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Think FOOD, think ACCEPTANCE and exploration through Picture Books

This post was written for the Bookwallis Facebook page on 16 September, 2020

Educator sitting on a chair showing a picture book to children sitting around a table in a school library. Few children have their hands raised up.

I’ve been a Story educator and Library educator for many years….so many years, that my first batch of elementary students have graduated from college and most have started working. As a result, I’ve been privy to the many different changes over the years. The one that stands out acutely and one that has only gotten more pronounced with time, is the aversion or intolerance to food, different from what may be eaten at home.

The intolerance to non-vegetarian food has always been there, with children proudly claiming being pure vegetarians. Nothing wrong with that. The non-vegetarians would insist on how they cannot survive without their favourite meat or how they couldn’t stand eating grass or leaves.

What has become pronounced over time, is that children now vociferously and strongly denounce food different from what they may be familiar with, especially non-vegetarian food. They make yucky faces and sounds to go along with their declarations. In recent years, what has surfaced are these mini-speeches, almost rehearsed which glorify vegetarianism and scorn anyone who eats any meat as being a killer of innocent creatures, unhealthy and unethical, yucky, awful, the ‘can’t understands’, ‘can’t stand it,’ ‘so horrible’...echo around the class. I kid you not. This in children as young as 6 and 7.

It isn’t hard to see where this intolerance comes from. What is scary is that it stems in those so young. In those who are not yet able to form opinions of their own, so much so, that they parrot the spiels given to them at home, hurting many in the process. Scarier still is that they grow up with this intolerance. The rise of cow vigilantes, have empowered and spewed hatred across the country and across all age groups, adding to the climate of intolerance in the country.

Picture of a cow in the forefront. with sillouettes of protestors with lathis in the background

Image credits...India Today

Food is one of our most basic needs. Food is what we need for sustenance. It is something that differs from family to family, between castes and socio-economic groups, from culture to culture and from country to country.

Who gets the right to decide what we can and cannot eat, in a country as diverse as ours?

Many studies, including some conducted by Sigmund Freud, have observed that humans don't really exhibit aversions towards most of what we consider disgusting, until we are taught to. If we are taught disgust, can we unlearn it? Would it be possible to at least be able to offer reason and rationale for diets different from our own?

As an educator, a non-vegetarian one, I must state…I wondered how we could address this without my own choices clouding my presentations.

There were 2 approaches I felt I could take:

1. Empower children with confidence in their own cultures and traditions. Help them value what they practice at home. A child who is confident about him/herself will be more likely to embrace differences and see the value in others.

2.Honour and learn about others religious customs and traditions, their celebrations, food habits, dress...especially those different from our own.

Celebrate these differences. A question I love to ask is, “What would the world be like if everyone was the same”?

In my preceding posts, you will see that many of the extension activities involve discussions and sharing about family, traditions and culture. Children need to go back and talk to grandparents, ask questions, observe and note their own family traditions, and filled with the love and pride of these, come back to the library and share. This sharing instills a lot of confidence in each sharer and exposes them to a range of cultures and traditions and food habits of others.

Here are a few books with which you could explore food tolerance/intolerance:

Cover of the picture book  Vee Loves Garlic

VEE LOVED GARLIC Author: Richa Jha Illustrator: Kunal Kundu

When Vee a Vampire, tasted garlic for the first time, she falls in love with its flavour and from that moment on, all she wanted to do was eat garlic!! That shouldn't be a problem (given all the benefits of garlic) except for the fact that Vampires don’t eat garlic. Why? Coz it makes them pop, burn , melt and squelch. At least that is what she was taught her entire life. Vampires don't eat garlic...or else. But nothing of the sort happened to Vee when she did eat it. She wondered why she had been taught this. When she walked into her house that evening reeking of garlic, her parents went crazy. She had a list of ‘Stay away from garlic rules’, and punishments…Vee was miserable. What can this garlic loving vampire do to convince her parents of the virtues of garlic? What I love most about this book is that it encourages children to question and challenge. Here's what author Richa Jha wrote to me, when I expressed my delight with this book... "..., it is also about the need for children to keep questioning the given. And see it as their basic right that most kids in our culture are denied."

