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April 17, 2013

Fodder For The Family

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

Sharing daily recipes or gastronomic revelries is more than just palate-pleasing talk. It’s all about keeping in touch with your family – for food and love have been forever linked, opines Madhu Jain

Every morning each summer during the two months that my grandmother stayed in Shimla she used to telephone her sister in Delhi. My naani was quite a formidable matriarch; age had not withered her voice, nor weakened her determined stride. Nevertheless, back then in the days when telephones were huge and heavy black contraptions that you had to shout into, her voice was barely audible all those miles down in the plains. Inevitably, the conversation that the neighbours on both sides of her house could hear was about which daal the two of them were cooking for lunch that day. The menus of the respective homes discussed threadbare, the two sisters would then proceed to enquire about their respective family members – one by one and name by name – to the last grandchild.

These trunk calls provided fodder for many jokes for the younger members of the family. Didn’t our grandmother have anything better to talk about long distance than the menu or plat de jour: was it going to be moong or masoor ki daal or urad ki daal – washed or whole? Little did I realise then that these sisterly chats were not really about food. They were about family. Come to think of it, today even a cursory cruise through Facebook reveals an obsession about food. They write about dishes they have eaten, what they plan to eat, what they have cooked, restaurants they have gone to, posted photographs of dishes, even the ingredients and cooking utensils they use. Facebook foodies also seek advice on social networking sites for recipes and recommendations for good restaurants. Photographs of their pets, children, and families have been elbowed out—slowly replaced by these images, which for want of a better word can be described as food porn. But then that is another story. Well, column.

Many may have considered the posting of gastronomic revelries the trendy thing to do. The mushrooming shows about food in which masterchefs have become the new idols and competing chefs behave like gladiators in an arena are probably the triggers for this rash of amateur food writers. Perhaps in our age peopled by anorexics, diet faddists and startlingly thin models and actresses who look like Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, not to speak of the people next door (even the once portly aunty or uncle who has magically shed all the rolls of fat), these fantasies about food are the prevailing guilty pleasures. Is food the tantalising apple of our times? After all, the much-quoted proclamation of Wallis Simpson, the late Duchess of Windsor – “You can never be too rich or too thin” – increasingly holds sway. Look around; it is not so much the beautiful and the damned but the thin and the rich if you go by the Page 3 habitués. Just count the painfully thin women with oversized diamonds and beauty salon-enhanced hair who strut about with their Bottega handbags or the seemingly unbranded bags which only those who can afford will know about. Actually, their bags enter a room before they do, perched on the wrists of their arms which are stretched out in front to make a grand entrance. The thinnies are the haves of today, the biggies the have-nots.

I digress. What I really want to discuss is the need and the underlying motives behind the ubiquitous food fantasies. The impulse is more about sharing than being just the latest cool box to tick. Plus ça change… After all, my naani was really doing much the same thing, only in her way and according to her rules. Karan Johar’s motto – it is all about loving the family – was for her and others in her generation all about feeding the family. Today, it might be about feeding – albeit virtually – the Facebook family. Actually, you can’t escape family – the need for it, nor the joys and frustration it may bring. We keep writing off the joint family and to some extent even the nuclear family. But family never dies. Stubborn and resistant it just comes back in different avatars. We grow up and move away, often to another city or continent: the Indian diaspora continues to grow and multiply, spreading across all the continents. But we end up forming different kinds of family. Friends, especially the growing tribe of singletons, became the new family during the last decades of the last century. So, what did the members of this surrogate extended family do when it met over the weekends and holidays for pot luck evenings: they ate together and, often, talked about what they would eat during the next ‘family’ reunion. You would think that the number of cars and people on the road would be drastically reduced on Sundays – that weekly day of prescribed rest. Alas, not true: Sunday as psychoanalyst-writer Sudhir Kakkar once memorably put it when I was researching an article on the changing joint family: Sunday is joint family traffic. There they were families packed into cars going across town for their weekly lunches with parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. One of the basic requirements of the traditional joint family was a common kitchen. Presumably, those who ate together stayed together. More and more families no longer share a roof but they do end up breaking bread together. The late actress Jennifer Kapoor used to insist that her husband Shashi Kapoor and their three children eat breakfast together every day – no matter how late any of them had returned home the previous night. It was one meal that all of them could share.

Food and love have, of course, always been linked. I can’t forget the image of my naani, sitting in the courtyard hunched over a cauldron. There were visitors, usually extended family, dropping in unannounced. If the food ran out, my grandfather would go to the market to buy vegetables. Like an eternal gas flame, the cauldron was forever bubbling over.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to call my sister who lives about 14 kilometres away. Our daily morning conversation: what we had for breakfast, lunch in the afternoon and dinner the previous night. Bon appétit.

MADHU JAIN, EDITOR, IQ , THE INDIAN QUARTERLY, IS AN AUTHOR AND A JOURNALIST. SHE ALSO CURATES ART SHOWS.

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