The anthropologist Sidney Mintz has died at the age of 93. It feels way too soon.
I first heard of him in 1985 when I read a review of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. I immediately ordered a copy, which he signed it for me much later.
Sweetness and Power used sugar as an entry point into a critical analysis of social institutions, in this case slavery, race, class, and global capitalism. As he explained, the book continues to be relevant to those concerns as well as to today’s obsession with sugar consumption.
Studying a single food or commodity such as sugar may seem like an incongruous project for an anthropologist who claims to work mostly with living people. Still, it is a rich subject for someone interested in the history and character of the modern world, for its importance and popularity rose together with tea, colonial slavery, and the machine era…How do we get from one child’s sweet tooth to the history of slavery, of war, and of corporate lobbying in the Congress?…These are the kinds of questions that have arisen in recent years. Alongside them are the shacks of the cane cutters, scattered in so many of the earth’s tropical corners, which deserve at least equal attention from anthropologists.
When my colleagues and I started Food Studies programs at NYU, we considered Sweetness and Power to be the seminal work in the field. So did everyone else. We polled academics working o…