I’m thinking a lot about food lately. Often my food consumption goes without a lot of thought, such as a quick run to the local Subway for a sandwich which I can mindlessly eat at my desk while I read or do other tasks. I tend to get the same sandwich most days, so I don’t even have to think about what’s on the Subway menu. If I bring lunch from home, it’s usually the same ham sandwich. The only variation is if I’m dieting, then I skip the cheese and mayo. Otherwise, it’s pretty routine.
During my weeks in India, food became something to think about several times each day. As a traveler, you don’t always know where your next meal will come from, or what it will contain. There’s an element of surprise to it, and more than a little trust involved. There was certainly no lack of food for us and, despite more walking, I came home two pounds heavier than when I left. Food was given generously and graciously with a lot of attention to our Western tastes.
In homes and in restaurants in India, there’s an intentionality about food; real planning is involved. Meals there consisted of smaller portions, but more dishes. It wasn’t uncommon for 10-12 items to be placed on the table for each meal: salads, a variety of breads, curries, fruits, rice, sauces, vegetables, and potatoes…and that’s just for lunch. Breakfast and dinner had similar quantities and varieties of items.
Food is eaten with the hands in India, as it is in many places. That’s more than a little disconcerting to us who are used to forks and knives. Meats are pre-cut into bite-sized pieces, often covered in gravy–some spicy, some not–to be mixed with rice by one’s fingers. There’s a lot of movement on the Indian plate with diners constantly mixing and moving items around with their hands. I tried their method and used my fingers for a couple of meals, but I was rather sloppy and it was clear that I’m much more comfortable with steel utensils to deliver the goodies to my mouth. But there’s something basic about using one’s hands. Somehow the experience ties a person to the food they are eating. Dinner is more organic, not in the sense of being “pesticide-free”, but in the experience of eating with one’s whole body. The hands and eyes experience the temperature and the texture of the food before the tongue ever tastes it. There’s a sense of integrity about it all.
There’s much less manufactured food, too, as most dishes are from scratch ingredients and fresh produce. We had pineapple right out of the garden; papaya and mango, tomatoes and guava from the back yard. There were more varieties of banana than I could count, and figs and pomegranates and coconuts everywhere. Chicken and lamb often come from one’s own village.
The Indian palate is vastly different from the American one. India is the source of many spices, and dishes reflect the richness of those flavors, some familiar and some exotic. The American diet seems terribly bland and flavorless to Indians, I was told. It seems to me that Indian food is full of opposites: fiery hot curries with a side of cold plain yogurt to reduce the inflammation, tender meats and crisp salads, well-seasoned lentils with plain rice, salty fried breads cooked with biting black pepper, and for a finishing touch, sweet, creamy ice creams and puddings. I tried it all and then some, so I guess I’m lucky I only brought two pounds back with me.
I like the English tradition of afternoon tea in India, with the hot beverage (whether coffee or tea) steeped darkly and mixed with steamed milk and a generous helping of sugar. There are always cookies (“biscuits” in the English parlance) with tea. Often potato chips or a piece of cake showed up at tea time, too. I was reluctant at first to have hot tea in the 95-degree heat, but our hosts were convincing that a hot beverage in the afternoon actually helps the body handle the heat better. There’s mid-morning and mid-afternoon tea. Evening dinner was often after 8 p.m. Lunch tended to be the heavier meal.
Getting home, I was desperate to return to my bland daily bread: dinner was a ham sandwich, some overly salty Cheetos and a glass of milk. No sign of any spice anywhere. My tongue needed a break. But damn any diet, my sandwich had both cheese and mayonnaise. I’d been craving dark chocolate and ate most of a bar before I collapsed from jet lag.
The other thing about food that’s on my mind is the inequitable distribution of it. I saw women in India cooking a pot of white rice over coals, throwing a few leaves and chili peppers in the pot for flavor. They were cooking on the hospital grounds for themselves and their patients, and rice and a few veggies were all they had. I watched children eating rice three times a day, the only variation a few lentils thrown in the pot. I saw farmers who struggle to raise enough rice to feed the people of their village. And I throw away more food than I can ever justify. Supermarkets here look like palaces of gluttony. There’s too much food in my country and my part of the world, and not enough in other parts.
Doesn’t it seem right to share? On getting back to my duties at work, it’s my pleasure and responsibility to guide our congregation to do something about hunger during the Mission:1 program this November. My time in India has prepared me and opened my eyes to some of the realities of food injustice.
Food is something that we all share in common, but is distinct to each of our cultures. The way we produce, distribute and consume food is crucial to our shared future, and the unhealthy imbalance of food scarcity in the developing world and food over-abundance in the developed world is unsustainable for us all.
May God bless us with a spirit of sharing, not because the hungry of India need our handouts, but because we wealthy people have a need and a responsibility to give. Resources like food are meant for the sustenance of all God’s people. It’s wrong to keep more than our fair share.
I’m generally not a big believer in the idea of God testing us, but if there is a test, it might be this one: God gives food to sustain us, and when some have enough and more than enough, perhaps its an examination to see if we will selfishly hoard the blessing, or if we will help others be blessed.
When we help others, Jesus told us, we are participating in the kingdom’s work. May we be found faithful with our food.