Mintz's food for thought: Talking turkey's just fine, but he'll cook a crown roast

November 26, 1992|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

Thanksgiving is the "distinct American holiday," says Dr. Sidney Mintz, and the "turkey is America's bird."

And what almost assuredly will happen today in most American homes is universal: overeating on a holiday. It's part of the culture of mankind.

"People everywhere use celebratory occasions to overeat," he says.

Dr. Mintz knows. A professor of anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University, he is the recognized guru of food and its role in culture. Widely quoted, he writes and talks and lectures about such things as why Americans use sweet terms to say endearing things around Valentine's Day, why eating is a stronger drive than sex, how food is such a powerful communicator, why it was right that the civil rights struggle in America started over service at a lunch counter.

He sees the influence of food in almost every human activity, and teaches an undergraduate course on the anthropology of food.

A native of Dover, N.J., Dr. Mintz says he got into this food thing early: "My father was a cook in a little restaurant. I grew up in the kitchen."

Although he has been a noted anthropologist for many years (he and two colleagues were hired away from Yale in 1975 to start the Hopkins department), he says people didn't start asking him to "speak on food" until 1985, when his book "Sweetness and Power" was published. Dropping a copy of the book on a table in front of his office sofa at McCauley Hall, he describes it as "a history of sugar," but others see it as a definitive work on the impact of sugar on slavery in the West Indies and on several national economies.

Dr. Mintz, who has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, kind of skips over those details this day. The subject is Thanksgiving, a holiday he seems to favor. He's even doing the cooking today at his North Baltimore home.

"Thanksgiving is the single most important holiday on our calendar," he says.

Turkey was the food of choice when the pilgrims and Indians got together for Thanksgiving I in 1621, mainly because it was readily available in the wilds of Massachusetts, he says.

Over the years, it became the unique holiday bird of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

"In my childhood," says Dr. Mintz, who just turned 70, "the turkey was a festal bird. People hardly ever ate it at any other time. But the fact turkey turned out to be such an excellent source of protein has made it more an everyday food. Americans #i traditionally have taken the unusual in food and made it everyday.

"Still, turkey is a remarkable bird, the best bargain in American food. I never thought I would see the day when turkey was less expensive than salad greens."

After all that, it might seem that he's on the verge of becoming a spokesman for the turkey industry or revealing his favorite turkey recipe. But then Dr. Mintz, a man of dancing eyes, easy smile, dry wit and disarming manner, reveals today's Thanksgiving menu in his household:

"I'm cooking crown roast of pork," he says. "I do most of the cooking. My wife can cook, but she is wise enough to let me make a fool of myself."

He says the fact that his wife, Jacqueline Mintz, a lawyer who works in the Consumer Protection Division of the state Attorney General's office, is of Chinese ancestry relieves the pressure of getting stuck in the American syndrome of having turkey every Thanksgiving.

"It's an adventure to do a different thing every year," he says. "One year we had a 32-pound suckling pig, one year goose, one year fresh ham, another year Cornish game hen."

He glances at his watch. A cab is due soon to take him to the train station.

Any recommendations to avoid the seemingly inevitable gorging today? "Don't fast beforehand. Eat breakfast. Drink a lot of liquids in the morning. Have solid food, such as a sandwich, at midday. If you leave it all for one meal, you're in trouble."

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