Essay Mondays: Suleri


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

As fun as it was to visit, I'm glad to be leaving the land of snarky commentary and returning to the country of hearty recommendations for this week's Essay Mondays post. For Sara Suleri's "Meatless Days," a memoir of family life in mid-twentieth-century Lahore seen through the lens of food, is compelling in all the right ways: an odd but evocative narrative style, anecdotes that are universal in their specificity, and a fascinating strangeness around the edges that kept surprising me.

As I've said before, I'm generally not that interested even in eating food, let alone reading about it, and so narratives about cooking, whether centering around the sensual pleasures of an artisan chocolate shop, or an ancient food critic reliving his favorite meals, or somebody's bawdy grandmother dispensing wisdom from over her soup-pot, or a young woman seducing her lover with curries, are generally not my bag. Suleri, though, takes this trope in an unexpected direction, by talking about just how...well...gross food sometimes is, how alienating and uncomfortable the food/body relationship can sometimes be. "Food," Suleri's sister says disgustedly at one point, "It's what you bury in your body." And throughout this essay she examines the way in which appetite and disgust sometimes dwell in uncomfortable proximity, all bound up with death, reproduction, and bodily waste.

[I did] teach myself to take a kidney taste without dwelling too long on the peculiarities of kidney texture. I tried to be unsurprised by the mushroom pleats that constitute a kidney's underbelly and by the knot of membrane that holds those kidney folds in place. One day Qayuum insisted that only kidneys could sit on my plate, mimicking legumes and ignoring their thin and bloody juices. Wicked Ifat [Sara's sister] came into the room and waited until I had started eating; then she intervened. "Sara," said Ifat, her eyes brimming over with wonderful malice, "do you know what kidneys do?" I aged, and my meal regressed, back to its vital belonging in the world of function. "Kidneys make pee, Sara," Ifat told me, "That's what they do, they make pee." And she looked so pleased to be able to tell me that; it made her feel so full of information. Betrayed by food, I let her go, and wept some watery tears into the kidney juice, which was designed anyway to evade cohesion, being thin and in its nature inexact.

Reading this essay was such an interesting experience for me because, although I have never (thank heaven) been forced into meals exclusively of kidneys, I know exactly what she means by the feeling of being "betrayed by food." Eating is often a challenge for me. I put things in my mouth and chew forever, and they still seem alien and unappealing; my throat doesn't want to swallow them. I am a vegetarian, not particularly because of any moral high ground I've taken, but because the texture of animal flesh squishing bouncily between my teeth has always made me gag. I am often overwhelmed by the physicality of eating, the bodily process of it, which feels so closely allied to other, un-appetizing body processes. In the frequent celebrations of food, eating is often likened to the physicality of sex. But what people don't often mention is that eating food also brings up other body-related anxieties: about death, and the messiness and extremity of reproduction and decay. "Oh," says Suleri's sister at another point, "so a fresh chicken is a dead chicken." "Not too dead," Suleri replies.

Suleri doesn't seem, as an adult, to share my specific food issues—she claims to very much enjoy cooking and eating—but she does examine that uncomfortable body-process aspect of eating, the disconcerting way that "food" and "non-food" categories can shift unexpectedly. In the beginning of the essay, for example, she finds out that kapura, which she had always assumed to be pancreases, are actually testicles: an unnerving discovery, to realize that one has been eating, all one's life, the reproductive organs of another animal, without knowing it. She writes about the newspapers in Lahore reporting on case after case of adulterated food: crows dead in the drinking-water reservoirs, milk diluted with paraffin, instances in which a substance supposedly in the "food" category turns out to be alien. "I can understand it," Suleri writes,

the fear that food will not stay discrete but will instead defy our categories of expectation in what can only be described as a manner of extreme belligerence. I like order to a plate, and know the great sense of failure that attends a moment when what is potato to the fork is turnip to the mouth. It's hard, when such things happen.

Suleri goes on to write about that largest shift in the food-related "categories of expectation": when a woman goes from being the eater to being the food source, in nursing an infant. She relates the discomfort she feels at realizing that, if "food is what you bury in your body," her own body is the place that her mother buried part of herself in nursing her. As she writes of sitting in a time zone eight hours removed from the place of her mother's physical death, yet being in some way herself her mother's burial ground, the strange mix of intimacy and alienation is quite affecting, unusual in my experience of family/food narratives. Her point is not that food is portrayed as appetizing but is actually disgusting, or that family is portrayed as intimate but is actually alienating. Instead, in Suleri's analysis the two sets of qualities exist in an uneasy balance, neither one canceling out the other. Unsurprisingly, as the idea of "uneasy balance" is a guiding principle of my life, this idea appeals to me very much.

"Meatless Days" is part of a longer book of interconnected essays by the same name, and I would VERY much like to check it out.

Up next week: H.L. Mencken, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, or possibly....yes, that's right...Henry David Thoreau.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


  • What an interesting essay. I've been wondering about the whole book but if she talks frequently about eating kidney and kapura I think I might need to pass. Just your quotes about it made my stomach lurch. I've been a vegan for 18 years and when I think about eating meat when I was growing up it seems like another lifetime. I do like food though, am just very particular about it.

