Eating and Belonging: a Conversation


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Toulouse-Lautrec: Women in a Restaurant
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Women in a Restaurant (1892).

Tell Me What You Eat and I Will Tell You Who You Are
From Mark

21 August 2012


You correctly point-out that few aspects of human behavior have more profound psycho-social constraints than eating. We have spoken about the ways in which our food choices mark us, either setting us apart or integrating us within a particular cultural context; but the discussion thus far has largely considered the extent to which consumption patterns are volitional, matters of choice – or as you and Bourdieu so perfectly described it, as matters of taste. Our deeper food inhibitions and desires – those compulsions we are seemingly unable to resist — also help to forge our identities.

This was driven-home to me in the most dramatic way in Darfur, Sudan in 2006. I was in-country to study the life-threatening scarcity of cooking fuels in the vast IDP camps. Like most of the world’s population the people of Darfur cook with wood. While the arid region easily sustained the fuel needs of their small, distantly spaced villages, consumption patterns changed radically when those villages were destroyed or abandoned in the genocidal conflict and huge populations grew-up in a handful of centralized camps. In no time, the landscape was denuded of wood; and since even roots were unearthed for use as fuel, regeneration was impossible. Women would roam many hours from the safety of the camps in search of fuel, placing themselves in extreme danger. Remember, the system of genocide in Darfur has been to kill the men and rape and mutilate the women.

The shortage of wood and unavailability of alternative fuels was not simply a matter of personal security for the women who braved the Janjaweed militias and Government of Sudan police and soldiers; it had become a matter of food security. Families in the camps would regularly sell or trade a day’s ration of WFP food aid in exchange for sufficient fuel to cook another day’s ration.

Around this time, some folks at an NGO called Jewish World Watch in Southern California had a bright idea (quite literally): why not use solar cookers? If there is one thing of which Darfur has absolutely no shortage, it is sun. It may be the most brutally sunny place I have ever been. Surely the hungry, war-ravaged families of Darfur would welcome this simple-to-use cooking technology. Surely women would rejoice at a solution that eliminated the long, arduous, unspeakably dangerous days collecting fuel still insufficient to provide for their families.

As you may have already guessed, the program was an utter failure. Why? Because solar cookers cannot be used to prepare assida and mullah, the staple-diet of Darfur. The message was quite clear from the scores of women we interviewed and cooked with, although it was so self-evident to them they were barely able to articulate it simply: “We eat assida and mullah. That is who we are.”

As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in The Physiology of Taste, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.”

These profound psycho-social implications extend not only to what we eat and how we eat it, but also to the rituals of food preparation and where and with whom it is consumed. Eating out is an interesting and dynamic aspect of the ways in which we express these compulsions and desires. If restaurants developed out of expanding economies in late Eighteenth Century post-revolutionary Paris (and Thirteenth Century Hangchow, China), they began to show themselves as both reflections of shifting cultural norms and agents of cultural transformation as the Twentieth Century approached and modernism arrived in the French capitol. Restaurants became ever less a matter of purchased expedience, or even of haute culinary experience, and more a symbol of social liberalization. I’m generally no fan of the drawings and paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but I think his depiction of women dining alone, or in the company of other women, in Paris restaurants capture something historically important.

Will we witness a similar transformation in dining out in our little corner of South India? Clearly, the dining-out habit is not yet well-ingrained in the local culture. If North Indian cities seem to be wall-to-wall eating establishments, with occasional forms of other commerce mixed-in, Pondicherry’s non-Euro, non-tourist eateries seem almost accidental in the urban landscape. The clientele is more distinctive than the joints themselves. Yoo-Mi and I joke that when we lunch at Salem Biryani House (one of the few places that serve an edible version of what would seem a basic, standard, unfuckupable item of comfort food), we bring the average age of the place down to about 78. And, need I mention that Yoo-Mi is the only woman there?

You have suggested the obvious explanation for the fact that eating out is not a part of the entertainment schedule of the average South Indian family: they could eat a tastier, more carefully prepared version of the very same food at home. We can blame local restaurateurs for this, of course. It is almost inconceivable to me that anyone could open an eatery without giving a damn about the quality of the food that is served; but is there any other conclusion we can draw about the Pondicherry restaurant scene? Leave aside that the food is not made with love, it is barely made with thought.

You were dead-right-on to pick on the standard, ironically identical “multi-cuisine” restaurants, which comprise one of the predominant dining tropes. The thing that gets me about these places is the vastness of the menu. Leave aside the fact that they never seem to have the ingredients to make the first half-dozen dishes you try to order; who are they fooling? Why should we believe they can make everything well when they don’t even try to make anything well? One of the joys of street food in India is that it provides a rare opportunity for diners to patronize an establishment that focuses on doing one-thing-well. Why is chaat so popular in Bombay? Well, certainly because people like snack foods. More importantly, it is because chaats are made by vendors who sacrifice scope for quality. One of the gradually disappearing joys of eating in Japan is the specialty restaurant. Sure, one can order tempura at almost any full-menued restaurant; but how much fresher, creative, and hot-from-the-oil to eat it at a tempura-ya.

The elaborate, poorly performed menu is not unique to Pondicherry, of course. We just seem to execute the strategy more exquisitely carelessly than other places. But perhaps the restaurateurs of Pondicherry not solely to blame for their abysmal restaurants.

