Sweetness and Bite

History’s ambivalence toward sugar, and other culinary tales.

Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions Into Eating, Culture, and the Past

By Sidney W. Mintz

(Beacon Press; 176 pages; $22)

Early in June 1906, a certain Detective Young in Scotland testified before a Joint Parliamentary Committee examining issues of public morality. He had seen “boys and girls kissing and smoking and cuddling away at each other” in an ice-cream parlor, he said. He had encountered 12-year-old girls lured into prostitution by sugar. Then the following exchange occurred:

Q: Do you ask us to believe that the downfall of these women was due to ice-cream shops?A: I believe it is.

That delirious transcript is part of the story of the triumph of refined sugar over old-fashioned honey that takes up almost half of Sidney Mintz’s new book, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions Into Eating, Culture, and the Past. Mintz, an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of Sweetness and Power (a more detailed look at sugar and its meaning), also explores other topics, ranging from the broader relationship between political power and food to more idiosyncratic excursions such as the chapter entitled “Color, Taste, and Purity: Some Speculations on the Meanings of Marzipan.”

But it’s the saga of refined sugar that forms the core of this book, a tale Mintz punctuates with telling historical surprises. In the sweetener competition, for example, sugar received an early and unexpected boost from Henry VIII. In 1537, when the king abolished the monasteries, the decline in demand for candle wax slowed the honey output and opened a window for sugar. Detective Young was able to indulge in his cheap moralizing four centuries later because back then, everything about sugar was suspect–its novelty and potency, its exotic origin in Moorish Spain, its pure pharmocopoeal whiteness. Honey, on the other hand, was one of our first foods (dating to the Paleolithic Era). It was comparatively mild in taste, always locally produced, natural and gooey–trustworthy, even good for the youth.

In time, sugar became “the first imported luxury to become a cheap daily necessity of the masses,” and, along with tea and tobacco, it “probably provide[s] us with the first instance in history of the mass consumption of imported food staples.” As 18th-century British aristocrats wallowed in sugar, the working class yearned for it, creating a demand that would underlie the expansion of enormous sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and hence the slave trade. For politicians, sugar became “an eminently taxable commodity,” and “acquired many champions in the press, in the medical journals, in the Foreign Office, and in Parliament.” It introduced the West to a new source of political power–mass producers, before whom elected officials would need to bow and scrape.

We’ve never stopped linking sugar with notions of good and evil. Mintz quotes some astonishing speeches by Abolitionists who easily equated cane sugar with murder, one of them even providing the precise calculus: “[I]n every pound of sugar used (the product of the slaves imported from Africa), we may be considered as consuming two ounces of blood.” Sugar’s aura of evil endures to this day–that’s what those pink and blue packages on every restaurant table signify. At the same time, vestiges of its virtue–dating from a time when a gift of confectionery was both rare and prized–survive in every box of Valentine’s Day candy. No one who reads these chapters will scoop up another spoonful of sugar without reflecting on the history of ambivalence, global turmoil, and centuries of suffering needed to put it on the table.

None of Mintz’s other chapters is quite as satisfying as the three devoted to sugar. Still, this is a book whose bibliography includes monographs entitled Private Tooth Decay as Public Economic Virtue and tomes such as The History and Social Influence of the Potato–so the rest of it is still loaded with nuggets worth finding. The dominance of Coke, for example, in the cola wars may date to the influence of Gen. George Marshall (a Southerner), who was able to get Coca-Cola (Atlanta-based) exempted from the wartime rationing of sugar. As a result, 64 bottling plants were built in both theaters of battle, and 148 bottling technicians served there. Three bottlers gave their lives for their country.

Toward the end of the book, Mintz tells a story about offhandedly mentioning in a lecture that America has no “cuisine.” The students’ reaction was swift and contentious, as if their feelings had been hurt. Mintz seems puzzled, musing that it wasn’t as though he’d said America had no literature. But it does hit a nerve, so Mintz spends his last chapter pondering the question of whether America has a cuisine after all.

He answers with an academic distinction. “Regional cuisines,” Mintz says, are “authentic” because they use “local ingredients” and involve “a community of people who eat it, cook it, have opinions about it, and engage in dialogue involving those opinions.” On the other hand, “national cuisines” are largely artificial constructs: You won’t find a “French” restaurant in France for obvious reasons. The blue-plate specials typically offered as “American cuisine”–hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, baked beans, hot dogs–aren’t worth considering, Mintz says, despite such “irrepressible enthusiasts” as Edna Lewis and Betty Fussell. (His nouns in this chapter do begin to grate.) He then concludes: “I don’t think anyone wants to call that array a cuisine.” (That’s right, “array.”)

Mintz dismisses our regional cuisines–New England, Southern, Cajun, Pennsylvania Dutch–because they have been ruined by the environmental impact of overfishing local stocks, and by ferocious marketing that dilutes their “authenticity” and ends in “bowdlerization.” But this is food, which means that it’s not easy for all “irrepressible enthusiasts” to sit still and listen. Mintz means to start an argument, to lay out a polemic, but what’s nettlesome is not his answer but the question. If cuisines emerge organically over time from rooted people, then why pose the question about a people who have come to epitomize rootlessness?

Instead, he might have consulted the works of J.B. Jackson, the architecture critic who observed that most American architecture isn’t meant to last. Americans throw up office parks and strip malls one year, tear them down the next, and build something else. So to judge America’s fleeting architecture by Europe’s canonical standards is preposterous. Ditto with food. Americans make no time for dialogue, much less cuisine. They’re scouting out new food fads, scarfing them down, and then rooting about for the next one. Had a blackened redfish lately? Probably not. Paul Prudhomme was so 1989. Enjoy this year’s mesclun salads. The end is nigh.

Even Mintz senses the bathos of ending his book on such a weak note. So he tacks on different ending by turning, in his own words, to “an unbelievably grim scenario.” He cites one of those suspiciously Malthusian studies forecasting a biblical future of scarce water, arid fields, and a desperately hungry America. Then he … well, surprisingly, he *moralizes.* Mintz suggests that “consumption gluttony” will prompt another Operation Desert Storm, but this time for meat. “Its effects on American moral integrity,” he intones, “would be utterly disastrous.” Worse, “we might let our obsessive notions of individual freedom destroy our democracy.” Oh, for the restraint of Detective Young.