By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
This mother, who lives in the cité, was telling me about the ‘order’ her son had put before he left for school in the morning, for it was his thirteenth birthday: bouillon mifoune avec boulettes, gratin thon, poulet frite.
On every birthday of his ever since he could do so, the pattern had been the same: the mother would delight in preparing what her child had asked for and in feeding him in the evening, as the family shared their meal together and cut a home made cake too, and the lad received presents in kind and in cash from his doting older siblings and elders.
This time round, the money gifted amounted to Rs 700. Gently, Mum persuaded Alexandre to accept putting Rs500 in the savings account she had opened for him, and the remaining Rs200 were handed over to the custody of a bachelor uncle who lives with them, for spending at the child’s leisure afterwards. This uncle, unlike others who have made the news recently, looks after his nephews and nieces with great tenderness – and firmness when the occasion demands – and is the one who emmene zot faire ene ti promenade, from the time they were this high, thus allowing the parents some much-needed breathing space. In a manner of speaking, for during that time the mother is still taken up with her chores, and the father is away, often doing overtime at his place of work. More than that, it is this uncle who is at home when the children come back from school, and he always has ready something he has made with his own hands to fill their hungry stomachs as they walk in shouting for him and, pitching their schoolbags in a corner, rush towards the kitchen.
Except for yogis who seem to live on practically nothing and fresh air, all of us need a minimum amount of food to build up our bodies. Food, shelter, clothing – in that order, are the basics of survival, and all the fights and the wars that mankind has engaged in, and continues to wage, have been primarily about securing the resources to provide food. And as individuals that is also our core purpose when we go job-seeking. It couldn’t be otherwise, could it?
Among our first lessons in biology we learn about the simple one-celled organism that is found abundantly in nature, the humble amoeba, and how it throws out projections from its covering wall to trap microscopic food particles that are floating about in the watery medium where it lives. It digests them by a process called phagocytosis, and essentially this is what we too do on a macroscopic scale, however different and sophisticated the process of feeding ourselves, and digesting the stuff, looks and has become as we evolved into human beings.
It should be no wonder, therefore, that so much of our focus should be on food, all aspects of it, from the farm to the table as is said in the industry’s jargon. But for us common mortals it’s from the farm to our mouths laced with, preferably, the love of mother or other loved one if mother is otherwise busy or not around for any reason. One of my friends once told me about how, in the middle of the night, he had to prepare rice and gros pois for his five-year old son when the little fellow had got up to use the washroom. The child had gone to bed early, and was hungry again – and gros pois with rice was what he wanted to have! My friend did not want to wake mother, so he set out to fulfill his son’s wish by himself, and was so happy – as he narrated to me a few days later – to keep his child entertained with stories as they spent the next couple of hours in the kitchen before they went to bed at about two am.
He had had a very busy day at work, and giving tuitions after hours – he was a secondary school teacher – but all tiredness left him as he got going with this act of love. One has only to watch mother/father bird tipping the worm into baby bird’s open beak to appreciate that feeding one’s loved ones is far more than a simple physical gesture.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
For a good part of our waking hours at home, the kitchen is the warmest and best place to be, for that’s where we get our nourishment from. Symbolic perhaps, throughout our lives, of the welcoming warmth of our mother’s bosom as we lay in her lap, suckling and being made live so to speak, by the best food for babies: mother’s milk. And from there to the kitchen where she toils is like a natural step for the mother. Were that more fathers joined in, why not, in these days of fast-paced life where more often than not both parents are employed. But perhaps that’s another debate…
It is no surprise that when we are abroad, whenever someone is coming over, the request is always for food items. In the days when I was a medical student in India – and this is true for thousands of other students at universities abroad – from time to time I used to receive a parcel reaching after a couple of months at sea. Kraft cheese, tinned sardines, milk powder were the main items, as they were convenient to ship. My Malaysian friends also used to get food parcels from home, but more regularly. On the other hand, I know many a Mauritian these days who still looks forward to receiving Kraft cheese.
But it’s been a couple of decades since air travel has become more accessible, and faster. In addition to the above items, when parents or dear ones come over, they bring along cooked items which they have taken time to prepare and pack barely hours before getting into the plane. Items include, amongst others and depending upon request, customs and taste, cerf roti, dalpuris, ladoos, gulab jamun, jackfruit, paratas.
I once landed in New York and was asked whether I had any food items. I answered in the affirmative, and made reference to the dalpuris I was carrying. The officer could not quite make out what I was talking about, but he got the broad idea. Like pancakes? he quizzed. Yes, I answered, that’s it. Salty pancakes, kind of… All right, he said, for your kid? Yea, I replied. Ok, ok, get going then. See? Food, wholesome, home made… ooh yummy! I get spoilt too: only week before last, two lovely children not only prepared my favourite desert when I went over for dinner, but I was also handed over a takeaway box of the best apple crumble I always enjoy in this little island.
Taste, value and convenience are what people look for when shopping around for food. Food is no doubt good business, and to feed increasing numbers of us – approaching seven billion soon – no doubt food needs to be produced on an industrial scale. All the more reason for rigorous standards to be set and adopted around the world, and for codes to be agreed upon, respected and the provisions adhered to and enforced by regulatory bodies at country level.
It is only too well known by now that the major ravages to health are being caused by wrongful diet and lack of physical activity, and far from denying the necessity for large scale food production by business-oriented firms, there is no doubt that home made is still best. Parents must absolutely organize themselves so as to cook and prepare food for their children – and themselves too of course. There is nothing as important, sacred even, as this activity. Equally so is the convivial meal, which bonds the family – and makes for lasting friendships too. Find a Mauritian home where the guest who drops by unannounced is not invariably requested, if not gently coerced if need be, to stay back and share a meal – this would be a rare thing indeed. I am sure that this is still the case, despite hard times.
In Indian culture, from time immemorial, the act of cooking and feeding has been considered sacred – a sacrifice that we make for those whom we love, a yajna. And because food comes from Mother Earth, and all of us can trace ourselves back to the origin of all that is, Om Brahman, it is to them too that we offer the sacrifice as we chant, before we partake of a meal:
It is said that we are what we eat, and we become what we think. We would not be able to think if we did not feed ourselves first, so in a way food allows us to access our higher faculties. Food for thought – is not just an expression, there’s plenty of meaning that goes with it. But more about that later… In the meantime, enjoy your meal. I urgently need a pair of yummy dalpuris…
* Published in print edition on 24 September 2010