I had a mixed-race-isolation moment today when my boyfriend and I were reading through a forum thread on Indian cookery and I grew more and more dejected. The reason? The thread was started and continued by white American boys who are very knowledgeable about the subject. I was sat next to a white Yorkshireman who is more knowledgeable about Indian cookery than I am. Me? I haven’t got a clue. The last member of my family to really truly know anything about Indian cooking died four years ago. I have great-aunts and great-uncles carrying on the tradition in this country, but we’re not close enough geographically or otherwise for me to be able to ask them for recipes or cooking lessons on more than a bi-annual basis at most.
In spite of all this, every time I discuss Indian food with my boyfriend I have to fight the overpowering feeling that I should know more than him because it is in my blood. This goes against everything I believe, I’ve even told him straight out that he knows more than I do and explained that there’s no way I could know any more because my grandmother didn’t teach my mother much of anything to do with India. But that feeling still eats away at me whenever we look at curry recipes together.
This is linked with the fact that food is in the “evidence of femininity” part of my head, which overlaps with the “compensating for not being white” part of my head. In this head are things like wearing dresses, speaking softly, being gentle when people are upset, applying make-up and styling my hair… You get the idea. I’ve been able to get over a lot of things I used to be sensitive about (I first wrote ‘over-sensitive’, but really, who gets to decide what is beyond the acceptable limits of sensitivity?) but cooking mistakes, disasters, or even just displaying a lack of knowledge or less knowledge than somebody else can – and regularly does – reduce me to misery and tears. I enjoy cooking, on my own and with my boyfriend, but that is not enough.
The thing that upsets me is this cooking hierarchy that suggests ‘real’ cooks should be able to create sophisticated new recipes, improvise last-minute modifications and sense perfect combinations of herbs, spices and other ingredients. As I understand it, this process also requires a great deal of trial and error and some spectacular failures along with the spectacular successes, all deemed to be an important and enjoyable part of learning to be a ‘real’ cook. My ego is too fragile for this. My pleasure in cooking comes from finding a recipe that looks tasty and maybe a little challenging, following it exactly and eating something that tastes fantastic. I will never be a ‘real’ cook, and I often feel like I have to defend this aspect of myself rather than simply enjoying a fun activity on my own terms.
So, cooking is a sensitive spot for me, my relationship with Indian culture is a sensitive spot for me, put the two together and you have a trigger topic that will almost inevitably upset me. Conversations about Indian cooking make me defensive, sad and vulnerable. So how do I react to that? Do I declare that I have zero interest in Indian cookery and use that as a shield, or strive to become an expert in Indian cookery from my mother’s region and use that as a crutch for my authenticity? What attractive options.
Alternatively, I can continue to have these isolated moments when the subject is raised and continue telling my boyfriend that I’m not upset when I actually am. I’ve explained my feelings on this already and, through no fault of his own, it’s beyond his comprehension. As so much of my mixed race identity is to so many people in my life.