Category Archives: India

Thesis Review and Interview: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Waterlogged rice fields of rural Konkan, Maharashtra

Please note: As Associate Editor, I am soliciting reviews of recent dissertations in the Anthropology of Food. So if you have written a recent thesis or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Anna He Purnabramha: Deorukhe Women’s Agency in the Making of Bodies, Cuisine, and Culture in Maharashtra, India. Gauri Anilkumar Pitale. Ph.D. Thesis in Anthropology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 2017.

Elizabeth Finnis (University of Guelph, Canada)

Gauri A. Pitale’s doctoral work takes a biocultural approach to understanding potential health implications of dietary changes in the context of liberalization, globalization, and national change in India. Pitale worked with 66 pairs of Deorukhe Brahmin mothers and daughters living in rural and urban Maharashtra; mothers were all born and raised in a pre-liberalization India, with daughters born and raised in the post-liberalization era. Drawing on qualitative and anthropometric data, Pitale looks at intergenerational differences, asking how changing dietary practices are implicated in notions of the self and identity. In doing so, she considers Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases (CNCDs), including obesity, hypertension and diabetes, testing a range of hypotheses, and exploring foodscapes in terms of the lived experiences of her participants and issues of purity, perceptions of health, and the body. What particularly stands out in her ethnographic approach is the placing of anthropometric measurements within larger contexts of notions of identity and caste purity. Her anthropometric results and discussions are bracketed by chapters that draw on her qualitative data and her fieldwork reflections, including considerations of changing perceptions of food/cooking and implications for relationships and exchange, and the ways that processes of urbanization can affect food habits and preferences.

There is much to think about in Pitale’s work, including reflections on the expected and unexpected in fieldwork, urbanization and the presence of CNCDs, and changes in food habits that have both dietary and moral implications for participants. Pitale’s dissertation allows readers to reflect on questions that are of importance both in contemporary India and that also address broader issues of identity, belonging, food, and place. These include: How do notions of purity and kinship intersect with cooking rules, not just in terms of food eaten, but also with regards to how the space of a traditional hearth is used, and what it symbolizes? How does convenience get complicated by notions of authenticity and taste? What do kitchen implements and home-grown or home-prepared spices mean in terms of family history and tradition? How do space and place affect the types of food that daughters want to cook, and their relative cooking skills? How are community ties reinforced through shared cooking activities? And, How are anxieties around maintaining caste identities and/or engaging with cosmopolitan identities, intersecting with food?

These questions are considered through different cultural and data lenses. For example, Pitale provides a discussion of cooking and kitchens, including the symbolic, sacred value of the traditional chul (a u-shaped clay stove, coated with a double-layer of plaster made from cow dung and water, and red earth) and its associated rules for use, versus the comparatively rule-free and convenient gas stove. Through her discussion, Pitale demonstrates some of everyday complexities of balancing multiple factors in food preparation and consumption.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Chul in a rural Deorukhe kitchen

Another example includes considerations of some of the differences when it comes to cooking skills among rural and urban daughters. While young rural women are expected to develop cooking skills and learn how to manage a kitchen at a young age, in part related to the need for an alternative cook when mothers are practicing menstrual seclusion, urban daughters are less likely to have significant skills in the kitchen. When urban daughters do cook, it is more likely non-traditional recipes, or “fun” foods like pizza and cakes. This also connects to the chul, with urban daughters preferring to use gas stoves, and in some cases, being unable to effectively cook on a chul at all.

With her anthropometric data, Pitale also considers how nutritional transitions are implicated in CNCDs; she hypothesises clear differences between her rural and urban participants, with a generational effect. Her findings indicate that, for example, based on weight circumference, almost all mothers (rural and urban) would be considered obese (86.4%), but rural daughters were more likely to be underweight than urban daughters. One of Pitale’s surprising findings was in terms of blood pressure; contrary to expectations, rural mothers had higher blood pressure than urban mothers. This finding questions underlying assumptions that traditional diets and activity levels can help to minimise high blood pressure, while urbanized diets and lifestyles can increase it.

Overall, this is a rich dissertation that uses a range of data collection methods to create a complicated picture of the ways that food intersects with notions of the self, and health. Who should read this dissertation? This work is of interest to anyone who is thinking about how food practices shape and are shaped by everyday rural or urban life, and the implications that this has for how people think about their identities and health, and to those looking for an example of the complexities of economic liberalization, rural-urban differences, and caste in contemporary India. The thesis will also be of interest to researchers thinking about how to approach biocultural research projects, and how to integrate anthropometric and qualitative data within ethnography. As I read the dissertation, a number of questions emerged for me around some of the public elements of Pitale’s work, her findings, and her fieldwork experiences, and my review concludes with an interview addressing some of these questions.

