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Culinary Difference: The Difference It Makes

Krishnendu Ray publishes his keynote address from the 2017 Graduate Association for Food Studies conference.

Published onDec 11, 2018
Culinary Difference: The Difference It Makes

Eating the Other

I was in high school when I ate my first kebab and used a fork, two items demarcating essential culinary difference, one local and the other global.[1] I had just moved to Delhi, India from the small town of Jamshedpur and needed training in big-city civility. Demonstrating sartorial acuity, mastering flatware, and developing a stomach for aged cheeses and wine were marks of upward mobility among the class I was delivered into. Consuming kebabs was another kind of cosmopolitan activity, albeit one of a cruder nature associated with the street rather than the parlor. Kebabs reeked of a Muslim masculinity that rendered them enticing for a Hindu boy such as me.

I grew up in a context of violence: not just symbolic brutality, but physical, murderous bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, and Odiya and Bengali Hindus. Waves upon waves of carnage rippled through my young world. As a ten-year-old, I lived in a Bengali ghetto in the eastern Indian state of Odisha with my Bengali father and my Odiya mother. We were surrounded by destitute migrants who had been driven out of East Pakistan for being Hindu. The Bengal border would be the site of not one but two of the greatest forced migrations in human history—once in 1947 during the making of India and Pakistan, and then again, in 1971 with the making of Bangladesh—shifting millions of people each time, leading to death, dislocation, and downward mobility. It was an early lesson for me that nation-making is a refugee-making process.

One day, word spread that Odiya women had been raped on the Puri Express train. What turned out to be mere rumor did not stop young Odiya men from invading the Bengali quarter in retaliation. It did not matter to them that my mother was Odiya; perhaps it egged them on. Two people were badly hurt—one thrown from the balcony of a third-floor apartment and a little girl stabbed—while the police abandoned us. The next morning my Odiya mashi (mother’s sister) arrived by Jeep with a rifle across her lap to rescue us, Bengali children and women. We stayed with her for ten days, spirited away into a cocoon of care with great vegetarian food. She was religious like that, deeply imbibing all the marks of aspirational Brahmanism. She nursed us with dahi-bara, a local Odiya variant of a savory lentil doughnut in plain yogurt, and chokuli pitha, the fermented local version of a dosa that my mother never cooked in our nominally Bengali household.

I had not yet eaten a kebab, but these transactions across the Odiya-Bengali barrier, real and imagined via food, would be analogous to crossing the Hindu-Muslim threshold, although the Bengali-Odiya barrier is less policed. Meat, especially beef, occupies an excessively marked place in the practices of Hindu vigilantes in the sense that when a Muslim crosses over to vegetarian food it necessitates no commentary, but when a Hindu crosses over to eating meat, it is a serious threat to caste notions of purity and thus virulently governed in a world where such matters are not protected by notions of privacy. In a recent ruling, the Indian Supreme Court invented the fundamental right to privacy, when Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar wrote: “The right to be let alone is a part of the right to enjoy life. The right to enjoy life is, in its turn, a part of the fundamental right to life of the individual.” This newly minted right has energized both gay rights activists and critics of Hindu dietary vigilantism. But it will take a lot of work to nurse it in locations where communitarian demands exceed individual want.[2]

My father and uncles—all travelling salesmen—had told tall tales of the sinful but delectable Muslim food. It would be years until I had the courage to try one, on my way back from high school in Delhi. An aroma lured me into the Muslim quarter. Under the shadow of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya’s shrine, past Humayun’s Tomb, I was drawn into a narrow, winding street, crowded by Muslim men in skull caps. The call of the muezzin spiraled from the minarets, scattering pigeons from the spires. I was a meek, middle-class Hindu boy adrift in the intimate bowels of a Muslim neighborhood in the great cosmopolis that is Delhi—rebuilt seven times, it is said, by various Hindu and Muslim overlords. Fanning the flames of a waist-high charcoal grill with a stitched palm frond, the kebabwala peddled his wares across the street from the daunting mosque. The aroma of charred flesh was irresistible. I had just enough money for two boti-kebabs, which he pulled from the fire with a plug of newspaper and emptied into a stitched-leaf bowl. They glistened, sputtering heat and juice, wafting accents of clove, cinnamon, and pepper.

To indulge in blistered meat is one along a series of liminal points from boyhood to manhood for a Hindu youth. Each is a touchstone of masculinity. My trepidations were residues of the long civilizing process regulating Bengali Hindu desires, where hot, sour, and meaty have antithetical positions in the domain of domesticated taste. Nationalists repeatedly condemn—in the past and increasingly again—tamarind, chili, and especially unclean meat, associating them with uneducated rural women or casteless men from the uncouth urban bazaar. Yet, it is perhaps its very repression that produced its efflorescence in a counterculture of street foods, the lure of dustu-khide (unruly appetite) straining against the claims of decency.

