Food is Power

Food is power. We don’t think about this in the bountiful west very often except perhaps on the rare occasion when stuck for a long time behind a woman with WIC coupons in the grocery line as she purchases infant formula and arrowroot biscuits with large individual coupons that must be tallied separately so Uncle Sam can be assured that she is spending the money appropriately. By choice, most of us eat, diet, fast or feast without giving too much thought to those who go without, and more importantly, the effect this has on the lives of those who go hungry.

Spice and Pulse Vendor in Kathmandu

In sorting through my old photographs, the concept of food and power seemed summed up to me in this photograph. The woman is a spice and pulse vendor in downtown Kathmandu not far from temple square. The gorgeous, fiery red of her sari is so attention getting that one might not notice the long stick she is holding in her right hand. Although caught in a pleasantly passive moment, at other times she wields that stick expertly and fiercely to beat hungry children away from her bags of rice and legumes. If she catches them, they will be left with a painful red welt on their legs or arms. But the hunger is so strong and so pervasive that they keep on coming all day; day after day. A Handful here and a handful there and by the end of the day they might have enough for their mother to boil into a gruel that will keep them alive for another few days.

Kali

Many of us believe that fasting by choice for religious reasons separates us from the material world and brings us closer to God. Our Muslim brothers and sisters all around the world have spent all the days of the last month fasting to commemorate Muhammad receiving the Qur’an from the Angel Gabriel. In many cultures valuable animals are sacrificed and removed from the agricultural food chain and offered instead to sustain the deities and coax them to bestow favor on those who sacrifice. Nepal’s beautiful but bloodthirsty Kali drinks the blood and the bad spirits but leaves the meat to those who feed her. When you visit her temple, you step down into a sunken courtyard and immediately sense the recurrent carnage like flashes of lightning from the past. Today it may be meticulously clean, but on festival days the courtyard swims with the blood of innocents. Isn’t it odd that we rarely bestow any special piety on those whose poverty forces them to go without food? It seems that it is not going without food that brings us closer to the divine; it is rather the purposeful election of starvation that confers special status.

Going without food by poverty or the force of destiny also removes people from the human plane of existence. However, it doesn’t bring them closer to God, if they are still strong it builds in them a steely will to survive at any cost. They beg, they steal a bit to eat here and there if they have to, they pick through the waste heaps that the prosperous leave behind when the markets and restaurants close, or they eat things that well-nourished people wouldn’t dream of eating – items that have little nutritive value but that fill the belly. Over time they can become unhitched from the wagon of laws and customs that we have all agreed help to make us human and become something less. No not an animal, in the strict scala naturae that our world clings to, that would be too harsh a fate. Instead they become something in between a human and an animal and are beaten off with a stick when they steal a handful of peas from a well-to-do vendor.

In addition to subtly changing their plane of existence, hunger denies them the ability to realize their potential as human beings. Because they must beg, borrow or steal all day to try to keep themselves and usually their families alive, they cannot work for the joy of achieving something, or go to school or learn a skill that will help lift them out of the well of poverty they reside in. Worse than all that is that they are keenly aware of all that they are missing out on. When children wealthy enough to go to school march by in their crisp, matching uniforms, the children of beggars know that theirs is another slice of life that they will never taste. It is daunting to consider how much hunger robs the world of human potential, but think for a moment that any one of the children pilfering a handful of rice or selling themselves on the streets could be a great thinker or a talented musician. Shudder to realize that none of us will ever read their novel or hear them sing.

We aspire towards the elevated status that elective starvation brings, but the disparaged state that poverty’s starvation brings, disturbs and frightens us. We seek other, negative labels for it to help us overlook what is really taking place. We call them urchins, rogues, beggars or thieves instead. In giving them a negative label we are also ascribing blame for the poverty. We lie to ourselves and say that their poverty it is their fault, this provides us the cover we need to walk to the next market stall – you know, the one selling arts and crafts.

In most of the developing world, the poor are thin and the wealthy are . . . beefy. Not necessarily fat, but taller, broader and better muscled than the small, wiry poor. Not too long ago, this was also the situation in the developing west. The poor were generally thin and the wealthy were heavy. So when Tevya sings about his fantasy of a rich man’s wife, “with a proper double chin,” in Fiddler on the Roof, he means it. In the 20th century, when the food supply became more plentiful, the poor could and did afford to pack on pounds. The rich, who had always been fat, did as Dr. Seuss’s Sneeches did and found new ways to physically identify themselves at a distance – they began to starve. Just beyond mid-century, the mantis-like figure on the woman standing next to you no longer belonged to a poverty stricken one, this one was rich – or at least her husband was. In the west, we no longer associate food with power and wealth; rather it is the lack of food that stinks of social dominance. But it is not really the lack of food that confers the special status, is it? It is having all of the best food that money can buy, but choosing not to eat any of it. It’s that pesky free-will rearing its head once again.

