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  • Sweetness, Capacity, Energy
  • Kyla Wazana Tompkins (bio)

The first time I encountered Sydney Mintz's writing on sugar, I actually lost my breath. To my mind, Mintz's work is still the single most important and foundational text to take up the history of food in the context of the Americas. It's probably, too, the book that made me believe that writing about the matter we call "food" might ultimately yield a lifetime of rich material to think with.

Here is a passage from Sweetness and Power that has stayed with me, harassed me even, through several years of teaching and writing on food, matter, race and the biopolitical:

Substances like tea, sugar, rum, and tobacco were used by working people in accord with the tempos of working-class life. Those centuries when England was transformed, albeit irregularly and unevenly, from a predominantly rural, agrarian, and pre-capitalist society were centuries of novelty in consumption. Sugar was taken up just as work schedules were quickening, as the movement from countryside to city was accelerating, and as the factory system was taking shape and spreading. Such changes more and more affected the patterning of eating habits. We have already seen how hot liquid stimulants sweetened with calorieladen sugar, and tobacco, among other novelties, transformed meals "even the definition of the meal, while economic changes transformed the schedules of eating."

It is at this point that the ideas of meaning and power touch. Surely none of the sugar touts of the seventeenth century foresaw the nation of sucrose eaters their England was soon to become, yet they, and the classes they endorsed, ensured the steady growth of a society ever richer in sugar, and enriched by the slave trade, the plantation system, slavery itself, and, soon enough, the spread of factory industry in the metropolis. As the exemplar of luxuries turned into affordable proletarian goodies by dint of individual effort, sucrose was one of the people's opiates, and its consumption was a symbolic demonstration that the system that produced it was successful.1

Why, we might ask, is this landmark book not called "Sugar and Power"? Why is the key word for Mintz "Sweetness"? Why this turn to the sense of sweetness and not the commodity itself? Rereading Mintz almost twenty years after I first encountered his work, I am struck by how he approaches but never entirely speaks to the question of this caloric energy source as a shift in the sensory [End Page 849] textures and affective nature of everyday life.2 I'm struck by the repetition of words like calorie, stimulants, opiates. I am struck, too, by how he approaches and then steps away from questions of aesthetics, here loosely organized around words like sweetness, hot, liquid, and bitterness.

I'm doing something of a quantitative reading here, revisiting the book in electronic form. I keep going back to my Google book copy of Sweetness and Power to count how often he uses certain words: energy, eighteen times; stimulant, twenty-five times; bitter, forty-two times; sweeten, eighty-six times. Engaging with Mintz electronically, it's easier to see that over and over he wonderingly returns to but never entirely unpacks the changes in taste and flavor attached to this single commodity, a sweetening of the world that accompanied the global reorganization or race, capital, labor and knowledge. Mintz was one of the first scholars of food to approach the shifts in palate that accompanied the transformation of labor regimes in the back and forth between slavery and industrialism as a question of human energy and human aesthetics, even though he never quite allowed that connection to be the central problem of the book. This is not a criticism: the link between affect and aesthetics was not at the heart of the project in which Mintz was engaged, and critical conversations about the relation between capitalism and slavery in the Euro-American academy were at a different stage, although as ever, Black and Caribbean scholars such as the economic historian Eric Williams got there first.3

In Sweetness and Power Mintz developed an argument about the directional flow of ideas, commodities, and labor patterns from the...


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