Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1998
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Sid Mintz cooks up a not-quite- traditional Thanksgiving feast--and explains why Americans can lay no claim to a national cuisine.

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    A N D    I N T E R N A T I O N A L

Matters of Taste
By Dale Keiger
Photos by Craig Terkowitz

SIDNEY MINTZ HAS PEOPLE COMING OVER for dinner. A mix of old friends and new colleagues, 10 in number. By request, he's preparing to serve his idea of a good Thanksgiving dinner, and shopping day finds him in the produce section, examining a lime-green squash--the vivid lime green of paint chips, not limes--called chayote. Chuchu to Brazilians, christophene to the French, mirliton in Louisiana, chayote is simply foreign to most Americans, at least when they're pondering Thanksgiving. Pass the chayote?

But in Sid Mintz's kitchen, that foreignness doesn't matter because he believes there's no such thing as American cuisine. It's an assertion that seems to rub some people raw. They take it personally, like an insult to the flag. Jeff Smith, television's Frugal Gourmet, once wrote: "We Americans have had a bad image of ourselves and our food for a long time, and I am done with it." Say the affronted, What about hamburgers? Hot dogs? Meatloaf? Pizza? New England clam chowder, blackened redfish, Chesapeake Bay crab cakes, Kansas City barbecue, not to mention Aunt Myrlene's green-beans-and-mushroom-soup hot dish, always the hit of the Methodist church supper? What about turkey and dressing with cranberry relish?!?

Mintz shrugs and replies that a bill of fare does not constitute a cuisine, at least not as he defines it. Lest culinary patriots think he singles out Americans, Mintz says there's no genuine French, Italian, or Chinese cooking, either. There's what restaurants and cookbook authors label French cooking, etc., but Mintz says that has more to do with marketing than cookery. The only authentic cuisines, by his definition, are regional. One can speak properly of Bavarian cuisine, but not German; Szechuan cuisine, but not Chinese; Alsatian oui, French non. He concedes that a case can be made for American regional cuisines such as Southwest or New England, but he fears not for long. He thinks they're endangered species, threatened by the American love of novelty, homogeneity, and convenience, and by the food industry that caters to it.

A 75-year-old Hopkins professor emeritus of anthropology, Mintz has published his thoughts on food, what it reveals about culture, and how it affects history in the books Sweetness and Power (Viking Penguin, 1985) and Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Beacon, 1996). In 1948-49, he did the fieldwork for his dissertation in Puerto Rico, where he first encountered sugar plantations. He didn't consider writing about food until 1985, when he published Sweetness and Power, a study of how the Old World's taste for sugar developed, and what effect that development had on the history of the islands. After the book was published, Mintz lectured on sugar, and he recalls, "People would say, 'What about salt? Or Equal? Or honey?'" He began looking up answers to some of these questions, and the more he found, the more interested he became in food and foodways (the study of the social habits and customs of eating) as subjects of intellectual inquiry. Around 1990, he expanded his interests beyond sweets. "I discovered that a lot of stuff written about food is awful," he says. "It's written by people who don't know how to cook or how to eat."

MINTZ HAS BEEN DOING BOTH seriously since the late 1960s. Just off the kitchen of the house near campus that he shares with Jacqueline, his wife of 35 years, and their two cats, Molly and Marcello, are five shelves. Three of them are packed with cookbooks: Persian Cooking, Provençal Light, Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine, Cucina Paradiso, The Peasant Cook, The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, The Art of Turkish Cooking. There are also a couple of ripening melons, and a badly torn and worn copy of Joy of Cooking. Affixed to the refrigerator door by a magnet shaped like a rolling pin is a page of recipes from the New York Times Magazine. Two have checkmarks applied with red felt-tip pen: Ceviche with Mint and Mango, and Lentil-and-Mint Salad. By way of food writer Molly O'Neill, Mintz has published a few of his own recipes in the Times, including "Sid Mintz's Perfumed Lamb"; coriander and cardamom provide the perfume.

The Mintzes are part of a circle of friends who like to cook for each other. Some of those friends, along with some new members of the Hopkins Anthropology Department, will be coming two nights hence to dine on Mintz's variations on Thanksgiving dinner. The meal will feature North American ingredients cooked by Chinese methods. Jacqueline is from Shanghai, and Mintz says, "This meal is an attempt to symbolize how Asians have come here, taken American food, and added ingredients of their own." The menu will include a Chinese crab-and-corn soup; turkey first simmered in soy and Chinese wine before roasting; zucchini, jícama, and chayote as vegetables; a chewy grain called quinoa for a starch; and for dessert, pineapple in brown sugar and honey, plus a mystery dish that Mintz is being coy about.

