We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
The food technologist interested in selling products would like to make it possible for everyone to eat exactly what he or she wants to eat, in exactly the quantities and under exactly the circumstances (time, place, occasion) he or she prefers. But incidental to this is the elimination of the social significance of eating with other people.
Meals that must be eaten by everyone at the same time require advancement, postponement, or cancellation of competing events by the participants. Meals consisting of the same items for all eaters must be based on a least common denominator, rather than on each person’s greatest preferences. Meals that are eaten in some fixed order may run counter to one or another participant’s preference for soup last or dessert later. All of these constraints reveal that social eating is precisely that: social, involving communication, give and take, a search for consensus, some common sense about individual needs, compromising through attending the needs of others.
Food technologists, however, see these constraints as restrictions of personal freedom. In the new world they envision, meals give way to eating habits that fit individual lifestyles. Ideally, in these terms, an obese daughter may now eat a series of yogurts, an enthusiastic televisionwatching father a TV dinner, a jogging mother large quantities of granola, and an alienated son no end of pizzas, Cokes, and ice cream.
Thus, as food availability is generalized across modern society, the structures of meals and the calendar of diet in daily life tend to disappear. Coffee and Coca-Cola are now appropriate at any time and with any accompaniment. So, too, are breaded, deep-fried bits of complex carbohydrates and protein (potatoes, corn and wheat bread sticks, chicken, scallops, shrimp, pork ribs, fish pieces). Synthetic juices that split the difference between the food faddists and the Pepsi Generation; fibre-rich cereals made calorie-heavy with raisins, figs, dates, honey, nuts, and nut substitutes; crackers, cheeses, dips, pretzels, and “munchies”—together these now provide a nutritive medium within which social events occur, rather than the other way round. The meal, which had a clear internal structure, dictated at least to some degree by the onecook-to-one-family pattern and the consequences of socialization within such a pattern, as well as by “tradition,” can now mean different items and different sequences for each consumer. The week’s round of food, which once meant chicken or some equivalent on Sunday, or fish on Friday, is no longer so stable, nor viewed as so necessary by the participants. And the year’s round of food, which brought bock beer, shad, fresh dill and new potatoes, each in its turn, turkey twice a year and fruit cake with hard sauce at New Year’s, survives only on sufferance, finessed by turkey-burgers, year-round bock beer, and other modern wonders.
These transformations have made ingestion more individualized and noninteractive; they have desocialized eating. Choices to be made about eating—when, where, what, how much, how quickly—are now made with less reference to fellow eaters, and within ranges predetermined on the one hand by food technology, and on the other hand by what are perceived as time constraints.
The experience of time in modern society is often one of an insoluble shortage, and this perception may be essential to the smooth functioning of an economic system based on the principle of ever-expanded consumption. Anthropologists and economists have struggled with the paradox implicit in modern society—that its vastly more productive technologies result in individuals having (or feeling they have) less time, rather than more. Because of time pressure, people try to condense their consumption pleasure by consuming different things (such as movies and popcorn) simultaneously. This simultaneous (but often peculiarly unsatisfying) experience seems to the individual to be a “natural” one—as does the proliferation of fruit stands, croissant carts, coffee machines and the like on street corners, in laundry rooms, hallways, gas stations, at checkout counters, in theater lobbies, and elsewhere.
Maximum enjoyment in minimum time has come to mean both divided (simultaneous) consumption—one eats while walking or working, drinks while driving or watching entertainment—and higher frequency of occasions for consumption. 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 pack a great deal of experience into a short time and thereby maximize enjoyment. (Or it can be experienced quite differently, depending upon the values one holds.) What is most important, however, is that people who experience pleasures simultaneously in these ways are taught to think about the consumption itself—not about the circumstances that led them to consume in that fashion, other than to sense that there was “not enough time” to do otherwise.
Since the only objective way to increase time is to alter percentages for the activities it encompasses, and since the work day has remained relatively the same length for a century, most adjustments in available time tend to be cosmetic, or to involve “time-saving.” The development of prepared food to be eaten in the home, as well as eating out, are both regarded as time-saving practices. Of course, consuming prepared food means surrendering much of one’s choice in what one eats. But not surprisingly, the food industry touts it as increasing one’s freedom of choice—especially when there are no references to what the food itself contains.
