The first time I saw food through the lens of race, first-hand, was when my former partner left a kettle on the burner for too long, filling the apartment with noxious smoke. When it happened, I was in a class and found myself returning home to an apartment that stank so badly I could smell it as I walked down the carpeted hallway.
"How did you miss the stink," I remember asking him.
"I thought it was just the Indian food," he said.
Sure, I had heard of this happening to other people—a classmate who was called “curry c**t” at Princeton, a colleague who was bullied for the sambar-rice in her lunchbox at high school—but when it happens to you, it is always a bit of a shock. What made it worse was that it came from an intimate partner. My ex was a nice enough man, someone I had known for a year and who had become an anchor of sorts in cold, lonely New York. I had been cooking for him since we began dating: toning down the spice to fit his American palate, ensuring that milk and meat never mixed since he was Jewish and kept kosher. He had always been highly appreciative, so the implication of the comment—your food smells different—stung, and badly. I know, of course, that it was a casual comment and wasn’t said in a mean-spirited way. But it still felt like a betrayal.
It is perhaps why I took the recent Washington Post column by Gene Weingarten so personally, at first. In the August 19 column titled You can't make me eat these foods, Weingarten writes that he does not get Indian food as a culinary principle. In the original story—which has now been edited to remove the comments—he also referred to Indian food as the "only ethnic cuisines in the world insanely based on one spice" and that "could knock a vulture off a meat wagon." Predictably, it raised the hackles of desis worldwide, many of whom took to Twitter to defend their food. Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi tweeted that he clearly needed an education on spices, flavours and tastes. "I suggest starting with The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs,” she added, describing the column as a “colonizer’s hot take”.
You *clearly* need an education on spices, flavor, and taste….— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) August 23, 2021
I suggest starting with my book “The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs”:https://t.co/DARIJ1olqf
Writer Meena Harris tweeted, "Even Columbus knew it was more than one spice," while actor and comedian Mindy Kaling makes—in my opinion—the most valid point. "You don't like a cuisine? Fine. But it's so weird to feel defiantly proud of not liking a cuisine. You can quietly not like something too."
Like Kaling, I have nothing against Weingarten for not liking "Indian" food; everyone is allowed to like or dislike what they want to. But yes, I am annoyed that the judgment comes from absolute ignorance, deeply steeped in antiquated "ethnic" food ideas. And I do wish—since he knows nothing about Indian food—he had used the high-speed internet I'm sure he had at his disposal and saved us from having to read a very pedestrian column. Food, after all, isn’t just what you eat but a confluence of tradition, history, geography, migration, identity, and more. The generic "curry", for starters, as has been pointed out multiple times, is not a spice as Weingarten claimed, but a British interpretation of Indian food, something that even a quick Google search would have thrown up. His biggest crime is supremely lazy writing. It beats the microaggressive behaviour, possibly more accidental than intentional, that many white people, heedlessly exhibit.
But a part of me also began to wonder why we still care so much when some random foreigner, who thinks that chicken tikka masala is Indian cuisine and doesn't care enough to educate himself otherwise, passes disparaging comments about our food? Why should it matter that writer and professor Tom Nichols thinks Indian food is “terrible” until he eats at Priyanka Chopra’s Sona? Do we really need to revolt when history professor Edward Anderson calls idlis “boring”? Why are we constantly bogged down by the need to explain the complexity of our culture and cuisine to people whose ideas of food are often restricted by a very limited experience of cuisines not their own?
Instead, I look back to an observation I love by the late Toni Morrison, part of a speech she once delivered, and realize how fundamentally true it is to every narrative around race and identity, including food. "The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being," she said."None of that is necessary.”