As a university student, cooking was a survival skill. I learnt to cook to get through. Everything basic and nothing too fancy. I had learnt over time, with sustained inputs from everyone and everything around me, that cooking is not a skill that academia rewards, at all.
Then, this PhD-holding, economy-facing woman married; and, along with a partner, added to my life a family where memories of good food seemed everlasting. Family conversations reminisced about something someone had cooked or cooks extremely well. Amidst all of the reminiscing about amazing food memories from yesterday or yesteryears, I heard about my aunt-in-law who was skilled at baking a selection of cakes, cookies and everything else one would buy in the 90s from a bakery.
This aunt had been unwell for a while, and so when I first met her she was frail, and her description did not quite fit her person. She was described as a child at heart, someone who enjoyed cooking and singing, someone who as a girl frolicked about the entire neighbourhood, until the day she got married. She married and in the years that followed transformed into an extremely composed and self-conscious woman. She became an aunt who would stuff her nephews with sweets as a way of keeping the culinary side of her personality alive. She became a mother to two girls who she would dote on in the motherly language of love-food.
In the days to come, I would struggle every day to better my culinary skills to feel included in the discourses of an extended family-in-law of foodies, and self-fashioned chefs, food-historians and food-critics. I quickly realised this wasn’t something I could fix with reading more recipes online or referencing my dishes well. During all this, the aunt kept cropping up in conversations. With more conversations, she kept becoming more interesting to me. I would routinely hear from my sister-in-law (her daughter) of all the sweets she used to prepare for them, even while in terrible health.
After a while, she was diagnosed correctly for her ailment and with treatment started regaining her former self. I started talking to her routinely and was surprised at how, with her recovering health, I could distinctly spot the chirpiness of a little girl in her voice. She was recovering into being the girl she had been before she was a woman. Her character shone in the way she talked about food. Her eagerness to experiment with new ingredients reflected the chirpy little girl that I was told she was before she was married. She would enthusiastically discuss my food experiments and offer me quick baking tips. She would share names of new dishes I could try, and in doing this would always be generous enough to suggest she would “share the recipe.”
Suddenly, I realised that to this family “share the recipe” was a euphemism for “we’ve got you, sister!” It was evident that a lot of this discussion around food and recipes was forging a kind of sisterhood within the family. Sharing recipes with daughters and daughter-in-laws, which may appear a trivial or a private act, was instead meant to fulfil communication needs and forge a collective among women of different generations in this family (Bower, 1997). In the recipes and lore of amazing food, the women of the family would become prominent personalities. They would be the authors of these creative recipes, and central figures in the cultural life of the family. These recipes communicated to younger women something of the importance about the older women and about family food habits.
Compliments about food, taking inspirations, sharing of recipes, reviewing food at feasts hosted within or outside the family, and just general chatter about food was this family’s version of coming together – in appreciation and feasting, and crucially of women bonding. It was sharing and carving a creative niche that forges collective solidarity. Women for generations in this family had mobilised their creative energies into making every meal exceptional. The creativity manifested not only in making meals, snacks, and desserts exceptional, but also minimising efforts and time consumed using quick hacks. The food was always neatly presented, but the USP of the food always was a warm host and amazing tasting food.
So, the sisterhood in the maternal side of in-laws was built upon food. Men in the family had all some basic skills (much like me) in cooking, but the women were the experts of this field. These basic skills never translated into men gaining dominance in cooking but in giving good critical feedback. They would participate in discussions, and participate in preparation too, but never become ‘insiders’ in the knowledge domain. In a family WhatsApp group, everyone would talk about new recipes, birthday celebrations were shared with pictures of home-cooked food of all kinds, with elaborate discussions following each post. My aunt-in-law would also post, but rarely. She would participate in discussions and feedback, but all that changed in 2020.
In 2020, Covid-19 struck, and the lockdown was announced. Everyone was homebound, and everyone was on their own. Cooking became a survival skill for everyone. Kids had returned home from different cities. Lockdown was extended beyond one month and birthdays and anniversaries started happening. Lockdown restrictions demanded that celebrations be organised within the humble means available at home, since procurement of even the essentials was strained. Posts of home-cooked sweets started gaining momentum on the WhatsApp group. Soon, food posts on the WhatsApp group were no longer tied to celebrations but to trying and experimenting with cooking restaurant/ordered food.
At this point, I noticed something changed, and my aunt-in-law started participating more actively. She was cooking something new every other day and sharing lip-smacking delicacies, some I had never before heard about. The focus was never on presentation but rather on sharing the picture of what was cooked with a discussion on how it tasted. The food she cooked, even without any effort at presentation, looked so good it would make the mouth water. One day she shared a picture of Gulab Jamuns made from scratch (without the mix), humbly pictured in steel bowls (Katori), and their perfect colour and shape made them irresistible. Even without Instagram or Facebook dominating her efforts at the presentation of the food, her food looked so good. In a conversation, I remarked on the amazing Gulab Jamuns and suggested she should be sharing her ‘from the scratch recipes’ and awesome food with others. She laughed at that, I insisted, and then the conversation ended.
