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Opinion-Editorial: Food Is Culture

By: Dev Kartan, Red & Black Contributor

Samosas and pav bhaji were served at the ISA's Diwali Event on Oct. 28. (Photo Courtesy Dev Kartan)
OCT. 31- With the recent change to the funding model allowing food at cultural events, I just wanted to share a little bit of what was happening in those meetings. I'm going to be reading a shortened version of the same speech I gave at fincom
I apologize if some of you find this long-winded, but these are all things that I, members of our [ISA] Executive board as well as many other members who contributed felt were necessary to be shared. I have an obligation to my community members to share. So, this is our take on cuisine as culture.

I will try to read it quickly

Throughout my entire life food has been intricately woven into my cultural experience. Growing up Brown in a predominantly White area is already an “othering” experience, but the extent to which is often diminished or ignored. I remember a turning point in my life, I had just moved to a new school in third grade. I was so excited to eat my comfort food after a stressful day, Roti and paneer for lunch. I had, what is not uncommon, more accurately the classic immigrant experience. I was told that my food looked weird, was gross, and smelled disgusting, just because it was unfamiliar. Moments like these are what teach us to subdue our culture and hide integral parts of ourselves. I remember going back to my mother that day and demanding from her to only pack me a brown bag lunch with a pb&j for the rest of the year. The love and effort she put into preparing that meal for me was lost.

That sentiment however is never overlooked in ours and many Indian households. The family dinner is a constant consistent show of our familial love and bonding. Even if my mum and I spend hours yelling at each other over some petty fight we will always sit back down with each other over dinner. The time and effort she puts into preparing it every day is repaid by everyone's respect for our time together. The food is so charged, that even the act of sitting down and eating together becomes sacred.

Just from these two anecdotes, you can see the pedagogy behind cuisine-based events on campus. We bring new and unique foods for people to taste and give them a space to unabashedly try something they haven't before. That's a super vulnerable experience, opening yourself up to learning like that, which is why we believe it is essential to have. Over the course of our events, we bring people into a familial dinner setting where they can put aside differences and be comfortable, allowing them to further their understanding of unique minority experiences.
Biryani is a rice-based dish that can be served in a variety of ways - including with mutton, chicken, or vegetables. (Photo Courtesy Dev Kartan)

From a structural level, the events work on two planes. The food is a HUGE draw. It's undeniable that catering brings in a massive audience to the events. The second is learning by exposure. While they are not only experiencing cuisine, they are getting Bollywood music, henna, carrom, and so many other cute cultural experiences we hold dear. We are able to control how we are perceived on campus, putting our best foot forward. People all over campus have taken significantly more interest in Indian culture following our events. Our [ISA] Exec board has had so many people approach us individually to ask questions or just to see when the next event is. There is massive campus support for these events.

From a less emotionally educating perspective, the food lends itself to geographical and historical understanding. Even within India, there are SO many languages, customs, norms, religions, and people. The culture of our subcontinent is so diverse, extending right into how cuisine is experienced across the country. For example, not even factoring in local and regional recipes, North and South Indians vary widely in their cuisine. North Indians preferred roti and more milder flavors to south Indians preferred rice and spicier flavors dating back to farming and meat preservation practices. The cuisine is undeniably tied to how Indian society evolved and by extension how culture developed.

When people can't differentiate how ethnicity differs from language from religion, confusing Hindu for Hindi for Indian and using all of them interchangeably, it is so apparent that there is a lack of fundamental understanding. When we don't have the vocabulary, we are rendered unable to empathize with experience. And there are so many experiences we have yet to share, from prasad to the sweets we get at the temple, to the absolutely amazing street food, to finer culinary gastronomy, and so many flavors and spices it would take forever to name them all.

We feel EXTREMELY strongly about cuisine as a cultural experience. Especially on campus, we strive to do the most good we can and raise the most cultural awareness possible with what limited time we have. Food at events is undoubtedly one of our strongest tools for education.
Although I've been speaking only on my own experiences thus far, I've asked other members of our exec board to write a few words which I will read off on their behalf.

In elementary school, I grew up vegetarian just like my parents, and was often taunted because of this. One day, another peer threw a piece of bologna at my face and told me to eat it. Not only was this traumatizing but it also made me hesitant to eat Indian food in front of my peers. I spent months eating in the nurse's office or library just to avoid the comments students would make.

Another experience:

"When my friend bought Indian food back to campus it was extremely comforting. I felt secure knowing that there was a safe space to eat Indian food without being judged. Being able to share that with the rest of campus is incredible and makes me all the more excited to plan events for the student body."

Another one:

Everytime I go back to India, my family asks me for an itinerary of meals to eat. Not where I want to go, or what I want to do, what I'd like to sit down and eat with them, and I don't know, it just feels like poetry. I miss them a lot, and I want to be able to experience something close to that on campus. Like even chaat and chat was so much fun just being in that space with everyone with the music playing and laughing and, I don't know it just felt like a taste of home.”

We have many more but for the sake of brevity I'll digress

I hope through this little write-up you see how important food is to our culture and events. We feel like it is an essential part of our experience as second-generation immigrants and just want to be able to share that with everyone here. Thank you so much for your time and I hope you choose to support more meal-based events in the future, as you cannot separate the cuisine from the culture.
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The following article is an Opinions piece that contains opinions of the writer. Opinions pieces are not always representative of the Red & Black Student Newspaper as a whole.

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