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.
Like many people; I am a flipkart addict. I have to browse flipkart at least thrice a day and the list of books to purchase have increased over the time. I have a friend of mine who has travelled a long way from making the most innovative cheesy Maggie and scrambled eggs to all that tickles her taste buds. She and I have always bonded over our love for food and recipe books. Since our school days our taste buds have rarely failed to betray us till a recent glitch when I complemented a friend that she had made delicious chutney with the dosa and she politely reminded me on a social networking site that she had forgotten to add the salt. Keeping aside this embarrassment and barring a few such dramatic encounters with my failed senses I have fared pretty well in what a microbiologist would call “sensory evaluation”.
Early reminiscences of my sensory evaluation days began with my maa( Bengali word for mother)’s weekend experiments with Bengali food. Her all time favourite was Beladi’s cookbooks. She used to follow Beladi’s tips for preparing exciting tiffins for me, she used them to make interesting Sunday lunches and to top it all she used them to bake cakes. My mother closely followed the recipes of Bela Dey’s book Jol Khabar ( Bengali word for snacks and tiffin) and her columns in a Bengali Newspaper Bartaman. While she tried most of the recipes to her satisfaction she regrets that she never tried Mushroom Pakora as she did not know how to clean mushrooms and prepare them. We stayed in an industrial township where even paneer was a luxury in my childhood. When she came to visit my small pad and discovered a packet of mushrooms stacked away in the refrigerator she told me that she will pass on a simple, easy to make recipe when I visit her. The recipe is easy and quick to make. Despite her insistence to photocopy the section on snacks from her prized possession of Jal Khabar I forgot to get a photocopy.
One fine day when I bought a packet of mushrooms and was fiddling with it and wondering what to prepare for some friends I googled Bela Dey and realised that a website has some of her recipes from the book Jal Khabar. I was elated that I could whisk away some of the snacks from my childhood evenings during tea breaks. And even my mother’s favourite mushroom pakora. The link is as follows
For all non- Bengali readers you can leave a personal message and I can translate some of the mouth-watering snacks that Bela Dey pens here. The list of snacks available on the above link are Kucho Nimki (Small Namkeens), Shaker Bara ( Pakora made from Saag/ Greens), Egg-Bread Pakora, Chicken Pakora, Egg Pakora, Egg-Tomato Pakora, Paneer Pakora and Mushroom Pakora.
The genesis of cookbooks is varied and specific to each culture. Cookbooks represent our and their time. In fact coming to Bengali cook books some of the oldest cook books in Bengal and the way food was coded with nationalist identity, the authentic and creation of a “Bengali” middle class is evident in a fascinating essay by Utsa Ray titled “Aestheticising labour: an affective discourse of cooking in colonial Bengal” South Asian History and Culture,1:1:60-70. In this essay Utsa Ray discusses the genesis of Bengali cook books and how the aesthetics were cooking was seen as an integral component of creation of modern Bengali woman. While the “domestic” hearth in colonial times remained in the hands of women who needed to be trained in the aesthetics of cooking “Bengali” and other cuisines; the public/ commercial kitchens were manned by professional cooks/ men popularly known as thakurs (preferably Brahmins from Orissa) who were specially invited to cook a meal during special occasions. Initially it was the male culturalogues who dictated how women should have spacious kitche, and observe kitchen hygiene. Latter the print capitalism aided women to voice their concerns relating food in the public domain through recipe books. One of the important landmarks in the history of documentation of Bengali recipes date back to Bamabodhini, (from 1884) a periodical meant for women. Similarly Mahila another woman’s journal also published recipes from 1895. But what defined the journey of woman’s cookbook was PragyaSundari Debi’s two volumes of Amish and Niramish Ahar( Two Volumes on Vegetarian and Non- Vegetarian cooking). She was the editor of the journal Punya.
While Pragya Sundari Debi’s cook books describe the art of Bengali cooking it is significant to see how the cookbooks represent the changing times. The changing times of measurement scales, the changing times of taste and culinary skills, and most importantly the changing class. Every time I have to recommend a friend to try some “old”/”traditional” Bengali dishes I take out my PragyaSundari Debi volumes and go through the pages and reinvent the dishes using my quick fix options I wonder the effect and appeal these cookbooks must have had when it was published. In this context, Utsa Ray points out the way aesthetics of recipes was coded with “authentic” taste/ “authentic”. While the search for the authentic and reproduction of authentic goes hand in hand in public and private hearths it is important to understand the ways in which cookbooks capture the times of a by-gone era, the present and the future.