Sidney Mintz and Reflections on Sweetness and Power
Posted by dlende on September 19, 2009
The Racliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosts a conference series on Women, Men and Food. Video from the six conferences is available online, ranging from the introductory Food for Thought to Studying Gender, Studying Food.
The one I want to highlight is Sweetness, Gender and Power: Rethinking Sidney Mintz’s Classic Work. That classic work is Sweetness and Power: The Place fo Sugar in Modern History, which links the production of sugar in slave plantations in the Caribbean with the rise of sugar consumption in England – economic history explained through anthropology. Given my interests in consumption, here’s what he writes early in the book:
What turned an exotic, foreign and costly substance into the daily fare of even the poorest and humblest people? How could it have become so important so swiftly? … The answers may seem self-evident; sugar is sweet, and human beings like sweetness. But when unfamiliar substances are taken up by new users, they enter into pre-existing social and psychological contexts and acquire – or are given – contextual meanings by those who use them… Uses imply meanings; to learn the anthropology of sugar, we need to explore the meaning of its uses, to discover the early and more limited uses of sugar, and to learn where and for what purposes sugar was produced (6).
The Radcliffe conference features four prominent academics – Amy Bentley, Vincent Brown, Judith Carney, and Sucheta Mazumdar – who place their work in light of Mintz’s ground-breaking book. The topics cover the academic study of food, enslaved women, gender and capitalism, and China and sweet potatoes. Mintz himself wraps up the conference with his own retrospective on his work, including an early line from his friend Eric Wolf, “Well, Mintz is a peculiar anthropologist.”