Why I can’t (and don’t want to) cook
A personal essay on abuse and relationship with food. Words by Sneha Bengani
Good morning and welcome to the 3rd edition of Deep Fry.
Last month I opened the newsletter to freelance writers and called for pitches. The response was good, if not overwhelming. The first piece is a continuation of the theme - kitchen as a central motif to address gendered abuse in Indian households. You can read the previous edition here.
And, if you wish to receive the future editions in your inbox, please click below.
What’s the price we pay for fighting patriarchy?
Oh yes! There’s a price alright. Often, it’s our own wellbeing.
A few months ago, I lost my love for food—cooking, eating, talking and writing about it—all of it. For someone whose life (and work) revolves around food, not being able to talk about it felt almost like the end of everything. Strange things abuse can do. It took me a couple of months to get out of that trauma. It felt like a lifetime though. Every memory from childhood came rushing back. It’s not easy to live with memories of abuse, and so we suppress it. But they’re all stored in our bodies somewhere. The body remembers, and regurgitates all those bitter memories at the slightest nudge.
The trauma also opened up this space for me where I could talk about the aspect of food that the popular media often ignores - how do women navigate their relationship with food after being subjected to abuse for the very reason…food.
Today’s newsletter is an attempt to throw light on one such story.
Why I can’t (and don’t want to) cook
Image Credits - The Third Eye (Still from Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film Juice)
When I was in primary school, I would return home in the afternoons and eat my lunch sitting on the kitchen slab, as my mother cooked beside me. Being an ardent idli and dosa lover, she made them pretty religiously. She still does. I remember her working out paper-thin, crisp dosas one after another as her three children nestled beside her on hot afternoons, ready to devour each serving before it could cool down.
This practice, of sitting on the kitchen slab and eating while she cooked, felt as natural as breathing. However, it was much later in life that I realised why. My mother told me, as infants she would lay us down on the slab at a safe distance from the stove, while working long hours in the kitchen. That way, she could do both—the chores as well as keep a watch on her kids—since she had no helping hand.
When my parents built their dream home, my mother’s focus was on the kitchen, even more than her own bedroom. She was deeply invested in all the specifics: the colour scheme, the choice and placement of appliances, the lights, the chimney. She even wanted an AC installed. Her considered investment into what the kitchen ought to look like was a reflection of the time she occupied in that space; cooking for her husband and kids through the week, and entertaining guests and relatives over the weekend.
The majority of my extended family lives in the same city as my parents. When I was younger, we’d go for picnics with them on weekends or my extended family would come to our house. This meant endless banter, laughs, games, and a variety of food through the day. This also meant the daughters-in-law of the entire extended family would be in the kitchen dishing out meals, snacks, beverages, coolers, and peeling fruits every few hours. Meanwhile, their husbands, sisters and kids relaxed in the living room.
Going out for a picnic meant advance preparation. My mum and aunts would make plenty of paranthas and mangodis and pack an assortment of sookhasaag and achaar. My father and us kids looked forward to such outings. But my mum didn’t. She resented them and the relatives coming home every weekend. Even as a child I could sense her resentment…enough to want to change the situation.
I know why it happened but I can’t exactly put a finger on when. But from an extremely young age, I decided I won’t cook. Ever! I wanted to be the powerhouse cook that my mother was, but I didn’t want to be in her place. So, I ran in the opposite direction. As fast as I could. As far as I could.
Today, I see several young women cooking for pleasure, even calling it therapeutic (ha!), and posting delicious photos of food staged with glasses of wine, fairy lights, and house plants on Instagram. These aesthetically shot #foodporn photographs remind me of the countless nights I’ve slept hungry because I couldn’t bring myself to cook. They take me back to the six months I lived in Chandigarh. With no cafeteria in the office I sustained on sandwiches, lassi, fruits, coffees, and food brought hurriedly from roadside stalls. The carefully curated social media stories remind me of my early journalistic career in Delhi, when I would buy boxed lunches. For Rs. 60, you got a stale meal of two half-baked naans, a nondescript sabzi, and daal with floating ponds of oil. It takes me back to the time when I would have milk and oats for dinner. The time when I was diagnosed with PCOD.
Food continued to be a major concern even after I got comfortable in my career, moved to Mumbai, and finally hired a cook. Despite the busyness, I would constantly find myself worrying about my next meal.
For someone who can’t cook even if my life depends on it, I’m a fantastic food critic with a taste so evolved, it’s ironic! The credit goes to my mother. Years of practice (read duty/servitude) has honed the culinary genius in her. She can churn out a six-course meal in no time. An expert at hosting impromptu dinners, she’d call me to taste all her preparations. Over time, I could confidently tell what was missing, if anything, and what could help. It’s no surprise then that I couldn’t eat the food my hired cooks made when I was living on my own. I was labelled a fussy eater by quite a few of them.
I love food that’s healthy and prepared with care. But I've never been able to cook. Not for pleasure. Not for sustenance. It's not like I haven't tried. But every time I did, I never wanted to do it wholeheartedly. It was self-destructive… perhaps even disabling. My gynaecologist said my lifestyle was responsible for my PCOD. A large part of that lifestyle was eating out. Finally, when the going got tough and I couldn’t take it anymore, I shut shop and returned home.
I know I can’t have my mother cook for me all my life. I don’t intend to. I also know I’m not my relatives. I’m not my father either, who, by the way, is deeply disappointed in me because I don’t know any “kitchen ke kaam” (kitchen chores) and I show no remorse about it. He doesn’t know any “kitchen ke kaam” either but somehow, that’s fine. No one expects him to. No one expects it from my brother either. They are working men. They are busy earning money. But so am I. I’m working too. However, I’m not a man. And that makes all the difference.
I know I need to learn. But before that, I need to unlearn. I can postpone it no longer. However, it's difficult to break out of habits that 12-year-old girls forge out of sheer resolve, even when you're 28. It's difficult to unlearn, especially when the learning is rooted in years of shared struggle and oppression. It's difficult to find pleasure or meaning in what's been thankless, back-breaking, self-effacing work for countless women over centuries.
Since I’ve seen gendered abuse around cooking and kitchen up close from a very young age, I think it’s trickled down to my bones. My body rejects, outright guns down, any thought or mention of it. It has almost become a reflex action of sorts. Despite that, I still have hope. I hope that someday, sooner than later, I can find a cook or a husband (or both?) who gets my taste and can prepare simple meals that have “maa ke haath ka swaad” (the taste of mother’s hands).
Sneha Bengani is a journalist with a litterateur’s heart who does all kinds of writing and cherishes all things old —towns, cafes, books, music, architecture, friendships, and stories. You can read more of her work here, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Special mention to Virat Nehru for the final edits.
I haven’t read much in the past few days, but this one story by Farah Yameen stood out for me where she writes about the relationship between our food and the hands that cook it. Read it here.