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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: Sweetness and Power *The Place of Sugar in Modern History* by Daniel Mintz

Jamaica Sugar Plantation circa the 17th century: fun place.

Sweetness and Power:
The Place of Sugar in Modern History
by Daniel Mintz
Penguin Press (Non Classics Division)
p. 1986

      I think the central question concerning this blog is, "How does taste change?"  That concern links all the main subjects on this blog.  Until perhaps last week I would have defined "taste" in a cultural sense, but after reading Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, it seems appropriate to include sensory taste as an additional area of inquiry.  It seems to me that sensory taste is extraordinarily elastic.  Sweetness and Power is an interesting departure point for a consideration of the change of sensory taste.  Specifically, this book looks at the history of sugar in western Europe between 1000 AD and about 1800 AD.  Even more specifically, the data on consumption is gathered almost exclusively from within the United Kingdom.

      Although the United States is not discussed, the author makes the fair assumption that analogous trends occurred in the United States during the 19th and 20th century.  Sweetness and Power limits it's definition of "sugar" to sugar derived from sugar cane, mostly grown in slave plantations in the West Indies.

       Mintz places a great deal of emphasis on the growth of slave labor to feed the calorie needs of the urban proletariat in places like Liverpool during the 18th and 19th century.  I would hardly dispute the point, but it seems to me that the emphasis is rather misplaced.  What is there left to say about slavery?  That it was bad?   Mintz also perceptively notes a blind spot in 19th century Marxist economic analysis, for what it's worth (In that they failed to take account of the pre-capitalist Slave/Factory conditions of sugar manufacture in the West Indies.)

    More interesting is Mintz's discussions of the mechanisms for change of taste in the United Kingdom during the 17th and 18th century.  The United Kingdom in the 17th century was becoming "modern" in the sense that we are modern today.  During this period the consumption of sugar quadrupled.  This book is basically trying to explain why that happened.  Mintz notes that the first plantations in the west indies were in the 16th century, and then Great Britain captured some of them, and started growing sugar in different parts of the Caribbean. Sugar was also being planted in Brazil, also using slave labor.

   Sugar was first introduced into Great Britain during the Middle Ages, where it was imported from Venice in a manner similar to valuable spices.  Sugar was used to cure stomach ailments, etc.  In the 16th century, English wealthy were able to buy sugar, but it was first used ceremoniously by kings to make sculptures and between course displays.   In the 17th and 18th century, changes in the economy began to effect the dietary habits of the working class, in that they were eating outside of the house more, and had a greater need for quick energy.  For wealthier people, the simultaneous introduction of hot caffeine drinks (tea, coffee) led to a growth of demand for the product among the middle class.

     Although interesting, the class based analysis of changing tastes for sugar seems overly complex.  It seems to me that you could write a much more interesting book simply chronicling references to sugar in contemporary media, spare all the analysis.  Taste spreads through communication by individuals.  Capitalism is unique in world history because 1) it creates growth and demand 2) it cares about what people want.  You can talk about good and bad effects of this process, but it is how capitalism actually functions.

   An interesting twist on this is Mintz's discussion of the introduction of sugar into products where the consumer is not expecting to find it.  This "industry" sugar amounts to 50 pounds a year for a United States citizen in the 1980s.  My understanding is that soft drinks are the main component of this source of sugar.  Mintz also notes how the sugar industry will (falsely) distinguish sugar can/sucrose for high fructose corn sryup (in other words: they will exclude consumption of high fructose corn sryup in statistics about consumption of cane sugar.)

   It seems fairly obvious that society has to act to lower sugar consumption among the population.  This raises the consequence of the impact of artificial sweeteners on human health, and I suppose the answer to that is "PUT DOWN THE BOX OF CHOCOLATES!!!" and it's also obvious that the use of sugar in stuff like bread and ketchup and those sort of products should be kept to a minimum.

   Sweet and Power was what I call a "consciousness raiser" but it's also pedantic and the 80s Marxist analysis is dated.  Fun to read, but take the theory with more then a grain of salt.

1 comment:

Thinkardin said...

The name of the author is Sidney Mintz not Daniel Mintz.

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