Elizabeth Finnis (EF): Hi, Gauri! I enjoyed reading your doctoral work, and thank you for letting the SAFN blog host this review and an interview with you about your work and research experiences. My first question is something that I often ask people during (or immediately after!) a defense: Who would you hope would read your work, outside of anthropological audiences?

Gauri A. Pitale (GAP): I would love for everyone to read my dissertation because I certainly find it rather riveting a topic! Jokes apart, I think my study would be illuminating for those governmental agencies that are working on addressing problems related to the double-burden of overnutrition and undernutrition that India is facing. As a country, we [Indians] are leading in the numbers of deaths that are connected to CNCDs. The increasing encroachment of multi-national corporations that sell fast foods and ones that may result in the disappearance of small kirana (grocery) shops is concerning. India is in a precarious position. The coming two to three decades will vitally change the food consumption and the food distribution system of the entire country. Yes, certainly we should address the biological causes that make Indians susceptible to CNCDs. But if the government does not increase awareness among people, there is high likelihood that India will face the same challenges that western nations like the United States of America faced starting the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, we notice that an increasing number of urban Indians are becoming more and more conscious of how to maintain their health by going to dieticians and/or the gym. On the other hand, large swathes of Indians are turning to Ayurveda and traditional remedies to counter these same problems. It is my hope that this dissertation highlights how variable the answers can be within one country. Other than government agencies, I would also love for my research to be read by the Deorukhe community. I hope they find it useful. I have already given them a copy of my dissertation and am currently waiting to hear back from them.

EF: So, then what do you hope a non-anthropologist will really understand about your research?

GAP: When I explained my dissertation research focus to my Indian friends and family, their responses were rather interesting. Some found the research topic to be rather bland, while others thought that the information I was gathering was so commonplace that they couldn’t comprehend why it needed to be researched at all. Non-Indian friends and family also found the subject pale in comparison to studying the more “exotic” aspects of Indian culture and society. I soon realized that people take food for granted. While Indians have a medicinal system entrenched in food, westerners are usually more focused on the nutritional aspects of food. That said, food and eating has been and will always remain a social as well as an emotional experience. Though the relationship between food consumption and health seems like a straightforward one, my study demonstrates that making any sort of policy decisions to control or even address the rising appearance of Chronic Non-Communicable Disorders (CNCDs) will remain hopelessly abstruse if we disregard the historical, ecological, political, as well as the economic aspects of why people eat the way they do. Certainly, there are a multitude of factors involved but a deep understanding of the issue on both a local and global level is valid and necessary. To actually affect change, we need to start making lay people aware of this simple fact: food and the body are not things that can be studied bereft of their social surroundings.

EF: Your answer makes me think a bit about how the participants in your research thought about blood pressure and mental/emotional stress. You argue that for your participants, particularly the rural ones, high blood pressure is considered related to mental and emotional stress, and is therefore seen as a temporary condition. Are there bigger implications of this understanding of high blood pressure?

GAP: This is one of the aspects of my study that surprised me immensely. I hypothesized that high blood pressure would be more common among urban participants in comparison to rural participants. This is in line with published research doing a comparative analysis between urban and rural populations. Therefore, the results of my data collection coupled with my experiences in the field were atypical and confusing. My rural interlocutors did view high blood pressure to be the result of a temporary condition. These people were also going to rural medical practitioners. I wish I had the time to visit these doctors to ascertain whether they had actually told the interlocutors that this was a temporary condition. The main thing that concerned me was, if hypertension was being viewed as a temporary health issue occurring as a result of stress, then treating it accordingly might result in more health complications in the long run.

