Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Of Sexist, Political and Emotional Food

This week: The sexist origins of vegetarian Bengali cuisine, bakers in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and finding a home in tea.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

This column often circles back to the theme of food. It’s probably because the appreciation of good food and drink is ubiquitous but discussions about its social, political, economic and cultural implications usually aren’t. Another aspect that makes food especially interesting to me is how emotional we can be about it – the food we eat, the beverages we drink are all woven into the very fabric of our lives, so it makes sense that most of us attach strong importance to them yet it can be hard to articulate exactly what makes chai so comforting to us or why we remain perpetually nostalgic about the food of our childhood.


‘The Sad, Sexist Past of Bengali Cuisine’

Both the physical and the emotional labour that goes into our food is often hidden from us. Credit: Kannan B/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“When we ask where our food comes from, it’s usually more about the people and not what they’re feeling—their joys, their disappointments, and whatever mess exists in between. Sitting at the table and eating food from someone else’s hands affords you the privilege of not knowing the effort, be it minimal or extreme, it took to get to you. You’re relieved of the burden of even having to think about any of this; it’s hard to taste someone else’s grief.”

Mayukh Sen, a food and culture writer at Food 52, explores the rarely discussed history of how vegetarian Bengali cuisine came to be. For centuries, high-caste Bengali women were subjected to severe social and dietary restrictions once widowed, which forced them to come up with innovative ways of cooking vegetarian food.

Sen explains that “widowhood made a woman’s sex drive fickle and vulnerable. A woman’s libido was a site of such agita that she couldn’t be trusted to keep it quiet, and so her body needed to be governed.”

After her husband passed away, a woman’s culinary sphere shrunk to the bare minimum, if not less. Sen notes that this alienation wasn’t just meant to act as a ‘hormonal suppressant’ but some also believe that these dietary restrictions were imposed to ‘induce malnutrition, prescribing an early death sentence’ for widows. After her husband died, a woman would:

“…eliminate onion and garlic, alliums thought to conjure sexual energy, from her diet. She would stop eating red lentils for the same reason—these were, apparently, edible pulses as potent as aphrodisiacs. She would stamp out meat and fish, staples of cooking in Paschim Dinajpur, and stick to a rigorously strict vegetarian diet. She would be restricted to one meal a day, mid-day. At night, she would have puffed rice, khoi, with milk.”

Women like Sen’s great-grandmother, who was widowed at an early age, had no choice but to be resourceful with the scraps of food, all vegetarian, that they were meant to survive on. What resulted as a cuisine full of delicious dishes like “mochar ghonto, a dry curry made with banana flower, or echorer tarkari, a gravy prepared with jackfruit.” Their suffering gave rise to food that everyone could enjoy, and so effectively these widows’ families and communities accrued the benefits of their marginalisation.

Sen is careful to acknowledge that the experience and history he’s recounting is not the sole narrative of what happened, or even one that can be generalised for all widows in Bengal. This practice was specific to the sub-set of high-caste Hindu women, in the particular region that his great-grandmother belonged to. But as he says, “The specificity of this practice doesn’t negate its violence.”

The societal stigma against widows has receded compared to his grandmother’s days, but Sen spends some time thinking about what he and all those who consume vegetarian Bengali cuisine owe to widows like his great-grandmother:

“What remains, though, is a language of cooking that owes its brilliance to these widows. The pathways through which a cuisine assumes an identity leans on the vulnerable: It becomes easier to deny authorship to women like my great-grandmother when the world around them barely considers them people to begin with. If the world you inhabit already ostracizes you, how can you expect history to pick up the slack?”

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‘Bread of Beirut’

The communal ovens in Beirut are not only a source of bread but also solace. Credit: UN Women/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If Bengal’s high-caste Hindu widows found themselves isolated through food, citizens in Beirut turned to their local bakers for reassurance and camaraderie during the Lebanese civil war.

“Relationships are fragile in Beirut. Instability at the top filters down into your intimate life. Neighbours, brothers, sisters, lovers – they can all turn on you overnight. Governments collapse. Friends emigrate…Trust is essential; trust is impossible. That’s one legacy of the long, lingering civil war, which officially ran from 1975 to 1990 but never really ended.”

“But the furn is another legacy. During the war, cooking gas would periodically run out. When that happened, Beirutis returned to a tradition as old as the city itself, the habit of the communal oven.”

