Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe
Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe

From pleasure to protest

On how food helps us connect, exhibit power and protest.

Although I have been writing about food professionally for nearly a decade, it was only last year that I learned the true import of the phrase 'breaking bread'. In July 2019, I was attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery – an annual event that is considered the world's oldest conference on food. Like several other symposiasts, I had travelled several thousand miles to the historic city of Oxford to present a paper on the theme of food and power. Surrounded by academicians and authors, I felt painfully self-conscious – all the months spent researching my paper shrinking into a pinprick of intense anxiety. Listening to other speakers, my mind was stretched in the most pleasurable way. But otherwise, I felt uncharacteristically awkward and shy.

That is, until our first meal.

Breaking bread

Fitting for a conference that celebrates food, there was always plenty of food being served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and during the coffee breaks that marked the interludes between sessions. It was no ordinary fare, either. Every meal was thoughtfully catered in keeping with the theme, with carefully designed menu cards and a selection of wines to accompany each course. Sitting around large tables with the food at the centre, there was no way to make sure that one had tried everything without initiating conversation. It may have started with a simple request to pass the salad, or to break off a chunk of bread, still warm from the oven. But in the process, an entreaty turned into a conversation; 'passing the bread' served as tacit acknowledgement of the transformative dimension that company adds to the elemental experience of eating.

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Himal Southasian