'The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets', by Darra Goldstein, with a Foreword by Sidney Mintz - Review

By Levy, Paul | The Spectator, June 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets', by Darra Goldstein, with a Foreword by Sidney Mintz - Review


Levy, Paul, The Spectator


This Oxford Companion ranges from the sweet to the decidedly salty, while being the most politically correct reference book you will ever consult, says Paul Levy

The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets Darra Goldstein, with a foreword by Sidney Mintz

OUP, pp.888, £40, ISBN: 9780199313396

Should sugar be taxed? Some of the contributors to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets seem to think so. Sugar certainly appears less appealing than it used to. Its negative effect on our teeth is undeniable, and it now takes the rap for many of the ills we formerly blamed on fats, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. But sugar is also now bound up with politics, because of its historical connection with slavery. Our awareness of this we owe to the groundbreaking, imaginative scholarship of Sidney Mintz, whose 1985 Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is easily the most frequently referenced work by the 265 contributors to this massive volume.

It is a mighty endorsement of the editor Darra Goldstein's enterprise that Mintz has written the long foreword to it. He ties the emotive appeal of sweetness to our mammalian and primate nature, which is about as fundamental as you can get. (Goldstein, in her introduction, claims there is at least one exception to the rule that mammals crave sweet tastes -- cats; she hasn't met my three cake-nibbling moggies.) Even our vernacular reflects the emotional tug of the sweet: we call our beloved 'sweetheart,' 'sugar' or 'honey'; compliments can be sugary, but never salty; and contrast 'sweet talk' with what we mean by salty language.

However, as Mintz says, 'At some point the whiteness of sugar probably became an ideal, because white -- at least in some places -- suggested purity.' You can see that nowadays this won't wash; and this Oxford Companion is, inevitably, the most politically correct reference book you're ever likely to consult. Sugarcane originated in New Guinea, but the first crystalline form of it that could be traded occurred in North India about 500 BCE. It was wildly expensive, used in religious rituals, treated as a precious spice (rather than as a mainstream foodstuff) or as a medicine. This was still the position in the UK, as Jill Norman's entry tells us, from the time of its appearance in the 11th century until it got cheaper in the second half of the 16th century; indeed sugar, which came in large, hard cones, was kept under lock and key.

Sugar dropped in price when production moved to the Caribbean lowlands, with their ideal soil and climate conditions. But even these could not make growing, refining and trading sugar any less labour-intensive; and so the workforce became enslaved Africans. Owing to the American Civil War, we think of cotton as the crop associated with slavery. Not so, says Mintz:

The crop that benefited the slave owners in America the most, and the one that used the largest number of slaves, was sugarcane. Plantation slavery in the New World lasted more than three and a half centuries, and it was involved with the killing or enslavement of an estimated 13.5 million Africans and African Americans.

Before getting indignant about the Americans, however, it's chastening to read Matthew Parker's entry for 'sugar barons', the British families who owned and profited hugely from extensive plantations in the Caribbean from the mid-17th to the beginning of the 19th centuries. Beet sugar made some difference to the political situation, as it allowed both the US and the UK (and other northern nations) to be a little less dependent on cane-sugar importers. Though, as Mintz also says, the US

solved many of its own sugar problems, intentionally or not, through war, when it scooped up Spain's old sugar colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific regions during the Spanish-American War (1898-1899). …

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