Hi, I’m Apoorva Sripathi, a freelance writer and artist. If you enjoyed reading this issue or think shelf offering is great in general, you can buy me a cup of coffee // sponsor my work // simply share the newsletter, and ask a friend or two (or three?!) to subscribe.
Or what we really seek in times of crisis
I’m not very fond of the term ‘comfort food’; I find that it does not give me the full picture, and that there is an (often) unsaid association to comfort. That association is privilege, rarely found in feature articles that extol the virtues of mac and cheese/rasam rice/dal makhni. What all these dishes have in common is that they feature upper caste-upper class narratives of food, reducing a culture’s cuisine into a singular entity, as this wonderful piece for Vice India, on roasted winged termites, illustrates.
I’m not against the pleasures of food — on a dull day, I take a spoonful of palm sugar or break off a piece of jaggery, place it on my tongue and wait for it to slowly melt. Or if it’s gooseberry season, I take the smallest bite (of a pale green Indian variety) and follow it quickly with water; I can never tire of the intense sour-then-sweet sensation this evokes. I find these to be small comforts that immensely help. And this desire, whether basic or advanced, is natural.
The word comfort is derived from the Latin terms ‘com’ + ‘fortis’, which come together to give the definitions, strength/support/consolation. In short, to seek comfort is to seek support that strengthens. But to be ‘comfortless’ today means to have nothing of pleasure. To be comfortless means to have everything of necessity but not the excesses. It was in the 1700s that the physical meaning came to be attached to the word, according to John E Crowley, who explores the concept in The Invention of Comfort, and in his academic paper The Sensibility of Comfort.
Language and concepts emphasizing a physical meaning of comfort developed initially in the nascent political economy around 1700, as it analyzed the differences between “luxury” and “necessity.” Luxury had long been the subject of political and social thought, but its defining antonym, necessity — luxury was what people desired beyond necessities — had been taken for granted as having a natural definition. When eighteenth-century political economists began to analyze necessity as well, they effectively deconstructed luxury by showing how luxury in one context could be necessity in another. Standards of living could improve. The term “comfort” increasingly applied to those standards, and assessed their fulfillment.
Confronting comfort becomes a difficult task then, and I will make no pretense of doing so. The answer(s?) to what we really seek in times of uncertainty seems superfluous. An easier task would be to go about doing what we have always done. And to understand comfort from that point of view (of materiality), I think, only gives rise to romantic illusions. That isn’t to say that the satisfaction of comfort doesn’t matter. I will unashamedly admit that I’ve been re-watching Sex And The City (if not only because it soothes my anxiety from having to decide what new show to watch) for Carrie’s wardrobe, and to see her smoke. I miss smoking. I miss having the space to smoke. I miss being able to afford tobacco, the ritual of (badly) rolling a cigarette right after lunch and just before an espresso. I miss standing still with a cigarette. Sometimes I pace about, but my mind is quiet. I miss making connections over cigarettes, the fumbling of a barely functioning lighter always prompted someone to offer theirs, and right there I’d make a friend. Or an acquaintance at least. It’s mostly how I learnt to make friends in my 30s in a new continent. It was my comfort.
Anthropologists talk about commensality — the custom of eating together — the sociology of a meal, the social bonds of shared mealtimes that teach children to become adults. Smoking, looking for spare rolling paper or tobacco, sharing my tobacco with random strangers, dropped filters, the discovery of full packs of menthol filters distributed amongst those who shared space near the smoking area — these are my ideas of acceptance into a community. I’m sure it is someone else’s idea as well, and I look forward to smoking together soon. Maybe this is a romantic illusion too.
But the materiality of food, even during a pandemic, will (and should!) always be linked to survival. Comfort food for some of us is merely food security for the rest. It is the availability of food. It should encompass long term solutions of health services, programmes and policies that look at moving the world’s population out of poverty; it is microbiopolitics as Heather Paxson wrote of raw milk cheese but is equally acceptable here, because it is a concept that underlines food ethics and governance. Making food available to everyone includes (and is not limited to) generating farmer income, increasing the assets of the poor and the underprivileged, recognising what food is worth consuming at a time when dominant culture looks to homogenise individual cultures, and looking beyond big business. Someone like Jamie Oliver should know better than to say that the government’s crackdown on junk food adverts can be an important movement in tackling obesity, when the obvious solution is to look at why there is a financial and cultural barrier that prevents the poor from accessing healthcare and purchasing “healthy” food.
I started this newsletter with comfort in mind. As we turned to khichdi and chilli chicken, stress-baked cookies and cake, churned out loaves of bread, shared cooking secrets and tips with each other, in my own naiveté, I decided that sharing recipes would help. After all, I cook a lot. I made orange rasam last week, into which I chucked a whole orange — it was what I considered a cross between ordinary rasam and an orange marmalade. It was excellent.
