A product that the poor eat, both because they are accustomed to it and because they have no choice, will be praised by the rich, who will hardly ever eat it.
–Sidney Mintz, The Sweetness and the Power, p. xxii (1985)
Mintz here refers to an unrefined sugar loaf commonly eaten by Jamaican plantation workers; it is small-scale domestic production and consumption using the scraps of the colonial sugar industry. Sugar is grown on colonies — Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, much of the rest of the Caribbean — but the “last and most profitable step” is carried out on the mainland. Consumers of the British, French, and American empires use refined sugar, a sugar lightened from dark brown to white for no reason other than aesthetics, rooted in racism (whiteness as sign of purity). On the colony they cobble together innovative cultural objects from the scraps the empire leaves behind. The rich praise this, as it de-emphasizes the exploitation that is the crucible of this innovation while emphasizing the ‘cultural’ difference between exploiter and exploited. Yet the fascination is real, and powerful. This is the commodity fetishism of imperialism: the labor extracted from diaspora, dislocation, racism, and brutal working conditions can be tasted, enjoyed, contemplated. It binds disparate parts of empire together phenomenologically.
The parallels to food tourism and exotic eating such as featured on Anthony Bourdain’s television shows are obvious. What does this quotation say about the consumption of other forms of culture? Are there musical sugar loaves? I suspect there are. I don’t want to go there yet. And this rich quotation, from a rich introduction of an excellent book, points, in perhaps an oblique way, at the nexus of pleasure, exoticism, empathy, and imperialism at the heart of cultural tourism, a predominant form of consumption under globalization.