  • Well, this is certainly quite a curious way of looking at food. But come to think of it, all one really has to do is watch a very "visual" program in Nat Geo or Discovery Channel about the digestive process and food won't look so delectable to him anymore :)

    I'm sorry you have that discomfort in eating. In my case, I've grown to love the very act of eating out of necessity. I have a very fast metabolism, so much so that even reading for a while makes me hungry. It's close to gluttony, I tell you. Recently, however, I've had braces on and I can no longer eat as freely as I used to. I'm growing thin now :(

    Anyway... interesting essay. Good choice :)

    My vote for next week goes to Henry David Thoreau :)

  • Stefanie: This particular essay is pretty gross from a non-carnivore's perspective (or possibly from anyone's). But I don't think the book as a whole stresses the food angle too heavily - I think it's just the lens Suleri uses for this one excerpt. Don't know that for sure, though!

    Mark David: Oh, thanks. I'm used to it at this point, but it was interesting to read a perspective on the food issue that matches more closely with my own. Good luck on the whole braces thing! I have a very conflicted relationship with Thoreau...we'll see if I feel up to getting into it next week. :-)

  • Must get back to you on this shortly. No time. You know the story. But prompted a great conversation with friend John whose thoughts I share here:
    "interesting because the word disgust stems from the french 'to taste' and the word 'dégustation' in french actually means 'to taste or sample' in a sort of 'deconstruction' sense... that is to say that there is a logic in play that allows for the agreement as well as the disagreement of a entity tasted... a differential so to speak... I find this interesting because the idea of deconstruction taken into the field of 'real' experience, that is to say to turn away from 'linguistic domination' begins with a 'to taste'... and rightfully opens up discoveries and experiments, political demands and desires to an immersion' in experience and expression... we move away from a 'good' and 'bad' aesthetics to an aesthetics of real experience... precepts and affects in lieu of signifiers and tropes... which contribute to a move away from repeating only what everybody already thinks... a book you might be interested in is 'vibrant matter' by jane bennett :

    disgust |disˈgəst|
    a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive : the sight filled her with disgust | some of the audience walked out in disgust.
    verb [ trans. ] (often be disgusted)
    cause (someone) to feel revulsion or profound disapproval : I was disgusted with myself for causing so much misery | [as adj. ] ( disgusted) a disgusted look.
    disgustedly adverb
    ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from early modern French desgoust or Italian disgusto, from Latin dis- (expressing reversal) + gustus ‘taste.’

  • Wow, that sounds like a fascinating essay. I do like to eat, but I share your issues with meat. I find that descriptions of people eating huge, multi-course meals where they're continuing to eat so far beyond the point of being full, just for the enjoyment of the flavours, just make me feel uncomfortable.

    I absolutely love the line "the great sense of failure that attends a moment when what is potato to the fork is turnip to the mouth". It makes me think of those times when you bite into what you think is a nice ripe piece of fruit, and it just tastes wrong. This is the one thing that super-processed food gets right - it is exactly the same every single time.

  • When we lived in England, we'd go to soccer games on occasion. My sister, who was about 9 at the time, would always get the steak & kidney pie. YEARS later, she finally found out it was actual kidney; at the time she thought it was kidney beans!

    I admire the writing in the selections you shared, but I'm not a fan of foodie writing, especially about meat (since I'm a vegan). It's not that I don't appreciate food...I just don't like dwelling on it for too long. hehe

  • Emily my dear, I think Brillat-Savarin ("The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star") would make a fine foodie antidote to Suleri for you. In the meantime, I'm temporarily "grossed out" by this post despite being a meat eater myself AND Frances' valiant attempts to gussy it up linguistically! P.S. I eagerly await your Thoreau post and the expected pottymouthed insults you've shared about your "hero" elsewhere!

  • Frances: That is straight-up FASCINATING. I am in the midst of a whole other blog post somewhat inspired by that. Thanks to your friend John, and to you for sharing!

    Wendy: I share your discomfort with scenes in which eating is taken to some kind of visceral extreme. And I love that phrase, too - I think of lifting a glass you think is full of water or orange juice, and getting milk instead. Gross!

  • Eva: Haha, that story about your sister is such a classic little-kid mistake. Have you heard that This American Life about childhood ideas that are extended weirdly into adulthood, just because people never stop to think about them as adults? Pretty great. And I get what you're saying about not dwelling on food. For some reason I'm drawn to, even though it grosses me out.

    Richard: Haha, not for me, man! Give me the star every time - or, better yet, the discovery of a new BOOK! ;-) Seriously, I get your gross-out. I'm just kind of fascinated by the psychological experience of the gross-out (new post to come), so I feel the perverse need to poke at that gross stuff a little bit. I'm not guaranteeing Thoreau - "Walking" might not be sufficiently offensive to give full breadth to my spleen. :-)

  • I remember enjoying this essay quite a lot when I read it in college, and I wouldn't mind checking out the book either. I just haven't gotten around to it yet. I haven't been all that interested in food writing, but that's probably a mistake, because I'm sure there's a lot out there I would enjoy. Really, in the hands of a good writer, any subject is interesting.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography