A Book Review On The Issues Of Sugar Cultural Studies Essay

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Western peoples consume enormous per capita quantities of refined sugar because, to most people, very sweet foods taste very good. The existence of the human sweet tooth can be explained, ultimately, as an adaptation of ancestral populations to favor the ripest-and hence the sweetest-fruit. In other words, the selective pressures of times past are most strikingly revealed by the artificial, supernormal stimulus of refined sugar, despite the evidence that eating refined sugar is maladaptive.

With such an obsession with sweet foods, there is an obvious desire for an explanation of how such a once unknown substance took center stage on everybody's snack, dessert, and candy list. That's where Sidney W. Mintz comes into play. He decided to write this book Sweetness and Power, and from the looks of all the sources he used to substantiate his ideas and data, it seems that he is not the first person to find the role that sugar plays in modern society important. By analyzing who Mintz's audience is meant to be, what goals he has in writing this book, what structure his book incorporates, what type, or types, of history he represents within the book, what kind of sources he uses, and what important information and conclusions he presents, we can come to better understand Mintz's views and research of the role of sugar in history, and how much it really affects our lives as we know them.

To begin to understand and evaluate Mintz's Sweetness and Power, one must first understand who his book is aimed toward, in other words, his audience. In Jack Goody's New York Times review of the book, he suggests that this book is not just for anthropologists: "Sweetness and Power is a fine book. It not only tells a fascinating story, it is also something of an antidote to the static quality of much anthropological writing." Yet another review of Mintz's book from J. H. Elliott of The New York Review of Books states: "This measured, intelligent, ambitious book has something for everybody....Mintz opens a whole series of doors onto rich and unsuspected worlds." This shows, from two different sources in fact, that this book is not simply limited to the confines of the anthropological community and interested scholars. It is really suited for any semi-educated person who would find an interest in Mintz's studies. Just the fact that one could find this book in nearly bookstore is a testament of how wide a market Mintz is aiming at. It seems that Sweetness and Power is targeted at anyone between from the semi-educated (i.e. student) to the highly specialized professional (i.e. others within the same field of study).

It's now apparent whom Mintz is writing this book for, but what are his goals for the book as a whole. Well, he has one collective goal for the entire work, and separate smaller goals for each one of the chapters. As a whole the book is to discuss and evaluate the role of sugar in the past, how that role has changed over the years, and what importance it has to modern society. His goal in the first chapter is to discuss how food can reveal facts about people and how food can bring people. He also states why he chose sugar instead of some other substance, such as honey or other luxuries. He says, "In 1000 A.D. few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar" (Pg. 5). "By 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet" (Pg. 6). Mintz was determined to discover why such a drastic change in consumption occurred in such a rare and expensive substance. In chapter two, he describes the production of sugar and how it increased as a result of increased consumption by the West. Mintz's goal in chapter is best summarized by a quote on page XXIX of the introduction:

My aim is, to show how production and consumption were so closely bound together that each may be said partly to have determined the other, and second, to show that consumption must be explained in terms of what people did and thought: sugar penetrated social behavior and, in being put to new uses and taking on new meaning, was transformed from curiosity and luxury into commonplace and necessity.

He explains the relationship between production and consumption and also how sugar went from a luxury to a common necessity of all people. Then in chapter four, Mintz exploits the connection between sugar and power. Finally, in chapter five he explains sugar's current place in modern society, which he clearly states in this quote: "My hope is that I have identified problems of significance concerning which fieldwork might eventually yield results useful for both theory and policy" (Pg. XXX of introduction). His final chapter presents another goal for book as a whole. Seeing that he wrote the book not strictly for the anthropological community, and his final chapter is partially for identifying "problems" in anthropological fieldwork, then he may be trying to draw others who had not had previous experiences with similar topics into the historical realm.

The type of history Mintz uses is quite evident, also. While many types of history are represented within his work, such as political, cultural, or intellectual history, but he primarily focuses on social and economic history, which is what you'd expect to find when dealing with a topic such as sugar. This is clearly shown throughout the entire book. In chapters two and three, he gives many examples of production and consumption data. For example, Mintz states: "By 1830, before beet sugar had begun to reach the world market, total production had risen to 572,000 tons, an increase of more than 233 percent in thirty years. Another thirty years later, in 1860..." (Pg. 73) and he goes on to give more figures. He also goes on to describe more of sugar's economic aspects. Furthermore, he offers examples of social history from the very beginning of the book. He discusses food and its social significance. He states in chapter one: "Those who sit at meat together are united for all social effects; those who do not eat together are aliens to one another without fellowship in religion and without reciprocal social duties" (Quoted on Pg. 4). He also mentions sugar's relationship with slavery and the proletarian class in the other chapters and how this differentiated from its connection with the ruling class. Mintz writes this book focused mainly on the social and economical history of sugar, while still maintaining the audience of which it was focused upon.

What comes next, now? The structure and sources Mintz uses to accomplish his goals of explaining sugar's place in history, of course. Sources are absolutely necessary for giving any piece of literature its credibility. If you would peruse the bibliography of Sweetness and Power you will discover that he does a fine job of using sources: thirteen pages, in fact. These sources cover both primary and secondary data types. Included among his primary information are religious documents containing mentions of sugar and how it was made. He uses English records very extensively, various governmental records, personal observations made from individuals, shipping records, cookbooks, and studies written by other researchers. Items from his secondary sources include works by other authors, anthropologists, doctors, and scholars. The Bible, letters, dictionaries, credible institutions, such as the International Sugar Council and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and even the Wall Street Journal are used throughout the book. Mintz's variety of sources is great, but their originations are also just as impressive. They come from all over including India, England, France, Germany, the Caribbean, the Arab world, Puerto Rico, and the United States. They also span vast lengths of time: from way back in 327 BCE to very recently in 1985. Illustrations are also interspersed throughout the text to give a varying perspective on the subject. As for the structure of the book, Mintz, on page XXVIII of the introduction, puts it quite nicely: "simple." He divided the book into five topics, being the five chapters: Food, Sociality, and Sugar, Production, Consumption, Power, and Eating and Being. Within the book itself, chronology is not a principle Mintz follows strictly; he may be going along then jump ahead, only to later return where he left off. The order of the chapters is what is most important. He starts with sugar's importance, the follows with production, and then, of course, consumption, which is made possible from production. From consumption, power is obtained; then he finishes with sugar in modern society: a fitting end for the book. Obviously, Mintz paid special attention to the sources and structure he used, because without sources, his work would be seen as rubbish, and without structure, understanding what he wrote would be a difficult, if not impossible, task.

The first chapter, Food, Sugar, and Sociality, begins by expressing food's importance and what it says about people socially. Mintz states on page 3 that "food choices and eating habits reveal distinctions of age, sex, status, culture, and even occupation." He then quotes Audrey Richards that "...in the wider sphere of human society it [nutrition] determines...the nature of social groupings, and the forms their activities take." Sugar, of course, is brought to the forefront of Mintz's topics. He wants to discover "what turned an exotic, foreign, and costly substance [sugar] into the daily fare of even the poorest and humblest [English] people" (Pg. 6). He addresses human's infatuation with sweetness and how this could have played a part in sugar's spread throughout Europe, but it is more complex that just a simple craving for sweet foods. He also discusses that these early European cultures were centered about starched foods and that their meals were often considered boring unless it was eaten with umunani, such as rice eaten along side fish and soy to make the meal more interesting and digestible. Rice alone did not suffice. Therefore, a switch to sugar would add more variety to their diet, and be the perfect addition to their apparently mundane meals. He also goes on to ask questions about England and sugar, such as: "[how did] the English people became sugar eaters, and what this meant for the subsequent transformation of their society" (Pg. 14). This chapter served as the proverbial diving board into the chapters ahead.

