Eating and Belonging: a Conversation

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You Are Having One American Nature Only, I Am Telling
From Mark

16 July 2012

Deepa:

Effective the way Indians use “American” as a cutting epithet! The truth of it stings a bit. Even though these accidents of birth are no more our fault than the color of our eyes, we can’t help being wounded by them. It must be especially hard for you to stomach to the extent you are a Canadian.

This is a bit like the way Indians in the UK take umbrage at being slurred as “Pakis”. Not that I approve of tribal nastiness in any form, but there are two aspects that are pretty interesting, one funny, the other sad. The humorous is that, of all the aspects of legitimate grievance to draw from the insult, Indians invariably seize on the one illegitimate gripe, as if saying, “No way! My parents (or grandparents) were not from the one South Asian country, they were from the other (except that they kind-of weren’t necessarily, since the two were really twins separated at birth).” Rather than being pissed-off about brainless racism, they immediately double-down with brainless nationalism or brainless religious intolerance. It’s like the old sports adage: the best defense is a good offense. The sad part is that Indians, the world’s most adroit insult-finders, pretty-much lay-down in the face of truly horrid hate-speech. I’ve seen the passivity far too often and it hurts me to my core to witness. It is a pernicious post-colonial legacy that looks to endure for at least another generation.

But, back to the point: how sucky to be called an “American”! Yuck. The only poem I’ve ever written was sort-of about that:

Homeland

the imprint of my homeland
labels me like another’s
logo emblazoned on a t-shirt
misidentifying yet
accurate as a blood type

the imprint of my homeland
stains me like a tattoo
a former girlfriend’s name indelibly
ledgered in the flesh
scar, blemish, mortification

the imprint of my homeland
adorns me like a flower worn
behind the ear or an epaulette
revealing more of me than
I would have you know

the imprint of my homeland
chooses me when I do not choose it
abandons me when I do
fickle about our relationship
as I am

I think as I get older, it matters far less to me that I fit seamlessly in every new culture I enter — or even within the two major cultures (North American and something-Indian) in which I live. In a way, Vancouver and Pondicherry make that easy, both being multicultural mash-ups, where no one is really quite certain of who they are anymore. The fun thing about putting a few years on oneself is that one gets to know their own likes and dislikes, and is better able to prioritize the former. Likewise, one has a bit better judgment about which idiosyncrasies to indulge and which to keep behind polite cover.

Besides, if my NRI friends can eat sabji – chawal every meal in a place as cuisine-rich as San Francisco, I have no problem wearing jeans under my kurta. (Or a denim shirt over my veshti.)

Which I guess brings me to your burgers and, more specifically, what brought you to your burgers. This meal was a deliberate, deliberative process – “a consolidation of our agency as immigrant Americans in Pondicherry.” Burgers and fries were selected as emblematic of (one of your) national identities. This meal was a semantic or semiotic choice; and Americanness was the message you chose to impart, the identity you chose to embrace in the moment.

Your story is a manifestation of your multiculturalism and therefore a repudiation of those who slandered you with the epithet of Americanness. You celebrated the symbolism of the meal; and the very act of cooking-up (quite literally) the culinary metaphor implies and demonstrates your mastery of your identity and your ability to pick-and-choose. Indeed, you could have reacted to the claim of Americanness in precisely the opposite way: by preparing rice, sambar, rice, chutney, rice, rasam, rice, and curds for dinner. And, then too, we would interpret your menu not as a manifestation of your South Indianness so much as your control over the way in which you choose to express your various cultural identities.

I get all that. Yet, at the risk of sending your household into another fit of burger-and-fries ironic remonstration, let me just add my voice to the chorus: You are so American!

No Indian-Indian on earth would have worked-through the mental exercise you did to plan your menu; and most would be perplexed by the idea that selecting a cuisine — as opposed to certain dishes from within their familiar cuisine – was the kind of thing they might ordinarily engage in. While there is great diversity among India’s cuisines, there is relatively limited variation in the menus within any particular region of India – at least relative to the array of choices North Americans make every night of the week. “Should we eat Thai or Italian tonight?” is simply not a question usually heard in Indian homes – even those in Toronto or Silicon Valley. And the selection of dinner to express an ethnographic ideal or as a means of cross-cultural participation is downright crazy-talk.

Is this reading of your North Americanness unfair? Is my portrayal of familiarity in Indian eating a caricature of what simply amounts to well-worn preferences? Is the sameness of Indian mealtimes a manifestation of the profound sense of national (or regional) identity? And is there something restless and ambivalent in the North American character – perhaps as expressed in my poem – that prevents us from exercising fidelity to our national (or regional) cuisines and truly “embracing the consolidation” of our identities? Or are Indians simply latecomers to the notion of multiculturalism?

Enquiring minds want to know (to co-opt a phrase from America’s true Newspaper of Record).

Best,

MBJ

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Previous entry: So American! (Deepa) 15 July 2012
Next entry: Cosmopolitan Comforts (Deepa) 20 July 2012
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1 Response to “Eating and Belonging: a Conversation”


  1. 1 Bridget Fernandes 20 July 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Mark,

    Hello, my name is Bridget Fernandes, and I am a former Deepa Reddy student and am currently teaching anthropology courses as an adjunct at the University of Houston Clear Lake. I love to travel and was even in Pondicherry in January 2011. I had the honor of tasting some of Deepa’s delicious desserts and meals!

    Well, this blog conversation resonates with me on several levels. I lived in a conservative small town in Tennessee for the first 22 years of my life. My schedule consisted of school, time with family, church, and tradition. Many of the family traditions revolved around food.

