Appetizer + Soup
In an earlier post on Feminism and Cooking, I spoke about the layered relationship we share with food and the people associated with feeding us: Mom’s love is tied up the food she cooks for her children. In this post, I want to explore our feelings towards food, once we have consumed it.
In my traditionally conventional Indian household, I observed that a “waste plate” would always be placed alongside our dinner plates and serving bowls. The plate, an innocuous plastic dish, had only one stand-out feature: it faded into the background of the steel utensils, gleaming cutlery and china plates. The plastic dish served the purpose of holding the remains of our food. The chewed bones left off from goat curry, the succulent bits of chicken legs ripped bare off its fried flesh, the stubborn fat that refused to dissolve from the meat, the unwanted curry leaves, the pasty remains of tamarind, the squeezed-out pulpy remains of drumsticks — all this was flicked with neat precision into the waste plate.
The gory part came afterwards. Once the plate was piled high with waste, and we were done burping and licking our fingers, someone had to pick the plastic dish and toss the contents into the bin. My brother and I were filled with disgust: chee, we said, whenever mom would ask us to carry the plate to the kitchen. “Chee” , as in “Yuck!” “Gross!” “Disgusting!” A plate that held all our “waste” would certainly not be handled by our clean hands! It would either be mom or dad who handled that chore and we were happy to cart the utensils, spoons and dinner plates to the sink. That was how we “helped mom”. We were good kids like that.
Years later, now that I am married and have a family of my own, I am responsible for serving food and yes, taking care of that innocuous little “waste plate”. It’s not my burden to take it to the dustbin, dump the contents – with my bare fingers – and clean the morsels or pickings of rice, curry leaves, whole pepper, or chewed but spat-out green chillies that dot the table (sometimes) or floor mat (usually) we sit on. I had to consciously work out the disgust from my face and gestures in the process of taking over the task of cooking, serving and clearing the remains of the day.
In traditional families, it’s the woman who is expected to serve and clear away the table, and while I co-habited with my parents-in-law for a few weeks, I was expected to uphold this tradition. It was the toughest and quickest lesson for me in overcoming disgust. From never having cleared the waste plate in my maternal home to having to clear the plates off my new, extended family. I had to display a fierce need to clear away the waste, there by proving that I had adopted the new family as my own – bones, curry leaves and spat-out seeds included.
This made me think. The “this” being the ritual of waste plates and food clearance. Why was I so put-off by the idea of handling the waste plate and inadvertently touching the juiced-out bone? An obvious reason is pathological: the mind operates with extreme caution when it comes into contact with external body fluids: semen, saliva, blood, phlegm, and mucus. From an evolutionary standpoint, these fluids are all mediums for transmission of disease-causing germs and pathogens; it’s instinctive to shy away from potentially life-threatening things. See: The Omnivorous Mind: John S Allen (Harvard University Press; and Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics: Caroline Korsmeyer (Oxford University Press).
Within a span of 30 minutes, food that was once hot, tasty and appealing turns into waste, something to be handled with reluctance, disgust or distaste, and disposed off as far from the site of consumption. No visual pointers remain to remind us that the stale leftovers and foul residue was once licked right off our collective forks and fingers.
Another reason is socio-cultural. In most cultures, traditional or modern, the cooking and serving of food is handled by women. Popular culture portrays women as bustling about in the kitchens and taking extra pains to ensure that food courses, tableware and seating arrangements are impeccable. Once food is eaten, the men simply push the plates away from their self, throw down the napkins, rise up and wash off their hands. The act of rinsing, sometimes aided by the women, kids or household help / maids, signaling the final frontiers of their association with food.
As a child growing up in a Muslim household, with plenty of relatives visiting us for weekly feasts and sit-down dinner celebrations, I learnt that men join in the activity of cooking only as consumers. The women had to cook, serve and clean. Since waste was never handled by the men in my family, I also began to associate it with disgust. If you didn’t have to handle waste, you were high up in the pecking order.
Back home, alone with my husband, the honor of clearing the waste plate falls on both of us, mostly. I have learnt a nifty trick to avoid post-dinner clearance: Once I am done with eating, I take hold of both our dinner plates by the right hand and the rice or curry vessel in the left, leaving the husband to balance the water jar on his left hand and the still-plastic-in-character waste plate by the right. Notice the fact that “waste” is held by right hand – used to eat food — and the same will be used to clear the waste into the bin, and then you wash that right hand thoroughly with Lifebuoy Liquid Soap, of the pink colored variety (for soft and gentle hands). This saves you from having to dip the left hand under the running water of the tap and wasting extra squirts of the Liquid Soap on a hand that was otherwise not required in the ritual of fine dining.
In the time that I was an undergrad student studying History, Literature and Psychology and up until the time of my marriage, I had turned from a staunch meat eater to a Vegan. It only took me about 10 minutes, following my History professor’s reading out in class of Maneka Gandhi’s seminal book to know that I would never be able to touch meat again. Or any food item or product that came from an animal, for that matter. I had become a Vegan.
