Drexel G. Woodson

University of Arizona at Tucson
Tucson, Arizona

Hoecakes, Cultural Anthropology, and One Black American's World:

Birthday Greetings to Sidney Wilfred Mintz, Teacher and Friend



Two cups cornmeal (yellow or white)
One egg, beaten
Two-thirds cup wheat flour
One-quarter cup sugar
One teaspoon salt
Water to mix
One teaspoon baking powder
Two table spoons grease (preferably from fried bacon)
Crushed hot peppers to taste (optional)


Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.  Add egg, water, and grease, and mix well to form a stiff batter.

Heat more grease, enough to fill a ten-inch cast iron skillet to a depth of two inches, until it begins to smoke.

Use a medium-size wooden spoon (about three table spoons) to drop batter into the hot grease.

Fry cakes until golden brown, turning as necessary.  Drain cooked cakes.

The Repast:

Eat cakes with thick syrup (preferably "Alaga" brand), sopping cakes in the syrup and licking fingers to catch drips.  Ignore cholesterol, blood-sugar levels, a balanced diet, and all other "modern" health concerns while savoring your "traditional" meal.

In my earliest memory of Sidney Wilfred Mintz, he is walking down the broad middle aisle of the Yale Law School Auditorium.  Dressed in a knee-length, single-breasted, green worsted overcoat, and wearing chunky brown shoes which I would later learn to call "sensible," Professor Mintz strides toward the auditorium's podium at a brisk pace, carrying a battered, old-fashioned leather briefcase in one hand, and a skull in the other.  This is the fall of 1969, I am 17 years old and a freshman in Yale College, and Professor Mintz's arrival is a signal to some 700 students to stop fidgeting on the Law School Auditorium's hard wooden seats.  "Anthro 20:  Introduction to Anthropology" is about to begin.

My parents, Black North Philadelphians born and bred (but with roots in Greenville County, South Carolina), had driven me to New Haven from the City of Brotherly Love in their green 1957 Chevy Bel-Air in mid-September 1969.  I'd been enjoying my freedom from parental surveillance since then, settling into a quad in McClellan Hall with my three freshmen roommates, exploring Yale's wannabe-gothic nooks and crannies (along with hotspots in Dixwell and the Hill, two New Haven neighborhoods already left behind by the 1965 Model Cities Program), and choosing first-semester courses.  I'd also begun to meet other "Yalies," a moniker that I despised.  There were upperclassmen and the Old Blues (graduates of classes dating to the 1940s)—most of them wealthy, and many the bearers of names famous in business, politics, diplomacy, scholarship, or public service.  Then, too, I'd gotten to know a fair number of the motley crew that embodied Yale's controversial affirmative action to create racial, class, gender, and regional diversity in its Class of 1973.  Double-counting, as is still common practice in diversity-reckoning, that 1969 freshman cohort of roughly "1,000 future leaders" included about 130 of us Blacks, a few Puerto Ricans and Asian Americans, perhaps one or two American Indians, and, for the first time in Yale's history, 250 women.

Growing up in the cradle of this nation's liberty, my conversations with people who had reservations about the scope and justice of that "liberty"—family members, certain secondary school teachers, and assorted characters, Black and non-Black, accessible on Philadelphia's streets—had made me a history buff.  Nevertheless, I planned to major in Psychology at Yale, so as to understand race and sex in the USA.  My four-course load would include Psychology, English, French, and Afro-American Studies.  This last course—billed as an introduction to the Black experience—was canceled, however, when the professor, one of Yale's handful of Black faculty, left.  I had no clue what Anthropology was about, except perhaps for a vague image of White men in pith-helmets, hiking boots, and short khaki pants digging up bones in a distant desert.

