(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: