Memorial Essay: The World History Legacy of Sidney Mintz

On December 27, 2015, cultural anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz passed away. Professor Mintz made many important contributions to various fields and disciplines, including anthropology, world history, food studies, among others. To honor Professor Mintz's legacy, the Book Channel commissioned an essay from Richard Warner, Associate Professor and Department Chairperson of History at Wabash College, to reflect on Professor Mintz's contributions to world history. Dr. Warner is the current President of the World History Association and was recently featured on the Breaking History podcast, which is available on H-Podcast. The following essay was edited in collaboration with H-World, with special assistance from network editor Christoph Strobel. --Caleb Owen, Book Channel Editor.

Over the past generation or so, the field of world history has taken some exciting turns. We can date the rise of the “New World History” to the early 1980s with the advent of the World History Association and its Journal of World History. The early years were spent in attempts to revise the dominant world civilizations narrative, as can be seen through the life of William McNeill. A parallel pattern of growth relates to the increasing influence of disciplines outside of history on this new world history. Arguably among the most influential interdisciplinary figures in this new interdisciplinary track was Sidney W. Mintz, an anthropologist of the Caribbean who focused on the sugar business. Over the long run, Mintz not only became the “father of food anthropology” but also exerted powerful influence on world history, as he shifted the discussion of the early modern sugar enterprise into a global framework. 

Mintz, the son of eastern European immigrants, grew up in New Jersey. His mother worked as a seamstress and organized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the Wobblies). His mother no doubt influenced the development of his Marxist analysis of history. His father also provided inspiration for his academic career, as he left his job in the clothing industry to run a diner. Mintz credited his experience with his restaurateur father as foundational for his lifelong interest in the production and consumption of food. Interestingly, like his father, he would do most of the cooking in his own home. Mintz understood food as a scholar and an accomplished chef long before the current “foodie” mania.

After earning a bachelor of arts degree in psychology at Brooklyn College and serving in the last part of World War II in the US Army Air Corps, Mintz became a graduate student at Columbia University, studying under famed anthropologists Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict. Among his graduate student colleagues was Eric Wolf, who also went on to influence the study of world history with his Europe and the People without History. Mintz’s fieldwork in Puerto Rico launched his lifelong interest in the lives of sugar workers of present and past. He merged his training as a cultural anthropologist with a materialist Marxist perspective, and soon was linking the lives of sugar workers to the rise of global capitalism in the early modern period. The book Caribbean Transformations and a series of articles he authored in the 1970s treated this theme.  Then in 1985 he published the work for which he is best known, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Sweetness and Power on both food studies and world history. Thirty years after publication, the book still works well in the classroom and occupies space on the shelf of every food historian. Essentially, Sweetness and Power shifted the paradigm away from the supply side of Atlantic system economics toward consideration of the importance of demand and consumption of the product. This came on the heels of some important historical work by Philip Curtis and a corps of graduate students from the University of Wisconsin’s program called Comparative Tropical History (sometimes jokingly referred to as Comp Swamp). This team of researchers thoroughly worked out the demographic history of Atlantic slavery, which breathed new life into the study of slave trade and labor in the Caribbean and Brazil. Their work demonstrated the sharp rise of the slave trade across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as the considerable loss in African lives. The vast majority of Africans were enslaved to work in the sugar business, which was growing impressively.

The principal world historical legacy of Mintz is the refocusing of this story to feature the impact of global consumption. Until 1500 Europeans who consumed sugar belonged to the highest social classes. With the energetic rise of Caribbean and Brazilian sugar, powered by African slave labor, sugar flooded the European market at lower prices. The addictive taste for sugar by the European working class therefore encouraged the rapid growth of the Atlantic slave trade and all of its accompanying misery for African slaves. Sweetness and Power detailed the political economy of the early modern Atlantic world from both sides of the production and consumption divide. Added to that was a growing trade in tea, first in the illegal market and then legally, which Mintz identifies as a parallel consumption-driven market. The same can be said for porcelain, though this product did not dip as far down into the lower levels of economic class in Britain.  