He starts his shopping in a Chinese food store that bears the no-nonsense name Asia Food. Among the woks, dumpling steamers, satay beef jerky, and 50-pound bags of rice, he selects a bottle of Hsiao Xing cooking wine, then looks for light and dark soy sauce. He picks up two large bottles of Kikkoman; when I ask why he's buying a brand available in any standard grocery, he says that the Chinese varieties are often so badly packaged, the contents spoil. We buy the turkey at Fresh Fields, a whole-foods vendor housed in a refurbished mill, then head for Super Fresh, a grocery a few blocks from the Homewood campus. Into his cart go the jícama and chayote, corn, scallions, oil, two varieties of avocado, and heavy cream.

A glance at the shelves of a grocery could convince you that Americans are a people consumed by food, so to speak. Mintz sees merely a shallow taste for novely.
A glance at the long shelves of this Super Fresh could convince you that Americans are a people consumed by food, so to speak. Stacked and aligned are ingredients for recipes from Mexico, Japan, Thailand, China, Italy, Morocco, France. Americans can buy from neighborhood stores a half-dozen varieties of lettuce, and exotic produce like starfruit, kiwi, lychees, white peaches, and Asian pears; ground buffalo meat, frozen rabbit, and cooked prawns; Thai peanut sauce, Swiss muesli, Polish pirogi, Indian masalas, and Icelandic salmon; squid-ink pasta, sun-dried tomatoes in oil, and canned quail's eggs; walnut oil, sesame oil, canola oil, and rosemary-infused olive oil; hotdogs with no fat, a little fat, or lots of fat. The profusion and variety of foodstuffs in American markets are staggering. But Mintz does not look at this abundance and see a deep interest in food. He sees instead a shallow taste for novelty.

Mintz believes that Americans don't have the same deep involvement with food as do people from the various regions of France or Italy, for example, people who in his view truly understand cuisine. When Mintz uses that word, he means cooking that has developed over centuries of preparing, by traditional methods, whatever was near-at-hand. He says, "I mean both the system of foods eaten by people in a region, and the way they share a dialogue with each other about what they are eating." This is why, in his view, all genuine cuisines are regional. They rely on the products of local agriculture and food gathering. They follow the seasons, using fresh ingredients as they become available throughout the year. (It's hard to discern the season in an American grocery, unless the staff has taped cardboard turkeys to the walls.) At their core are preparations that form the standards against which all recipes are measured.

The people who inhabit a culinary region know intimately what goes into proper kapusta, or Hasenpfeffer, or risotto. They cook from scratch, wouldn't dream of substituting ingredients, and don't expect to go to Milan and find authentic zuppa di pesce, because that's not a Milanese dish and they know that a true zuppa di pesce can be had only on the Mediterranean coast. They speak knowledgeably and have deeply held opinions about food. Says Mintz, "The notion of cuisine hinges on the ability of a community to discuss the foods they eat." A pair of Frenchmen in Marseille, for example, can have a meaningful conversation about bouillabaisse, about the proper ingredients, preparation, acceptable variations. This conversation helps define them as citizens of a region, rooted in a tradition. Americans could not have the same conversation, he says. They don't have the same sort of fundamental, cooked-from-scratch dishes common to everyone in a community. "French bread is prepared in familiar ways by everyone in rural France," he says. "We Americans can't really talk about bread the same way. [Do we mean by bread] pita? Croissants? English muffins? Pizza dough? Matzohs? Challah? What I baked yesterday if I'm middle class and snooty?"

Mintz concedes that, as an anthropologist, he has no ethnographic data to back up the claims he makes on behalf of French or Italian or Chinese diners. "There is not yet a mature anthropology of food," he says, "or much good ethnography of everyday eating among 'modern' peoples. Food studies are still not considered important enough to figure clearly in academic studies." He also admits that central to accepting his ideas about cuisine is accepting his particular definition. "It's always possible to win an argument by making up your own definitions," he says. But for all of that, he's no less convinced that he's right.

