The Social Meanings of Food in a COVID-19 World

The Social Meanings of Food in a COVID-19 World

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Rituparna Patgiri, a doctoral student in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She is interested in Cultural Sociology and her MPhil work was on the social nature of food in India. She has published her research work on food in the Graduate Journal of Food Studies, Allegra lab, Digest, and Youth Ki Awaaz.

The Social Meanings of Food in a COVID-19 World

by Rituparna Patgiri

The global crisis of COVID-19 has reignited debates on food and eating habits. Both anthropologists and sociologists have studied the social character of food. They argue that our food choices reveal a lot about us. Food divulges socio-cultural practices of people while communicating historical, local, and global narratives. In fact, an investigation of food in an India that is battling with COVID-19 will reveal a lot about what is going on in the society in the present times. As a part of the social system, food acts as a sign, symbol, and code that is useful to understand society, and India’s case perfectly illustrates it.

Initially, after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, there was the circulation of news, and WhatsApp forwards all over the country that eating chicken and eggs could lead to COVID-19. Consequently, the poultry sector in many parts of the country incurred huge financial losses. The situation had become such that the director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) (one of the best medical institutes in India) had to clarify that chicken meat did not cause the disease. However, the meat industry in India is still facing huge losses because of the lockdown that was enforced hastily on 25th March 2020. The supply chain in various states has been deeply affected because of restrictions on movement. The lockdown is, in fact, still in place and thus it is unreasonable to expect that the industry will recover from its losses anytime soon.

In fact, after the imposition of the nation-wide lockdown, meat became a ‘scarce’ and ‘over-priced’ item in many parts of the country. India is primarily a non-vegetarian country, with around 80% of its population classifying themselves as non-vegetarians according to an IndiaSpend study of 2018. In spite of it, the consumption of meat has been contentious in some parts of India. Meat, by some Hindus (mostly the higher castes), is categorized as abhaksya (inedible) and impure (Patgiri, 2016) and as such, they follow a vegetarian diet. Also, in many Hindu festivals like Navaratri, even non-vegetarian Hindus in northern parts of India abstain from eating meat for some days. There is thus an association between vegetarianism and ritual purity in India. This linkage is rooted in the structures of caste and religion.

Historically, food politics over meat has been bitterly played out in India, especially in the last six years. There have been cases of mob lynchings of Muslims in many parts of the country because of the suspicion that they were carrying or eating beef. Cows are considered sacred by a majority of Hindus and these lynchings can only be seen as an attack on the food habits of others that includes Muslims, Christians, and Dalits apart from other Hindus. This offers an interesting example of how it is tough to break away from traditional social relationships and identities even in a globalized world. In a religious and diverse nation-state like India, food plays a pivotal role in socio-political power tussles. It becomes a source of identity construction as well – us versus them, vegetarians versus non-vegetarians, and beef eaters versus non-beef eaters.

Thus, although meat is widely consumed in almost all parts of the country, there is a push for vegetarianism that is rooted in the sociocultural structure of Indian society. Casual statements that are passed by politicians support this argument. Non-vegetarianism is associated with traits that are considered negative, for instance, aggression. Many times, politicians have blamed non-vegetarianism as a cause for rapes in India. Hence, it was easy to associate meat with a disease, and the Whatsapp forwards and fake news that linked meat to COVID-19 became instantly believable. Fear and suspicion cannot be eliminated so easily when these are deep-rooted in the social structure.

One of the fallouts of this was the increase in demand for jackfruit – which was seen as a substitute for meat. Jackfruit is often referred to as ‘vegetarian’s meat’ and was seen as safer compared to meat. While the price of jackfruit soared, that of meat dropped. As such, the meat industry in India is facing heavy losses as already stated above.

The fact that this prejudice against meat also gripped Assam – a primarily non-vegetarian state – says a lot about how the fear mechanism operated. Meat, eggs, and fish are part of the regular diet of most communities living in Assam, and unlike in many other parts of India, even higher castes consume meat regularly (Patgiri, 2016). While in other parts of the country like North India where non-vegetarian food is not consumed during certain festivals like Navaratri, no such prohibitions exist in Assam.

