Friday, December 19, 2008
Another food and globalization post. I recently read of attempts by people to encourage a mass boycott of food products from Israel. Of course, boycotting Israel and boundless hatred for it is old-hat. I won't start on comparing/contrasting/weighing the rights and wrongs of Israel/Palestine versus the sum total of atrocities commmitted between 1937 and 1945, the Soviet Union pre-Kruschev, Mao's China in the late 50's and 60's-early 70's, genocidal conflicts in Africa and southeastern Europe, the Partition of the Punjab in 1947, Saddam's Iraq, the current imploding of Zimbabwe, and so on and so on. Such "weighing" is itself irrational and unjust. But I don't mind at all seeing the Israeli food products right next to products from Lebanon, Syria, and even first quality "Mecca Dates" from Saudi Arabia on the shelves of the ethnic grocery store. On the other hand, I do hate to think that this is the only place where their producers will ever peacefully coexist. What a shame, selfish hatreds. Can't stand it, can't stand the people who perpetuate them. Does that make me a hater too?
OK, so when the issue is one of a big company importing hundreds of IT workers from India on short-term visas, and undoubtedly paying them less than what their American college-graduate counterparts would require, I don't know which term to use. But since I am devoting so much of this blogspace to food ethnography, I might as well inform anyone who is interested as to just WHY we see --- in upscale Whole Foods and Trader Joe's as well as the humble Indo-Pak grocery stores and even more humble Job Lot/Salvage stores --- thousands of boxes of MREs made for the Indian Ministry of Defense. Must be for all those vegetarian South Asian college and graduate students who didn't grow up in the States, right? Well, sure. Or perhaps also: let's market authentic tasting (and that they are) Indian veg dishes to Americans who are interested in that sort of thing. Yeah, that too. But really, I suspect that they are mainly for the bachelors. The uncountable number of young Indian graduates who are employed by an uncountable number of companies here in the U.S. What self-respecting Indian housewife or Auntie or whoever other female is going to spend even $1.00 for a few ounces of something they could whip up a whole pot of for the same money? I am told on good authority that there are entire apartment buildings downtown inhabited by FOB bachelors, here just for a while. They show up, sans traditional clothing, at Navaratri celebrations and stick by the walls of the gym, adoring and jealous. I suppose that as long as India and Pakistan do not go to war, the surplus MREs will end up here. Which reminds me of the cornflakes made in Egypt that I found in a beach-town Dollar Store several years ago. Complete with red barn and rooster. Yes, that's right: surplus corn, a New World cereal grain, is being made into cornflakes in Egypt, where the average household income is about $700 per year, and they are being shipped for sale to North America. I'll have to find the box and write a post about it. Bottled sauces and other condiments from anywhere else in the world are one thing; there are unique recipes for limepickle and rooster sauce and whatnot. But those are from the pre-microwave age! This is a whole new era...
Had a bit of free time last week to poke around nearby Indo-Pak groceries, but not just for buying. I am always on the lookout for material for my blog, which is really just the online expression of my interests including eating and photography, and anything related to the "hidden in plain sight" connections between the local and the global. So my little bit of fieldwork in food ethnography has yielded the following. World history teaches us that the humble potato made its way out of Peru about 500 years ago. We now find it virtually everywhere, and just as the image of Colonel Sanders has taken over that of Mao in China, when in India one could easily get the impression that the Frito-Lay logo is a national icon. Ma nahi samjha, I mean, like, one doesn't merely see bags of chips here and there, one sees them in every humble steet-side stall next to every other street-side stall providing internet service and other telecommunications (STDs!) and chewing gum. They are hanging splendiforously in multi-coloured rows, everywhere, like the fluttering sarees and dupattas in the mustard fields of a dozen or more Bollywood movies, each bag attached to the next and awaiting perforation by a buyer eager to taste "Rajasthani" or "Hyderabadi" flavors. Well, I already knew that I could buy the cheaper Indian version of Coca-Cola ("Thumbs Up") here in the States, and wondered why anyone would want to, including my son whose brief obsession for it abruptly ended when we discovered rot beneath the bottle cap. When we were in India, our group unanimously decided that the local no-brand and cheaper version of potato chips were much better than anything that Frito-Lay could muster, despite the efforts of Pepsico and Indra Nooryi. Don't get me started on water for Coca-Cola and what Monsanto has been up to in the subcontinent. Well, to get to the point, I was used to seeing the bags of New Jersey-made snacks (bhujia, etc.) also chaat like the Haldiram's brand made in the land of Horn OK Please / Mera Bharat Mahan, but I was completely unprepared for the latest arrival: FRITO-LAYS AMERICAN STYLE CREAM AND ONION, 2.8 0z. for 20 Rupees (less than 50 cents) in India and $1.39 here!!! Yeah, it costs a lot to get all those bags onto container ships and distributed to stores 10,000 miles away!!! For radicals who think it's bad enough that Frito-Lay is even in India or KFC in China this must surely be the tipping point! Let slip the dogs of war! Well, yes, of course I bought a bag. I had to taste and see, especially since they were labelled "Snack Smart" with 0 transfats (so we're globalizing fitness as well, I guess). What's next? Cream-free dal dishes and artificial substitutes for ghee? For the unbelievers, I attach a photo. There they were, right next to the Israeli pretzels and the Indian-made fried chickpeas (I guess the pretzels are justifiable because of the laws of Kashrut; if Manischewitz made them here I am sure they would taste awful and have to say something on the label like "Made in a plant that also processes carp, shmaltz, and horseradish"). More food for thought, from the smorgasbord of my mind.