Cpver of the picture book Head Curry

HEAD CURRY Author: Khadeer Babu Illustrator: Gulammohammed Sheikh

Head Curry explores the day in the life of the narrator as he goes through the process of a craving for head curry. It takes us through the procuring, the preparation required before cooking this most anticipated dish, and finally the consumption and deep satisfaction and joy that follows. The dish? ‘Sir ka Salan’….a curry made out of the head of a goat. What I love about this book is that it is so refreshingly different and familiar at the same time. I haven’t ever eaten Head Curry. Would I? Maybe not. But what I do find familiar is the deep sense of satisfaction and anticipation at cooking this family favorite, and bliss after having consumed it. The nostalgia and wonderful memories as the process is recalled. These are feelings that anyone, from any community can identify with.

[Head Curry is part of an 8 book series by Mango DC together with Anveshi. This is set of ‘Tales that unearth stories from regional languages: stories that talk about the life-worlds of children in communities that one rarely reads about in children’s books. Many of the stories draw on the writers’ own childhoods to depict different ways of growing up in an often hostile world, finding new relationships with peers, parents and other adults.’ (Blurb, Different Tales).]

Cover of the picture book Beetle McGrady eats Bugs

BEETLE MCGRADY EATS BUGS Author: Megan Macdonald Illustrator: Jane K. Manning

Beetle Mcgrady has a taste for adventure. When Beetle’s teacher gets her group to work on the food pyramid, Beetle decides to add a new food group to the pyramid...bugs. Her classmates protest, but Beetle knows that people eat bugs for protein, in some countries. When she is dared to eat an ant, the picture of which she placed on the food pyramid, her adventure with insects begins. As the ant tickled her tongue, Beetle was unable to eat it. Always thinking of herself as a pioneer and explorer, Beetle is disappointed when she is unable to eat the ant. But when a guest speaker, a chef who specialises in dishes made with bugs, introduces a range of delicious buggy food to the class, Beetle proves that she is a true explorer. This fun and rather crazy read, is a wonderful way to introduce the variety of foods eaten around the world...even bugs and reptiles.

Cover of the picture book Hiromi's hands

HIROMI’S HANDS Author: Lynne Barasch Illustrator: Lynne Barasch

Sushi...most often made with raw fish, requires a skill to make. However, for many not familiar with it, the idea of eating raw fish holds a high ‘yuck-factor’. A sushi chef or ‘itamae’ undergoes years of training before earning the right to be one. While the idea of eating raw fish is unappealing to many, the Japanese pride themselves in this traditional delicacy, as can be seen in the rigour an aspiring chef is put through before he earns his knife or ‘yanagi’. This is a true story of Hiromi Suzuki, who broke the unwritten rules that women could not be sushi chefs, following in the footsteps of her father, an ‘itamae’ and sushi restaurant owner.

Cover of the picture book How to Feed your Parents

HOW TO FEED YOUR PARENTS Author: Ryan Miller Illustrator: Hatem Ali

This is a charming and amusing tale of little Matilda who loves to try all kinds of food and her parents who DO NOT. In a wonderful and hilarious role reversal, this adventurous foodie resolves to expand her parents’ picky palates. So she learns to cook dishes from a range of different cuisines and manages to get her parents to try out all kinds of new and unfamiliar foods like: pho, fajitas, quiche, jambalaya and even “green things.”

Cover of the picture book Bombay Ducks, Bombay Docks

BOMBAY DUCKS, BOMBAY DOCKS Author: Fleur D’Souza Illustrator: कृ पा

I saved this book for last, as its name reflects one of my favourite foods ever...the Bombay Duck. I belong to the East Indian community of Bombay, long considered to be one of the original inhabitants of the city. We love our food and we love our fish. No two doubts about Bombay Duck being our favourite. As much as we treasure our ‘bombil’, there are many who detest it...especially the dry version. People new to Bombay, complain about it’s smell which wafts across the city, creeping into nooks and crannies. However, for most fish eating Bombayaites, the ‘Bombil’ holds sentimental value and most of us consider it the tastiest fish in the world. The story behind its name is an interesting one and will take the children on a journey back in time.

Food can serve as the perfect gateway into another culture. While we embrace and pride ourselves in our cultures' foods and traditions, food offers us a window into another culture, when we learn about and/or try their dishes. Each dish has a special place in the culture to which it belongs, and is special to those who prepare it. By understanding this, we learn to respect another’s food choices...respecting them and their culture in turn.

“Food is central to our sense of identity. The way any given human group eats helps it assert its diversity, hierarchy and organisation, and at the same time, both its oneness and the otherness of whoever eats differently.” - Claude Fischler

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