One of my most tenuous memories of my late mother is of her propping me up on a stool to reach the counter of her dimly-lit, humid kitchen in my Calcutta home. It is my summer vacation, the temperatures are soaring to well over 100 degrees and my tropical city is reeling under a direct scorching sun while we, mother and daughter, fry potatoes that the family will suffer through at lunch. My potatoes were often burnt. Other times, they remained uncooked and rarely edible. But I was 7, my mother was patient and my family indulgent. Over the years, I have matured as a cook and can now handle almost anything from a quick grilled cheese to an elaborate South Asian Biriyani. My culinary repertoire improved as I travelled the world. Yet, on occasions when I feel homesick (and I do often), I tend to fall back on one of my grandmother’s comfort recipes or my mother’s staples: lentil soup.
My mother learned her lentil soup in her travels accompanying my father to the western city of Mumbai. Aamti, as it was locally known, was a Maharashtrian soup that I began eating with a piece of unbuttered toast during my self-important adolescent years. My adolescent years were my intrepid steps into the world — I found friendships that would last a lifetime and some that would not. Either way, I was faltering and finding my footing through much emotional and physical tumult. As school and friends took away our ritual of potatoes, I began missing lunch regularly. My patient mother, in her cotton saree, would be waiting with the Aamti and the toast as I stormed in from school, famished, and wolfed it down every day. That was my sense of security; mother and her Aamti would wait for me even if a boy turned his nose up at me or our team was miserably beaten at the basketball game. But my mother, who traveled with her husband and patiently fed and taught her daughter to cook, could do so simply because that was all she did. She had neither the education nor the opportunities I was offered in life. I have none of the time or leisure to cultivate her patience. The most important thing that suffered during my journey into empowerment was my kitchen.
For years, throughout college, I survived on what the TikTok trend has now dubbed #GirlDinner. I was working too hard to focus on cooking, and I was always too busy. I never grew out of the self-importance of my adolescence, but my mother and her Aamti were no longer around to feed me a decent nutritious meal. I drank a coffee with a side of cigarettes for breakfast (yes, it was legal in Calcutta to sell undergraduate kids cigarettes), ate a packet of crisps for lunch and often came home to crash into my unmade bed without dinner at all. Regardless, college was wonderful, it was full of opportunities, the world was wide open and I was constantly testing my wings. I travelled the country, moved to another one and sat in my classes at Cambridge with glowing pride. As is often the case with flying, one’s roots come undone. Mine did, launching me to a dizzying height where I cast about for a sense of security and a semblance of balance, and I thus found myself back in the kitchen.
My mother’s kitchen, I began to realize, was not a symbol of her lack of empowerment, but an expression of her knowledge and artistry. Yes, her time in the kitchen was unpaid labour, it was probably unvalued labour, but those are conversations for another day. It was a labour of love and a labour of great value. I believe planning, cooking and serving a meal is the single most important process that turns a house into a home and places a home within a community. The recipes, passed down generationally, circulated around the community and beyond, are active agents in transmitting cultural heritage and consolidating social and even national ties, according to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. Sharing food is also the agent of global exchange. After all, halfway across the globe, away from home, in the great melting pot that is American society in an impersonal residential hall, my first sense of friendship and warmth was a short conversation with my Nigerian friend in our common kitchen. As she directed me to the local grocery stores, another Slavic friend suggested the farmer’s market for fresh produce.
When I moved to the U.S. as a graduate student, my first American grocery store was a shock to my system unlike any other cultural shocks I have known. The number of isles dedicated to refrigerated, ready-to-eat, microwaveable food struck me as an oddity. I watched in wonder as college kids and busy mothers alike stocked their carts with these options. Buying a drink in America, specifically the Big Gulp, was a whole other shock to my sense of portion — the cup looked so huge that it felt like a commitment. In America, people buy drinks and sip them for the rest of the day. Between microwave dinners and sugar spikes from large drinks, it did not seem like Americans enjoyed the same food rituals that I had taken for granted.
My first impression of America was a young, energetic nation, eager to spread its eagle wings and conquer the globe but mostly surviving on frozen “mac n’ cheese.” American food habits sharply contrasted my sojourn around South European, Mediterranean and South Asian cultures — cultures less individualistic and more mellowed, allowing for family dinners and home-cooked meals. Of course, in a globalized world, a home in South Bombay today looks and functions very similar to a Manhattan household, and they resemble much of what happens in a household in Porta Garibaldi, Milan. But by and large, in cultures and geographies that insist on elaborate cooking and hospitality practices, traces of an indolent ritual of enjoying food remain.
I started observing students at the University of Michigan, my graduate school and first window into American life. I saw them rushing between classes with a cold sandwich in their hands, and as I began to be invited by faculty to join them for a “working lunch,” a part of me felt rushed. To catch up, I began to partake in the culture. I consumed unhealthy fast food and sugary drinks while staring at a screen at some study corner on campus. “Girl Dinner” was not only a TikTok trend — it became a reality of my collegiate life at Michigan.
