Eating & Belonging: A Conversation
No Accounting for Taste
24 July 2012
I very-much like your subjective formulation of national identity – and the embrace or rejection of multiculturalism – as an expression of taste. It makes these notions matters of volition and aesthetics. And it fits nicely with Ruskin’s great aphorism: “Taste is the only morality. Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are.” I’m a big fan of any theory that puts the controls in my hands and places me as master of my own universe.
My sister and I once tried to do the same thing with the concept of race, arguing that racial identity was a function of personal preference. That experiment was going just fine, until researchers at Penn State, a school now more famous for pederasty than molecular biology, found the race gene. It becomes harder to argue against objectivity in the face of objective evidence. I suspect there is similar proof favoring the notion that national identity is a hard-cold-fact, not simply a cloak one can don or doff as dictated by one’s whims. Little things: like passports, which most customs officials seem to feel are definitive on the issue. Bigger things: like the fact that most of the world’s people don’t even have a passport, making the very suggestion of experiencing life in another nation crazy-talk. This tension between the hypothetical liberty of mobility and self-identification, and the actual constraints and indelible markings of external reality was at the essence of my poem, Homeland.
Still, our theory of race seemed (and still seems) correct in important ways and, as a theory, has retained a fair share of analytical usefulness even after being scientifically kiboshed. Your theory of belonging as an expression of taste has similar merit.
So, I’m all-for identity as a reflection of the amassing and spending of cultural capital. But there are natural restrictions well beyond the obvious limitations on opportunity. Discernment is also an important element. Some folks may be genuinely ambivalent as between a wood-fired pizza constructed from fresh, whole-food ingredients and, say, a frozen, microwaveable pizza. There is, as the saying goes, no accounting for taste. This is true even for those who fully understand and take-very-much-to-heart Bourdieu’s explication of taste, as you presented it. My father cared deeply about how he was perceived in matters of taste and style and understood the issue precisely as a matter of class. He enjoyed every advantage in gaining insight into these things, being well-traveled, deeply literate in many aspects of art and culture, reasonably affluent, and wickedly smart. And yet the man simply had no ability to discern beauty. As a consequence, his acquisitive nature has to be satisfied through the purchase of things and experiences validated by others. He was the perfect example of manifesting class pretensions, without actually succeeding in expressing tastefulness. His house was chock-a-block with exquisite (often famously exquisite) items, all of which looked like crap because they were thematically and aesthetically incoherent. My mother, on the other hand, was born and raised in small-town Kentucky with preternatural tastefulness that always seemed to be half-a-step ahead of her life experience. No wonder she made him crazy.
You and I were born into a privileged class of people at a special time in history. We are internationalists and live in a small world that is getting ever smaller, thanks to relatively inexpensive transportation and easy-as-pie global communications. We move in-and-out of countries and cultures with alacrity. We happen upon exotic things that delight us, which we incorporate into our lives without much fuss or effort. We also pick-and-choose our affectations from the global inventory, sometimes no more successfully than the furnishings of my father’s living room, but often in a way that gives genuine shine to the full promise of multiculturalism. My friend Alice Wu, who teaches at Cornell, calls folks like us “Global Nomads” and sees us as cultural “bridge-builders”. Her language invokes (for me alone, perhaps) the Jain Tīrthaṅkaras, with the similar implication that we are prophets-of-a-sort. I can’t quite see the philanthropy, however. We are not so much the agents of progressive multiculturalism as the beneficiaries. We play in the world of interesting cultures vastly more than we actually contribute to it.
Food, of course, is among the most accessible ways of playing across cultures – even without boarding a plane. Hence the question, “Shall we eat Thai or Italian tonight?”
On that score, I don’t buy your soft-peddled defense of Indian eating habits: that “Quite Possibly… there’s a generation or two ahead of us, or even around us, who’d not veer too far from the staple of an Indian diet.” Possibly? Indians are notoriously provincial in this way! A few years ago, two of my close friends were married in Madurai. It was a mixed marriage, he is American-raised Gujarati, she from Andhra stock long-established in Tamil Nadu. His NRI family were in an absolute tizzy, wondering how they were going to survive a whole week in Tamil Nadu, eating rice and sambar, deprived of rotla and shak. Think this panic attack was unique? Head down to Souvenir Travel on Mission Street in Pondicherry, which does good business planning European tours for wealthy Indians. The itineraries are determined not by the cultural attractions to be found in one-city-or-the-next, but by the logistics of moving the group from a dinner reservation at an Indian restaurant in Paris to a dinner reservation at an Indian restaurant in Vienna to a dinner reservation at an Indian Restaurant in Rome.
To be sure, Indians are no the only folks who tend to stick to the familiar. Yoo-Mi’s parents used to go on golf holidays with several other Korean couples in the southern United States, each of them carrying kilos of rice and kimchi in their baggage.
