Posted on April 8th, 2011
When Shoba Narayan was a little girl, she carried an aluminum pail to a man with a skinny cow, and the man was a farmer, and the cow’s udders had to be squeezed. The farmer squeezed the udders and Narayan brought fresh milk home to her mother. Fresh milk comes from a cow, not from a supermarket. Fresh milk is clotted and rich and its cream rises to the top, as it should when milk is fresh and comes from a cow. When her mother boiled the milk it was to set yogurt.
Clearly this is not a memory or a piece of my heritage, but the vividness of the cow’s udders is so startling and the expanse of the world of India so vast that it is scarcely conceivable that this memory couldn’t be mine. Shoba Narayan might have told me this story, but I’m the one who remembers it. In the last couple of weeks, as I opened the vaults of Gourmet’s archives, and watched tape after tape until the vaults had been emptied, I have been collecting other people’s memories. Increasingly I am finding that whenever someone says, “India”, I am responding too quickly with facts about the culture, and snide remarks about what makes authentic and inauthentic Indian food, or I mention my plans to travel to India next summer as casually as if I had grown up among the streets of Bangalore all my life, along with where I would purchase fresh milk from a cow to bring back to my mother. Narayan’s memory is a glorious memory. Glorious because her milk and spices and Panni Poori connect her to the traditions of her ancestors and the ancientness of India’s landscape, and the heritage of Narayan’s food. The closest I can get is watching a three-minute clip of Ruth Reichel, former editor of Gourmet, rolling the shiny long sleeves of her Chinese cheongsam jacket, while lecturing her viewers on the art of Chicken Vindaloo.
Though I gladly make fun of the spectacle, I admit I’m also engaging in the spectacle with my cardamom-scented dreams. What’s interesting about our post-Marxist, post-everything world is that nothing stands for itself, and most things are related to pornography. Gastroporn is a term used to describe how our culture has transformed food into fantasy. When one sees a burger on a television screen, one’s hunger is gratified by an image, but gratification lasts only for a second before one discovers, “I’m a little hungry.” Today no one actually needs to eat a burger to be satisfied by a burger: we’re all masturbators here. In the context of a food and travel guide, this means that I can steal the practices, beliefs and memories of a culture without dirtying myself in that culture. The reason why Gourmet cuts off the beginnings and ends of its food diaries is because it’s no longer a conventional travel show measuring a physical journey. Gourmet is offering an experience more satisfying than that: better than a trip to India, or a plate of Chicken Vindaloo, is an opportunity to live under the native’s skin: to inhabit his body, to purchase his experiences, memories, heritage. Most people don’t find this offensive because we apparently live in an age where we are liberated from everything we don’t want to do or think about.
Thirty, forty years ago I don’t think anyone would have wanted to consume an Other person’s heritage. It was great to be an American; why be anyone else? What has happened since then is that we have lost our own food heritage.
Sometimes when I’m pushing my cart through the local Ikea and looking for my favorite brand of frozen Swedish meatballs, I wonder if we’ve become something like amnesiacs. I can’t for the life of me remember a Slow Life and this is probably what prompted the Slow Food movement of the 1980’s, a movement that includes such figures as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. As desperate as I am to forge a history, I still feel uneasy when someone claims to be benevolent and constructs a public history, hopeful as it is, for every American to subscribe to. Perhaps you’re familiar with the Foodie’s Great American Past, and how once upon a time our country was filled with smokers and southern barbeque, and portly black men, and scrawny wrinkled white men, tending to their grills, on sustainable farms, which they owned, full of plump chickens. The problem with this narrative is that only a few of us have grandfathers or great-grandfathers who owned their own plot of land and knew how to do smoked meats right. I don’t doubt that our ancestors did have a deeper connection to their land and food. The problem is that we romanticize this past, and the past is too distant for me, and I never received the heirlooms of this Great Heritage. I don’t know about you, but my mother never told me a story about chickens and smokers, and I don’t think she’s heard a story like this herself. I just think we should all be suspicious when a whole group of people are linked to the same memory, especially when most of us can’t remember it.
I consider myself part of a generation suffering from the ultimate amnesia. What I remember about my childhood is that there was a McDonald’s on every corner of the street and my grandfather worked briefly at one while my mother had three jobs, which explains why my nostalgia is built on memories of frozen burritos, filled with peas and cheese, packed in frosty cardboard boxes from Costco. I remember the delight I experienced only last year during a road trip and an accidental stop in Jersey in the middle of the night–my first White Castle experience, or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me I had been eating the same tender buttery burger twenty years ago but didn’t see the connection until my cousin told me so, because back then the White Castle burgers my mother bought were only available frozen, sealed in plastic, and microwavable. I love these memories and I don’t think they are unique to the American landscape, considering the American landscape is dotted with fast food joints.
However much I love my memories, though, there are problems with this kind of heritage, too. Seen from a distance, my attachment to fast food might signal a culture that has no ties to the land or the people of its community; it signals a life where everything is sealed-up in a vacuum. Perhaps we might even extend this metaphor to talk about the relationships that we have with each other: being sealed-up, that is. And how I view my neighbors in terms of an exchange, and I admit, I have no problem treating others as if they were products in a vending machine. Understandably a television show owned by Gourmet would not want my sort of memory because real memories get mixed up with other things and what viewer wants to confront the issues of globalization? Better to keep the conversation light and our reflections pleasurable; better to subscribe to our memories from the heritage-factory.