I switched to wearing jute slippers and carrying a jute sling bag; wore pure cotton tunics; threw out Colgate and got a Miswak (100% Vegetarian toothpaste); and gave up my beloved cheese-chocolate-cream-goodies troika of heaven. Camera reel contained fish bone powder, so I gave up my photography hobby and regular soap contained animal fat, so I switched to vegetarian soaps such as Medimix. The motto was to cut out the excesses of daily consumption and rely on what was strictly necessary for a decent life.
Ethical eating and ethical living is a highly subjective issue; it’s impossible to pick sides and declare judgement on the other camp (meat eaters, eggitarians, et al). But there are several communities that take the credo of co-existence with nature and non-violence to a heightened degree. The Jaina community, for instance, have strict prescriptive regulations pertaining to not just diet, but also to the very act of breathing. Read More on their Way of Life.
A very interesting point about their diet revolves around the belief that all organisms – including plants – are sentient beings that will feel pain when they are harnessed, to consume as food, for instance. Plucking vegetables, shoots and roots from the earth causes harm to more than just the plant; it also impacts the micro-organisms that thrive on the vegetation, killing them in the process. Therefore, strict adherents of the Jaina code of conduct have specific directions to pluck, clean, cut, cook, and serve food. Now, here comes the most interesting part, the remains of the meal.
Jainas don’t leave behind any waste on their plate, no food morsels or tidbits, not even their saliva, as they believe that sentient life can take birth in the saliva and by a conscious act, they cannot be responsible for its birth and death. (Bhagavati Aradhana – Gatha Nos. 781-937).
What an excellent way to navigate through the excesses of modern day consumption and waste generation, while maintaining a simple (no doubt difficult) way of life that’s in harmony with the world around. Of course, eating vegetables does involve harm to the plants, but according to Jaina beliefs, this involves the least amount of violence necessary to sustain human life. The conviction that we need to consume only as much as is required, and not as much as we desire supersedes all sensual (of the senses) stimuli.
Usthad Hotel is a Malayalam-language film (2012) and revolves around the love affair of Indians with Biryani. Well, that’s not all the movie is about. The film weaves into its narrative the love for well-cooked food, the disparities between the rich and poor of our country, food wastage, poverty, and also, the overarching idea that there is grace in feeding someone, when you cook and serve food that “not just fills someone’s stomach, but also their hearts”. Grace that comes out of love.
The movie is supposedly based on a true-life incident of a top-notch Indian chef who worked in a five star hotel years ago. One morning, while driving to work, the chef caught a glimpse of a poor, street dweller sitting on the side of the road. What he saw made the chef wretch: the poor man was eating his feces! The chef decided to get out and ask the man why he was doing such an abhorrable thing and the man replied: I am Hungry.
The chef had a life-turning moment. Working in a five-star hotel where food is treated as a luxury item to be ordered, bit into and disposed off, here he was confronted by poor people who had nothing to survive on, not even water, and had no means to take care of themselves. Their survival itself was doubtful. The chef quits his job and starts a food-donation organization, cooking meals to feed the poor.
Watching the film, interspersed though it was with songs, dance, romance, and parent-child drama, shook me up. I had given up my Vegan life 5 years ago, and had resumed a life of excess. Cooking extra quantities of meals in a day, only to dispose it off in the garbage at night is a regular affair at home. Consuming “Happy Meals”, 1,500 Rs gourmet-meal-for-two, storing the leftovers in the fridge and giving away three-day old curries to the maid is normal. It’s the way of life for not just me and my family, but for millions of households in India. There is something alarming in a world where we don’t feel anything about kids dying routinely for not being able to get three chapatis, two bowls of rice and three cups of lentils in a day. There is something scary about a world which allows an old man to eat his own feces.
After Dark: Mint
This brings me back to the premise of this post: waste and disgust and the rather complex relationship we share with food and its remains. We need to teach ourselves to view food as something beyond a plateful of desire or a commodity of consumption. Bones and shells, unpalatable and non-chewable items will be a part of the menu for most of us, but what is waste for some, is a luxury for millions of others. How many of us have seen poor people scrounge around in the municipal waste bins of the street for that rotten, half-eaten banana, or for curries that are disposed off in takeaway containers. While this might sound abhorrent to many, here’s something I have begun doing recently: there are times when I am unable to physically go to a poor person and give them the remains of my daily meals. Or if there is an excess amount of food in the fridge and the maid doesn’t take it, my only option is to throw it away. So, I place this in a plastic bag or disposal box and throw it in the garbage anyways. Because, I know for certain that when my rubbish is dumped in the bigger utility bins, it will find a stomach to feed. Crazy logic? You need to think about that poor man in the movie who was reduced to eating worse than this.
So, this is a pledge. A Pledge to be the change that I want to see around me. A pledge to begin cutting down the excesses of / in my life. I want to redefine the credo of “less is more” to mean “less is more than enough.”
Dear Readers, do you have any food-related habits you would like to change? Share your stories of excess in the comments below and also help with the Reading List.
By Nilofar Ansher