salt
¼ Cup water
¼ Cup vegetable oil
Whisk the honey, mustard, thyme, curry paste, salt, and water together in a small saucepan. Bring to a low simmer over medium heat and drizzle the oil in slowly, whisking to incorporate. Pour into a clean jar, allow to cool thoroughly, cover and refrigerate. This will keep several weeks in the refrigerator; stir or shake well before using.
Yield: 11/2 Cups
Adapted from Hay Day Country Market Cookbook by Kim Rizk