Very strange when your first book turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with you–all the hard work was done by about 30 other extremely talented writers. I spent two-and-a-half years intermittently editing (read: “driving my editor bats”) an anthology of Indian writing on food for Penguin. A Matter of Taste was soft-launched at the start of 2005 and all I can say is that it was so much fun to put together. This is what I said in the introduction:
“Even an anthology has to begin somewhere, and this one eventually found its moorings in memory. Fictional ones, drawn from books we’ve read, loved and been challenged by; and more personal ones, the kind we all carry, of meals eaten and new tastes, of times of deprivation and moments of sharp, new pleasures.”
The Kolkata Telegraph did a piece on the spurt in food writing, which makes me optimistic that there will be more collections of this kind: “The focus is on story-telling. Those who have something to say about food do so with an anecdote, in a travelogue, a historical reference, a literary allusion or a regional context.”
Reading the reviews was hugely entertaining–this is where the time that passes between handing manuscript in and seeing it emerge as a book really helps. You have distance, and you know you’ve done your best, after which it’s up to reviewers and readers to make a call. Can’t locate too many of them online, but opinions were divided. Tehelka’s Sonia Faleiro, the Indian Express review and foodie and restaurateur Ritu Dalmia (in the Hindustan Times) seemed to think it was a Good Idea and loved the range of writing. The pink papers–Business Standard and Economic Times–seemed to think it was more about writing than about food, which is fair enough: it was, unapologetically, meant to be about good writing. Loved those reviews, though, because they came up with very interesting arguments. Anita Nair, writing for India Today, called it a “banquet” but also felt that the pieces were too familiar, like a buffet lunch composed of leftovers and reprised dishes. The Hindu’s Rana Siddiqui seemed to have enjoyed reading the collection and liked the fact that it was food writing that focused on the place food has in our lives. Gonna take that woman out to dinner one of these days!
Two distinct responses emerged. The people who loved the anthology pinpointed what made it so much fun to put together–the variety. I loved being able to put Gandhi on meat-eating and Ruchir Joshi’s funky version of shrikhand laced with additives and Suketu Mehta on the slaughter of goats and Manjula Padmanabhan on diets and Mahasweta Debi on stark deprivation and Jhumpa Lahiri on fish in an alien land in the same book. The people who didn’t like it wanted a different kind of anthology–one that focused sharply and squarely on descriptions of food, on the plate rather than the table, on the history, say, of spices and ingredients. I’m hoping they didn’t like A Matter of Taste enough to compile their own anthologies: I wouldn’t want to put a collection like that together myself, given my slightly wonky tastes, but I would happily read it.
Just to finish, two recipes that have nothing to do with food:
From Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the masala movie blend:
“It seemed all Rashid had to do was to part his lips in a plump red smile and out would pop some brand-new saga, complete with sorcery, love-interest, princesses, wicked uncles, fat aunts, moustachioed gangsters in yellow check pants, fantastic locations, cowards, heroes, fights, and half a dozen catchy, hummable tunes.”
From I Allan Sealy:
How the Raj is done:
“I wish to shew how the Raj is done. This is the play of children, good adept, rest easy. You must have the following ingredients. (It matters little if one or another be wanting, nor is the order of essence. Introduce them as you please, and as often.) Let the pot boil of its own.
An elephant, a polo club, a snake, a length of rope, a rajah or a pearl of price (some use both), a silver moon, a dropped glove, a railway junction, some pavilions in the distance, a chota peg, a tent peg, a learned brahmin, a cruel king, a chapati (or chaprasi), a measure of justice, gunpowder (q.v.), equal portions of law and order, a greased cartridge, a tamarind seed or else a cavalry regiment, a moist eye, some high intentions, two pax of Britannica, Glucose biscuits, an ounce of valour, something in the middle, a Victoria Cross, a soupcon of suspense (q.v), a bearer, a dhobi (or dhoti), a chee-chee, a dekchi (or deck-chair), a pinch of dust, a trickle of perspiration, a backdrop with temples or mosques (some use both), a church pew, a little fair play, a boar, some tall grass, a tiger, a rain cloud, a second snake or a mongoose, a flutter of the heart, a sharp sword, a bared ankle, walnut juice or burnt cork (some use both), a boy of British blood unsullied, a locket.”