Spirits in the Food with Sumi Dutta
It’s not often that I find myself absorbed in a graduate thesis, but I read Sumi Dutta’s “Spirits in the Food: A Pedagogy for Cooking and Healing” in one sitting, scribbling notes and questions all over the margins. Dutta’s auto-ethnographic text draws on an array of sources--from Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name to generative somatics to her friendship and sisterhood with organizer Noel Didla—to ask provocative questions about how kitchen work can haunt and heal. The thesis also details two radically innovative teaching projects—an undergraduate gender studies course that involved a cooking component and a trauma-conscious cooking class for Dutta’s QTPOC community in Atlanta—that she undertook as part of her academic work. Dutta spoke to me about the importance of disarming classroom walls, the connections between capitalist models of wellness and white supremacy, and how her thinking has shifted since she wrote “Spirits in the Food” in 2016.
To start, can you tell me about yourself and your Spirits in the Food project?
I’m Sumi. What I’m feeling most about myself in this moment is myself as a daughter. ‘Daughtering’ is a concept I first heard in a webinar inspired by Assata Shakur’s daughter, Kakuya, created by Alexis Pauline Gumbs—and it’s also a big theme of the Spirits in the Food project. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in a Bengali caste hindu family. My dad passed away this year, and I moved back to Durham seven months before he transitioned to support my mom as his primary caretaker. During the months before his transition, I sat a lot with the spiritual question of why I’m connected to these two humans. How am I changed by being their daughter and how are they forever changed by me? Revolutionary daughtering to me means healing trauma and feeling a deeper sense of freedom and joy within myself and envisioning that as an act of healing for my family line. Spirits in the Food was where I got curious about how I could do that through cooking.
So the project was split in two parts. One part was a four week cooking course I held in my home in Atlanta, Georgia with QTPOC artists, organizers, healers, and educators in my community. The other part was bringing cooking into my undergraduate Intro to Gender Studies classes at Georgia State University.
I was also a master’s student in a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program at the time, and feeling a deep disconnect between talking about social change and transformation and actually being able to feel it within myself in that space. I wanted to try and see how cooking with students could be a practice which disarmed those white walls and the intellectual violence students of color and working class students experience. What I saw was that it did.
Currently, I’m a writer and an educator. I recently, within the last year, started a queer love and healthy relationships column called Love School with Sumi. I’m also an herbalist and currently teaching cooking and food justice classes with kids at an urban farm school in Durham.
That sounds awesome!
Yeah, it’s pretty special. With young, young kids.
Like five and six?
Yeah, first grade through fifth grade.
Who and what were some of your influences for this project?
Definitely my family. And what I picked up from the food that my mom would make--she was the one in our house cooking always, that was a super patriarchal obligation she had. What inspired me about that was the memory of the food that we would eat and how I felt that that food told me a lot about the condition under which my mom was living. Her internal landscape. Just that kind of really early feminist knowledge that I had from being a kid.
Another person in my life who super influenced this project is my friend and sister Noel Didla. She’s a really badass organizer, educator, and Dalit activist living in Jackson, Mississippi. She was someone who in some ways really taught me as an adult how to cook--and how to do it with very few ingredients. She said something to me that I feel is such a big seed of this project, which is that food creates collective memory and it’s a way that we can create collective memory with each other. I was like, “Damn, Auntie, you’re right!” She spoke what was so powerful about what her and I did as friends and how we shape our relationship through food and how it is a way of making your own joy in community. I guess the other sentence that was coming to me was, “Making your own freedom” and I guess that’s what, maybe, when people talk about resilience what they mean. So she was super important to me and to inspiring this project.
Another thing at the time was that I had taken my first somatics and leadership course. Maybe you’ve heard about it?
I have, I have friends that practice it, but I honestly don’t know--like the most I know about it is what I read in your thesis.
