On how food helps us connect, exhibit power and protest
Although I have been writing about food professionally for nearly a decade, it was only last year that I learned the true import of the phrase ‘breaking bread’. In July 2019, I was attending the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery – an annual event that is considered the world’s oldest conference on food. Like several other symposiasts, I had travelled several thousand miles to the historic city of Oxford to present a paper on the theme of food and power. Surrounded by academicians and authors, I felt painfully self-conscious – all the months spent researching my paper shrinking into a pinprick of intense anxiety. Listening to other speakers, my mind was stretched in the most pleasurable way. But otherwise, I felt uncharacteristically awkward and shy.
That is, until our first meal.
Fitting for a conference that celebrates food, there was always plenty of food being served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and during the coffee breaks that marked the interludes between sessions. It was no ordinary fare, either. Every meal was thoughtfully catered in keeping with the theme, with carefully designed menu cards and a selection of wines to accompany each course. Sitting around large tables with the food at the centre, there was no way to make sure that one had tried everything without initiating conversation. It may have started with a simple request to pass the salad, or to break off a chunk of bread, still warm from the oven. But in the process, an entreaty turned into a conversation; ‘passing the bread’ served as tacit acknowledgement of the transformative dimension that company adds to the elemental experience of eating.
Eating together at that table was a levelling of the odds. It was at once a validation of the long journey I had traversed, but also a reminder of the economic and social privileges that had bolstered me on the way there. I had the sizable advantage of simply being able to afford to travel to Oxford to present my work, no matter how deserving it may have been. In realising this, retrospectively, I gained a keener appreciation of how food and power are intimately interlinked – from being able to access it freely to being able to make a living by writing about it, every rung of our relationship with food is shaped by an abundance of power or its abject lack.
The primal entanglement of food with emotion is one that has been discussed widely. But consider the other contexts in which the role of food transcends fondness or fad. Whether it is to mark the contours of community or to transgress them, to assert power or challenge the structures that uphold it, or indeed to lay a personal claim to public space, food is often a central hook through which the rituals of society are enacted. In the context of COVID-19 – which has forcefully altered our relationship with crowds and company – these social functions have also undergone a profound change.
Banquet as power
Historically, food served not just as a bargaining chip but also as a pivot in the expression of power. The ancient Romans hosted lavish banquets that served a dual purpose. Known as ‘convivia’ in Latin, the feasts were a paean to debaucherous excess, featuring wild game and birds in dishes such as roast wild boar, ostrich ragout and fried veal escalope and copious amounts of wine served by naked waiters. Legend goes that they also functioned as a spectacle of power brokering. In a paper titled ‘Vulgar Display of Power: The Soundscape and Social Dynamics of a Roman Banquet’, academic Ty Robinson writes that “these banquets were not merely ostentatious shows of wealth. By inviting people to a banquet the host engaged his guests in the patron/client system and was seeking to establish his own social superiority while gaining political traction.” The banquet thus became the currency of a nuanced duel for one-upmanship. As Robinson explains, apart from showcasing the host’s wealth and power, they also ensured that the chosen guests were beholden to the host for future favours.
Some aspects of this ancient banquet have survived to the modern day. Large Indian wedding receptions with ‘live action’ food stations, and a smattering of dishes from across the country, are a nod to the extravagance of convivia. In this context, food is used to assert one’s social status. Similarly, in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, her memoir about training as a chef in China and exploring Chinese cuisine in the late 1990s, the British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop writes about the profligate feasts that China’s rich and powerful use to impress their business associates. “The banquet in China is a social institution,” she writes, “If you are hosting a dinner for family members and friends, it’s an expression of love and generosity. For clients and colleagues, it might be a demonstration of wealth and power, and a chance to win ‘face’ – that peculiar Chinese concept that expresses a person’s social and professional dignity.”
What is the future of banquets as a social tool – or for wedding extravaganzas as we know them in the Subcontinent? In September 2020, as part of ‘Unlock 4.0’, the Indian government allowed wedding parties of up to 100 people. The restricted number of attendees means the Great Indian Wedding may have to forcibly downsize, at least in the short term. (In Delhi, however, the state government relaxed the rules in October to allow wedding parties of up to 200 people). Or it may need to evolve to accommodate the rules of social distancing. To illustrate how long-standing traditions sometimes acquire a forcible update, Dunlop spoke to me about how the tradition of communal eating was affected in China during the SARS epidemic outbreak in 2002-03. “In many settings, people [would] use their own chopsticks to serve themselves the dishes placed on the table,” she said. “That is one of the first things to go in an epidemic.” In fact, the worldwide custom of going out in large groups for a celebratory meal itself may undergo a profound change. The harsh economic climate and the fear of disease may compel more people to cook at home, or at least choose to order in at home over dining out.
