In memory of Dr. Sidney Mintz

Food is sensual. It can appeal to all the human senses, sight, smell, sound, and touch. Entire poems have been written about the sensual qualities of a vegetable or fruit. But, how often does one consciously experience it that way? People describe the same food in their own way, some with enthusiasm and others more matter-of-factly. Sensory perception of food can be different among people. What makes one think about the sensual qualities of food? Is it an inherent trait? or, is it acquired?

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A few years ago, after having read some of his work on the anthropology of food, and realizing that we were at the same university, I asked Dr. Sidney Mintz if I could speak to him about my developing interest in gastronomy and human interaction, and he very kindly invited me to visit him in his house to talk. He started the discussion by describing memories of his father. “…my father gave me a lot of my feeling about objects and substances. He loved woods and liked to polish them…back in the depression,…get a mortgage on a house, the house was old and beat up in a small town in New Jersey, and he devoted at least a half hour each day to polishing the front of the house, not the outside but the inside, it was all oak, golden oak, good oak. He had a kind of polishing cloth called crocus cloth…, it is almost like a cuticle board, it is so fine, and he would polish a little bit each day, and by the time he got done because the windows were leaded and rounded, it was like being in a cathedral, it became so bright just from this…when he had grandchildren around him there were birds that would nest in the eaves in the corner of the house and he would hold them up so they could look in the nest…he liked leather, the feel of leather. And those kind of things, I think, influenced me very deeply.

His father was a good cook, he said. He then described how much he enjoyed cooking. He was nearing 92 when I spoke to him, and he narrated a story. A good friend he had met recently after sometime, over a meal, asks him if he still cooks. “I could feel my eyes filling with tears”, he says. He did not know what to say. He had not thought about how he would feel about not cooking anymore. How much he would miss it.

With much gusto, he described a thanksgiving feast he had prepared at the request of the University’s alumni organization. I was reminded of it a few days ago, as I walked past the papayas at the grocery store. In particular, I was reminded of the dessert he had made for the feast, and the fact that papayas are native to central and south America.

Below, is my interpretation of Dr. Mintz’s whipped papayas:

Papaya

Lime

Sugar

Optional:

Cream

Caribbean Rum

Cut papaya into two, remove seeds, and then gently scoop out the pulp. Mash the pulp, add sugar and lime if needed, and strain through a sieve for a smoother consistency. Whip some cream to soft peaks with a little bit of rum, and fold into papaya purée. Fill glasses with the whipped papaya and refrigerate before serving.

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Dr. Sidney Mintz is described by academics as a pioneer in the field of food studies. He studied the anthropology of the American people. He founded the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, where he was Emeritus Professor. He made me think about gastronomy under a different light, including what might lead one to experience the sensual qualities of food.

Thank you, Dr. Mintz.

Press:

The sweet life of Sidney Mintz, Boston Review

Sidney Mintz, father of food anthropology, dies at 93, New York Times

 

6 thoughts on “In memory of Dr. Sidney Mintz

  1. José Luiz

    Dear Bala
    it is curious that a dessert of whipped papaya is very popular in Brazil. It is not a tradicional dessert since it was created in a famous steak house in São Paulo, the city where I live. It is very easy to do and it is called creme de papaia.

    Half a papaya
    One scoop of ice cream (here we have ice cream made only with sugar and milk cream but I think you can use vanilla ice cream instead).
    Put these ingredients together in a blender and beat until you get an homogeneous cream.
    Transfer the papaya cream to an individual bowl and serve it with a dash of crème de cassis over it.
    You can see how it looks like in this movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-jR89pxv-o
    Hugs

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear José,

      It is interesting to know about the whipped papaya in Brazil. If I had to guess I would probably say that it might have something to do with the fact that the papaya is native to Central and South America. Thank you for sharing the recipe of crème de papaia, I will try it with the addition of crème de cassis.

