`Food and the cooking of food have been the source of some of the most powerful anxieties of my life.’
Margaret Drabble (Loaves and Wishes: Writers Writing on Food, Virago 1992)
Decades ago, I was invited by Virago to contribute to an anthology on food. The contributors, all women, included Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, Germaine Greer and many others. When the book came to me, my first feeling was of jubilation at seeing my name among such august writers. I was at the time just crossing the threshold and entering my writing career in earnest. Actually, when I received the invitation, I was very unsure what I would write about. I had never been interested in food and cooking. My mother, a good cook and a very competent one, did not welcome bumbling amateurs in her kitchen. I was allotted some tasks, of course, but all peripheral to cooking (like roasting the masalas). That was all. The result was that when I got married it was a great shock to me to understand that I was to be henceforth the cook of our family of two. That, if we were to eat, I had to cook. I woke up every morning with the fearful prospect of cooking looming over me, I was nervous when I began, a wreck at the end, having somehow managed to produce something.
How did other women manage? I had seen the women in my family, mother, aunts and others – all of whom proudly carried the badge of `a good cook’. Worse, I married into a family of women who were not just excellent cooks, but so competent that if unexpected guests turned up in the middle of the night, they could quickly produce a good meal. So I was told. Even the newly-weds I met seemed excited at the thought of cooking different dishes for their `he.’ Whereas I …
There was no doubt at all that I was a failure. Remember, I got married at a time when the word `feminist’ was not common currency in India, a time when patriarchy ruled and chauvinism was undisputed. It was regarded as an undeniable truth that the role of a woman was to stay at home, have babies, look after the kids and the home. And provide food for the family. This presumed that women were naturally endowed with a talent for cooking. Why then was I such a reluctant and bad cook? And why was my `he’ so interested in food, so enthusiastic about cooking? (Only at times, of course, not the everyday drudgery.) If cooking was, an art, as it is often supposed to be, it would be arbitrary and whimsical, not go searching for a person of the female gender. Yes, there were men who enjoyed cooking, but it was never to be taken seriously. And those who were serious became professionals. Not cooks, but chefs, wearing shining white caps, earning good salaries, and occasionally, even becoming celebrities. Any activity a man indulges in, I had begun to understand, was elevated to a higher level. Women cooking at home were taken for granted. This, in spite of the fact that women have been feeding people for ages, perhaps from a time beyond memory. A staggering fact. Yet nobody regarded women’s work as something to be celebrated. Even appreciation was hard to come by. `If I don’t say anything, it means it is good.’ How many women have heard these words?
Even worse, the image of a good woman was tagged on to the idea of a woman cooking. If you did not feed your family well, if you did not enjoy this process of feeding them, then you were not a good woman. Besides, a good woman was one who embraced self-denial. Earlier, women were the last to eat, they fed the men and children first, then, whatever was left, was for them. Even when the family ate together, as we did in my parental home, my mother, protesting that she had had enough, possibly deprived herself when something was insufficient. Not just this; the burnt chapati was hers, the broken jowar roti was hers, the cracked cup was hers, the dented and smallest plate was hers. I swore then that I would never make myself into a person whose needs were ignored by the world. I would respect myself and only then would the world respect me. Dr Johnson’s statement, ` … once you see a woman gluttonous, expect from her no virtue,’ reeking of prejudice, sexism, misogyny, and hypocrisy, should have warned women of the double standards, for Dr Johnson himself flaunted his gluttony. As for me, out of all the welter of my confused thoughts, one fact stood clear: cooking and food were driving me relentlessly into the welcoming arms of feminism.
Then motherhood came and all my theories flew out of the window. When my children got to the age of having likes and dislikes, I learnt to make what they wanted: chaklis and French toast, batata vadas and sabudana vadas, toasted sandwiches and modaks and fluffy omelets. But things changed; as they grew up, they preferred to buy food in the school canteen rather than take a packed lunch.
One of the most sensible statements made about food is by a writer, a woman, who lived over 300 years ago. This writer, Jane Austen, (I’m touching my ears as I write the name. If musicians can do this gesture for their gurus, why can’t a writer do it?) wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra: `I always take care to provide such things as please my own appetite, which I consider the chief merit of housekeeping.’
Not a trace of self-denial here.
But the writer I most envy is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote (they were living in Italy): `We get food from the Trattoria, with Chianti of a miraculous cheapness. So, there is no trouble, no cook, no kitchen.’
No trouble, no cook, no kitchen. Sounds like heaven. But Elizabeth Browning was a poet, a semi-invalid and a much-cherished wife; other writers had, still have to struggle to accommodate their writing within the hours left after household chores and looking after children is done. Plus, they might be having a job as well.