The olfaction of charcoal-grilled skewers under the shadow of the dargah persists as a sensory distancing from the cloying enclosures of Brahmanism. In breaking parental-priestly rules, I was imbibing lessons of multicultural democratic citizenship. Of course, eating kebab does not necessarily lead to open-mindedness, but it was crucial to my re-education on the street against the parlor. It was entangled with a ressentiment of class too, of a barely middle-class provincial kid against big-city, Hindu superiors. There was something brewing in me, some oppositional relationship to state-parent dietetics that hankered for the unruly kebab. That taste, and the justifications I proffered, was one of the things that stopped me from becoming a Hindu nationalist. Or so I think.

That was years before the smell of burnt meat came to be associated in my mind with the mass murder of Sikh men, many incinerated alive, in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguard, as I roamed the city in despair and smelled the odors of virulence. Since then it has become impossible to presume the innocence of blistered meat, yet unfathomably I have insisted on it.

These experiences provided me with two lessons and leave me with a lingering question. Lesson 1: my palate is more open-minded than my mind. Or its inverse, that my mind follows my nose. Lesson 2: a vegetarian ethic and aesthetic can sit quite comfortably with violence against others, as we see all around India today in the pitiless lynching of meat-eating Muslims and Dalits. It makes me wonder, did I leave India for the United States because I was hungry for flavors less demanding of my loyalty? If so, what have I gotten myself into?

Culinary Misappropriation

Long before I came to the U.S., I had winnowed a few things about African American culture from the visual lexicon of the Civil Rights Movement. It shared a kinship with Indian nationalism of the Gandhian variant, hence gestures of solidarity were inevitable. A sharply resonant sense of oneness came from a couple of throw-away lines I remembered from my seventh-grade reader: “The lazy, laughing South / With Blood on its mouth /… And, I who am black, would love her,” a poem attributed to Langston Hughes. The open assertion of blackness felt like a major assault on Brahmanic varna, otherwise known as caste, which is nothing but color. Yet all this was a distant dream of blackness, with its capitalizing bravado and clenched fists, until I inadvertently became an immigrant in America.

In the process of becoming an American I had to acquire new prejudices. My informal education inevitably included the relationship between fried chicken, chitterlings, watermelon, and blackness. Once I got over the hurdle of taking food seriously, I realized there was more to these stereotypes than I had fathomed and two kinds of books that talk about it: those that concentrate on the material itself—that is the food—and its connections to the African diaspora and those that focus on representations of blackness in the white imaginary.

In this post-Charlottesville moment, I have re-read some of those books and revisited my own conceptualizations. Kyla Wazana Tompkins’s Racial Indigestion (2012) opens with the silent film “The Gator and the Pickaninny,” depicting a theatrical scene in which a Black child is eaten by a gator to reveal the relationship between eating, racial identity, and political inequality. She interrogates five instances of eating practices that fuse the biological with the cultural to produce a typology of racial incorporation in metaphor and metonymy. She sharply notes that “not unlike the current foodie moment, and perhaps original to it, eating culture [in the nineteenth-century United States] played a significant part in the privileging of whiteness…Such anxious girding of the boundaries of whiteness, however, could only happen where those boundaries were threatened, and it is exactly as a site of racial anxiety that eating is most productively read.”[3] When I return to one of my favorites, Psyche Williams-Forson’s Building Houses out of Chicken Legs (2006), it is not the stereotypes that engage me anymore but the interrogation of how “African Americans might have been players in producing their own knowledges and realities amid the proliferation of such images.”[4] She asks Black people what they think about fried chicken and looks at the print record, at art, at music, and at the imagery produced by Black folks with the chicken in it. Her work interrogates the rich and dangerous intersection between stereotype and material truth, and it says something complicated. In pursuing a mundane, material thing—fried chicken—she crafts a surprisingly compelling tale about race, gender, and representation, in the process showing “the myriad ways that black women have pursued their self-definition using food,” including paying for the houses their families lived in.[5]

Williams-Forson’s work is an important node in the distinguished contemporary lineage running from Jessica Harris to Michael Twitty. Harris pointedly notes:

