Cooking in Times of War: The Humanizing Potential of the Kitchen
This past summer, I spent five weeks in Delhi recording oral histories with survivors (among others) of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984. The first week of November 1984, almost exactly thirty years ago, was a week of horrific state-sponsored violence – rapes, burnings, lootings, against the Sikh population of Delhi. Recording oral histories, especially with those who had witnessed the violence first-hand, was a strange intellectual and emotional process. Recording oral histories made me more keenly aware of the privileges I have been afforded, and it made me constantly reevaluate and rethink my position as an American university-funded ‘researcher’ engaging in ‘fieldwork.’
One such moment was when I entered the home of one of the ‘1984 widows’ in Tilak Vihar (which is often referred to as the ‘Widow Colony,’ as it is where most of the survivors of the 1984 violence were relocated by the state). The homes ‘provided’ by the state to the widows are tiny two room apartments, and entering one such flat was at once eye-opening, disheartening, and heartwarming. As I registered (I don’t think I ever did – in fact, I think I still am) that this was one of the flats I had read, ‘researched,’ and written about and that numerous interviewees had been referring to these very flats, I was offered a glass of water and greeted by the white noise of the same TV commercials I had been hearing all summer. I realized that this flat, while it can be quantified and written about in reports and investigations, had become, in the thirty years since the violence, someone’s home. In the small living- and bedroom, there were bright red curtains, a TV, a coffee table, and – here is where the connection to Tasty Tufts comes in – I was smelling the same aromatic base of onions, ginger, and garlic that one smells in almost any South Asian home. I heard talk of making dal and chawal (rice) from the adjoining kitchen; the voices could very much have been my mother’s or father’s, though they were thousands of miles away.
My – indeed, insignificant and unoriginal – observation that these ‘survivors,’ so easily quantified and made into statistics (I am complicit here), too lead ordinary lives was made most clear to me by that distinctive smell of a tadka coming together.
My insignificant and unoriginal point, then, is that food can – and does – deeply humanize. Matters of conflict or perhaps ‘politics’ perhaps seem out of place in a space like this one, but I think food and, more broadly, cooking, can help to humanize those who are dehumanized in mainstream news reports and those whose realities seem to be miles away from ours. Those who are ravaged by conflict, whose homes are divided by political borders, whose livelihoods are made into sanitized statistics, still eat, cook in, and find ways to fashion the most personal of spaces – the kitchen. (If I continue with the borders thing I’ll start to rant about how South Asia’s partition borders of 1947 failed miserably to divide the subcontinental love for, say, samosas, so let me stop here.)
People more profound and clever than I am have already made this discovery. Specifically, I am referring to, for example, the cookbook by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt entitled The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey. In it, the authors have collected and documented the personal, private, and sacred world of the kitchen, and have thereby compiled an empathetic look into the lives of those who cook, eat, talk – the list goes on – in them. This book helps, as the authors write, to “tell us much about the difficult and paradoxical realities of Gaza after three years of unrelenting siege.” They demonstrate how the everyday of cooking and feeding one’s family is experienced by those for whom politics are determinedly and forcibly personal.
A restaurant in Philadelphia, Conflict Kitchen, has also helped to redefine how we think about the places “with which the United States is in conflict.” Every few months, Conflict Kitchen offers cuisines from a different part of the world and organizes events, performances, and discussions related to the region. It has featured cuisine from Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, among others, and is currently in its Palestinian incarnation.
The Gaza Kitchen and Conflict Kitchen offer radical alternatives to thinking about and positioning oneself in relation to those who live in countries with which ‘we’ are in conflict. They allow one to reconceptualize the humanity of the lives that are erased in dehumanizing narratives of conflict and offer a transnational possibility of empathizing across and beyond nation-state lines.
In the sweeping, mainstream narrative of history, the individual voice – the small voice – is easily elided. As I conducted my ‘research’ in Delhi this summer, methodically recording interviews and ostensibly trying to ‘recover’ the fragments of history, it was the smell of onions, garlic, and ginger that reminded me most profoundly of this small voice.
Cover photo source.