More importantly, the implications of this perspective are two-fold. One, if and when a complication does occur in the future when these women are older, the problem would be treated as something to be expected because high blood pressure is seen as a chronic health condition that plagues old people. Two, most studies expect hypertension to be a condition that is commonly noted among urban people; rural people suffering from the same condition might not even be considered to be at risk. This could mean that they will never be tested or treated until a complication arises. A large part of rural India bears the burden of undernutrition. The Deorukhes are comparatively well-off thanks to their caste status. Therefore, we must also acknowledge this occurrence of hypertension among this rural population might not be something that applies to people of all castes in rural India. For all of these reasons, it is highly likely that these conditions will not be noticed anytime soon. This concerns and worries me, especially in connection to their long-term health and their quality of life.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Roadside fruit seller, Mumbai

EF: I found it interesting to read your brief discussion of the guilt felt by some mothers if they don’t – or can’t – cook for their children. Do you think similar feelings can play out in different kinds of households, both within and outside of India? What makes it different (or not) for your participants?

GAP: What a fantastic question! I am happy you asked me this. The guilt felt by mothers is certainly not unique to Indian culture. There are many cultures in which I assume women experience guilt that corresponds with the diet and health of their family members. I assume because having grown up in India, I experience this guilt and deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I believe the difference lies in how my participants experience this within the social dynamics of Indian society. I am certain women in other cultures also have certain expectations that are thrust upon them. In the case of my interlocutors however, there is the added layer of caste-related food prescriptions. The expectation that Deorukhe Brahmin women in general have to safeguard household purity is a larger part of this guilt. Women have to learn to prepare traditional foods so that they can pass on traditions to daughters and daughters-in-law. And while every culture has a family recipe that can be learned from elders in the family, how integral these recipes are to one’s communal identity changes from one culture to another.

I can give you an example of something that occurred in my own family. I happened to visit the family of a friend who was of a lower caste. They invited me for dinner one evening. I remember that her mom had made some type of shellfish that I had never tried before. I found it to be rather delicious. Upon returning home my grandmother promptly asked me what had been served for dinner. I told her about this unheard-of shellfish and asked my mother why she never cooked this fish at home. My grandmother immediately replied, “We don’t buy that kind of fish. Those are eaten by lower caste people.” Until that moment, I had no idea that my friend belonged to a different caste group at all. But my grandmother deemed it necessary to educate me about the differences in upper and lower caste fish consumption at the age of 10, lest I make any such demands again. These conversations are ubiquitous in rural and urban Indian households. The guilt felt at crossing these boundaries is an additional aspect of the guilt felt by my interlocutors. It may not be unique to India because I am sure this kind of gate-keeping also occurs in other world cultures. The difference may be in the amount of social consequences that result from women’s failure to control the food that enters their households in general and into the bodies of their family members in particular.

EF: I also appreciated the methodological and positionality reflections that you incorporate into your dissertation. For example, you write about how, when collecting data, you were positioned as the ‘expert’, but that when you entered kitchens, you became understood as lacking in experience and basic knowledge. What did this kind of ‘flip’ in perceptions of expertise teach you about doing ethnographic research?

GAP: The first lesson that I learned when I went into the field was that people tell you what they think you want to hear. This is a lesson we all learn as anthropologists, and that’s why we spend so much time getting comfortable with our interlocutors and participating in their lives as we observe them. My fieldwork was incredibly fruitful. Despite that, my appearance as an Indian woman who lived in America and had come back to India to study the Deorukhes put me in an interesting position. In one part of the introduction chapter of my dissertation, I discuss my position and the social capital that I had which resulted in the Deorukhes allowing me into their homes. However, my familiarity, while at times a disadvantage, was also an advantage in this case. I want to be clear that I’m not implying that non-native anthropologists may not have used this strategy to make their interlocutors comfortable. But the fact remains that the conversations about food and food habits that I had with Deorukhe mothers lacked the depth that I found satisfying. I also realized that talking in their living rooms about food often resulted in the whole family, and in some case entire neighborhoods, monitoring the interaction. The resultant conversation was stunted and awkward, something I noticed as I started transcribing my field recordings. I was spending more time asking questions and directing conversations rather than getting answers.

The request to enter their kitchens to watch them cook was put forth for two main reasons. One, not everyone is allowed entry into each other’s household kitchens. The audience had to leave or wait outside in the living room, allowing me and the woman to be alone or at least have fewer people around. This was something I noticed in one household during my first visit. I went into the kitchen to return a cup of coffee to the lady of the house. She told me where to place the dirty cup in the kitchen and promptly started amending some of her answers. Her husband and some men in the village were sitting outside in the living room hearing us talk. In the kitchen, she started complaining about how difficult it is to manage the food habits of her husband. It became obvious that the kitchen was her domain and the one place she felt safe to voice her opinions without being overheard, especially by the men since they rarely ventured into this space. The second reason was to reduce the awkwardness of sitting and talking without having anything to do. Most of my interlocutors were happy to show off their kitchens to me. No matter how small or large, how fancy or simple, these were their spaces, arranged to their liking, and spaces that they controlled. Also, if they kept busy, I assumed our discussions would be more fruitful. The dynamic shift was an unexpected discovery. As soon as I noticed it, I immediately began to ponder on the manner in which their assumption of my inexperience in matters related to running a household relaxed them and made them want to impart knowledge to me.

