WARNING: There's nothing humorous about the following post. If you're up for some of my serious ruminations, continue reading. If not, well, you were warned.
Every day in cities across India, tiffin wallahs (literally, “carriers of boxes”) execute an amazing feat of transportation genius. They arrive at the suburban residences of Indian workers to pick up savory home-cooked meals, they ferry those meals (packaged in tin or stainless steel lunchboxes known as tiffins) by bicycle and then by train to India’s densely populated city centers, where, miraculously, those meals find their way via other tiffin wallahs to the offices of the hungry workers. And then, in reverse, the tiffins are returned to their homes to be refilled for the following day’s incredible journey. In Mumbai alone, thousands of barefooted tiffin wallahs deliver hundreds of thousands of lunches six days a week—with the precision of Swiss watchmakers.
While the tiffin wallahs of the spicy subcontinent stand as an anachronism in a fast food world, India has not escaped the influence of convenience. Fast food outlets such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and KFC can be found on the streets of Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, and most of India’s other urban areas. According to the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank focused on sustainability, the fast food industry in India is growing at a rate of 40 percent a year. And, yet, the tiffin wallah survives—delivering lively curries and savory dal, a taste of home, to office workers surrounded by ever-increasing dining options.
In an essay about the industrial revolution and its impact on the history of food, Jean-Louis Flandrin discusses the role of modern eating establishments versus their predecessors—the rustic inns and taverns of a pre-industrialized world. Restaurants, he writes, “served food to growing numbers of men and women who no longer took their meals at home, either because there was no one at home to do the cooking or because the workplace was too far away to return for the midday meal.” The migration of rural populations to city centers, the shift from an agrarian society, increased opportunities for women outside the home—these are all features of the industrial revolution that have contributed to a devolution of traditional foodways. Every day at the noon hour, American workers fan out across their cities and towns to indulge in the Big Bacon Classic at Wendy’s, the 7-Layer Burrito at Taco Bell, and the Beef ‘N Cheddar sandwich at Arby’s. In the American south, the large midday meal enjoyed by our grandparents is a historical artifact—recreated only for Sunday gatherings, for funerals, or for other rites of passage. Flandrin writes that “the religion of progress has been paramount for two centuries, and for much of that time the drawbacks of progress seemed negible.” But at this juncture, when fast food has expanded the American waistline to alarming proportions, can we continue to ignore those drawbacks? In my town alone, McDonald’s and Burger King operate nearly 30 outlets for their hastily prepared fattening fare. But I can think of only a handful of locally owned establishments where one can enjoy unique meals made with locally farmed products. The National Restaurant Association reports that the US restaurant industry includes 945,000 restaurants and food service outlets with a workforce of 13.1 million people. While local food, slow food, and other iterations of “quality” food outlets are among the ranks of the industry, they are increasingly encroached upon by the steady and relentless march of the fast and the convenient.
Historian Rachel Laudan explores this paradox in her essay on culinary modernism. She caution us – “if we unthinkingly assume that good food maps neatly onto old or slow or homemade food, we miss the fact that lots of industrial foodstuffs are better.” While I bemoan the imperial shadow cast by the “golden arches” over the world’s culinary landscape, I am always relieved to spy a sign for Chic-fil-a, the second largest quick service chicken restaurant chain in the United States, when traveling Georgia’s backroads and highways. That personal paradox aside, I am generally what Laudan describes as a “culinary Luddite,” one who pines for the “good old days”—days that contemporary analysis has shown us weren’t all that good. Shorter life expectancy, a food supply roiled by the whims of weather and war, polluted water, and bread, sausage, and flour that contained inedible “ingredients”—is this, Laudan asks, that for which we pine? “Nostalgia is not what we need,” she concludes. “What we need is a culinary ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it.” As a nation, Americans should strive for what India has achieved: a balance between a traditional food system (quality?) and a contemporary one (quantity?), a society in which the tiffin wallah can happily navigate his way through crowds of his fellow countrymen waiting to order McAloo Tikkis and Paneer Salsa Wraps under the golden arches in the heart of Mumbai.