Ms Representation: Cooking and eating, as women
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the Netflix series, Salt. Fat. Acid. Heat
Women’s relationship with food is complex, nuanced, beautiful, terrifying or sometimes uninteresting. Some of us are taught to love cooking, some of us taught to hate eating, some of us are terrified of being scorned for eating more or less, according to whatever standards are applicable at that particular social setting, some of us are thrown a ‘go back to the kitchen’ quip on the internet by trolls, some of us are, well, just plain indifferent to food. We are neither moved by it nor care enough. We just want to be done with it, so we can do other things with our lives. Like work, or read or just live. Unfortunately, our screens do not reflect this multitude of richness. Food shows especially are guilty of creating and perpetuating unnatural unhealthy stereotypes about women and their relationship with food. Until now.
Samin Nosrat’s show, Salt. Fat. Acid. Heat, which debuted earlier this month on Netflix, without being loud and showy, kicks all of the stereotypes out. Writing about it succinctly in The Washington Post Maura Judkins said of this show, “To put it bluntly: Most travel food shows are about white male discovery. And most home cooking shows are about white female domesticity. Samin gently rejects all of that.” In India and in Tamil TV too, this sort of divide exists–the women who are ‘traditionally’ home cooks, or else male chefs, or men going off to ‘quaint places’ to discover ‘quaint foods’. Almost all of it condescendingly catering to the ‘illathu arasi’ (home queen).
Travelling to places like Mexico, Italy and Japan, Samin, in her show, tells viewers how if they just master four elements–salt, fat, acid, heat–they can pretty much cook anything, and make it tasty. And it all unfolds over four episodes. In her bid to prove her hypothesis, Samin meets with people of various levels of expertise, travelling the world. Through it all what stood out for me was just how respectful of each individual’s knowledge she is. Small-time beekeepers, old-fashioned soy makers, Japanese salt makers, or women who showed her how to make things they usually make for themselves or their families, like her own mother. When a male host brings his mother on his cooking show (or someone else who isn’t his ‘peer’ but is showing him a ‘rustic’ recipe), the vibe is almost always patronising. The gaze is that of an appropriator (a coloniser in the case of the ‘white man discovering something’) or an indulgent son telling the audience how his mom or grandmom makes the best ever *insert dish name*, which this male ‘cooking expert’ is going to be making money off of, both from the show as well as in future when you can be sure he’s going to ‘improve upon it’ or put it on his menu, or both. When Samin’s mom comes on screen, the vibe, however, is one that I found absolutely relatable. She makes the radical move of bringing her mother on screen to learn ‘once and for all’ how to make a classic dish. The banter between mother and daughter, over how much salt to use and agreeing for the first time on something, made me laugh out loud.
Speaking of laugh out loud, Samin does that too, heartily through the show. Here is a woman having a good old time, showing the world just how much fun she’s having doing what she loves and it is infectious. She eats, cooks, and talks too with her heart. There are many women in this show–some are chefs, some are home cooks, some are people who are indifferent to cooking (like her book’s illustrator) that she’s trying to explain cooking to. Samin is respectful and cares for each of them. She wants to learn from those who know better, and she wants to teach those who don’t know any better. In one instance in the ‘Fat’ episode, that is at once genuine, endearing and radical, she asks for extra pig fat to sample, looks up to the heavens and says, “I am sorry grandma.”
Here is an Iranian-American woman food show host, who is dressed and made up most naturally, in a way that doesn’t come in the way of her doing her job, and most certainly not for the camera. Though that hardly means the show lacks in style. She has been asked about that brass teardrop bracelet (which I am sure will be called iconic and cult soon enough if it has not been already. I sure noticed it and want one), made by Fay Anandra. Fans have also expressed their love for vignettes that last hardly a few seconds in the series, but are inspired by Samin’s love of Caravaggio and Dutch Masters still life paintings.
Samin also, throughout this series, never talks down to her viewers or decides just who her viewers should be. Instead, she welcomes everyone to try and enjoy the fruits of their own labour. In this journey of hers, it seems she has also caught the attention of Marxists. There was a piece by Malcolm Harris over at eater.com that spoke about the show’s vision of “unalienated labour”. (Eater also published a great piece earlier this year titled In Praise of How the Women of Ocean’s 8 Eat that I recommend).
If you care to look, you are sure to take something away from Samin’s show, or a lot if you are me. I made Tahdig that her mother and Samin made together. And then when I bought gongura leaves yesterday, because my mother makes the most amazing pachadi with it, my spouse said to me, “Oh yeah, it’s because your mother has mastered all four elements–salt, acid, heat and fat- that this pachadi tastes so good every time she makes it.” Just like that Samin had showed us a simple yet drastically different way in which we could appreciate my mother’s cooking without a patronising gaze. But with respect and wonder.