The cooking of Africa has yet to have its moment on the foodie radar. With exception of the food of the southern Mediterranean coast and of South Africa, it would seem that we’re content to remain in the dark about the tastes of the continent. However, those who have tasted yassa, the lemon-infused chicken and onion stew served over fluffy white rice, from Senegal, or kédjenou, the deep, slow-cooked Ivorian stew of guinea hen, or a freshly caught grilled fish served up with an oniony, tomato-based sauce called moyau in Benin know how shortsighted this is. Much African food is tasty indeed…Some of the continent’s food even tastes surprisingly familiar, because, for centuries of forced and voluntary migration, the food of Western Africa has had an influence on the cooking of the world, transforming the taste and the dishes of many nations east and west, few more than the United States.[6]

In a similar vein, Twitty characterizes the Old South as the place “where we dare not talk about which came first, the African cook or the European mistress, the Native American woman or the white woodsman,” immersing us right away in the white-hot center of the Southern discomfort tour.[7] It is where, he reminds us sharply, “everybody has a Cherokee, a Creek, a Chickasaw, a Seminole, or a Choctaw lurking in their maternal bloodlines but nobody knows where the broad noses or big asses come from.”[8] It is in the untold acknowledgement of bodies, and the foods that made them, that we still find evidence of that racialized past with acutely uneven powers.

Wazana Tompkins, Williams-Forson, Harris, and Twitty have contributed substantially to my re-education as a new American. They are incensed when others appropriate or erase the Black experience. Williams-Forson complicates this critique further by focusing (although by no means wholly) on Black men’s usurpation of the female voice, which she calls gender malpractice and the homogenization of Black taste into fried chicken and black-eyed peas, which she calls “culinary malpractice.” That is a useful corrective that underlines the inadequacy of the way the term “culinary appropriation” has been used so far in public discussion, especially in accounting for gender.

This is perhaps the right place for me to interject the inflamed discussion on culinary appropriation that has erupted over the last year in U.S. popular media.[9] This debate is important because it engages with the question of power in the making of a culture. Of course, people borrow each other’s culinary techniques and dishes all the time, and they should. It would be a terrible world if we were all cloistered within our closed cultural ecumenes. Human history is replete with borrowed edibles, from the chilies of the New World that flavor our otherwise mundane foods of South and Southeast Asia and indigenous Peruvian potatoes that provide sustenance in Ireland and India, to the enticement of Jewish fish and chips in London and fried artichokes in Rome. But there is an important distinction here that must be made. African Americans have been historically overrepresented in culinary work as enslaved, servants, and professionals (the last in the railroads and hotels), yet they get little credit for American culinary culture. John Egerton counts about 100,000 cookbooks produced in over two centuries of American history, and African Americans get acknowledgment for a measly 200, which underrepresents their ratio as a population and especially as cooks.[10] Harris shows us an alternative African American culinary thread that includes chefs such as Hercules (who cooked for George Washington) and James Hemings (who cooked for Thomas Jefferson), and “Big House cooks who prepared lavish banquets, caterers who created a culinary co-operative in Philadelphia in the nineteenth century, a legion of black hoteliers and culinary moguls, and a growing black middle and upper class.”[11] In contrast, the standard story is an exemplary case of the misrepresentation of Black culinary contribution.

Cultural misappropriation should be used in this specific and restrictive case of the experience of African Americans in the United States. Dominant attitudes and approaches towards the culinary cultures of Native Americans, African Americans, and white and non-white immigrants have been different and changed over time. For instance, the dominant script of American attitude towards Native American culinary culture is not necessarily misappropriation but erasure through forced assimilation via colonization of their land, physical displacement, and the imposition of a war-refugee diet of cheap carbohydrates (and that is also true in other settler-colonial cultures, such as Australia, New Zealand, etc.). Yes, there is unaccounted appropriation of cultivars—such as corn, various squashes, beans, various kinds of shellfish, and venison—but the nature of that relationship is different from the way we misappropriate the contribution of African Americans. With Native Americans we can often think of ingredients, but rarely can we conceive of a dish. That is a consequence of forced culinary assimilation and erasure in the trope of the vanishing Indian. Thankfully we appear to be on the verge of a renaissance of the study of Native American foodways in texts such as Charlotte Frisbie’s Food Sovereignty the Navajo Way (2018), Marisa Wilson’s Postcolonialism, Indigeneity and Struggles for Food Sovereignty (2016), and Fernando and Marlene Divina’s Food of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions (2010), to name just a handful. Hopefully these will help to change the landscape of indigeneity and food studies.

The difference between the culinary misappropriation of African American’s labor and settler colonial displacement of Native Americans becomes even starker when we compare their experience to what has typically happened to immigrant culinary cultures, which is the primary domain of my expertise and experience. In the case of immigrants, we have what I call culinary subordination followed by selective upward mobility of white ethnics (Italians, Jews, Spaniards, and Greeks being the important cases) and then Asians (Japanese, Korean, and Chinese to happen soon). That process partly follows the logic of capital and cultural capital accumulation, as I show in The Ethnic Restaurateur (2016).

