April 10, 1998

Human need to eat crucial to history, culture, lecturer says

Human need to eat crucial to history, culture, lecturer says

reporter_4.10.98_3.jpg (17k)

Sidney Mintz, Ph.D., recently spoke at VUMC on the effects of food on history and culture. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey).

One of the most interesting, yet complex, studies of human beings relates to something most people do at least a couple of times each day.

"You are what you eat" has been a popular advertising slogan, but it¹s a true statement in the study of anthropology, said Sidney W. Mintz, Ph.D., who delivered the recent 1998 Philip W. Felts Lecture Series in the Humanities. Mintz, whose career spans six decades, has studied, lectured and taught throughout the world about the historic power and effect food has on culture.

Mintz, the author of eight books and 250 journal articles, is the William L. Strauss Jr. Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. He helped establish the department in 1975. He is currently a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He lectures frequently in the United States, England and Taiwan.

The Felts lecture series was begun in 1994 to honor Felts, who served as counselor, mentor and friend to hundreds of Vanderbilt medical students. He died in 1992. From 1975 until 1988, he was Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and was given honorary membership in one class and was awarded the coveted "Shovel Award" by the classes of 1983 and 1988. This award honors the faculty member who is regarded by the students as the best lecturer.

This year¹s lecture was especially appropriate, according to Dr. James A. Whitlock, Craig-Weaver Chair and director of the division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, who introduced Mintz at the lecture. Whitlock was one of many students who became a friend of Felts, visiting his hilltop home, "The Mountain," to do yard work on weekends. Medical students who helped Felts with these chores were treated in the evening to a gourmet dinner as a reward. Felts was an accomplished gourmet cook.

Eating is one of the human drives that is so "overtly physical as to require no humanistic reflection at all," Mintz said during his lecture.

"Indeed the need of the living organism to sustain itself will seem to outrank most of its other characteristics except perhaps reproductivity and simple tissue irritability," Mintz said. "For human beings and other living things, the drive to eat is intolerable. If you believe the sexual drive is more so, then I¹ll have to remind you that you¹re both young and extremely well fed," he told the group of mostly students.

"There is nothing that will clear the mind of ambiguity more quickly than a 36-hour fast, whether it¹s intended or unexpected. No activity that human beings engage in other than sex is as inescapable, vital, and enduring as ingestion and its sequel, digestion."

Mintz said that food has been an important part of the human life experience for many years, a fact that is obvious in reading the Old Testament.

"Any reader of that work would surely recognize the importance of food and eating in social as well as material life by which the extent in which food in the Bible is made into a vehicle for so much that is symbolically important," he said. "All of us know how one¹s cup runneth over; why one casts one's bread upon the water; and what manna from heaven is," Mintz said.

"Far more than familiar figures of speech are involved," he said. "The Fall, which led to the ejection of the first couple from the Garden of Evil, happened because of food, an apple to be exact. We became carnivores after the Fall. Not only did animals begin to eat each other after the fall, but we began to eat all of them."

Even Cain and Abel were divided by their different food-obtaining pursuits, he said.

"Food, food, food. How it occupied their minds, these writers of Holy literature," he said. "So many loaves and fishes. So many last suppers."

What humans eat is of particular interest to those who study human beings. Relating the way human beings think about food and the way humans eat to the wider issues of human welfare are also important issues.

"We human beings cannot be merely cultured in our ways of acting. We have to be culturally specific in our ways of acting. We cannot speak language. We have to speak a particular language. We do not merely eat food. We eat particular food. There is an immensely humanistic lesson in how different people do things differently including how and what they eat. If we are what we eat, then how we come to eat, what we eat, and what we think of it are also what we are," Mintz said.