Reinventing Cooking for an Online Audience during the Pandemic

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Photo: The Wandering Quinn

By Sakshi Srivastava

A pandemic in the high tech twenty-first century has manifested into a rare spectacle, magnified by increased international travel and a novel infodemic reaching billions of people across the globe in the blink of an eye. The stage is set, as audiences in millions witness the highly dramatic performances of the states baffled and battling with an invisible enemy, more cunning than its predecessors such as the Spanish flu, SARS and MERS. In times as precarious as these, different social communities are coping in different manners. As the curve of the pandemic is distinct in every nation-state, so are our strategies of communal and personal coping. There are certain similar patterns emerging in terms of our re-strengthened belief in our healthcare workers but there has been an apparent lack of political resources for the healthcare sector despite repeated warnings from epidemiologists in the past about new waves of infectious diseases. There is still an overarching rift between the financially secure class and the daily wager class, the latter of which is always at risk of actual poverty due to unemployment. There is one distinct pattern in terms of our internet usage, which is my primary concern here, for the internet in its magnificent glory and abundant filth has not only provided us a way out of the housebound monotony but also channeled our frustration about the locked-in life which is fairly new to the millennials disproportionately addicted to the internet.

Since the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., online games and OTT streaming services, ‘human lives on the internet’ have emerged as a phenomenon worth studying in depth. The issues of instant validation, image consciousness, and constant cycles of simulacra and infinite access to infinite range of materials – all govern our behavior patterns online. However, the lockdown and the invisible threat of a microscopic organism have highlighted our dependence on virtual reality and contemporary need of online connectivity. At least in the Global South, my focal point being India, our reliance on the internet for almost everything has been overwhelmingly evident lately. Not only are our meetings held on video conferencing apps but our classes and seminars have been shifted to the online space too, not to mention the surge in TikTok performances and YouTube critiques. One of the most staggering developments in the last few months of total or partial lockdown in major countries of the world, is our renewed inclination towards food (in particular baking). Cooking, shopping and other addictive hobbies have been acting as a psychological trope to cope with ADHD and depression, which is fascinating in itself. But my argument here is about coping through cooking and the internet, as to how cooking and starting a food blog online can act as a relatively easy, accessible tool to confront not just monotony but also stress and loss of community in times of complete lockdown.

Before that, a little context to the situation I intend to put this argument for: a family with a male breadwinner, a female homemaker and two daughters who live in other cities but are staying at home while the Corona crisis lasts, much like any other thoroughly middle class family in Northern India. The extended lockdown can be a tricky event for such a group of people, since the housebound women are familiar with this confined space, whereas other members are not, leading to frictions on a regular basis. Unconsciously, the women are used to being subjected to a different lockdown, with early evening curfew timings, only essential outdoor chores and practically distancing themselves from the crowds as much as possible. In times such as these, when men have to follow the same rules and practice social distancing for physical safety, the apparent freedom men consider themselves entitled to begin exhibiting fundamental fissures in the structure of our society and the hierarchies that sustain its outward stability.

In such situations, women of the household are burdened with the precarious task of keeping people sane and things in control, which endangers their own well-being and self-respect. In this context, the mother desperately searches for her sense of self, her autonomy and agency, and that is where I argue, food comes into the picture. Cooking for others can be a psychological technique towards better mental stability, which provides them with something more than just appreciation. Traditionally situated and monetarily ‘unproductive’ women in countries such as India are culturally conditioned to cook with little verbal acknowledgment in the family. But cooking as a hobby provides them an opportunity to become more than the Annapurna of the house. It allows them to derive meaning out of an activity previously considered a necessity and nothing more, for now they have a certain say in the purpose, execution and representation of that act. The women may be cooking for others, but an act of ‘self-fashioning’ is at work here. Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of ‘self-fashioning’ in the Renaissance culture denotes a deliberate manipulation of one’s public persona based on the prevalent social norms. This concept is remodeled here in a sense that the women give a unique performance in order to reconstruct their identity and public persona. Unlike the Renaissance men and women, in this age, this self-fashioning surpasses its origin in the arts and literature, expands its instruments beyond the physical appearance and noble behavior, and is achieved through an activity judged to be too mediocre otherwise, often deemed inconsequential in all matters of importance except for traditional matchmaking burdened with patriarchal ideals of womanhood. Contrary to that, the woman refashions herself that translates as an initiation into a virtual social mobility.

