If there is one thing I choose to post about repeatedly on social media, it is food. My social media is often a celebration of food – either as recipe, or as the cultural artefact of everyday living. And perhaps this is true of the urban cultural scene in cities like Delhi. Food is a topic that manages to evoke nostalgia by denoting a certain depth of experience, even as it indicates your range and breadth of travel, and know-how about cultures that are not your own. Your knowledge of cheese, wine and sushi are often considered hallmarks of sophistication. Food in urban spaces and on social media have become uncritical ways of showcasing diversity and cosmopolitanism.
During these past four months, and especially during the first two of COVID-19 isolation, food became a mode of bonding – because what else could we do locked inside our homes that was both creative and nourishing? In private discussions, on social media and in food-related groups, recipe exchanges proliferated, much to one’s joy and chagrin. Chagrin, because suddenly disparities in living conditions and access came more sharply into focus. And yet many of these thoughts had been cooking in my head even before the pandemic.
Your knowledge of cheese, wine and sushi are often considered hallmarks of sophistication.
My mother had an intercaste love marriage in the early 1980s in the small town of Siliguri in West Bengal, where most inhabitants were immigrants. Both parents inherited immense loss because they were both children of immigrants due to the Partition – they lost the geography to which food is primarily linked, especially in a pre-globalised world. So my mother’s family stuck to their traditions with the gusto that is typical of loss, since recipes could be passed on where much else was forever gone.
My mother often told me how aghast she was, newly married into this big joint family, to see that they ate rice for breakfast. Her father, although far from rich, fed his six children toast and butter every morning with eggs, something she remembered with pride as a leftover of their Dhaka tradition. Even after marriage, my mother replicated the loss of caste and country, often on and through the dining table.
Food, both as material and an idea, was distilled through my mother on our dining table, so it is no wonder that I inherited a large part of her relationship with food. She instilled the idea that food was of paramount importance despite a lack of wealth, especially when passed down as inheritance. Good food and its importance was drilled into me like an obsession.
Food teaches you to emulsify oil and acid, and perhaps, to balance guilt and pleasure too, in varying proportions.
As a direct fallout from our family’s obsession with food, I battled obesity in my 20s, my father was diagnosed with diabetes in his 40s, and in her 50s, my mom too. I’ve spent the last eight years of my life seriously questioning parental conditioning about almost everything, but most importantly, the obsession around eating well.
A few years back, as a newly employed person living alone, juggling professional life and domestic chores, I remember hiring a cook for the first time in my life. I thought I was being very liberal when instead of imposing my menu on her, I asked her to cook what she knew best. It was January and to my utter joy she decided to cook khichuri. For upper-caste Bengalis, khichuri is not the north Indian version of sick food. It is a rich and textured dish preserved for rainy nights, cosy conversations and intimate celebrations – almost like a pulao of sorts. To my utter dismay, the khichuri she cooked was tasteless.
Well let me modify that sentence. The khichuri was not tasteless; it was tasteless to me.
This essay is as much about food as it is about taste. To have ‘good taste’ is always upper-caste/class/culture. To have ‘good taste’ was a cultural validation that could even bypass narrow definitions of class as money. When I asked Maharani the next day why she didn’t put ghee in the khichuri, to my naive astonishment she said that that is how they have it. It was a simple question, for someone who took ghee for granted: who doesn’t put ghee in their khichuri?
My mother often told me how aghast she was, newly married into this big joint family, to see that they ate rice for breakfast.
To someone who had used food all her life to mobilise friendships and forge intimacies and show care, I remember the realisation striking me like a tonne of bricks. Living alone and trying to replicate my parents’ hosting skills for dinner parties rather unsuccessfully, I realised the amount of labour it took to acquire ingredients and turn them into a feast.
And yet, food continues to be currency in forging connections and as social capital, even if not done consciously. In the staff room with colleagues, on social media – food is innocuous, feel-good and a safe topic of conversation. I often use food to start off conversations on dates. It was joyous, cosmopolitan, and it often helped me sift the adventurous from the boring. It was unimaginable in my 20s that I could even consider someone who followed a vegetarian diet as my romantic interest. I still often ask close friends what they had for their last meal as a way of checking up on their mental health. This question, when put to my dad, is also a way of seeing how bad his dementia is because he almost always cannot remember his last meal. In our Whatsapp group with cousins, food is what holds us together.
To imagine that food could be connected to trauma and exclusion, I admit, was my big blindspot. A few days ago a close friend pointed out without ‘meaning offence’ how social media is full of ‘food pics’ and how that managed to alienate him. In my 20s when I knew someone who had a traumatic relationship with eating, I was naive enough to think that I could win them over by cooking or somehow figure out a way to make them eat, and that if I managed to do so, it was some kind of victory. I confused an appreciation for food with the act of eating and took a while to separate those two. I know better now. I realised that food was an important way in which my mother, who was a homemaker, made herself relevant to the family – it was tied to her self-worth and I too had internalised some of that.
In my 30s, many psychological spaces that were two-dimensional, to my utter dismay and joy, took shape. My relationship with food and eating was, is, one of them.