Leave our generation of global nomads out of this. As you amply demonstrate, we can’t even figure-out how to label ourselves. As a college friend from Korea says of Yoo-Mi’s Koreanness, “She’s not a real one,” despite the fact that she was born there and her parents’ carry-ons smell like garlic and fermented cabbage. You and I were raised in northern North America, countries comprised almost exclusively of diverse immigrant cultures; this compounds our receptivity to cultural cross-pollination considerably. India may be vastly multicultural in precisely the way your father joked; but those cultural threads are not so tightly interwoven, even if present within the same tapestry. This is particularly true with respect to the enjoyment of the culinary arts. Northern North America is quite a different bolt of cloth. Having little that is innate to itself, it is a fabric woven almost entirely on exotic warp. The intimacy of the intermingling makes rejection of cross-cultural influence a more strained, less natural outcome than the commonplace integration of exogenous traditions.
There’s another element that comes into play here: the practice of eating in restaurants. In Canada and the coastal regions of the United States, restaurants offer a way for people to eat from menus that they cannot or do not cook at home. Go to the Ethiopian restaurant near my house in Vancouver and there is not likely to be a single Ethiopian among the clientele. In most Indian cities – and I exclude, of course, the major metros, which have both more diverse Indian populations as well as a rapidly growing interest in exotic cuisines among younger people – not only will you not find an Ethiopian restaurant, you are not likely even to find one specializing in cuisine of the neighboring state or region. You and I eat rarely in restaurants, and can create dishes from almost any of the word’s cuisines in our own kitchens at-will. When you and I ask, “Thai or Italian?”, we execute the answer with our own hands. The food is to be consumed on our own familiar dishes, at our own comfortable tables. This dynamic has a de-exoticizing effect unavailable to many broadly-palated diners.
Pondicherry, our shared home, should be a much more interesting example of culinary multiculturalism than it actually is. A former French Colony, Pondicherry did not integrate into newly independent India in 1947 – that independence, after all, came from Britain – and remains part of an incoherent Union Territory, rather than a part of a full-fledged state. (Thankfully; but that is another discussion altogether.) While most of its population reflects its location deep within Tamil Nadu, it has long been home to families from all across India, as well as to European, American, and other foreign nationals. There are Reddys and Patels, Kotharis and Guptas, Patnaiks and Singhs, and all manner of Bhat. One would think that this mix would make Pondicherry a one-stop-shop for all manner of delicious Indian cuisines. No dice.
In a country where one seems constantly surrounded by delicious options with which to stuff one’s face, Pondicherry is an unfortunate aberration. It is almost impossible to get a decent meal anywhere in town, either at the grotesquely overpriced European restaurants or at the hotels serving fare from closer to home. There is a depressing sameness to the food. Lunch means thousands of kilos of biryani not worthy of the name being served at every street corner and restaurant. If you knew nothing of Tamil food other than from Pondicherry, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was exactly one recipe of sambar and one for rasam, neither of them very interesting. Pondicherry restaurants, benefiting from a relative proximity to the influences of Chetinad cuisine, somehow manage to make it all seem limited and boring. We are surrounded by fishing villages, yet all our decent seafood travels north to market in Madras and beyond.
Even our street food mostly sucks!
One can find astonishingly excellent bread at the European bakeries in Pondy and Auroville; but otherwise the foraging is utterly depressing. Why is it so hard to find food in Pondicherry that tastes as though it was cooked with love rather than expedience?
Charlie the Tuna may have been confused about the taste-thing, but the folks in Pondicherry are utterly oblivious.
Do you ever eat-out in Pondy? If so, where-oh-where do you go?
There were two Pondicherry eateries that genuinely thrilled me. Fish AND Fish was a small roadside stand by the canal, at the foot of Amber Salai, operated by the Women’s Fisherfolk Self-Help Group. It was open only in the evenings, but did an excellent assortment of fried and grilled fish, gravy-laden seafood dishes, assorted bhajis, and daily surprises. Sadly, neither the flimsy shack nor the enterprise survived last year’s cyclone. My other favorite still exists, but is a bit of a victim of its own success. This is a pushcart serving mutton soup and mutton samosas. For years it was a nightly fixture on the south side of the Khutba Palli Masjid; but three years ago it moved to the boulevard, across from the railway station. It’s still good, even though they guys are producing larger volumes of food, but the new location is unspeakably grim and horrifically mosquito-infested.
Let’s end this ramble on a happier note.
You asked about my go-to comfort foods. True to my cosmopolitan pretensions, they hail from all across the globe. Most of my cooking tends to be southern French or Northern Italian, and certainly a good cassoulet is as soothing to mind and body as food can be. Noodles are the universal comfort food, and a classic spaghetti Bolognese, a Vietnamese bun thit nuong, or a plate of hand-pulled lai mein works anywhere, anytime. On a cold night, nothing beats a good Korean stew, like a soon dubu chigae or a yuk gae jang. On a steamy Bombay afternoon, only pani poori will do. For breakfast, dim sum is the perfect start to any day. Pizza margherita is simply nature’s perfect food. And when the law finally catches-up to me, and the warden asks what I want for my last meal, it will have to be foie gras on toasted pain Poilâne, served with a glass of sauternes and a light salad.
Some of these dishes are my comfort food simply because, among my favorite meals, they have that ineffably soul-satisfying quality – a characteristic, incidentally that can somehow be appreciated even by one as soulless as me! But many of these dishes also call-up vivid, hard-wired memories of time-and-place – the Proustian madeleines of culinary infidelities past.