My parents were decent, loving people. But they were also creatures of their society and time. They lived in a society where middle class people hired cooks who did the cooking. My mother cooked, but she also worked; as her responsibilities grew, her time for cooking became scarce. She became a periodic dabbler in the kitchen.
It was also a time when food was prepared from scratch. There was no processed or semi-processed food. Nor was there home delivery from restaurants. If you wanted food from restaurants, you went and ate there or sent a servant to buy something and bring it home. For a while we lived in a large building that had a restaurant on the ground floor, run by an owner who was a close friend of my father. If we had several guests and mother wanted help, father talked to his friend and some special curry turned up in the evening.
Father had little to do with the kitchen. He had a fish vendor among his large circle of friends and occasionally tried to impress mother with the gift of a special seasonal catch. I remember him also turning up with some unusual vegetable that he liked and had found in some remote market mother was unlikely to patronize.
I mention all this to explain that I had no notion of what transpired in a kitchen except that I consumed what it produced. My parents never thought cooking was something I should learn or even try.
The sheer vulgarity of what I was doing did not occur to me, as no doubt it did not occur to many like me. My friends had no idea what happened in a kitchen, ate only what tasted good, based on their limited range of experience in the family or some restaurant. They had no notion of how what they placed in their mouth affected the rest of their corpus.
It astounds me that I went through a process of formal education, right up to the doctoral level, in well-known institutions, without learning the rudiments of one of the key elements of civilized life, food. I knew nothing about food groups, their nutritional value, their contribution to the body’s functions, their relative importance for health, the ways they can be prepared to enhance their value or destroy their quality, and the havoc bad food can and does cause. All I knew was their taste, prepared in the few ways I had so far experienced.
Nor did I have the slightest idea of the incalculable wealth and variety of cuisine around the world: the superb spongy flatbread the Ethiopians produce that westerners would not touch, and the extraordinary mushroom-enhanced black rice Haitians concoct that Indians would shun before tasting. The consequences of such culinary insularity are disastrous. I have a first-rate Russian chef as a neighbor; she jettisons all oriental food as spicy. I have too a talented Colombian cook as a friend; she rejects out of hand any Mexican food as ‘picante.’ One of my abhorred Biblical dictums is that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. About food, my dictum would be: the fear of alien food is the beginning of gastronomic folly.
It took me many years and the exposure to many lands to learn the simple truths:
- Taste is just one aspect of food
- What I put inside my body determines its fate
- Food can cure what medicines often pretend to do
- Making food can make it toxic or salubrious
- Like race and color, discrimination in food is stupid.
For a long time, I saw Feuerbach’s aphorism ‘man is what he eats’ as an economic doctrine, for it is true that the way we earn our bread often determines what we mostly are. Now I know better. It is also a social doctrine. The way we make our bread, taste it, respect it, and exalt the process of making, eating and honoring it, determines the kind of society we have and the kind of social beings we are.
I was lucky to have wonderful, sensible parents. They however made the ghastly mistake of never sending me into the kitchen to observe and learn. I should have learned how to cook, both to know the vital clue to my health and well-being and to have the incomparable pleasure of discovering the rich, unlimited world of varied cuisine. You really know little about food, if you don’t cook, and you know precious little about its taste if your range is confined six or sixteen things your mother served you. As in many things, love is not enough. Broadening our horizon demands insight and imagination.