My father has always been very particular about not wasting food. My childhood days was always filled with the mantra at the dining table to remember that there were thousands of children who could not get enough food to eat, so we should be grateful for whatever we got, even if it was food we hated! Even after I thought I had finished eating, my dad would reach for my plate, scrape together all the stray rice grains that I had missed and then hand me back the plate with the mute instruction to eat that up. You can read more about this in my post about picky eaters!
As I grew up and had seen my fill of street children rummaging through the trash to find something to eat, I felt all the responsibility of respecting food. Annam Parabrahma Swarupam, goes the old Hindu shloka, which means food is a form of Lord Brahma, or God. After coming to America, my philosophy has been modified by incorporating the fact that my body and system should also be respected, and overeating is also not a good idea!
This post is however about how I was brought up to respect food by my father. My father’s obsession of inculcating this noble sentiment in us was not derived from any Hindu conservative upbringing but more from his own excruciating personal experience.
My father’s family resided in Malaysia (then known as Malaya) during World War II. There, the family slowly migrated from Johor Bahru to Singapore. During the three and a half years of Japanese occupation of these territories, food was a major concern for all families. Things got so desperate that there were cases of people catching the rats which infested the streets and eating them. Rice was a scarce commodity and the family survived mainly on tapioca. Imagine eating tapioca every day for nearly 4 years! Even today, it is not one of my father’s favorite foods!
At the end of the war, after the Japanese surrender, the British came back and with them came all the ‘luxuries’ of rice, meat, wheat and sugar. One day, my father’s mother brought home a packet promising all her children a wonderful surprise. They all eagerly crowded around the table where she unveiled her treasure. It was a rectangular, white mound, the likes of which my father had not seen before. He was six at that time. When his mother brought a knife and began to slice it, he could see how soft and yet, how crisp it was.
What is it, he wondered aloud. His mother answered, it’s bread! My father was amazed. That was bread? During the war, the only bread that could be bought was dark brown and because there was no yeast available, the bread had a pasty consistency with the center so hard that, my father joked later, it was like biting into a strange fruit and having your teeth hit the seed at the core. This bread was white and soft and almost ethereal in comparison.
Hesitantly, my father asked if he could have a piece, and watched his mother half-fearfully, afraid of being thought to be greedy when food was scarce. His mother laughed and gave him a slice. Holding it in his hand itself was such a satisfying experience as he realized he had underestimated its softness. The smell of the fresh bread was so good, he felt sick with hunger. He took a tiny bite, followed by another and yet another. It was indeed a slice of heaven…..