      Hugs,
      Bala

      Reply
  2. nirmala

    The sensual quality of food I think is in there in most of us and shows up in different degrees in individuals based on their interest and their association with food.Closing the eyes in front of a plate of steaming hot food when served and inhaling the aroma is typical of me. It is like a game when you try to guess the ingredients that have gone into it by letting the aroma get into your system. Similarly the joy a well plated desert in particular hot or cold gives me is an experience very difficult to put down in words.

    Dr. Mintz's whipped papaya very beautifully executed by you brought joy and a sense of a light feeling even on seeing it. Will try making it and respond how my taste buds reacted. Thanks for sharing the recipe.

    Growing up I did not have a natural liking to papaya as a fruit although I enjoyed it as a vegetable . However thanks to my very dear friend who shares her garden grown papayas frequently with me I have acquired a taste for it.

    It hit me hard when I read about Dr.Mintz's emotion on the thought if he were not being able to cook. .Cooking gives me joy and feeding friends and family gives me a sense of contentment.I can empathise with Dr. Mintz as I cannot imagine the day when I may not be able to cook.

    You are indeed lucky to have interacted with Dr. Mintz. I am sure you feel richer in your experience on gastronomy.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts in detail. The guessing game is a very nice way to savor the moment, and I can quite imagine how a memorable food experience like yours with the dessert is hard to describe.

      I was not a fan of the papaya either though I have grown to like it more. It must be quite nice to receive papayas from your friend's garden.

      I agree that the ability to perceive the sensual qualities of food is different in different people based on interest and a desire to express it, but the question is why is there that difference? What makes one more interested or less interested to experience the sensual qualities of food?

      I was indeed fortunate to have spent time talking to Dr. Mintz.

      Reply
  3. Reva Pershad

    Dear Bala,
    Ever since I have started reading your blogs on food I have started looking at food from different aspects .It is an awakening to the culinary nuances of food,looking at some dishes in a different perspective with hitherto dormant feelings surfacing .Your query about the sensual aspect of food brings to mind how a link is created with ones liking or aversion to certain dishes associated with childhood,people,ceremonies,events A particular food you enjoyed as a child will always make you desire & relish it even in adulthood The reverse is the same for something you were forced to eat & you have developed a lifelong aversion to it.! Some dishes which are specially prepared during festivities allways make your mouth water.
    I recall my schooldays when the girls who brought their lunch to school would open their lunch box & the smell of rasam( a spicy soup made of tamarind water ,tomatoes,garlic,cumminseeds,black pepper, curry leaves & coriander leaves) would get the juices flowing .That memory holds good even today.So I guess this is a sensual arousal of food.
    What you enjoy on a holiday in the company of loved ones will always make you relish that dish all the more .Getting your teeth into a hot corn on the cob fresh out of the coals in the cold climes of a hill station has an indelible recall on the taste buds .Simple,sensual fare ?!
    Bala,I think you had the opportunity of a lifetime to have a discussion with Dr Mintz & to share it with yes .We are the lucky ones .The papaya dessert looks divine & though not the most exotic of fruits ,for those of us who love it ,it is a must have !
    To answer your question ,some people eat to live & others live to eat ( The thinking foodies who consider gastronomy a fine art!)

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear Mrs. Pershad,

      Thank you very much for your kind and detailed response.

      You say, "a particular food you enjoyed as a child will always make you desire & relish it even in adulthood...", and it is interesting to wonder why this is true, and whether one can make it happen even through adulthood.

      Conversely, I wonder if developed aversions to foods could be reversed gradually in a positive environment, perhaps in the setting of the festivities you mention, the new ones that enter our lives at different points of time.

      I can relate to the school lunch box story; food eaten during festivities and during colder weather; and the influence of people with whom one shares a dining experience.

      I was indeed fortunate to have spent time talking to Dr. Mintz.

      Thank you for taking the time to think and share your thoughts. It enriches the blog, and is a pleasure to read as always.

      Reply

I look forward to reading your thoughts...