Why we are baking bread and brewing Kombucha
Eating food and making food are some of the most reassuring things we can do for ourselves and others as the world spins on a new axis.
Margaret Mead, legendary anthropologist, had famously told a student that the first sign of civilisation in a culture was a fractured femur. A broken femur can take up to six weeks to heal, and finding one at an archaeological site was a sign that a society had evolved up to the point where an injured person would be cared for, fed, and tended to. In lesser cultures, the wounded simply became burdens that were discarded.
The aesthetic of food
I can’t hazard a guess as to how Margaret Mead would react to a civilisation that counted ‘small-batch craft rums,’ collagen, ‘ugly vegetables’ and flavoured kombuchas as part of its most vibrant food trends, going into 2020.
On the one hand, the affluent, cosmopolitan urban resident’s long-running love affair with fashionable food (and even more fashionable places in which to consume and photograph it), signalled a society that had evolved to a point where its members could genuinely appreciate food as an aesthetic, at no nutritional cost to themselves. On the other hand, the decorative value of food in a world where global hunger remained a pressing and deadly issue spoke of growing inequality and a decidedly un-civilised social apathy, even decline.
Whether we loved food trends or hated them, whether we posted Insta-stories of every meal or frowned at the friends who did, whether we tried the diets, the fasts, the fixes and believed that they worked (or didn’t), there’s no denying that food culture seemed to always be approaching peak pretentiousness, and then exceeding it.
Both the wealthy and India’s growing middle-classes were privileged enough — and let us acknowledge the magnitude of this privilege — to be able to take access to food for granted, to spend an increasing amount of money eating out and ordering in, to feel that their culinary worlds had expanded to a point where they could be hyper-specific about what they wanted to eat — keto, locally sourced, gluten-free, organic, Sri Lankan (or Northern Italian).
From eating, to optimising, to comfort
The food, fitness and wellness industries had simultaneously mastered the art of creating new rules and rituals around food and eating, with information and instructions coming at us every day — time of consumption, quantity, origin story, pairing. We were being coaxed to not merely eat but to ‘optimise’ our food consumption, with the promise of wholesome good health just around the corner, to the right of the workout and chia pudding.
But change is a constant, and the novel coronavirus has accelerated its pace and compacted its weight. Today, with lockdowns still in place, supply chains disordered, retailers downing shutters and fears about hygiene at an all-time high, many of the foibles and fixations around food have withered away. As our lives have been turned upside down, the rules are being broken.
People are turning to food for the most old-fashioned thing of all — comfort. This comfort can assume different forms — a fascination with bread-making in a food culture that doesn’t ‘bake’ in the traditional, Western sense; lots of time spent in the kitchen experimenting with corporeal food items as opposed to facing up to abstract anxieties; watching cookery shows on loop and hoarding recipes that you have neither the time nor supplies to actually make; eating whatever carb or fat you feel like, whenever you feel like (the most radical rebellion of all).
One colleague is soothed by the act of washing each fruit or vegetable he brings home, flat laying them out to dry and enjoying the patterns they make. Eating food and making food are some of the most reassuring things we can do for ourselves and others as the world spins on a new axis.
Anxieties that encourage getting & giving
But equally, food is a source of anxiety. Suddenly, the well-heeled are worrying about whether they will have all the food supplies they need. It’s hard to forget the stories of grabbing, scrambling and aggression that played out in shops right after the lockdown was announced. Many of us are eating simpler meals, thinking more than we ever did about leftovers, portion sizes and food recycling.
More importantly, we are forced to confront a reality we had become accustomed to — our fellow citizens’ acute hunger. The most potent calls for donations and contributions came from not-for-profits organising meals and food supplies for Indians on the brink — daily wage workers, migrant labourers, the homeless, the ill, the elderly. And even as citizens, government workers, volunteers and restaurants have mobilised in incredible ways to bring food to those in need, their work will never completely be done.
Food also holds together an eco-system — the sabzi-wallahs we see, and the vendors, suppliers, loaders we don’t; the restaurant industry that is one of the country’s largest employers; local stores that were places of gossip and refuge; supermarkets that allowed us to explore new tastes and textures; cafes, bars and even quick service restaurants that were where — and how — we spent time and experienced a kind of expansiveness.
It is perhaps this expansiveness — the halo of companionship and warmth around food — that is fuelling some of the most instinctive and generous gestures we’re seeing today. Whether it’s local policemen and women cutting a birthday cake for a senior citizen in Panchkula, Haryana, moving him to tears and going viral online; whether it’s a small restaurant called Desi Masala in Bangalore that’s now feeding up to 10,000 people a day; whether it’s people cooking and shopping and making ‘care packages’ for those who can’t do so for themselves; whether it’s children gathering scraps to feed street animals; or the beautiful ‘solidarity baskets’ in Naples, Italy, that ask people to take whatever they need or give whatever they can — simple food, given freely — is a sign of a society that is not yet so shallow as to have forgotten how to care. Irrespective of the direction our post-Covid civilisation will take, these are things of which Margaret Mead would approve.
This essay is part of a larger project called COVID Chronicles, the DDB Mudra Group’s exploration of changes in consumer behaviour and culture during the pandemic. Led by Toru Jhaveri (VP & Head of Strategy – DDB Mudra West) and curated by a team of strategists (Aditya, Ellina, Nandan & Somdatta), COVID Chronicles draws on a mix of proprietary tools and is updated every week. Follow @ddbearshot on Instagram to get updates.