Sweetness and Power

Sidney W. Mintz

Read January 2004

Mark Kurlansky has become the doyen of Histories of Small Things that have Changed the World. Amy Butler Greenfield mentioned that at a recent bookstore chat, Kurlansky (who had recently written a book on salt) was asked whether he'd next be writing one on sugar. Kurlansky's response, she reported, was that The Book on Sugar had already been written.

This is that book.

Why would salt immediately evoke sugar? Because we regard them as paired (if not quite polar) opposites, wedded even in nursery rhymes. Was it always so? Was there a time when, remarkably, sugar was itself regarded as a spice? Sidney Mintz's sometimes majestic study answers these and many other questions.

Mintz is not only a scholar, he is an anthropologista detail that significantly colors the book's analysis. Whereas a historian might have focused on the details of the triangle trade, a geographer on growth regions, an economist on the evolving -isms of trade, and a political scientist on the balance of power after the Renaissance, Mintz studies all these but also grocery bills. The book is, in some small part, also a manifesto on anthropological research, exhorting his colleagues to study not only distant civilizations (distant from the researchers, that is; obviously not remote from themselves!) but also “societies that lack the features conventionally associated with the so-called primitive” (p. xvii). Mintz proceeds to show how this might be done.

A good chunk of this book is a study of the evolution of the eating habits of the British. He traces the evolution of sugar as a crop and food, then focuses on its place in the Empire. Mintz links sugar to Britain's growing colonial strength, but also to merchantilism. He quotes (p. 62-63) a remarkable speech by Palmerston justifying the use consumption of sugar produced by slave labor, an inexorable modus ponens that would shame the smoothest political operative. He observes how sugar transitions, in just a few hundred years, from the privileged food of the very rich (talk about conspicuous consumption!) to a staple of the fairly poor. Indeed, he wryly observes (p. 148) that the plantations, in addition to providing a place for capital to work and serving as a market for “machinery, cloth, instruments of torture, and other industrial commodities”, may have had one more use: as a source of “low-cost food substitutes, such as tobacco, tea, and sugar, for the metropolitan laboring classes”. When he calculates (p.191) that an acre of land would yield about eight million calories just from sugar (not counting energy from using the byproducts of extraction), and points out that for comparable energy potato would need four acres, wheat 9-12 and beef over 135, we sense a master at the height of his craft.

Mintz analyzes tastes, especially the discriminating acquisition of certain kinds of bitterness. Any discussion of sugar must also involve the substances it accompanies, notably the hot caffeinated drinks and, in this context, most especially tea. He quotes (p. 116) Davies's observation that never before had a nation's diet depended on two goods imported from the “opposite sides of the earth”. Is there a greater testament to the power of the British at their height?

The book ends on a thoroughly contemporary note, discussing the impact of eating out and of prepared foods. He discusses the impact of high-fructose corn syrup, addictive foods, public health, and much else. It is then a surprise—or perhaps a shock—to discover the book was written not today but in 1985. The more things change....

Read this book. The next time you visit a cafe and confront a choice between white sugar (packed, perhaps, at the aptly-named Imperial Sugar Company) and the brown crystals of Sugar-in-the-Raw, the decision will suddenly seem so much more than one of mere taste or calories or purity. A hefty chunk of history, economics and anthropology will bear down upon you. Choose wisely.