In the middle of a particularly assiduous day working from home this week and racing to meet a deadline that day, I caught myself grating heaps of fresh ginger and garlic to marinate two glistening pink, wild caught salmon steaks. I had been thinking of the salmon since morning, intermittently through my morning cup of coffee and struggling through a dense research piece that I was writing for an academic journal. The decision to marinate the salmon steaks was almost involuntary and arguably quite unnecessary given the busyness of my day. And then, I had spent some time looking through marinades on the internet that morning and plotting my perfect and easy recipe even while wading through scores of work emails. In the midst of grating and deeply inhaling the fresh ginger, I thought of how much more productive my day could have been without the glistening salmon. Not only would I save time in preparing the marinade but I would also not have to rinse the dishes, properly stack my dishwasher and clean my kitchen after that. I consoled myself by thinking of a feature article that I had read in the newspaper that morning. “Eat fresh food and cook your own food!” the article had said. I never had thought that I had a choice to do otherwise, really. However, the prospect of lots of good Omega 3 oil in the salmon entering my body did manage to rationalize in some part my feelings of guilt about playing hooky from work with fish.
Last summer while talking to my friend R (the initiator of this blog) late at night at his house in Delhi over a delicious concoction of dark rum, fresh lime, a bit of soda and coke that he had whisked up, he suddenly said something to me that I have often remembered. “You know I am suspicious of people who don’t enjoy food. I think they are ‘niras’ in their lives,” he whispered. We admittedly may have been whispering because we were pleasantly enveloped in a lazy haze of cocktail and chat or because his three year old daughter was sleeping. I thought then that if I had to translate “niras” from Hindi, I would say that it is the absence of the life force. Recently when another friend started dating a seemingly interesting man, she was genuinely troubled by the fact that he did not enjoy food as much as she did. It signified something larger for her; an absence of sensuality, generosity, and a whole-hearted embracement of life itself.
Food forms a life force of so many of my memories and connections, a vital nerve connecting diverse people in my life over diverse spaces and times. When I first moved to Chicago in my mid-twenties and had to cook my everyday food, I realized that my body actually craved for fresh vegetables that I had grown up eating. My conversations with my mother in Kolkata became a medley of shared recipes and spices; cauliflower roast, stuffed green peppers/capsicum, eggplant in mustard sauce and cabbage with black pepper and a bit of flour. To this medley, I added my own discoveries in the US over the years and excitedly shared them with her. Roasted Brussels sprouts (who could know that they could taste so good!), the nutty Butternut Squash and the green leafy Broccoli raab with its unique slightly tangy kick. Then, there were the meat and fish dishes. One of my favorite memories with my then six year old niece in Australia is baking a yogurt cake together in Melbourne. I added the proportions of flour, baking powder, yogurt, oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla essence. She whisked them with great concentration, following my directions to get a loose mix that would be moist and occasionally licking her fingers. We both waited eagerly for the oven timer to go off, wanting to see how “our cake” had finally turned out.
Living in a small and quirky town in New England that is repeatedly in the news for its many fabulous restaurants and diverse cuisines has strengthened the significance of food in my world. My bonds with people have been a mixture of good conversation, new activities, and food. Hikes up several local hills here or walks through woody trails in Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson country are associated with fresh warm apple cider awaiting us at the end. My long walks each day, often inadvertently snowshoeing, has given me an unexpected appreciation of varieties of tea that are black, green and white. I learnt to bake from my Italian Linguist friend Ila while arguing about the importance of accents. I admired a friend from Indonesia who decided to cook a dried fish rice dish despite its strong and stubborn smell in her apartment for her birthday. I saw it as resistance to the often bland world of mainstream American cuisine and the perhaps accompanying paranoia about constant sanitary smells. When my friends E and M had us over for the holidays, they made an amazing roast beef that had cooked in the oven on low heat for ten hours. Its aroma interweaved its way through our gossip, debates and laughter. Living abroad away from “home” is often not easy and that choice comes with occasional discordant moments and interactions in our everyday lives. Inviting friends over, cracking open a bottle of good wine, and cooking and sharing some good food has translated into a space of connection and support for me through the years.
At the same time, I find myself increasingly drawn to ethical questions about food. Who grows our food? Why is the grower inevitably at the bottom of the food chain so to speak? Is it right to eat meat in the US when I know that its production is the result of a very cruel and exploitative meat industry? Do I turn vegetarian or what are the alternatives? A colleague here actually hunts his own meat, believing that it is a more humane way to eat meat! Then of course, there is the whole organic debate. The organic food movement largely benefits elite consumers in the US and excludes those who lack the resources to buy purer, more environmentally integrated food. While these questions can sometimes appear unnecessary to many of us, we probably owe it to the joy of food in our lives to at least ask these questions. In my classes on political and social theory and its connection to the world around us, my students and I sometimes explore these concerns as part of the increasingly complex and interconnected global world that we all form a part. Food is political too. Such discussions are often interspersed with interesting things I learn about my students – one makes cheese, the other is a “slow food” activist and a third lives with her boyfriend on a farm where they grow their own food.
So, here is to Foodnama and community and communion over food!