It is interesting to me that as women’s real power in the world has increased in leaps and bounds the size of an “ideal woman” has shrunk. As women have been allowed education and the right to work and have begun to make important strides in politics, in science, in media and entertainment and in nearly every other field of endeavor that they’ve entered into, the fashionable size for women has shrunk to the point of non-existence. Literally, most actresses and models aspire to be a size zero – or perhaps a two. One of the greatest western beauties of the 20th Century – Marilyn Monroe – was a size 14, but that is considered fat by today’s standards. And we all know that fat now equates with a poverty not only of plate but of character, because the wealthy would have had the control to forego a few meals to fit the latest frock. So it is our choice or control to starve – our will-to-starve – that elevates us above the human condition or the social order and our lack of choice in the matter that denigrates us.

The FAO estimates that over 850 million of the world’s people lack food security and almost two billion do not have reliable food security, or have reason to fear hunger because of intermittent bouts of poverty. That’s almost one third of the planet’s human population that worries about where its next meal is coming from – at least from time to time. To personalize this, imagine going into work some morning and seeing one in every three people you work with in some state of starvation. Some of your colleagues are lying on the floor of their offices too weak to move, others have few outward signs of the plague that afflicts them – except of course for that air of quiet desperation. Are these people – people you know – suddenly less than human? Could you ignore them and go quietly about your business?

Perhaps we should one day simply say that poverty and the hunger that often accompanies it is no one’s fault. It is not some karmic retribution for misdeeds in a previous lifetime; it is not the fault of the rains that didn’t come; it is not the fault of prosperous “imperialist” states for bad political choices or multinational corporations for seeking to profit from the sales of seed and fuel needed to farm and it is not even the fault of predatory home rulers. Let us quit the blame game and instead play for solutions.

Long-term answers do not lie in new global resolutions, goals or initiatives – although these efforts help to raise both consciousness and funds. The best response is one that starts small but grows outward gaining momentum as it spreads – like a lone drop of water that falls into a pond spreading ripples to all shores. Imagine something simple like every man, woman and child who had enough to eat tonight contributing the equivalent of one dollar to end poverty and hunger. In the United States alone, almost 275 million dollars would be raised with that one -time act. Consider the impact of this around the world and the amount of money raised in an instant of time would easily rise into the billions. Think about it the next time you’re in the grocery line behind the woman fumbling with her government coupons to buy food for her children. Better yet, don’t just think about – do it. (Words and Photographs by Laura Kelley).

A Magical Nepalese Menu

Bohjan Griha Menu

Our house is a bit magical. The front of the house is on a relatively ordinary suburban street, but the back of the house looks over a seemingly endless tract of woods through which herds of deer, wild turkeys, pileated woodpeckers and indigo buntings live. We share the house with thousands of books. Books of all shapes and sizes that overflow creaky shelves, books in foreign languages, really old books, rare books and . . . you get the idea. Since books are trees by another name, I have often fancied that the books inside the house and the trees outside somehow work together to make things appear and disappear from the shelves. This is miserable if you are looking for a particular book and simply cannot find it no matter how hard you look, but absolutely wondrous when you find something unexpected or rediscover something once forgotten.

A couple of days ago, something wondrous happened. I was rummaging through the poetry section of the library when a scroll wound around some twigs tumbled out from in between a couple of the books. I picked it up, feeling the familiar feel of coarse Himalayan fiber paper in my hand and smiled – remembering what the scroll contained. I unrolled it and was instantly thrown back in time. It was a menu from Bojhan Griha, a fantastic restaurant in the Dilli Bazar section of Kathmandu, Nepal.

It’s a startlingly simple Nepalese menu, but as with all great restaurants – a simple menu often means that the chef has perfected a few of his or her best dishes and that you are likely to dine on some really marvelous food. Such is the case with Bojhan Griha where flavorful, butter-soft lamb is blanketed with a rich curry, resplendent with ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and accompanying vegetables, the quail and ducks are roasted to perfection and served with a mango-peppercorn sauce, and even the simple side dish of spinach overflows with the flavors of cumin, red pepper and just a hint of dill. Even the building that Bojhan Griha occupies is special. It is a restored building from the mid 19th century, once owned by a state holy man, that has many of the original luxurious appointments still intact.

That whole trip was so unexpected. On an ordinary Tuesday, I got a phone call at home from a colleague who asked if I could go to Nepal on Saturday – that I was needed for a particular project. He went on to tell me that he had already cleared it with anyone who could potentially object, and that the paperwork for my visa had already been filled out – and that all they needed was my approval. Being a new mother with an infant son, I said, “absolutely!” figuring that I could clear it with my hubby later So, in a few days, I was in the airport lounge hugging my kids and husband goodbye and boarding a flight for what was then the great Himalayan kingdom that I had always dreamed of visiting.

