Sidney Mintz is a consummate academic -- he teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins -- and reading his new essay collection, "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom," it's easy to poke fun at his dissertation-like chapter titles ("The Conquest of Honey by Sucrose," "Food and Its Relationship to Concepts of Power") and his slightly giddy excitement at how food provides an interdisciplinary thread between the wide worlds of anthropology, semiotics, class and politics. Like a favorite college professor, Mintz can wax enthusiastic on everything from the power of a soft drink to the type of person who prefers Gallo to Lafite Rothschild.
A few rough patches aside, "Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom" is far more than a dry, tenure-driven exercise. Mintz is particularly effective when he addresses the title topic: the act of choosing what and how one eats. Why, he asks, do some food habits change easily and swiftly -- as in North America's readiness to accept sushi? Why are others enduring, such as Russia's predilection for black bread instead of maize? What did it mean when World War II servicemen wrote home that they were "fighting for the right to drink Coca-Cola?"
Just as interesting are the essays that attempt to define the word "cuisine" (Mintz bravely asserts that there is no such thing as American cuisine), and those that dig into the class ramifications of our tastes. What makes one food -- say, a potato -- less elegant than ginger root? Mintz would believe that history is stepping in, urging us to link "potato" with "famine," and thus, "peasant." Food fads are connected to class as well, he notes. Remember blackened redfish? Mintz disdainfully sniffs: "[the] swift vulgarization of its preparation, substitution of other fish for redfish, cheapening of the recipe. . . another fad soon forgotten."
For some readers, Mintz's book might occasionally seem myopic. Feminists, for example, may be annoyed that he barely glances at the links between food and body image. Yet as Mintz himself would point out, his subject is so all-encompassing that several books of varying lengths could be written on each chapter subject alone.
Inadvertently, Mintz brings up another curious class-related point: What class of person has the time, the money and, most importantly, the freedom to dedicate him or herself to speculations on the multiple meanings of marzipan? If you're in that lucky minority, Mintz's book just may be your cup of tea.