Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 5, 1996

Mintz Serves Food
For Thought

Book: Anthropologist
Sidney Mintz links culture
and power to food in
his new collection of

Leslie Rice
News and Information

What does the food we eat say about the people we are?

It's a question Hopkins anthropology professor Sidney Mintz has found endlessly fascinating. In his latest book, a collection of essays titled Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture and the Past, due out this month by Beacon Press, he examines that question from a variety of angles, sorting and sifting through the many ways American culture has inexorably linked one of the most basic of human needs with morality, power, humanity and, of course, taste.

In Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, Mintz, one of the few experts in the world on the anthropology of food, encourages readers to look at food in a new light, to think about what they eat and why they eat it.

"Food is something that, except for gourmets or those who work with food for a living, most people take for granted," says Mintz, the William L. Straus Jr. Professor of Anthropology. "The ordinariness of food, its accessibility--and in the United States, its ubiquitousness along with our everyday need for it and its physiological consequences--makes discussing food seem less important than it is. It is such a vital part of our lives, and yet in many ways we are embarrassed by it because the act of eating seems so animal. But I've always been fascinated by food. I can't think of any other act that holds so much significance. If we don't eat, we die."

But to ignore the power of food beyond simply its life-sustaining effects would be to ignore one of the most powerful forms of expression in nearly every culture, he says. Look at the civil rights movement, for example.

"Think about the protests in the lunchrooms and restaurants. It was over the fundamental right to eat with people, to assert their common humanity, to sit at a table and establish relationships," he says.

The book's title essay explores the way enslaved Africans' creative adaptation of their cuisine to New World conditions offered a symbolic hope for freedom. Other essays probe contemporary eating habits: Why does the average weight of Americans keep increasing as dieting and healthy eating become more popular? Is there such a thing as American cuisine? Should it matter?

It is his last essay on American cuisine that Mintz expects to generate the most discussion. The essay came about after he was a guest lecturer for a writing class a few years ago. In a discussion on American eating habits following his talk, he casually mentioned that he did not think there was such a thing as an "American cuisine."

What followed was a heated argument by students who wondered angrily whether Mintz thought America didn't have its own culture either. One student said that in any given week he could eat Thai, Italian, Indonesian and African food for dinner. Why, then, couldn't the availability of ethnic foods constitute a cuisine?

A true cuisine, said Mintz, has its roots in a particular region. Ingredients are locally grown and prepared in a common manner, and it serves as one way the people within that region define themselves.

But America--with its sprawling and vastly different geographical regions, settled by seven different nations, and home to immigrant peoples from every corner of the globe--has developed into a country that, as a whole, has no definable "cuisine."

Instead it is a country of some scattered regional cuisines, he says: Southern Cajun dishes, Pennsylvania Dutch fare, New England chowders, Midwestern Scandinavian-based traditions, Southwestern Tex-Mex dishes. But Mintz adds that the marketing of those cuisines in other areas of the country has damaged the authenticity of each cuisine.

He does note what may be the one exception to his theory: teenagers.

"That there are powerful pressures toward sameness, working particularly upon children, may be thought to increase the homogeneity of American food habits," he writes. "Such foods as hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream and pizza are integral to acceptable adolescent behavior, regardless of origins; young people are intensely aware of it. In a certain way, then, these pressures do push toward homogeneity. But while learning to eat ice cream, and at fast food and ethnic restaurants, has the effect of increasing homogeneity of a kind, this experience is not the same as learning, or creating, a cuisine. Strictly speaking, by learning such behavior people are becoming sociologically more alike, but it is not really clear that they are becoming culturally more alike."

Mintz discusses Americans' peculiarly obsessive nature when it comes to food. We tend to equate morality somehow with food and eating. Consider that at any given moment more than half of all Americans say they are on a diet of some sort. Or consider the growing number of Americans, especially young, white middle-class women, who have eating disorders. Food, then, becomes something bad or good, something over which we exercise discipline, our will, not to eat.

Mintz's fieldwork for Tasting Freedom began in the 1930s in a Dover, New Jersey, restaurant kitchen, where his Eastern European immigrant father was a cook.

In a wonderful personal introduction to the book, Mintz writes about some of the exotic soups and stews his father made. He was a man whose repertoire was a mixture of Old Country fare-- like kidney stew, peppery lung stew and sandwiches of marrow and black bread--with New World staples and even a few "Chinese" dishes. He was a man with very defined ideas about food, writes Mintz:

"His french fries were excellent, but he hated to make them because he thought they were indigestible. When a customer ordered them, he was wont to come out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his apron, in order to lecture the unfortunate client on the error of his ways. (Some customers said his was the only restaurant in the world where the customer was always wrong.)"

In fact, it is his father who inspired Mintz to study food in the first place.

"This book would never have been written but for him," writes Mintz. "My best memories of him are associated indissolubly with the kitchen. He didn't think much of me in the kitchen, to be sure. He would watch me carving a standing rib and would say: 'How is it that you have a Ph.D. and you still can't carve a standing rib?' I imagine that he is up there now, looking down and saying to his friends, 'Look, there's my son. He makes his living writing about food!'"

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