In the following week, I got an invite from my sister-in-law to like and follow a Facebook page called “Taste the Joy.” She had taken my suggestion. The two young women (her daughters) had joined hands with their mother to give her an internet presence. They were taking her knowledge to an online, networked space. She moved away from the regular family tradition of oral sharing of recipes and quick tips to documenting the recipes for consumption by a wider audience. This definitely was the first step of moving beyond the traditional idea of cooking, feeding and food-sharing activities within the family. She was claiming a public space from within her home. She was using the very traditional domain of kitchen and the act of cooking food that has for long been associated with women’s subordination (Ekström, 1991; Ray 2015; Banerjee-Dube 2016; Sengupta 2012) to claim her place in wider public space online (even if it is not entirely public). I saw that the display picture on the page was a stock photo of food, so she still seemed unsure and perhaps wanted to preserve her identity, while testing waters.
What happened after this is the reason why this article is written. The shy, small-city-chirpy-girl-cum-doting-motherly-figure began sharing her from-the-scratch recipes. The USP of her recipes was that they could create something from the humblest of ingredients that are easily available; and crucially “no-bake sweets” (low infrastructural demands), a quality that became absolutely priceless in the pandemic lockdown.
While cultural practices associated with food and the class and caste character of food has been studied (Marriott, 1968; Mayer, 1996; Liechty, 2008), what is perhaps remarkable in this context is her ability to recreate ‘class dishes’/fancy dishes from humble ingredients. Making a mousse or tart from a clever use of the humble custard powder and cheesecake from curdled milk only goes to point how the journey from ingredients to the dish represented classed realities of two very different classes. The curdled milk, gone bad due to load-shedding, transformed into a gorgeous cheesecake as the final product, is the perfect example of this. The other very interesting reality that emerges from our observation of this particular project, “Taste the Joy,” is that the woman behind it not only whips up the most a-la-carte dishes from the most unimaginably humble ingredients, but also that she mixes these with age-old (sometimes forgotten) delicacies like Rice Flour Laddoos or Besan Barfi. Some of these absolutely earthly sweets have been dimmed in memories of my generation, who now only faintly recall these delicacies from summers spent at grandparent houses in rural parts of India.
She stands these forgotten delicacies on par with the cheesiest cheesecakes, something that is absolutely remarkable to me as a sociologist. So, she is a every bit the ‘small city woman’ in Faizabad that’s looking and adapting ‘Globally Fashionable’ foods while placing them on the same table as Besan Barfis. The Facebook page is set in its place and yet reaches far and beyond. The competing epistemologies of local and global, and the use of humble ingredients reflecting the character of a small city to conjure dishes that have a global character, have been blended together in the most remarkable manner. Food then becomes a means of representing aspirations of social mobility. The diversity of dishes and recipes seems to reflect the construction of an identity that is both situated in its local while reaching out to a global public, marking membership of these cultural groups simultaneously (Fischler, 1988). The linkages between the choice of dishes and ingredients used highlights a very significant symbolic link between the local and the global in the sociological understanding of aspirational social mobility with regards a collective identity of small city women in India. Fischler’s (1988) idea about food crossing barriers between the ‘outside world’ and ‘inside world’ goes far beyond the realms of the body. In this case, food crosses the barrier between the ‘inside world’ of limited resources and the ‘outside world’ of vibrant a-la-carte delicacies; between the ‘inside world’ of a woman’s identity essentialised and routinised by her obligation to cook, and an ‘outer world’ production of an identity defined by her experiments with cooking.
She started getting likes initially from family members and subsequently by other individuals who the tides of internet surfing brought to her page. At this point, something changed. I woke up one day to find that the name of the Facebook page had changed to “Taste the Joy with Rupali.” She was clearly claiming her due credit and carving her online identity from her offline persona. She owned her online presence, marking it with her identity. I look at this as an important point in her transitioning from being a doting mother, located in a humble middle-class house of Faizabad, to a serious recipe-blogger. From cooking delicacies as a gesture of love and affection for children who relish and reward it with licking dishes clean, to posting for the consumption of a large audience that there is no way of containing.
What was also of interest was the fact that these three women in a middle-class family in Faizabad were joining hands in bringing together their knowledge to produce posts for the consumption of a larger audience. The two young daughters were helping their mother in the presentation of the dishes and striking a quirky-catchy caption for the post. The production of knowledge about food now had a peritextual element. The youthfulness-cheekiness of captions struck a chord, and the photographs have incrementally become more nuanced with accessorised frames, placement of food against lighting, carefully organising backgrounds. The presentation is now in line with an online persona that is being carved carefully, one that is more social than personal. It catches the gaze of those who are not familiar with her personally. She is a ‘Rupali’ that you can know without her being your aunt and in-law and mom or relative. The point is that this persona is being driven by a person who centred the larger part of her life around cooking and making her family happy.
Since then, she has registered her presence of “Taste the Joy with Rupali” on Instagram, diversifying the posts from just being recipes to being interactive posts engaging her followers with questions and answers as an endearing motherly figure. Also, her own pictures have replaced the generic stock pictures of food, so we know she’s coming into her own. The interactive posts also perhaps highlight the transition of this page from being only about her recipes to being about her. She is not an influencer. I’m sure even the concept would need some hard explaining if it were floated to her. She’s just an aspirational woman who is figuratively building a plane from scratch to travel the world… A notification of new post just blinked on my phone!
Dr. Smriti Singh teaches Sociology at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology and researches questions of space and social stratification, specifically in new-urban contexts in India.