Sidney Mintz, In Memoriam, 1922-2015

Professor Sidney Wilfred Mintz, affectionately known as “Sid,” passed away on December 26, 2015. In a first and widely-shared post, Elizabeth Dunn succinctly conveyed the thoughts of so many:

Our dear friend and intellectual touchstone Sidney Mintz passed away yesterday morning. He was 93. The founder of the anthropology of food, a brilliant observer of life in the Caribbean, an incisive critic of capitalism in its many manifestations, Sidney used the study of sugar to draw us into the fundamental questions of modern existence. It was a very sweet life, Sidney, and you will live on in our memories and in our work. We love you.

A search on Facebook or Twitter provided a glimpse of the initial outpouring of remembrances. Sidney Mintz’s website remains a great resource for exploring his multifaceted contributions. A lengthy 2014 interview with Jonathan T. Thomas appeared in American Anthropologist, And the Rest Is History: A Conversation with Sidney Mintz.

This page was dedicated to tracking the posts and articles as they come in from around the world. When Sid passed away, I had just been pondering how I would use his Three Ancient Colonies for Teaching Latin America and Caribbean Anthropology. Teaching this course was particularly poignant, and it was not until December 2016 that I was able to write my own reflections: The Discovery of Sidney Mintz: Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution. Mintz appeared centrally for an early post on this blog: Loving Anthropology.

Reflections on Sidney Mintz

The Sweet Life of Sidney Mintz, Boston Review, 31 December 2015, by Sarah Hill
For all his importance as a scholar and shaper of how we do and read history today, Mintz was also a teacher like no other I have ever encountered. In my initial meeting with him, I learned that he eschewed his faculty honorifics in favor of his more genial first name. All of his graduate students called him, simply, Sid. This makes perfect sense for a man who studied the world from the bottom up, who made history’s victims into its protagonists. Sid modeled for us what he wanted our scholarship to be: an excavation of stories that no one else would bother to tell, and a willingness to see how important those stories really are, not only for their subjects but for our understanding of the ways in which we all take power for granted. He was no Foucauldian; rather, Sid looked at the old-fashioned brute force of conscription, wage-labor, and other tricks of exploitation and how they worked on the minds and bodies of those who endured them.

Sidney Mintz and an Anthropology of Capitalist Modernity, 비교문화연구 제22집1호, January 2016, by George Baca
With the death of Sidney Mintz (November 16, 1922 – December 26, 2015), a notable chapter in American anthropological history has ended. He was an important contributor to a small but a distinguished group of anthropologists, who came from the hardships of the Depression and World War II, to build new approaches to anthropology. These world historical events persuaded Mintz to search for ways to integrate anthropological methods of ethnography and concepts of culture with Marxian social theory.

Sound Bites (Podcast): Remembering the Life & Work of Cultural Anthropologist Sidney Mintz (starts at 19:30), Marc Steiner show, 7 January 2016
Celebrating his life and work is Sarah Hill, Associate Professor of Environmental and Sustainability Studies at Western Michigan University and author of the Boston Review article “The Sweet Life of Sidney Mintz”; Kevin A. Yelvington, Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida; Richard Wilk, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University and Jane Guyer, George Armstrong Kelly Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

Anthropologist in the Cane, Dylan Kerrigan in The Guardian, January 2016
Mintz noted well before most that: “Caribbean peoples are the first modernised peoples in world history. They were modernised by enslavement and forced transportation; by ‘seasoning’ and coercion on time-conscious export-oriented enterprises; by the reshuffling, redefinition and reduction of gender-based roles; by racial and status-based oppression; and by the need to reconstitute and maintain cultural forms of their own under implacable pressure. These were people wrenched from societies of a different sort, then thrust into remarkably industrial settings for their time and for their appearance, and kept under circumstances of extreme repression. Caribbean cultures had to develop under these unusual and, indeed, terrible conditions.” (Mintz 1993 cited in David Scott, Modernity that Predated the Modern: Sidney Mintz’s Caribbean)

Feast of Life: A Tribute to Anthropologist Sidney Mintz, Beacon Broadside, January 2016, by Deborah Chasman
Sid brought my attention to a scholarly essay he had written with his colleague, Richard Price, two decades earlier. Always modest, Sid was not one to resurrect his past work, but he did wonder if this particular long essay deserved a second look. (It did. And Beacon published it as a paperback original, The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective, the next year.) I recall reading the essay after my return to Boston. It is a stunningly beautiful essay that describes how, even on the slave ships, Africans from different tribes began to create culture together with whatever meager supplies they had. In the authors’ telling, they used pieces of broken glass to shave stars and half-moons into each others hair. Such life-affirming acts, despite unimaginable hardship, are what Sid brought to light throughout his career: the genius and creativity of ordinary people on whose backs the modern world was built.

