Celebrating Culinary Culture: Food Rituals in Contemporary American Short Story Writing

Essay, 2007

21 Pages, Grade: B


The short stories in Brooklyn author Jhumpa Lahiri’s anthology Interpreter of Maladies all share a plotline revolving around immigration. In this context, food is used as a means to express the crossing of boundaries, whether they are political, religious, socio - cultural or psychological. Rituals, beliefs, customs and morals attached to the preparation, consumption and celebration of meals by characters in the stories depict the negotiation of a hyphenated identity as it pertains to gender, sexuality, family, friendship, war and love. As the characters are Americans of Indian descent, the challenge is group specific; however, the emotional significance of their experiences transcends cultural idiosyncrasies, because the food archetype is universal.

Es gibt im Englischen so viele derartiger Redefiguren, dass wir durch Bezugnahme auf verschiedene Nahrungsmittel ein breites Spektrum von Gefühlen, Einstellungen und Ereignissen mitteilen können. Die Menschen verstehen die Welt in diesen Metaphern. Mit anderen Worten, wie Levi-Strauss sagte, „die Nahrung ist nicht nur gut zum Essen, sondern auch zum Denken“.[1]

In her fictional accounts, Lahiri works out her characters’ struggle to simultaneously maintain their Indian tradition and assimilate to the United States, whereby she literally feeds into social gaps, appealing to the reader’s senses by creating associations through the description of taste, smell, visual or texture of food and the atmosphere surrounding it. Thus, she evokes an idea in the reader of the cultural heritage the characters are concerned with, and she creates a sensibility for the cultural clashes that occur throughout the narratives, generating a great deal of irony and humour.

Nahrung ist Teil unserer Kultur und gibt unserem Leben Bedeutung. Sie spielt in unseren Gesellschaften eine zentrale Rolle und versorgt uns ebenso mit komplizierten Symbolen und Metaphern wie mit Nährstoffen. Wenn wir untersuchen, wie eine Gruppe von Menschen mit ihr umgeht, können wir etwas über ihre grundlegenden Werte, Ziele und Einstellungen erfahren.[2]

In reference to this thought, it is the aim of this paper to more closely analyze the scenes of the stories, where food comes into play to illuminate its significance, as it can tell us about the complex patterns of interactions of people with themselves, the people around them and their place in the world. In this context I will concentrate on A Temporary Matter, Interpreter of Maladies, When Mr Pirzada came to Dine and The Third and Final Continent, because they all tackle different aspects of the relation of food and people.

A Temporary Matter

The mourning of their baby, which had been born dead, has turned Shoba and Shukumar, a couple in their thirties living in Boston, into strangers, as they each battle their depression about the loss in their own way. Shoba escapes into her work as an editor, while Shukumar, a graduate student struggling to finish his dissertation about agrarian revolts in India stays at home.

It was often nearly lunchtime when Shukumar would finally pull himself out of bed and head downstairs to the coffeepot, pouring out the extra bit Shoba left for him, along with an empty mug, on the counter top.[3]

Clearly lacking discipline and motivation, Shukumar’s breakfast is turned into lunch, as he is unable to maintain a structured daily routine. Further, even after Shoba returns home at night, they have developed the habit of eating in separate rooms, because they avoid each other.

For months now they’d served themselves from the stove, and he’d taken his plate into his study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand. (A 8)

Neither is there a specific meal time, nor does the couple sit down together for the occasion.

Zunächst tritt hier die Regelmäßigkeit der Mahlzeiten auf. Von sehr tief stehenden Völkerschaften wissen wir, dass sie nicht zu bestimmten Stunden, sondern anarchisch, wenn ein jeder gerade Hunger hat, essen. Die Gemeinsamkeit des Mahles aber führt sogleich zeitliche Regelmäßigkeit herbei, denn nur zu bestimmter Stunde kann ein Kreis sich zusammenfinden – die erste Überwindung des Naturalismus des Essens.[4]

Through the deregulation of the form of consumption of the couple’s meals, it becomes thus apparent, that there is a breakdown in communication, and the household’s social fabric is unravelling. Another indicator for this is the fact, that Shoba has stopped doing the grocery shopping and preparing dishes for Shukumar or their friends, which she used to do meticulously and with passion.

