The Goddess of Food

Annapurna - The Goddess of Food

Not Julia Child. Not Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson, and certainly not Rachael Ray. I’m talking Annapurna, Demeter, Ceres, Ukemochi-no-kami and Chicomecoatl . . . the goddesses of food and hospitality. Almost every culture has one. Some cultures have more than one: She who keeps the pots and the bellies full of nourishing food. She is the goddess who both personifies hunger and either acts to increase or diminish it, and she often does double duty as agricultural goddess or is closely associated with the gods and goddesses that influence the harvest. With the intervention of one of the Goddesses of Food like Annapurna, it is thought that cooks provide their guests with the energy needed to best follow their destinies. Furthermore, it is said that when food is cooked in the spirit of such holiness, it becomes alchemy. So, my fellow alchemists, let us pray. . . I mean cook.

But first, let’s consider what makes a goddess. Whether they exist as perfect forms somewhere in the cosmos or whether they reside on earth, for instance in the Himalayas, ultimately it is the humans who tend them who vest them with power. Some are fearsome and impersonal and must constantly be propitiated to keep them in good humor and others are more intimate with their human subjects and visit often for a game of dice or to heal the sick or bless the meal. Through personification of a force generally beyond the control of their human worshippers, gods allow humans knowledge of a process and, they believe, some ability to manipulate the outcome of events. So, the relationship between god and human is largely reciprocal. Humans vest the deity with efficacy and specific power and gods allow humans – through the act of worship – to influence or control the process they represent.

Some gods and goddesses were once alive – like the Cau Dai’s Victor Hugo and the Rastafarian Haile Selassie – and some goddesses are alive – quite literally – like Nepal’s Kumaris – prepubescent girls who represent the living form of the Goddess Taleju or Durga. Kumaris are chosen at the tender age of three or four and taken from their families into a palace-like home where they carry out ritual observances and are waited on hand and foot and only allowed to go outside on ceremonial occasions when they are carried through the streets on a grandly decorated bier. On the event of her first menstruation, it is thought that the spirit of the goddess leaves the Kumari and she is unceremoniously retired and returned to her family to live and work as an adolescent girl is expected to. So, contrary to many a fantasy, being a goddess isn’t such a great job. Indeed, there have been several cases and suits recently on the subject of the human rights abuses of Kumari girls – abduction, denial of education, imprisonment – have all been issues up for debate. The state has allowed certain changes in the customs to take place – such as allowing Kumari girls to be educated beginning in the 1990s – but slowly, modern democratic sensibilities are eroding the centuries old Kumari tradition and what we are witnessing is no less than the death of a goddess.

But goddesses have died before as the world saw with India’s Sitala – the Smallpox Goddess. Arising around 400 AD when the first major wave of smallpox swept through the subcontinent, she persisted until well into the 20th century when the natural disease was eradicated. Called Mariamman in the Tamil south, she was the goddess who both caused and cured high fevers, rashes and pustules – all of which are symptoms of the poxes. In the 1990s Sitala/Mariamman was reborn in the form of Amma – the AIDS Goddess the goddess who both infects humans with and protects them against the human immunodeficiency virus – HIV. Although not replacing public health education and good health practices, these goddesses serve to inform people about the diseases they preside over and through their transmitted knowledge allow their worshippers at least some control over issues like routes of infection, how to protect yourself from disease, symptoms and treatment – all issues that they had little or no control over prior to the birth of the goddess.

AIDS Amma in Procession

More than ten years after her birth, worship and tending of the AIDS-Amma is growing as HIV/AIDS continues to rip through southern India, leaving mounds of corpses in its wake. Having intimate knowledge of both viruses, I hope that someday health education and safer sex will retire the AIDS-Amma just as variolation and ring vaccination killed Sitala. So, gods and goddesses, we are seeing in the late 20th century and early 21st century, come and go as the environments and beliefs of the people that tend them change.

Although goddesses who personify diseases change as illnesses come and go, the goddesses who personify food and hospitality persist into modern times and urban lifestyles. Bronze statues of Annapurna are seen in many Indian kitchens and restaurants – even here in the United States – largely because the desire for a bountiful, delicious table persists even as living conditions evolve. Even as science has produced the fertilizers of the green revolution and the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that produce high yields of disease and pest resistant crops where they have been embraced, belief in and the tending of the gods and goddesses of the harvest and table continue. So, gratefully, Teilhard de Chardin and thinkers like him have – so far at least – been proved wrong. Belief has resisted the encroachment of science as the centerpiece of human life and electric lights and the other fruits of scientific practice have not replaced objects of worship or prayer in the life of man. Thus men and women around the world still offer or bow to their goddesses of food and hospitality before preparing an evening meal.