As is suggested by these examples, with his training as an anthropologist, Mintz complemented his global systems analysis with attention to the lives of ordinary people on the ground, both the lives of African slaves and the lives of ordinary Europeans who drove the market. He most certainly was a colleague of Wolf in this way. The final chapter of the book raises questions about the meaning of sugar, or rather the multiple meanings of the substance. In teaching the book I have always found that far more questions were raised than answered by that chapter—which makes it all the more powerful in the classroom.

Besides its long-term impact on world history per se, Mintz’s work places him as a “father” of food studies generally. As a subject of research as well as popular interest, food has really taken off in the past twenty years. There are many examples of “commodity biographies” as a genre: books on salt, chocolate, maize, potatoes, and so on. Then there are books that are also tied to a historical theme, such as national identity in Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s ¡Que vivan tamales!. Like Pilcher’s book, Sweetness and Power demonstrates the power that one particular food (maize in the case of Pilcher, sugar for Mintz) can have on human history. Mintz is therefore credited with the invention of the “food systems” approach to the subject. As Food Studies matures as a field, especially within History, this sort of theoretical approach will produce more mature scholarship.

Within the field of world history, Mintz’s contribution is parallel to the introduction of other disciplinary perspectives on the past. Now that the debates over the role of the West in world history are largely finished, other changes are occurring in world historiography with this new emphasis on interdisciplinarity. This is of course not news for the discipline of history as a whole, since the influence of the Annales school, social history, and environmental history have brought broader disciplinary viewpoints to bear. World history has generally been dominated by economics and politics as organizing categories, and this is now changing. The influence of non-historians—such as the scientist Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein (world-systems history), and the collection of disciplines that work together to make up “Big History” (from the Big Bang to the Future)—is ample evidence for this shift to interdisciplinarity. Some survey textbooks have adopted new disciplinary outlooks in their narrative, including Felipe Fernández Armesto's World: A History, in which he uses environmental science, and Bonnie G. Smith, Marc Van De Mieroop, Richard von Glahn, and Kris Lane’s Crossroads and Cultures, which provides a culturally defined analysis. In his ability to put together anthropology with history, Mintz was one of the first scholars to push the boundaries of disciplines in world history writing.

For many of us, the legacy of Mintz will continue to resonate for some time to come. This is probably truest for those of us who had the pleasure of meeting him, as I did in the late 1990s when he taught in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar that I worked for at the University of California Santa Cruz. As with my late friend Jerry Bentley, Sid Mintz seemed less interested in my historical work than in the fact that I worked for a decade as a professional chef. Both of them were fond of reminding others that while large structural questions are interesting to study in history, in the end we are telling stories about the lives of ordinary people and their localized lives in a globalized world.  

Recommended Readings

Professor Warner and the editors of the Book Channel have compiled a list of additional readings on food history, consumption, and world history.

Carney, Judith Ann. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the AmericasCambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Claflin, Kyri and Peter Scholliers. Writing Food History: A Global Perspective. London and New York: Berg, 2012.

Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972. 

Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Davidson, Alan, Tom Jaine, and Soun Vannithone. The Oxford Companion to Food, Third Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Freedman, Paul H., Joyce E. Chaplin, and Ken Albala, eds. Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014.

Fresco, Louise O. Hamburgers in Paradise : the Stories Behind the Food We Eat. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

McCann, JamesMaize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Mintz, Sidney W. Caribbean Transformations. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co., 1974.

________. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985.

Gordon, Bertram M. and Erica J. Peters. Food and France: What Food Studies Can Teach Us about History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. ¡Que vivan los tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Smith, Bonnie G., Marc Van De Mieroop, Richard von Glahn, and Kris Lane. Crossroads and Cultures: A History of the World’s Peoples. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.

Vester, Katharina. A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.