by Myrah B
Fried Eye note:- As a part of re posting some of our bests from the archives to give a fair chance to all our esteemed and talented authors at The Seven Sisters Post promotional drive, we are posting an article which was featured in our previous issue. Hope you enjoy reading it again.
I remember clearly. Darkness. And a faint tube light glowing overhead. Perhaps the room was quite bright. Yes there were windows. Open; no curtains. It was broad daylight outside. Perhaps there was no darkness. I don’t remember really.
But I do remember the familiar shape held out on a wise old hand and the stern voice trying to sound hospitable command “Identify this!”
“Apple” I believe it was my voice I heard.
“You can go.”
I ran out. Light. Bright familiar broad daylight. Relief.
Snow White’s step mother never seemed more attractive, more friendly and more welcome since that day. The creepy white hand and the uncanny plastic apple. I believed she would have forced me to eat it had I erred in my answer. I was dead certain it was poisoned and I hoped nobody else was forced to have a bite of it.
What I didn’t realise until I was fairly grown up to comprehend it was that answer secured me my nursery admission. I owed the foundation of my education not to the knowledge I had unconsciously gathered from the various things mother took pains to teach me but to the fear of being forced to eat the unwanted. To a fear that made me recollect my newly acquired English vocabulary at the right time in response to the right queries. To the fear of anything that resembled a tempting poisoned apple.
To the one on the other side of the admission table,items of food was, of course, a convenient teaching aide. And it continues to be so in primary school teaching. I wonder how many of us can ever forget dexterously trying to mix our pinks and purples to get the right “shade” to fill in the over sized brinjals on our nursery colouring books or the sense of relief that came with having to simply fish out our freshly sharpened yellows to fill in the mangoes and the bananas. An arts and craft elementary class invariably requires making pictures filled out with varieties of pulses and spices glued neatly within boldly drawn boundaries. Whether you could identify each item glued in was a different matter.
But pedagogy and food share a much more complex relation outside the school routine- One that lives and breathes into a child’s imagination day in day out. I cannot speak for others but I can in hindsight realize how much meal times taught me about the big wide world. The conversations adults had about current political and familial affairs over the dining table and the ones I grew up to participate in during meals are but only a small part of it. What I am really talking about are the times when meal times where not just means to provide spaces for articulation of thought but when MEALS themselves were the primary source of knowledge intake.
One of the earliest memories I have about learning through food involves my grandmother’s pretty little kitchen and her skills in making a finicky eater like me finish the mandatory meals of the day. She would prop me up by the window and begin quizzing me on a series of subject. The answers to which would invariably require me to open my mouth wide at the end.
“Goru e keneke mate” (How do cows call out) “Hum baaa” (and pop came in the ball of rice)
I learnt my first lessons on animals and their sounds, what every relative was to be addressed as, what grew in the garden etc. through the literal act of eating. When my clever mind saw through the trick of the trade, the art of feeding changed rules and new games found their way into my eating schedule. New tactics, new lesson plan. I learnt now, for instance, about airplanes when my tiny mouth fantastically transformed into an aerodrome ready to receive every flying ball of rice that took off from the plate. I learnt to value my food when I knew what Cinderella and Tejimola were made to survive on. The lesson plans dwindled when my fuss subsided. But the inculcation process never stopped.
As morsel after morsel found their way into my tummy, more subtle fodder began finding an unsuspecting corner in my head. What my little mind formed were its own notions of health and beauty, of gendered behaviour and morality. Notions that were reinforced by the world I saw; more so by the way I unsuspectingly chose to see the world through food and its associated allies. Notions that were more often than not westernised—the inevitable result of an English medium convent schooling process that soon took over my growing life. A good cultured little girl dined and not binged. She chewed and not chomped. Watch the fairy tale princesses and you will know how they eat. How you should eat if you were ever to become one. You will know what to eat. A cultured good little girl would learn that the value of things lay not just in what they tasted like or in their size. Something as trivial as a tiny pea could end up gauging who you are. Are you rough and uncouth or delicate enough to turn all black and blue overnight should a pea be hid under seven mattresses on your bed?
I learnt to eat the nasty tasting green things served on my plate because they had iron or other “good things” in them. That is what made Popeye strong. In a world made of bullying brothers and peers you don’t want to be as skinny and frail as Olive Oyl. Nor do you want to be a brainless twit like Bruto. Strength of course comes from eating healthy, eating Pop-eye’s way and Strength is not just brawn that you see. So green things, you may taste yucky but you sure don’t get left uneaten on my plate. And with all the western influence came a few prejudices. Obelix remained admired and adored but never a food icon despite all those exotic looking sumptuous wild boar meals. He was obese and he hogged without the fine table etiquettes. He remained a “rustic” albeit well meaning Gaul to my convent school prim and proper sensibilities. (Never mind the vast disparity in my lived and imagined cultures!)
Also, not all lessons learnt were always viable in their truth value. Some were old wives tales that are easily gobbled up by unsuspecting innocent minds in the hope of fulfilling far fetched dreams. But all these clichéd stories ended up securing an enthusiastic follower of a healthy diet- the prime goal of every worried mother plagued by children creating a fuss about eating. So yes, milk became a necessary part of the diet not because it had calcium but because it made you fair. Chocolates had to be avoided in excess. Too many and one could end up toothless and ugly like the witch in Hansel and Gretel who lived in that goody-goody-every-child’s fantasy-of-a-chocolate-house complete with wafers, jujubes and gingerbread men. This of course had a catch: if you shared your treats and didn’t finish it all alone, if you saved up your goodies to give to another you will get showered with blessings which included growing up a more beautiful and better person and chocolate-eating will no longer be a bad thing for you. You may not want to believe your mother on this. You don’t need to. But mark my words, Willy Wonka will tell you the same thing and might even give you a life time supply of chocolates should you subscribe to the idea earnestly.
I grew older and participated with as much excitement in the midnight feasts in Enid Blyton’s residential girls’ schools as I followed mysteries of Nancy Drew. I knew the importance of a full stomach for an ace detective’s life and profession. Teenage romance threw light on the importance of food dates and the graver significance of full course dinners. Of course by the time I was adult enough to understand stories like Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman food had begun serving various other functions in my life already. I would indulge or keep away from it in times of depression and anxieties. I let it rule my world during examinations. Cooking and eating often became a site for release of pent up emotions, a space of solitude, of recreation and refreshment, of rumination and so much more…
Well, let me not aimlessly ramble away. It may not be 6’o’clock and the Mad Hatter nowhere in sight but if I do not cut myself short here this may threaten to last an eternal tea time. So many fragmented memories come back to me every time I think of Food as my teacher in life and otherwise. If not my direct teacher at least it has always been an effective teaching aide for better or for worse. As I continue to reflect over all of this now, I begin to wonder, perhaps it is not incidental that some of the most common phrases one comes across in relation to education actually incorporate the idea of eating within them. One is “hungry” for knowledge, one shares a “titbit” of information, one “devours” a book from cover to cover, one “spices” up tales and “cooks” up stories. Perhaps the most (in)famous refrain occurs at examination times when it is time to “vomit” everything out onto the answer scripts!! Language, food and life education…they go together all the time. If you have reservations, come over for a cup of tea and we can discuss it further.
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