Seven recipes later, I pivoted completely to essays. It’s where I was comfortable; it’s where I found comfort. Writing recipes isn’t a mammoth undertaking, but it requires a discipline that I, as a recipe writer, failed to commit to. I couldn’t keep up with and provide exact measurements. I do what I feel is right (in cooking and life). I eyeballed the tamarind, water, and spices for the rasam. I zested a whole orange, squeezed it using my hands, and roughly tore it into quarters to add to the rasam. If it was lacking in something, I added it. This is why, as much as I’d like to share recipes with others, I’m entirely hopeless at it. Besides, many others already do this better than me. Laughingly, my own efforts to democratise cooking failed.
The origins of comfort food might be hard to trace. After all, eating is emotional, whether you’re alone or out with friends or at home with your parents or on a date with your partner. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which added a definition in 1977, it traced it back to a Washington Post article talking about Southern food: “Along with grits, one of the comfort foods of the South is black-eyed peas.” The Atlantic, which is the source for the above piece of information, traces the definition of comfort food to a decade earlier, when the Palm Beach Post used it in a story on obesity.
What do we label as comfort food? Or rather, why do we anoint unremarkable foods (TV shows/art/music/books) with the title of ‘comfort’? Maybe because when we’re looking for comfort, we tend to look around instead of ahead. We look at things (and people) that have always stood by us, and we ask for it (and them) to sustain us. Comfort is caring for self but it isn’t only caring for self. It is caring for the community. I saw this happening last week when my grandmother passed away — from friends and family to strangers and neighbours, everyone offered to help. They made us food, they waited on deadlines, they listened to us talk. My mother’s customers at the bank she works for called to offer condolences — the same people whom my mum calls (flower sellers, vegetable vendors, bakery helpers, retirees, pensioners) when she receives new currency notes. This is a community my mother has always cherished. Among other people, it started with the friendship between my grandfather and our local coffee bean roaster and seller. This idea of a community also links back to microbiopolitics and the “potentialities of collaborative human [and microbial cultural] practices” to create new alliances.
So what if — instead of thinking about precarity as an exception — we accept being vulnerable as an exception to how the world works? In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing imagined precarity as being vulnerable to others. I think her words have never been truer than right now. What stands out is that both Paxson and Tsing look to the ecology of nonhumans to demonstrate frameworks that not only nourish and delight humans but also prove that life is possible even in times of indeterminacy. Tsing’s book itself is a product of chaos, what she calls as a “riot of short chapters”, and is an open-ended assemblage in itself.
We hear about precarity in the news every day. People lose their jobs or get angry because they never had them. Gorillas and river porpoises hover at the edge of extinction. Rising seas swamp whole Pacific islands. But most of the time we imagine such precarity to be an exception to how the world works. It’s what “drops out” from the system. What if, as I’m suggesting, precarity is the condition of our time — or, to put it another way, what if our time is ripe for sensing precarity? What if precarity, indeterminacy, and what we imagine as trivial are the center of the systematicity we seek?
Tsing writes about the possibility of life in capitalist ruins; in particular, the matsutake, a group of aromatic wild mushrooms that are valuable in Japan. She writes on comfort in times of distress — “open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life” and “collaborative survival in precarious times”. She wrote of “living in our messes” in 2015. Here we are, five years later, trying to live through a pandemic. If this isn’t vision 2020, I don’t know what is.
When in doubt make food. Or look to mushrooms. And in my case, I can only look but not touch, because the irony, while re-reading Tsing, hits me: that I’m looking for comfort in a book about mushrooms, while being allergic to them.
Cardamom chai is comfort
Every morning, following the rhythm of my hands, I absentmindedly break off a piece of ginger, pound it with an old stone pestle, gather the rough flesh, juice and all, and add it to a vessel filled with a tumbler of water, and light the stove. Then I turn around to the open kitchen shelves, grab the smallest stainless steel dabba, open it, and take a fat pinch of cardamom powder, and add that to the vessel as well. I let the whole concoction boil till the water turns golden brown, and then I add three spoons of black tea dust, two spoons of sugar. I stir it, let it bubble, and then add some milk. I let this come to the boil and switch off the stove. Once again, I reach for the cardamom powder and add another pinch to the tea, close it with a lid and let it sit for 10 minutes, before I strain and drink it.
- Thea Everett makes such amazing food and you can watch her cook on her IGTV. I watch it to wind down. (If I’m not cooking then I like to watch others cook!) You should too!
- In the last issue, I proudly proclaimed that I will always stan 80s Tamil songs. And I will. But this week I want to recommend this 90s song about rain. Any rain songs that have followed this and will follow, can never match the enthusiastic dancing or the getting-drenched-minus-the-sensuousness of it all.
- The People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) has won the Prem Bhatia Award for extensive field reports on (and including) climate change effects and the impact of the pandemic on rural India. Please follow their amazing work and donate to them if possible!
- Thank you to the lovely Rachel Hendry who became my first Patreon.
I would love to hear from you — idea, shoutout, or just a chat about Shelf Offering. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.