Eating and Belonging: a Conversation

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Cosmopolitan Comforts
From Deepa

20 July 2012

Mark:

Why the attempt to redeem me by claiming me as “fundamentally Canadian”? But then also turning right around and reiterating the American epithet! And in that move, distinguishing me from Indian-Indians—or would it be Indian Indians? Never did I imagine I’d find authenticity hyphenated, but there you have it—and in all this the only identity denied me is the one which I’ve never really been called, at least not outside of expert circles: Indian.

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Our meal this afternoon: quintessential south Indian comfort food [curd rice], Let’s eat Thai! [pad thai], and, from that other south, Mississippi mud cake

Let’s take that in stages.

I’m Canadian only insofar as I (1) hold Canadian identity documents, (2) remain true to my love for Toronto as a city (in spite of having had more than my share of chances to explore at least some other great north American metros), (3) am an U of T alum, (4) deeply identify with Margaret Atwood’s “Progressive insanities of a pioneer,” and a few other poems from her Journals of Susanna Moodie, and (5) apparently still carry the accent with me when out and about.

Sufficient to establish fundamental ties?

I suppose it’s ironic that my burger-and-fries response was in some ways quintessentially American, but not in any caricatured or stereotypical sense—precisely in that “restless and ambivalent” tone that you offer as explanation for lack of fidelity to regional cuisines, and burgers and fries are anything but regional, these days at least. I can’t help but remember, way back when, staying on the strip at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, perhaps appropriately called “White’s City,” this middle-of-nowhere outpost to reach which we had to cross the expanse that is the great state of Texas. Practically the only food one could get at White’s City were burgers and fries. Or associated national park foods: chicken fried steak. Meager iceberg lettuce side salads. Chicken fingers. Potatoes. Cold sandwiches. Maybe a soup or two. Greasy, meat-based, probably frozen and easily resuscitated by a deep fry, by with not even many vegetables, let alone anything vegetarian. Lots of chips; lots of soda. Not great cuisine, indeed food that I would later come to realize smacked literally of Aramark. By the end of that blessed trip, we were craving, and I do mean craving,dal, rice, poriyals, yogurt, let me tell you. Prodigal children, desperate for home.

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Thair sadam or curd rice: rice seasoned with mustard seeds, urid dal, chana dal, red chillies, curry leaves, fried onions, and a range of fresh mix-ins [shredded carrots or green mango, chopped fresh coriander or dill, pomegranate seeds, diced apples, grapes, diced cucumber or whatever else appeals to your cool fancy]. With a good amount of fresh, creamy yogurt—chilled—and served with a spicy Indian pickle or chutney.

If we’d been a generation prior, a little less desirous of suave cosmopolitanism, or if we’d lived a little closer to our native longings, I suspect we’d never have ventured out across the Great State of Texas without a rice cooker, some pickle (not the cucumber dill variety, if I need to clarify, but the spiced mango/ lime/ gongura/ chilli versions), and pre-planned ideas about where to stop to buy plain yogurt. One can survive anything if one has thair-sadam [curd rice]. That was the logic I know my parents lived by, and the parents of so many others of my generation.

Quite possibly, you’re right, there’s a generation or two before us, or even around us, who’d not veer too far from the staples of an Indian diet. That’s not just an Indian thing, mind: the Chinese, and at least a few other new immigrant communities, tend to move only reluctantly outside their native culinary bubbles. We’re willing to travel across the planet and take any number of risks personally and professionally, we’re even willing to cook meat while remaining ourselves vegetarian—but we reserve the right to be cautious, even slightly closed-minded [right word?], about the food that we consume ourselves. Something like that.

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Thai spring rolls stuffed with whatever was on hand: shredded carrot & chicken, basil, mint, green onion shoots

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Two things. This practice is less and less definitive with each passing generation. Younger ones are natural cosmopolitans, who might well ask, quite naturally, “Should we eat Thai or Italian tonight?”—even though mom and dad are quite happy with idlis and thair-sadam at home. [Aside, I love how my word processor desperately wants to correct “thair-sadam” into “their sadam” at each instance. Even if it can’t figure out what “sadam” ultimately is.]