Cool, okay! The lineage I learn from is called generative somatics and they’re an organization based in the Bay Area. I participated in a course that they were teaching called Transformation in Action and I really connected to their methodology and concept that social transformation begins in our bodies. And the ways that we be in the world sometimes don’t align with the world that we’re fighting for.
Any other influences?
Yeah. Audre Lorde’s Zami was a pretty humongous influence on this project. That and her essay, “Uses of the Erotic” really shaped how I was understanding cooking as mind, body, spirit work. She described dropping into our bodies to tap into a well of wisdom within us and that felt important in academic spaces where we were expected to ‘feel’ and create solutions from our heads. I was like, “How do we practice that [dropping in] while we’re together in a university?”
The last influence that I can think of--which feels like maybe the first influence--is that I watched this movie Like Water for Chocolate.
Based on the book by Laura Esquivel. It was basically a movie which is saying, “We cook our feelings into our food.” That was the story of this protagonist. And I was like, “There’s truth in that!”
That’s so funny because that’s such a theme of your thesis and I love that movie, but I didn’t connect it while I was reading. But totally!
I don’t think I gave that movie a shout out in my thesis but it deserved one.
Why did you decide to bring cooking into your undergraduate women’s, gender, and sexuality studies classroom? How did cooking push back against the typical classroom model?
Some of what I was saying about sensing this disconnect between, like, we’re reading and discussing all this radical shit but we’re doing it in this way that feels incredibly rigid. I had this sense of how the classroom controls the conversations we’re able to have and that space shapes the way we think we’re supposed to behave or the “right” ways of acting or speaking or whatever. I was like, “How can we disarm the classroom and disarm ourselves within it?” Again, pointing back to what my friend Noel was saying, I was like, “I think food can do that and I think if we’re cooking together that we’ll just begin to relate to each other differently and the way we can be with each other will change.” I wanted to get curious about, “Can we feel in ourselves ‘why feminist politics?’ ‘why does this matter to us?’”
I remember when I decided to cook with my students I did hear some push back from people questioning, “Is that actually a radical thing to do in a gender studies class?” And I get that, when we look at who has been obligated to do kitchen work.
That is also a thought that really kept me from deepening my relationship with cooking and food and recognizing it as a place of resilience for myself. I don’t know if it felt like reclaiming that in any way but it did feel for me like--I just want to respect that cooking is a healing modality, there’s some magic in it, and maybe that magic is the antidote that I’ve been looking for in these academic spaces that feel so like your head is cut off from your body or where you feel that deep disconnect within yourself or you walk out of the classroom and you’re just like, “Why do I feel this ickiness?” Students of color and folks with working class backgrounds might be able to relate. Being in a classroom where the intent is that we’re studying things about social transformation and yet we feel so fragmented inside, even maybe disconnected from the communities we belong to. That was part of why I brought it into the classroom. I believed this diasporic auntie wisdom of creating collective memory through food would bring more humanness and even dignity to academic spaces which so often discards our forms of knowledge and meaning making.
What I saw with cooking in the classroom is that students had a different relationship with each other. Like literally their bodies moved in a kitchen space so differently than the classroom - but yet this was still ‘class.’ I think it kind of broke down a competitiveness or need to say the ‘right’ thing. It felt more like a sharing of narratives and just like, “This is what’s real for me, rooted in my own experience.” Looking back on it I didn’t actually have to guide the classroom discussion as much. People just spoke up and seemed relaxed in their sharing. Another rad pedagogical thing about cooking in the classroom is that something about this process allows for folks to have an openness around sharing that I think can just feel harder inside the university.
Like gathering around food facilitated this more open space?
You also facilitated the community based cooking and healing class that you talked a little bit about at the beginning of the interview. I was wondering if you could say more about this project.
