Since I was a child, I've been obsessed with the book series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the mysteries within. The biggest mystery, of course, is the sugar bowl, which is made out to be incredibly important, but whose contents are never revealed.
Well, I think I've solved the sugar bowl secret.
It is a combination of many theories, several of which had individual components which were accurate, but left inconsistencies in the timeline, or a questionable motive, or headaches. And yet, the answer is incredibly simple. You may already know the answer without understanding why that answer is actually incredibly satisfying. However, as we learned in the end of The End, every answer only leads to more mysteries, which is why the relatively simple answer below opens up many complex questions, which may take up to five pages of a Word document to explain.
So in the spirit of Lemony Snicket himself, who in this series loves to present the answer to a mystery before introducing the question, I will give you the answer, and then explain it in thorough detail.
The Sugar Bowl contains nothing, but it did, at one time, contain something very important. Neither side knows that its contents have been missing for some time.
So, simple answer. But what was that important thing? Why are people chasing it if it no longer contains anything? If there's nothing out there, what was that sound?
Well, put on a pot of coffee, because we're going to be here for awhile.
PART I: The Tumultuous Timeline
We know from the end of The End that when Beatrice and Bertrand were on the Island, they discovered a cure for the Medusoid Mycelium that could self-replicate, and was even more potent than horseradish: a hybrid between horseradish and apples. A horseradish factory, for example, can be burnt down, and its output is slow to produce anyway (it also, according to Mushroom Minutia, is only known to “dilute” the poison, but not necessarily cure it, particularly if it was weaponized like Gregor Anwhistle intended).
But what if noble volunteers planted an entire orchard of horseradish-apple trees, and the seeds from those apples went on to create more trees, and more trees after that, until the entire world was covered with hybrid-apple trees? Well then the entire world would be safe from the MM, eventually. While on the Island, the parents tried to dig a tunnel from the arboretum to the Gregorian Grotto, in the hopes of controlling the supply of both the poison and the cure, but they were stopped by Ishmael. So they stowed an apple core away in a sugar bowl.
Some time after Beatrice and Bertrand Baudelaire left the island, perhaps over a decade later, perhaps not even until after they died, word got out that they had a secret cure for the MM hidden in a sugar bowl. However, only the Baudelaires (and perhaps the castaways who they left behind) knew what that cure was. Then, unfortunately, they died. So a great quest began from both sides of the schism to capture this sugar bowl—both sides knowing that it contained a cure, but neither side knowing exactly what that cure was. But the Baudelaires took a secret to their grave: they had already used the contents of the sugar bowl years ago to plant an apple tree orchard on Lousy Lane (hence the bitter apples, mentioned in The Reptile Room). Which means even if someone found the sugar bowl, it would be empty, and they would quickly realize how many lives were lost in the hopes of finding a cure for something that neither side knew they had all along.
(And since the apple tree in The End symbolizes knowledge—alluding to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden—it would be appropriate that the Baudelaire legacy is spreading a symbol of knowledge to guard against evil)
Now, hang on there, because I can tell you're aching to say some nasty things. I can back this up.
PART II: The Objectionable Objections
First, there is some required reading.
Snicket Sleuth is obviously a true virtuoso. He is in fact so brilliant that he mostly solved the mystery without even realizing it.
As you probably know, The Horseradish Hybrid/Apple Core theory is by far the most popular theory, and the theory that makes the most sense in terms of what we're actually told in the text. However, as you also probably know, the former blog entry lists many timeline inconsistencies this theory entails.
Incredibly, however, the latter blog post corrects most of these supposed inconsistencies, but it doesn't appear he connected the dots. Snicket Sleuth points out brilliantly (and there's really no other way to read it, in hindsight) that for a long time, V.F.D. sugar bowls contained hidden microphones.
Here are the timeline objections raised by SS. My refutes will be in bold text.
