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040: Dr. Krishnendu Ray on Bengali-Americans, Ethnic Restaurants & Ghost Kitchens (Day 9)

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

A rushed breakfast of toast and mass-produced, commercially available cereal. An assimilated and therefore inoffensive sandwich packed in a nondescript lunch box. In stark contrast, an acutely traditional dinner with rice, dal, macher jhol, and sauteed greens eaten around the family table. An “improvised” Thanksgiving feast with the unfamiliar turkey replaced by chicken.

What can we learn about the micropolitics of food and migration from 126 Bengali-American households? How does the lack of domestic help, an increased female participation in the formal workforce, and the availability of ready to eat food, influence what they cook and eat, and why? In the first section of his lecture, Dr. Krishnendu Ray, the Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU, highlighted the gendered and generational differences within immigrant families. He showed that many families constantly toggle between the arenas of innovation, tradition and improvisation in their daily food choices.

“Cuisine happens when cooking escapes the kitchen”. Why are we willing to pay more for an Italian meal prepared by a chef, than for a home-cooked regional Indian meal? What is the difference between a ‘chef’ and a ‘cook’? Dr. Ray referred to the work of Priscilla Ferguson, and built on his book “The Ethnic Restaurateur” (2016) to underline the ‘hierarchy of taste’ in commercial establishments in the United States.

Ray blew our minds with the range and sources of data he had collated in order to make visible both the “price” and “prestige” associated with self-declared “Indian” food served in U.S. restaurants. More than 150 years of New York Times food reviews, Yelp ratings, Zagat reviews, as well as the good old public telephone directories of yore showed the changing landscape and “discursive popularity” of “Indian” food. From the 1940s generic restaurants “India Prince” and “India Bengal Garden”, to later esteemed restaurants such as “Tabla” and “Dhamaka”, Dr. Ray made visible the landscape of Indian restaurants.

In the third part of his lecture, he shared his findings on food delivery service providers, supermarkets and ghost (cloud) kitchens within the context of the pandemic that ravaged New York city. He discussed the sky-rocketing rent, shortage of labour, lack of health-care security, and the technical challenges of trying to provide restaurant style food via brown bags to customers.

Ray saw restaurants as the “third space” in addition to home and work, where we consume, experience, and at times celebrate food. During the lockdowns when home, work, and eating “out” all became confined to the same physical space, I began to crave other third food-spaces that I had taken for granted so far. A sunday pot-luck brunch with friends. A meal in a relative’s house. A quick, yet delicious puliogiri prasad at a neighborhood temple. A banana leaf feast at a cousin’s wedding. What can we extrapolate from Ray’s work in the US, and apply it to our own lived experiences in India?

Talk conducted online on December 1, 2021 "The politics of food and migration by Dr. Krishnendu Ray" Day 9 of the Food and Politics Studying Foods Workshop

Further Reading & Resources

Ray, Krishnendu. The Migrants Table: Meals And Memories In. United States, Temple University Press, 2004.

Ray, Krishnendu. The Ethnic Restaurateur. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

Krishnendu. Curried Cultures. India, Rupa Publications, 2017.

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