If restaurants are both taste-makers and cultural mirrors, then our epicurean condemnation must extend beyond the intent and industry of the proprietors, to the nature of the culture itself. You suggest as much when you cite Benjamin Siegel for the proposition that public eating habits provide a lens on the social fabric of the locality. For me, the issue is not: why should your aunt eat lousy restaurant food when she makes high-quality versions of the same dishes at home? The interesting question is: why does she (or those who take her) patronize restaurants serving the same-old-same-old? While Pondicherry doesn’t boast much quality in any particular cuisine, it is possible to eat at places that offer a bit of variety. I’m not suggesting your Tambrahm auntie should be going for a grilled steak at Hôtel de l’Orient or Satsanga, simply that she has alternatives. I cannot sympathize with her complaint — which has, at its base, the sameness of the food — when she is the principal agent of sameness.

Her commonplace, narrow food demands – and the corresponding paucity of choice in the local restaurant scene – are a reflection of the insularity of the culture. These are issues of sameness versus diversity, identity versus multiplicity, homogeneity versus variety. Those who see the world as difference tend toward isolation. Those who see commonality tend toward integration. I do not think it is outrageous (though, as you know, I embrace outrageousness!) to suggest that the relative sameness of the average Indian diet – whether in Tamil Nadu or Gujarat or West Bengal – is a manifestation of an acute provincialism and, worse, a narrow-minded, bigoted, unattractive tribalism. Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.

You have correctly pointed-out at several places in this conversation that Indians are far-from-alone in their epicurean parochialism and insularity. If I’ve been picking disproportionately on Indian habits, that is in part because we have been speaking about our shared Indian connections and because we have been commiserating about the crappiness of the food in our common Indian home-base. But it is also because the shoe fits.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between the eating habits of my North American NRI friends and my mother. Each grew-up up in monocultures, both with respect to food norms and to broader issues of social identification. I once cracked about my mother that, “Raised in small-town Kentucky, she was weaned on a diet so bland she would have become white had she not already been born white.” Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are. But the reactions to physical (and cultural) displacement were quite different. The eating habits of my NRI friends, while not as narrowly constrained as those of your aunt, are predominanted by the regional cuisine of their native roots. This is true even for twenty- and thirty-something friends who largely grew-up in North America. My mother, on the other hand, embraced multi-cultural eating upon moving to Europe and California. That she is not an unusually adventurous eater and is not immune to here-and-there food revulsions only accentuate the point.

If my critique of Indian eating preferences is neither outlandish nor fundamentally wrong as an illustration of the interplay between food and broader social norms, why does it none-the-less feel a bit unfair? For a start, it’s because the prejudices and baseless sense of virtue that engender the insularity of standard Indian eating practices are little different than those fostering your-and-my relentlessly multicultural approach to dining (our “culinary infidelities”, as we have dubbed it). We explore and experiment and incorporate and fuse precisely because this mode of consumption fits within our broader mores, which hold that multicultural integration is noble and tribalism is pernicious. We insist on displaying our tastefulness and cosmopolitan sophistication. You and I – no differently than your aunt — understand the truths of both Bourdieu and Brillat-Savarin in an instinctive, innate way. We eat as we do both as a consequence of our cultural experiences and, in the ongoing process of self-definition, as a way of expressing our cultural values.

I am no relativist, either with respect to ethics or aesthetics. By the same token, cultural differences are an important (and excellent) fact of the human condition. These must largely be respected, and even celebrated. I square this awkward ideological circle by looking for broader principles distilled or essentialized from a specific practice or set of practices; and I base my value judgments on these more expansive interpretations. This is a perilously inexact and reifying calculation, subject to every valid-if-whiny post-structuralist critique — and a good-many more less-nihilistic arguments as well.

Thus, I have no guilt pangs about passing harsh, nonrelativistic judgment or playing arbiter elegante. With respect to the breadth or narrowness of one’s palate, my evaluative prism is certainly my anti-tribalist, pro-universalist prejudice. I believe that food is a superb medium for expressing both the commonality and the variety of the human experience, and thus believe that multicultural dining has moral significance as well as a hedonistic justification. I also find the imperative of Brillat-Savarin’s point to trump the purposefulness of Bourdieu’s. If, in the end, I seem to cut the women of Darfur a bit more slack than I extend to Indian women like your aunt, it is because, when assessing their cultural compulsions, I find marginally more to respect in the moral underpinnings. To be clear: I have no issues with the eating habits of either individual Darfurans or individual Indians because I appreciate the intense psycho-social context in which meal selection is cast. In the case of India, I can muster some degree of empathy for (if not exactly sympathize with) the desire to eat familiar dishes everyday. But, I feel some justification for passing judgment on the cultural foundations of those culinary expressions, as well as express entirely gratuitous disappointment that folks are missing-out of truly wonderful and enriching eating experiences – something that has not only the intrinsic ability to delight and satisfy, but also the power to catalyze and inspire increasingly complex and meaningful intercultural participation.

None of this cultural critique lets the shameful restaurateurs of Pondicherry off-the-hook, by the way. If your aunt wants to eat the same-old-stuff when she takes the opportunity to dine at a restaurant, let her. She should be able to do so without gagging.




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1 Response to “Eating and Belonging: a Conversation”

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


    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: It was the closest recipe that I could find on the web.

    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


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

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