When she used to do the shopping, the pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil, depending on whether they were cooking Italian or Indian. There were endless boxes of pasta in all shapes and colors, zippered sacks of basmati rice, whole sides of lambs and goats from the Muslim butchers at Haymarket, chopped up and frozen in endless plastic bags. Every other Saturday they wound through the maze of stalls Shukumar eventually knew by heart. He watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the morning sun with boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up brown paper bags of artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on their scales, and tossed them to Shoba one by one. (…) It never went to waste. When friends dropped by, Shoba would throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen and bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes. Herr labeled mason jars lined the shelves of the kitchen, in endless sealed pyramids, enough, they’d agreed, to last for their grandchildren to taste. (A 7)

These activities reflected Shoba’s joie de vivre, as her way of handling food imparted a lot of meaning into her life. She dedicated a lot of time selecting ingredients typically used in the kitchen of her ethnic heritage, stocking and keeping them in a detail oriented manner and preparing them with utensils “she had bought in a bazaar in Calcutta” (A 9), whether it was for her personal meditation, maintaining intimacy in her relationship, even dating the recipes, “telling the time she and Shukumar had eaten the dish together for the first time” (A 7), friends dropping by or celebrating the anticipation of her unborn child with an elaborate party.

Shoba was in her fifth month, drinking ginger ale from a martini glass. She had made a vanilla cream cake with custard and spun sugar. All night she kept Shukumar’s long fingers linked with hers as they walked among the guests at the party. (A 9)

The couple’s joke about their food reserves to last for their grandchildren, the traditional moral of preparing the dishes and the ritual of socializing and sharing with their friends all ring of deep family - and community values, which Shoba embraced lovingly, but which she is no longer willing and able to sustain, because the pain she is experiencing through the trauma of losing her child makes it appear meaningless to her. Once pregnant, it was the foetus that gave meaning to her relationship, which her heritage could be passed on to and which created power in her social circle, but the foetus no longer needed to be fed.

(…) ist im hinduistischen Feld ferner der Kraft – oder Kräftigungsaspekt von Nahrung wesentlich, und zwar besonders hinsichtlich der Reproduktion: um sich selbst zu kräftigen und kräftig zu erhalten – sozusagen für einen starken Nachwuchs und Erhaltung der eigenen Linie (…)[5]

By contrast, instead of discussing the Indian farmer’s economic struggle in his dissertation, “Shukumar enjoyed cooking now”. (A 8/9)

Shukumar gathered onion skins in his hands and let them drop into the garbage pail, on top of the ribbons of fat he’d trimmed from the lamb. He ran the water in the sink, soaking the knife and the cutting board, and rubbed a lemon half along his fingertips to get rid of the garlic smell, a trick he’d learned from Shoba. (A 5)

Hence, he enters a female coded domain in Indian culture, and he is more concerned with the practical need of nourishing his wife then engaging theoretically with his people’s hardship of hunger. It is not until an outer event occurs however, that Shoba and Shukumar would eat together. A notice telling them, that their electricity would be cut off for five days due to repairs in their neighbourhood after a snowstorm, prevents them from retreating in front of the TV or the computer. While preparing dinner, Shukumar is reminiscent of the early days of their relationship.

He remembered their first meals there, when they were so thrilled to be married, to be living together in the same house at last, that they would just reach for each other foolishly, more eager to make love than to eat. (A10)

The sexual tension intertwined with the celebratory function of the shared meals at the kitchen table while they had just gotten married and living in the same house had a purpose, which appeared sort of conventional from the beginning, aimed at creating a family.

Sex ist Nahrung für den Körper, die Seele – und den Fötus. In manchen Kulturen glaubt man, dass die Geschlechter sich und das zukünftige durch die Paarung ernähren. Bei einigen Gruppen wird eine gemeinsame Mahlzeit als eine Form von sexuellem Kontakt betrachtet, und es wird davon ausgegangen, dass das Essen zum Geschlechtsverkehr führt.[6]

In an effort to bring back the atmosphere of those happy days, Shukumar sets the kitchen table with “plates and wineglasses they usually saved for guests “(A 10), switches on “the digital clock radio and (tunes) it to a Jazz station” (A 10), and he lights some left over birthday candles, that he stuck into an ivy pot for stability. Shoba appreciates the romance, but immediately associates her husband’s “makeshift candelabra” (A 11) with the event of a rice ceremony for a baby in India, she once attended. The topic makes for an awkward moment and subsequent silence. As Shukumar is recollecting, their interaction used to be light hearted prior to the trauma, and they always had stuff to talk about. Now, there was this elephant standing in the room, which Shoba wanted to touch, but Shukumar continued to evade, having learnt “not to mind the silences”. (A 12) The same evening he further becomes aware, that Shoba’s ties to India are much stronger then his own, a crucial difference that didn’t seem to matter before, but now calls into question, what it is that they still have in common. Eventually, they engage in a game, that Shoba used to play with her family in India when there was a power failure, involving the telling of anecdotes, they have not told each other before. Shukumar has a hard time concentrating at first. “What didn’t they know about each other? (…) He knew it was honeydew she favoured over cantaloupe.” (A 16) However, as they go through the motions of the dinner sequence, washing the dishes together and moving their conversation outside at last, he comes up with a harmless narrative about his cheating on an exam. Inevitably, in the process of gathering his memory, and in conjunction with Shoba’s story involving the woman who had driven her to the hospital, when she went into labor and Shukumar wasn’t around, bits and pieces of the events ex ante and following the still birth of their child re-enter Shukumar’s consciousness. Even though they don’t talk it out directly, the shared meal in the dark was the occasion, which got them to talk to each other at all again. As from now on a new conversation continuing their game is initiated every evening at dinner time, curious incidences are told, depicting some irritation between the partners, yet showing that they harbour great affection for each other as well. The newly created ritual seems to have sparked a lost spirituality. One night they even make love.