For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the trend, Girl Dinner is the practice of not cooking, of throwing together odds and ends from the refrigerator and pantry to fill a plate and substitute a meal. As with any trend on social media, it took very little for the Girl Dinner to spiral absolutely out of control. Women have been filming themselves having an apple, a cup of yogurt, a hunk of cheese or a packet of chips and calling it “dinner.” It often feels like the most big-city-girl behavior on social media since Carrie Bradshaw declared that her “secret singles behavior” was “eating saltines, topped with grape jelly, standing up in the kitchen while reading a fashion magazine.” Of course, there is the other group of women on social media, those like Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray and Love,” who are giving up lucrative careers and embracing the “country aesthetic” and their spirituality and femininity. As far as I am concerned, I want to have my cake and eat it too! I want to have a career, a writing job and a social life, but I am loath to give up on the small pleasure of sitting down to a fulfilling dinner.
I often find myself wondering why it is so hard to pause for just a half hour to indulge myself with a hot meal, freshly prepared. Yes, Carrie is indulging herself. The Girl Dinner can be, in a way, the beginning of a long-awaited liberation of the woman from her responsibility in the kitchen. She is tired of being saddled with planning, shopping for and cooking full meals. The Girl Dinner is her rebellion against this arbitrary gender role. Only, at what cost? Is an apple or a cup of yogurt enough nutrition for women’s bodies? Most nutritionists on the internet say no. While it is a perfectly understandable argument that the woman is tired of her gendered role in cooking, I feel she should now claim the same time, care and attention she has been lavishing on others to indulge and care for herself and her health. Yet, how I feel and what I do are vastly different.
I often find myself rushing through meals as if a deadline, a meeting or a Zoom call hangs in the balance. I often reheat “meal-preps” and consume them without caring that my Tortilla is beginning to taste like cardboard. In a particularly busy week, I simply resort to Girl Dinners or the dining hall. In fact, I visited the South Quad Dining Hall on a Monday while writing this article.
The Monday tension is slicing through the atmosphere with a knife. An entire section of the hall is fitted with comfortable seating meant to aid working with laptops. Several students are focused on their glowing screens while they wash down their dinner with a soda. Determined to not be the sad loner staring at my phone, I pick a table with four friends: Maxi v. Judge, Kathryn, Fatimeh and Emily are my companions for the afternoon. When I introduce the topic of eating at the dining hall, they all agree that it is less healthy than the meals back home, but they have little option since cooking in the dorms, with one community kitchen and a few microwaves, is next to impossible.
“But the options here aren’t that many for someone like me,” chimes in Fatimeh who consumes only Halal food.
“And often I am looking for an option but will not find it that particular day, so it is disappointing,” agrees Emily. Maxi and Kathryn recall their experiences shopping with their mothers and having some agency over what they ate.
“Oh! It was just lovely to have a fresh meal prepared in front of you, or by you,” says Kathryn before her Monday takes her away. I meet another student, Shuyue Sheng, pursuing her master’s in Applied Statistics. She shrugs and says, “It is convenient to eat here, I can barely find time to cook twice a day.”
Again, I am left with two vastly different alternatives for approaching the female relationship with food. Either I am longing for home, healthy food and comfort or I am pursuing a career, conquering the world and compromising on the food I eat. And no matter which I choose, I shall be condemned. The feminine woman embracing her love of baking from scratch is simply not ambitious enough, and the dinner of the driven woman surviving on scraps of food or the collegiate dining hall is tagged with a frivolous “girl” prefix. As I look around and see scores of male students eating a “girl dinner” in the same dining hall, I wonder if we are using the correct nomenclature. I wonder if, like the “girl math” trend, girl dinner is not at all a question of empowerment or lack thereof, but simply a pejorative to indicate frivolity. Frivolous or not, eating habits are not born solely out of social media trends. On the contrary, it is more likely that the social and professional culture of America is driving people to the ends of their mental bandwidth, leaving little time to indulge themselves with nutritious food. “Food,” said Kathryn, during our dining hall conversation, “often determines what I am feeling,” and I agree.
Freshly prepared, warm comfort meals, foods from different cultures and elaborate slow meals shared with friends and family all have the power to put me in a good mood that few professional achievements can rival. That is not to deny that I enjoy the fruits of my empowerment — I like being a woman “with a room of my own and 500 pounds a month,” as Virginia Woolf would put it. What use is my social and financial independence if it comes at the cost of health and well-being, at the cost of simple pleasures in life? If I cannot cook myself a full meal often, if not every day, the college education is teaching me to sacrifice my simple pleasures for assignments from professors and, one day, work from employers. That is hardly the definition of freedom.
So, I have recently begun to turn away from the TikTok trend and leaf through a forgotten recipe book that has been passed down through three generations of women in my family. Bound in red cloth, it is an old ledger with yellowing pages. Inside it is a repertoire of neatly written recipes, decorated with floral motifs around the margins. The recipe book is a symbol of the education, creativity and empowerment that the women — my great-grandmother, my granny and my mother — personified. It is a testimony to the fact that they had traveled to places, met with people and learned from other cultures to put on the table a meal that was warm, rich and indulgent.
As a woman, driven by my ambitions, I should be comfortable drawing boundaries and asking the world to stop, so I can sit down to have my meal without a rush. As an inheritor of the legacy of my red-cloth recipe book, I should feel proud to do so. It may even start a trend of its own on TikTok, but at the very least, it will leave me with a feeling of warmth and comfort.
Statement Correspondent Srimati Ghosal can be reached at email@example.com.