The Anthropologist: Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015, The City Paper, 26 January 2016, by Jacqueline Garrison
In academia and the anthropological community, I am sure the loss is felt similarly, as Sid’s professional work absolutely reflected his character. He sought out people that others, blinded by an imbalance of power, could not see—in the sugar cane field, in the factory, in the kitchen. He remembered their names, asked them their stories with the intent to elevate their voices, and he gave them the same graceful consideration he lent me after stepping behind my counter. My experience with Sid was not unique. I believe he had a talent for creating a space in which marginalized people were able to feel important, because he knew they were, and that is a rare magic I pray does not disappear with the sudden halt of his practice.

Sidney Mintz, 1922-2015, Small Farm Future, 8 January 2016, by Chris Smaje
Probably the best way for me to honour Sid here is to share some thoughts on why his work still matters to me in the different life I’ve chosen as a small-scale farmer and small-scale farming activist. At the time early in his career when anthropology still inclined towards the study of supposedly authentic and pristine ‘non-modern’ or ‘tribal’ societies, Sid chose to focus on the Caribbean, the decidedly non-pristine crucible and forerunner for our modern world system. To understand the small world of the Caribbean, Sid had to understand much bigger worlds – Africa, Europe, and the Americas more generally – in their interactions with it. And he had to understand them historically, still quite a novel approach in the functionalist-dominated anthropology of the time. . . . There’s plenty of activist posturing within academia, but Sid’s specific, engaged, humane work floats serenely above it, offering not answers but at least the possibility of better historical understanding, and better questions.

Chronicler of the Power of Sweetness, The Wire, 9 January 2016, by Zilkia Janer
Sidney Mintz never stopped writing and lecturing. He continued to edit volumes and to introduce the work of the next generation of scholars. His interest in sugar and sweetness was revisited often to include new angles as the love affair of humans with sweetness continued to develop. He also turned his attention to soy, another global food commodity full of promise and pitfalls. In The World of SoySidney Mintz - The World of Soy (2008), a volume that he co-edited with Christine Dubois and Chee-Beng Tan, Mintz discussed fermented soybean foods and their lack of popularity in the West. Fermented soybean foods have not been favoured in the West beyond soy sauce and Japanese miso. However Mintz thought that the West has a lot to learn from Asia when it comes to the culinary use of fermented soy.

In memoriam: Sidney Mintz, OUP Blog, 5 January 2016, by Max Sinsheimer
What he wrote needed no editing; it was a masterful synthesis of all of the themes of the book, woven together with personal anecdotes and reflections. It begins with his fieldwork in Puerto Rico: “I can remember easily the first time I stood deep in a field of sugarcane in full bloom, a field already marked for harvesting.” It ends with a scholarly flight: “[Sugar] is a food that has meant much to humans, one that supplanted its predecessor worldwide, and that is a metaphor for so much, its history brimming over with the cruelty of man to man, but also with thoughts of sweetness and all of the pleasures that taste connotes.” I find it extremely humbling to think of Sid, in his nineties, putting pen to paper and teasing out all of the contradictory threads collected over a lifetime of studying this deceptively simple foodstuff. Sid once wrote, “Had it not been for the immense importance of sugar in the world history of food, and in the daily lives of so many, I would have left it alone.” Good thing for us he did not.

Remembering Sidney Mintz, Food Anthropology, 4 January 2016, by Ellen Messer
My personal interactions stemmed from our common passion for food studies in anthropology. Sid and I also shared some multi-generational family background. The Messer family, moving out of the illness ridden slums of New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1910s, landed first in Whippany, then in Mount Freedom, NJ. The eight siblings went first to the Ironia public school (one room schoolhouse) and then to Dover for secondary school. Following up on his very personal, memoir-style preface to Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past (Beacon Press, 1996), I learned that he and my father’s family had indeed overlapped in high school. The Messer boys traveled by horse and buggy (or sleigh) from their distant farm into town, where Sid recalled his high-school classmate, my Uncle Alfred, was always already there early in the school yard, wonderfully rosy-cheeked from having already milked the cows before heading to school. In a more academic vein, Sid’s simple structural insider-outside scheme for analyzing food-culture change provided the inspiration for the chapter I wrote on European acceptance of the potato for Helen Macbeth’s edited volume on Food Preferences and Taste: Continuity and Change (Berghahn, 2007). Sid let me know that he appreciated how effectively I had used his approach; this was exactly the kind of follow-up studies he had intended.

