From me to you: musings on food

If there’s anything that you want
If there’s anything I can do
Just call on me and I’ll send it along
With love, from me to you

The Beatles : From Me To You : Lennon-McCartney : 1963

I don’t think it’s possible to grow up in Calcutta without becoming an inveterate foodie. Food and drink were essential punctuation marks in the conversations and get-togethers, the addas that were (and still are) defining characteristics of the city. Much of the food was vegetarian; much of the drink was nonalcoholic; the venue was often the street; it was a classless, reservation-free, standing-up, affordable part of everyday life.

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My memories of Calcutta are interlaced with feelings of being spoilt for choice when it came to street food. The puchka has a special place in my heart, because it was the only street food I can remember that was served dealer-style. It was like being in a casino playing blackjack. You had your slot at the table. You waited your turn as the dealer went from hand to hand.

And, unlike at the casino, you won every time. A good thing.

There was something else. While I salivated over my bhel poori and my jhal moori, while I mowed down mountains for my kati roll, there was something different about the puchka. Something that built a relationship between the maker and the eater. It was a simple something: the puchkawala didn’t just serve you, he served you multiple times in a single session, rapid-fire. He memorised the particular spec you wanted your puchka made to (how much filling, how much spiced water, how much “heat”, even the level of fragility) and then delivered it to you custom-made, perfect, time after time.

With love. From me. To you.

It’s one of those things that I will never stop appreciating about food. It is so inherently social. It is so part of what makes us human. When you eat, there are multiple relationships that blossom, all at the same time. You have the bond of eating together, eating family-style, common, even de rigueur, in cultures ranging from Italian to Iranian to Indian and everything in between, and a few places beyond. You have the bond between the eater and the eaten, the one that can take you from gourmet to gourmand all the way to glutton if you’re not careful. And you have the bond between the cook and the guest.

Food is essentially and intrinsically cultural. Which is why I found Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book, Eating Animals, utterly compelling and occasionally unnerving.

I was born a vegetarian, in a vegetarian household. Many of my relatives have never eaten meat.

I’m coming to the realisation that it’s only a matter of time before I become a vegetarian again.

While there are many reasons for this, the catalyst was reading Eating Animals. If I were to write an elevator pitch for the book, I’d say something like this: “I want to be a selective sustainable omnivore. But there’s a problem. I can’t be a selective sustainable omnivore in society, because there’s no simple way for me to communicate what that means to society. So it’s better for me to say I’m a vegetarian or a vegan: that way, people will be able to understand what I’m saying. So even though it’s not perfect, that’s what I’m going to do.

This is a hard thing.

My path away from vegetarianism was an easy accident. I had vegetable samosas at a friend’s birthday party. Loved them. Asked for the recipe. Turned out they weren’t vegetarian after all. Oops.

So I became an omnivore. And loved it. I’ve eaten most things, pretty much everything bar long pig.

I’m still an omnivore. I still relish a masala dosai or a matsutake dobin mushi the same way I would relish tournedos Rossini or a Chateaubriand (with béarnaise sauce of course).

But now I know I need to be a selective omnivore. I can’t eat meat as much as I would like to. My reasons aren’t religious; my beliefs allow me to eat whatever I want, in moderation. They aren’t “medical” either; no doctor has asked me to ease off anything, although that may still happen if my cholesterol or blood sugar went doolaly. [An unlikely occurrence, especially since I’ve been reducing my meat intake, have no alcohol or nicotine or coffee, and am learning to watch my weight]. They aren’t financial; I’m blessed to be able to afford whatever I want to eat.

So why do I want to be a selective omnivore? Why do I want to put myself into a position where I tell people I’m a vegetarian to all intents and purposes?

It’s simple. We can’t all be meat-eaters. Not seven or eight billion of us. The natural-resource cost of providing meat as a staple to everyone will bankrupt this earth rapidly. When I say rapidly I mean “in our lifetime”. Soon.

Simply put, when we look at the energy and water costs of food production, the meat-eaters amongst us are being heavily subsidised by the vegetarians and the vegans. Heavily.

That was fine in the past. It’s not fine now. We have serious issues to deal with when it comes to energy, and even more serious ones when it comes to water.

In the end it comes down to renewable resources, the cycle time those resources take to be replenished, the other resources they draw on in that cycle. No different from any other conversation about renewable resources.

As human beings, we’re at a time in our evolution where the opportunity to get better information about the causes and effects of what we do is increasing. That’s a good thing, because we’re only just beginning to understand just how interconnected everything is.

As we build and develop and evolve more sensors we’re going to have better information and feedback loops. Take for example the number of trees we have on earth. Turns out there are three trillion of them. Seven times the number we had estimated previously. Seven times.

As we get better information, as we learn more about the root causes, we’re going to make better decisions. Decisions about climate change and energy and water and nutrition and wellness will turn out to be high on the agenda. I can be sure of that. Because the alternative scenarios are peppered with terms like death and extinction.

Man is intrinsically social. Food is part of the machinery we use to be social. The earth we live in is all we’ve got, all that exists in the known part of the universes around us that is capable of sustaining life as we know it.

I’ve got to do my part. And so I’m going to continue on my path to becoming a selective sustainable omnivore.

Some of you will find yourself on that same path. For the same reasons. And when I meet you there, I look forward to enjoying some puchkas with you.

With love. From me. To you.

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