So as the contents of that pot slowly begins to thicken and a sauce is born, realize that like the alchemists of old you are engaging in the art of transformation. The elements at your command are the basic four that have persisted for millennia and are shared by cultures around the world. Cultures that all moved along the Great Silk Road either as points of origin for trade goods or as destinations for exotic spices, crafts and textiles. Flavors mystically swirl and combine across time and space and with a kiss from the goddess become a life-giving meal. (Photo of the AIDS-Amma in Procession by M.A. Sriram from The Hindu 12/09/2007)

Traveling in Time

Village Dancer

This boy – this glorious boy – followed me through the southern Bangladeshi village trailed by a gaggle of children. He was determined to do a traditional dance for me and to get me to photograph him – and his friends said that I would never do it. He trailed me and tapped on my shoulder announcing in simple English that he was going to dance, and that I had to take a picture. Well, how could I resist, right?

So bold a boy with so minor a request. Well the children gathered in a semi circle around us and started a slow clapping as the boy started to lift his legs one by one, partially cross them and slap them – a dance, not too unlike some southern Alpine dances I’ve seen. I started clicking away, my autowinder doing all the work as the tempo of the clapping accelerated until the boy was a blur of flailing arms and legs and the children were a mass of giggles. Then everything came to a sudden halt and the dancer gave me the lovely vogue that I captured for all eternity – or until the paper and chemicals disintegrates and the image is lost forever. But for now, there he is a brave, outgoing and talented boy who – against the predictions of his friends – got the foreign woman to photograph his dance

I look at his photo sometimes and wonder what has become of him. Is he working an oil rig in one of the Gulf States? Did he get an education and move to the city? Did he remain in the same village and is now a married householder with children of his own? Is he still a leader of his peers or has the world crushed that natural ability to fit a more docile mold? How has time ravaged that strong body and that smooth skin? Where have the tides of life taken him?

TR over on his site From the Faraway . . . Nearby recently posted a beautiful piece entitled, “Not Today”. I urge you all to read it and really think about it. Superficially, it’s about a day of travels in which none of the planned destinations or sites are seen. A deeper read reveals all of the unplanned things that happened instead. I was left reading that homage to life’s empty space thinking, “So this then is life . . . How curious, how real,” and feeling rather transcendental as I did.

Sometimes I realize how far I’ve traveled from my own home port and wonder how my life became so unmoored. So many people I meet seem so determined and goal oriented. I have for the most part, let the fates dictate my path and yes, I’ve been buffeted quite a few times as a result of that choice. But, you know, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the journey has been fantastic and the current destination is – pretty darn good.

More than 20 years ago, I, along with some friends, pranced around naked in the fountain after midnight at the Busch-Reisinger Museum: a bunch of kids on their way back from a night at the Plow and Stars – a pretty standard prank for Saturday night in a college town. But today, I look different, I feel different, I think differently; I emote differently . . . so am I really still the same person? Generally, such changes are simply attributed to a growing maturity that is so delayed in the western world, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to think of those changes as a change in identity instead. Perhaps that is a better way to think of our past selves anyway – not as part of a continuum, but rather as discrete individuals somehow related to each other – that way each self can be fully appreciated, understood and perhaps reintegrated someday.

When we reflect on the past or go through old photographs we become, in a way, time travelers. So many frozen moments, so many images of people locked unchanging in the prison of our minds. Smile at the sepia-toned face of an old lover and remember his touch. He has probably changed as much as you have – and yet for you, he is forever 25.

Rembrant: Three Self Portraits

Consider for a moment the changes brought by the passage of time to an artist who recorded the events – like Rembrandt or Durer. Durer realized that he was creating his own immortality and never painted or drew a full portrait of himself after the age of 28 – preferring instead to cast himself as a character in one of his great woodblock prints or etchings. Rembrandt, on the other hand, was ahead of his time, and recorded more than 40 years of his life in a series of self portraits – some simple emotional studies, but a few true contemplative works that portray not only his physical characteristics, but his emotional stance as well. Look carefully at the three self-portraits and ask whether the confident, masterly young man would recognize the depressed and unsure old man as a future incarnation of himself if they met in the street.