Once again, sugar bowls, plural, because the wedding, at Lemony's discretion, could very easily be bugged with hidden recording devices at all the guests' tables.
So what I'm saying is this: any mention of sugar bowls before THE sugar bowl is merely a standard V.F.D., microphone-bugged sugar bowl. This is important.
We also get the sense that because the “sugar bowl secret” got out, sugar bowls were phased out of V.F.D. No point in using them if both sides of the schism know what's inside them.
Why am I bringing this up? Because it begins to clear up the seemingly inconsistent timeline, and also ties into the elusive involvement of the city's sixth-most important financial adviser.
PART III: The Squalor Significance
Esme claims that Beatrice stole her sugar bowl. But Lemony makes it clear in The Hostile Hospital that he stole the sugar bowl from Esme. (“...Something I did many years ago that still troubles me...Was it really necessary to steal that sugar bowl from Esme Squalor?”)
We ALSO know that it is mentioned in the Slippery Slope that a certain sugar bowl contains evidence that could clear Lemony Snicket of accusations of arson. How do all these things connect?
To me the chain of events is simple: the sugar bowl to which Esme is referring contained a recording that proved Lemony Snicket did not commit arson. So he stole her sugar bowl in the hopes of clearing his name. He gave the sugar bowl to Beatrice, to prove to her that he did not commit the crimes which the Daily Punctillio accused him of. However, Esme saw Beatrice with this sugar bowl, and assumed that she stole it.
I love the idea that Esme is not only wrong about who stole her sugar bowl, but is completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else around her is talking about a different sugar bowl entirely. Also, Esme says this about the sugar bowl in the Penultimate Peril:
“ You know what it means to the Baudelaires and what it means to the Snickets.”
If I'm correct, this line makes a lot more sense. Evidence clearing Lemony Snicket of terrible crimes would mean a great deal to Beatrice Baudelaire (and likely Bertrand, since it seems he and L were friends at one time) and the Snickets.
If you're not keen on this idea of their being two sugar bowls, each being conflated with the other, then I'm afraid you've missed a big theme in this series. We are lead to believe that there's a “survivor of the fire,” but the “survivor of the fire” turns out to be Quigley, the third Quagmire triplet, and not a Baudelaire parent. In TPP the children are tasked with differentiating between twins named Frank and Ernest, who are almost impossible to tell apart—then to top it all off, we find out they're actually triplets, and we're introduced to Dewey. In the Beatrice Letters and The End, we find out that there have been two Beatrices the entire time. So it would be absolutely in keeping with the running motifs of the series for there to be two sugar bowls.
However, we must answer the biggest question of all: would an antidote to the MM even be all that important?
PART IV: The Inexplicable Importance
Snicket Sleuth posits that the idea of the sugar bowl containing a cure for the MM is silly, because they already have a horseradish factory, and horseradish seems to work just fine. However, I think the idea is that Horseradish wouldn't be effective against weaponized MM, whereas this hybrid could be effective. After all, as I stated many paragraphs ago, horseradish merely dilutes the poison.
But here's the kicker: he also points out that it appears that Count Olaf and Esme, at least, had no idea that the MM still existed. That would deflate this entire thing, if true.
“What my brother means,” Fiona explained, “is that inside this helmet is the Medusoid Mycelium.”
The Baudelaires gasped and looked at one another in horror, as Count Olaf peered through the helmet’s tiny window, his eyes wide beneath his eyebrow. “The Medusoid Mycelium,” he murmured, and ran his tongue thoughtfully along his teeth. “Could it be?”
“Impossible,” Esmé. Squalor said. “That fungus was destroyed long ago.”
“They brought it with them,” the hook-handed man said. “That’s why the baby was so sick.”
“This is marvelous,” Olaf said, his voice as raspy and wheezy as if he were poisoned himself. “As soon as you Baudelaires are in the brig, I’m going to open this helmet and toss it inside! You’ll suffer as I’ve always wanted you to suffer.”
