Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Revolution In The Kitchen

Every Saturday in The Hindu, there's a recipe from the New York Times News Service. These are the foods that I imagine you would make for a date you were trying to impress. Last week there was a bruschetta, with no ingredients likely to stain your date clothes, and light enough that you won't feel like a sloth afterwards. The week before there was raspberry cream. Of course, the eating of raspberries is suggestive in itself, but if that wasn't enough, the recipe hints at decadence, while being low calorie.

But I wouldn't know. I once had a boyfriend whose interest in me began when he was out of cash, and I gave him my potatoes and a kitchen to cook home fries in. He asked me out when I ate his fried chicken without shuddering at the grease, and our relationship progressed over chilli crabs that we fished out of buckets and pulled apart with our fingers. Once, when we tried to copy the recipe ourselves, our experiment with live crabs and hot oil went frightfully wrong. Our food adventures, while perhaps not romantic, seemed to me a lot more like love - messy, sometimes disastrous, but often delicious.

I've been counselled that if I have children, I'll want to make for them all the wonderful dishes that my mother made for me. I'll give my counsellors the benefit of the doubt, but for now no maternal or provider instincts have raised their heads in my kitchen. So it's neither romance nor a maternal instinct that motivates me to cook. For me, cooking is an act of revolution.

My best cooking days so far were at university. Every week or two, I would walk a short distance to the basement of a house, where I would pick up organic vegetables in a brown paper bag. These were vegetables that were in season in the surrounding New England farms, and if I hadn't encountered them before, one of my fellow co-op members would have often tacked a recipe to the basement door. We all took turns sorting the produce and cleaning up, and meals were often cooked and eaten communally. Gender was never an issue, with men and women cooking equally.

At university I lived in a large, shared house, and one of my housemates, Dan, was vegan. Refusing to eat animal products (including milk, cheese and eggs) because of the cruelty that this entails for animals, is obviously political. However, political movements such as veganism have been criticized for reducing all politics to personal, lifestyle choices. What was interesting about Dan was that he subverted these stereotypes. With the exception of our weekly house dinners I hardly saw him cook, and he seemed to subsist on highly processed foods. They were so processed that they didn't contain any animal products, but I'm not sure they contained much nutrition either. However, Dan was deeply committed to Food Not Bombs, an organization that turns donated food into cooked meals for homeless people.

A few years later I was in New York, subletting an apartment from my friend Nazli. Nazli worked part-time with me at the Social Science Research Council, and part-time as a caterer. Then 9/11 struck, and, realizing that it was her culinary skills that were most in need, she dove into cooking for victims and volunteers. She also decided then that for one month she wouldn't cook at home, and true to her word, during that time did not step into our kitchen once.

By now, you're probably wondering where all this self-indulgent reminiscing is going. There are several points I want to make here. The first is that food is political - whether it's the decision to choose organic produce over fertilizers and pesticides, local produce over food that's transported burning fossil fuels, or veganism over animal products. This point is hardly new. However, what seems to have received less attention is that food is political not just because of how it's grown, but because of how it's cooked - who makes it, for whom, and how it's eaten. Michael Pollan, in his beautiful book An Omnivore's Dilemma, touches on this when he compares a fast food meal, eaten alone in a car while driving, with meals of organic and wild foods, eaten with friends over a long dinner. But even here, how you eat your food is still about a lifestyle choice, it's not an act of solidarity.

Food as an act of solidarity is evident not only in the work that Dan and Nazli were doing, but also in situations where we choose not to eat, or restrict what we eat. The prime example of this is of the course the month of Ramzan or Ramadan, just passed, when Muslims fast to express solidarity with the poor. There are also charity benefits in which participants try to survive for a day on the restricted diets of those they are trying to help. I recently saw a program called, "Cooking In The Conflict Zone", in which the host is a participant-observer in meals prepared and eaten in places like refugee camps. These programs have to be made carefully in order to avoid trivializing conflict and hunger, but the idea is an interesting one.

One other dimension of cooking as a revolutionary act that seems to have been overlooked is that of gender. There have been articles written such as this one, that bemoan the fact that the more we turn chefs into celebrities and goggle their cooking on TV, the less we try out these recipes at home. But, what isn't mentioned is that cooking is one of the few professions that has seen the entry of women at the same time that it has become more glamorous, not less. And while some women like Padma Lakshmi and Nigella Lawson conform to images of beautiful women, they're not the only ones on air. There's Kylie Kwong, whom I love but, with her black-rimmed glasses and classy, Shanghai Tang black silk outfits, can hardly be accused of being a pin-up girl. And there are all the female competitors on Top Chef, who are a range of ages, ethnicities and looks.

As for me, these days I'm a little battle-weary from fighting the kitchen bugs in our tropical jungle called Chennai. Compared to the highs of university cooking, I've certainly hit the lows over the past two and a half years here. My vegetables, while probably locally grown, are not organic, and are bought in an ordinary shop. I'm scared of buying vegetables that are traditional here but that I don't know, because I'm worried that any recipe I find for them will take way too long in my small, sweltering kitchen.

Yet every day at the office, lunch time would remind me that I'm still waging a small revolution. There are many great things about Indian office lunches. In the West, an office lunch is often a sandwich eaten alone, hunched over a computer. Even when, as at the Social Science Research Council, we all ate together, we rarely shared our lunches. In contrast, in India the office lunch is almost never eaten alone, nor mixed with work. And your colleagues are likely to be extremely generous in sharing their lunches with you.

But there are some unwritten rules of the Indian office lunch. If you are female, you are expected to bring lunch from home, either made by your mother or by you. If you are male and single, you're permitted to eat out. If you're male and married, your wife is supposed to cook your lunch for you. Of course, I'm exaggerating, and I have gone out to lunch with both my male and female colleagues. But my frequent ready-to-eat lunches were the cause of much concern, not only for my nutrition but for my husband's as well, who it was presumed that I refused to cook for.

It was at times like this that I thought most of Dan and Nazli, who reminded me that sometimes it's ok to not cook at home, and to eat processed food, when you're fighting larger battles outside your home. Older Indian men often tell me proudly that they have never eaten leftovers in their lives. I find it hard to understand what they have to be proud of, when their accomplishment is the result of a somewhat tyrannical insistence that every breakfast, lunch and dinner, the women of the house must be in the kitchen cooking fresh food.

Once in a while I did take food from home to the office. But once word got out that my husband also cooks, the assumption was that he did all the cooking. Whether I brought ready-to-eat lunches or food from home, the disapproval was clear, although delivered teasingly.

My husband and I share the cooking equally, more or less. Yet in the minds of my colleagues and relatives, there's no room for this inconvenient fact. If I don't do all the cooking then my husband must be hen-pecked, slaving away in the kitchen while I put my feet up.

So what would aid the revolution that I am waging in the kitchen? For starters, let's do away with the recipes from the New York Times News Service. Readers of The Hindu Weekend supplement may not be ready for recipes from refugee camps instead. But let's at least profile other couples like us who are attempting equity in the kitchen. How do they divide up the work? How do they reconcile their other responsibilities with cooking? Do they have quick recipes that lessen the burden for both of them? Long after the first date, how does it all work out?

1 comment:

  1. I never knew that you could write about cooking at such lengths!!!! Honestly I ve seen the different facets of cooking for the First time !! hmmm