Appreciating Food through Its Politics

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I want to lighten it up a little as we enter this week. I've been writing on heavy topics (both on the blog and in my private writing) because it's better to let them out than to keep them rattling around in my head. However, I think we all deserve a good diet of sweet with our bitter, dessert with our vegetables and all that. And perhaps one of the easiest ways to do that is to talk about my love of food.

Food too is filled with as many problems as it has solutions (at least when you think of it on a political level or a health/body image way, as I often do), but I am going to speak about my down home experience of it. Food in Bangladesh has definitely changed over time, but it also retains many of those aspects that we have found new fervor to care about in the West: minimal processing, hyper-local production, freshness, and seasonal eating patterns. Despite much social and economic change, much of food has stayed within these parameters - in part because Bangladesh is an agricultural country and most people don't have money for costly imported or processed "luxury" foods and general there is a "dispensible labor force" that works for little money; mostly these people are unpaid women in households and paid men that are willing to cook in the many pop-up self-owned restaurants. So, you ask me, where's the positive? There are labor issues, there are global capitalist issues, etc. But that's the clincher. Food here is wrapped up in politics and, also, amazing.

It's overwhelmingly interesting and there are so many ways to prepare one type of ingredient. A rich food culture exists that I don't have access to in the United States. Sure, they also have Coke and ice cream and international food, but each of these has a local flair (e.g. have you ever thought about Bengali-made Chinese food?). Even as I know the struggles of women to earn their rights and the general aspirations towards Western food convenience, some selfish part of me wants this food culture to remain in place (sudden death question: is it Orientalism?). I like that we slaughter our meat locally and can't eat certain fruits during the winter and that salt comes from the sea rather than mines. I like the creativity it breeds. Food is a complex battleground (and I haven't even gotten into the politics of who has it and who doesn't), but it's also a meaningful cultural topic that makes you feel that you grateful for the labor and limitations involved, which is the best just desserts.