Professor Sidney W. Mintz was something of a legend on the Old Campus and in the Residential Colleges in 1969.  His teaching skills had made Anthro 20 a highly popular course with Yale undergraduates, and advisers recommended it as one of Yale's best undergraduate courses, a rigorous and lively introduction to the four subfields of the "Study of Man."  So said law student Tom Selz, my Freshman Counselor, as well as Professor of English Robert Kuehn and Professor of Music Beekman C. Cannon, Dean and Master, respectively, of Jonathan Edwards College.  Thus, word-of-mouth advertising motivated me to register for Anthro 20, but I took the course by accident.

Some time elapsed between the day I first spied Professor Mintz and the November day that we first met.  I'd diligently attended his lectures, listening to him impart knowledge in a well-modulated voice (clear and forceful, with a slight lisp) over the Law School Auditorium's sound system, and scribbling in my notebook the important things that he said, or wrote on the blackboard, left-handed and with a chalk-holder.  I'd also done my best to fathom the ideas expressed in the readings he assigned, among them books or articles by Boas, Ashley Montague, William LeGros Clark, V. Gordon Childe, and Gideon Sjoberg, preludes to works by Kroeber, Evans-Pritchard, Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, and Eric Wolf.

On the podium, Professor Mintz was extremely articulate, presenting big ideas and small, identifying their connections, and situating them in contexts other than those to which they were immediately relevant—with stunning ease and enviable erudition.  Yet Professor Mintz was also approachable, always ready to talk with students.  Office hours aside, he fielded questions after every class, sometimes for half an hour.  I'd eavesdropped on a few of those sessions, curious, but silent.  I felt more at ease with the Anthro 20 teaching assistants:  Michael Doris, Judith Francis, Myrdeen Anderson, and, especially, Michael Lieber, a student of Afro-American culture in the USA (especially the Chicago Blues) and in the Caribbean (especially the ways of limers in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad).

Our meeting occurred on the day when, during a lecture about human inequality, Professor Mintz proclaimed that slavery was the "greatest institution in the history of the West."  That notion didn't sit well with a young man from Philadelphia's largest ghetto, who had, a year or two earlier, decided to be Black, rather than Knee-Grow (Negro) or Cullud (Colored).  For me, slavery was a crime against Black people, moral as well as political—a crime second, as a good reason for rage, only to the ongoing manifestations of racism in the USA during the Civic Rites (Civil Rights) Era.

After class that November day, I joined the small group of students gathered around Professor Mintz.  When my turn to ask a question came, our exchange went like this:

DGW:  Professor Mintz, I enjoyed your lecture today, but I think that calling slavery "the greatest institution in Western history" is total bullshit.

SWM:  Is that so?  Well, we should talk about it.  Let's go have a beer.

My memory of what was actually said may have faltered, of course.  Nonetheless, "bullshit" was certainly one of the words I uttered, in keeping with the then newly-appropriate irreverence of Yale undergraduates toward their professors and other "Establishment" authority figures.  In any case, off we went to Hungry Charlie's, a somewhat funky student dive frequented by Anti-Establishment students and faculty, and, to their delight, located next to stodgy Mory's.  Slavery was the West's "greatest institution," Professor Mintz explained over beers which he bought, because it officially endured for three centuries, involved human beings from four continents, and, intimately linked to the rise of modern, global capitalism, had a profound impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of people—enslaved, emancipated, and free—on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hungry Charlie's became the site of our regular after-class meetings during the rest of the 1969-1970 academic year—an unusually turbulent one at Yale, culminating in a student strike to protest the Black Panther Party trial, the Vietnam War, and Yale's inequitable relationship with the City of New Haven.  Professor Mintz soon became Sid, teacher and friend.  We talked about Anthropology (the discipline and the profession); about the world (past and present, over there and back here); about politics in general and the politics of race/ethnicity/nationality/class/gender in particular; and about life.  He introduced me to his wife Jacqueline Wei Mintz, an intellectual force in her own right, and eventually my mentor without portfolio, and they invited me into their home for scrumptious food, copious drink, stimulating conversation, and, above all, good company.

