Sweetness and Power

Yesterday morning, like most days this year, I made tea and toast and read the headlines before attempting to write something. “Made the mistake of reading the headlines,” I often say, since tuning in to the minutiae of the news gets in the way of creativity – or does it?

You should be able to write a love story knowing that respectable Americans are whitewashing an attempted Right Wing coup. You should be able to write a poem about springtime knowing what city in Ukraine is getting bombed hardest today. If reality is too much of a distraction, then what the hell were you writing about in the first place? Write deeper, answer harder questions.

The headlines yesterday were mostly about Elon Musk buying Twitter for $44 Billion. He is a hero to some of my friends – immigrant entrepreneurs I know have a big soft spot for him – and a villain to most others. He’s a controversial personality I had no strong opinions about, but was starting to. For context I put the computer aside and looked at … my tea and toast.

See, I was sitting in my friend’s apartment and found myself scouring the fridge for some kind of jam to spread on my toasted quarters of leftover bagels. (I’d been told to make myself at home.) Not finding any at first, I put extra sugar in my tea, but then looked harder: she had to have some, it’s a staple. It occurred to me that this craving of mine was not something endemic to my humanity, but was socially created by a monopoly just a few centuries ago.

This winter my nightstand reading book was Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz. I found it sitting lonely in my local bookstore. Published in 1985, it predates the works of, say, Mark Kurlansky or Michael Pollan by decades, written for a time when a historian wrote a book expecting only other historians would read it – or perhaps their students, begrudgingly. If you can wade through Mintz’ passages about his grand historical synthesis, then you find all the (sorry) delicious anecdotes you’d expect in a more popular history and find yourself motivated to understand his more abstract points.

In just 200 pages Mintz walks you through the introduction of sugar to the European pantry. What we think of as a staple cooking ingredient was first a spice, a preservative, and a medicine even. In the era of competition with the Muslim Caliphates of North Africa, sugar made its way around the continent, and was cultivated in Spain, Sicily, and most successfully in the Canary Islands. Its first use beyond spice cabinets and apothecaries was often in the form of “subtleties,” or sugar as a medium of sculpture.

I admit I was not familiar with the word in this sense, having missed Kara Walker’s sculpture at the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn back in 2014, that of the fabulously antique title “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” Another blog by Harvard students, called Chocolate Class, tells the history of subtleties very succinctly – according to their notes, leaning heavily on Mintz’ Sugar and Power.

History bores people because they think they know how the story ends, but this book reminds us that in 1600 it wasn’t at all clear which colonial power would emerge on top in the New World. The Spanish had the biggest head start but the Portuguese were still players. The French controlled huge parts of the North and the Caribbean, the Dutch and lastly the English were late to the game, the English still pre-occupied throughout the 1600s by their domestic crises and Civil War.

While telling the story of expanding consumption, Mintz also tells of monstrously expanding slavery in the Caribbean – the great democratization of luxury going hand in hand with colonialism at its worst. For years I had been perplexed by the order in which the colonizing powers stripped one resource after another from the rest of the world. I got that New Amsterdam was sending tens of thousands of beaver pelts a year from the Hudson valley alone back to the Netherlands, because there just weren’t that many beavers left in Europe, but why were so many of the first colonial products luxury stimulants: tobacco, chocolate, tea, coffee, and sugar. This book more than speaks to that, it tells it as one coherent story:

Ironically that series of crises in England in the 1600s resulted in a domestic economy that gave slightly higher wages to its post-feudal working class, and those coins in English workers’ pockets represented some earning power to be spent on cheap calories. Treacle was the first popular form of sugar for common people because it could be used in place of honey. That was followed by loaves of hard brown sugar, then the refined stuff, and it dovetailed with the marketing of tea in particular.

Lots has been said and written about the preconditions for the economic world as we know it. Calvinism created the spiritual and psychological mindset for capitalism. Colonialism the callously ever-expanding worldview. But tea and sugar, and coffee, and to a lesser extent chocolate, were necessary to creating a working class able to drag its sorry asses to work on time, and a professional class jacked up enough to always want more of everything.

I’m always taken aback, when I read colonial histories, by how private enterprise was steering the ship. How much kings were willing to give away to well-connected young, industrious men with dreams of fortunes. How genteel upper-middle class ladies and gentlemen were willing to invest in slavery, literally.

The title page to Sugar and Power quotes a 1773 work by Bernardin de Saint Pierre titled Voyage to Isle de France, Isle de Bourbon, The Cape of Good Hope… With New Observations on Nature and Mankind by an Officer of the King, which says it all: “I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.”

Will Elon Musk and the investors he represents turn out to be responsible keepers of what’s become an important public square? I don’t know. Ask a Barbadian.