But aging isn’t all bad – at least that’s what I tell myself despite the creak in my bones in the pre-dawn of the day. In the west we have a tendency to dwell on the physical decrepitude of old age instead of the understanding, tolerance and perspective our minds and characters gain as they grow old. It is the obsession with the physical aspect of our beings that fuels celebrities and those in the public eye to ever greater acts of self-mutilation in an effort to remain young looking. It would do as all well, especially as developed country demographics tilt in favor of aging populations, to stop dwelling on the crow’s feet and wrinkles of our aging physiques and focus instead on the positive things that aging brings. Once upon a yesterday, older people were considered wiser and were consulted on issues of politics and strategy before they were enacted so that their historical and personal knowledge and experiences could be factored into plans.

In a rather innovative private art class, my elementary-school age daughter is making a Joseph Cornell box of her favorite things. It’s a mixed media piece and when complete, it will contain photographs, objects and drawings to represent the things she now thinks are important enough to put inside. As disheveled as it may become over the years, and no matter how many times it gets thrown in the trash, I am going to try to preserve it for her so she can look back at this self of hers when she has become someone else in time. We all expect great things from her. When asked recently by her teacher, “If you could be anyone in history – anyone at all – who would you be?” With her characteristic easy, self confidence, my daughter answered, “Me”. And I, as the proud mother of such a daughter, smile widely at the unruly student I was when we pass each other in the street headed in opposite directions. (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley).

Nothing but people and most of them were starving . . .

A Gravely Ill Child in Bangladesh

The child before me lies still as stone on a black plastic mattress. He doesn’t stir or even acknowledge my presence as I count the number of times he breathes in half a minute.

There is a large hole cut in the mattress and a basin underneath that catches his excrement along with the flood of water from his body that is hastening his death. At his side, his mother sits silently, wrapped in a green sari, watching me closely. I look up and to the left and right and as far as I can see in every direction there are cots, black plastic mattresses, children hovering between life and death and terrified, protective women sitting nearby. They come from far and near to save their children – some of whom are sick but relatively strong and others who are barely flesh covered skeletons with the skin stretched taught over their little bones. Most are boys. More often than not, their sisters have been allowed to live or die – Allah willing – at home.

There is a strange, unpleasantly sweet smell in the air that barely masks the odor of dysentery and a makeshift tent over our heads where only last week there was jungle. The children and their mothers are silent and the only sounds to be heard are the soft murmurings of staff conferring over the treatment of the children. In stark contrast to the volume and drama of the violent deaths glorified by Hollywood and its subsidiaries, in my experience, most people die with barely a whisper. There is no cry to an unjust heaven or swell of music, there is only the quiet, barely noticeable passing of children from the realm of the living into the realm of the dead.

Hail Mary!

Because of the work of the public health pioneers who came to Bangladesh almost 50 years ago, most of those children seen at that makeshift hospital were cured and returned to their homes within a week. Thousands of little miracles made possible by the advent of a simple solution of water, sugar, salt coupled with a dash of humanity. Commitment, desire for change and the fortitude to carry on in the face of tragedy and disappointment has over the years saved millions of young Bangladeshis from a premature grave. On one of my first trips down the Brahmaputra I saw a ruined hull of a motorized houseboat – like the one Martin Sheen captained in Apocalypse Now – listing near the shore and was told that it was the first floating hospital that brought medical care to the people of the river. I thought of the likes of my elder colleagues sitting on the cramped little boat in the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity and day after day and year after year turning disease into health and almost certain death into a renewed chance at life.

One evening in Dhaka, I received a great gift and was allowed to see the city through the eyes of one of the pioneers. A warm breeze blew over the canal and the lights of downtown started to shine against a darkening sky as we walked. Vandaceous orchids dripped from the trees or were for sale by vendors along the quiet suburban avenue. Below us on the water, women did a last load of laundry, slapping the sheet-like robes on the rocks and pounding them with stones. My companion stopped and with an expansive wave of his hand said, “Tall buildings, paved roads, a bridge over the river Brahmaputra – a booming middle class! What I am amazed at . . . is all of this wealth!” He went on to say that he hated to hear young people gripe about the poverty and lack of amenities, because they had no idea how far the country had come in less than two generations. “There was nothing here. Nothing but people and most of them were starving. . .”

