THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE may prove to be most important to English-speaking people, according to anthropologist Sidney Mintz who spoke at a food symposium over the weekend at Johns Hopkins University.
The international colloquium, "Cultural Representations of Food,' brought together about 40 scholars from various disciplines to discuss ways in which food and eating habits have helped form different cultures.
Widely known for his book "Sweetness and Power,' a history of sugar consumption and its effects upon various national economies, Mintz has begun to look into other ways that sugar influences thought.
His current work touches upon the ubiquitous presence of sugar in the English language.
And, as he told his audience, it's not merely a matter of "sweetie pies,' "sugar pies' and "sweethearts,' but also of the sweetness of revenge and success . . . of music, sausage and flowers. In the English-speaking world, even motors run sweetly.
"Walter Payton is Sweetness personified, because of the way he runs; Sugar Ray Robinson -- the original Sugar -- was sweet because of the way he boxed," Mintz said.
His preliminary research suggests that seeing the world in terms of sweetness is specific to certain cultures rather than universal. The French and Chinese languages, for instance, do not seem to use nearly as much sugar as American English, he pointed out.
And neither do their national cuisines.
Mintz speculated that sweet talk has a lot to do with the per capita sugar consumption of the talkers. Not only do Americans eat more sugar than the people of other nations, but they also drink as much soda pop as water, he said.
French scholar Linda Davey from the University of Windsor in Ontario suggested that traditional French cuisine downplayed sweets because the 18th century gourmets who set the gastronomic standards considered desserts to be "feminine' and therefore of lesser consequence.
Gender stereotyping of sugar also occurred in England, Mintz said. He mentioned a 19th Century study which showed a significant increase in families' consumption of meat, tea and sugar. As it turned out, the wives and children were consuming the extra tea and sugar while the husbands were eating all the extra meat. At that time, meat was considered a 'masculine' food essential to the strength of workers.
As for America, he said, any gender-related associations with sugar vanished before World War II, allowing the nation to savor its images of soldiers drinking Coke and eating Hershey bars.
The three-day colloquium, organized by the Hopkins French department, offered a tantalizing smorgasbord of unusual knowledge from scholars who gave talks in French as well as in English.
One could learn about food taboos of ancient Greece -- Pythagoreans and Orphics thought eating green beans was cannibalistic because the vegetable was associated with parents. Or ponder the original meanings of foods in such classic fairy tales as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Or learn how 17th Century priests used metaphorical stories about food and table manners to explain sex to young brides-to-be.
Anthropologist Mary Wiesmantel from Occidental College in Los Angeles introduced her audience to the political debate about peasant consumption of "chicha,' an Andean beverage traditionally fermented with the saliva of women.
The drink has become symbolic of the controversy about the frequency and degree to which Indians in Ecuador become intoxicated, she said. Outsiders are horrified by public displays of drunkenness --particularly at funerals-- and interpret this behavior as the result of ignorance and poverty.
Anthropological research shows, however, that exaggerated drunkenness has played an important role in the Indians' celebrations for hundreds of years, originating in Inca customs.
Traditionally, Indians drink only when they intend to become inebriated, Wiesmantel said. Drinking in moderation is not part of their culture.
JHU professor Milad Doueihi said he organized the colloquium to show how differently people and cultures can feel about food because of political and economic issues.
"We tend to take food and eating habits at face value, but you find that they really have a much deeper significance," Doueihi said.
Take his own research, for instance. Sensitive to how certain literary traditions refer to cultural beliefs, the scholar researched a food practice which recurs in stories from such medieval authors as Dante into the 17th Century.
His forthcoming book, "The Perverse History of the Human Heart,' examines the meaning of tales of husbands who murder their wives' lovers, then feed the hearts to their unsuspecting spouses.
"In these stories, the husband tended to prepare the heart as a ragout or terrine," Doueihi said. "When the wife discovered what she had eaten, she refused to eat anything else and eventually died from starvation."
The scholar said he had found no tradition of literary wives serving similar meals to wandering husbands.