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Krishnendu Ray came to America to study political economy of development and underdevelopment. He ended up at the Culinary Institute of America writing a book that is the first actual study of meals and memories in Bengali-American households—The Migrant’s Table.
While his parents in India shake their heads in wonder at what-not you can study in America, The Migrant’s Table is more than a nostalgia trip. It’s about food, immigration, assimilation, and gender patterns, and looks at how the Bengali-American experience compares with and deviates from that of other immigrants like Italian Americans or Irish Americans, whose food is now mainstream.
For Ray the journey started in a supermarket in Chicago soon after he had come to America. The glowing cucumbers, the perfect tomatoes filled him with both a sense of wonder and a feeling of disorientation. “I realized it was the antiseptic smell like a hospital,” says Ray. “I couldn’t smell the bazaar anymore. And smell is evocative and I realized by losing that smell, I was losing a universe.”
“Waylaid by that disreputable phenomenon—nostalgia or the idealizing of home-cooked food,” Ray started to explore the sense of individual loss and its connection to food. He sent out a survey to some 1,000 Bengali families, asking questions like “What was yesterday’s lunch in your home?” and “What is your weekly fish bill?” The answers he hoped would tell him not just what to expect for dinner on an average night at the Banerjee household in New Jersey but some larger issues of immigration and assimilation.
He found that Bengali Americans spent on the average $91 a week at the grocery store and another $14 at a specialty Asian market. Dinner remained aggressively Bengali. Lunch was a mixed bag. Breakfast was toast and cereal. Single men reluctantly learn American eating habits like cold cuts and cold cereals but reassert their Bengaliness after marriage. “Cold food violates our principles,” says Ray. “There is an aesthetic revulsion to cold cuts and cold meats.” So when they get married they hope their wives will bring back Bengali food. Women are willing to play a little more with American food—think turkey samosa. Women still do the bulk of the cooking, though 65 percent have professional credentials or a master’s degree. But almost half hold “jobs” rather than pursue “careers.” Only 10 percent of married men do grocery shopping on their own.
The act of migration also suddenly opens up a supermarket of possibilities. Families who ate chicken once a week can now eat it everyday. Take fish. A USAID survey in 1972 found 41 percent of upper middle-class households in Kolkata ate fish for lunch on a typical weekday. At dinner in Bengali-American households that rises to 63 percent. Bengali immigrants are typically middle class or affluent, well educated, and able to vigorously maintain traditions.
Unlike Italians and Irish, Bengalis immigrated to America post civil-rights era when there was more of a celebration of ethnicity, giving them a larger space for cultural assertion. This could also result in cultural arrogance, says Ray, where the American mainstream is regarded as rich and powerful but not particularly cultured. Some of his survey respondents complained about how Americans invite you over and feed you celery. Bengalis, on the other hand, would make elaborate multi-course dinners and the harder it was to replicate the more valuable it was as an ethnic secret.
But the plenty doesn’t mean it’s the same. Fish is abundant in America but Bengalis like whole freshwater fish. Fish fillets and steaks are just not Bengali cuts like gada and peti. “It doesn’t taste the same,” says Ray. “But what people are really missing are other memories.”
The problem for Bengalis is Bengali food is not even available in Indian restaurants. Even at a Bengali conference in Atlantic City in 2000, writes Ray, there were six food vendors—three served pizza, sandwiches, and pretzels, the other three served South Indian, North Indian, and bhelpuri. No alur dum, no luchis, forget doi-potol. But though they miss it, there is a pride that it is not a commercial aesthetic, that you can’t buy it just because you might have the money.
At one level, being hard to find gives food its value, says Ray, “because food is the mythologization of the mundane.” That’s why immigrants wax eloquent about street food like puchka or jhal muri, which they endlessly try to replicate. “But the damn things never tastes like the jhal muri I had on the train,” chuckles Ray. Likewise, he says, cilantro lost its value when, thanks to the popularity of Mexican cooking, the herb became commonplace.
Because you can only really get it at home, because it is an ethnic secret not easily available commercially, Bengali food becomes the place where the angst of immigration really stews. “Fathers have an anguish that if their children don’t like shukto they will never grow up Bengali,” says Ray. Of course, he chuckles, back in Kolkata the same fathers might have been longing for kebabs at Nizam’s or cakes from New Market instead of shukto and daal-bhaat at home.
For immigrants, the act of transplanting means moving from one community of taste to another, whose codes they are unaware of—where a burger might be different from a Whopper but a fish jhaal, kaalia, doi-fish are all fish curry. But their children grow up in both worlds, though at some level assimilation is inevitable. Even when the children identify with their culture, it’s probably more as Indian as opposed to Bengali. “So they will eat samosas rather than phulkopir singhara,” says Ray. He realizes it most acutely when he takes his own 4-year-old son to India. His typical menu: macaroni-and-cheese with his daal-bhaat. His comfort food is now truly Bengali American.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.