Is COVID-19 Changing Our Relationship With Food For The Better?

. 6 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
Is COVID-19 Changing Our Relationship With Food For The Better?

It was a hectic Thursday at my house, a week into May; it was the designated day of the week for pocha and dusting, the wi-fi was more sluggish than usual, everyone’s remote office workload was particularly high, and the supply of groceries in our house was running dangerously low. We had a quick breakfast of cereal, and hastily thrown-together sandwiches for lunch. When the time came to cook dinner, we opened our kitchen shelves and fridge for the umpteenth time – hoping they would have become miraculously stocked in the five minutes we hadn’t checked them.

We contemplated going to the grocery store, but were all exhausted from the day’s grind; the thought of having to stand in the long queues outside the stores – only to find less than the bare minimum available by the time we got in – immediately had us trying to come up with creative ways to use what we had at home. In the end, we found some long-forgotten pickle stashed in the back-end of a cabinet, paired it with poha (flat rice) mixed in curd, and garnishing the dish with salt, called it dinner.

As modest as the meal was, it was unexpectedly comforting, and seemed to take my parents on a nostalgic spiral down memory lane. They spoke almost longingly, with deep fondness, about the quick and delicious meals that their mothers would whip up during their childhood. They talked of delectable rice balls, homemade bhel, and pickle sandwiches.

When probed deeper, however, these dishes turned out to be, what would most definitely be considered simple, paltry meals today. The rice balls were just fistfuls of rice held together with ghee and maybe some pickle for taste. Bhel was plain puffed rice with some chopped tomatoes or onions. Pickle sandwiches were just that – butter and homemade pickle in between slices of bread.

While my parents reminisced about the food, they didn’t seem to recall the unstable context that had led to their mothers attempting to create something the children would relish with minimal ingredients. The context was a severe drought in 1972, and a widespread food shortage in the aftermath of the Indo-Pakistan War. Supply was scarce and essential foods were being sold in small rations. Queues outside stores were long, and access to grocery products limited – a situation we’ve been familiar with during the last few months of lockdown.

My parents’ nostalgic childhood meals weren’t the luxurious snacks they believed them to be, but budget meals made by their mothers in an attempt to cook sustainably during a period of scarcity.

Women Have Historically Been Innovative And Sustainable During Periods Of Shortage

History is filled with such innovative cooking by women living through rationing, spoilage, or poverty. In the USA during the Great Depression, for example, oils and fats like butter were scarce. To brighten up the tense period, women invented a “depression cake” or “war cake”, that used no butter or sugar. The recipe became so popular and beloved that the United States Food Administration took it upon itself to officially circulate the recipe.

Enid Blyton filled her popular books for children with descriptions of food that sounded so delightfully delicious that they made entire generations of children crave the food items she spoke of. The Famous Five devoured picnics with “a bag of ripe tomatoes and a basket of glossy plums”, and “an enormous tureen of new potatoes, all gleaming with melted butter”. Breakfast tables were laid with “lashings of hard-boiled eggs”, freshly baked bread and cream. I remember reading about the tinned sardines, potted meat, anchovy paste, scones, and liquorice, and not having the slightest clue of what they tasted, or even looked, like – but Blyton’s immensely convincing writing had me craving them nonetheless.

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I now know that the food she was writing about was, in reality, significantly mundane – simple but hearty meals. She wrote during, and after, the Second World War, when there was substantial food shortage and rationing in England. Her characters relishing these simple foods was a reflection of England’s scarcity; Blyton was attempting to convince and entice an entire generation of children to eat what their parents could put on the table.

Closer home, during the leaner months following periods of harvest, women prepared dry rations that have now become a staple of stored food for many – papad, pickles, vadi, and dried meat or fish. Women responded to periods of political unrest, emergency and scarcity, by steaming vegetables to increase their shelf life, storing rice in water during a time when there were no refrigerators, and used vegetable peels to make dough. The dishes they created out of sparse ingredients were simple but packed with nutrition and flavour.

Many classic Bengali recipes even today, use vegetable peels, stems, and stalks – all originally born out of a necessity for zero-waste cooking during the Partition and Bengal famine.

Instances of such creative sustainability, and the origins of these recipes are largely anecdotal – reduced to being household stories. Women have continually protected consumer interests during periods of food shortage, and have been keepers of food systems and health during uncertain times.

However, they’ve been robbed of the credit they deserve.   

We’ve Been Forced To Be Mindful Of What We Consume And How We Consume It

I, on the other hand, grew up in a generation that has been exposed to constant external encouragements to indulge in desires and materialistic gluttony; a generation of Swiggy and Zomato, that associates eating out with entertainment; a generation that without hesitation drops large sums of money on their daily Starbucks coffee (and now unhesitatingly drops 2 whole tablespoons of coffee and sugar in their daily Dalgona drink).

We have shifted dramatically away from sustainable and simple cooking over the last decade.

The lockdown, however, has forced an inevitable “going back to the roots” for many. Supply lines have been disrupted, and grocery stores are running out of stock within hours. Most restaurants are still shut and take-out is a rare phenomenon for many, even after the lockdown has been eased. Grocery prices have sky-rocketed, and having to go out to get them or even have them delivered, comes with the looming threat of contracting the coronavirus.

People are increasingly learning to be flexible with what they have in their fridge – getting creative with leftovers, and combining Together ingredients that they wouldn’t otherwise have thought to. They are switching to local and seasonal ingredients. Zero-waste cooking has become a necessity for many.

A generation of people that never stepped into the kitchen, have discovered their inner chefs.

We’ve learned to make do with what we have – “simple 3 ingredient” recipes have been searched in high volumes online. People are baking their own bread, using biscuits in cakes if they don’t have cocoa, and pressure cookers if they don’t have ovens.

We have had to become more mindful of our consumption and food patterns – using food creatively and judiciously, while still ensuring they are satisfying and nutritious.

Women’s Role In Heralding Sustainable Change Must Be Recognised Now, So They’re Remembered In The Future

With an increase in capitalistic food consumption, came a parallel decrease in the value appointed to cooking, and women by extension.

The value appointed to cooking as a life skill has risen once again now.

While cooking should ideally be a gender-neutral task with equitable distribution of labour, women have continued to largely be the ones doing the heavy lifting in adapting to the collapsed supply chain, and trying to be innovative and sustainable in demand, during the lockdown. All this in addition to caregiving, household and career duties.

As our relationship with food and cooking changes, women are once more the heralds of this change. Not only have they been maximising resources while minimising wastage in their own kitchens, the number of women sharing recipes and tips to help each other, be it on YouTube or Whatsapp group chats, has increased tremendously.

This time, however, their role in safeguarding and promoting nutrition, sustainability, and food systems, must be recognised and established. We have to ensure they get the credit they deserve, and aren’t reduced to being a backdrop in the stories that their children recall one day down the line, when scrounging up leftovers on a busy Thursday.

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