Metabolic Living with Madhur Jaffrey

After putting down Metabolic Living, I reached for Indian Cookery (1982), a volume of recipes originally prepared for British television by the still-undisputed doyen of Indian cooking outside of India, Madhur Jaffrey. Put simply, Jaffrey is the Julia Child of Indian food. Since the ‘70s, she has undertaken a tireless quest to untangle the complexities of what she calls, without any fuss, “Indian food.”

Say what you will about Jaffrey’s cookbooks, but her recipes are distinctly made for cooking. Missing a vital ingredient? No problem, she explains, soothing the anxious home cook while laying out an array of alternatives. About a year ago, I met an editor at a large trade press who lamented the lack of Indian cookbooks with simple recipes that could be prepared after a long day in the office. This came as a shock to me, as Jaffrey’s body of work includes Quick & Easy Indian Cooking, Step-by-Step Cooking, Curry Easy and – wait for it – 100 Weeknight Curries.

Arjun Appadurai suggests that cookbooks “belong to the humble literature of complex civilizations” (1988:3). Yet, the apparent humility of many cookbooks belies, I think, a much grander desire for remaking oneself and one’s loved ones—a desire articulated by many of Harris Solomon’s interlocutors in Mumbai, who are faced with the complex biological and ethical challenges of modulating their porosity to the world. In Metabolic Living, Solomon draws our attention to the semi-porousness of bodies and environments, of street food carts and processing plants, of home kitchens and slaughterhouses, of rooms for drugs and rooms for amputation. Throughout these spaces, substances are substituted, adulterated, refined, contaminated and fortified. Depending on who you ask, this is either deeply threatening or reason for optimism. Now, we can enjoy our favorite vada pav without suffering from food poisoning. Or: now, nothing tastes the same anymore, and who knows what those preservatives might do to us?

I’m reminded of a scene early in his book, in which Solomon stops by the home of his research assistant, Mary:

Paying her a quick visit at home one morning before a day of interviews, I watched the wind rustle waist-high stacks of paper that lined her hallway. All of these papers were about food. Mary had accumulated recipes from cookbooks, women’s homemaking magazines, and newspapers over decades. She also had accumulated an archive of weight-loss diets in the carefully curated, crumbly sheaves. [7]

Coyly, Mary referred to this titanic archive as her “dowry”—a collective recipe for slimness. However, these papers also seem to represent the means through which Mary attempted to navigate the dangerous porosity between body and world. This is not to say that body and world are known in advance and necessarily kept apart. Just the opposite: through the constant vigilance over diet—abstinence in the face of vada pav and sugar, for example—and through the metabolic surgeries and amputations that Solomon describes later in his book, worlds enter into and remake bodies that they had already, in a sense, contained. Exposed to such worlds, it seems to me that Mary had built a selectively-permeable wall of paper.

Here, too, Jaffrey anticipates our concerns—they are hers as well. In the 1980s, she was already grappling with the mixed blessing of industrialized food. “Since chicken is now mass produced—and fairly cheap, its status has been greatly reduced,” she laments.

This saddens me. I was brought up thinking of chicken as something special . . . and there are such wonderful ways to cook it . . . if you are on a diet, you can eat ‘Tandoori chicken’ which is cooked without fat and when you want to indulge yourself, you can dine on Shahjahani murghi (‘Mughlai chicken with almonds and raisins’). [1982:64]

Remaking oneself and others is about more than just successfully preparing reduced-fat chicken. The many people we meet in Solomon’s Mumbai—including Mary—teach us that what is at stake is the modulation of our absorptive capacities. We absorb too much and too little, too much of the wrong things or not enough of the right ones. Food and medicine, which are often one and the same, reformat the conditions of porousness between body and world.

Ethnographers-in-training are often taught that openness to other ways of knowing and feeling is a virtue. But in worlds that are, following McKim Marriott, biomoral, there can be no hard-and-fast distinction between spirit and substance. Certainly, we cannot help but to be open. Yet, what Mary and others teach us is that there is also a value in closedness, in creating and maintaining selective porosities within tragic milieus that are figured as simultaneously nutritious and toxic. The vada pav from the street is tastier, but who knows what microbial threats might lurk beneath its deep-fried deliciousness? Industrial chicken is cheaper, but what are the consequences of consuming animals raised on a steady diet of antibiotics? In such worlds, openness tout court is far from a virtue.

Writing from a place and time overshadowed by the phantasmagoria of Trump’s wall, and keeping in mind those relations of caste that undergird Marriott’s formulation of the biomoral, I fear that questioning the value of openness might play all too easily into racist and casteist political formations for which I hold no sympathy. Yet, insisting on open and closed as the only viable moral and political positions hinders us from accounting for the ways in which selective porosities are constantly remade.

This, to my mind, is what Solomon so admirably manages in his work. Toward the end of his book, he describes the cruel optimism surrounding metabolic surgery, a set of procedures that were touted by some as a “cure” for obesity and diabetes. One patient, Neha, “looked to metabolic surgery to be let off the hook”—in other words, a release from regimented meals and endless prescriptions. Instead, what she finds waiting for her after the surgery is “medicinal atyachaar,” (192) a kind of pharmaceutical torture required to maintain her new metabolism. Cure operates as a desire for finality, for an end to an unrelenting anxiety about the porousness of the body. Yet, Neha’s body has not become closed, but rather differently porous. What Neha discovers on the other side of surgery is a reformatted porosity, one that looks depressingly similar to the one of which she was “cured.” Cure demands further cure. Absolute closure is impossible. But in the opening that remains, we might do worse than sneaking a taste of Jaffrey’s Shahjahani murghi.


Bharat Jayram Venkat is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. He is currently at work on a book manuscript, India after Antibiotics: Tuberculosis at the Limits of Cure, an ethnographic and historical study of tuberculosis treatment in India from 1860 to the present.

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