American culinary icon MFK Fisher begins an essay about thrift with a delightful anecdote about her grandmother and a few grousing women during World War II.

“When rationing of sugar and butter had been in effect just long enough to throw housewives into a proper tizzy, my grandmother sat knitting and listening to a small excited group of them discuss their various ways of making cake economically. Each felt her own discovery was the best…” Peeved by the exchange, the grandmother interjects: “Your conversation is entertaining, indeed. It interests me especially, my dears, because after listening to it this afternoon I see that ever since I was married, well over fifty years ago, I have been living on a wartime budget without realising it!”

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown, as a lot of people are pointing out, is a good time to reevaluate things. Ways of doing business, work practices, healthcare. It is also a good time to start acknowledging the fact that women not only do the heavy lifting in most kitchens, but they are also the repository of knowledge about sustainable and nutritious eating, in good times and bad.

This acknowledgement so far has been mostly anecdotal and remained buried under the patriarchal, consumerist disdain that views caregiving and housework as menial, non-productive roles. It completely disregards the reality that, traditionally, women have been gatekeepers of health and nutrition. It is they who usually take care of children and the elderly, and make dietary decisions at all times.

A poster printed by the US Office of War Information during World War II advertised the equitable rationing plan for war-time emergency. [Public Domain]

History is filled with kitchen innovations produced by women in response to spoilage, rationing or penury. During the Great Depression in the US, for instance, oils and fats were scarce, while butter substitutes like margarine had still not been invented. Women responded to this by coming up with the “war cake” or “depression cake”. So successful was this butter-less, sugar-less recipe that the United States Food Administration took it upon itself to circulate it widely.

Closer home, women made papad, vadi, pickles, smoked and dried fish/meat – the staples of dry pantry – every year for their families during periods following harvest, consuming them in leaner months. In the eastern states of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, women began using poppy seeds in vegetable curries after being left with little in their food basket and robbed of food security during the dark imperial days of forced poppy cultivation. It was a stroke of ingenuity. The poppy seeds added taste and bulk to the curries and cooled the body in the hot, humid climate of the eastern states.

Crunch time

Similar hard times are upon us again. The coronavirus has taken thousands of lives, shuttered economies and left millions stranded without food and shelter. Even if you are privileged and immune to the stresses that have befallen the indigent, the likelihood is that you are not unscathed. In the sweeping lockdown imposed to stop the spread, supply lines have got disrupted. Store shelves have fewer offerings.

In this hour, what will define our response is our ability to adapt to the temporarily changed circumstances. It is critical in these times to use food judiciously and creatively, so that everyone gets their fair share and yet daily meals remain nutritious, satisfying and interesting. This isn’t just a solution for individual families, but also society at large – because it is this solution that will ensure that we do not overburden food supply chains, deepening the inequities of our food systems.

Not surprisingly, in our patriarchal society, it is the women – housewives or not – who are doing the heavy lifting in adapting to the supply side change, while making innovative adjustments to the demand side. Many of them are doing this while juggling work and additional caregiving duties. The result is that, what is taken for granted as kitchen chores is now a management skill. Women have a communal relationship with food, and across the board, they are falling back on real and virtual communities to rise to the challenge.

Credit: Freepik

A testament to this is the female readership of online food groups for exchange of recipes (such as this, this, this and this) as well as of special groups dealing with the lockdown (such as this, this and this). All of a sudden, cooking with kitchen trash like peels and stalks, using water from boiling peas and legumes to makes bread dough, and stretching meat dishes is being discussed on food groups.

The internet groups are an additional channel for women during the lockdown. They supplement the traditional mediums – cookbooks, magazines, social interactions – that they have used for generations to pass along recipes, ideas, information.

Grandmothers who have lived through Partition, mothers and aunts who have survived political unrest, and sisters and friends who have emerged from rural areas or poverty – all of them possess a living history. My 75-year-old mother, for instance, who has seen the family through decades of upheaval in Assam, has coped with the lockdown better than most. Her preparation for the emergency included storing dry ration, distributing milk to families with children, steaming and shallow-frying vegetables to increase their shelf life, and making dough with peels and peel paste. Her wisdom is predictably winning her admirers. My friends covet her kitchen tips and recipes such as Begun Khagina, which uses roasted eggplants and eggs to maximise both, and Egg Dhoka, a dish made of steamed eggs that stretches the protein to twice the number of meals. This is another instance of women creating a knowledge pool cutting across boundaries and time.

Leading role

It is not the first time the world is witnessing these phenomena. Women’s role in managing food and using it to uphold cultures during the Great Depression and World Wars is fairly well-documented. American women, during the Second World War, had to be inventive in the kitchen with meals like “potted cheese” (crumbs of cheese, mixed with mustard, then baked and served with toast). Creativity of this kind was also seen in cookbooks and leading magazines, such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, which spoke to women and amplified their voices.

In India, the role of Bengali women in turning judicious and zero-waste cooking into an art to cope with the Bengal famine and Partition is often mentioned, though poorly documented. There are many Bengali classic recipes that use stalks, stems and vegetable peels – all of them borne out of necessity. I am certain there are many more instances from other parts of India of women innovating in food-starved times. Most of these instances are anecdotal, limited to household stories, thus robbing women of recognition as keepers of food systems and depriving them of decision-making roles in defending consumer interests in the face of food shortages.

Why is that important? one might ask. For many reasons. Disregarding this knowledge prevents the society from taking advantage of it. It works as a roadblock in generational and gender equitable sharing of knowledge, which manifests in Indian boys still looking down on cooking as a menial chore even though it is an essential life skill. It also results in us as a society reinventing the wheel during every scarcity. Acceptance of women’s roles might equip our public distribution systems to provide what a family really eats instead of what policymakers, who are predominantly men, think it needs. It would also help in spreading awareness about maximising resource use and minimising wastage, while running large community kitchens likes the ones set up by governments now. Recognising women’s traditional role in food systems and nutrition is critical also from the point of view of gender equity, health and policy. It can secure nutritional outcomes, particularly in times of distress despite strong discriminatory gender norms.