The furn, and the baker who runs it, still functions as the focal point of locals’ lives in Beirut’s many neighbourhoods. In this 2012 piece for Granta, Annia Ciezadlo describes her old neighbourhood’s baker Abu Shadi as “something of an “éminence grise” who served bread, meat and the day’s news and commentary to his patrons during the war in 1988.

Ciezadlo recalls a time when a customer wondered if the country had a president, and how Shadi responded.

“Abu Shadi laughed. ‘President or no president, what’s the difference?’ he said, shrugging his shoulders as he slid a long wooden paddleful of zaatar and cheese mana’eesh into the oven. ‘Okay, fine, bring him on, but it’s not like he’s going to change our everyday life. Will he redecorate my bedroom? No he won’t. Will he bring me a new car? No he won’t.”

Shadi’s irreverent dismissal of governance (or the expectation of effective governance) contrasts wtih the fact that he operates a communal oven, a cultural product born to compensate for the political and economic uncertainty gripping the city’s residents. But that’s the irony of daily life too isn’t it? Even as things change around us and we gradually mold our daily routines to suit new circumstances, we insist that politics is a more abstract concern that has little to do with us.

As Ciezadlo notes, even our memories of political strife tell drastically different stories. (“War being a matter of narratives, however, they all remember it differently.”) While one of her friends remembered the communal oven as a place of communal harmony, where even brothers fighting in rival militias would interact peacefully over bread and gossip; another friend remembers crying as militiamen took the entire neighbourhood’s bread as others like him waited in line for hours.

Memories of the war, real and imagined, still shape and uphold the centrality Beirut’s communal ovens for its citizens. Ciezadlo writes, “to this day, whenever there’s the threat of violence, people rush to the bakery for bread, of course, but also, I suspect, for reassurance.”

Although it has little to do with food or our relationship with it, Ciezadlo has a charming passage that explains how Beirut’s residents don’t navigate the city through geographical maps or formal street names.

“Instead, Beirutis go by landmarks of memory or desire: a narcissist may tell you to go down the alley where she got her first kiss. An old-timer will direct you to a movie theatre that closed in 1982. Hypochondriacs deliver directions by pharmacy. The pious use churches and mosques; the profane, cafés and nightclubs. The mercenary types, alas, inhabit a city of banks. All of these different Beiruts, imaginary contradictory maps, all layered on top of each other, make a city as baffling to navigate as your dreams.”

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‘Home is a Cup of Tea’

A tea chest full of homes. Credit: Credit: Candace Rose Rardon/Longreads

Ciezadlo finds her sense of home by mapping Beirut through its street food. It’s a familiar way to understand a city, by emphasising the sources of nourishment and community. But what if you don’t have the stability of one geographical address? What does home mean to you then? Candace Rose Rardon tells her story of finding home across multiple cities and continents through various kinds of tea. Her piece, which feels like a picture-book for only slight-grown-up adults is actually a mixture of her illustrations and text that is presumably in her handwriting.

‘Home is a Cup of Tea’ starts with Rardon recalling the English Breakfast tea her mother always had brewing in their home in the US. But then Rardon travelled to New Zealand and discovered an even more enthusiastic tea culture where each work day was punctuated with two ritualistic tea breaks made in electric kettles which are called ‘jugs’ in the country.

Then came a trip to India and an introduction to masala chai. The love of which Rardon carried to Canada with her where she lived in a yurt and introduced a daily chai ritual to her three-year-old neighbour Zyah.

Indian masala chai. Credit: Candace Rose Rardon/Longreads

As life went on, Rardon discovered new teas in different places – hibiscus in Guatemala, chamomile in Norway. Along the way, conversations with fellow travellers got her wondering about what home meant to her, whether it must always be a place or it could be a person too.

She found the answer in her current partner Jose, an architect from Norway who was staying in the same hostel as her. Together they devised an equation for what home meant:

The equation for home. Credit: Candace Rose Rardon/Longreads

After moving to Uruguay together, Rardon discovered mate, the country’s beloved tea. But she also discovered Jose’s mother’s tea chest which improbably held each of the teas that she had come to love over the course of her many homes. For Rardon, that tea chest is home because the teas in there evoke and preserve the emotional memories of all the places where she’s felt she’s belonged or the ones she’s made her own.

Home takes time to brew. Credit: Credit: Candace Rose Rardon/Longreads

In a way it’s fitting that a cultural product as globalised as tea is instrumental for a perpetual traveller like Rardon. There’s also a profound yet easy comfort in using tea or food to form a narrative of our otherwise fractured lives.

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