I cannot completely reverse my conditioning. Food is my joy. I love to feed and eat. But I acknowledge that this is because of certain privileges I grew up with. Good food is not innocent, and neither is good taste. Those of us who bond over memories of ilish are privileged. Those of us constantly sharing food pics that look tasteful are privileging the soft power of ‘taste’. Culture is the hardest to change because it is so ingrained in habits, as commonsense. My friends and I complain about how we cannot eat the food our cooks make – because it has too much spice, too much oil or simply not enough effort. And yet to imagine the obverse of your own class position, your taste – where more (oil, spice) is not always better requires another kind of imagination!
Food continues to be currency in forging connections and as social capital, even if not done consciously.
Food is the soft porn of our age. It is on TV incessantly, it is there sucking you in when you scroll on social media, it is made out to be innocent and feel good but it is not. Well, it can be innocent and feel-good, except it is not only and not always innocent and feel-good.
Food is where my mother eats the fish’s tail (the part considered least fleshy), my father wondering how as a kid his eldest brother would always get the fish head. Food is deep politics, always has been. To be well fed – to know how to be fed well is a kind of erudition that oils many social-capital machines. You learn your place in the family at the dining table. You learn about gender at the dining table. As my friend Krish Sehgal says, for the lower class the question with food always has been – have you had enough to eat, whereas for the middle class, it has always been – did you like what you ate?
I wanted to write this essay because I know how much I endorse food on social media and the satisfaction it gives me. And sometimes I don’t think twice. Tables spread out with food and a house full of friends laughing and eating is what makes my soul happy. I cannot deny this – but I have not been posting food during this lockdown as much as I’d like to, despite knowing fully well that it was the only thing that kept me sane, because some of these exclusions have been simmering inside my head for a while. Someone recently shamed one of my close friends for posting food pictures and while I agreed that it was unfair, a small part of me could not deny that reality.
And yet, when we look inside our food groups, do we ever wonder how many of us are from a different caste/class/history of food? For many of us, food is a happy place, indicating that your childhood memories had a bountiful dining table. Yet I’ve heard so many people talk of their childhood memories about food with longing too.
To imagine that food could be connected to trauma and exclusion, I admit, was my big blindspot.
Can simple food like rajma chawal, dhal bhaat and kadhi chawal not be tasty? Of course. Comfort food is amazing. I have also inherited a food tradition that valued resourcefulness, used lauki skins to make an entire dish. But that is not where the pride in food usually lies. That pride doesn’t come from small fish, but from ilish and chitol and jumbo prawns. The other part of my food memory that deals with discrimination comes from memories of my widowed grandmother who ate very well, but a different kind of food. I’ve heard my father talk of days when an egg was shared between his siblings and yet I often found myself deeply confused between these two traditions of food I’d inherited – my mother’s stories of ‘good’ food and my dad’s, where things often had to be shared.
The pride we take in food is deeply limned with invisibilising labour and discrimination – erasing the process through which food comes to your plate and thereby fetishising it. As much as I tried, I could not share as many food recipes as I would have liked during this lockdown, although I cooked like a maniac. This is not to shame friends who did share food and continue to do so – your food posts are amazing – this is to problematise a representation that is usually received uncritically while in other posts we continue to rage about discrimination. This essay is to reinforce and remind that our dining table is political. This is not to dismiss and discard the power of food – merely to inflect it.
Qualifying good food and taste
This is to reach out to those people on my timeline with whom I will never connect over food and I am sorry I didn’t write sooner about this. I am sorry if my food posts have made you feel alienated. Nobody likes to be the killjoy, taking away one more thing you enjoy and mixing it with critique and making others self conscious. But privilege is not one thing. Good taste is not one standard. Please continue to share your food photos, but do it with the awareness that you are contributing to a certain exclusivity. Just as well read people show off, well fed people do too.
I do hold deep beliefs about how much food can mobilise; my entire adulthood has been about acquiring taste, in books, in food, in clothes – about questioning conditioning, eating food that is considered taboo. I am still deeply skeptical of people who do not try new food even when they can – who never grow out of that initial conditioning and never acquire a taste of foreign tongues. For me, taste has been a way of peeking into worldviews and landscapes. About loving bamboo shoots in curry, dark chocolates and coffee. Dried fish. But we also need to qualify “good food” and “good taste” instead of keeping these categories exclusive – constantly questioning what those categories mean, and mostly talk about removing those mental blocks that dictate acceptability and laws of discrimination.
Food is the soft porn of our age. It is on TV incessantly, it is there sucking you in when you scroll on social media, it is made out to be innocent and feel good but it is not.
The fact that grains like millet and unpolished rice – those that were considered inferior – have gained the status of superfoods should tell us something about the history of labour and food.
I don’t know how to straddle both these viewpoints yet – of continuing to inflect notions of taste while adhering to them. To arrive instinctively to a place where I can reconcile food as a mode of comfort alongside the slow growing critique of it.
When Pablo Neruda wrote his odes, that phase in his career when he was writing in a form that was accessible – it was to tomato, garlic and bread. His metaphor for syncretism was the salad bowl that could bring together Chilean with Spanish culture without compromising the individuality of either.
A colleague of mine jokes about this duality with a food metaphor, saying I can’t have my cake and eat it too. Perhaps it is true that pleasure and guilt do not mix well, and yet I cannot think of any other metaphor as a counterpoint to critique high taste except food. Food teaches you to emulsify oil and acid, and perhaps, to balance guilt and pleasure too, in varying proportions.
Debolina Dey writes from the cusp of two cities – Delhi and Siliguri. They teach literature at Delhi University.