Looking at the store shelves, he sees another aspect of American society that bespeaks its lack of culinary sophistication. Like any neighborhood grocery, this Super Fresh stocks a lot of stuff that's a long way from fresh: cardboard containers of instant ramen, frozen Southwestern vegetable medleys in pouches, heat-and-eat three-course Indian dinners, bread mixes, salad-in-a-sack, canned chow mein, jars of tandoori sauce, boxes of Hamburger Helper. Mintz surveys these offerings with the same jaundiced eye. Americans love convenience food, he says, because most of them don't care what they eat. "I have no idea why that should be so," he says, "To me, it's quite baffling." But it's something that, to his dismay, is spreading to cultures that always have cared: "I never thought the French would eat frozen food. But they are now buying frozen food."

Convenience items, he says, are a triumph of American marketing over culture. Food marketers exploit the American love of novelty by seizing a local specialty, then altering its ingredients and preparation so it can be shipped vast distances, has a sufficient shelf-life, and can be cooked in 15 minutes. They advertise it as "authentic." Mintz calls this the "bowdlerization" of food, and his favorite example is blackened redfish. This was, at one time, a genuine Louisiana specialty, cooked from scratch according to local tradition, using fresh ingredients culled from nearby sources. When food marketers grabbed hold of it, they substituted other, more available fish, bottled pre-mixed "Cajun" spice mixes, and promoted it far and wide. The casual cook in North Dakota who prepares a recipe printed in the food section of the local newspaper has no idea how blackened redfish is supposed to taste, never having sampled the original, and probably doesn't care. That, says Mintz, is how food loses its cultural significance, not to mention authentic flavor. As he wrote in Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: "...the retail food stores of Paris do not yet offer Parisians a bouillabaisse 'exactly like the one you ate in Nice, that you can now make at home--and in just minutes!'"

For an authentic regional cuisine to develop, people have to stay put. Cuisine is social, rooted in community. But Americans are a mobile people. They do not stay put.
ON THE MORNING OF THE BIG DINNER, Mintz patiently answers questions from a video crew from Nova Scotia. They are shooting a cable television series on food and want to talk to him about junk food. Before they begin, they lay out as props bowls brimming with Reese's Cups, Twizzlers, potato chips, Kit-Kat bars, candy peanuts, and suckers. Mintz glances at this nutritionist's nightmare and admits, "I love all this crap."

After the video crew departs and Mintz rests for a few hours, he gets down to business in the kitchen. He cuts the tough skin from a pineapple, then elects to remove the buds by cutting them out in a curving fashion that makes the pineapple slices fancier. As he works, we talk more about cuisine, and I stroke Marcello the cat, who gets into the culinary spirit of the day by sinking his teeth into my hand.

If there are no national cuisines, I ask, then what am I eating when I dine in a good Italian, or French, or Thai restaurant? Mintz's answer is that I might be eating something very tasty indeed, but the only "cuisine" it's truly part of is some sort of haute cuisine developed by professional cooks. Haute cuisine begins with local specialties and local styles. But it substitutes ingredients, many of them more expensive than anything used by the locals, employs imported foods out of season, owes allegiance to no single tradition of preparation, and can be made far away from its roots in, say, Madras or Tuscany. Haute cuisine owes more to restaurant culture than any regional culture. Says Mintz, "If you think about foreign restaurants, German or French or Italian or Spanish, and you ask someone about their favorite dishes, they'll say sauerbraten, or coq au vin. Those foods have become 'nationalized' through restaurant culture." They are regional dishes that have been modified so they can be prepared and sold, often at premium prices, anywhere in the world. They may, in the end, bear only passing resemblance to the original native dishes, but to many people they are German or French cuisine. "There's a public relations process that makes them national symbols," Mintz says.

He returns to the question of American cuisine to expand this point. "It's understandable that people think of cuisine as a list of dishes," he says. "The list is like the flag--people want it to be there. But if we take a list of foods actually eaten by Americans, and compare it to a list of what people think of as 'American' cuisine, there will be little or no overlap." American cuisine, as promoted by restaurants and cookbook authors, includes New England clam chowder, venison-and-corn stew, Maryland crab cakes, Creole gumbo, and plank-roasted coho salmon. People in New England do cook authentic clam chowder, and Marylanders eat a lot of crab cakes. But does this make those dishes part of a "national" cuisine, the traditional food of everyday American life that helps tell us who we are? Mintz says no, because the everyday food of most Americans, according to surveys, is not gumbo or venison, but hamburgers, pizza, cheese sandwiches, macaroni, etc. And the "traditional" way to cook macaroni in this country is to open the box, boil the noodles, then stir in the cheese powder from the handy foil packet.