Present day anthropology has come a long way from what we thought about our interlocutors to how we perceive them today. They are the experts from whom we learn. I went into the field with that point of view. And while I fully intended to carry out semi-structured interviews, I also had a long list of questions prepared so that I could collect data on food acquisition patterns. I still have this data. I have piles of data about how much rice, flour, lentils, masalas, etc. each household buys. I also have data about the money each household spends on food and other food acquisition pattern information. While I meticulously collected this data in the field, I also realized that for me, the deep ethnographic data that started to shine and capture my attention was what I encountered in the kitchens as I watched women cook. These discussions and interactions were far more rewarding and indicative of what they wanted to tell me. I chose to focus on their voices rather than only focus on my initial study objectives. What this taught me is that it is important to go into the field with specific objectives. However, it is equally important to allow our interlocutors to tell us what they deem to be important for us to know. In between these two points is where the actual fun and research lies!

EF: In focusing on the health of women, did you ever get participants wondering why you weren’t also considering the health of men? If yes, in what kinds of ways did you respond to these queries?

GAP: The Deorukhe community did initially assume that my research was about the entire household. I would have very much liked to have focused on entire households because the data gathered would have been richer, especially ethnographically speaking. There were, however, several restrictions. For one, my study was self-funded, which meant I could only spend a certain amount of time in the field. For statistical reasons, I needed to recruit at least 35 families from both rural and urban settings. I also needed to visit each family at least three times to note seasonal changes in their diet as well as their anthropometric measurements. All of this really restricted my ability to spend more time with each family. The more people I needed to meet, the more difficult it was to find time to meet with them. The men of the household, especially rural men, often controlled my access to their wives and daughters in the initial stages of my study. Though I was requesting the women to be a part of my study, in many rural families the men closely monitored the initial conversations. In one household in particular, the women and her daughters never uttered a single word in reply until the husband said, “Alright, go ahead and add us to your list of participants.”

Restricting the study to women and girls was something that I had already discussed with my advisors and committee members. This is because ease of access to my interlocutors and the ability to hold conversations in both public and private was important to me. There is a high amount of gender segregation in India. As a woman, it was easier for me to get access to and speak with young girls and women. Conversations with men were not impossible but these took place more in urban settings rather than rural settings. As for your question about whether participants wondered about why my research did not consider men, they did not. That is because I told them when I was recruiting that I was focusing on women because they were the gastronomic gate-keepers and the ones in charge of managing the household’s food consumption patterns. This made sense to my interlocutors. From their perspective, I was not only measuring their and their daughters’ bodies, but at the same time I was discussing with them the health of their entire family. My interlocutors often told me how they managed to ensure their sons, husbands, or fathers-in-law stayed healthy. This was vital to their discussions about the various challenges that they face when trying to keep their families healthy, a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

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Photograph: Gauri A. Pitale – Food court of a mall, Mumbai

EF: Your picture of changing food habits among your participant households is both rich, and, as you indicate yourself, patchy in some ways. What’s next for you, in terms of research?

GAP: This is a wonderful question! I loved every minute of my fieldwork and found interacting with the Deorukhe community in general to be a very rewarding experience. As a doctoral candidate who went into the field for her first long-term fieldwork, I experienced a lot of anxiety when things did not go as planned. The lack of both time and money was on the forefront of my mind. This meant that as much as possible, I collected every piece of information that I could. Along the way, I also collected large swathes of data about factors that I had not even considered to be influential to my research results. This is a large reason for why my research results are rich and at the same time provide a patchy picture. I think that is the strength of ethnographic fieldwork. I struggled to make sense of the enormous amount of information that I gathered during my fieldwork after I returned to America. After much contemplation and several discussions with my advisors and doctoral committee members, it became clear that the only way I could write this dissertation, for me, was by focusing on things that my interlocutors spoke about the most. Those are the things I have written about. I am happy with the way my dissertation has turned out, but it honestly only speaks about 30% of the information that I have gathered during my fieldwork.

