By Nisha Susan Nov. 29, 2016
Another generation perhaps fell in love or became friends because of movies or shared musical obsessions. But in 2016, what better social lubricant do we have other than food?
Afriend was describing his turbulent romance recently, and dropped this on me, “She’s unhappy with sex. It’s true that our sex life sucks, but sex isn’t that important to me. I’m happy to be with her anyway.”
I tried not to faint or be judgmental, but my brain went, “Whaaa… What did he say?”
When I’d recovered my poise, I replied, “Since you two are thinking about getting married, maybe you should discuss this more. Over time, you might change your minds about how important it is.”
Trying for clarity, I added, “It’s like you were with a girl who didn’t care about food. Suppose she said to you, ‘Food isn’t that important to me.’”
He sat up from his lounging, outraged. “That’s ridiculous. I’d never be with a girl who didn’t care about food. She’d never be with me if I didn’t care about food.”
Now this friend is a foodie so lack of food conversation is death to him. But you’d be surprised to find that if you struck off food from the list of topics allowed in a social setting, you’d be left chewing at your handkerchief in panic.
There’s this bit at the end of Pride and Prejudice that always makes me giggle. Elizabeth and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner are visiting Pemberley and their hostess is the shy teenager Miss Darcy. “The next variation which their visit afforded was produced by the entrance of servants with cold meat, cake, and a variety of all the finest fruits in season; but this did not take place till after many a significant look and smile from Mrs Annesley to Miss Darcy had been given, to remind her of her post. There was now employment for the whole party; for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table.”
Every second week I think to myself, “They could not all talk, but they could all talk about what they are eating, ate or hope to eat,” and I am reassured. The conversational landscape today is a minefield. Certainly we can’t discuss politics because who knows what truths, post-truths, and post-its we’d have to deal with, who knows what relationships could be destroyed. And we don’t read quite in the same way anymore. Once every few years comes along a megabook like Gone Girl that everyone feels blackmailed into reading, so they don’t look totally clueless.
As the serious cultural pursuit of our times, there are levels and levels of using food to get through the game of social terror.
Otherwise if I offer my Nicki Minaj to your Sufjan Stevens, you’re likely to tell me to keep my headphones.
It’s the rare tight-knit living room that can entertain itself with talk of exactly how many diyas you are supposed to light on Chhoti Diwali (21? 51? No, no, 21). Otherwise, our cultural lives are so fragmented and so specific it’s often hard to find a universal truth. Unless you are the kind of person who, when introduced to someone from Bangalore, bores them about that one time you were stuck in Whitefield traffic (“You guys have ruined the city. Still, the weather is good”), in which case that’s the last time you and I are in a conversation and this discussion is moot.
So that leaves the khana and the peena.
Perhaps another generation fell in love or became friends because of movies or shared musical obsessions, or even books. But in 2016, what better social lubricant do we have other than food? “Did you eat that when you were in this city?” “If you go to my town, remind me to tell you what to eat.” “I just discovered this hole-in-the-wall with the most amazing <insert homely snack>.”
What would we do without these – our familiar culinary crutches?
What would you talk to the stiff and strange significant others of friends or potential new lovers, if you couldn’t spend the whole evening playing the have-you-have-you game about restaurants, Old Delhi, the new dal baati, the better Korean barbecue, the best gelato. What else would we talk about?
As the serious cultural pursuit of our times, there are levels and levels of using food to get through the game of social terror. We learn to dismiss the self-described foodie with the contempt once held for the self-described voracious reader. You learn who to confess to that you have a restaurant bucket list, and who to confess to that you actually don’t cook as much as you should. Whose Instagram feed must you confess that you are obsessed with, and whose to pretend you’ve never even noticed.
And sometimes, after dozens of conversations of bragging and cool spotting and shaming (for being sucked into overrated-ness), if you are really lucky you may make a real friend. He is not impatiently waiting for you to finish your texture-heavy description of blood fry in Salem to launch into his own finger-kissing descriptions of soup dumplings in Shanghai. You may not want to know what he feels about demonetisation (and secretly it may not even matter), because he knows what it is like to hear about gulab jamun ki sabzi for the first time and wanting it for years. He knows the giddy feeling of being slightly drunk in a strange town and wandering into a small restaurant and recklessly ordering things, as others would plunge into a conference-affair.
Sometimes you take a leap of faith and ask: Do you want to go to that place with me? You know and he knows that he could just find the place on Google Maps, and navigate the menu with as much ease as the map. If he replies with the exact proportion of delight, gratitude, and confidence, it’s like getting your scrambled eggs exactly right. Tentativeness is transformed into tenderness and everything else feels secondary.
Because you know that talk is cheap and eating is serious.
Nisha Susan is the co-founder of the feminist online magazine The Ladies Finger and the award-winning indie media organisation Grist Media. She also writes fiction.