The rise in the use of prepared foods, the increase in meals eaten out, and the decline of the meal itself as a ritual (particularly for kin groups) have led in recent decades to different patterns of sucrose usage as well as to increases in the consumption of sugars overall. Between 1955 and 1965, per-capita usage of certain sweets and sugars—candy, for example—actually dropped 10 per cent. But during the same period, the per-capita consumption of frozen milk “desserts” rose 31 per cent; of baked goods 50 per cent; and of soft drinks 78 per cent. From these figures, it is possible to infer an increasing intervention in meal schedules. “The daily three-meal pattern, although mentioned as a valid rule by almost all the subjects [of a recent study] is no longer a reality” says the French anthropologist Claude Fischler. Though the research on which this assertion is based is too slight to be generalized, it indicates that 75 per cent of American families do not take breakfast together. Dinners eaten together are down to three a week or less, and that meal usually lasts no more than twenty minutes. Yet among urban, middle-class families, the number of “contacts” between any family member and food might run as high as twenty daily. Such figures hearken back to the hunting-andgathering existence of our species, when food was eaten as it became available, without much reference to situation or circumstance.
One fascinating expression of this modern American way of eating is found in what we know is consumed and what people recall they have consumed. Whereas the Department of Agriculture figures demonstrate that we dispose of about 3,200 calories per-capita per day, the average white female adult, for example, can recall, when asked what she ate on the previous day, only 1,560 calories, a noticeably low average, and less than half the “disappearance” figure. Since average weight has risen steadily in this country, these recall data are difficult to accept as accurate. They suggest a pattern of ragged and discontinuous but very frequent snacks that are surely forgotten by those who do the eating.
Sucrose fits snugly into the picture, as the facts concerning sweetened frozen-milk products, baked goods, and soft drinks demonstrate. The “desserts” or baked goods together with beverages (more commonly than not, soft drinks), constitute brief, meal-like interventions during the day, which further erode the traditional three-meal pattern. Enlarged mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks have the effect of making the meals on either side more “snack-like.” In short, it would appear that the meal structure—the “paradigmatics” and “syntagmatics” of ingestion—is dissolving. To what extent this is true for any given social group in any given Western country is, of course, unknown; but it is clear that the history of sugar consumption predates—and in certain ways prefigures—the spread of unscheduled eating as an aspect of modern life.
There is also a hidden way in which sugar has affected the modernization of consumption. The high sucrose content of many prepared and processed foods that do not taste sweet (such as flour-dredged meats, poultry and fish that are baked, broiled or deep-fried) is an important source of the increase in sucrose consumption and reflects the astonishing versatility of sucrose. When used in non-yeastraised baked goods, we are told, “texture, grain and crumb become smoother, softer, and whiter.” This tenderizing effect of sugars has long been recognized.” Sucrose also supplies “body” to soft drinks, because “a heavy. liquid is more appealing to the mouth than water.” Sugar inhibits staleness in bread—“shelf life” is important in a society that wants its supermarkets open twenty-four hours a day for “convenience”—stabilizes the chemical content of salt, mitigates the acidity of catsup, serves as a medium for yeast. In all of these uses, its sweetness is largely irrelevant; indeed, many food manufacturers would dearly love a chemical having all of the qualities of sucrose without the calories and, in some cases, even without the sweetness.
The decline in consumption of complex carbohydrates has been accompanied by an increase in the consumption of sugars and fats. These two foods are epitomized among liquids by condensed milk, among semisolids by ice cream, and among solids by chocolate candy. In the last half century or so, sugar-fat combinations have taken two other important industrially processed forms: in salty food/sweet drink combinations (hamburgers with Coca-Cola, hot dogs with orange soda), and in the combination of sweet, cold drinks with deep-fried items in which sugar figures in the exterior coating. These latter represent a special triumph of situationally conditioned taste over nutrition. The fat side is advertised with words like “juicy,” “succulent,” “hot,” “luscious,” “savory,” “rich,” “satisfying,” and “finger-licking good.” The sugar side is touted with words like “crisp,” “fresh,” “invigorating,” “wholesome,” “refreshing,” and “vibrant.”
