Chronicler of the Power of Sweetness

Sidney Mintz, the American cultural anthropologist who pioneered the study of food anthropology, died on December 26, 2015 at the age of 93. He taught at Yale (1951-75) and Johns Hopkins (1975-97) universities, as well as at a number of other universities in the United States and around the world.

Mintz’s prolific career yielded a collection of books and articles consistently focused on the production and consumption of global food commodities, notably sugar. The classic Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985) is still one the most influential books in the fields of anthropology and global history. What makes Sweetness and Power exemplary is how  Mintz wove a cultural analysis of taste into a historically informed global political economy of sugar. The book shows how sugar – both as a commodity and as a taste – connected the old and the new worlds, linking together aristocrats, business people, industrial workers, plantation slaves, and rural and indentured labourers.

Sweetness and Power traces the emergence of global modernity and capitalism through the lens of how sugar has been produced and consumed. In this book, Mintz demonstrates the important role that the Caribbean region, and the African peoples enslaved in it, had in the construction of modern taste and modern capitalism as plantation sugar fuelled the industrial revolution.

Mintz dedicated much of his work to understanding the cultural complexity of the Caribbean region. In books like Caribbean Transformations (1974) and Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations (2010) he explains how the heterogeneous populations of the Caribbean, thrown together by the forces of global capitalism, managed to create new cultures that responded to their needs and contexts. His studies of the cultural dynamism of the Caribbean offer invaluable lessons to those trying to understand the process of cultural hybridisation in many other contexts. One such lesson is that people in locations where culture is fast changing and mixing do more than just adapt and preserve previously existing cultures. In The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (1992) Mintz presented African Americans as creators of new hybrid cultures that defined the new world. This was in contrast to the prevalent idea that African Americans were passive transporters of culture without much agency. The work of Sidney Mintz is incredibly relevant for the understanding of the ongoing process of cultural globalization in a historically and contextually sensitive manner.

As a Puerto Rican who came to the United States for graduate studies in cultural theory in the 1990s, the work of Sidney Mintz was an inspiration. I never had the chance to meet him personally, yet his influence shaped my career as much as my teachers. I often thought of writing him some sort of thank you letter, but didn’t. This tribute is a public way of thanking him in the name of all the people like me whom he helped unknowingly.

Every time I started a new project, I found that Sidney Mintz had already written something relevant in that area. When I was writing my dissertation about Puerto Rican literature and nationalism, the oral history in Mintz’s book Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History (1960) provided an interesting contrast to my literary sources. In this book Mintz transcribed and commented on the autobiographical testimony of Don Taso, a Puerto Rican sugar cane worker. This testimony provides unmatched insights into the transformation of Puerto Rico in the first half of the 20th century as a colony of the United States. When my interest turned to food, taste and colonialism, Sweetness and Power was the foundational text that showed that the study of food and taste is no trivial matter. Now that I teach about globalisation and culture, Mintz’s work provides lessons on the complexity of cultural hybridisation, very different from the shallow understanding popularised by multiculturalism.

Sidney Mintz never stopped writing and lecturing. He continued to edit volumes and to introduce the work of the next generation of scholars. His interest in sugar and sweetness was revisited often to include new angles as the love affair of humans with sweetness continued to develop. He also turned his attention to soy, another global food commodity full of promise and pitfalls. In The World of Soy (2008), a volume that he co-edited with Christine Dubois and Chee-Beng Tan, Mintz discussed fermented soybean foods and their lack of popularity in the West. Fermented soybean foods have not been favoured in the West beyond soy sauce and Japanese miso. However Mintz thought that the West has a lot to learn from Asia when it comes to the culinary use of fermented soy. I wonder whether he knew about akhuni, the fermented soybeans that boost the flavor of many Naga dishes.

Friends of Sidney Mintz who have shared their memories of him in social media agree that he was warm, witty and also an excellent cook. Mintz’s interest in cooking – and in the power relations built around food – started at an early age since his father operated a small eatery. For Sidney Mintz’s 80th birthday, friends and colleagues put together a collection of recipes and reminiscences in his honour. Scholars from different countries and disciplines shared a personal recipe that they could connect to their relationship with Mintz. The collection, available on his website, is a testimony to the depth and breadth of relationships that Mintz cultivated. His legacy will live on in his work and in the scholarship that he inspired. I raise my sugared cup of coffee to his memory.

Zilkia Janer teaches at Hofstra University in New York, and she has written about the food culture of Latin America and India. Her essays, ‘Assamese Food and the Politics of Taste’ and the ‘Geopolitics of Culinary Knowledge’ can be read here and here.