Terraced Fields Outside of Kathmandu

A driver met us at the airport and whisked us past the white-washed homes with tiled roofs of the fertile countryside directly into Kathmandu city which – like many cities in the developing world is a modern sprawl built around a historical old-town center. In this case, the old-town in Durbar Square reflects Kathmandu in its glory days of the 12th to the 15th centuries – with square pagoda-like towers next to more Indian-inspired arched buildings. One of the fascinating things about Kathmandu is that it is a very human-sized city – no building was more than a few stories tall.

Me being me, I had to climb the 365 steps of the Swayambhunath Temple and bounded up the first 25 steps or so, proclaiming that it was so easy! My guide shrugged his shoulders and followed. Well, the slight rise in the wide bottom steps turned increasingly vertical until the last 50 steps or so seemed like climbing a stone ladder. Even though I was pretty tired and a bit disheveled about half way up, I continued climbing – kind of like Jimmy Page in his fantasy sequence in The Song Remains the Same – striving toward the mountaintop.

Finally I reached the top and joined the other pilgrims by touching my forehead on the giant vajra in the middle of the courtyard. Only I did a little more than touch my forehead – I sort of rested it there as I caught my breath – leaving only when my guide gently, strong-armed me away to some nearby benches. After I rested, I spun some prayer wheels, said a few of my own prayers and as I was set to leave the way I came – my guide pointed out the driveway round the back of the temple where our driver was waiting patiently for us. I looked incredulously at him and he shrugged, reminding me that I said I wanted to climb.

Bouddnath Stupa

Even though I have spent a good portion of my life in cities – New York City included – I’m not really a city person. For me, nothing beats the sound of birds and the glimpse of elusive, wild animals – so I went the most obvious place one can go in Nepal – straight up. First, we went to Bhaktipur and watched the Maoists withdraw into the shadows of the temple as our car pulled into the main square. Quite on purpose, most of the temples in Nepal occupy the local “high ground”, so this is where the people who were –at that time political dissidents – hung out. It gave them a good vantage point from which to mind the comings and goings of people and merchants in the city. After touring the old temples, we continued on up the hills until the air got a bit thin and summer sun burnt us through our clothes. Not outfitted for climbing and having absolutely no interest in pitting myself against nature, we stopped at what might be the highest restaurant on earth open to the public – Club Himalaya – and had lime sodas on the patio as we looked down onto the backs of the golden eagles soaring far beneath us. A bit later in the day, the almost constant cloud cover dissipated a bit and we caught a glimpse of elusive Everest with the sun shining down on it – a rare site in the summertime-our guide told us-we were blessed.

Back in Kathmandu, I reconnected with some old friends who were living part-time in the city and who were able to take me down some of the paths trodden by Tibetan refugees and women and children fleeing abusive men. At a shelter, I met a little girl who was almost systematically starved and beaten to death by her father – simply because he wanted a boy. This lucky child – who had been given to aid workers by her mother in an effort to save her life – now attended school and hoped to be a pharmacist. Still, she missed her mother terribly and hoped that she will survive.

Durbar Square Kathmandu

In the city, I also bought shoes for a gaggle of shoeless children, and handed out countless bills to pregnant and cripple beggar-women and women with children in tow who had no other way to earn a living. For all of their faith, most prosperous Nepalis seem to overlook charity as part of their earthly duty. This is not something inherent in Buddhism, for I found the Theravada Thais to be generous almost to excess to those less fortunate, and suspect that it symptom of a more modern ill that afflicts wealthy Nepal. I am a bit anxious about the future of the country, now in the hands of self-proclaimed Maoists, but hope that someday, better social programs will be able to help those who cannot help themselves.

Other memories from that trip include a dinner at a restaurant that curiously specialized in both Nepali and Russian food named Wunjala Moskva. We sampled the Russian part by having shots of good vodka inside the house and then ate Newar Nepali out in the garden in one of a series of a small, private, screened-in, dining rooms arranged around a large central patio. The food was a prix-fixe menu of vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties and was nothing short of amazing. Memorable even now, are the gingered duck with its accompanying flavors of garlic and lovage; the spicy potatoes with ground sesame seeds and manjo juice and a mixed vegetable tarkari with lots of black cumin, cinnamon and cardamom.

Each woman in our party was offered a pashmina shawl to help stave off the coolness of the evening and men well – they just had to tough it out. They were after all – men. About halfway through the dinner drums started beating and entertainers took to the patio-stage and began performing Nepali folktales in luxurious costumes depicting both gods and monsters. One of the monsters was even bold enough to come right up to our party and show us just how fearsome he was. He was eventually slain by the hero-god, but in true Nepali fashion, continued quivering from time to time after the hero proclaimed his victory. Eventually he slunk off the stage – one day to return – bringing his special form of chaos back to the paradise that is Nepal. (All text and photos by Laura Kelley).