Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1996 Issue

In Short: Taste & Smell

No such thing as a national cuisine

As far as Sidney W. Mintz is concerned, North Americans are peculiar eaters. Compared to the French or Italians, they donŐt take dining seriously. TheyŐre content to eat in fast-food restaurants, happy to use processed foods that cook in five minutes, eager to embrace adulterated versions of regional dishes that lose most of their meaning and much of their original flavor.

Yet they invest food and dietary habits with moral significance. A glutton in the United States is not just someone who eats a lot and may suffer health consequences. A glutton is also morally deficient. "Some would argue that it goes back to a Puritan notion that the body should not surrender its will to the desire for pleasure," says Mintz, the William L. Straus Jr. Professor of Anthropology.

He expresses his views on American culinary habits as part of his just-published collection of essays, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past (Beacon Press, 1996). The eight pieces in Tasting Food discuss how the application of power can change a societyŐs eating habits; how slaves rebelled against their bondage by using cooking to define themselves; sugarŐs moral role in modern society; why the whiteness of sugar matters; and how one defines cuisine.

The author expects the last topic to generate some controversy. In the essay "Cuisine: High, Low, and Not at All," Mintz agrees with Jean-Franois Revel, author of Culture and Cuisine, that thereŐs no such thing as a genuine national cuisine, in any country. "Cuisines," Mintz writes, "when seen from the perspective of people who care about the foods, are never the foods of a country, but the foods of a place." A genuine cuisine, he says, has deep social roots in a specific region--Bavaria, for example, or New Orleans. It uses locally grown or gathered ingredients that are eaten by a culturally cohesive population that knows how those ingredients should be cooked, has pronounced views on how the finished dish should taste, and makes food part of the social discourse that helps them to define themselves.

"Cuisine has to derive its meaning from locality," Mintz says. "I think all 'national' cuisines are constructs for some other purpose." "French" cuisine, he argues, is an artifice based on the various regional foods of people who live inside a political system. ItŐs an artifice that sells cookbooks and brings tourists to France and customers to "French" restaurants in America, but has little to do with the real social importance of cooking that varies significantly from one part of France to the next. Some things, like bread, may be said to have a French national identity, but bouillabaisse is not French cuisine, in MintzŐs argument--itŐs the cuisine of Marseille. "In France, people in the north donŐt copy people in the south," he says. "You want bouillabaisse? You go to Marseille."

ThereŐs even less reason to speak of "American" cuisine, says Mintz: "What makes the U.S. different from Italy or France is that our society was built up rapidly by the sequential additions of people from many lands, who were encouraged to become Americans by changing how they ate. Out of this emerged a few popular foods, but nothing I would consider a cuisine." Hamburgers? Hot dogs? Apple pie? Definitely American, says Mintz, but not the subject of any sort of national social discourse on how they are prepared properly, or what it means to eat them.

The U.S. does have several regional cuisines, he says, including those of New Orleans, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest. But those cuisines--like the regional cuisines of China, Mexico, and other countries--have become adulterated as theyŐve been commercialized for wider distribution. Commercial food manufacturers substitute ingredients to create products that can be shipped and stored on shelves. They change cooking methods so the dish can be prepared "easily and in minutes!" Cooks donŐt learn how to prepare the recipe from people who have been doing it for years, and no one outside the region knows for sure how the dish is supposed to taste. "In a country as commercially driven as ours," says Mintz, "there's a tendency for local and ethnic cuisines to become diluted."
--Dale Keiger

Three (smell) blind mice

Molecular biologist Randall Reed has found that one inbred strain of mice can detect "the smell of sweaty old sock"--isovaleric acid--while another strain cannot. Mice of the second group have a type of "smell blindness" and are thus anosmic for sweaty old sock smell.

Reed finds this fact not at all comical. To him, anosmia for isovaleric acid is proving a lever with which to pry out the secrets of olfactory receptors, a quest he had been on for years. Previously, he had deciphered the chemical cascade that launches signals from receptor to olfactory bulb, and also discovered several key chemicals involved. Now the work with anosmic mice represents another big step forward: Reed and his research group have isolated a region containing the first set of genes associated with anosmia for any particular smell.

Reed knew about this particular anosmia through experiments in which thirsty mice were given drinking water laced with isovaleric acid, followed quickly by a sick-making injection. Naturally, the mice then avoided drinking water that smelled like sweaty old socks--if they could detect the odor. He has been able to pinpoint the location of one gene on the distal region of chromosome 4 to within 100,000 base pairs (the equivalent of finding a single street within a country). He infers that anosmia for smelly socks leads the way to three gene locations, therefore three structures essential to making receptors fire.
--Elise Hancock

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