‘Nutmeg is gansta!’ declares the beautiful young Jamaican woman standing around the kitchen counter with the rest of us. We all laugh. It is hard to look hot while wearing a hairnet and latex gloves, but Tauni (not her real name) is definitely pulling it off. This jovial scene is taking place at a second stage shelter for abused women. A diverse group is cooking while discussing the historical relationship between women and food, part of my contributions to Humanities 101, an outreach program that takes university experiences into the community. Ostensibly in charge of this active classroom, I am taking a back seat, letting my sage sisters lead the way. And lead they do; these women rock my world. They are smart, interesting, world weary. I have just provided a brief overview of the longstanding conflation of women with food, starting in the middle ages and moving up to the present. Given my limited knowledge, I spent most of my time on Europe from the 13th to the 17th centuries, describing how women gathered, prepared, served, and ate variously spiced and savoury dishes. I also noted the early modern link between food and colonization, drawing particular attention to nutmeg, a commodity which became the basis for naval battles, murder, and enslavement, as the Portuguese and then the Dutch sought control of what were then called the Spice Islands, aka Indonesia. Thought to have medicinal qualities, both nutmeg and mace were highly prized by Europeans among others for their flavours and ability to preserve food. Quel suprise; food and war have gone together like fish and grits or, even better, preserved lemons and green grapes. [Aside: I cooked a Moroccan meal for MW, DO, and two other guests last night, and can confirm that rotting syrupy lemons stored in a closet for four months and then simmered in a tagine with marinated chicken, artichoke hearts, shallots, and grapes taste fucking delicious.]
Here is what we made in the community kitchen:
Anda Bhurji Potato and Egg Recipe (Prep Time: 10 minutes/Cook Time: 10 minutes)
- 1 boiled and chopped potato or several baby red potatoes boiled and chopped
- 1 cup chopped tomatoes
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 cup sliced onions
- 2 teaspoons oil
- 2 tablespoons fresh curry leaves – from an Indian grocery – not curry powder.
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- salt to taste
- 1/8 teaspoon red chili powder (from Indian grocery – not the stuff you use in chili)
- 1/4 teaspoon garam masala (a spice mixture you can get at an Indian grocery)
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- Boil and chop the potatoes.
- Chop the tomatoes and cilantro.
- Fry the cumin seeds in the oil until brown, add the curry leaves and fry a few seconds.
- Add the onions and cook until golden brown.
- Add the tomatoes and cook 1 minute.
- Add the potatoes, salt, red chili powder, garam masala, and cilantro. Stir and cook for 1 minute.
- Add eggs and stir until the eggs are cooked.
- Serve hot with toast, pita, chapati, plain paratha or wrapped in a tortilla.
- Ponder your historically gendered relationship with food as you chow down.
These days, at least in the unevenly privileged western world, we might understand ourselves to be at war with food, not killing and objectifying other people for food (though that arguably continues). Now we battle against the bulge caused by unhealthy, low-fibre, fattening foods, using such military tactics as splenda and smaller portion sizes. In other words, we fight our own food desires, phobias, and obessions. My experiences at the women’s shelter forced me to think about my own food issues, for I had asked fellow learners to bring either a recipe or a happy food memory with them to the kitchen-classroom. The resulting childhood nostalgia-fest revealed a lot about each participant: an Aboriginal woman fondly recalled sucking the marrow out of moose bones with fellow family members, an Ethiopian goddess explained how to prepare injera, and a Filipina matriarch reported that she had recently discovered for sale in Edmonton something called Bukayo, a gelatinous coconut paste that she had eaten with rice back home. Channeling Bourdieu, we considered how the different foods we found comforting were related to our specific ethnic backgrounds, gendered positions, and class-based identities.
Not all of the memories were happy. One participant whispered that she had been force fed by her parents, having her nose held while the food she loathed was shoved down her wretching throat. For her a key aspect of adulthood included gaining the right to eat, or not eat, whatever she chose. I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by this tale, because the concept of not wanting food was entirely foreign to my childhood. It was punctuated by a shortage of food and an obligation to claim aggressively any edible product within range. Food was often hidden at my house, and I was skilled at creeping around in my sock feet, climbing onto the cupboards and peeking under the stove, methodically discovering and silently devouring as much of it as possible without getting caught. For me, a stomach stuffed with cheap carbs was a survival mechanism and sign of accomplishment. Rest assured that if I ever visit your home, I will locate and evaluate all provisions within the first thirty seconds. With great effort, I will restrain myself from eating half the peanut butter, or slipping the chocolate chips into my purse. I still find myself gesturing to scoop up the free samples at the grocery store and steal all of the after-dinner mints at restaurants. That’s pretty fucked up, isn’t it? On the other hand, when the armageddon comes I will stay alive a lot longer than normal people, all weak and shivery beside their ransacked cupboards. In any case, food was highly valued during my childhood but also linked with shame, especially for my mother, who was unable to feed properly her four children, making Wednesday grocery shopping a burden of lists, calculators, and tough decisions about how to stretch a single can of cheap salmon into a meal for six people. She would nervously accept the ‘extra’ food items dropped off by neighbours, along with bags of used clothes, fearful that my easily enraged father might catch wind of these acts of charity. Wednesday was nevertheless the best day of the week for us kids, for my mother would hand deliver our lunches to school—there would have been literally nothing to eat in the house that morning—proudly doing so for all to see. We would rip open the brown bags to devour something as exotic as a banana, the only one we would be getting that week.
Are you starting to get a better picture of my current food obsessions? I refuse to think about the cost of food when I shop; I have disgust for coupon clipping and any other money saving measure. I continually prepare food and give it away as the ultimate gift. I totally get binge eating and must actively prevent myself from engaging in it. I irrationally want to eat all of the food in my home, all the time. I find potluck dinners and all-you-can-eat buffets akin to torture chambers. How can I not take full advantage of this bonanza of nourishment, stocking up my fat stores for the insecure and likely shitty future? All the same, I like to have my cupboards overflowing with food at home; I want to be ready, just in case there is a nuclear holocaust or something. I load up my fridge and then open the door just to look inside, feeling the stress flood from my neck into my shoulders and away. There is food and it is mine. Everything will be okay.
That is why dieting down for a figure competition was such an accomplishment for me. I was able to achieve and maintain a measured relationship with food for five months in a row. Just the other day, a work colleague said that in her opinion my Feminist Figure Girl research project had been unhealthy. Clearly, she had misunderstood that my diet was actually rather substantial, loaded with organic protein and clean carbs. What’s odd is that this woman is a rake, so thin as to be almost skeletal. She does not seem to notice that her body is far less healthy than mine is or was even while on stage. I would appreciate it if she could see that health itself is a debatable, shifting category, never really attained or attainable.
Well, this week’s post was not very funny, was it? Sorry but FFG is a complex woman with a complex relationship with food. Right now I am about to bake more cookies for my partner, even as I am eager to lose about 10-15 pounds, making my muscles more visible without being anywhere near stage ready. As I struggle to avoid over-eating, I often think of Fitbabe and her amazing will power. Sigh. Well, I think I need some help with this problem and might finally be ready to ask for it.