    On Monday nights, we went to my maternal grandparent’s house where we ate homegrown (my grandparents raised all of their vegetables without pesticides…..this was before the term “organic” was in fashion) green beans cooked in an iron skillet, fried green tomatoes, Mexican cornbread, and fried okra. Cooking was my grandmother’s passion, and she was always trying new “Southern” dishes. I remember canning (putting all the goodness that they grew in their gardne into jars to enjoy later) with grandmother during the summers. We put the tomatoes in the hot water so that the skin could be removed easily and then we added peppers and vinegar turning it into a relish to be enjoyed on black eyed peas. Unfortunately, my grandmother died last year, and I miss these dishes and the love that she put into them.

    On Sundays, we went to my paternal grandparent’s house for more good home cooking. My grandmother prided herself on cooking the “old fashioned” way which for her meant cooking with lard. We had dishes such as fried chicken, greasy buttermilk biscuits, mashed potatoes with gravy, and Mississippi mudcake (her favorite) which is a chocolate cake with marshmallows and icing on top. My grandmother has always loved to eat and always says, “There is nothing that I enjoy more than watching others eat the foods that I have created.” My family sat around the table and told stories and laughed. These stories shaped my life and my identity and these stories were all told over sweet tea with lemon or fresh coffee.

    When I was 22 years old, I moved to Rio de Janeiro, a city of 8-12 million, and Lincoln, my husband, and I lived in a studio apartment (an euphemism for a 1 room apartment). We ate mostly out and about in the city. Self-service or buffet style salad bars, coffee with milk and crunchy cheese bread became our daily routine. Life was fast-paced, noisy, and the movement of the city intoxicating.

    At this point, I became “the other.” People called me the gringo or said, “Your Portuguese is so cute.” I didn’t want my Portuguese to be “cute”. I just wanted to communicate. After living in Rio for 2 years, I went back home to visit my family. When I got off the plane, my mother said, “Stop talking that way.” Apparently I had picked up an accent while teaching ESL to Brazilians. I had also picked up the open way in which Brazilians speak about sex and other subjects considered “taboo” in my town. My mother used to say, “Don’t talk about those topics in mixed company.”

    All of a sudden, I became “the other” in my hometown.” Old friends would say, ” I guess you are just so happy to be in the United States.” I used to answer, “Well, yes and no.” My stories at the table had changed and my family could no longer identify. I lived in Brazil for 5 years and my worldview and identity changed.

    My husband and I moved to Houston, a city where very few people are originally from here (as Deepa touched on in her post). We have lived here for 6 years and again my identity has changed. Many people ask, “Where are you from?” I can’t quite place your accent (which seems to be a clear marker of identity for many). Sometimes you sound “southern” and other times you sound “foreign”. My Brazilian friend states, “You seem more Brazilian than American.” What does that mean exactly? Well, I guess where you have been and lived also (like your homeland)becomes “imprinted” (the term that Mark uses) on your body. The traces are always there…

    Learning to negotiate these “identities” has been a wonderful growing experience and as Mark states, “I think as I get older, it matters far less to me that I fit seamlessly in every new culture I enter — or even within the two major cultures (North American and something-Indian) in which I live…The fun thing about putting a few years on oneself is that one gets to know their own likes and dislikes, and is better able to prioritize the former. Likewise, one has a bit better judgment about which idiosyncrasies to indulge and which to keep behind polite cover.”

    Yes, when I first went to Brazil being called “gringo” bothered me and the first time I went home after moving away, the fact that my “differentness” was the subject of much conversation irritated me but now in my 30s, I have raised my consciousness about what this “differentness” means and can identify the ways that these experiences have shaped my identity. I no longer become offended or irritated but rather appreciate the many different experiences that I have had both in the United States and abroad that have shaped who I am. Therefore, “differentness” becomes a point of pride rather than irritation or maybe it is just becoming “more comfortable” in your own skin (whatever that skin may be or preceived to be).

    My paternal grandmother is still living and every time I make it home, she makes her famous Mississippi Mud Cake, and we still drink fresh coffee (she always makes what she calls a “fresh pot”) and tell stories. Although the stories may have changed and I am negotiating several identities at once, the Mississippi Mud Cake tastes the same and brings me back to my home where my journey and the stories began.

    Here is a recipe for a version of my grandmother’s Mississippii Mud Cake. I found this at: http://www.food.com/recipe/mississippi-mud-cake-67117. It was the closest recipe that I could find on the web.

    Cake
    1 cup butter
    1/2 cup cocoa
    2 cups sugar
    4 large eggs, slightly beaten
    1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 dash salt
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 1/2 cups pecans (optional)
    4 cups mini marshmallows

    Chocolate frosting
    1 (16 ounce) package powdered sugar, sifted
    1/2 cup milk
    1/3 cup cocoa
    1/4 cup softened butter

    Directions:

    1
    Preheat oven to 350°F.
    2
    Lightly grease a 9×13 inch pan.
    3
    Melt the butter in a medium saucepan.
    4
    Add the cocoa and stir.
    5
    Remove from the heat.
    6
    Pour butter mixture into a mixing bowl and add sugar and eggs.
    7
    Mix until blended.
    8
    Add the vanilla.
    9
    Mix in the flour and salt.
    10
    Stir in the pecans.
    11
    Put batter into prepared pan and cook for 35 minutes or until done.
    12
    Remove from oven and sprinkle with marshmallows.
    13
    Cool in the pan on a wire rack.
    14
    For the frosting: Combine all of the ingredients and mix until smooth. Spread frosting on cooled cake.
    15
    If your frosting is too thick, add more milk.


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