Bangladesh has indeed come far, but still has many miles to go. Far too many of its people remain bound to the land – in sharecropper purgatory – working all year to pay the rent to stay on the land. However lush and bountiful the countryside, it is a rural poorhouse for most of its citizens. Those that try to escape often wind up in an even lower circle of hell – the urban slum – the successful ones can sometimes pick a meager living off of the river. The houseboat has become the new symbol of prosperity and independence, because however poor a lifestyle the river provides it is theirs and it is free. The Bangladeshis are amongst the most industrious and resourceful people that I have ever met. They don’t need a billion-dollar vaccine that will result in another failed attempt to keep cholera at bay, What they needs are more Grameens who will chip away at the poverty by providing more disposable income so the people can better themselves one family at a time.

Coming back to our guest house after our walk along the canal, the pioneer and I sat down to a table bedecked with several Bangladeshi specialties. That night we dined on sweet and sour Lamb Rezala with its almonds, poppy seeds and raisins and chicken curry with pineapples. Plain rice was plentiful as was a biryani with layers of meat, nuts and fruit. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, feasting along with the other western visitors at the guesthouse, but couldn’t shake the knowledge that outside, hanging on with a white-nailed grip to the margins of the city’s newfound prosperity, hundreds, maybe thousands of children went hungry.

My memories and feelings about my travels in Bangladesh are a tangled wing of extremes such as these. I love the country, its incredible spirit and energy and that wild feeling that almost anything could happen that permeates its cities and countryside. Much of the landscape of modern Bangladeshi society is a direct result of the work done by the early public health pioneers who brought so much more than medicine with them on that houseboat. To the people of Bangladesh they brought the promise of today – for when you give the gift of health to people, you are giving them the future as well. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of A Sick Child and Hail Mary! by Laura Kelley)

Mother India

The late morning sun blazes overhead as the dancing partners face off on the dry river bed. Standing tall and straight across from each other, he begins by bowing deeply and gracefully to his would-be-bride and waits anxiously for her reply. She hesitates and then demurely turns her head to the side with her eyes cast to the ground, signaling for him to begin. He raises his right leg and slams it hard to the ground as the dust begins to whirl around them. Then, in a feat of acrobatic majesty he leaps in the air and soars several feet above her head with his arms outstretched beckoning her towards him before he lightly touches back down on the ground. She responds by rising almost as high and letting out a cry as she reaches her apogee. There is so much riding on his next turn: he jumps high and twirls around in a full circle before coming back to face her as he lands. She bows her long neck and leaps again, grey feathers fluttering on the windless plain. And so it was as I saw the cranes dancing in the early summer sun just below the Taj Mahal. The spirit of Shah Jahan and his Mumtaz so permeates this place that the cranes continue to dance as the lovers did in these gardens so many hundreds of years ago. Or perhaps the humans just did the same dance as the cranes have always done – an age-old dance that transcends species, class and kingdom.

Duetting Sarus Cranes

From the moment one steps off the plane, India overwhelms the senses. Within her borders I have witnessed some of the most beautiful and some of the most tragic scenes I have ever encountered on my travels. From tigers on the prowl at Corbett to a roadside drama in which a driver chose to sacrifice the lives of a woman and her child instead of that of a cow, India tempts you to revel in her beauty and then rebukes you when you come too close. She is a harsh mistress, but one to whom you return time and again for comfort.

My experience of food in India spans the range of possibilities: from dining in good restaurants to Kashmiri takeout around intricately inlayed octagonal tables in someone’s home, to a lunch lovingly prepared by a friend to tea with bread and pickles in a country garden with peacocks strutting and rattling their tail feathers on the walls around us. Food is everywhere and the experience of sharing a meal held in high regard across the classes, castes and peoples of India.

Far and away the most surprising meal I’ve ever had in India was on the Delhi-Agra train. Dinner on the train – train food – served in disposable aluminum containers that are kind of hefted at you as the waiter walks by your seat. Growing up in New York, one becomes used to good food sometimes being available in strange, inelegant surroundings. Still, on the train, where passengers roughly push past each other to quickly get to their reserved seats, I was not expecting to be served the best Lamb with Onions (do Piaz) I had ever had. To say that this curry was good was an understatement, the meat was buttery and the onions dripped off the fork into the dark, spicy, cumin and clove-laden sauce.