So that part of the project was a space for other queer and trans people of color in my community in Atlanta. I wanted to explore this question about who or what memories haunt us in the kitchen. And haunting not being a good or a bad thing. When I think about whose emotional landscape or whose presence is with me, it’s definitely my mom. I thought, “Maybe for other people it doesn’t have to be a person, but who or what memory is with you, or what do you bring to this practice? What kind of meaning can we make out of that? Also, what’s the potential to shape whatever that haunting might be? How could we speak back to it? Honor it? And also say, “Actually, I want new memories” or “I want something more than what this old haunting allows for. More than just surviving.” This aspect of the cooking course was a space where we could clarify our own purpose in whatever line or group of people who we see ourselves being a part of. To identify, ‘What is the healing that we want to bring here?’
We met in my house over the course of four weeks. I chose my home because I felt there was something potent about what we experience in our home space. I knew that if we were to be in a community center or even the test kitchen where I cooked with my students, that’s a different kind of work. For the particularly trauma-conscious cooking that I was interested in exploring, I was like, “What is it that we bring into our homes as a place where we desire safety and belonging and security? What even then comes with us into this space?”
When I would go into my parents’ kitchen I would feel like something fear-inducing could happen at any moment. I felt anxious. I recognized, “Oh, this is a haunting from this being a place where domestic violence has happened.” And I felt that similar anxiety in my Atlanta kitchen, far away from my parents. I thought that we might bring this charge into our homes- or even a room in our home - and that we can also do something about that.
You talk about reclaiming dishes from site of traumas as well as the way emotion flows into food, writing, “The food I make tastes best when I’m inspired to wield it into being.” Could you speak more about your ideas around trauma conscious cooking?
I don’t know. I think you’re talking to me in a moment where I’m not sure what I believe around this. It’s definitely not necessarily the same thing that I believed when I was writing it. Which is awesome, which is for me an invitation to look back on where I was at.
Where I think I was at was this idea that we could take food that held a memory or told a story about power, possibly a story about the dynamic of power and privilege in our life, and we could transform that by acknowledging the stories which this food tells, or this particular meal or dish. Different people brought different recipes to [the cooking class in my house] and they definitely evoked specific memories and moods. That part I feel like is still so true to me: food holds memory. It can be such a rich entry point for opening up those memories. Dropping into our bodies while we cook, what sensations we notice in ourselves, that’s information.
At the same time, I don’t know if I can make a claim to what that information means or that I would describe it as healing. Sure, the food that I’m cooking may be telling me something about the state that I’m in. It could be telling me something about my own internal landscape—that might be true for me and it may resonate with others. Whether that is healing, I don’t know, I’m not sure, I think I’m more like, “Let me just be in that question.”
Dwelling in questions is super important and absolutely no pressure to have a packaged answer, you know? Thanks for going into that a little bit and talking about your process and how your thoughts have changed, cuz that’s always really interesting to hear.
I’m curious about the part in your thesis where you write, “Capitalist models of wellness rob us of a healing that is wide and generative, tied to the whole truth of the land that holds our bodies.” Can you talk a little more about this and about how you pushed back against these capitalist models of wellness in your work?
Sure. So I was writing this at a time—maybe we’re still in this time—where I felt curious about how the term “healing” was being used and maybe the distinction I was making when I wrote that was that healing without a connection to social justice—I felt like it didn’t, for me, honor and tell a whole story about our being. I think that a capitalist model of wellness is kind of hyper-focused on being happy. This notion that healing doesn’t require our discomfort. Discomfort is so a part of transformation. Discomfort in how privilege and oppression have shaped us and how we are fighting for a new way of being which does offer us more freedom and more choice. [Healing with discomfort] would require us to tell the truth, specifically about the land. Our connection to land and honoring the whole story of how we got there. Which for so many of us would be naming“Uses of the Erotic”—so many of us meaning the people I am co-learning with in the United States—native genocide and chattel slavery and present day forms of state violence.
Of course, I feel it’s important to add, part of healing for me is experiencing more happiness. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to feel more happiness in your life. But healing without a real desire for changing the conditions in which we live, collectively, felt kind of hollow for me.
