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Years ago, as a young adult, living on my own in Vancouver while doing my MBA, whenever I phoned home to Calgary, my mother would ask me, “Have you eaten well?” Here I was, staying up all night and struggling to understand a complex case on international finance, and all she was worried about was food!
Later I got married into an Indian family, and again food featured large on the physical and conversational menu. Whenever I was on my way in or out of the house, my mother-in-law would ask me, “Did you eat?” There I was: out of the frying pan and…into another frying pan.
I used to wonder if the question came from not having had enough food in their childhood, a great love of food, or my being skinny. It was only when I had children of my own that I understood. In a world where we can’t understand or control or help our children with their various life problems, we can offer them one source of comfort: food.
We’re dealing with a very ancient and essential and primal transaction. As an infant, one of the first things that happens is our mother offers us her breast and we take it. In the Hindu tradition, the day a baby eats its first solid food—usually a few grains of rice cooked extra soft—is marked by prayers and celebration.
This basic transaction reveals a spectrum of subliminal meanings on both sides. When food is offered, it serves to engender feelings of usefulness, of fulfillment, an expression of love. When food is accepted, it says a variety of things all the way from “I like you” and “I trust you,” to “I love you” and “my life is not complete until I have eaten your food.”
In many older cultures, any visitor must be offered food. Of course, the significance of the transaction can sometimes be taken to an extreme: if you eat my food and you enjoy it, you become an honorary member of my family. Conversely, if you reject my food, you reject my love; big trouble. At that point, feelings are running so high that the simple argument, “I’m just not hungry” holds no water. So you must eat at least a spoon-full of whatever’s being offered and delicately display just that fine degree of appreciation such that your host feels good but not so much that you’re stuck with a second helping. With such strong emotions tied to food, it’s not surprising that as developing countries, like China and India, become more affluent, obesity is becoming an issue.
Often, the food must be home-made to be appreciated, and that can be frustrating. Once, after a busy day, I had gone to a lot of trouble gathering food from various outlets for dinner and my guest of honour said on her way out, “Now next time we must eat your food.”
Food is just a part of the transaction though. As important is the offering. At my parents’ home in Calgary, my mom keeps a close eye on all her guests’ plates, ready to gently encourage them to have another serving. At my in-laws’ home in New Delhi, it gives my mother-in-law great joy to serve Sunday lunch on everyone’s plates, keeping in mind likes and dislikes. And this way, she also gets to dictate portion sizes; read huge. Recently in Rome at a friend’s home, the elderly gentlemen served us all wine, and then finally his grandson served him. When we noted this, the grandfather said in his broken English, “It is … how you say, his duty.” His grandson gently corrected him, “No, it is my pleasure.”
It’s no wonder that Thanksgiving is such a popular holiday. It enables us to come together and to partake in this special transaction, of serving food and being served, of giving and receiving love.
At its best, eating is a social act, but sometimes in our regular busy far-flung lives, our meals are eaten alone.
Some days when I pick up my daughter after school, I can see she’s had a tough one. Perhaps an overdose of homework on the horizon, a picky teacher, that social bug-a-boo, friends, or something else I don’t know about. She doesn’t want to talk about it, so I ask her if she had a good lunch. She nods and asks me what’s for supper. I smile in the realization and relief that the situation is salvageable.
The movie Ratatouille struck a big chord with our family. In one scene, when the fierce food critic Anton Ego tastes Remy’s ratatouille preparation, he is transported back to his childhood and his mother is lovingly serving him lunch, to assuage not only his physical hunger but his emotional hunger to be loved and accepted.
Today I live in Delhi and my mother lives in Calgary. When I talk to her on Skype, it’s usually about 9 in the morning for me and 9 in the evening for her. We’re both facing our own challenges in life—some discussed, others left unspoken. She asks me if I’ve eaten well, and I reply I have and tell her patiently of my breakfast of fruits and oats. Then I ask her if she’s eaten well, meaning “I love you too Amma.”
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is an academic/business editor, based in New Delhi.