Mintz begins cooking his Thanksgiving dinner by slicing a fresh pineapple and preparing to simmer the turkey in a mixture of soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine, seasonings, and scallions. "This meal is an attempt to symbolize how Asians have come here, taken American food, and added ingredients of their own," he says. Many of the ingredients in tonight's repast, including the pineapple, turkey, and hot peppers, were first cultivated by Native Americans.
As Mintz toasts star anise in a counter-top oven (he'll use it in the turkey), he smiles when I read something from Betty Fussell's I Hear America Cooking: "An authentic American hamburger is named for a German city, splashed with British ketchup, and served with fries called French." American society is polyglot, and immigration, says Mintz, has had much to do with the non-development of true American cuisines. Immigrants bring with them the foodways of the old country. The new Salvadoran, Korean, and Ukrainian residents of Virginia, for example, are not going to preserve that generations-old regional American recipe for Hoppin' John. They've grown up eating black beans and rice, or kim chee, not spoon bread or collards. Local culinary tradition means little to them.

After they've been in this country for a while, their kids want to eat pizza like the other kids. They feel pressure toward homogeneity, and they don't want to be conspicuous by their differing habits. A quick sort of assimilation is offered by the generic, convenienceoriented cooking promoted by grocery stores and food companies.

And there's more, Mintz says, as he immerses the turkey in a pot of simmering soy sauce, Chinese wine, scallions, ginger, star anise, and pepper. For an authentic regional cuisine to develop, people have to stay put. Cuisine is social, rooted in community. Generation after generation must cook and eat the same dishes drawn from the same local ingredients. But Americans are a mobile people. They do not stay put. They don't stay home to cook either. Mintz notes that half of the money spent by Americans on food is spent in restaurants. Restaurant fare, not old family recipes, is becoming the standard for comparison. Cooking raw whole foods from scratch--the essence of cuisine--takes time, and planning. "People don't like to do that," he says. "They think about when the Orioles will be back at Camden Yards, but not what they'll cook next week."

He concedes that as a prosperous retired professor, he has the luxury of time to cook that many people do not. He says, "I couldn't think about food the way I do if I had to work 48 hours a week in a factory." Working parents, professionals, and folks laboring on overtime shifts face wearisome demands on their time and energy. The latter may be the critical factor, since busy Americans still manage to log hours a day watching television.

As he talks, Mintz combines scallions, ginger, crabmeat, dry sherry, and corn to make the soup. Most of the corn is creamed, from a can, evidence that the chef is not above a little convenience himself. He does add some fresh Maryland corn, cut from the cob--"For verisimilitude," he says, smiling. On a piece of foil, he roasts some fegara, a Chinese black pepper, and unwittingly provides the day's bit of slapstick when, distracted, he forgets to watch the toaster oven and the pepper bursts into flame, just in time for his wife's return from her work as an attorney. Jacqueline bemusedly watches him extinguish the mini-blaze, then finishes preparing the dining-room table.

MINTZ'S FATHER, SCHLOMO, was a cook. He had started as a dishwasher at a place in Dover, Delaware, called the Lackawanna House. He and another dishwasher, an Army buddy named Ben Dorfman, saved their money and eventually bought the place in 1915 when the owner took off to join the carnival. Recalling his father, Mintz says, "He was very good with his hands. He was very deft. I think he would have made a great dentist, or surgeon. He was wonderful with the material world. He loved women, flowers, kids. His self-esteem rested on his sensuality and dexterity. Cooking, of course, brings those qualities together."

Schlomo eventually replaced the original Lackawanna House with a larger restaurant and hotel. Mintz remembers a four-story building, with a patterned green-and-white tile floor. There were linens on the tables and waitresses in uniform. He remembers being fascinated by an electric potato peeler. When the Depression hit, Schlomo lost everything. Around 1930 or '31, he started over with a little storefront diner, serving Dover's working-class Swedes, Poles, Italians, Dutch, Germans, and Scotch-Irish. Mintz remembers rib-eye steak, ox-tail soup, meat loaf, pot pies, apple cobbler, baked fish, kidney stew: "That was the food he'd learned that Americans like to eat. He magnificently ignored all the dietary rules by which Jews lived. He ate everything, and he got us to eat everything."

His father was exacting about food. "He didn't like anyone to go near his knives." He would cook for family members, 15 or 20 people, then sit off in a corner with a plate of simple items for himself. Mintz's sister would complain, "God damn it, no matter what you cook for us, what you have looks better." When Sidney was around 11, his father developed a case of shingles and could not work one day. He gave his son the task of cooking a large vat of tomato sauce for the restaurant. "I can't remember why I was chosen to do this," Mintz says. "But I remember taking it very seriously. His approval was hard to win."

