Food for Thought: A Panel Discussion on ‘Food in the Times of Corona’

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As James Beard rightly said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” During the two-day literary festival ‘Symbiosis Lit Fest’, a panel discussion on, ‘Food in the Times of Corona’ was held on 20th November 2021.

The panel of speakers included Dr. Howard Rosing, a cultural anthropologist and professor at DePaul University Chicago; Dr. Kurush Dalal, an archaeologist, historian, food anthropologist, raconteur; and Mrs. Saee Koranne Khandekar, a food blogger and author. The discussion was chaired by the Director and Professor of Symbiosis School of Culinary Arts, Chef Atul Gokhale.

The event began with a discussion on how the pandemic affected people working in the food industry. Dr. Howard, through his dialogue, painted a picture of the food conditions in the United States. Talking about the problem of the surplus of dairy and shortage of staples like flour, he said that significantly more people began eating outside in eateries in the past decade rather than at home. This caused an increase in unemployment in the food industry during the Covid lockdown.

Dr. Dalal drew a comparison between the food situation in India’s urban and rural populations during the lockdown. According to him, since people in rural areas had the habit of growing their food and stocking it, they were not affected as much as the urban population. Around 30-40 years ago, Dr. Dalal stated, Indian households would store staples like oil, dal, and rice in large quantities, enough to last them several months or even a year.

The habit of buying food for just a week or a fortnight proved detrimental to the urban population during the lockdown.

Talking about the situation of taxi drivers in Mumbai who are mainly bachelors from Northern India, Dr. Dalal had the interesting perspective that they didn’t know how to cook to save their lives during the lockdown since they ate all three meals in local eateries. Mrs. Saee rightly said that most of the urban population didn’t cook daily, which gave them limited knowledge about using food alternatively. For instance, once the wheat flour went off the racks, people were baffled. They didn’t know how to use other millets as alternatives. She said, “The lockdown brought people back to the basics, back to their roots.”

The discussion then moved on to the change in people’s eating habits. In the words of Dr. Howard, “The communal aspect of eating food had returned, but now that everything’s opened up, it’s again starting to go away.” Dr. Dalal believed that the problems faced by India and the United States were different. He crisply explained the other side of the story in Indian households; how women who used to have at least some time to themselves found their lives inundated by their husbands and children. Mrs. Saee addressed the issue of how the patriarchal society, which never encouraged men to cook, led to more problems in households in the lockdown. She also rightly pointed out that the lockdown made people realise that cooking, which they considered an aspiration in urban areas, is an essential life skill.

The importance of eating fresh, regional food was highlighted by the panelists throughout the talk. For the audience, the importance of being independent when it came to preparing food was evident. While the problems faced by India and the United States were different, the lockdown taught everyone the importance of food.

The session was informative yet felt relatable as it addressed the everyday issues everyone had gone through during the lockdown!

Rishita Gupte
(Batch 2024)

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