Matter of ‘Taste’

Today, you can’t escape being told who you are, i.e. – an ‘individual’. Each one of us is described as being, over and above everything, a separate, unique entity- by our own right, in own space, creator of much of our own destiny. (Contrast this to earlier days, when we were mainly deemed to be aggregator products of society with strong back links to evolution and upbringing.) Now that you are so decidedly an individual, you are mandated to maintain that Atlas burden of all individuals: Individuality. Define it and defend it. And what greater indicator of individuality than a palate?

What you like to eat or drink is such an intrinsic and distinctive part of you. It’s almost like a thumb-print. No two people will have exactly the same palate. Your background may peg you to the hinterland of the country. But your palate sings at the first nibble of a high-quality Brie. Or you may have seeped in the luxury of urbane setting. However, instead of the delicate canapés with caviar, you feel sated with the ultra-salty meat curry.

Yet, how often in relationships do we surrender this aspect of ourselves so willingly? Without question? How often do we expect someone else to surrender this to our request? Take for example –a favorite dish. Or maybe just do this – ask your posse of married friends, especially the woman, and even more especially, if she stays with the in-laws: How many times has she had her favorite dish since marriage? Whether it was a humble Gobi paratha or an exotic nihari. How many times since she was last asked, “What’s your favorite dish?” (Now, the situation may be decidedly different in nuclear set-ups. I’m not sure if either the man or the woman is actually asked what either of them likes. They get fed with what gets made. Or whatever the cook is capable of making – and the repertoire in that case is fairly limited.) I know that isn’t actively asking for surrendering the palate…but really, isn’t it? What kind of a message is it when something as deeply personal and intrinsic as food gets decided without you participating in the decision?

I have friends, mostly women but some men also, who have almost given up bhindi or baingan because the partner doesn’t like the vegetable or is possibly allergic to it. If the person is responsible for cooking for the family, chances are the person’s favorite dish hardly ever gets made because catering to the family’s preferences takes precedence. Something as innocuous as what cooking oil to use could lead to the disappearance of a life-long habit. (A friend once told me that mustard oil, the oil that I had eaten since childhood, is a horrible, foul-smelling thing and in proper households, it’s only meant to grease doors, massage babies, and maybe fuel diyas during Diwali.)

And we haven’t even got into the territory of vegetarian, non-vegetarian, or vegan yet. I haven’t met too many vegans so I’ll restrict my observations to the meat eating and non-meat eating group here. I understand that both food choices are, mostly, linked to belief systems. In a marriage, since your existence conjoins with another, you take on the scaffolding of the other person’s belief system as well. So, a non-vegetarian may be expected to not bring the meat into the house or a vegetarian may be asked to get used to the rack of lamb in the freezer, next to the frozen peas. Lots of adjustments get made in this arena but I wonder if these adjustments get the acknowledgment they deserve.

When we ask someone else to ‘give up’ eating fish or meat, pork or beef, do we really know what exactly we are asking of that person? (Health reasons are another matter. It’s a more secular reason. Cholesterol really doesn’t give a fig about your belief system.) I know that when I gave up eating fish, I broke a link to a very strong childhood tradition. My father would take me to a huge fish market, point out different kinds of jewels from the sea, and tell me anecdotes about oysters. In fact, as a child, I was even introduced to Rabindranath Tagore’s work in this fish market. A lady was scaling off a mackerel and there were flints of beautiful, iridescent scales just flying off that fish in a cloud. The woman was doing this task so rapidly that a shimmering veil of scales came between us. That’s when my father told me that at in one of his poems, Tagore has described rain like that – like scales of a fish pouring down. As a child, in a fish market, I remembered telling myself to look up this Tagore guy later. (Not to mention, every time it rains, I remember the beauty of that analogy.)

When I was grown up, I dated a few people whose homes did not allow meat or fish. They told me that I could have all this stuff outside but not in the house. Meat was dirty and it was crude and it did not fit in with the gentility of the lineage I’d be getting into (had things worked out). I didn’t think much at the time but looking back, I am amazed that it didn’t strike me that that ‘crude’ thing had sustained me for many years. The procuring of all this lowly stuff had bonded me with my family. It had even initiated me to poetry and beauty in this sure and subtle way that the ‘high’ value system was supposed to. I should have asked these people why vegetarians must scream blue murder if the waiter gets them meat by mistake? How can you aspire to getting closer to some spiritual source but alienate a fellow human-being so callously? (Oh, and vegetarians choosing silk is another thing I should have asked about. You can’t possibly choose silk knowing how silk is made and yet comment on people who choose lobsters for a meal.)

I am a vegetarian now. Happily so. It has worked for my health and anger management issues. Today, I often, share a table with people who mock my choices and say things like “How can you not eat non-vegetarian food? What the hell is an ‘aloo patty’ sizzler? A vegetable biryani is so wannabe! If it’s biryani, it has to be mutton.” It’s all said in good humour, I know, and I really don’t mind because I know what they are talking about. I have enjoyed meat and fish copiously in the past. The reactions of other friends who are vegetarian since childhood is perhaps a little more defensive. They respond with the charges of cruelty and the obtuse living of being a slave to a palate.

In a relationship, though, I wonder how harsh it must be: to be told to give up eating something that has nourished you or has been part of your culture and more, importantly, your life for so long. Or to be told that you are living such a diminished existence because you don’t enjoy the kheemas and the boti-kebabs of the world.

Somewhere, I think, dismissal of a person’s food choices is a dismissal of a primal, fundamental element of a person. It’s a dismissal of…what’s that word…individuality. We’d be better people, if not people in better relationships, if we gave it the respect it deserves.

Photo: D Sharon Pruitt

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