Guest-Editorial – On the Table: Pathways between Food Studies and Food Writing
By Somrita Ganguly
The whole universe is here.
Every colour, a few
on the verge of being barely tolerable.
Every shape as well as minute flourishes
created in the prehistory
of each sandesh by precise pinches.
The horizontal trays
brim (but don’t tremble) with mass and form. (Amit Chaudhuri)
Our language, our literatures, and our lives are too full of metaphors for eating, and food is, perhaps, the most overwhelming reality of every life – in its absence and in its abundance. Food is science. Food is art. Food is economics. Food is sociology, politics, and anthropology. Food is poetry, drama, culture, and identity. Indeed, as Amit Chaudhuri points out in the opening lines of his poem ‘Sweet Shop,’ from his 2019 anthology of verses Sweet Shop (Penguin Random House), food encompasses an entire universe in itself.
In October 2018, an Indian cooking-oil brand came under criticism for their television commercial on a Hindu festival; a section of people celebrating ‘Navaratri’ in India felt that their religious sentiments were hurt by the brand showcasing individuals consuming non-vegetarian food during a festive period traditionally marked by nine nights and days of abstinence. In the same month, the apex court of India, responding to a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking a ban on export of meat, categorically mentioned, “we cannot issue an order that everybody should be vegetarian.” The Supreme Court then adjourned the case. India has recorded several instances, at an alarming frequency since the Dadri lynching in 2015, of people coming under the scanner for their eating habits.
Yet, India does not stand alone in its fight against the tyranny of imposed food choices. Conflict Kitchen, for instance, opened in Oakland as a small take-away window in 2010, plating cuisines – on a monthly rotational basis – from nations that the United States is in conflict with: Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Palestine, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They closed in May 2017 leaving behind a legacy of tolerance since food, especially from ‘banned’ communities, transcends its gastronomic purpose to challenge ingrained xenophobia.
Food fascism has also manifest itself around the globe today revolving around neoliberal axes of fitness, fashion, and animal welfare, with the socio-cultural role of food almost gaining precedence over its nutritional, alimentary one. Commenting on the Instagram-influencers propagated neoliberal trend of ‘clean eating’ food journalist Bee Wilson writes:
For as long as people have eaten food, there have been diets and quack cures. But previously, these existed, like conspiracy theories, on the fringes of food culture. “Clean eating” was different, because it established itself as a challenge to mainstream ways of eating, and its wild popularity over the past five years has enabled it to move far beyond the fringes. Powered by social media, it has been more absolutist in its claims and more popular in its reach than any previous school of modern nutrition advice.
At its simplest, clean eating is about ingesting nothing but “whole” or “unprocessed” foods (whatever is meant by these deeply ambiguous terms). Some versions of clean eating have been vegan, while others espouse various meats (preferably wild) … At first, clean eating sounded modest and even homespun: rather than counting calories, you would eat as many nutritious home-cooked substances as possible.
But it quickly became clear that “clean eating” was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure.
How different are the ethics of this predominantly social-media governed brand of shaming from state-sponsored vigilance on food choices, or corporatized, capitalistic, institutionalised monitoring (through the health industry) of people’s eating habits?
It is (also) in this light that we have seen the mushrooming of food bloggers and cooking shows offering us microhistories of ingredients and autobiographical narratives along with recipes, new or revived, urban or ‘restored’/ ‘repurposed’.
In this issue of Cafe Dissensus we mean to create pathways between food writing and food studies. The preponderance of the anecdotal in the former and that of the scholarly in the latter are institutional effects, and we believe that to collapse the distance between the kitchen and the classroom would be a fruitful endeavour, pun intended. This issue is the beginning of a conversation, hopefully opening up avenues of discussion around food and making us rethink how we write about food. How often do we allow our location and context to colour the text of our food criticism? In his article ‘Have we reached a fork in the road for food criticism?’, Tim Carman leaves us with some crucial questions to chew on:
[E]ditors are grappling with larger cultural, ethical and financial questions: Should a single critic be responsible for an entire region? What kinds of restaurants should be reviewed? Should the criticism be limited to the food on the plate, the decor, the service? Or should it look at broader societal issues, since Yelp and other sites are already packed with amateur reviews? Should editors strive to hire men and women of color, who would bring fresh perspectives? …
White people trying to be sensitive about diversity isn’t as good as involving people of color … White people have a tendency to overestimate their ability to fix problems.
Will there also be a change in our vocabulary, idiom, and ethics as we study, critique, and comment on food in our present times? The #MeToo movement, for instance, saw the restaurant industry, like several other industries, unsurprisingly, struggling to cover up skeletons tumbling out of its closet. Calling out the inherent sexism in the industry was empowering for several people down the ladder. As Kim Severson writes, now a line cook “is less likely to pretend a baguette is a penis.” How has the movement impacted the way we think about the food we eat, the places we patronise, and the people who serve us in the hospitality business? Are we fumbling with answers to probing, provocative questions in the #MeToo era and does that hesitation and uncertainty find expression in our criticisms and our columns? No longer shying away from naming names (instead of protecting perpetrators and enablers), an article for The Washington Post asks:
When the time comes, how will critics address the sexual harassment scandals of superstar chef Mario Batali or restaurateur Ken Friedman in Manhattan? Or those of chef and restaurateur John Besh in New Orleans? Or those of chef and restaurateur Charlie Hallowell in Oakland? Or the assault charges against [Paul] Qui? Should such accusations factor into a review and a critic’s assessment? Or should they, in fact, be grounds for nixing a review altogether to prevent the further glorification of chefs who perhaps no longer deserve it?