Food for protest
Even though it is frequently used as a tool to assert social dominance, food is also often a rallying cry against the hegemonic structures that seek to benefit from an imbalance of power. Historically, revolutions have been spurred – and sustained – by the most basic of foods, including bread. In a recent article, New York Times journalist Ligaya Mishan wrote on the long history of food as an instrument of revolt: “Food has always been central to resistance, because its lack is the most fundamental of inequities. What kind of society lets its own people starve, whether by negligence or knowing exploitation?” The spiralling price of bread has been the catalyst for people-led protests for centuries. In 1789, a steep increase in the cost of bread – a staple for poor French families – led to what is called the ‘March on Versailles’ or the October March, a historic demonstration that later grew in momentum and became one of the most important events leading up to the French Revolution. Centuries later, in 2011, the Arab Spring is believed to have been at least partially triggered by the escalating cost of bread, which is inextricably interwoven into everyday life in the Levant.
More recently, from Sudan to Hong Kong, food has served as ammunition, armour, salve and sustenance. Where Sudan had Awadeya Mahmoud, Hong Kong has Sogno Gelato. The former is a 57-year-old woman who, along with her aides, made food and drink round the clock to support protesters demanding a transition in power in 2019. The latter is an ice-cream shop that created a ‘tear gas’ flavoured ice cream as an acerbic reference to the authorities’ use of the substance, and also distributed free food and protective gear to protesters. Closer to home, in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, the site of the most sustained protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens between December 2019 and March 2020, food became a vital expression of the fight for secular equality. The cups of piping hot chai being passed around were intended to help insulate against the bitter cold of Delhi’s harshest winter in decades. But just as that winter was exacting in more ways than one, the chai also somewhat sweetened the bitterness of the struggle that lay ahead.
In late January this year, I found myself in Delhi, humbled by the clear-eyed commitment of Shaheen Bagh’s women, men and children to democracy and its defense. The women, a majority of whom were from the neighbourhood, were protective of one another. Wary of their words being misconstrued, they answered questions cautiously. It was clear that participating in round-the-clock protests meant additional effort, to add to their already weighty responsibilities at home and towards raising their children. Yet, many of the women I spoke to cooked a little extra everyday, and brought it as an offering of sorts to the protests. “Kabhi biryani banaya toh thoda le aate hain; (If we happen to make biryani at home, we bring some here),” one woman told me, preferring to remain anonymous. It was a way of making sure that ‘guests’ – those who came to attend the protests from outside – didn’t go back home hungry.
In all of these instances where food has served as a spark for revolution, it has been predicated upon the might of crowds. That sense of unspoken kinship among strangers is likely to be one of the lesser examined casualties of the new rules of social distancing. If crowds are anathema, would collective struggle become impossible? There are some signs that technology could assist as a vital tool in fomenting the spirit of resistance, particularly in the space of food. Mishan points out in her piece that in the American context, activists and chefs used platforms such as Instagram to solicit donations to buy food from Black and immigrant-owned restaurants. This food, in turn, was distributed to Black Lives Matter protesters in cities such as New York and Washington D C, thus creating future demand for these restaurants while ‘feeding’ the protest in real time.
In India, however, it is impossible to forget that the months-long lockdown exacerbated a nationwide epidemic of hunger. In May 2020, Indians were faced with the haunting news of migrant workers being crushed to death by a goods train as they returned to their homes by foot. As photos of the migrants’ meagre possessions obliterated by the train became public, it was difficult to not notice the pieces of roti – as plain a symbol as any of the primal urgency of their journey and the staggering weight of the government’s callousness towards it. The special ‘Shramik’ trains that the Indian government organised to allow migrants to return to their home villages were also plagued with complaints about the poor quality of the food on board. In more than one instance, the food served on these trains provoked spontaneous protests. In these instances, the apathy of the state forces the question: is the ability to resist or foment change itself a luxury, denied to those preoccupied with that most basic of needs – hunger?
Food on the streets
When it comes to food, one of the most long-standing tussles in India has been over the access to – and use of – public space in relation to street vending. The country’s storied street food is not just a cultural artefact but also a vital source of nourishment and employment for a large swathe of the urban poor. According to figures provided by the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI), a national advocacy organisation that works with street vendors, there are approximately ten million street vendors in India, of which street food vendors account for about 30 percent. (Precise statistics are difficult to come by, because many street vendors are migrants who return to their villages for parts of the year). In addition to creating jobs for migrants looking for a toehold in cities, street food also offers pocket-friendly eating options for the working- and middle-class.
Early on in India’s lockdown, it became clear that the sudden shutdown of businesses –seemingly with no notice – had a particularly debilitating effect on street food vendors, who are largely dependent on daily sales to keep their businesses afloat. After waiting for news on the lifting of the lockdown, which was extended four times up to the end of May 2020, several migrant street food vendors found themselves in a perilous financial position, and decided to make the long journey home to their ancestral villages. Ironically, for these purveyors of food, the prospect of having enough to feed their own families became the most pressing concern.