Sid convinced me by word and deed to major in Anthropology, eventually becoming my Undergraduate Adviser.  He taught me to think critically about "culture," and to view it, along with "society," "economy," and "polity" in historical perspective.  From him, I learned the value of using ethnography to map connections between symbols and meanings, on the one hand, and power and privilege, on the other.  By Sid's example, and under his junior colleague Richard Price's guidance, bibliography became a research tool to track changing theories about peoples, places, and problems, while comparing methodologies that allow anthropologists to operationalize abstract concepts amidst the myriad complexities of real human beings' lives.  Sid persuaded me to study the Caribbean, an instructive counterpoint, he correctly surmised, to what I knew (or thought I did) about These United States.  He advised me to meet such Caribbeanists as Roy Simson Bryce-Laporte, Anthony P. Maingot, and James Mau, as well as his own compadre, the late Eric R. Wolf, who began a distinguished anthropological career as a Puerto Rico specialist.  Sid facilitated my initial trips to the Caribbean:  Martinique in 1971 and, on Jackie's suggestion, Haiti in 1972.  There, his admonition to "watch your ass" served me well in many encounters with peasants, proletarians, middle-class folks, or scions of the urban elite, carefully planned or wholly serendipitous—all of them anthropologically instructive.  Later, Sid's letters of recommendation helped to open doors for me at The University of Chicago, where I took my doctorate, and in the demimonde of today's US American academy, where, despite his example, too many anthropologists and practitioners of other disciplines have forgotten (or never learned) that all ideas have lineages, as well as social moorings and political implications.  All the while, Sid has remained a challenging intellectual sparring partner, and usually, though with hindsight not always (no one is perfect!), he has been a source of sound counsel.

Hoecakes derive their name from fact that they used to be cooked on the blade of their eponymous farm tool in the US American South.  The cooks, mostly women no doubt, were enslaved Blacks and poor, free Whites.  My maternal grandmother Eula Morgan Cothran (1900-1968), whose parents had been slaves on South Carolina cotton plantations, passed a recipe for hoecakes along to me a few years before her death.  Other, less sedate people of my grandmother's generation later explained that, after freedom, hoecakes also became associated with "hos" (whores)—women of low social status and limited means, who were likely to satisfy their hunger with rapidly-made hoecakes, just as they would take quick, splash-and-dry "ho-baths," before providing their stigmatized, though highly popular, services.

Beginning these reminiscences with my grandmother's recipe for hoecakes, and brief instructions for eating the confections, is a deliberately polysemic narrative device.  For me, hoecakes symbolize the link between my North Philadelphia roots (reputable and disreputable) and my Tucson, Arizona-based work as a cultural anthropologist (some of it immediately useful outside the academy, some of it not).  At the same time, hoecake ingredients, changes in typical hoecake preparation from the dry method (open-air baking) to the wet method (deep frying), as well as seemingly unchanging or, only slightly changing, notions about the appropriate way to eat hoecakes, evoke Sid's concern for five decades with connections among material and symbolic processes.  Cultigens from the Old World or the New (wheat, corn, sugar, and hot peppers) are linked, as commodities, in a global system of production, distribution, and exchange.  Meanwhile, localized human actions—historically generated, culturally appropriated, and individually improvised—turn those commodities into otherwise meaningful things.  Cooking and eating hoecakes, together with thinking and talking about both in the context of a broader reality, strike me as especially good examples such localized human actions.

Sidney Wilfred Mintz has influenced his students and colleagues through face-to-face conversations and personal correspondence, I think it is fair to say, as much as through his voluminous publications.  (Mintz writings, the majority of them singly-authored publications, take up nearly 45 pages of my working bibliography.)  That has certainly been my experience over the last 30-odd years.  Although I have not always agreed with Sid about intellectual or political issues, and disagreements were sometimes expressed in hurtful words, I have a deep and abiding respect for the man and his work.  I owe Sid a debt of gratitude for serious lessons that I have learned from him as a teacher and, equally important, for his generosity and sense of humor as a friend.

Many other things should be said, and still more can't be said.  In their place, I offer a simple wish:


Happy Eightieth Birthday, Sid!