Food “values” define who I am. They have earned me friends and enemies, won me admiration and criticism. And just to be clear, when I say food “values” I don’t mean finishing everything on my plate or trying every dish on the table. No. I am referring to something much more deep, innate, and cultural.
Growing up in India, the adults were always obsessed with food – not what they ate but what others ate; what would they feed their family, friends, the pushcart vendor, the traveling salesperson, and whoever else crossed their path that day? This obsession made no distinctions – it afflicted the rich in their mansions, the poor in their shacks. It preyed on those who made millions and those who made $20 a month.
As a liberal, liberated, modern youngster I mocked this food-obsession. Such gluttony, narrow-mindedness, I thought.
It took me a long time to fully understand what food really meant to Indians – a tool to communicate with the world, build friendships and communities. I realized that more often than not, a person’s willingness to share food reflected their generosity (or lack of it).
An unexpected visitor was never made to feel unwelcome. You first greeted the visitor. Then you offered water. Then you offered food – lunch at lunchtime, dinner in the evening and a snack in between. If the visitor refused, you offered again just to assure that you meant it, you really wanted them to eat.
It wasn’t unusual for our cook to pull me aside before a dinner party with a warning, “I couldn’t get enough okra and the curry may not be enough. So don’t eat any tonight. If it is left over you can have it all tomorrow.” I didn’t touch the okra curry and it didn’t occur to me to sulk. I knew it happened in every household no matter what its financial and social status.
I followed these food rules, unquestioningly, subconsciously, though I broke them once in a while and was forgiven immediately. There was one time, though, when I digressed so much that I got a talking to from my parents, my babysitter, the cook, the maid, several aunts and uncles. It happened like this.
I was 12 (so old enough to know) and returned home ravenous, expecting dinner on the table. But dinner was not on the table and my mother explained it would be a little late because the cook was serving a group of contractors who had been trying to fix a leak in the drinking water tank all day. It was past seven and they had not eaten since breakfast and had to be fed first. My mother suggested I have a fruit.
I didn’t have a fruit because I didn’t. Instead, I walked into the kitchen, made a plate for myself and ate my dinner, alone. Everyone was livid – not because I had eaten alone or fixed my plate, but because I had eaten before the workers had. “They were far hungrier than you,” my dad scolded. “It is terrible manners to eat before you have fed people who have been working in your house all day.”
Looking back, it was a basic life-lesson in giving – to sacrifice something you wanted and loved (like okra curry) so others could have it.
When I left India in my early 20s for England, I had a single suitcase and plenty of “baggage.” I could not leave behind my Indian-ness, most importantly my food sensibilities. If I was cooking and one of my five roommates in the student housing where I lived asked what I was making, I offered a taste. If they liked a certain dish, I made more of it so we could share.
I did the same when I came to the United States to go to graduate school. Unlike in England, people here were more curry-wary but if they had the courage to try one, I was filled with admiration. When they refused, I felt rejected. It wasn’t a rejection of my cooking but of my culture, my sensibilities, my openness. It made me indignant. I was of vegetarian philosophy and if I could accept people eating a cadaver at the table, why couldn’t they accept different spicing and flavor?
I didn’t mind if they tried a dish and hated it, but I felt hurt when they rejected it outright, saying they weren’t hungry. There is more graciousness in accepting than in offering, I wanted to shout.
When I married I offered everyone who passed through my home food – the plumber, the electrician, the gardener. (I even offered a Jehovah’s Witness, who was trying to convert me, a smoothie after I’d spent fifteen minutes at the door shredding Christianity to bits; I believed she would need the energy if she happened to meet more people like me on her rounds that day).
Some looked at me surprised, some refused, some accepted. Some (men) looked at me as if “do you want some lunch?” was a code phrase for something else. I kept the ones who accepted, got rid of the others. I wondered why they didn’t want my food. Did they think I would poison them? Were they worried I would kill them with my spices? Was it because they simply did not want to feel obligated?
When my offers for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee were turned down, I finally understood that a lot of it was just being professional. You didn’t accept offers of food and drink at a house you were hired to do a job in. This was so far removed from my upbringing that it took me a while to get used to. Coming from a country where you are considered rude, selfish, uncultured, if you don’t welcome visitors with food and beverage, I had to re-calibrate and stop doing what I had been taught to do.
However, I still haven’t let go of my food sensibilities, insecurities, and eccentricities completely. I let Jehovah’s Witnesses and door-to-door sales people off the hook but no one else. The gardener knows, now, to never say no when I offer to get him coffee and donuts. He knows I will get them anyway. The plumber actually asks me to make masala chai if I am home.
My heart fills with joy when a friend or neighbor asks me for a bite to eat or something to drink. I love it when some of our non-Indian friends come over, have a meal with my family, and then pack up leftovers to take back home with them. At a recent party I threw, my neighbor’s family couldn’t make it. He came over, ate and asked me what I was going to give him to take back for his wife and boys. My heart, at that moment, filled with joy, not because he was endorsing my cooking, but because he was endorsing me – my background, my culture, who I was, my love for his family. He was accepting me, unconditionally. (Of course, I was so drunk I ended up giving him uncooked rice by mistake and sent frantic texts the next day telling him to cook the rice).