Going forward I will publish chapters of my dissertation. Someday soon, I would also like to return to the field with funding so that I can fill in the gaps that currently exist, while also noting the changes that have taken place since 2014. And while I want to continue working with the Deorukhe community, I would also like to add another caste group, preferably people who are meat-eaters. This might allow for a richer and better comparative analysis. In an India that is experiencing large-scale dietary changes, I would like to see how the idea of purity and caste identities continues to play out. That would enable us, as food anthropologists, to really study the communal tension that underlies the study of food and culture in modern day India.

EF: Thank you, Gauri, for your responses, and for your contributions to the SAFN blog!

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Filed under anthropology, book reviews, cooking, cuisine, culture, diabetes, food and health, gender, India, nutrition, obesity

Review: Metabolic Living

 Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and The Absorption of Illness in India. Harris Solomon. Duke University Press, 2016

Gauri Anilkumar Pitale
Southern Illinois University

          This original ethnographic work studies the meanings and practices surrounding metabolic functions in the everyday life and diet of contemporary urban Indians. Set in the city of Mumbai, the author challenges the reader to question the notion of “globesity”. Such terms loom important in the epidemiological considerations about the sudden increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes in India in the past few decades. Solomon provides the readers with detailed ethnographic vignettes that render his interlocutors as real people with problems and issues connected to city living, the same problems that affect their bodies in turn. Using the concept of ‘absorption of illness’ as the central theme of the book, the author states, “I consider how people make connections between food and urban life to explain that absorption is taking hold as the ground for experiencing and making sense of chronic illness” (Pg. 5).

            The book begins with a discussion of the ‘thin-fat’ Indian phenotype, used by scientists to comprehend the current rates of obesity and diabetes in India. Trying to attack the concept of metabolic syndrome from many perspectives, the author generates an ethnography that takes into consideration the problem of obesity and diabetes from several different directions. He carefully begins this book by discussing the Indian thin-fat phenotype. This phenotype, typical of Indians, results in the Indian people having a high amount of central adiposity (abdominal fat). A phenotype resulting from the environment of the womb (connected to the thrifty phenotype theory), this theory suggests that Indians are more susceptible to metabolic disorders. Diabetes and obesity are therefore developmental in origin. Giving us an account of his visit to Dr. Yajnik’s clinic (Dr. Yajnik is one of the two authors who proposed the theory of the thin-fat Indian phenotype), he reports Yajnik’s opinion that there is a need to address the underlying susceptibility of Indian bodies to being afflicted by metabolic disorders, rather than focusing purely on the treatment and prevention of the diseases themselves.  Talking to householders and the other people that he encountered throughout his fieldwork, Solomon plots the changing perspectives in relation to food and the body. He considers the conception of both the food and the body from the viewpoint of doctors, epidemiologists, scientists, nutritionists, housewives, street food servers, and manufacturers of processed food products.

            Tracing the historical perception of the problem of diabetes in India, Solomon brings forth the idea of “tenshun”. “Tenshun”, that mental stress which his interlocutors claim, afflicts the mind and predisposes people to obesity and diabetes, is at the heart of the epidemic that plagues contemporary Indians. Hinting at the ever-shifting discussions about bodies, he brings to light the many terms that people use to refer to overweight and obese bodies. This is important because people in India are showing signs of obesity. The words used range from mota (Hindi for fat) to the usage of the English word “healthy” to allude to overweight or chubby bodies. Diseases too are referred to with specific names. Diabetes could be referred to simply as sugar and cardiovascular disease as blockage. Solomon’s aim in discussing these terms is to imply that metabolic disorders have become common enough to form a part of the daily conversations of Mumbaikars. The threat of being afflicted with diabetes or obesity is real and looms large in their minds. This brings us back to the idea of “tenshun”. Through the course of this book, Solomon brings to light his interlocutors’ claims that merely living in Mumbai makes one’s body absorb the stresses of living, in turn creating diseased bodies that suffer from metabolic problems. Every discussion about obesity and diabetes gave way to deliberations pertaining to stress. His participants assert that the stresses of city living affected their diets, the development of their illness, and their body’s responses to such health conditions.

