He elaborates on non-traditional approaches towards humanities and its place in Indian academia. Dr Gupta also talks about the social relevance of Bengali cookbooks and ways of rereading them.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Rituparna Das on January 14, 2019, at Jadavpur University Press, Kolkata.
Rituparna Das: As a book history scholar, why do you think the study and practice of this discipline is important?
Abhijit Gupta: It is an important tool of analysis. The historical part is always linked with any book-based discipline, as opposed to, say, a laboratory-based discipline. Also, as new historical material comes to light, through the discipline of book history, we can relate that material to textual cultures. Likewise, the study and practice of book history is also important because it often requires expertise in areas that are not provided by traditional humanities, such as histories of technology, histories of copyright, company laws, legal matters, censorship, etc.
RD: Would book history enhance the study of cookbooks?
AG: If one is able to look at cookbooks through the methods of book history, they might be able to unearth or read them more productively. That is true of any book-based discipline. It could be cookbooks, it could be railway timetables, calendars, almanacs, etc.; our reading of the material would be enhanced by the discipline of book history.
RD: How can we approach cookbooks as a part of Bengal’s material culture?
AG: The culture of cookbooks is not prominent in most households. It is passed down from generation to generation. In a typical household, recipes are not written down. It [the process of transfer of recipes] is usually gendered. In households, the recipes are transferred from one female to another, and in the professional sphere, between males. Compared to the West, where cookbooks are a much more regular feature, here [in India] they are not. Cookbooks here are more or less a middle or upper-middle-class occupation. So, we have to approach this in a somewhat different way. For example, in India, say a pnachali [book of religious stories, read at ritual gatherings] is much more common than a cookbook in a house. So, as a part of our material culture we have to approach it differently since it is not that common. They are, in fact, exceptional. The thing is that they are not mass products. Of course, some cookbooks have become bestsellers—maybe one or two in Bengali as compared to the West where it is a major market in itself. So, it is easier to study cookbooks in Western cultures because it is a genre in itself; here, the genre is slow to arrive. Till recently, cookbooks were not a part of everyday mass culture.
RD: Could a study of the materiality of cookbooks aid in our understanding of the social history of Bengal?
AG: There is of course a big connection between cookbooks and the social history of Bengal since cookbooks are tangible resources. One has to be careful to also look at the intangible recipes belonging to the culinary traditions. It is part of the culinary practice where recipes are handed down from generation to generation. At times, it is not written down, and we have to see how these two traditions complement each other.
There were some recipes that would be cooked on a daily basis and some on particular occasions. Sometimes the lack of ingredient also factor in; for example, a number of fish species are not available now. They have died out. It is very difficult to get them and one has to replace them with newer varieties. New ingredients are also introduced in the market—mushroom and broccoli which were not part of the general diet have now become common.
When things get written down, they provide a different kind of historicity. When you are working with a recipe that had the chance of getting written, you will find that they are incapable of tracing certain information such as whether any replacements were used to prepare the dish at the time when the book was written—a part of information is revealed but another remains obscure. But cookbooks uphold a certain historical moment. For example, if you look at the cookbooks written during the British Raj, they give you a certain sense of the colonial period. They also indicate things which have fallen out of fashion. The pantheras cutlet [fried minced meat rolled in breadcrumbs] is now available in few places but was a regular during the British era. Things which were prepared in the household earlier are no longer prepared as we do not live in that time and the expertise has also gradually been lost, so we cannot find them. [However] At times, they are made available in restaurants.
Cookbooks thus give us a particular snapshot of that period. In Lila Majumdar’s famous cookbook, Rannar Boi [published in 1979], you will find the mention of pish-pash [rice cooked in chicken stock and whole spices].It was supposed to be consumed in convalescent state. Likewise, apple stew was consumed while one was recovering from certain illnesses. Now we no longer find them. They are becoming a kind of rarity because of changing times and family traditions. Cookbooks provide this kind of information. They will take you to the times, its leisure, the medical regimes of that particular period. Also, orthodox behaviour towards food is also changing. Take the example of baeler shorbot [Bengal quince juice]. Back then, when one was ill, they would be given the sherbet. I used to have it quite regularly but I have not had it for the last 20 years. My mother used to make it. Now I have not seen a bael for a very long time. It has a direct reference to what is available, what is plentiful, what is scarce, what was a delicacy then, what is a delicacy now, what was a rarity then and what is a rarity now, and so on.
RD: Cookbooks have an aesthetic as well as a practical appeal. They are, at times, carried around in the kitchen while one is preparing a dish. I am just curious here, are there possible observations one could derive based on this interplay of reading and handling a book?
AG: This is a tricky one. It could be only answered by somebody who has done this. But now, I would probably cook with the help of the internet. What earlier would be done using a cookbook, now can be done with a phone in your hand, and I do it quite often. Let us say, if I am cooking pork with spinach, as I am not a very confident cook, I would constantly feel the urge to look it up. There is a to-and-fro thing you are doing because you do not want to get the recipe wrong. So, you are constantly running to your computer or you are looking at the phone. Again, it would depend—a good cook would be able to look at the recipe and also improvise. For the not-so-good cook, they would need more support from the book or the reference material. One will constantly look at the quantity, and sometimes you do not even have all the ingredients—it always happens, right?