Ahead of schedule, however, the couple receives notice that the electricity was going to be switched back on.

(Shukumar) was disappointed. He had planned on making shrimp malai for Shoba, but when he arrived at the store he didn’t feel like cooking anymore. It wasn’t the same, he thought, knowing that the lights wouldn’t go out. In the store, the shrimp looked gray and thin. The coconut milk tin was dusty and overpriced. Still, he bought them, along with a beeswax candle and two bottles of wine. (A 20)

Shukumar is frustrated with the news of the returning lights. He dreads the end of a spell and feels that something will change. Despite his wary feelings, he still prepares the dinner.

When she came downstairs they ate together. She didn’t thank him or compliment him. They simply ate in the darkened room, in the glow of the beeswax candle. They had survived a difficult time. They finished off the shrimp. They finished off the first bottle of wine and moved on to the second. They sat together until the candle had nearly burned away. (A 20)

Shukumar’s hesitation to cook tonight and Shoba’s lack of appreciation for his efforts mirror the course of the meal. Food and Drink are finished up, as if discarded. “Die Einverleibung ist abgeschlossen. Zurück bleibt nur noch Abfall, Müll und Kot.”[7]

The meal signifies both, the culmination of a new found synergy, which evolved during the time period of power failure from an antagonistic stance the couple took immediately following the loss of the baby, yet also a crucial point in their relationship, which has come to a tentative end. The point of the game was for Shoba to prepare Shukumar for her decision to move out, which prompts him to reveal to her, that he had held their baby after it was already dead. The rebuilding of their communication in the context of sharing Shukumar’s cooking just laid the groundwork of working through their grief, that is they digested the initial shock, but the necessity of an entire re evaluation of their needs and values in the context of the present situation lies still ahead.

Interpreter of Maladies

As American citizens of Indian descent Mr and Mrs Das and their three children, Tina, Bobby and Ronny make sporadic visits to India, where the grandparents are spending their retirement. One day they decide to see the Sun Temple at Konarak, and they hire Mr Kapasi, an Indian tour guide to accompany them. When he picks them up in his taxicab at the hotel, Mrs Das catches Mr Kapasi’s eye.

The blouse was decorated at chest-level with a calico appliqué in the shape of a strawberry. She was a short woman, with small hands like paws, her frosty pink fingernails painted to match her lips, and was slightly plump in her figure. (…) She was wearing large dark brown sunglasses with a pinkish tint to them, and carried a big straw bag, almost as big as her torso, shaped like a bowl, with a water bottle poking out of it.[8]

Strangely intrigued by his guest, Mr Kapasi perceives Mrs Das as an attractive person, as her clothes, accessories and other physical adornment strike him as very feminine and remind him of a tasty fruit dish, sweet and juicy, that he would like to taste perhaps. However, Mrs Das seems oblivious of Mr Kapasi’s sentiments at this point. Moreover, even though Mr Kapasi’s passengers look Indian, they demonstrate a somewhat ignorant attitude, which stereotypically is the case for tourists from America, particularly the habit of chewing gum.

(Mrs Das) sat a bit slouched at one end of the back seat, not offering her puffed rice to anyone. Ronny and Tina sat on either side of her, both snapping bright green gum. (I 47)

As the car shuffles along, Mr Kapasi eventually tells them that he held a second job as an interpreter for Gujarati speaking patients at a doctor’s office.

‘(That is) so romantic,’ Mrs Das said dreamily, breaking her extended silence. She lifted her pinkish brown sunglasses and arranged them on top of her head like a tiara. For the first time, her eyes met Mr Kapasi’s in the rear view mirror. (…) ‘Would you like a piece of gum, Mr Kapasi?’ she asked brightly. She reached into her straw bag and handed him a small square wrapped in green – and – white striped paper. As soon as Mr Kapasi put the gum in his mouth a thick sweet liquid burst onto his tongue. (I 50)

Mr Kapasi has now caught Mrs Das’ attention as well and a flirt ensues between the two. By offering something sweet to Mr Kapasi, it is an invitation to escape with her into a different sphere.