            Solomon weaves the chapters of his book together using interludes. These interludes, tangentially connected to the general theme of illness absorption that is so central to this book, are heavily fleshed out ethnographic vignettes about the city of Mumbai. These detailed descriptions talk about the mango madness that endangers the carefully prescribed diets given by exasperated nutritionists. They tell us of the struggles of Manuli (Manuli is that suburb of Mumbai where Solomon carried out household research) locals in attempting to have the governmental authorities take note of their troubles over accessing their share of food owed to them through the state’s ration card. These vignettes transpose the reader to the site of the study. They render Mumbai as a city of multiple communities and provides the reader with a multi-faceted understanding of Solomon’s field site.

            The strength of this ethnographic work lies in its multi-pronged approach. Not only does he interact with housewives, so well known as the domestic gatekeepers of Indian households, he also studies and interviews food corporation researchers and marketing heads, whose aim is to float “functional foods” that these very housewives will allow into their homes. By considering the struggle between the concerns about adulteration (milawat) which his respondents focus on intensely, the author discusses the newest fad of “functional foods” which are becoming popular in Indian households. Functional foods are foods created by food companies to render everyday staples healthier. Functional foods promise “extra benefits” because they are enriched with vitamins and minerals. They espouse to function categorically by aiding in the prevention of metabolic disorders. Fast gaining popularity in India, functional foods claim to assure buyers that they will alleviate their health problems. In such a manner, everyday staples such as wheat, rice, flour, and milk become functional foods. In the face of fears about adulteration and metabolic problems, the author demonstrates why and how functional foods are gaining traction in India.

            Solomon pushes the envelope on the famous concept of ‘gastropolitics’ put forth by Appadurai and studied by many food scholars since. Using the example of the famous Mumbai vada-paav, he connects street food to the very identity of urban spaces. Focusing on the vada-paav, referred to as the “lifeline of Mumbai” by some of his interlocutors, he pushes forward the concept of gastropolitics to demonstrate to the reader that street food can be reflective of politics, power, and class dynamics within a city. Attempting to trace the origin of the vada-paav, its usage, and its attempted standardization by both political parties and food corporations, the author states, “By moving beyond the confines of street food as a bounded entity, it is possible to map the reaches of gastropolitics into livelihoods, community injuries, dreams of urban renewal, and transnational enterprise” (Pg. 75).

            In the latter half of the book, Solomon focuses on the clinical therapies and gastric bypass surgeries taking place in Indian hospitals as the site to study the discussions pertaining to metabolism. While early on in the book he deliberates on the ever-blurry food-drug boundary, in the latter half of the book he acknowledges the necessity of looking at diets as therapy. Shadowing clinical dietary therapists and nutritionists, he demonstrates the daily struggles of both the clinicians and the afflicted when it comes to nutritional therapy.  In a clinician’s office where metabolism is being treated as a site of problem, multiple medical epistemologies collide. As Harris states, “These counseling visits illustrate the power of diets to coordinate the uncertainties of the metabolism” (Pg. 160). In these clinics, the onus is not only on the patient’s metabolism but also on their compliance. Dieticians insisted that patients’ compliance or non-compliance was what affected the result of dietary therapy. The dietician’s office was also a place where functional foods were prescribed to ailing patients. Such clinical therapies involved first measuring the patients’ bodies, both outwardly and internally. Weighing and measuring bodies went hand in hand with blood sugar, cholesterol, and hormonal level test. Through his ethnographic vignettes, Solomon manifests that the Ayurvedic concept of food as medicine is significantly overlapping with biomedical treatments for metabolic disorders. The result is a medical landscape that is vastly varied but one where food takes the center stage when it comes to health and disease.

            Solomon concludes the book by considering the idea that “as metabolic illness increasingly occupies global health interest and investment, what is needed is a perspective on metabolisms and their disorders different from one grounded in concerns about overconsumption” (Pg. 228). By tracing the historical food flows, the current shifting foodscape of Mumbai, the food standardization attempted by corporations, the author demonstrates to the readers that metabolic diseases are firmly entangled in social, political, gendered, and historical processes. Harris claims that through his work he approaches the concept of metabolism ethnographically. He states, “My principal concern in this book has been to develop an ethos of absorption at the interfaces between food and living” (Pg. 227).

            A wonderfully evocative ethnography, Solomon’s book makes one reflect on the very nature of metabolic syndrome. How does one address the solutions to a health problem that is so closely connected to food? The very food and eating which are sacred, political, social, and emotional.  Metabolic syndrome renders food as a focal point. Food can be addictive, rendering one’s body diseased, or it can be therapeutic, cleansing one’s body from the inside. Through this book, Solomon relays and reflects on this problematic relation, challenging medical experts to consider a multi-layered approach to solving the issues of obesity and diabetes that plague contemporary India.

