Book Review:

Mintz, Sidney W.. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Books, New York. 1986.

Sweetness and Power is a book with a very broad scope. It attempts an anthropological social history of sucrose consumption (in the western world) beginning with the earliest periods of significant availability (after the founding of sugar plantations) through the present day. Of necessity the books includes a substantial introduction to anthropological theory on food and culture, especially the "carbohydrate core" principle that is a cornerstone of Mintz's approach.

Mintz thus begins Sweetness and Power with a chapter entitled "Food, Sociality, and Sugar" which enumerates the basic social aspects of food and eating in society and introduces the "carbohydrate core" principle. This principle (that a given food in a preindustrial society can usually be classified as a nutritious carbohydrate core food that sustains a populace or one of multiple alternative supplementary taste foods to provide variety of taste) appears to be applicable and useful in a great number of cultures. It represents a nutritional vuneralbility (according to Mintz) in a food system, however, in that people emphasize the taste of the supplement as defining the character of their food. Increased availability of a "supplement" will increase its usage (more than increased availability of a "core" increases use of the "core"), and the "supplement" may become a de facto "core", as more social energy is expended on acquiring and utilizing what was originally of secondary importance. As the supplement gains importance in diet, it becomes invested with social meanings, as Mintz discusses in detail in later chapters.

A complex portion of Mintz's work deals with the actual production of sugar for european usage, specifically the earliest sugar plantations in the Atlantic and Caribbean (Mintz argues that earlier production of sugar in the Eastern hemisphere did not produce enough sugar to have significant immediate social impact beyond adding to the list of luxury substances available to the highest classes and providing a new exotic item for folklore to develop around). The presence of sugar (as a luxury) in Europe did, however, provide an impetus to the creation of sugar plantations in european colonies; it is doubtful that europeans would have invested in a completely untried commodity.

Interestingly, Mintz argues that although sugar plantations were pre-capitalist and pre-industrial in the traditional sense, they necessitated a protean form of such modern organization. The industrial aspects of plantations laid not just in the mechanical complexity of processing sugar cane, but in level of organization and labor-intensiveness of the plantation system. Workers had to managed more carefully than traditional agricultural plantations, and in a more coordinated "industrial" manner. A certain capitalist approach was similarly necessitated by the fact that plantations required substantial outlay of capital, usually a location far from the source of capital in order to produce something consumed farther from its place of production. Investment setups developed to encourage plantations and the planning of shipping (capital and produce) gained more importance than in previous feudal eras.

The development and character of such nascent capitalism is often masked, according to Mintz, by the nominally mercantile and protectionist measures instigated by Europe (especially Britain), and thus seldom recognized by those who study economic development (I know my economics professor never mentioned it). Mintz argues convincingly (but not conclusively) that this early form of capitalism encouraged the development of true capitalist economies, providing a stronger "evolutionary" link in the economic history between feudalism and capitalism than standard marxist theory, which more or less viewed the Caribbean as merely a new market for capitalist expansionism (The Communist Manifesto has the Caribbean dismissed as such by the end of the second page). Mintz does recognize that this argument is far from settled and discusses some differing opinions.

In the largest chapter of Sweetness and Power, Mintz discusses the historical awareness and consumption of sugar by the British, beginning with the earliest mentions of it around AD 1100 and up to the modern day. As statistical information on the preindustrial era is nonexistent, most of Mintz's work studies the context in which sugar is mentioned and discussed by the British themselves, including the most commonly mentioned uses (Mintz reads a lot of old cook books). Much of the work is therefore cautious theorizing of consumption patterns (in light of the carbohydrate core principle) and the apparent changes in social perceptions of sugar. Mintz convincingly tracks the appearance of sugar as a rare spice or medicine through its period as a luxury food, and the eventual "diffusion" to other social levels and greater numbers of consumers. He indicated how wider consumption was in part provoked by wider availability (which was in turn provoked by capitalist interest) and the social significance of sugar as an item of conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, Mintz shows that sugar became an increasingly important source of calories for underfed workers (in spite of being an imperfect source of energy) because of its relatively low prices with relation to protein rich foods.

Mintz gives a useful explanation as to how sugar affected the development of tea as a cultural indicator of British character, in that the availability of sugar overcame the flaws (namely bitterness) of another inexpensive/available commodity (the tea). Sweetened tea thus had enough merit as a "food" (it was hot, sweet, and cheap) to become more desirable than other "competing" liquids. The use of tea as a staple liquid was of course encouraged by tea and sugar producers, but was also encouraged by early industrialists who felt that historically acceptable dependence on alcoholic beverage a staple affected productivity. Finally, the investing of tea with social significance (as a civilized drink) among upper classes of British society gave tea extra validity and inspired imitation (a poor term, but the best available) among lower social strata.

The statistical data of later eras provide even more solid evidence of sugar's importance in european diets. The importing and exporting figures for Britain show that more and more sugar stayed in Britain to be consumed, while the consumption of several other foods decreased. Sugar provided more and more of the calories consumed by the average man, increasing to the point that sugar became a virtual staple and necessity, as opposed to its earlier role as a perceived luxury. The ceremonial significance of sugar was decreased, with sugar taking on extra meanings only on holidays and special occasions. The presence of sugar in one's diet was no longer a sign of special position or attitude, instead it become a signifier of minimal average standards. Previously those without sugar were the common class; now they are the deprived.

Mintz's chapter "Power" displays how this perception of sugar as a necessity affects western processes of "modernizing" other cultures. Modernized diets of such cultures are created by introducing western foods, and sugar acquires special significance as a basic luxury (i.e. the natives are told that everyone in America gets as much sugar as they want because they are civilized and sugar is plentiful in civilized countries, although they're probably not told that succinctly). Mintz also discusses the role of a sugar's mixed role as necessity and luxury in respect to British upperclass perceptions of the lower classes, in that lower classes were perceived as exceeding their means through consumption of upper class products (dietary hubris, in effect), indicating that the upperclasses did not recognize the virtual necessity of high calorie sugar in the industrial lifestyle they were helping to create.

The final chapter, "Eating and Being", discusses the role of sugar in society once it has become entrenched as a food in Britain, and broadens the book's scope to show parallel development in the United States. On the other hand, Mintz performs a quick survey of France, a western culture that did not succumb to sugar so quickly, and suggests which aspects of French culinary culture retarded the progress of sugar, and how that culture is coming closer and closer to embracing sugar as Britain did.

Mintz also discusses how the industrial eating patterns that developed during sugar's rise encourage other relatively recent dietary changes, including the decline of three meal a day eating pattern, the dependence on prepared foods, and the prevalence of eating out. Mintz discusses a great deal of recent theorizing on food in general (and sugar in particular), pointing out strengths and weaknesses of Mary Douglas' syntagmatic model. This makes the final chapter of the book the most complex theoretically as (in marked contrast the carbohydrate core principle) the theory seems more complex than the analyzed phenomena.

Sweetness and Power is a good model of anthropological thoroughness, in that it investigates the physical, historical, social, and economic aspects of sugar throughout British culture (and by extension, much of western culture). In his thoroughness, Mintz has written a fairly complex book (I'm sure the discussion of the capitalist nature of plantations lost a lot of people not familiar with the ideas of economic history), but not overly academic. Its definitely a worthwhile book, both as a primer for a holistic approach and as an example of the complexities of often simple-appearing subjects. Anyone researching subjects involving sugar or western diets should take a look at Sweetness and Power.

Filed at 01:48:40 AM EDT on 12 June 1992 from Toledo, OH