Professor Sidney Mintz passed away on 26 December 2015, at the age of 93. “Sid,” as he was affectionately called by his acquaintances, taught for two decades at Yale University and went on to found the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins. His best-known work, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, was published in 1985; other major publications include Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History (1974), Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past (1997), and Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations (2010).
Sweetness and Power established Mintz as a leading cultural anthropologist. At a time when food was academic anathema and generations of anthropologists ignored food in their field surveys, Professor Mintz took the opposite tack. His fascination with sugar grew out of his fieldwork in Puerto Rico, where he studied the lives of sugarcane cutters. As Professor Mintz explained, he was “awed by the power of a single taste, and the concentration of brains, energy, wealth, and — most of all, power — that had led to its being supplied by so many, in such stunningly large quantities, and at so terrible a cost in life and suffering.” Sweetness and Power had an immediate impact not only on anthropology, by expanding the boundaries of acceptable study in that discipline (“food anthropology” became a common descriptor), but also on the emerging field of food studies. Dr. Marion Nestle, who co-founded the NYU food studies department, notes in her personal remembrances of Sid that the department “polled academics working on food issues about what should be included in a Food Studies ‘canon’—a list of books that every student ought to master. Only one book appeared on everyone’s list: Sweetness and Power.”
I never met Sid, and I wish I had. By all accounts he was warm, generous, and witty. But I did get a glimpse of what he was like over the past year and a half when I served as the managing editor for The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. This A-Z reference book covers not only pastries, candies, ices, preserves, confections, and so forth, but also describes how the human proclivity for sweet has brought richness to our language, our art, and, of course, our gastronomy. And, on the flip side, how demand for this commodity has spurred some of the darkest impulses in human history. Darra Goldstein, the Editor in Chief, and I knew immediately that Sid, who had spent his life studying our desire for sweetness, needed to write the Foreword. He was already in his 90s when we first asked him, long since retired and saying no to every new writing request. He said no to us, too. But he was intrigued by the project, and that emboldened us to ask a second time. This time I stretched the deadline as far back as our production schedule allowed, and he agreed.
What he wrote needed no editing; it was a masterful synthesis of all of the themes of the book, woven together with personal anecdotes and reflections. It begins with his fieldwork in Puerto Rico: “I can remember easily the first time I stood deep in a field of sugarcane in full bloom, a field already marked for harvesting.” It ends with a scholarly flight: “[Sugar] is a food that has meant much to humans, one that supplanted its predecessor worldwide, and that is a metaphor for so much, its history brimming over with the cruelty of man to man, but also with thoughts of sweetness and all of the pleasures that taste connotes.”
I find it extremely humbling to think of Sid, in his nineties, putting pen to paper and teasing out all of the contradictory threads collected over a lifetime of studying this deceptively simple foodstuff. Sid once wrote, “Had it not been for the immense importance of sugar in the world history of food, and in the daily lives of so many, I would have left it alone.” Good thing for us he did not.
Featured image: Sugarcane fields. CC0 via Pixabay.