Interestingly, what we so blithely call “Indian cuisine” today is really the product of thousands of years of cultural evolution, foreign contact and trade from far-away shores. Archaeological evidence from the early Indus Valley civilization reaching back nearly 5000 years shows that beef, eggplant and sesame were important parts of the early Indian diet with development of the basic concepts of Ayurvedic dietary practices taking place at this time. Briefly, Ayurvedic practices divide foods into six tastes – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. It also assigns specific roles to ingredients and their combinations to cure the ill and preserve health and balance. Towards the end of the Indus period, differences began to develop between northern and southern cuisines as more people migrated south and as we move into the Harappan civilization, evidence for the use and later cultivation of turmeric, cardamom, black pepper and mustard become more common.

Taj Mahal

During the Vedic period, major differences in the diet between the classes or castes also appeared, with vegetarianism popular amongst the Brahmin. Vegetarianism was further augmented by the rise of Buddhism in India around 600 BCE and spread of the religion across Asia over the next several hundred years, heightened cultural contacts with foreigners who traveled and traded along the Silk Road. Regular contact with Muslim traders was well established by around 1000 CE and a long period of Muslim rule began by 1300 that lasted until the mid-nineteenth century. Ibn Battuta the great Moroccan explorer of the 14th century describes a meal served to him by in the court of Mohammed Bin Tughluk – one of the Northern Sultans – that included flatbread; large slabs of mutton and lamb; round dough cakes stuffed with sweet almond paste and honey – like the halva that is still enjoyed at the beginning of some meals in Central Asia; meat cooked with ghee, onions and young ginger; triangular pastries made of meat, nuts, onions, and spices – like modern samosas; rice pilaf with chicken – possibly a biryani; and lots of sweets for dessert. Battuta also states that rice, oranges, wheat, chickpeas and lentils were widely cultivated.

Europeans arrived as early as 1498, with the Portuguese leaving elements of their cuisines – such as the use of vinegar and lots of onions all along the western and southern coasts of the country. New World produce such as tomatoes, potatoes and chili peppers were introduced at this time. During the Mughal dynasty (1526-1857), we see Persian elements such as the addition of nuts like almonds and cashews and fruits such as raisins, apricots and dried plums to Indian food as well as the rise of kebabs and a much wider use of saffron. So you see, the next time you bite into a samosa to enjoy its spiced potato and pea combination or the next time you eat a fiery vindaloo, know that you are enjoying thousands of years of history in addition to some really delicious food.

Whenever I arrived in India – passing through the mausoleum-like Gandhi airport on the way to somewhere else not included – I was usually coming in from a very rural area elsewhere on the subcontinent. Arriving in India always felt like going home to me. When friends met me at the airport, they always brought along garlands of flowered necklaces to welcome me. I’d turn my head to one side or another and revel in the fragrance of the flowers as we tooled around the city in an open jeep. Marigolds, tube roses and heavenly jasmine lay around my neck as I put up in my favorite hole-in-the wall hotel in Connaught to rest.

Woman in a Blue Sari at Fatepur-Sikri

Fate or an unusually vengeful god always placed me in India before the rains liberated the country from its oppressive summer heat. Some mornings it would be 110 degrees Fahrenheit before the sun cleared the canopy and throughout the day, heat was likely to play tricks on your perception. One afternoon at Fatehpur-Sikri, the ancient Mughal capitol I was looking down on the giant pachisi (ludo) board from Akbar’s vantage point and out of the corner of my eye, it seemed as if a courtier jumped a square out of turn. I wandered through the rest of the red-rock ruins but kept on circling back to the board to see if the game was still on. Although difficult, the times before the monsoon are filled with expectation: the expectation of rain, expectation of release and the expectation of renewed life. Unconsciously, people place many of their hopes on the renaissance that comes with the rain. People are not the only ones who hope for the rains though – the cranes do too. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Taj Mahal at Sunrise © Ashwin82| Dreamstime.com; Photo of Woman in Blue Sari at Fatehpur-Sikri © Lester Woodward|Dreamstime.com)