Having access to a variety of food and drinks today, people would hardly think about their history. The availability of flour, salt, or sugar is usually taken for granted. Sidney Mintz, an American anthropologist, challenged the approach to treat food as something ordinary and focused research on the history of sugar and its possibility to shape the world. His Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is not only a story of a food product, its production, and distribution. It is an evaluation of the human past and the establishment of cultures and traditions. The book is a good example of a historical genre with the elements of a commodity biography. The reader will find information about such processes as industrialization, slavery, or modernization. According to the author, “one cannot simply assume that everyone has an infinite desire for sweetness, any more than one can assume the same about a desire for comfort or wealth or power.”1 Such an intention to combine the concepts of sugar and power fascinates me as a reader who can improve an understanding of the world’s history and human relationships.
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Despite the fact that Mintz definitely shaped the title, the reader must realize that Sweetness and Power is not only anthropology of a commodity product. There are many topics discussed throughout the book, including the transformations of European and American societies, the history of capitalism, and the technical details of sugar production. Mintz underlined that “the relationship between the production of sugar and its consumption changed over time,” which results in the creation of new meanings and attitudes.2 Many critiques defined this work as one of the best books of the times because the author managed to introduce not serious enough sugar as a starting point to sustain empires and raise new forces.3 Being firstly discovered in Europe in 1100 A.D. along with other spices like mace or ginger, sugar was mostly used for medical purposes or as a condiment.4 A cane was the major source of sugar that was turned from a luxury into a necessity in European nations in the middle of the 1600s. With time, its production and consumption were spread in Western countries, penetrating social behaviors and economic relations.
The organization of the book is simple, proving clear purposes and methods of the author. In the beginning, Mintz found it necessary to give definitions and underline the distinctive features of sweetness and sweet substances to underline the group to which sugar actually belongs. Sugar, in science known as sucrose, is “an organic chemical of the carbohydrate family” that is obtained from the sugar cane, domesticated in New Guinea.5 Being gradually expanded to European and Western countries, the consumption of sugar challenged the nations economically, politically, and socially. Due to their unawareness, people made themselves dependent on sugar as a commodity product possessing power. Slavery, as well as wars for territories with sugar plantations, turned out to be the preferred solution to gain control and privatize the land. Mintz successfully combined the processes of sugar production with military events and the development of society.
Since its publication in 1986, Sweetness and Power was criticized and assessed by millions of people around the whole world, in his review, Gross said that one of the most difficult tasks is to comprehend how significant the role sugar played in the world during the last hundreds of years was.6 Dietary changes, health controversies, and nutritional preferences are connected with the introduction of sugar in human lives. Although people believed that they were responsible for the creation of sugar in their lives, they did not realize that they just provoked another source of dependence. I consider this book and the overall work of Mintz as a food anthropologist as a helpful and unique opportunity to explain the history of the world through the story of a single product.
Researchers, students, and ordinary readers could find Mintz’s book as an informative source of human achievements. It is possible to know about slavery or industrialization and not to comprehend the essence of these processes. Mintz offered a chance to explore the people’s history from the point of view of common things, like sugar, that can be found in any kitchen. Although one might find the book as a complex work with a number of different topics being discussed, it is necessary to remember that it is not fiction with one storyline. Sweetness and Power is a food study that traces the anthropology of sugar and its impact on people, their opportunities, and behaviors. There will never be one simple theme for discussion in history, and Mintz proved the complex nature of human civilization.
In general, after reading the book Sweetness and Power by Mintz, an ordinary story of sugar as a community product becomes a significant study of human life. There are many remarkable events in the past that shaped the way of how modern people develop their relationships today. However, the discovery of sugar is not as simple as it could seem to be. The investigation offered by Mintz shows that it is easy to pass over a number of things that, in their turn, determine the quality of life.
Gross, John. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times, June 11, 1985.
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Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
- Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), xxv.
- Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 8.
- John Gross, “Books of the Times,” The New York Times, June 11, 1985, 15.
- Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 79.
- Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 19.
- Gross, “Books of the Times,” 15.