Groundbreaking former JHU anthropology professor Sidney Mintz dies

Sidney Mintz and his sweet tooth changed the study of anthropology

Sidney Mintz, the groundbreaking Johns Hopkins University professor known as "the father of food anthropology," died Dec. 27 in New Jersey from a head injury that he suffered during a fall.

Dr. Mintz, who was known on the Hopkins campus as "Sidney the Wise," was 93.

In the week since Dr. Mintz's death, his wife, Jacqueline Mintz, said condolences have been pouring in from former colleagues and friends — and some unexpected sources.

A few nights ago, she answered her cellphone even though she didn't recognize the number of the person calling. She was glad that she did, because the president of Afghanistan was on the line.

Ashraf Ghani wanted to tell her how sorry he was to have learned of Dr. Mintz's death. Ghani, a former Hopkins colleague, offered to participate in the memorial service, which will be held sometime this spring.

"Sid was one of the funniest people I knew," Jacqueline Mintz said. "He knew hundreds of jokes, if not thousands. He loved teaching, and he was very, very good at it."

Hopkins anthropology professor Jane Guyer liked to re-tell an anecdote she heard from a former student of Mintz's at Yale University who said Mintz once stood at the podium and sang calypso before class, magically making the 700 students in the auditorium feel like part of a small, intimate and select gathering.

"Sidney lived and loved life in the vibrant spaces where people are constantly creative, resilient and also funny," Dr. Guyer wrote in a tribute.

Dr. Mintz was born in New Jersey in 1922, the youngest of four children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and he grew up to combine his mother's passion for social justice with his father's fervor for food. Dr. Mintz's seamstress mother, Fanny, was an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, while his father, Solomon, bought the diner where he'd once worked as a dishwasher.

"Sidney used to say it was the only restaurant in the world where the customer was always wrong," Jacqueline Mintz said.

"Someone would order french fries from the menu, and Sid's father would come out from the kitchen and explain to the customer that french fries weren't healthy and he really shouldn't eat them."

After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1943 (where he'd enrolled at age 15), Sidney Mintz enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and taught navigation for the remainder of World War II. But it was while studying for his doctorate at Columbia University that Dr. Mintz had the first realization that shaped his career.

"In 1948, some of the brighter graduate students were sent to Puerto Rico," Jacqueline Mintz said. "Sid went to work on a sugar plantation. He began thinking about who was producing this sugar, who was consuming it, and why it made the planters so rich. He described the workers as 'the rural proletariat.' I think he was the first person to coin that phrase."

The experience left Dr. Mintz with a profound respect for people he believed had been overlooked by history.

"I remember him expressing admiration for the way a young girl in Puerto Rico ironed his clothes with a coal-filled flat iron, and for the strength of the ditch-diggers on the sugar plantation," Guyer wrote.

The eventual result was "Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History," published in 1960. The first of Dr. Mintz's many books, it departed from the tradition of studying aboriginal cultures to demonstrate how ordinary people can propel social change.

In the next decade, Dr. Mintz co-founded a curriculum in black studies at Yale University that took the innovative step of expanding the definition of African-American history to include the Caribbean and Latin American nations.

Once that program was established, Dr. Mintz came to Baltimore in 1975 to help found the anthropology department at Hopkins. It was during these years that he wrote his seminal work: "Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History," published in 1985. The book demonstrated how one particular commodity fueled the industrial revolution — and with it, capitalism and the Atlantic slave trade.

New York University Professor Marion Nestle wrote last week on her blog, "Food Politics," that when the school was putting together its program in food studies, organizers surveyed academics about which influential books should be included in the curriculum. A raging debate ensued.

"Only one book appeared on everyone's list," she wrote: " 'Sweetness and Power.' "

But Dr. Mintz didn't merely write about the history and politics of food. As a young husband, he discovered to his surprise that he was a born chef.

"After we'd been married about 10 years, I started a job that had me coming home famished at 8 p.m., so Sid took over the cooking," Jacqueline Mintz recalled. "He was very imaginative and creative."

Friends lucky enough to snag a dinner invitation raved about his osso buco, and in 1996, Dr. Mintz and his recipe for perfumed lamb were featured in The New York Times Magazine.

Dr. Mintz never actually retired from either the kitchen or from Hopkins. Even after assuming emeritus status at Hopkins in 1997, he continued to lecture on campus and overseas.

Inevitably, he would tell audiences in Baltimore, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand that they were being treated to "after dinner Mintz."

Survivors include his wife, of Cockeysville; a son, Eric Mintz of Atlanta; a daughter, Elizabeth R. Nickens of Oakland, Calif.; a grandson, Andre Mintz of Atlanta; and a granddaughter, Nicole Mintz of Atlanta.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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