At a recent online conference a few of us brought our plates to our desks and had a ‘Zoom lunch’ between presentations, a poor substitute for the experience of sharing a meal in person but one that generated much laughter and waving as spouses and children darted across our screens. Till last year, a significant amount of conference time was spent on eating and drinking. While organisers usually invest a fair amount of thought and effort into planning the contents of meals based on delegates’ food preferences, the format rarely varies from buffet lunches and more formal sit-down dinners. Could we be collectively overlooking an important area for learning and creating community?
A number of recent academic articles, including my own ‘Extending feminist pedagogy in conferences: inspiration from Theatre of the Oppressed’ (in the Gender and Education Special Issue ‘Thoughtful Gatherings’) have underlined the importance of inclusivity, while also noting how academic conferences can further marginalize vulnerable groups such as women, carers, early career researchers, queer academics and those with disabilities (for more research see here).
In my ‘Extending feminist pedagogy’ article, I argued that conference organisers ought to consider creating meaningful embodied experiences such as physical exercise, drum circles, theatre activities and games and thereby challenge barriers of race, caste, class and gender. In the paper I mentioned, in passing, a picnic organised by the Centre for Women’s Studies at York at the Gendering East/West conference in 2009. The outdoor event allowed delegates to mingle freely and include children and other family, thereby combining care-giving and conferencing (at least for local delegates).
Although such thoughtfully organised events do occur at times, the boundaries of academic seniority and ‘cliqueiness’ based on race, region, caste or disciplinary affiliations are often re-created at conference meals. Many of us can probably relate to the experience of standing around with our plates hoping to catch the eye of a friend or fall in with an interesting group. As James Burford argued in his highly relatable post on ‘worst conference foods’, meals and coffee-breaks can sometimes be awkward, but awkwardness frequently stems from not being included.
Being located culturally and geographically in India, I can testify that Indians can be both inclusive and exclusionary in our food practices. Individual caste, religious and regional communities have distinctive taboos around food which can be used to preserve and reinforce social differences and hierarchies. In spite of Constitutional guarantees of equality amongst citizens, caste segregation continues in Indian society and food becomes one of the common ways of reinforcing it. In many upper caste homes lower caste domestic helpers and cleaners are expected to use a separate set of crockery from those shared by the family employing them. Similarly, individual castes and religious groups reinforce their social superiority by promoting vegetarianism, the most egregious recent example of which has been the devastating violence against Muslims suspected of eating or transporting beef.
However, the country’s culinary diversity can also be a source of pleasure and learning as people sample foods from different castes and regions. Sharing home-cooked lunches, a common practice in Indian offices, schools and universities, can (to some degree) mitigate caste prejudices. Working lunches are normally communal affairs and in ‘pre-Covid times’ it was unusual, not to mention rude, not to offer others a chance to sample the contents of one’s tiffin or ‘dabba’ (steel lunch-box).
Three or more dabbas are often interlocked to form ‘a tiffin-carrier’, typically containing rice and bread, lentil curry, vegetables and other dishes cooked in specific ways by different communities. In Mumbai, office-goers have warm food delivered directly from their homes at lunchtime via a network of five thousand ‘dabbawallas’ who carry the food for several kilometres on trains and bicycles. Famed for their punctuality and almost infallible coding system, which ensures that each dabba reaches the right office-worker, the Mumbai dabbawallas have become a management school case study.
Some years ago, my colleagues at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Nupur Banerjee, Geetanjali Sachdev and others, drew inspiration from this practice to plan a ‘Fine Dabba Dining’ conference meal for over two hundred delegates (Geetanjali has described this pedagogical experiment in greater detail in her chapter, New Ways of Educating, in the edited collection Product Systems Service Design for Sustainability). Individual tiffin carriers with food from one of five different regions located across India were offered to delegates after checking for food allergies and preferences. Each tiffin carrier was colour coded and delegates with the same colour codes were invited to find each other and sit together for the meal, passing their dabbas around the table whilst respecting etiquette of individual cutlery and plates.
In this manner, each table could sample the foods of different states, enabling conversation, learning and opportunities for delegates to socialise beyond boundaries of seniority, race and discipline. For the benefit of international delegates, information on each regional cuisine and the Mumbai dabbawallas was inserted into each dabba. The decibel levels in the dining area suggested that lively conversations had ensued between delegates who might not have chosen to sit together for a traditional conference meal. An early career researcher at the time, I ended up eating and chatting with a senior academic in my field. However, more importantly, the meal also celebrated inclusive rather than the exclusionary and caste-ist Indian traditions around food.
Perhaps it is time to rethink conference meals not only as fuel for hungry attendees and ‘networking events’ but as opportunities to foster inclusivity and learn about local culinary practices. Hopefully a post-COVID world with revived rituals of eating together and meeting in person will soon arrive and we can experiment creatively with ‘fine (or not so fine) conference dining’. Until then, see you on Zoom with a plate in your hands and kids leaning over the desk to peer into the camera!
Postscript: Writing this post in February 2021, when the rollout of vaccines had begun in India and new COVID cases had dropped to less than 10,000 a day, I was perhaps overly optimistic about entering a post-COVID ‘normalcy’. Between March and April 2021, the number of cases began to rise, registering exponential growth over the last month . Today as the number of new cases has risen over four hundred thousand a day, and people struggle for basic medical facilities, I wonder if we will ever return to a time when we share meals with anyone other than our immediate families. I request the Conference-Inference community to appeal to their governments not only to continue sending vital medical aid to India but also to support, in meaningful ways, the values of equity, democracy and transparent governance in our country.
Jyothsna Belliappa is a scholar of Women’s and Gender Studies. She teaches at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, alongside designers, artists and architects who bring a gender inclusive lens to their pedagogy and practice. Her research interests include gender, work, education and identity. You can view her publications here.