In Memoriam: Sidney W. Mintz, The Junto, 4 January 2016, by Jessica Parr
A prodigious and productive ethnohistorian, Mintz’s earliest work focused on Puerto Rican sugar cane workers, eventually expanding his work to include Haiti and Jamaica. His scholarship encompassed slavery and global capitalism, cultural hybridity, Caribbean peasants, and the political economy of food commodities.

Groundbreaking former JHU anthropology professor Sidney Mintz dies, The Baltimore Sun, 2 January 2016, by Mary Carole McCauley
“In 1948, some of the brighter graduate students were sent to Puerto Rico to work on a project at a sugar plantation,” Jacqueline Mintz said. “Sid began thinking about who was producing this sugar, who was consuming it, and why it made the planters so rich. He described the other workers as ‘the rural proletariat.’ I think he was the first person to coin that phrase.” The experience left Dr. Mintz with a profound respect for people he believed had been overlooked by history.

Groundbreaking anthropologist Sidney Mintz dies at age 93, JHU Hub, 30 December 2015
“His work broke new ground and inspired countless scholars to follow in his footsteps in anthropology, history, and many other disciplines in the social sciences,” says Emily Martin, a former colleague of Mintz’s who teaches at New York University. In a joint statement, the Department of Anthropology’s Deborah Poole, Niloofar Haeri, and Jane Guyer wrote, “Sidney combined, in one person, all the qualities we aspire to as anthropologists: a deep appreciation for the most mundane of skills in the world, a critical knowledge of history and theory, a love of languages, a deep commitment to teaching, and a sense of wonder which made him enjoy every aspect of fieldwork.”

In Memoriam Sidney Mintz, 1 January 2016, by Rachel Laudan
Our paths crossed in 2014 at a conference at Brown University. During one coffee break, I plucked up the courage to go and introduce myself. “We’ve never met,” I started out, intending to go on to thank him for his eye-opening, inspiring, and challenging work. I never got that far. “Oh I know who you are,” he said.”I’ve been reading your book.” All I could do was gasp. As we chatted, he kindly offered to send me a list of items he thought I should have included in my bibliography, mentioning particularly the Russian botanist Vavilov, famous for his research on centers of domestication. A few more minutes conversation and he said wistfully that since I had focussed on high cuisines, that it would be wonderful if someone would write a global history of humble cuisines. . . .
I think that thirty years on from Sweetness and Power, it is time to re-open the question of sugar and capitalism. A lot has been learned about both in the intervening years.

Sidney Mintz, 31 diciembre 2015, por Manuel Valdes Pizzini
Sin duda, la vitalidad de su trabajo y su insistencia en explorar las complejidades del mundo caribeño ha empujado a varias generaciones de antropólogos y antropólogas a leerle con cuidado y a entrar en debates con el. Su insistencia en la historia (como escenario, paisaje, sustancia) y los avatares del trabajo y la producción han sido vitales para muchos de nosotros. . . . Me temo que —antropológicamente— Sidney Mintz no descansará en paz. Seguiremos leyéndole y redimensionándole, como se merece.

Sidney Mintz, Father of Food Anthropology, Dies at 93, New York Times, 30 December 2015, by Sam Roberts
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.

Sidney Mintz, father of ‘food anthropology,’ dies at 93, The Times of Israel, 31 December 2015
Mintz’s research laid bare the the connection between European imperialism, modern slave labor, and what he called “proletarian drug foods,” such as sugar, coffee and rum. Mintz said in an interview that an earlier seminal study, “Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History,” explored the plight of agricultural workers, “nearly all of them people of color, working at ghastly jobs producing basic commodities — mostly for consumers in the West.”

Sidney Mintz, Founding Father of Food Anthropology, Has Died, The Daily Meal, 30 December 2015, by Karen Lo
Mintz described his work on food as an effort to understand “how world food habits are changing, how the causes of such change work; how the food systems of the West and Asia are interpenetrating; what ‘cuisine’ is, and how cuisines evolve over time; and what the future may hold for the food systems of human beings everywhere.”

