Any kind of refined cane sugar used to be considered a luxury item, and still is in some places. If you didn't have a store nearby that sold it, you would only get it when merchants came through, or as part of your allotted goods once or maybe twice a year.
This didn't mean that people did without dessert completely. They just used refined sugars more as food additives than as the main source of sweetness in a recipe. When you might only get 10 lbs. of refined sugar or less in a year, you had to have other ways.
One way people in the south got their sweet on back in the day was by growing their own sugar. There is a species of sugar cane that can be easily grown in most fairly temperate climates. It's called ribbon cane. It was grown for syrup, not for refining or crystalizing. Because it is unrefined sucrose, it can be used in much the same way as regular sugar in a recipe, only you'll need to use less liquid and perhaps a half teaspoon more baking soda, like with honey.
Speaking of which, honey was an often used sweetener. Africans to this day will brave aggressive wild bees and walk in the bush for days to get honey.
Another trick we brought from Africa is to make syrups from dried fruit. We used whatever fruit was available, from dates to raisins to prunes, and soaked them overnight, boiled, and pureed or strained them. A dried fruit syrup would keep longer than fresh fruit preserves without the addition of extra sugar.
Then of course, there's canning. Canning can make a little sugar go a long way. Just barely enough white sugar was used to keep the fruit preserved, and the jam could be used in recipes. Applesauce can stretch sugar a long way.
Fresh fruit was used as it was available. Peaches, apples, bananas, and other fruits could be used as a combination sweetener and liquid in a recipe. As cooking was done "back in the day", the fresh fruit also aided in the fermentation or souring of the flour in a cake or flat bread.
So next time you're baking, consider using an alternative sugar. Your body will thank you.
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