This post builds on the research article “"The Taste No Chef Can Give": Processing Street Food in Mumbai,” which was published in the February 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published a variety of articles on urban politics and street life, including Chelsea Kivland’s “Becoming a Force in the Zone: Hedonopolitics, Masculinity, and the Quest for Respect on Haiti’s Streets” (2014); Nikhil Anand’s “Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai” (2011); and Daniel Jordan Smith’s “The Bakassi Boys: Vigilantism, Violence, and Political Imagination in Nigeria” (2004).
Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on food politics and food processing, including Nancy Ries’s “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” (2009); Heather Paxson’s “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitcs of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States” (2008); and Benjamin Orlove’s “Meat and Strength: The Moral Economy of a Chilean Food Riot” (1997).
About the Author
Harris Solomon is an assistant professor in Duke University's Department of Cultural Anthropology and the Duke Global Health Institute. His research examines the interface of bodies and environments in urban South Asia. He is currently completing a book about the rise of metabolic disorders in India, and conducting fieldwork on traffic injuries and trauma medicine in Mumbai.
Other Works by the Author
2014. “Short Cuts: Metabolic Surgery and Gut Attachments in India.” Social Text 32, no. 3: 69–86.
2014. “Taste Tests: Pizza and the Gastropolitical Laboratory in Mumbai.” Ethnos 79, no. 1: 19–40.
2011. “Affective Journeys: The Emotional Structuring of Medical Tourism in India.” Anthropology & Medicine 18, no. 1: 105–18.
Interview with Harris Solomon
Alex DeLaricheliere: What drew you to Mumbai for your fieldwork and research?
Harris Solomon: I first came to Mumbai when I was working in public health. Two things drew me: First, a sense of the sea, as there was something about being in a peninsular city that was part of everyday life (not least because the sea inflects life in the city presently and historically, in terms of trade, weather, community occupations, and food traditions.) Second, and relatedly, I was drawn by the ways one city block unlocks ten different languages, geographic lineages, religious practices, business traditions, and family structures. When I went to graduate school to study anthropology and designed a project about how food bridges relations between bodies and cities, I returned to Mumbai and felt that its internal complexities, which were always changing, would preempt any temptingly simple answers to my questions. The city keeps me on my toes as an ethnographer.
AD: How did you first encounter the street food, vada pav, that you analyze in your article? What was initially interesting about it to you?
HS: I first encountered the vada pav through its constituent parts: the batata vada—the fried mashed potato patty, which I would have at many carts that also sold samosas; and the pav, which I had eaten often with curries. There were several bakeries in the neighborhood where I did most of my fieldwork that were noted for their bread. My first "real" vada pav came from a vendor opposite one of the main train stations in Central Mumbai. And telling friends this, some said this was the "right" choice for one's first experience, and others would tell me that I had it all wrong—so the landscape of "the city's best" became apparent.
In my own fieldwork, however, I heard the most about vada pav in the metabolic disease clinics that were one of the primary sites of my study about diabetes and obesity. Nutritionists would ask patients to laundry-list what they ate from morning to evening, and vada pav was often on the list. This was the case for patients across genders, ages, religions, and communities. Nutritionists hated the vada pav, for unsurprising reasons: they are deep-fried and carb-y in both the vada and the pav. I witnessed all sorts of tugs-of-war between nutritionists and patients about it. I began to wonder about the stories behind the food before someone ate it. What was interesting to me about the vada pav were the ways its iconicity seemed self-evident but actually took quite a lot of work to solidify in individual and collective sentiments and memories. For instance, many people might argue that the "iconic" food of Mumbai is actually bhel puri, and point to Juhu Beach as the place where one can see scenes of pleasure and urban enjoyment take place through snacking (again, note the sea here!). A dear friend recollected that, in her childhood, she could taste the ink of the newspaper that was used as a cone to hold the bhel puri (and she still has this taste memory). How the vada pav became a favorite thus had specific trajectories, and I wanted to grapple with those as they unfolded in contemporary stories and practices about how the city hangs together or falls apart.
AD: Was this project a departure from your other work in medical anthropology and global health? What interested you about this particular way of engaging with food processing and politics?
HS: The vada pav appears in my book about metabolic disorders in the context of being a body-wrecker; this was according to nutritionists who were counseling patients, trying to stabilize their blood sugars or to lose weight. I found myself faced with an iconic food that in this particular setting was metonymic for junk food, and thus for all that was disordered and risky about Indian eating habits. In writing the article, I wanted to bracket the clinical and to examine my fieldwork from a different angle. What kinds of stories could I see people committed to when medicalization was neither the starting nor ending point of inquiry? Nonetheless, science and medicine still peek through, particularly around the politics of hygiene. Food processing was the bridge that emerged from the ethnographic materials, because it underscored the capacity of food to build life up or break it down as the vada pav changed form. This broader link between a food, biological life, and the viability of a city actually helped me rethink my interests in metabolic disease. So it was not so much a departure as a reframing, because exploring life's accumulations and depletions is fundamental to the anthropology of medicine and health.
AD: What challenges did you encounter conducting this fieldwork? Did you find it difficult to investigate certain aspects of the Shiv Sena party?
HS: Anyone who studies a beloved, iconic, and highly visible food or cultural object can perhaps attest to the joy of having "access" in terms of a never-ending set of stories, especially origin stories. In that sense, what was challenging was trying to parse the multiple lineages narrated about this one creation. My engagements with party officials were not too difficult because of the privilege a white American male can have when asking questions about a well-publicized enterprise.
AD: How did your own subjectivity affect your work in understanding the vada pav sammelan (vada pav convention), the involvement of the Shiv Sena, and the importance of this street food to the overall political climate in Mumbai?
HS: As far as my own subjectivity goes, I'll recap a pithy but instructive tidbit that came from a seasoned journalist friend: "You think people need you for publicity?" Party politics is one part of the vada pav story, but I try to ground the importance of food to political climate through Mahesh's experience, wherein differences like age, gender, and love for a parent tangle a given party line.
AD: What are you currently working on? Will your next research project build on the themes in this article or do you plan to go in a different direction?
HS: I am currently researching road and railway accidents in Mumbai. I'm interested in how traffic is somatic: how it lingers in bodies even after people ostensibly "leave" urban congestion or the act of commuting. Right now I'm tracking cases of road and railway injuries in the casualty and trauma wards of Mumbai's municipal hospitals. I'm observing and interacting with medical and paramedical staff, patients, and relatives to understand the complex medical, legal, and somatic spaces something called "an accident" opens and closes. This project continues my engagement with recursive body/environment relations in urban spaces, this time with traffic as a bridge, as food is a bridge in my first project. But being in Mumbai, the vada pav never disappears from sight. Just the other day, in the break room outside the trauma ward, one of the surgery residents bought a pack of vada pav for the trauma team to eat during the very short break between operations. The vada pav is fueling bodies opening up other bodies that have quite viscerally become entangled with the streets of city.
AD: What advice do you have for other researchers looking at the relationship between food politics and urban politics?
HS: Decenter eating. Many of our abiding ways of thinking about and enacting food politics emerge out of a concern around consumption—an "eat this, not that" sensibility. But there are other ways that food and people move in and out of relation, and so "eat this, not that" does not have to be the only way to scale food politics to urban politics. What kinds of arrangements between persons, city life, and vital substances are other researchers witnessing?