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Filed under anthropology of food, food and health, India

Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods

Manpreet K. Janeja. Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods. London: Routledge, 2010. 185 pages, ISBN 978-415553742.

Reviewed by Meraz Rahman
New Mexico State University 

In her detailed, sensuous ethnographically based book, Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods, Manpreet K. Janeja takes her readers transactions in taste coveron an extraordinary journey to the middle-class “normal” everyday “Bengali” foodscape by illustrating the everyday ordinary common food prepared and consumed there. The book’s emphasis includes people living in both sides of Bengal- the Muslim Bengal of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Hindu Bengal in Calcutta in the Indian state of West Bengal. Growing up in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, which is known for its rich food heritage, left a profound imprint on Janeja, who was mesmerized by the rich tastes, colors, smells, sounds, and touch of Bengali food. Various questions loom large in Janeja’s mind such as what was “Bengali” about so much of the food in Calcutta? How is food important in both East and West Bengali genealogies? And what was “normality” after all? (Page: xvi –xvii).

Janeja attempts to examine how food is a critical means by which Bengali Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta and Dhaka create a rational world and normality through the transactional “agency” that food acquires in its work of generating perceived normality (p.2). “Agents” can be objects other than persons, including  things and places, a perspective originally developed by anthropologist Alfred Gell in his book Art and Agency (1998) (p.19). By focusing on processes, preparation, storage, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food, this book illustrates the articulation of quotidian, mundane practices with a wider biography of social relationships (p.8-9). The book reveals the ways in which Bengalis (both Muslim and Hindu) attend to food and further explicates “the manner in which food as a thing-actant/patient mediate between other things, persons, and place –actants/patients” (P.24). Janeja develops a number of topics such as “foodscape,” “normality” and “non-normality.” She also examines the ways in which food emerges as “ordinary sacred,” how food evokes subjectivity in everyday life and hospitality transactions while producing everyday “normality,” the relationship between food and location, and lastly, how the preparation of foods in everyday hospitality relations elicits the modalities of ownership (belongingness, identity).

I want to highlight a few of the topics that I found most fascinating about this book. Janeja provided examples of relationships between the cook and the “desh” (region, area, district, native hometown, village, city, birthplace, country) in order to explicate the concept “desh as foodscape,” a concept Janeja develops to “describe the ability of food to bring forth the sense of place as particular configuration of relationship” (P.51). Janeja depicts the characteristics of a good cook and describes how her/his ability to replicate a recipe for the household can be considered as normally cooked in the “desh” of the recipient. On the contrary, the incapacity of a cook to continually replicate the everyday foodscape perceived as normal by food recipients is called “not-normality.” According to Janeja this is how “Desh as foodscape” becomes a theme for perceiving normality (P.52).  This book also provides its reader with the menu, philosophy, and the process of cooking of two restaurants in Calcutta and Dhaka to explain how “food reveals its agency in bringing forth temporal calibration of process of preparing normal Bengali food ‘traditionally’ everyday in restaurants” (P.138). The very definition of “normality” in this case differs significantly and suggests the ability of cooks working in these restaurants to continuously replicate “standard” Bengali food by excluding their respective “desh” as an actant. In order to make/create “standard” Bengali food, the cook tries to balance and modify the dishes (use and control of ingredients, cooking technique, process) to make them “standard” or “normal” in the perception of the restaurant staff and their customers (p.131).

This book may interest a variety of audiences. The book can be used as reference for anyone interested in conducting food studies, especially food studies of South Asia or a text for teaching courses related to food studies, food and hospitality, or post-colonial studies. It is useful not only because of its rich content but also for the research methods employed. The idea of food having “agency” can also be further utilized by policy makers to look at the collaborative work food performs (in the creation of normality/non-normality), and to devise food relief policies related to the assembled world of the people the policies seek to address (P.166).

Janeja provided the reader with an innovative account of the everyday foodscape of Bengali life, challenging readers to think about food differently and understand the power and ability of food to control and shape our identity, environment, and the creation of normality/non normality in our everyday lives. However, the prose of this book is pretty dense and inundated with footnotes, which makes it more accessible to academic audiences. The frequent use of Bengali quotes and phrases throughout the book enriches the ethnographic description, but will occasionally distract the reader.

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