By lack of its physical presence, I had to read Sweetness and power by Sidney Mintz in digital format. While the subject is very interesting and the book traces a line from the beginning of sugar in history to the end, it hasn’t caught my complete attention, which I can say is definitely my loss. It’s structured in detailing the path of sugar, from rarity to commodity, through chapters that deal with the anthropology of food, production, consumption, power and eating. It’s an intelligent tale of historical truth with one main character: sugar. It deals with it’s increasing use, from the English nobility who benefited from the farms in the colonized Americas to descending slowly into a base staple of food, together with bread and salt. It was used first as a condiment and as medicine, and more importantly it was used for its meaning: it meant, for a long time, upper class, luxury.
“For most human beings most of the time, the meanings believed to inhere in things and in the relationships among things and acts are not given but, rather, are learned. Most of us, most of the time, act within plays the lines of which were written long ago, the images of which require recognition, not invention. To say this is not to deny individuality or the human capacity to add, transform, or reject meanings, but it is to insist that the webs of signification that we as individuals spin are exceedingly small and fine (and mostly trivial); for the most part they reside within the other webs of immense scale, surpassing single lives in time and space.”
It is clear that the people in power have benefited the most from sugar and have given it its meaning. They have been the English nobility, owners of slave-worked enterprises of sugar which they mostly consumed and, subsequently, shipped and sold elsewhere. For a while they kept sugar at high pries for the poor, afterwards it became even more efficacious to reduce the prices and have it sold to everyone, as everyone loved it. Why? Biologically, we are attracted to sugar from early childhood, as opposed to other tastes, like bitterness. But the most important factor was probably the meaning attached to sugar, its presence in the social and cultural context.
The last chapter deals with the way we perceive eating nowadays, in this pre-packaged and frozen foods time. The one-cook-all-family-eats meal is not so widespread anymore, especially in the US. Mintz makes a comparison between hunter-gatherer societies, which consumed food based on availability, and our predisposition to many snacks, scattered through the day, with the dissolution of the three-meal tradition.
The book is an interesting analysis of consumption, food and society, which deserves more discussion.