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?
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:
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.
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.