The sociality of food becomes implicit and explicit in the way it contains and reproduces differences and sameness. It is in the production and consumption of food that social relations are reproduced across social structures. The social relations of food and labouring subjects go a long way.
The social relation between the labouring subject and food is brilliantly captured in a film that I watched today in a film workshop called “The Lunch Box” by Floridne Devigne. The film maker embarks on a journey of Belgium’s social relations and revisits various tensions and contradictions through the prism of the lunch box and brilliantly weaves in the story of production- reproduction- and waste in the everyday life of Belgium.
What struck me is the way in my work on labouring lives in industrial zones the army of workers entered with the three tier steel containers popularly known as “Tiffins”/ “Dabbas” (In Hindi). Growing up in an industrial township when the clock struck one, an uncle rang our bell to collect “Tiffin” which was neatly packed with Rice, Dal and Fish Curry to be ferried to my father’s workplace. Browsing through my field notes from Falta SEZ if one asked me to visually capture the army of workers entering the zone; the first image would be an army of workers either on foot or on bicycle with their three tier Tiffin Box entering the factory gates.
Mostly women carried their tiffins as they felt shy to sit in canteens or walk back to the factory gate to have tea and snacks in the series of shops lined along the zone. The women workers usually carried their leftover lunch for the evening shift. In fact majority of the women preferred the evening shift from 2pm-10pm as they could cook lunch and carry food with them. Some of them carried their lunch to the workshops as they often got late doing household chores. Mostly women gathered in groups and shared their respective tiffins. While on one hand, mostly the unstructured interviews with women used to begin with what food they had cooked on the respective day it was not so for the men. Infact, for men, when they wanted to wind an interview particularly after morning shift they excused themselves by saying “Have to go… take a shower. I am hungry.” For women it was “ Need to go and cook both lunch and dinner. I hate morning shifts”.
Men not only had the choice to sit for a meal which was already prepared they often ate in the roadside tea stalls lined along the factory gates. In my field work of three months I had never spotted a woman barring me and the respective owner’s wives who helped their male folk in cutting of vegetables in the shop. Even the women who helped in the shop had to cook in their respective homes before they reached the shop. While women managing tea shops and lunch stalls are a common sight, the customers remain mostly male. For instance, one of the shopkeeper owners through some arrangement with the security used to send his wife with a bag of 30-40 packets of Puffed Rice and Vegetable Fritters to the zone to capture the female clientele.
During this field work, even my social relation with the workers came to be determined by food that I ate and consumed. For instance the very fact that I rested in a shop close to Falta Special Economic Zone where they prepared vegetable fritters to be sold to Zone workers; made me acceptable to a section of workers who were the patrons of this shop. Infact one of the contractors who had misbehaved with me in front of a factory gate actually apologised when he found me eating Dhakai Paratha with ghugni ( Dhakai Paratha is a layered paratha which is made of flour, and water. What is interesting is that it is shredded, and sold according to the weight). Ghugni is a popular Bengali breakfast of roadside tea stalls. The basic ingredient is Dried White Peas. We sat with our respective kanshi ( Bengal word for an steel / aluminium utensil with a shallow base usually used to have puffed rice) and discussed various issues relating to the zone and beyond. So Tiffins- not only represent a “break” of the routinised schedule of the labouring subject it is also a space where through the tiffin the labouring subject is able to gaze/ engage with the product of his/ her labour.
Coming back to capturing everyday life through the prism of “lunch box” presents a materiality of political economic life which is both productive and reproductive. While on one hand the food that is inside your tiffin is the product of “labour” ; the labour also “consumes” the tiffin. It is almost as if the image of army of workers walking with tiffins point to the banality of work. It is this banality of social relations that we as labouring subjects produce and consume through food.
