Late last week I posted the third entry in my series covering writing on Indian food in mainstream American media. As someone who does not really have much of a food following—or much of a following of any kind really—I expected it would be of interest to a few and then sort of disappear. I was surprised, however, to see the piece get shared by a lot of food people on Twitter, including a number of people whose own work I find interesting. This was certainly gratifying. I am not in the food/writing industry and don’t really move in those virtual circles and so it’s nice to see that people who do spend a lot of time reading and writing about food find my views at least of interest. And it was very nice in particular to see lots of people of South Asian origin “liking” it on Twitter.
Along with that though came some ambivalence about the piece’s popularity—in less than four days it has become the second-most read post this year on the blog (sorry, it’s going to take some doing to catch my perennially popular recipe for pineapple chutney). What can I say? I’m the kind of miserable sod who gets uncomfortable when too many people agree with him. And I worried in particular that in my undisciplined way (the whole thing was written in one shot spread over about 3 hours), and in my own laziness (once I got to 2000 words I moved quickly to a conclusion and only edited the whole thing cosmetically) I had failed to properly emphasize some key points and to clarify some others. And it was also drawn to my attention that I had made two errors (I’m sure there are more). Here therefore is a quick follow-up that corrects those errors, (hopefully) clarifies some things, and puts proper emphasis on the point in the conclusion.
First the errors:
- A couple of people pointed out to me in private that I gave Sonia Chopra a promotion by referring to her as Eater’s Managing Editor. Indeed, the masthead on the site lists her as “Director of Editorial Strategy”. But I didn’t pull this out of my ass; I got if from Eater’s own profile page for her. Unless there are two Sonia Chopras at Eater, I made a mistake but had some help from Eater itself in making it.
- The second error is not one of commission but of implication. My chief point in the piece was that “family” in much recent Indian American food writing re-inscribes the upper/middle class, upper caste Hindu family; and my reading of Khusbu Shah’s piece on Patel Bros. which emphasizes vegetarianism gives the impression that her family is Hindu as well. Of course, in her article she states that her mother is in fact Jain. Now, her family’s actual religion is not the point of that section—I am more interested in how a particular view of Indian food/culture is re-inscribed by citations of vegetarianism as a “normal” aspect of Indian identity. Jains are predominantly vegetarian, so are Sikhs, and both are religious minorities—but this fact doesn’t really negate the point that I was making there that it is Muslim and lower-caste Hindu identity that is most at risk of erasure under the sign of vegetarianism (as well as the reality that most upper caste Hindus too are non-vegetarians). Still, it was sloppy.
Clarifications (possibly unnecessary):
- I am not making the claim that any of the writers I refer to directly in that piece—or anyone I don’t—are setting out to write pieces that push upper class/Hindu/upper caste identities and narratives as the norm. I am making the claim that they are often unaware of or uninterested in these built-in biases in their work. As I say, “together they form a composite picture that none may individually intend”.
- Similarly, I am not making the claim that any of these writers—or others I do not name—are setting out to make representative claims about a larger Indian identity. Again, individual intention is not really what I’m interested in: it is the composite image that emerges from a number of individual pieces about particular subjects. To behave as though the few pieces that make it to print in major publications do not achieve a representative status that their writers may not individually aspire to is naive at best.
The points I should have noted or emphasized more strongly:
- Though I noted this to some degree in my first post in the series, last week’s piece did not acknowledge the fact that the recent coming to prominence of some younger Indian American writers is significant in its own right. The world of food media remains overwhelmingly white and critics such as myself have to be aware of the fact that these writers—no matter how much more power they may seem to have relative to their counterparts from earlier decades—are still operating in a constrained space. This should not of course become an alibi for work that does not push the boundaries but professional context is important.
- And this brings me to the point I most regret not having fully developed in last week’s piece: the role of white editors and publishers in continuing to under-develop the discourse around Indian and Indian American food in the publications they are the gate-keepers of. Yes, writers can propose differently conceived or emphasized pieces but it’s not going to make much difference if the people commissioning, approving or editing what writers can write remain overwhelmingly white, and from the evidence, overwhelmingly ignorant of the material. Certainly there are writers who are good at parlaying the existing situation into careers, and I do not mean to let them off the hook, but the real change has to come inside editorial departments. There has to be greater rigour in the commissioning and editing of pieces on Indian/American food but that rigour cannot come from people who don’t themselves know anything about the material beyond cliches. How this change will come I have no idea but it’s not going to happen by people congratulating themselves about pat “diversity” of coverage.
And, finally, I know it’s easy for me to make these critiques from a position of some privilege outside the industry. I have to be more conscious of the fact that (younger) people who are trying to make/sustain careers inside it don’t have quite the same freedom even if they all wanted to do something different. Again, this is not to give people who don’t seem interested in doing anything different—or those who seem content to exploit the existing system—-an alibi; it is to remind myself to be a bit more generous. In fact, my next piece on related subjects—which I am currently mulling in my head and will probably get to after my upcoming review of Priya Krishna’s cookbook—will not be focused on individual writers but on the broader issue of the place of “authenticity” in American food discourse and how it narrows the space in which “ethnic” cuisines can operate or be theorized. Look for that in a couple of weeks.