Das Süße ist offensichtlich weltweit über Jahrtausende schon eng verknüpft mit dem Begehren der Menschen. (…) Dem Zucker eignet mithin etwas Entrückendes. Er liegt im Bedeutungsfeld des Göttlichen. Nicht nur in alttestamentarischen Zeiten, auch noch später und auch in anderen Kulturen gilt der Zucker als Götterspeise.[9]

Eagerly, Mrs Das inquires about details of Mr Kapasis’s experiences as an interpreter.

‘What would you like to know, madam?’ ‘I don’t know‘, she shrugged, munching on some puffed rice and licking the mustard oil from the corners of her mouth. ‘Tell us a typical situation.’(I 51)

Greedy like an animal Mrs Das feeds off of her puffed rice just as much as of the attention Mr Kapasi is paying her. Probably manufactured in the United States, yet containing Indian mustard oil, the puffed rice signifies the intermingling of both cultures.

During his tales, Mr Kapasi’s mind is wandering off to his unhappy marriage, and flattered by the credit Mrs Das is giving him for the intellectualism translation is characterized by, he can’t help but question, if she was dissatisfied in her marriage as well. Thus he starts to fantasize a relationship with her.

The children were quiet, intent on spotting more monkeys in the trees, and Mrs Das was absorbed by his tour book, so it seemed like a private conversation between Mr Kapasi and Mrs Das. In this manner the next half hour passed, and when they stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that sold fritters and omelette sandwiches, usually something Mr Kapasi looked forward to on his tours so that he could sit in peace and enjoy some hot tea, he was disappointed. As the Das family settled together under a magenta umbrella fringed with white and orange tassels, and placed their orders with one of the waiters who marched about in tricornered caps, Mr Kapasi reluctantly headed toward a neighboring table. - ‘Mr Kapasi, wait. There’s room here,’ Mrs Das called out. She gathered Tina onto her lap, insisting that he accompany them. And so, together, they had bottled mango juice and sandwiches and plates of onions and potatoes deep – fried in graham – flour batter. After finishing two omelette sandwiches Mr Das took more pictures of the group as they ate. (I 54)

With her invitation of Mr Kapasi to sit at one table with her family, Mrs Das genuinely reciprocates the affection he is harbouring for her, and her intent to share more intimacies with him is foreshadowed.

Aber Nahrungsmittel haben – im Einklang mit der guna Lehre – nicht nur ihre intrinsischen Eigenschaften, sonder sie können auch die Eigenschaften derer annehmen, mit denen sie geteilt werden.[10]


[1] Jeremy Mac Clancy: Gaumenkitzel. Hamburg: Junis Verlag 1995, S. 8/9

[2] Mac Clancy (1995): Gaumenkitzel, S. 12

[3] Jhumpa Lahiri: “A Temporary Matter.” In: Interpreter of Maladies. London: Harper Collins 1999, S. 5. Im Folgenden wird nach dieser Geschichte in dieser Ausgabe im laufenden Text mit der Sigle A und der entsprechenden Seitenzahl zitiert.

[4] Georg Simmel: „Soziologie der Mahlzeit.“ In: Ders.: Brücke und Tor. Essays zu Geschichte, Religion, Kunst und Gesellschaft. Stuttgart: Kochler 1957, S. 245.

[5] Ulrich Oberdiek: „Von den Schwierigkeiten des Essens im hinduistischen Kulturbereich.“ In: Welt – KörperSprache. Perspektiven kultureller Wahrnehmungs – und Darstellungsformen. Gastrologie / Band 5,

Frankfurt / Main: Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften 2005, S. 223.

[6] Mac Clancy (1995): Gaumenkitzel, S. 9

[7] Alexander Meschnig: „Das Gegessene isst zurück. Zur Archaik der Macht bei Elia Canetti.“ In: Verschlemmte Welt. Essen und Trinken historisch - anthropologisch. Göttingen : Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1994, S.53

[8] Jhumpa Lahiri: „Interpreter of Maladies.“ In: Interpreter of Maladies London: Harper Collins 1999, S.46. Im Folgenden wird nach dieser Geschichte in dieser Ausgabe im laufenden Text mit der Sigle I und der entsprechenden Seitenzahl zitiert.

[9] Gerhard de Haan: „Kann denn Zucker Sünde sein? Die Spur des Süssen in der Geschichte.“ In: Verschlemmte Welt. Essen und Trinken historisch – anthropologisch. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1994, S. 172

[10] Oberdiek (2005): Von den Schwierigkeiten des Essens im hinduistischen Kulturbereich, S. 222

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Celebrating Culinary Culture: Food Rituals in Contemporary American Short Story Writing
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celebrating, culinary, culture, food, rituals, contemporary, american, short, story, writing
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Irene Fowlkes (Author), 2007, Celebrating Culinary Culture: Food Rituals in Contemporary American Short Story Writing, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/187338


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