Here I am, spending my first week of 2015, sick as a bug with flu, and yet, thanking my lucky stars that my mom is here to feed me good wholesome, traditional foods. For the past two weeks she has tended me with a warm khitchidi here, a warm cup of cardamom milk there, a ginger chai, hot paratha’s off the griddle, or even a stove-side remedy of a warm bouquet-garnish / poultice of Ajwain. Every now and then, she will comfort me with stories about the dishes she and her father made together, about why she thinks of him often when she cooks a certain way, what her grandma cooked for her once when she was ill, and will unknowingly drop a little twine ball of memories my way, letting them unravel over a cup of cha or coffee at my kitchen table in the dull winter afternoons.
I write about food often, and prolifically. I write about memories, prolifically and often too, find that everything is intertwined for me. It makes me wonder how much of what I write about – is based in pure memory, meaning, how much of it depends on why I am fond of a particular dish, outside of the particular flavors of the dish? Not surprisingly, that my first book, ‘A Dozen Ways to Celebrate’ is steeped in my nostalgia of particular dishes, eats, treats and occasions – food is a big part of my life. If you dont have a copy, get it electronically from Amazon / iBooks or Nook.. I also wonder, does this happen to other people too? If someone loves food, have they ever wondered why some dish was special to them? Do they wonder why anyone else making it, was ‘just not the same’? Would they feel differently, even if whoever was making it, followed the specific favorite recipe to the final letter?
I asked myself a single cerebral question: what makes food (any particular dish) special? As simplistic as this question sounds, it is filled with complex associations. If and how do the ingredients matter? If and how do the people making it matter? If and how does the recipe change when changing hands, generations or geographies? If and how does the context of where the meal is consumed, i.e. ambience – matter? Outside of the socio-economic associations – what personal associations happen when food gets tied to memory? What happens when people try to explain what they are cooking or eating, to someone who has never experienced this food before… So many questions!
Sometimes, when you start looking for some answers, you end up with more and more questions.
I believe that when it comes to nostalgia, there are four parts to it – recognizing it, experiencing it (or in this case, re-living it), establishing it, and negotiating it. It is tricky to explain these pieces at this point, because I am still writing the paper.. but the first part of it, is about recognizing the nostalgia, its roots / origins and its manifestations.
I am honored that the findings will be shared at the Annual edra (Environment, Design Research Association) conference, this year in Los Angeles, CA, in May, 2015, with a host of academic peers (and closeted foodies), all under one roof. The findings will be exciting not only from a pedagogical / academic perspective but also from a personal & sociological perspective. I have attended these conferences in the past and they are indeed a mentally stimulating hotbed of ideas, thoughts and philosophies, new findings from up and coming scholars, as well as revered teachers who have taught many – how to understand the people and their worlds, better.
If you want to tag along, share your food memories with me, via this survey called ‘Food & Memory’. It serves as only one part of a four part essay I am writing. My paper will be presented in the form of a poster at the conference, but I will share the write-up with you here, soon.