In her essay in the Virago anthology, Benoite Groult speaks of `one little phrase that has single-handed alienated more women from cooking than any feminist tract.’ The phrase is: what’s for dinner tonight? It seems to embody the monotony, the repetition, the never-endingness of cooking meals, which to me is the worst thing about cooking. My novel That Long Silence, took off from this. Jaya reading her old diaries, finds a woman whose life has been defined by the question: what shall I make for breakfast/lunch/dinner. Groult speaks of the need for women to undergo a long apprenticeship to egoism. After centuries of professing a `I don’t matter’ attitude, it will have to be a very long apprenticeship indeed.
In Joyce Carol Oates’ novel American Appetites, Glynis, a passionate and skilled cook and a food writer of rising repute, calls herself an amateur. The real professional in the family, she says, is her husband, a senior fellow in a prestigious institute. Yet there is a canker in her heart that he considers his world superior to hers, because hers is only food.
Only food. Yes, food and cooking are trivial matters because they are associated with women. Virginia Woolf (touching my ears again) who, one would have thought, would never descend to `the frivolous realm of the kitchen’ (Laura Shapiro, What She Ate) succinctly asserts the importance of food when she says, `One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well’. In Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate, she looks at the lives and personalities of six women through what they cooked, served and ate. The most interesting story is that of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Roosevelt (FDR). Shapiro calls theirs `a grand political partnership but a union of culinary discord.’ Their views about food were completely contrasting. FDR enjoyed good food, the best wines, convivial company. Eleanor, spartan and austere in her eating habits, often ate alone. The White House housekeeper at the time, Shapiro says, was the worst in White House history. She provided such execrable food that guests who were invited to dine at the White House had a small meal before going. Shapiro regards Eleanor’s providing bad food for FDR as an act of revenge for his affairs. Gives us a frightening picture of the power of a woman who controls the kitchen. Not surprising that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot always regarded the spouse as the first suspect.
Are things changing? Recently, I had a conversation with my grandson in Stockholm. After we had remarked on the coincidence of both of us making bhel that evening, he told me, rather regretfully, I haven’t made the green chutney. I couldn’t get coriander so I made only imli chutney. I was struck dumb. I had never made any chutneys in my life. Just the bhel – without even puris. My grandson had gone way beyond me. He spoke one day of `drizzling olive oil’ which would have left me clueless but for the fact that I watch Master Chef Australia. I enjoy watching the beautiful kitchen, the gleaming instruments, I enjoy the enthusiasm and competitiveness of the candidates. This was where I learnt about drizzling oil. What amazes me about these programmes is the emphasis on speed. Why is good cooking linked to speedy cooking? My mother-in-law had a stone jar in which she made the saaru. The stone retained the heat for a long time, the saaru continuing to simmer even after it was taken off the fire. The spices and the dal blend wonderfully together because of this, she told me.
What is saaru? This leads me to a question that has troubled Indian writers in English from the very beginning. What do you call saaru in English? In effect, how do you write about Indian food in English? For, what do dumplings and pancakes (words used to explain idlis and dosas) mean to Indian readers? Or, as I often ask myself, why is wok more understood than kadhai? Fortunately, globalization has helped to some extent, since Indian food has begun travelling in the world. Samosas, rotis, naan and so on are used freely everywhere. But the problem does not end there. India is a complicated country with each region having its own cuisine, the food names belonging to the language of the region. So saaru (I now come to it) is the Kannada word for a dal variety, quite spicy and a very watery consistency. Saaru enthusiasts – and there are many – enjoy drinking it on its own; they don’t mind burning their tongues and throats in the process. In Tamil, this is rasam. A word better known than saaru. There are many words for various preparations of dals in Kannada – huli, sambar kootu, tovey. Each is different. Now how are we going to make this understood by a non-Kannada reader? It is important to differentiate between these in a cook book. But in fiction, why explain? Leave it to the reader to find out or get the general sense of the word. I am thankful that I have never taken to the `dumplings and pancakes’ school of translating Indian food.
My story of food, like the stories we most love, has a happy ending. I no longer have a hostile relationship with cooking. I am learning the magic of spices, discovering which spices blend well together, learnt that grinding them coarsely brings out the flavor better, that jeera, that humblest spice, can be a hero (a Master Chef word) of any spice mixture. Above all, I have discovered that, despite the plethora of restaurants around us, despite the take-aways and the ready to cook/eat foods, nothing is as good as what you cook at home. A simple varan-bhath, with ghee and lime, tastes better than an exotic dish from a restaurant.