Academic journal article MELUS

Culinary Nostalgia: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Diaspora

Academic journal article MELUS

Culinary Nostalgia: Authenticity, Nationalism, and Diaspora

Article excerpt

Culinary practices situate themselves at the most rudimentary level, at the most necessary and the most unrespected level.

Luce Giard, "The Nourishing Arts", (156)

'The diaspora women who thought Culture meant being able to create a perfect mango chutney in New Jersey were scorned by the visiting scholar from Bombay--who was also a woman but unmarried and so different.

--Sujata Bhatt, "Chutney" (29)

Behind the assiduous documentation and defense of the authentic lies an unarticulated anxiety of losing the subject.

Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity (10)

In "Food and Belonging: At 'Home' in 'Alien-Kitchens,"' Indian American cultural critic Ketu Katrak suggests that culinary narratives, suffused with nostalgia, often manage immigrant memories and imagined returns to the "homeland." Narrativizing her own migratory journey from Bombay to the United States, she remarks, "my own memorybanks about food overflowed only after I left India to come to the United States as a graduate student. The disinterest in food that I had felt during my childhood years was transformed into a new kind of need for that food as an essential connection with home. I longed for my native food as I dealt with my dislocation from the throbbing Bombay metropolis" (270). As an immigrant subject distanced geographically and temporally from her childhood home in Bombay, food becomes both intellectual and emotional anchor. Psychically food transports Katrak to her childhood home, giving her a sense of rootedness when she immigrates to the United States.

And yet, she also acknowledges how the experience of dislocation, modulated by a nostalgic longing for the familiar, is also deeply rooted in the creation of imaginary fictions which distort the lived realities of her prior life. She notes:

   food was not pleasurable to me as a child. Thinking about this now
   as an adult, I can say that food was an overdetermined category for
   me in my childhood years; it tasted of the heady tropical
   environment, it delineated who was in and out of favor with my
   father. I tasted anxiety in the onions fried a bit too brown and
   tension in the too many dark burned spots on the roasted papad. One
   never knew what would be considered faulty at a particular meal,
   and the uncertainty overwhelmed any pleasure in what was eaten.

Katrak's honesty registers the affective value of food and smells, in the process reflecting the nostalgia structuring memories of home for the immigrant subject. Recalling Salman Rushdie's take on nostalgia and historical memory in his now classic essay, "Imaginary Homelands," she cautions against a tendency to transform nostalgia for the ineffable into an idealization of the past. In "Imaginary Homelands," Rushdie sets in motion a complex investigation into the condition of the diasporic exilic writer. As he so eloquently puts it, "It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect the world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost" (9). Seeing the past through the shards of a mirror inevitably distorts the idealized memory one has of a "homeland": owing to the exigencies of displacement and dislocation certain memories are remembered, while others, literally, are re-membered. As Rushdie moves us through the problem of memory and mimetic fidelity, he tells a story about returning to India after an absence of many years. He draws an analogy between an old black-and-white photograph of his childhood home taken prior to his birth and his perceptions of his childhood. With the passage of time and movement to different spaces, "the colours of history had seeped out of my mind's eye" (9): nostalgia intervenes to colorize, or, in this case, decolorize the past, reducing it to a pale imitation of what it might have been in the mind's eye.

I begin with this brief but necessary trail through these two essays to highlight how nostalgia is always already predetermined indeed over determined--in scripting immigrant attachment to the past. …

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