When I ask Mintz if he still cooks as a way to gain approval, he never really answers the question.

THE GUESTS ARRIVE AND START in on the Belgian beer that their chef and host has bought for the occasion. Some of them have been entertaining each other with home-cooked meals for 25 years. Nancy Valk, a painter who grows many varieties of peppers, gives Mintz an assortment of six or seven varieties from her garden. He appreciates the gift, which Jacqueline uses tonight to decorate the table. "When people give each other food that they have produced," he says, "it has meaning that a box of Godiva chocolates will never have."

Mintz stays busy shuttling food from the kitchen as he finishes each dish, and explaining to his curious guests what each item is and how it was prepared. The jícama and chayote, crunchy, mildly bitter, spiced with soy and a little fiery Scotch bonnet pepper, is a big hit. So is the turkey, which is succulent and full of flavor from its immersion in the Chinese wine and soy sauce. Friendly Indians never showed the Pilgrims how to cook a bird this way, but nobody at the table is complaining. The mystery dessert turns out to be "Avocado Fool": pureed avocado, heavy cream, and sugar, topped with whipped cream.

The evening's mystery dessert turns out to be Avocado Fool: avocado, cream, and sugar. The guests are friends and colleagues, some of whom have been entertaining each other for 25 years. This kind of social interaction is something Americans are losing, Mintz says, to their detriment. He believes children especially need to grow up around homecooked and consumed meals.
None of this is authentic regional cuisine; Mintz is hardly opposed to creative cooking (or eating) that borrows from other traditions. But after the meal, he makes a point about the ingredients. "I want to mention our debt to the genius of the Native American peoples who domesticated pineapple, and avocado, jícama, chayote, turkey, quinoa, the peppers sweet and hot, not to mention tomatoes and potatoes and other things I didn't include in this particular meal. Domestication is a long, complicated process, involving a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge. In a way, that was science before anybody knew there was science. It is astonishing that we know who invented the hula hoop, but have no idea who domesticated maize, or potatoes."

At the festive table, the guests all want to know where the ingredients came from, what recipes Mintz used, how long the meal took to prepare. They express their friendship, and their gratitude for his work. It's a sort of social interaction that Mintz believes Americans, lacking a culinary tradition, are losing, to their detriment. He believes that children especially need to grow up around home-cooked and consumed meals. They learn that food doesn't just magically appear, but is the result of somebody's labor. Furthermore, they don't get to order only what they want, and they have to share what they like. "When a meal is prepared at home," he says, "with a main course of three items and a first course of soup and a third course of dessert, not everybody is going to like every item equally. Children at the table learn that the meal is a collective enterprise, and that they are expected to eat some of all the food, but not all of some of the food. They learn that food is a vehicle for learning to be grown up, to respond to the social needs of others. You can't learn that at McDonald's. Family eating is an important thing."

So is the preservation of authentic cuisines, in Mintz's view. Besides the cultural benefits of such cuisines, they are based on sustainable local agriculture. They do not depend on the expenditure of diminishing resources to package and ship items across the country, or across the globe. "I think it's ridiculous for radicchio to be produced in the Salinas Valley and shipped to Thailand, where they have perfectly good vegetables of their own," he says. Regional cuisines support small, local farms, and cut down on food transport, which is hard on the environment. The recipes often call for whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and legumes, with less reliance on meats that are inefficient sources of nourishment. They deemphasize the processing that often robs food of its nutrition.

Though Mintz sees American regional cooking under duress, he believes salvation may be in the works. There is an organization of professional cooks known as Chefs Collaborative 2000. They are dedicated to reestablishing authentic cuisines based on fresh, seasonal, locally produced, organic food. They aim to preserve biological diversity by providing a market for the production, by local farms, of more varied crops--grains like quinoa and amaranth, for example, as well as different varieties of corn, peppers, and fruit.

Mintz approves. He thinks that possibly, just possibly, these chefs and others like them will revive American regional cuisines. "They're feeding a clientele that over time will develop an idea of what an American cuisine should be," he says. "People interested in rebuilding a true regional cuisine have to be patient. It can't happen overnight. It will not happen in my lifetime, and probably not in yours, though you can stomp on my grave three times if I'm wrong. But we're going to get a relocalization of food."

Then, perhaps, "American cuisine" will be something more than just a marketing ploy. That would make Sidney Mintz a happy cook.

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.