by Dilpreet BhullarMay 26, 2020
We eat different foods. We eat them in different ways. The foods we eat and the ways in which we eat them have traversed bodies, lands, and hence cultures and politics. The act of eating, from the intimate to the industrial, is one that shapes routines in cultures and economies worldwide. The phenomenon that is food is complex from its production to consumption—ingredients and sources; methods and demographics of preparation; manners and mannerisms of consumption; postures of the bodies that consume, furniture, infrastructure, tools and settings; routines, rituals, and prohibitions; scarcities and extravagances—the tangible and seemingly intangible leaving trails of flavours and appetites, promising exciting anthropological expeditions.
One such expedition lasting 12 weeks took place in the virtual seminar class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. ‘Feasting + Fasting’ is a non-Western history/theory class by Ateya Khorakiwala, that took place last Fall and will happen again in the semester of Fall 2021. Ateya Khorakiwala, Ph.D (Harvard GSD), is an architectural historian researching the infrastructural environments and ecological landscapes of the developmental Indian state. She is also working on an edited volume, Systems and the South: Architecture in Development, about the diverse architectural strategies and new forms of expertise that found traction in the post-war Global South. The course ‘Feasting + Fasting’ examined food and bodies—their consumption, production, commodification, aestheticism—through various discursive means. Khorakiwala employed various media in the seminar to approach these epistemologies; from creating and swapping recipes, cooking in real time, to studying unconventional cookbooks, watching food films, listening to podcasts, and unpacking discourse around pop art.
Preparation of meals are closely associated with productions of space, just as historically, regimes of eating have propagated networks of empire. Food, architecture, and post-coloniality, hence present in their intersections, fantastic examinations of form, spatiality, taste, and body politics. The course was designed to approach a set of questions each week. The questions were formulated to span the personal habits around food; cultural, geographic and ethnic origins of those habits; and through that an identification of authorships and networks of historicising the spatial, cultural, and political studies of food. For instance, week one began with—
What is a recipe? How do you explain how to cook things? What makes a cookbook a political project? In what ways have cookbooks been surprising to you? How do we understand the space of a kitchen from a cookbook? Are there any other spaces implied in cookbooks? What is in between the space of the kitchen and the imagination of the nation?
(From the seminar’s syllabus by Ateya Khorakiwala)
The readings included The Indecisive Chicken by Prajna Desai, an art historian who collaborated with eight women living in the informal settlement of Dharavi, Mumbai. The book was developed as a part of the Dharavi Food Project at the Dharavi Biennale in 2014. Students also listened to Vikram Doctor’s The Read Food Podcast. What followed was an interesting class exercise, where students chose a recipe for one of their colleagues to make, adding their own pointers that would aid in its understanding. The colleague was to then interpret the recipe and tweak it to reflect their own preferences. The class then cooked on a pre-decided day, virtually synchronised, and in that way together. The steps, ingredients, adjustments, failures and flavours were then tabulated and recorded as a part of the assignment. What emerged among other observations was the strange function of the recipe as a food text: to (eventually) become redundant. The level of detail in the measurements and instructions on a recipe are determined by the awareness and skill set of the reader – the cook. The better one got at the skill, the less details one needed in their recipe, intuition taking the place of measurements, ultimately deeming the text useless. A recipe’s most effective use lay in its imminent uselessness.
Alongside conversations around food, the glossary demands an addressal of the vocabulary and performativity of ‘taste’. Its semiotic potency invites a postcolonial dissecting of what constitutes (good or refined) taste— from the visual, to the tactile and temporal. The seminar positions taste in Modernism, leading to discussions around materialism, commodification, and most importantly the aesthetics of it all. The seminar inquires—
Why is taste political? Why do we imbricate gastronomic and aesthetic taste? What is the taste of modernism?
What is the difference between the global act of commodity flow and the intimate act of eating? How has food been used to represent the colonies?
How did sugar shape the modern world as we know it? What is the relationship of sugar, slavery, and colonialism? How has sugar shaped the modern city and body?
(From the seminar’s syllabus by Ateya Khorakiwala)
Another fascinating aspect of the seminar—which did not happen in entirety due to various reasons—was when students were invited to (voluntarily) fast on a specific day. Irrespective of their choice to fast or not, they were to maintain a food diary for the day and record their decisions and self-prescribed rules around consumption of food and water, the feelings associated with these, their preparation for the fast, preconceived notions around fasting and how they were challenged, the experience of breaking the fast, the connect/disconnect they felt with their social circles because of their choices etc. Taking the personal as a springboard, the class was to complicate the threshold between the personal and collective, in the act of fasting. They read theories to understand famine and natural disaster through the work Whose Hunger by Jenny Edkins, where she treats famine, the worst ravages of our times, as a symptom of modernism. They also studied British liberal politics, specifically how Gandhi viewed them from the vantage point of his body, weaponising and performing deprivation and fasting to create shifts in colonial consciousness.
The small cohort of academics, the students came from various diaspora and ethnicities—South African, Palestinian, Indian, Taiwanese-Canadian, American—brought their own experiences to the classroom, to think about them politically in the expanded sense of how food becomes commodity. The papers and discourse that emerged from the seminar proposed ways of thinking about food in terms of global relations, climate change, energy consumption, neoliberalism, hunger, nourishment and how food essentially makes society.