In June 2020, I spoke to Radhe Shyam Shivchand Prajapati, a vendor whose family has been in the business of selling chana-sing (or roasted gram and peanuts) and bhel puri in the city’s Nariman Point district for nearly 50 years. After a few months in limbo in Mumbai, Prajapati, his brothers and their families had returned to their ancestral village in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Having borrowed a significant amount of money to tide over the lean months, Prajapati’s predicament was that of being caught in an uncomfortable impasse. The city was clearly a hostile place for street food vendors like him, particularly during a time of crisis. He told me that he wasn’t sure how he would have continued to feed his family if they had stayed on in Mumbai.
But he was also dependent on the city for his business – and for the prospect of a future, however hazy it may have seemed at that point. “The moment things open up again, we will go back to earn and repay these debts,” he told me.
Given how integral street food is to the normal functioning of most Indian cities, the authorities have finally begun to think of ways to integrate street food vendors into the still-evolving contours of the ‘new normal’. Advocacy organisations like NASVI have initiated training sessions for street food vendors, whereby they are provided protective gear such as gloves, masks, caps and hand sanitisers, and also advised on workarounds to mitigate the need for social distancing. Some of these measures include using digital payment platforms such as Paytm instead of exchanging cash and generating consumer confidence by ensuring a visible standard of hygiene. Additionally, NASVI recently tied up with celebrity chef Ranveer Brar, using his wattage and influence to raise funds for training street food vendors.
Yet, these changes are unlikely to happen overnight, concedes Sangeeta Singh, head of NASVI’s street food outreach programme. According to her, nearly half of India’s street food vendors have still not returned to the streets. During a phone interview in August this year, she made it clear that in the cut-throat stakes of urban real estate, a street vendor’s prolonged absence would mean forfeiting his / her claim to a vending space – however legally tenuous it might be. “If they don’t occupy [their] space for a long time, it will be taken up by others,” Singh said.
Between inhospitable cities with poor safety nets, authorities that usually take a nuisance view of public hawking, and the everyday stress of conducting business on busy streets, street food vendors are often the most neglected part of the urban food chain. Yet, this informal economy is a vital part of the unquantifiable ethos of cities as we know them. Food scholar Krishnendu Ray of New York University told me in an email interview that ‘bazaar commercialism’ – the counterpoint to the sanitised remoteness of supermarkets – is inextricably intertwined with cities. According to him, bazaar commercialism doesn’t just offer livelihood opportunities for the urban poor, but also generates the ‘essential face-to-face liveliness’ that has been a central facet of cities since they were invented.
Yet, authorities have long sought to move food off the streets in an attempt to regulate how food should be consumed, and where. As Ray explained it, street food is often invisible to the authorities until it becomes a ‘problem’ to be dealt with. Even though it may be of a high standard – usually evidenced by the popularity of long-standing street food stalls – food cooked on the streets, or in informal establishments such as cafeterias or messes is rarely perceived as ‘good food’. “Communist urban planners in Shanghai and corporate developmentalists in Singapore, for instance, agree that only by driving food off the street can they become First World Cities,” said Ray. “So, in those conceptions, good food is either domesticated at home or socialized at work in the cafeteria, or curated at the restaurant. It is surely something that has to be driven off the street.”
Even though street vendors are still locked in a struggle to assert their right to public space, the lockdown may have inadvertently helped their cause – at least when it comes to public demand. For consumers, the sudden disappearance of street food may have served as a timely reminder of the intangible ways in which their lives are enriched by it. I spoke to Anubhav Sapra, proprietor of Delhi Food Walks, a popular company that specialises in food tours of Delhi, with plans to expand across India. While mentioning that some of the vendors in his Delhi neighbourhood were back in business, Sapra underscored an important fact – for some, street food isn’t just entertainment. For many groups of people, such as the office-goers and students who depend on it for cost-effective nourishment, it is also a necessity. Therefore, despite the authorities’ zeal for controlling hawkers, the pandemic may in fact hasten their return to the streets.
Whether it is the intimacy of sharing roadside chaat or the spectacle of dining at a banquet, the experience of food is intricately woven into the tapestry of everyday life in the Subcontinent. We mythologise it, revere it and wage war over it. But underlying all its myriad expressions is the powerful motivation to experience a sense of community. Whether it is used as a tool to wield power or to demolish it, as a token of protest or as a means to suppress it, food demands the wilful participation of people. When seen in this light, it is clear that food is a social force — one that cannot be contained even by the impositions of a global pandemic. Food, as we consume it, may temporarily shape-shift. But the primal draw of warm bread – as much for belly as for soul – will linger, relevant long after the pandemic is over.
(This article was first published in Himal Southasian.)