In a time when what you choose to eat has become a political question, we need to teach our children to respect others’ choices.

Winged termites are yummy The day my ayah taught me to respect whats on anothers plate
Voices Opinion Thursday, June 01, 2017 - 17:23

One of my earliest lessons in food respect came from our family's domestic help when I was around six years old. We called her 'ayah' and I can barely remember her face now.

It was raining all day and by nightfall, the air was full of winged termites – what we call eesal in Tamil. The annoying insects beat their wings frantically around the tube-light in the drawing room and my mother dipped a sheet of paper in oil and tied it to the light source. The insects got stuck to the paper and I watched with fascination as she later removed it and kept it aside.

"Why aren't you throwing it into the dustbin?" I asked.

"Ayah will want the eesal," my mother replied. "She eats them."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing and made a ‘puke’ face. My mother immediately reprimanded me and said that it was impolite to behave like that even if Ayah wasn't around to see it. 

"Not everybody can afford to eat fish and chicken like us. For many families, foods like this are an important source of protein," she said. 

I was appropriately abashed. The next day, when Ayah came home, I caught her at a free moment and asked her, my face full of sympathy, "How do you eat this eesal?"

What I actually meant was – how are you able to bring yourself to put something so disgusting into your mouth?

Ayah, however, launched into a colourful description, "If you add some salt and masala and fry them in hot oil, they taste so yummy and crunchy."

It was at that moment that I realised that Ayah wasn't eating eesal only because she couldn't afford to buy fish and chicken. It was also because she enjoyed eating winged termites so much.

"You can buy kari (meat) from the shop but you have to wait for the rains for this eesal," she said. 

In fact, Ayah enjoyed eating eesal so much that there was only one way in which she could have understood my condescending question. 

Since then, I've often thought about eesal Ayah, whenever I've seen people around me blatantly disrespect food choices made by others.

In India, food choices are dictated more by religion and community than they are by engagements with animal rights or even health issues. So, if you were born into a Brahmin or Jain community, you are brought up to be a vegetarian. If you were born into a non-Brahmin, savarna Hindu family, you are unlikely to have eaten beef as a child (unless you were brought up in Kerala). And if you were born into a Muslim family, you probably would not have grown up eating pork. 

What this means is that your food choices are decided for you by your family's affinity towards a certain set of religious and communal beliefs. Your tastes and preferences are conditioned heavily by how your family talks about food. 

Encouraging aversion towards certain foods (whether that's onion or meat) is one of the prime ways through which families control what their children eat when out of sight. So, statements like "Meat is disgusting" or "Eating garlic is sinful" are used to instill such an aversion in the child that s/he will not dream of eating the food even when there's no adult around to supervise the meal.

Food is routinely used as a way of othering. "They are not like us" is the argument used when a child asks why it's okay for her friend to eat fish or pork, but not for her to do so. There is also a narrative of communal superiority that accompanies these arguments – We don't eat that because we're better than they are. 

The school tiffin box turns political when children begin to find out who is who based on what they bring to eat. 

Most often, food aversion appears in a caste or religious context. But sometimes, it can also be regional – I recall at least three people who went to different engineering colleges in Chennai telling me the same "horror" story of how a "North-east" (no, we don't care which state from the North-east) senior of theirs killed and ate a puppy in the hostel. 

When families talk about food, they seldom delve into the beauty of its evolution or its place in a culture – why, for instance, do Bengalis consume so much fish? Why do Kerala dishes have so much coconut in them? How did the kebabs of Lucknow become so soft? Why is beef so popular among the Dalits? Why do we all have such different cuisines and food preferences?

Reducing the immense diversity and cultural wealth of the country to a mere "because they are not like us" only succeeds in making a child think that it's okay for him/her to judge another based on what they eat. And that it's all right to express their aversion to a certain food because it is expected of them and even natural.

There is no historical understanding of why certain foods are popular among certain communities, of the fact that these cuisines evolved out of availability and survival, more than any other reason. Of course, these were subsequently influenced by local factors, innovation and even some happy accidents.

In social media discussions on animal rights, I've often seen people who have been brought up in privileged, vegetarian families eloquently decry animal slaughter without for a moment assessing their own positions in the social hierarchy. A position their family has held for generations, standing upon the backs of other communities. 

My quarrel is not with advocates of animal rights but with those who assume a position of moral superiority without acknowledging their own sociocultural location. 

It’s a stance that they will invariably pass on to their children who are already learning in kindergarten that the cow "gives" milk (no darling, we TAKE it) and that eating meat is somehow shameful because look, the school doesn't allow them to bring it. 

These are challenging times to be raising a child. One has to be prepared to answer questions ranging from how peacocks reproduce to why a man was beaten for eating a certain meat.

It is a time when what you choose to eat has become a political act (it always was but it's now spelt out in neon). To those still open to conversation and debate, I can only request that even if you may want your child's food preferences to be aligned with your religious beliefs, instill these thoughts without encouraging aversion. Talk about food, everybody's and anybody's, with respect. 

Tell them that it's all right for people to have radically different food choices and that these don't signify anyone's superiority or inferiority. This is an education that can only begin at home and is one that's far more important than getting your child to IIT where he may, one day, punch another in the eye because he didn't like what the latter ate.

Image courtesy: These flying ants come out during the early days of the rainy season (around December); From Wikimedia Commons.

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