There are also YouTube videos now. The printed recipes have given way to platforms that show how to cook a particular dish. In earlier cookbooks, quantities were not in the metric system. So, there are these things that influenced the relationship between the printed word and the practice of cooking. There can be no one kind of relationship between cookbooks being carried to the kitchen, reading, and handling them.
Of course, there is another purpose: people read cookbooks for the aesthetics. If there are photographs, one can just like to look at them and salivate. There is now a massive craze for beautifully plated things. Earlier, it was not a feature of the printed cookbook. Thanks to shows such as Masterchef, everybody now knows about plating. Cookbooks are continuously undergoing change. Earlier the focus was only the printed recipes as pictures would involve a lot of money for getting the blocks done. Then there was the period of colour printing when cookbooks underwent a complete change. So, even the aesthetics of presenting a cookbook has undergone changes. I doubt if people would carry an expensive coffee table book to the kitchen as it might get spoiled. Probably, people would copy from those books and put it on a post-it note. The paper is there in the kitchen, accumulating the flavours of what is being cooked. So, there are a variety of practices. But, I guess there would be one or two books one could keep for rough handling in the kitchen.
RD: Do you think there is a potential towards reshaping pedagogic boundaries by working at the intersection of book history and food studies in India?
AG: I would not make such a big claim. Reshaping pedagogic boundaries is a big claim. There has been work on food studies and book history but not so much on the book historical part. Food studies is also quite an emerging field, dealing with issues like food during scarcity, food during plenty, food during health, food during illness, the politics of food, the politics of non-food. These topics are becoming more pertinent in a religious and political context. I would say it does not reshape pedagogical boundaries because, honestly, there is no [such] work yet. Work in the sense of, say, The Communist Manifesto or the Bible. I mean, like the one cookbook that everybody refers in the context of food. Maybe you can say that about Mrs Beeton’s Household Management [by Isabella Beeton in 1861], which is massively popular [as a guide to running a household]. Just for instance, on the issues of childbirth and obstetrics, Dr Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care became a massive hit and part of the history of modern childbearing. But in case of cookbooks, it is hard to think of a work that is that universal and a major cultural game changer. But, of course, there are fruitful intersections that can be made.
RD: Do you think there is a possibility of locating this kind of an intersectional study within the present institutional framework?
AG: It is difficult—difficult due to its interdisciplinary nature. Even in the current climate of interdisciplinarity, only perhaps a bold researcher would try and connect literary and food studies. But work is being done, as you are doing it, and there is a growing interest in this field. And within the institutional framework, it depends on the individual institutions, really. Some institutions might be more hospitable for this kind of a research, others might not be. It has the potential to be inculcated into other departments and studies. It could be part of agriculture studies and culture studies. The acceptance is growing, but it is still hard to tell. Of course, many things are being done which earlier might not have got institutional support. So, that is a kind of index to changing a scenario.
RD: What do you have to say about the culture of preservation in India? Do cookbooks of earlier generations have a better chance at surviving if preserved digitally?
AG: In one word, [the preservation scenario is] poor. There are many reasons for this. One fact is the tropical climate of our country. It militates against preservation, especially of paper. There are termites and silver ants. And then there is lack of money to have climate-controlled depositories; we will not spend enough on our libraries. So yes, digitally certainly [we should], otherwise we might lose a lot of stuff. I am thinking not only about printing but also handwritten stuff and family-owned papers. Because we are not good at this, we should digitise them, and digitise them properly.
But having said this, two of the earliest printed cookbooks have survived without digital interventions because they have been reprinted. The thing is, Subarnarekha [Publishers Private Limited in Kolkata] reprinted Pakrajeshwar and Byanjan Ratnakar, which is why they are in no danger of being lost. Now they are digitised, yes. I think in this particular case, print ensured their survival. But it may not be the general case [where one can be certain that printing will work better than digitising to preserve old texts].
RD: You have previously written on Pakrajeshwar and Byanjan Ratnakar, famed to be two of the earliest printed cookbooks in India. Do they still bear relevance for contemporary readers?
AG: I would certainly think so, because some of the recipes are brilliant, from the food point of view. But they may not be particularly healthy. The arteries could clank just by looking at some of the recipes! I mean, the goat head... You see, what is interesting about Pakrajeshwar and Byanjan Ratnakar is that the authors are from Hindu and Muslim communities. There is a great deal of diversity in these recipes. Given the state of food politics in our country, where people are killed for possessing the ‘wrong kind of meat’, it is important that such books are again brought into the public eye to show that this is what we really used to eat. We really had no hang-ups about what we were eating during those times.
RD: Do you think reprints of earlier cookbooks can serve to uphold the cultural plurality and provide an apt response to the divisive food politics in the current climate of intolerance?
AG: Yes, certainly. But we need annotations for that. It is difficult to make sense of the earlier cookbooks by just looking at them. Most of the terms and measurements are not familiar to us. Certain recipes could perhaps be researched and then annotated. So, I think, now if we were to reprint a cookbook, it would be for scholarly purposes. Cooking would be just one aspect. One could also see some of the recipes that have survived from the earlier cookbooks and what happened to them in the current times. If we take one subset of recipes and trace it across time, we can get an interesting picture of eating habits.