My first vivid memory of experiencing two food cultures clashing involved a bag of Pop Rocks and lot of food taboos.
Everyone has their own food taboos, something they absolutely refuse to eat for religious or personal reasons. Be it meat or shellfish, insects or dogs, we all have at least one of those items. Well, did you ever allow yourself to imagine what it would taste like?
I never asked my Indian grandmother Motiben what she thought meat tasted like, partly because I never fully spoke her language. I knew she had never tasted meat because it was against her religion, Hinduism. The religion of Hinduism teaches that every living creature has a soul, even a bug, and we should not kill these beings because they are in our way or we are hungry. In modern terms, my grandmother was a lacto, occasionally ovo vegetarian. Her diet consisted of from-scratch Western Indian vegetarian dishes made of pulses like split peas and lentils, just about any vegetable you could get your hand on, millions of spices, and flat bread, typically roti or fried puri bread.
I was also raised Hindu, but because I lived in a half- Indian, half-American household, the rules of no meat didn’t really apply to me. Three of my four family members ate meat on a daily basis (my father quit eating meat in the late 90s for health reasons). Motiben was so strict in her beliefs, I remember she used to hate cooking on the same stove top where meat was present. Perhaps she thought the meat would secretly hide itself underneath the pile of hearty vegetables and lentils she was cooking when she wasn’t looking, infecting her body with sacrilegious meat particles that would cause her to get reincarnated in something terrible, like a dung beetle. I also remember feeling sad for Motiben because she would never taste the joys of bacon.
I joke around, but logically, I understand now why something as tasty as bacon could actual disgust my grandmother. Sometimes the stigma surrounding the food is so great, it dictates what the food tastes like, not the actual flavors, and therefore it dictates how a person thinks about the food. On some level, be it religious or personal, eating meat bothered her. To turn the tables around, I would be really freaked out if someone tried to cook dog meat on the same stove that I was cooking bacon on, even though I know there are other cultures that consume dog meat.
And remember that recent article that made the headlines about someone making cheese from mother’s milk?
Yup. I just gagged a bit too. But of course, it took me many years and three degrees to be able to understand that.
There was pressure growing up in two different cultures at the same time. Growing up in modern America and rural India. Handling two languages on a daily basis when you only know one of them leads to confusions over the simplest things due to the lack of the ability to communicate. So when small things, minuscule events in the scope of the world take place, such as me learning an entire poem about mothers Motiben likes in Hindi, or Motiben learning how to say Cool Ranch Dorritos really well, perfect or not, my family took joy in these episodes.
So one day, my older brother, my father, mother and I were sitting in the family living room with Motiben, chatting and catching up. My brother took out some candy and shared it with me. When Motiben asked what it was, my brother held it out to her and put some in her hand while telling her to eat it.
The candy was Pop Rocks. If you not familiar with this candy, allow me to explain it to you: you place this strawberry powder in your mouth, and it explodes.
Of course, this freaked poor Motiben out, and she asked my brother what she was eating.
My brother, being an eternal jokster, told her it was meat.
As you can imagine, this did not sit well.
She ran around the room, trying the scrape the candy “meat’ from her tongue (which was not easy for an older woman wearing a restricting sari, mind you) and yelling, probably cursing at us, but thankfully, most of us couldn’t really understand her. We eventually calmed her down and explained it was just a strange popping candy, but I’m not gonna lie–before we got to that, we all chuckled a bit.
This is my first and most vivid memory of the two main food cultures in my family clashing, and one I remember fondly. I believe the laughter helped eased the tension we sometimes felt from trying to blend to the two cultures. So Motiben had to take one for the team every now and then, so what? Ultimately, I think these situations brought my family closer together.