Eating & Belonging: A Conversation
Back to conversation home + index…
20 July 2012
Why the attempt to redeem me by claiming me as “fundamentally Canadian”? But then also turning right around and reiterating the American epithet! And in that move, distinguishing me from Indian-Indians–or would it be Indian Indians? Never did I imagine I’d find authenticity hyphenated, but there you have it. In all this the only identity denied me is the one which I’ve never really been called, at least not outside of expert circles: Indian.
Let’s take that in stages. I’m Canadian only insofar as I (1) hold Canadian identity documents, (2) remain true to my love for Toronto as a city (in spite of having had more than my share of chances to explore at least some other great north American metros), (3) am an U of T alum, (4) deeply identify with Margaret Atwood’s “Progressive insanities of a pioneer,” and a few other poems from her Journals of Susanna Moodie, and (5) apparently still carry the accent with me when out and about.
Sufficient to establish fundamental ties?
I suppose it’s ironic that my burger-and-fries response was in some ways quintessentially American, but not in any caricatured or stereotypical sense–precisely in that “restless and ambivalent” tone that you offer as explanation for lack of fidelity to regional cuisines, and burgers and fries are anything but regional, these days at least. I can’t help but remember, way back when, staying on the strip at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, perhaps appropriately called “White’s City,” this middle-of-nowhere outpost to reach which we had to cross the expanse that is the great state of Texas. Practically the only food one could get at White’s City were burgers and fries. Or associated national park foods: chicken fried steak. Meager iceberg lettuce side salads. Chicken fingers. Potatoes. Cold sandwiches. Maybe a soup or two. Greasy, meat-based, probably frozen and easily resuscitated by a deep fry, by with not even many vegetables, let alone anything vegetarian. Lots of chips; lots of soda. Not great cuisine, indeed food that I would later come to realize smacked literally of Aramark. By the end of that blessed trip, we were craving, and I do mean craving,dal, rice, poriyals, yogurt, let me tell you. Prodigal children, desperate for home.
If we’d been a generation prior, a little less desirous of suave cosmopolitanism, or if we’d lived a little closer to our native longings, I suspect we’d never have ventured out across the Great State of Texas without a rice cooker, some pickle (not the cucumber dill variety, if I need to clarify, but the spiced mango/ lime/ gongura/ chilli versions), and pre-planned ideas about where to stop to buy plain yogurt. One can survive anything if one has thair-sadam [curd rice]. That was the logic I know my parents lived by, and the parents of so many others of my generation. Quite possibly, you’re right, there’s a generation or two before us, or even around us, who’d not veer too far from the staples of an Indian diet. That’s not just an Indian thing, mind: the Chinese, and at least a few other new immigrant communities, tend to move only reluctantly outside their native culinary bubbles. We’re willing to travel across the planet and take any number of risks personally and professionally, we’re even willing to cook meat while remaining ourselves vegetarian–but we reserve the right to be cautious, even slightly closed-minded [right word?], about the food that we consume ourselves. Something like that.
Two things. This practice is less and less definitive with each passing generation. Younger ones are natural cosmopolitans, who might well ask, quite naturally, “Should we eat Thai or Italian tonight?”–even though mom and dad are quite happy with idlis and thair-sadam at home. [Aside: I love how my word processor desperately wants to correct “thair-sadam” into “their sadam” at each instance. Even if it can’t figure out what “sadam” ultimately is.]
Which brings me, second, to the question of multiculturalism. My father used to joke, when we emigrated to Canada in the late 1980s, that the country seemed just to be discovering multiculturalism, whereas we (Indians) had been multiculturalist all along. Then a teenager and prone to mechanically rejecting anything my parents said, I rolled my eyes, of course. But in this year of turning fourty, I’m more inclined to think that there is something more to his jocular seeking-pride-in-heritage formulation. I know my father was referring to the fact that we’ve lived, with considerable success, with so many different sorts of communities and cultural practices sans a unified political theory on how to deal with our differences [and here are people in developed societies going on and on about such things!?]. But I’d suggest also that it’s a matter of taste.
Bourdieu tells us that taste is the product of status competition. Good taste is a matter of distinction: distinguishing and (therefore) conferring honor. “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (1984: 6). Class-ifies–for class distinctions, grounded not so much in economic wealth as in cultural capital, are the natural result.
The point is that my parents’ generation sought a class-ification based on distinction, because distinction cordoned off, and protected, spaces of honor and self-worth. They needed their homes to be the clearly marked spaces of identity precisely so that they could set forth and get out into the world–to reproduce the core of a now-famous argument developed by historian Partha Chatterjee. We, on the other hand, were born in the world already, hyphenated at birth: Indian-American, Indian-Indian, or other variants thereof. Lots has been written about identity hyphenations, so I shan’t rehash those tired lines here, but will say (1) that I think it a crying shame that not much has been written at all of the sort of community my father represents, the sort that left India but could never stay away permanently, and whose trajectories irrevocably lead them back, about the sort of community whose identities could never be hyphenated, even though they so did try. And (2) that our hyphenations bespeak a cosmopolitanism that is the cause for the “restless ambivalence” of which you speak. We’ve gone and rejected class. We’ve rejected some of the fundamental premises of cultural distinction–that older, more hierarchical model of multiculturalism without a political theory of multiculturalism. And so you catch us craving thair-sadam after camping trips to outposts like White’s City, and wishing desperately for other cuisines when returned with a bump to home, family, India–and curd rice.
A friend and I had a good laugh the other day about our parents’ insistence that we come home, however far we roam, for curd rice. It is, after all, a meal that can so-easily be prepared, on short notice. The answer to long days of heavy “outside food” and restless cosmopolitanism that surely takes its toll. Reminders of core values, of self, of taste: distinction and that which satisfies the palate. Never mind that we’re craving thai green curry, or the ambience of the Park Sheraton, or that we really didn’t find the burgers we had for lunch either too light or too heavy. Thair sadam is what it’s all about–and what we want so urgently to escape from, given the opportunity to escape. Our cosmopolitanism is a critique of taste, even as taste sustains us as cosmopolitans.
My parents, the generation and cultural sensibility they represent, never suffered such switches. They just carried their thair-sadam with them everywhere they went. It’s not that they weren’t multicultural. It’s that their’s was a multiculturalism based–sometimes unabashedly, sometimes hesitantly–on a theory of distinction.
I don’t know what this says about North American proclivities to culinary infidelities. But as an every-bit-Indian-Indian, I know it makes me want to have my burgers and fries–and eat my thair-sadam, too.
Do you have equivalent choices? What’re the foods of your restlessness–if not of your ambivalence?
Previous entry: You Are Having One American Nature Only, I am Telling You (Mark) 16 July 2012
Next entry: No Accounting for Taste (Mark) 24 July 2012