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A Moveable Feast

An Intimate Affair

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Are we trading a long-term relationship with food for instant gratification?

ARE WE LOSING our relationship with food? A friend asked at our weekly adda in the friendly neighbourhood cafe. What do you mean, I asked. While I was growing up in Calcutta, she said, we had different kinds of food—club food, Park Street food, food at the Mehtas and so on. We would watch movies all night and one of my brothers would say ‘Let’s have paneer makhani from...’—she rattled off a name which I do not remember now—and he would drive off to get it. You knew the taste, the flavour and precisely what you would experience from eating the dishes from each of these places. You developed a relationship with that taste from that place. Now restaurants are a dime a dozen. You order paneer do pyaza or biriyani or pasta, and you can’t connect the taste to just one restaurant. We go to some new Chinese restaurant or a new French bistro in Aerocity or whichever is the next happening spot, but I just cannot remember the taste of the dishes I have sampled there, she said. I agreed with her. What she was alluding to is the sense of sameness that infects our experience with chasing after thrills, and not giving it the time to develop. The sameness is akin to an in-flight movie. You may spend every second watching films when you are in an aeroplane, but when you disembark, can you remember the name of the film or even the story? I certainly can’t, despite having a very good memory.

In essence, what my friend was asking was this—are we trading a long-term relationship for the instant gratification and excitement of experiencing newness? A relationship requires time and repeated actions such as ordering the same dish each time one goes to a place. Chicken à la Kiev in the Kashmir lounge, paneer kulcha and mulligatawny soup at the Bar, fried fish and chips at the India International Centre, or a chocolate sundae at Nirula’s. A sense of comfort develops from these repeated excursions, and with comfort comes connectedness and belonging. Relationships are important because they respond to our anxiety and need to belong, one of five basic needs (others being physiological, safety, esteem and self-actualisation) required for reaching one’s full potential according to social psychologist Abraham Maslow.

While industrial culture tends to view reality as a collection of things rather than a web of relationships, the peculiarity of our internet-obsessed age is that we dupe ourselves into thinking that we are constructing relationships when in reality, we are simply creating a collection of things—photos you post on social media, comments you make that you wish you had not, and the many things you ignore because the deluge is relentless. With food too, we follow a similar pattern. When we reduce food to a thing, we fall into the trap of following fads— eat cereal every day and you will reduce your cholesterol, have superfoods and you will be disease free, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and so on.

In 1940, Sir Albert Howard published An Agricultural Testament where he argued that the problems we experience in food and health are directly connected to a failure in soil management. It was the return of wastes to the soil that ensured proper levels of humus in the soil, whose effect on human health, he said, was nothing short of profound. Sir Albert is reminding us that health is a product of engaging in these relationships in a food chain.

Think of the pills and drops sold by companies touting a holistic or natural way of creating immunity from diseases. Eat a tablespoon of aamla murabba every day and you will stave off diabetes, says one company run by a godman. Note though, that the preservative used for the ‘natural and holistic’ murabba is sodium benzoate. Or drink a concoction of protein powder or pop those multi-vitamin pills of pharmaceutical conglomerates and you can live on junk food. In In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan reminds us that we live in an age of nutritional anxiety where many of the chronic diseases that kill us today can be traced to the industrialisation of food—to highly processed and refined grains, to the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures, and to a narrowing of the biological diversity in the human diet to a handful of staple crops: wheat, corn and soy in the West.

Relationships are important because they respond to our anxiety and need to belong, one of five basic needs required for reaching one’s full potential according to social psychologist Abraham Maslow

Here, in India, we too are walking along a similar path to nutritionism where advances in science are used to break down the food into its component parts and recreate that food with enhancements of vitamins, proteins, etcetera. ‘Low-cholesterol’ eggs are sold in my local grocery shop, as are low sugar potatoes (called diabetes potatoes). These ‘advances’ have meant that food is seen as a thing to be taken apart and recomposed, ignoring the ecological web of relationships within which food is ensconced, which Pollan’s book focuses on. That perhaps is a reason for the explosion in diets, nutrition-related pages in magazines, newspapers and on the internet, and in the popularity of restaurant reviews.

But let’s look at the psychological aspect of losing the relationship with food, of treating food as a thing rather than as a network. Or put another way, what do we gain by thinking of food as an essential part of our sensory and memory creation? Those of us who re-read books know that in each reading, you are viewing the story through your present context and connecting with it in a different way from how you did in the past. By returning to the same book in adulthood, you link the ‘you of today’ with the ‘you of the past’. The relationship you forge through re-reading is an individual one—it is between you and the way you respond to the story. The problem is that our connection to food has moved from an individual experience to one mediated by other things such as social anxiety, and a compulsion to be at the head of the fashion herd that roams the cities in search of the next thrill.

In our anxiety to improve our health and stave off the diseases caused by the breakdown in these food networks, we turn to pseudoscience that offers a bewildering and often contradictory range of solutions. Pollan is right that we have moved from food culture (where traditional cooking styles and combinations of dishes created a lunch or a dinner) to food science (eat only red meat, be vegan, etcetera) and we are not better off for it. Think of roughage—it could be seen as waste and discarded, like when you peel an apple or remove the fibre encasing an orange segment, but remember, you are also discarding the function it plays in giving the eaters a sense of fullness so that they don’t eat too much, and also in helping the digestive process.

Establishing a relationship does not mean that you go to the same place and eat the same dish each time you decide to eat out. Well, you could if you want to, but what creating a relationship involves is a recognition that your response to a dish or a place is caused by a balance of a network of elements which include familiarity, taste, surroundings, recipe and company. That’s what your memory stores, and that’s how a relationship is forged.

I had a memorable dinner at a friend’s place, where one of the dishes that lodged itself in my memory was scallops in a vermouth-infused fish stock reduction. The next time we went over for dinner, being peak summer, fresh scallops were not available in the market. This time, among other delicious dishes (tuna tartare with delicate wisps of ginger, and a divine foie gras) she served a Turkish ravioli (manti) filled with goat’s cheese, potato and onion in a garlic yoghurt tempered with paprika oil, so delicate in its taste that it was whisked away by my memory to sit alongside the scallops. What my memory was responding to was Cordon Bleu-trained Diya’s exquisite and respectful way of combining the ingredients, of her joy in preparing the dishes, her meticulous eye for detail and balance, and her delight in watching us eat and savouring it. You could argue that trying a new dish or a new restaurant could create a place for that experience in your memory. Sure, but you would have to repeat that experience to build a relationship with that memory.

Flitting constantly to the next ‘happening’ restaurant or bar signals an absence, a void in our relationship with food. As one friend who lives alone said, the medhu vada and dosai or the tofu sandwiches he eats there give him a sense of home. The waiter or waitress who knows you, and knows that you like the bread to be well toasted or the vada has to be piping hot. You bite into the crisp vada, and who knows, you might even experience a Proustian epiphany.

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