The second chapter, entitled Production, began by giving a scientific explanation of what sugar is. Mintz then begins to given instances of sugar's first origins. He states that sugar was first domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 BCE. Sugar was primarily isolated to the west of the Indus delta and the head of the Persian Gulf from the fourth to eighth centuries, according to Mintz. He states on page 23, "In a report by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 627, when he seized a palace dwelling of the Persian king Chosroes II near Baghdad, sugar is described as an "Indian" luxury." Then how did sugar production spread? Mintz discusses the Arabs and their conquest, some being in Europe. He also says that "...wherever they went, the Arabs brought with them sugar, the product and the technology of its production; sugar, we are told, followed the Koran." War seems to have been how Europe learned more about sugar, also. During the crusades, crusaders discovered sugar-producing areas and soon after, began producing their own sugar in those conquered lands. Sugar was becoming better known to the Europeans, but "at the time Portuguese and the Spaniards set out to establish a sugar industry on the Atlantic islands they controlled, sugar was still a luxury, a medicine, and a spice in western Europe" (Pg. 30). Spain and Portugal competed slightly over control of the sugar industry, but it was Brazil in the sixteenth century that took a firm grasp of the industry: "...the sixteenth century was the Brazilian century for sugar" (Pg. 33). Mintz states that for a several hundred-year time span, the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, sugar was being produced steadily with Cuba and Brazil leading the way. He then explains that because of sugar's high demand, countries began creating settlements with the proper environment for growing sugar. Eventually, by gaining control of the "sugar islands," England became a great power in the sugar industry. This dominance would not last due to French competition, though. Trade became very important due to production needs for sugar, and the infamous triangle trade became significant. "The first and most famous triangle linked Britain to Africa and to the New World: finished goods were sold to Africa, African slaves to the Americans, and American tropical commodities (especially sugar) to the mother country and her importing neighbors" (Pg. 43). Mintz then mentions the importance of plantations to sugar production and the importance of sugar to the increase of plantations. Topics in this chapter included how sugar production spread, the shifting control over sugar, the advancement of production, and also raw data, such as how sugar was produced and where, and the labor used to produce it. He has explained how England became aware of sugar and how it first became involved with sugar through production.

Consumption is the next chapter of the book. Mintz points out that the English people first acknowledged sugar in the twelfth century. He then begins to discuss sugar's versatility. Sugar had five main functions, which included medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative. Mintz expresses the fact that only the very wealthy were capable of enjoying sugar. This quote from page 82 typifies that notion: "During the thirteenth century, sugar was sold both by the loaf and by the pound, and though its price put it beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest, it could be procured even in remote towns. Sugar later gained popularity as a decoration or subtlety, and hence, many different decorations were made using sugar. Using sugar in this was affirmed high class or wealth. Once the lower classes began to consume sugar, though, it lost its position as a status symbol for the rich. "As sugar became cheaper and more plentiful, its potency as a symbol of power declined while its potency as a source of profit gradually increased," declares Mintz (Pg. 95). Mintz then writes on to point out the combination of tea and sugar that has until this very day remained a part of English society. From tea, sugar went on to supplant other food such as bread and porridge. To explain the emergence and standardization of sugar in the daily English person's life, Mintz introduces two new ideas, extensification and intensification. Extensification, he explains, is that as sugar was introduced to the English, they associated certain meanings with it different than those that had come before. Intensification is the retaining of the meanings already associated to sugar and the English people trying to emulate the higher class with their use of sugar. Afterward, Mintz shows the many ways in which sugar changed the eating habits of the English. The combination of tea and sugar had such an impact that it "was the first substance to become a part of a work break. The picture is quite otherwise for "the tea," a social event that could either interrupt work or constitute a form of play. "The tea" swiftly became an occasion for eating as well as drinking" (Pg. 141). Along with this, a shift to ready-made or quickly made meals occurred. Sweetened preserves could sit a long period of time without spoiling and of course, this is very convenient for a busy wife. "In practice, the convenience foods freed the wage-earning wife from one or even two meal preparations per day, meanwhile providing large numbers of calories to all her family" (Pg. 130). This encouraged a change to these "convenience foods," but also caused for worse diets. The social aspect of sugar was expressed greatly in this chapter. He also discusses sugar's symbolic power in history, and how, with greater production, more consumption outside the wealthy was possible which is where the next chapter starts.