[The Grim Grotto, Chapter Thirteen]
I'm going to contest this point, however. Olaf merely says “Could it be?” and ran his tongue thoughtfully along his teeth. The person who says it's impossible is—drumroll—Esme, who we have established doesn't really have any idea what's going on.
So what are we to make of Olaf's inscrutable reaction to seeing the Medusoid Mycelium? Well, it is here we must address yet another mystery. My favorite mystery. Chapter 39 of Mushroom Minutia. Visitable Fungal Ditches.
Lemony Snicket mentions twice in The Grim Grotto that he wishes the children had looked at that chapter. Why? Because it would have had useful information. It makes sense that such a chapter would have shown that there are apparently various other places, like ditches, one can visit and find important fungi. And apparently such fungi is important to VFD, since the chapter is coded with VFD initials. What fungus is important to VFD? The Medusoid Mycelium. This is all to say that the Gorgonian Grotto is not the only place one can find this deadly fungus, it's just a place where one can find it, in addition to a number of visitable fungal ditches.
Here's my theory: the Man with the beard but no hair and the Woman with hair, but no beard are clearly the Big Bads of the villainous side of VFD, right? Which means if there's a weaponized deadly fungus, they'd be the ones in charge of it. Count Olaf, of course, along with most villainous people in the ASOUE books, would never dare open a book and do research, so he was likely told that the villainous side of VFD has all the Medusoid Mycelium available, but they won't use it until they know they have the sugar bowl, which they believe contains the antidote. So when Olaf sees the MM-infested helmet, he's not surprised that the fungus exists—he's surprised that there's more of it out there. And now he can use it for himself.
Remember, his plan in The Penultimate Peril is to high-tail it out of the Hotel Denouement with the sugar bowl and the Medusoid Mycelium, which he hid in the figurehead of the Carmelita. Olaf, in this above moment in TGG, realizes that he doesn't need to worry about his even-more-evil higher ups. He has some MM of his own now, and if he can get the cure (or, what he assumes will be the cure), he can do whatever he wants.
PART V: The Tragic Truth
There is a part of this theory which I'm not sure about, but merits consideration: I think it's quite possible that at least someone of prominence in each half of the schism knew, eventually, that the sugar bowl contained nothing. Think about it. Captain Widdershins seems both ashamed and horrified at his daughter finding out what's contained inside it. What would be more shameful to reveal to your children than the fact that your family and many people they loved had died in the pursuit of something completely meaningless? What would people on the “good” side of the schism think? They might revolt. They might mutiny. They might form another schism. Maybe that, more than anything, is why the higher-ups at the “good” side of VFD want to keep the sugar bowl from getting in the hands of their enemies: because if their enemies find out that there's nothing inside, then both sides will know that countless good people died for nothing. It's the kind of secret that might destroy their side of VFD forever.
And maybe the higher-ups of the “bad” side of VFD know the same thing. They know that if their enemies (the “good guys”) realize the sugar bowl is empty, then they'll realize that the “bad” side has nothing to lord over them. They'll realize that they have no reason to fear the other side of the schism, because without a cure, they can't use the fungus. And their cohorts will realize that they've committed countless villainous deeds in the name of nothing at all. It's the kind of secret that might destroy their side of VFD forever.
So, to conclude, I think it is important to examine something incredibly important to A Series of Unfortunate Events: Dramatic Irony. It was mentioned in the very first book, and it is a constant theme. The bigoted crowd can't tell each other apart from the “freaks” in the end of The Carnivorous Carnival. In The Ersatz Elevator the contents of “V.F.D.” turns out to be a red herring, while a Red Herring turns out to contain something very important. And of course Olaf dies by the hand of his own weapon in The End. So it would make sense that the mystery of the sugar bowl—a vessel typically reserved for holding something very sweet—hold something very bitter. Like a bitter apple core, or the bitter dramatic irony that by the time anyone went looking for it, it contained nothing at all.