Most of us must have watched Julia and Julia and thought of buying the book The Art of French Cooking or have stacked the DVD copy of the movie for that Friday movie dinner at home. We must have found a meaning in the way Julia cooked and cooked for the family for the nation that survived on anything but home – made foods. What it is about food that bonds yet creates a difference between people? Julia to most of us is an inspiration to live life on our own terms. At this juncture I am reminded of a scene where Julia is practising to chop onions with precision after her male classmates give her a cold look as she slice her way through onions in Cordon Bleu. Julia’s obsession with food and her husband’s keen interest in appreciating her taste, or search for her calling from making hats to going live on television for a food series shows the way relationships bond over food. Yet, when our blogger Julia becomes obsessed with her blog and her cooking deadlines that she almost loses her husband.
Julia/s represent the change in our times when we have taken resort to cooking as a hobby, passion or as a compulsion. Today as we criticise Nigella for her erotica cooking style , or admire at the way Kylie Kwong, Ritu Dalmia cooks with precision those Chinese delicacies and Italian Delights I wonder was it an easy path for any these Julia/s? For our blogger Julia we have thousands of bloggers blogging on foods they cook and encounter in their daily lives; each claiming to be unique, authentic and personal in their style and presentation. Recipes get shared with a click of a button. We admire and comment on food photographs that our friends put on social networking sites . Each day a blogger wants to reach out through his or her culinary delights.
While cooking on the domestic front has been socially accepted as a “feminine” routine; the yearning among women to re-claim the public space/ the public eye and turn in the gaze of food and sexuality has to be re-thought. For a long time women enjoyed the smirk and coldness of professional kitchens because of the existing social divide between the “public” and “private” spaced that are to be carved intact. Every time I watch Nigella cooking her chocolate sauce and licking her finger I wonder why it had to be telecasted. Why couldn’t it be edited? It’s almost like burping in public.
Can Nigella’s licking her finger dripping with chocolate sauce be read as challenging a culture of exclusion where women are supposed to “behave” themselves. Is it supposed to mean that women can cook and eat like our Julia? Is it supposed to mean that women have the right to cook and eat for themselves? While Julia/s of our world have written many a recipe books, some recipe books are actually interesting in the way these recipe books become guiding tools to cook that “family” dinner. I was struck by the fact the other when I came across a book titled 50 ways to get back your boyfriend. Well we have come a long way from the days of Julia, the woman who made French cooking accessible for American households but are we not travelling back to our cocoons by creating recipes for that big family dinner where “women” should take that responsibility. Every time somebody appreciates my cooking and comment that I will make it to a man’s heart through his stomach I gasp under my breath and mumble “Well, yeah… after all I am supposed to bring a smile to every foodie’s heart irrespective of his gender”.
Why is it so difficult to tell and shout to the world as women, that we can cook for themselves like our Julia/s. Why does our protagonist in the Film Hour declines into depression at the sight of a burned cake thinking she has failed to be a good wife. Why are wives expected to know cooking? Why can’t we cook for ourselves? Why are our table manners guided by the gendered norms of do’s and dont’s? Why can’t the waiter give the cheque book to us? As a single woman when I struggle to think of what should I make for breakfast I remember my mother who continues till date to lay out the breakfast table with the preferences of each of our family member I have never asked her if she likes any of the items that have been laid out. When I ask her if has ever cooked for herself she tells me with delight that she had once tried out a prawn cocktail with some left over prawns from lau chingri and some lettuce stored away from some dinner party. She does not remember from where she got the prawn cocktail recipe. She did not use tobasco sauce. She churned up something for herself which can be prepared in 30 min. Here goes Prawn cocktail in her style.
Steam 5-6 size medium size deveined prawns with a little bit of salt and keep it aside to cool while you make the sauce. Technically it should be made with mayonnaise and tobasco but in absence of both my mom used homemade sour cream with two table spoon hung curd, a little bit of tomato puree and red chilli flakes. To this she added a little bit of salt and sugar for taste. She remembers the tangy and fresh taste till date as she shares with me this recipe. She mixed the steamed prawns to this sauce; added some fresh cream and took out a glass bowl ( i would totally refrain from committing the sin of having prawn cocktail in a bowl) spread out a bed of lettuce and then the prawns and finished it off with a slice of lime and pudina leaf on a winter afternoon reading a magazine.