Flattening all questions of power among various groups and funneling that concern through the term “cultural appropriation” inadequately represents the history of race, culture, and power in the trajectory of culinary objects in U.S. history, and it obfuscates the differential outcomes awaiting the fate of laborers of different races and ethnicities. Those we classify as of a different race have much bigger obstacles to climb than those we classify as of different ethnicities. Classifications have consequences. In that sense, culinary misappropriation, culinary subordination, and forced culinary assimilation and erasure are distinctly different fates meted out unevenly to African Americans, ethnic Americans, and Native Americans.

In Closing

Let me return to the kebab with which I opened this talk. The question persists: does eating other people’s food make us more open to engaging them? It did with me in Delhi and in New York, but for every one like me there will be a Hindu who reacts with disgust towards a kebab and disdain towards the Muslim. The point here is not that I am virtuous subject but that accidents of my biography led me in other directions. In the American case, there were many who have loved chop suey and hated the Chinese immigrant in the wake of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and today, many continue to fantasize about Soul, Southern, and Mexican food while eliding the contribution of those subjects. So, there is no guarantee that eating another’s food makes us more tolerant towards them. Yet, it can be guaranteed that if I am filled with disgust and disdain towards another’s food, there is a greater probability that I will not accommodate them within my framework of civic toleration.

We have evidence of that regarding beef consumption in contemporary India. Caste Hindus are routinely filled with disdain and disgust for the food of lower castes, outcastes, Muslims, and Christians. In the case of the U.S., Michael Twitty, brilliantly turns the question around, “I never hated white people for their strange relationship to us, their colored kith and kin, but I grew up with the suspicion that they had no clue just how much of us there was in their family trees and stories and bloodlines and on their groaning tables. Maybe if they did, we would know less enmity toward one another.”[12] Refusing to eat another’s food out of disgust is symptomatic of xenophobia—it is no surprise that eating together has been one of the greatest threats to segregationists by race and by caste across the continents where I have lived.

A young Indian woman in the audience (whose name I did not catch) at the GAFS conference in October 2017 retorted, politely but firmly, “What if, Sir, it is the opposite? We are filled with disgust and disdain because we have eaten kebab and cannot contain it within our moral universe?” So the hatred of the other may also be a form of self-loathing of the fallen self, following Freud’s construction of the taboo as repulsive because of its enticement. The potentiality of this position was driven further in reading my student Jennifer Shutek’s boundary-breaking food-work between Palestinians and Israelis, especially through her reading of the Hungarian phenomenologist Aural Kolnai. In On Disgust (2004), Kolnai underlines the duality of disgust as both repellant and attractive, a perverse magnetism. He separates it from fear, which is inwardly directed. Disgust is outwardly directed toward the object, so it is a form of objectification of the other through real and symbolic violence. Such a posture is not driven by fear so much as the will to dominate the other. The other becomes an embodied object of our malice. This is where aesthetics intersects with ethics, and makes ugliness a matter of morality in William Ian Miller’s conception in The Anatomy of Disgust (1998), which connects with Martha Nussbaum’s allocation of disgust to marginal groups, especially their bodies, in Hiding from Humanity (2006).

This is the opposite of the problem of omnivorousness and the accumulation of cultural capital that dominates the Anglo-American discussion in the sociology of taste. It is also the exact opposite of the problem of appropriation that is roiling the public sphere in the West. A theoretical response to the question of appropriation and misappropriation has to face up to the challenge of its opposite, disgust and disdain.

This sketch provides contrary lessons on consumer culture theorization. Cultural capital may be acquired by various forms of austerity, where the pure and the dominant restrain their consumption so as to acquire the capital of virtue. This is where virtue can cleanly intersect with virulence, and precapitalist modes of cultural accumulation intersect with consumer society’s citizen-consumer to produce the peculiarly viable citizen-abstainer, which has always been an undercurrent through various prohibitions and containments against gendered and racialized bodies’ consumption of cigarettes, alcohol, beef, etc. The difference of the Indian case is the long history of domination through abstinence.

Finally, what this thinking suggests is that other locales may force interesting new conceptualizations into our matrix of appetite, desire, domination, and difference. These perspectives have the potential to provincialize apparently universal Euro-American claims and sentiments. And that is not a bad place to begin to expand our thinking.


Krishnendu Ray is Associate Professor and Department Chair of Food Studies at New York University. His scholarly publications include The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households (2004); Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia (2012), which he edited with Tulasi Srinivas; and The Ethnic Restaurateur (2016).

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