Coming to the second part of my argument without abandoning the first, the internet survives and thrives through the two distinct ideas of instant validation and simulacra. The latter concept, given by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation (1981), denotes the postmodern mise-en-abyme of images, where the real is lost in an indefinite duplication of the replicas, so much so that the real can no longer be located. This rather paints our online existence in a negative light, and why not so, since most of the symbols found and circulated online have a more diluted kind of reality to refer back to. But I believe that personal events such as these, reposition the simulacra amidst the floatation, weightlessness and anti-gravity of consumer culture. They act as a parallel to the basic nature of consumer culture itself, so the individual consumer does not succumb to a monolithic ideology of consumption, but derives a new self through the image itself. Simulacra here redeems itself from the negatives of ‘postmodern weightlessness’, when we critically position an online image impacting people (read women) stuck inside the house indefinitely. A venture online during the pandemic becomes an avenue for confronting the monotony of our ‘stay-at-home’ restrictions, and if food has a relevance in it, it has other reasons rooted in the structure of power, autonomy and consequently validation, appreciation and encouragement.

The rise in numbers of cookery-based YouTube channels, food related Instagram accounts and Facebook pages, shows not only our growing interest in the act of cooking, baking, appreciating delicious or exotic food, but it also denotes a deep-rooted psychological need for validation. The women of the house are no longer passive consumers of shows like Khana Khazana and Masterchef, but are active creators of shows of their own, for these little efforts become rooms of their own, as Virginia Woolf would have put it, meaning sites of creations other than babies and brocades. They become sites of exercising their agency and autonomy, not only in a setting familiar to them, i.e. their kitchen, but in a novel and more exciting setting of the online world, where instant validation strengthens their sense of self, giving them a sense of empowerment and purpose.

Like many influencers on various social media platforms, women such as the mother find a new platform for their skills, and are often fittingly appreciated by the community they discover and happen to be a part of. This sense of community is another factor in this fascination of women undertaking this particular task because, being isolated for months at a stretch with barely any contact, is only a condensed story of their lifelong associations. Most of these women have little time to fix personal friendships when they are weighed down with tending to a family back at home. So a food blog or an Instagram account inviting likeminded people to appreciate and exchange ideas is a twofold blessing. In most cases, it is not necessarily a monetary gain but the fraternity one acquires in the process often acts as a cause for change in one’s attitude of oneself, leading to a healthier, more confident selfhood. When we look into these instances, we need to extend Goffman’s idea of performance in social interaction to our performance online. In broad terms, Goffman suggests that during our social interactions, we tend to ‘perform’ in order to create a better impression on the other party. By the same logic, in this case, we can negotiate between the fact that the women tend to perform in order to create an impression, a persona for the virtual ‘other’, and at the same time, create their own self-image in order to reclaim their autonomy in a private world usually bereft of it. This also leads to the concept of meaning-making as suggested by Reinhard Stelter, who quotes Bruner, “… human beings are not ‘data processing devices,’ but are instead continually seeking meaning by interpreting their surroundings, other people, and themselves in a process of dynamic interaction with the world around them.” This denotes that the meaning of any event is produced in the interaction between the performer and the audience. Thus the very meaning a woman in the mother’s position derives by entering a community, is multifold. Her creative space is enlarged and bound to expand more, meaning her interaction with the audience allows a different meaning making experience than before. It allows her to change the meaning making dynamics in her online space because it is not narrow anymore, her homebound space because the possibility of an outlet renders it less oppressing, and her personal being because there is a rediscovery of what she counts as her worth.

It is interesting to note what a seemingly insignificant beginning on a social media platform can do to a person’s self-consciousness, her idea of herself. Here, I do not mean to say that the internet is a bed of roses, or a completely problem free space, but it is worth the mother’s efforts, for she might carve out a new identity by reimagining her unpaid, previously unappreciated labor. Such validation often results in a general increase in confidence in and about oneself, a more invigorated worldview and a more fulfilling sense of belonging. Perhaps that can end up being helpful to female home-makers seeking more visibility and attention inside and outside their homes.

References

Goffman, E. (1956). The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.

Greenblatt, S. (2005). Renaissance Self Fashioning: From more to Shakespeare. University of Chicago Press.

Stelter, R. Experience-Based, Body-Anchored qualitative research interviewing. Qualitative Health Research, 20(6) 859 –86.

Woolf, V. (1929), A Room of One’s Own. Hogarth Press.

Bio:
Sakshi Srivastava is a Research Scholar in the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University. She works in the field of Critical Medical Humanities and lives in Banaras.

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