Sidney Mintz 1922-2015: some personal memories, Food Politics, 29 December 2015, by Marion Nestle
The anthropologist Sidney Mintz has died at the age of 93. It feels way too soon. . . . When my colleagues and I started Food Studies programs at NYU, we considered Sweetness and Power to be the seminal work in the field. So did everyone else. We polled academics working on food issues about what should be included in a Food Studies “canon”–a list of books that every student ought to master. Only one book appeared on everyone’s list: Sweetness and Power.

Fallece el antropólogo Sidney Mintz importante colaborador del Recinto, 28 diciembre 2015, por Juan Giusti, Ph.D.
La magistral Worker in the Cane: a Puerto Rican Life History (1960) fue traducida como Taso, Trabajador de la Caña (1988). Generaciones de estudiantes de primer año de nuestro Recinto han leído y leen su obra, muy en especial la historia de vida de Taso Zayas, y muchos estudiantes visitaron y entrevistaron a Taso en Jauca. . . . En las últimas dos décadas, el profesor Mintz reafirmó sus vínculos con Puerto Rico. Visitó el Recinto de Río Piedras de la UPR en varias ocasiones para ofrecer conferencias y participar en conversatorios con estudiantes. En el 2002 el profesor Mintz donó a la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales del Recinto de Río Piedras su colección de casi tres mil libros sobre el Caribe, y centenares de textos publicados e inéditos de otros investigadores. Al profesor Mintz le recordaremos en el medio universitario por su calidad humana y generosidad como intelectual.

Sidney Mintz, 4 major books

Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations.
As a young anthropologist, Sidney Mintz undertook fieldwork in Jamaica, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Fifty years later, the eminent scholar of the Caribbean returns to those experiences to meditate on the societies and on the island people who befriended him. These reflections illuminate continuities and differences between these cultures, but even more they exemplify the power of people to reveal their own history. Mintz seeks to conjoin his knowledge of the history of Jamaica, Haiti, and Puerto Rico–a dynamic past born of a confluence of peoples of a sort that has happened only a few times in human history–with the ways that he heard people speak about themselves and their lives. Mintz argues that in Jamaica and Haiti, creolization represented a tremendous creative act by enslaved peoples: that creolization was not a passive mixing of cultures, but an effort to create new hybrid institutions and cultural meanings to replace those that had been demolished by enslavement. Globalization is not the new phenomenon we take it to be. This book is both a summation of Mintz’s groundbreaking work in the region and a reminder of how anthropology allows people to explore the deep truths that history may leave unexamined.

Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past
A renowned anthropologist explores the history and meaning of eating in America. Addressing issues ranging from the global phenomenon of Coca-Cola to the diets of American slaves, Sidney Mintz shows how our choices about food are shaped by a vast and increasingly complex global economy. He demonstrates that our food choices have enormous and often surprising significance.

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History
My work on sugar, Sweetness and Power, situates it within Western history because it was an old commodity, basic to the emergence of a global market. The first time I was in the field I’d been surrounded by it, as I did my fieldwork. That led me to try to trace it backward in time, to learn about its becoming domesticated, and how it spread and gained importance in the growing Western industrial world. I became awed by the power of a single taste, and the concentration of brains, energy, wealth and — most of all, power — that had led to its being supplied to so many, in such stunningly large quantities, and at so terrible a cost in life and suffering. (From Sidney Mintz on Sugar)

Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History
This is the absorbing story of Don Taso, a Puerto Rican sugar cane worker, and of his family and the village in which he lives. Told largely in his own words, it is a vivid account of the drastic changes taking place in Puerto Rico, as he sees them. Worker in the Cane is both a profound social document and a moving spiritual testimony. Don Taso portrays his harsh childhood, his courtship and early marriage, his grim struggle to provide for his family. He tells of his radical political beliefs and union activity during the Depression and describes his hardships when he was blacklisted because of his outspoken convictions. Embittered by his continuing poverty and by a serious illness, he undergoes a dramatic cure and becomes converted to a Protestant revivalist sect. In the concluding chapters the author interprets Don Taso’s experience in the light of the changing patterns of life in rural Puerto Rico.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2015. “In Memoriam, Sidney W. Mintz, 1922-2015.” Living Anthropologically website, Originally posted 28 December 2015 on the Anthropology Report website, Revised 3 June 2019.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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