The food technologist’s lexicon for the uses of sugar and fat pays special attention to sugar’s way of making foods more palatable. Baked products, for example, are judged by their quality of “go away.” Proper proportions of sugar and fat result in good “good go-away”—which means that the mouthful of food can be swallowed without leaving the inside of the mouth coated with fat particles. The help of sugar in achieving good goaway is vital. It is now permissible to add up to 10 per cent sugar to manufactured peanut butters in the U.S. because sugar improves its go-away marvelously. Soft drink manufacturers, substituting saccharin for sugar, struggle with a comparable problem. Gums of various sorts are introduced to make the soft drink taste heavier in the mouth, the way sugar would make it heavy, since the mouth—food technologists tell us—prefers liquids that are heavier than water. The term “mouth feel” is used to describe the felt “body” of liquids (like soft drinks), to which sugar supplies agreeable weight or balance. It can be seen that this terminology is not really concerned with taste: texture, perhaps, or “feel”—but not taste.
The peculiar versatility of sugars has led to their remarkable permeation through so many foods and into nearly all cuisines. But the subsidiary or additional uses of some sugars, particularly sucrose, have become more important, not less, as prepared foods inside and outside the home grow more popular. The function of sweetness in the patterning of ingestion has changed, even while the nonsweetening uses of sucrose and corn sweeteners have expanded. That sugars not only have remained important in our new diets and eating habits but have become proportionately much more so is additional evidence of their versatility.
The track sugar has left in modern history is one involving masses of people and resources, thrown into productive combination by social, economic and political forces that were actively remaking the entire world. The technical and human energies these forces released were unequalled in world history, and many of their consequences have been beneficial. But the place of sugars in the modern diet, the strangely imperceptible attrition of people’s control over what they eat, the eater becoming the consumer of a massproduced food rather than the controller and cook of it, the manifold forces that work to hold consumption in channels predictable enough to maintain food industry profits, the paradoxical narrowing of individual choice and of opportunity to resist this trend, in the guise of increasing convenience, ease and “freedom”—these factors suggest the extent to which we have surrendered our autonomy over our food.
Subtle encouragements to be modern, efficient, up-to-date and individualistic have become steadily more sophisticated, because of the understanding that those who control what the symbols mean can make the consumer consume their denotata. We are what we eat. In the modern Western world, we are made more and more into what we eat, whenever forces we have no control over persuade us that our consumption and our identity are linked.
Food may be no more than a sign of yet larger, more fundamental processes—or so it seems. Diet is remade because the entire productive character of societies is recast and, with it, the very nature of time, of work, and of leisure. If these occurrences raise questions for us and about us—if they seem to others, as they seem to me, to have escaped from human control even though they are very much the outcome of organized human intent—then we need to understand them far better than we do. We may aspire to change the world, rather than merely observe it. But we need to understand how it works in order to change it in socially effective ways.
We anthropologists for too long have paradoxically denied the way the world has changed and continues changing, as well as our ability—responsibility, even—to contribute to a broad understanding of the changes. If we have been betrayed by our own romanticism, we have also lagged in recognizing and asserting our strengths. Those strengths continue to lie in fieldwork and in a full appreciation of humanity’s historical nature as a species. Anthropological interest in how person, substance, and act are integrated meaningfully can be pursued in the modern world as well as in the primitive one. Studies of the everyday in modern life, of the changing character of mundane matters like food, viewed from the joined perspective of production and consumption, use and function, and concerned with the differential emergence and variation of meaning, may be one way to inspirit a discipline now dangerously close to losing its sense of purpose.
To move from so minor a matter as sugar to the state of the world in general may seem like yet another chorus of the bone song—the hip bone’s connected to the leg bone, et cetera. But we have already seen how sucrose, this favored child of capitalism—Fernando Ortiz’s lapidary phrase—epitomized the transition from one kind of society to another. The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events, for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things. What commodities are, and what commodities mean, would thereafter be forever different. And for that same reason, what persons are, and what being a person means, changed accordingly. In understanding the relationship between commodity and person, we unearth anew the history of ourselves.
Sidney W. Mintz (1922–2015) was an anthropologist and author of many books, including Caribbean Transformations, Sweetness and Power and Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Why we should err on the side of inaction—and why we won’t.
Monopoly power has certainly harmed workers, but the solution should be a wholesale rethinking of economic policy—not an embrace of perfectly competitive markets.
Well-meaning nonprofits don’t go far enough in the fight against gentrification. Residents themselves must be in charge, and neighborhood trusts point the way.