Distinctions in food preparation, eating habits, and modes of dining are crucial axes around which groups consolidate themselves. While food has always been at the vortex of religious and political issues, presently, as governments try to censor people’s eating habits and dietary profiling seems to be the new order of the day food has acquired a character of its own. Our present moment, with its unique political urgencies, forces us to think about the ways in which food choices and habits have traditionally been thought about in disciplinary formations; and about the ways in which we address these issues in our writings.
We have a diverse range of offerings in this edition of Café Dissensus. Elizabeth Rose’s mature translation of Cristina Peri Rossi’s lyrical poem ‘Rabelesiana’ works with the metaphor of eating and consumption in queer ways, leading up to Anil Pradhan’s essay ‘Too Gay an Oreo!: The Cultural Connotations of Queer(ing) Food’ which, besides discussing queer kitchens and cuisines, throws light on certain erotic eating escapades from Indian literature, including, but not limited to short stories like ‘Chocolate’ by the noted Hindi writer Pandey Bechan Sharma “Ugra”.
Manjari Chowdhury and Kathleen Rose Kahn take us back to old Bengali and Lithuanian cuisines from the 1940s and ’50s, recreating certain recipes for us to try out in the comfort of our modern kitchens: chicken khirmich pilaf, kegula, and cold beet soup.
Yet, can we truly recreate the flavours and essence of the past in a world riddled with impurities, and the ever-increasing phobia of adulteration in our daily lives and meals? Diksha Narang’s paper ‘Deceiving the Aam Aadmi: Sting Operations on Food Adulteration’ “exposes” how the news media in India often contribute to the common man’s fear of consuming adulterated food.
Rahee Punyashloka’s essay ‘Strange Fruit: Or, to be Dalit, and Eat,’ using the form of creative non-fiction and an autobiographical narrative mode, uncovers the politics of mainstreaming certain eating habits and cultures, which before turning “cool,” “chic,” and “contemporary” were relegated to peripheral lives and frowned on, if not decidedly shamed and marginalised.
Appu Jacob John’s review of ‘Beef Poem’ by Chandramohan S furthers the debate that Punyashloka’s essay initiates. Where does beef find itself in Indian cuisine? Where does a Dalit poet stand in the Indian literary canon? Chandramohan’s politically charged food poem articulates some searing questions that are competently highlighted in John’s review.
The other food poem included in this issue, ‘Chow Mein,’ lays bare more meanings of food in verse: food as cultural history, food as collective memory, and food as community.
Taiyaba Ali interviews the people behind the Zahra Foundation for this issue, charting their journey as a growing restaurant chain with community service at the core of their value system.
Also included in this issue are essays by Gaurav Kumar and Nimisha Singh which critically analyse the role played by food in various works of fiction and life writing such as The Hundred-Foot Journey (2008) by Richard C. Morais, To the Lighthouse (2004) by Virginia Woolf, The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy, and The Edible Woman (2009) by Margaret Atwood.
Sufia Khatoon’s poem “Hushed Husks” brings the issue to a quiet, warm wrap.
Here’s hoping that the critical examination of food in its various avatars served in this edition of Café Dissensus will create an appetite for more reflections on building channels of conversation (and bridging conflicts) between food studies and food writing. You may reach out to the editor with your thoughts and observations at email@example.com.
I would like to dedicate this issue of Café Dissensus to my friend Saronik Bosu, an extraordinarily gifted home-chef, and presently a Doctoral Candidate in New York University. I embarked on this gastronomic journey with him. We’ve travelled a long way together: from the boti-kebabs at Ghalib in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, and paya-nihari in Purani Dilli, to steaming bowlfuls of Vietnamese phở in Brooklyn, and Venezuelan arepas in out-of-the-way food joints in Manhattan, New York City. There is more left to explore.
 ‘Sweet Shop’ by Amit Chaudhuri from his poetry anthology Sweet Shop published by Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd. In January 2019. This particular poem can also be read on The Guardian, 2 Feb 2019, ‘Poem of the month: Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri’
Somrita Urni Ganguly is a professor, poet, and award-winning literary translator. She was affiliated with Brown University, Rhode Island, as a Fulbright Doctoral Research Fellow. She is the editor of Quesadilla and Other Adventures: Food Poems (Hawakal Publishers, 2019), and has translated Dinesh Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Firesongs (BEE Books, 2019), Ashutosh Nadkar’s Shakuni: Master of the Game (Juggernaut Books, 2019), and Shankarlal Sengupta’s The Midnight Sun: Love Lyrics and Farewell Songs (2018). Somrita was selected by the National Centre for Writing, UK, as an emerging translator in 2016. She was invited as translator-in-residence at Cove Park, Scotland, in October 2017, and in December 2017 she was invited as poet-in-residence at Arcs of a Circle, Mumbai, an artistes’ residency organized by the US Consulate in Bombay. Somrita’s work has been showcased at the 2017 London Book Fair and has been published in Words Without Borders, In Other Words, and Trinity College Dublin’s Journal of Literary Translation, among others. Somrita has taught British literature to undergraduate and graduate students in Delhi and Calcutta, and has presented research papers at various national and international conferences in India, Singapore, UK, and USA. She has fourteen academic publications to her credit and is a recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Award (2013) and the Sarojini Dutta Memorial Prize (2011).
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.