Which brings me, second, to the question of multiculturalism. My father used to joke, when we emigrated to Canada in the late 1980s, that the country seemed just to be discovering multiculturalism—whereas we (Indians) had been multiculturalist all along. Then a teenager and prone to mechanically rejecting anything my parents said, I rolled my eyes, of course. But in this year of turning fourty, I’m more inclined to think that there is something more to his jocular seeking-pride-in-heritage formulation. I know my father was referring to the fact that we’ve lived, with considerable success, with so many different sorts of communities and cultural practices sans a unified political theory on how to deal with our differences [and here are people in developed societies going on and on about such things!?]. But I’d suggest also that it’s a matter of taste.

Bourdieu tells us that taste is the product of status competition. Good taste is a matter of distinction: distinguishing and (therefore) conferring honor. “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (1984: 6). Class-ifies—for class distinctions, grounded not so much in economic wealth as in cultural capital, are the natural result.

The point is that my parents’ generation sought a class-ification based on distinction, because distinction cordoned off, and protected, spaces of honor and self-worth. They needed their homes to be the clearly marked spaces of identity precisely so that they could set forth and get out into the world—to reproduce the core of a now-famous argument developed by historian Partha Chatterjee. We, on the other hand, were born in the world already, hyphenated at birth: Indian-American, Indian-Indian, or other variants thereof. Lots has been written about identity hyphenations, so I shan’t rehash those tired lines here—but will say (1) that I think it a crying shame that not much has been written at all of the sort of community my father represents, the sort that left India but could never stay away permanently, and whose trajectories irrevocably lead them back, about the sort of community whose identities could never be hyphenated, even though they so did try. And (2) that our hyphenations bespeak a cosmopolitanism that is the cause for the “restless ambivalence” of which you speak. We’ve gone and rejected class. We’ve rejected some of the fundamental premises of cultural distinction—that older, more hierarchical model of multiculturalism without a political theory of multiculturalism. And so you catch us craving thair-sadam after camping trips to outposts like White’s City, and wishing desperately for other cuisines when returned with a bump to home, family, India—and curd rice.

A friend and I had a good laugh the other day about our parents’ insistence that we come home, however far we roam, for curd rice. It is, after all, a meal that can so-easily be prepared, on short notice. The answer to long days of heavy “outside food” and restless cosmopolitanism that surely takes its toll. Reminders of core values, of self, of taste: distinction and that which satisfies the palate. Never mind that we’re craving thai green curry, or the ambience of the Park Sheraton, or that we really didn’t find the burgers we had for lunch either too light or too heavy. Thair sadam is what it’s all about—and what we want so urgently to escape from, given the opportunity to escape. Our cosmopolitanism is a critique of taste, even as taste sustains us as cosmopolitans.

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Pad thai, made following Chez Pim’s perfect directives

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My parents, the generation and cultural sensibility they represent, never suffered such switches. They just carried their thair-sadam with them everywhere they went. It’s not that they weren’t multicultural. It’s that their’s was a multiculturalism based–sometimes unabashedly, sometimes hesitantly–on a theory of distinction.

I don’t know what this says about North American proclivities to culinary infidelities. But as an Indian-Indian, I know it makes me want to have my burgers and fries–and eat my thair-sadam, too.

Do you have the equivalent? What’re the foods of your restlessness—if not of your ambivalence?

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Mississippi Mud Cake, inspired by Bridget’s comment & embedded recipe

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With special thanks to Bridget Fernandes for words of so much feeling, and Ankush Samant for exquisite photographs–all but the first two and penultimate mud cake image are his gracious contributions.

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Previous entry: You Are Having One American Nature Only, I am Telling (Mark) 16 July 2012
Next entry: No Accounting for Taste (Mark) 24 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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