By Sam Roberts, The New York Times, December 30, 2015
Sidney W. Mintz, a renowned cultural anthropologist who provocatively linked Britain’s insatiable sweet tooth with slavery, capitalism and imperialism, died on Sunday in Plainsboro, N.J. He was 93.
The cause was a severe head injury from a fall, his wife, Jacqueline Mintz, said.
Professor Mintz was often described as the father of food anthropology, a mantle bestowed on him after the critical and popular success of his 1985 book, “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.”
Even before that, though, he had stretched the academic boundaries of anthropology beyond the study of aboriginal peoples. (He joked about those who believed that “if they don’t have blowguns and you can’t catch malaria, it’s not anthropology.”)
His groundbreaking fieldwork in the Caribbean was the basis of his book “Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History” in 1960, in which he profiled the rural proletariat — the “millions of people in the world, nearly all of them people of color, working at ghastly jobs producing basic commodities, mostly for consumers in the West,” as he described them to the journal American Anthropologist last year.
Professor Mintz also explored the legacy of language and religion that slaves took with them from Africa. He was instrumental in creating a black studies curriculum at Yale University in the early 1970s before joining Johns Hopkins University, where he helped found its anthropology department in 1975 and became professor emeritus in 1997.
The son of a restaurateur and an amateur chef himself, Professor Mintz was best known beyond the academy and his own kitchen for his Marxian perspective on the growing demand for sugar in Britain, beginning in the 17th century.
In his view, that hunger shaped empires, spawned industrial-like plantations in the Caribbean and South America that presaged capitalism and globalization, enslaved and decimated indigenous populations, and engendered navies to protect trade while providing a sweetener to the wealthy and a cheap source of energy to industrial workers.
“There was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working class, to turn them into addicts or to ruin their teeth,” Professor Mintz wrote in “Sweetness and Power.” “But the ever-rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of intraclass struggles for profit — struggles that eventuated in a world market solution for drug food, as industrial capitalism cut its protectionist losses and expanded a mass market to satisfy proletarian consumers once regarded as sinful or indolent.”
He added, “No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.”
Professor Mintz was as much at home in the 21st century as he was in the 17th. In “Sweetness and Power” he observed that Americans were consuming more by multitasking, writing, “Watching the Cowboys play the Steelers while eating Fritos and drinking Coca-Cola, while smoking a joint, while one’s girl sits on one’s lap, can be packing a great deal of experience into a short time and thereby maximizing enjoyment.”
Sidney Wilfred Mintz was born on Nov. 16, 1922, in Dover, N.J., the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Solomon, was a dye maker who became a clothing salesman. His mother, the former Fanny Tulchin, was a seamstress and an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. (By the time the group was banned by the government as radical, he said, “she was married and organizing only her kids.”)
His father was a dishwasher in a diner before buying it and converting it into “the only restaurant in the world where the customer was always wrong,” Professor Mintz said. (Its previous owner had been enticed to purchase a Ferris wheel and left town with a carnival.) The diner went bust during the Depression.
“Very early I became interested in how people acquired, prepared, cooked and served food, and that all came from my father,” Professor Mintz told American Anthropologist. “I came by my interest in food honestly; feeding people had become what my father did for a living. As I grew, I was able to help.”
But when he was home from college during summers, Professor Mintz gorged on breakfast after his overnight shift at the local military arsenal — so much so, he said, that his father complained that “our financial security as a family would remain at risk until I moved out or lost my appetite.”
He received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brooklyn College in 1943, taught celestial navigation in the Army Air Forces during World War II and received a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University.
Like his father, he did most of the cooking at home. In addition to his wife, the former Jacqueline Wei, with whom he lived in Cockeysville, Md., he is survived by two children from an earlier marriage, Eric Mintz and Elizabeth Nickens, and two grandchildren.
In 1996, Professor Mintz wrote “Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions Into Eating, Culture and the Past,” in which he maintained that Americans did not have a national cuisine. What they share, he said, is a “lively appreciation of sin,” which manifests itself in an obsession with dieting.
He also complained about the eating habits of too many people today.
“We appear to be capable of eating (and liking) just about anything that is not immediately toxic,” he wrote in “Sweetness and Power.” “What constitutes ‘good food,’ like what constitutes good weather, a good spouse or a fulfilling life, is a social, not a biological matter.”