Eat to Live or Live to Eat: Reflections on Food Narratives | Adamas University

Food & Diet

Eat to Live or Live to Eat: Reflections on Food Narratives

Let’s begin this piece of writing with a scene that occurs in a popular Bengali movie, Golpo Holeo Sotti (1966) directed by Tapan Sinha. The movie offers us a glimpse of a Bengali middle class joint family, which remains constantly perturbed with innumerable problems. Anyway, that is a different issue. For the time being, I would like to draw your attention to the sooty, dingy kitchen space of this household, where two wives are striving hard to finish off their cooking. They have to serve their husbands before they leave for their respective workstations. These women are disgusted with their daily confinement in the claustrophobic kitchen space. They despise their daily monotonous household chores which otherwise remain unacknowledged. They always remain irritated with their position in the house. This scenario changes completely with the arrival of a man named Dhananjoy who exemplifies how cooking can be an act of pleasure and thus, seeks to transform the perspective of these women towards cooking.

            From a tangential reference to cooking as an art in the scenario of Bengali films like Golpo Holeo Sotti, there is a shift in films like Machher Jhol (2017) directed by Pratim D. Gupta where cooking occupies the centre stage. The film depicts the return of a culinary expert based in Paris to his ailing mother in Kolkata only to experience the toughest challenge in his entire career. His mother asks him to prepare an authentic machher jhol for her. The story and its twist entirely depend on the chef’s numerous experiments with machher jhol, and eventually his relationship with his family improves. Moreover, it is interesting to watch the evolution of the kitchen space and the slow movement of food from a topic of casual, peripheral interest to one of serious discourse.

            These two significant films rooted in two different time-frames act as crucial pointers to our understanding of the evolution of the discourse of food, food history and anthropology through which any kind of narrative on the culinary tradition of a community becomes a significant gateway to acquire knowledge about its socio cultural past.  The first anthology that comes to my mind is The Landour Cookbook (2001), a compilation of long lost recipes of the bakers at Landour (a cosy cantonment area near Mussoorie), edited by Ruskin Bond and Ganesh Saili. The book is not like any other recipe book. What is intriguing is that it contains a brief history of Landour when it was the “headquarter of the American missionary community in India, for about 100 years (1850 to 1950)” (Introduction 1). To add to that, the recipes, collected in the book, still bear the names of their owners. If you sift through its pages, you will come across some lip smacking recipes like Mrs. Strickler’s Chocolate Cake or Elma Hill’s Quick Cake. Nonetheless, it is not only the food, but also the names that would whet your appetite. Apart from the regular glossy cookbooks, that have a considerable amount of readership in the market, there is a repertoire of researched works on food history and anthropology, that deal with the interrelationship between food and various other discourses like colonialism, modernity and so on. Utsa Ray’s Culinary Culture in Colonial India (2015) serves as a significant instance that concentrates on the transmission and appropriation of several ingredients and recipes from the West in the social context of nineteenth century India, specifically Bengal. There is another category of works, which has also emerged and gained prominence. It is known by Food memoir. Madhur Jaffery recounts her childhood days in a fascinating food memoir, Climbing the Mango Trees (2005) where she very clearly depicts how each of her family recipes entails a story concerning the history, customs, rituals and even belief system of the family. As she tries to recreate her childhood days, her taste memory helps her recapitulating those less frequented alleys.

            With the gradual intervention of social networking sites in our daily lives, food photographers and food bloggers have furthered the glamorization of food, foodies, and all people related to the art of preparing and consuming food (yes, you heard it right, consumption of food, to make it simple, eating is also an art!!!). Some of us, who are facebook or insta addicts, do not miss single opportunity to update pictures of food and often live videos of cooking. Who knew before that a simple meal consisting of dal, bhat and alu posto (you don’t need to google for alu posto; it’s a popular dish among Bengalis, an explanation will spoil the sport. If you are really curious, you have to taste it) could fetch almost hundred likes?

A few months back I came across a book called Korma, Kheer and Kismet (2014) by Pamela Timms, a Scotttish journalist whose blog Eat and Dust is a treat to one’s eyes. Pamela has chiefly talked about the variety of cuisines available in Old Delhi. Her picturesque writing dwells on vivid details about exotic dishes like Daulat ki Chaat or Mr. Naseem’s Sheer Khurma, which, I believe, are completely unknown to most of us.

            For most of these bloggers, researchers and even the celebrity chefs like Ranveer Brar or Vineet Bhatia who host a number of food and travel shows (to name a few, Ranveer’s Himalayas: The Offbeat or Vineet’s Twist of Taste), food involves very precious, delicate, and subtle experience. You cook something; you lap it up, but the taste, the visual remains with you forever. Your taste memory often conjures up a host of other images; you associate a particular dish with a person who is no more or a place where you ventured at distant past. Food brings with it a legacy of taste and cooking that we often inherit from our ancestors (there is always a nostalgic yearning for mother’s magical touch) and pass it on to the generations to come.

Further Reading:

Pamela Timms. Korma, Kheer & Kismet. New Delhi: Aleph, 2014.

Ruskin Bond & Ganesh Saili, ed, The Landour Cookbook. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2001.

Madhur Jaffrey. Climbing the Mango Trees. London: Ebury Publishers, 2005.

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