Before Michael Pollan, before the History of The World in 6 Glasses, before Salt: A World History, there was Sweetness and Power, Sidney W Mintz’s look at the history of sugar.
I must have heard of it before, but I was really impelled to read it by Kevin West’s Saving The Season, which points out that, as old-fashioned as it seems, jam-making is relatively new on the scene. Home canning relies not only on a modern conception of sanitization but also on reliable sealing jars – the Ball jar company is only 100 years old – and jam requires a great deal of sugar.
In the beginning, sugar was rare and enormously expensive. Henry II once sent out for three pounds of it for the court, if his messenger could even get that much at once. That’s closer to the Rolling Stones sending a roadie out to get cocaine than it is to our contemporary understanding of sugar as a food, an adulterant, as a sneaky source of too many calories.
Mintz covers how sugar was made, how its manufacture and trade were implicated with slavery, the decline of mercantilism, the rise of liberal economic theory, the importation of new food habits, theories of working classes, and on and on.
It’s an academic read, not quite as user-friendly as the food books that followed it. But it’s thorough, and if you want to understand just how we got to this place in our caloric, economic, and culinary history, it’s well worth reading.
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