Remembering Sidney Mintz

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Sid Mintz was the greatest food anthropologist of all time.  A dedicated social-justice scholar-activist, he produced path-breaking studies of Caribbean sugar-cane workers (Worker in the Cane. A Puerta Rican Life History (W.W.Norton, 1974), then turned his attention to the larger political-economic context in which sugar transformed diets and lives (Sweetness and Power. The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking Penguin, 1985)).

Growing up in Dover, NJ where his father ran a small diner, he developed pluralistic food tastes.  These included a passion for Asian cuisine, which prompted his research and writing about soya beans, their political culture and diffusion.

He followed up both food-commodity case studies with a collection of essays that traced the history of particular foods, such as Coca Cola, and concluded that modern intercontinental warfare was a major force for introducing new foods and tastes, and corresponding food production, industries, and trade.  In the course of reviewing world diffusions of foods, he practiced what he later characterized as a kind of “grounded theory,” which meant that he entered with certain working hypotheses, then modified them as he accessed new information and ideas.  In his preface and introduction to his essay collection, he described his childhood exposure to different cuisines, and also his working methods, which involved framing internal and external trajectories of change and their interactions. Along with political-economic nationalizations and globalization, particular local or regional cultures also displayed their own distinctive dynamics, which informed their “insider” responses to these “outside” forces of change.  He favored such straightforward analytical language, even as he resonated with Marxist and populist social writings.

My personal interactions stemmed from our common passion for food studies in anthropology. Sid and I also shared some multi-generational family background.  The Messer family, moving out of the illness ridden slums of New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1910s, landed first in Whippany, then in Mount Freedom, NJ.  The eight siblings went first to the Ironia public school (one room schoolhouse) and then to Dover for secondary school.  Following up on his very personal, memoir-style preface to Tasting Food. Tasting Freedom (Beacon Press, 1996), I learned that he and my father’s family had indeed overlapped in high school. The Messer boys traveled by horse and buggy (or sleigh) from their distant farm into town, where Sid recalled his high-school classmate, my Uncle Alfred, was always already there early in the school yard, wonderfully rosy-cheeked from having already milked the cows before heading to school.

In a more academic vein, Sid’s simple structural insider-outside scheme for analyzing food-culture change provided the inspiration for the chapter I wrote on European acceptance of the potato for Helen Macbeth’s edited volume on Food Preferences and Taste: Continuity and Change (Berghahn, 2007)Sid let me know that he appreciated how effectively I had used his approach; this was exactly the kind of follow-up studies he had intended.

During my 1999-2000 research on anthropologists confronting hunger, we talked at some length about political engagement in the issues.  My format was to ask whether the individual scholars or scholar-activists I was interviewing had engaged with the work of Food First–Institute for Food and Development Policy, The Hunger Project, the Brown University World Hunger Program, or America’s food bank network (then called America’s Second Harvest, since renamed Feeding America).  The conversation provided a thoughtful opportunity for him to distinguish the kinds of organized leftist and Marxist political rhetoric, mobilizations, and leadership from the political-activism and activist-democracy organizing of Frances Moore Lappe, which he found to be something very different and very important, although Marxist theory dominated the academic and political conversations.

Sid also included me in his 2001 activities at John Hopkins University exploring soy as a kind of alternative to meat protein.  A conference there served as a vehicle for the soybean industry to promote its products as social and environmentally protective.  But I had just returned from an Earthwatch Science Advisory Committee tour of that agency’s research operations in the Pantanal, Brazil.  There, we learned, the major threat to wildlife was not expansion of cattle but of soybean cultivation, which was ravaging the forest and grasslands, and removing the corridors that were necessary to maintain biodiversity.  This rejoinder to the soybean promoters, and their appealing claims of virtue for vegetarian, soy-based fare, was not well received by the industry representatives, although I recall I got a welcome boost from Marian Nestle, who agreed with my presentation.

Sid, from beginning to end, was very supportive of the kinds of anti-hunger work we did at Brown, and very gracious in acknowledging contributions in the review, “Anthropology of Food and Eating” that he co-authored with Dubois for Annual Review of Anthropology (2002).

Sid Mintz died 26 December 2015 at the age of 93. We are so glad that he lived so long to enlighten and brighten our anthropological perspectives, and will continue his legacy in our works to come.

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