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052: Sharing Food on a Table with Kurush Dalal (Day 7 SFW2)

A goldfish in a bowl keeps a lone restaurant diner company. A group of eight strangers share a thal at a Bohri wedding. Nine mithun skulls announce the prestige of a Naga family and serve as a reminder of feasts past. A mediaeval lord sits at the “high table” and salts the meat before it is served. Japanese employees and managers partake in common meals. Women serve the men and children first, and eat the remaining cold food at the end. A business tycoon feeds 3000 people for his daughter’s elaborate wedding reception.

Commensality - the act of eating together (or the lack of it) implies volumes about the structure of a society. Kurush Dalal engrossed us with examples of feasting together from around the world and highlighted how the practice reveals pecking orders (hierarchies within a family or an institution), inclusivity and exclusion (untouchability, vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide, gender, menstruation), the role of materials (steel vs. glass utensils), and the prominence of certain ingredients (fish heads, salt) amongst others in the hidden matrix of social frameworks.

He then gave us a brief overview of the complex history of the caste system in India, which although was partially destabilised with the arrivals of the colonials (burning of the Manusmriti by Ambedkar on Dec. 25, 1927, increase in cosmopolitan eateries, role of universal education), continues to rear its multi-pronged head. Examples such as the ban on employees from bringing meat in their lunch boxes, to the discontinuation of boiled eggs in free government mid-day meal schemes, to the legally upheld right to refuse rental to meat-eating tenants, show how our caste legacy continues even in contemporary urban India.

Kurush ended last night’s lecture with how the abuse of the word “authentic” in the social media culinary universe has made it lose its meaning. He urged us to challenge the “ownership” of particular dishes (samosa, hummus, baklava) by certain members of a community or a nation, and instead encouraged us to share our own experiences and credit sources explicitly.

"Authenticity & Commensality" Lecture part of online Studying Foods Workshop with Kurush Dalal conducted on March 15, 2022

Further Reading

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