Chapter four, Power, is the most thoughtful of the five. It is meant to explain sugar and its relationship with power. Mintz begins by talking about sugar as a symbol of power and explaining the reason for it. As was stated previously, it was due to the rarity and price of sugar at first. This chapter then goes on to speak about why and how sugar became available to the lower classes, the proletarian class that helped produce sugar. Finally, the chapter explains the power of sugar: it was no longer was just a symbol of power. Mintz analyzes the individual working class English person and the wants of the government. Mintz states on page 183: "The diet of the British worker was both calorically and nutritively inadequate and monotonous" and he touches on other problems of the Englishman's diet. Earlier in the chapter he says on page 151, "They [foods] were also related to the will and intent of the nation's rulers and to the economic, social and political destiny of the nation itself. He is saying that foods can have an effect on a nation through the meanings they are associated with. That is why sugar spread to the proletarians. The poor associated sugar with power, wealth, and also having an appealing flavor. Eating made them feel powerful, and making it available to them also gave them a sense of freedom, since they could chose it now. To serve their own needs, he rich in control of sugar slowed the proletarian the right of having sugar. This passage from Mintz helps explain this:

The readiness of working people to work harder in order to be able to earn-and thus consume-more was a crucial feature of the evolution of modern patterns of eating. A new commercial spirit had to recognize this readiness, perceiving it as a virtue to be encouraged and exploited. Unleashing that spirit accompanied great changes in the economic and political order, which transformed English agrarian life, "freed" the rural population, led to the conquest and harnessing of the tropical colonies, and resulted in the introduction of new comestibles into the motherland. My argument is that the heightened consumption of goods like sucrose was the direct consequence of deep alterations in the lives of working people, which made new forms of foods and eating conceivable and "natural" like new schedules of work, new sorts of labor and new conditions of daily life (Pg.180-181).

The English ruling class did recognize the readiness Mintz speaks about and exploited it. He says sugar "...provided swifter sensations of fullness or satisfaction than complex carbohydrates;..." (Pg. 186). By offering the proletarian sugar, they felt more freedom and power and there fore, would work harder. Mintz then goes on to tell how sugar provides a nation with power. Sugar is good for taxing and from taxing the sugar, a nation could gain more wealth and use it for military and economic purposes. The English in the sugar industry such as plantation owners also had power to influence decisions in the Parliament. The people in control used sugar to manipulate the proletarian class. This chapter illustrates foods influence on individuals and how food's symbolic meanings can affect them, and more specifically sugar and the power it gave the English ruling class over the proletarian class and outside of the nation.

The final chapter to the book is chapter five, Eating and Being. In the first four chapters, Mintz has given many facts and concepts about sugar as he looked at its history, but what about our present situation. The fifth chapter tells how what he has just told us is related with our modern society. He gives information, such as who are today's sugar leaders and how much sugar we consume on average. Then he states, "The number of foods that require nothing but temperature changes before eating has risen in proportion to the total number of prepared and partially prepared foods, including those that may require more that heating to be done to them before they can be consumed" (Pg. 200). The quote goes back to sugar's ability to supplant any food and provide a quick meal. This leads him into a small discussion on meals in our present day and how families rarely ever sit down and have a meal together anymore due to such developments as TV dinners for saving time. He also emphasizes, "sugar-sucrose-has to be viewed in its multiple functions, and as a culturally defined good" (Pg. 206). He discusses many problems with fieldwork, as well. He illustrates one problem in this quote on pages 203-204, "We know that the scheduling of events and rituals changed radically for the British working class when sugar became common, but the research done on this aspect is too broad (and hence too shallow) to permit documentation in any serious fashion." He mentions that this work was to broad, and he talks about other works, as well. The fifth chapter brings all he talks about together well and he also achieves his goal of identifying problems with fieldwork.

Mintz's Sweetness and Power is a well-written and well thought out piece of work. Mintz presents an interesting, unique topic along with the ideas associated with it, and quite well. He substantiates his ideas very well by including many sources, including both primary and secondary information, spanning the entire globe and throughout time. He has structured the book in an ideal way: easy to understand yet still very functional. Throughout the entire book, he always kept the language in perspective for his audience, which, once again, was any semi-educated person to the professional. This book is a great example of what a history text could and should be. It is informative, unique, interesting, and just all together a good book.