But after the lockdown was enforced, even in Assam, meat became a rare item. This happened as the supply chain was affected because of the lockdown, and meat generally comes to Guwahati (a city) from neighbouring rural and semi-urban areas. At the same time, meat was also viewed with fear and suspicion because of all the rumours and misinformation associated with it.

One of the causes that augmented this fear was the association that was drawn between meat and religion. An event that played a role in this context was an Islamic religious event – the Tablighi Jamaat that was organized in New Delhi from 13th-15th March 2020. The event had been held well before the lockdown in India had been announced on 25th March 2020. But most of the early cases of COVID-19 in Assam were traced to this event. Since most of the meat sellers, especially that of chicken and mutton, in Assam are Muslims, people became apprehensive about eating meat. It led to the rise of both a fear of meat and Islamophobia in the state. Thus, a study of food reveals the existing prejudice against Muslims – manifested in both mob lynchings and the COVID-19 world.

However, slowly this fear had also gripped the consumption of fruits and vegetables. Guwahati – the major city of Assam had a relatively lesser number of COVID-19 infected cases compared to other Indian metro cities in the initial days after the lockdown was enforced. But in the later part of April, there was a spike in the number of cases. Some of the infected patients were a vegetable seller and few workers of a potato godown (warehouse) in Guwahati which has caused widespread panic amongst people.

My mother, for instance, has been repeatedly saying that she is afraid to eat salad as it is not cooked, and has a greater chance of causing infection. She said, ‘It is better to boil the vegetables and eat them since the process of boiling will kill any infection or virus. I am scared to eat salad, raw vegetables can cause an infection.

Earlier her fear was limited to meat but after watching the news about the vegetable seller getting infected, she is apprehensive of even eating vegetables. However, it is not just her. Earlier, she and her friends discussed the dangers of eating meat. But now, they also talk about how vegetables and fruits should be washed again and again before eating.

Preparation for washing the newly purchased fruits and vegetables.

I wash the vegetables with both salt and baking soda to get rid of all kinds of infections and viruses. I wash them at least five to six times,’ says Meera, my mother’s friend from the neighbourhood. Manju, another woman from our neighbourhood supports this argument. She says, ‘I wash all the vegetables with salt four-five times and then cook them.’

The way vegetables and fruits are washed in many households is an indication of how the fear of catching COVID-19 from food has become real. Once vegetables and fruits are purchased and brought home, they are laid out in the veranda and washed with salt, multiple times. It becomes a collective effort as all of us are involved in it – bringing the salt, washing the vegetables and fruits, and then, drying them.

Washing the freshly bought fruits and vegetables.

While the notions of fear and suspicion are new, this idea of the collective that food generates is old. But this collective effort is still rooted in the overwhelming fear and suspicion of food that exists in a COVID-19 world. What is at stake is the social meaning of food that promotes solidarity and relationships.

It would also be interesting to see how restaurants and eateries fare in the future, particularly in the Indian context. Traditional India possessed no enduring tradition of restaurants or public dining although food played a central role in the life and culture of Indians of all religious communities, social strata, and geographical regions. The norms of social life and rules of caste (based on the notions of purity) discouraged the institution of restaurants for public dining

In the past few years, both public dining and food delivery businesses had taken off in India, especially in urban areas. But after the outbreak of COVID-19 and the imposition of the lockdown, these businesses have suffered. There were restrictions imposed on both dining out and delivery. Also, people have become sceptical from ordering food from outside, especially after a pizza delivery person in Delhi had tested positive. Notions of impurity and suspicion that are attached to outside food have re-entered the society.

As such, food becomes a fascinating site to understand the changing nature of society. In times like ours, the study of food offers us a window into understanding the changes and continuities in socio-cultural practices in society. Brillat-Savarin had once famously said – “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” From common celebrations to individual likings, our food habits reveal much about who we are and how we live. In today’s world, we are fearful and suspicious of others; and our food habits reveal so.

 

Reference:

Patgiri, Rituparna. The Social Nature of Food in India: A Review of Literature. Unpublished MPhil dissertation, 2016.

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