Absolutely yeah. The focus on the individual instead of community. Like when you were talking about happiness. Sometimes in self-help culture, happiness seems like a product.
Yeah. And also deeply rooted at the intersection of white supremacy and capitalism, or whiteness and class, and … yeah, I was just like, “I’m fighting for a healing that would not be satisfied by just by my own individual happiness under capitalism.” Not that I don’t want to feel freedom in myself, even under oppression and existing conditions. I do think that is a part of healing and I think healing like you’re saying being tied to fighting for what’s bigger than the individual, for a new world, is where I was at and where I am at.
What’s your favorite dish to cook right now?
That’s a fun question.
My go-to dish right now is a kimchi uttapam topped with labne. It’s hilarious because I don’t even make... it’s kind of like fermented fast food or something!
I’m laughing because I don’t currently make my own kimchi or make my own uttapam batter or labne--I buy them from local east asian, south asian, and palestinian grocery stores in my city. Do you know what uttapam is?
It’s basically lentils--daal--fermented, and people use this batter to make idils, dosas, or uttapam (which is a pancake shape). It’s really bready-tasting but doesn’t have yeast, which I’m trying not to eat.
Nice! That sounds really delicious.
How to Make: Masoor Daal (Split Red Lentils) with White Basmati Rice
Making daal is magic to me because it’s something so delicious made from basically water, dry legumes, onions, and a handful of spices. Abundance (and sustenance) being created from so little is something I continue to be in awe of. I think this mystery is also a part of why I had felt really intimidated by cooking lentils until I finally committed to teaching myself how. This is written as a simple starter daal and rice recipe which folks can build off of!
Note: I don’t measure spices for this recipe so the measurements below are an attempted translation of my process into tablespoons.
Ingredients for daal
1 cup split red lentils
3-4 cups water
1 onion (chopped in half-moons/crescents)
2 garlic cloves (peeled and chopped)
1 inch ginger (peeled and chopped)
Coriander (approx 1.5 TBSP ground)
Cumin (approx 1 TBSP ground)
Cayenne or Red Chili Powder (to taste)
Turmeric (3-4 pinches ground)
2 small green chillies (optional)
Olive Oil or Ghee
Cilantro (chopped for garnish)
3 curry leaves (optional)
Ingredients for rice
2 cups rice ( white basmati)
3 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods
2 whole cloves
Ghee or olive oil or coconut oil
Handful of raisins or cranberries (optional)
Sliced almonds (optional)
Instructions for daal
Rinse lentils with cold water until water mostly runs clear (rinse approximately three times or use a strainer)
Add 3.5 cups water to a pot with the lentils and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, turn down to a medium heat. Add sliced onions, ginger, garlic, and whole green chillies to the lentils pot. Stir frequently for about 15 minutes. Sometimes the water may rise, so to prevent the pot overflowing, keep a cup of cold water nearby which you can add to the pot to calm the boil.
Once lentils have softened and can be mashed with a fork or wooden spoon, reduce heat to a medium low flame. Add the ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne/red chili powder, curry leaves, black pepper, and sea salt (to taste). Mix well. Add a couple spoonfuls of ghee or oil and continue mixing.
Taste to see if lentils are well cooked and seasoned. Remove from heat and garnish with chopped cilantro.
Instructions for rice
Rinse 2 cups of rice with cold water till it runs mostly clear. You can use a strainer for this.
Add 3 cups of water to the rice and bring it to a boil. Add sea salt (approx 3 pinches), 1 TBSP of ghee or oil, the cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, and cloves.
Once water is boiling, add raisins and/or almonds if desired and mix well. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover.
Let rice cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit for a few minutes. Use a fork to fluff rice before serving.
Note: To make this rice extra glamorous, fry sliced onions, sliced almonds, raisins/cranberries, and a few curry leaves in ghee or oil in another skillet and then add on top of the rice before serving.