(Editor's note: This is Part Two of our special series on race and culture in families. We recommend starting with Part One.)
Anne Saini grew up in small towns in Wyoming and South Dakota, eating classic American fare: chicken and burgers, pasta and sandwiches, and the occasional apple pie.
Her husband Sajan grew up in a North Indian family in Montreal, where the meals were mostly vegetarian: daal (lentil soup), sabzi (different vegetables cooked in spices), and roti (griddled flatbread).
"I didn't think twice about it," Anne says. "You know what it's like when you fall in love with somebody, that's the most important thing in your life."
In the second episode in our special series, Your Mom's Food, we explore what happens when a meat-and-potatoes white girl falls in love with an Indian vegetarian.
What will be their food? And how will their families feel about it?
It's been a decade since Anne and Sajan got married. (Longtime Sporkful listeners may recognize Anne as the producer of our show!) Their son Dev was born almost a year ago.
Anne's eating some meat now, but at home their meals are still mostly Indian and always vegetarian. That's a big deal for Sajan (shown below with Anne's mom at a family wedding):
"As immigrants or parts of minority communities in North America, you always grow up with this defensive feeling," Sajan says. "And then when you fall in love with someone who’s part of the larger culture that’s been … treating you this way ... and when [she says], 'I want take on part of your cultural DNA and become your kind of vegetarian' -- you won the keys to my heart. You made me feel I belong here."
Anne loves Indian food and says she was never a huge fan of meat. But lately she's been worrying that her parents may have been hurt when she turned her back on her family's food traditions:
"I think I went a little bit too far," Anne says. "I wanted to try so hard [to please my in-laws] that I think I wasn’t really true to myself and my culture. And I kind of gave my parents the cold shoulder."
Anne and her mom Elizabeth (below) have never really discussed the tensions in their family around food. So when she and Sajan brought their son Dev to visit Anne's parents in Iowa earlier this summer, they finally sat down to talk.
"It is sometimes a challenge when you’re home because…I don’t know how to cook the kinds of hearty healthy things that you cook with daal and vegetables," Elizabeth admits. "It was really important to Dad and me that we respect [Sajan's Indian vegetarian diet] because this was your future."
But Elizabeth also has questions of her own for Anne:
"You don’t miss the flavors you grew up with?"
Listen in to the full episode to hear the full discussion. Is there a meal that Anne and Sajan and Anne's parents can share?
We've gotten A LOT of feedback on this episode and I'd like to take a minute to talk about it...
Ron echoed the concerns many of you shared when he commented, "At least *mention* the huge gender dynamics here. Traditional gender roles in both white American and Indian cultures are a big part of the story here."
That's fair. We were very focused on race and ethnicity in the episode, we should have put more focus on gender. That's on us.
Then there were listeners like Laurel, who wrote, "Sajan needs to cook for himself if he doesn't like his MIL's food. If my husband did something like this to my mom, it would be WW3 in my house."
We were thinking of this as Anne's story, a story about her struggle to figure out who she is, where she's from, where she's going. And because we were focusing on Anne's point of view, some other elements were oversimplified or left out. For instance -- Sajan does cook. In fact those lentils in Iowa – Anne and Sajan made those together.
Also, after Anne gave birth, Sajan did not expect her to cook for him. I understand why it came across that way, but that was due to some sloppy writing on our part.
Finally, I want to thank you for your feedback. Your reactions were overwhelmingly thoughtful. And I don’t know how much time you’ve spent on the internet, but that doesn’t happen often. So thanks.
PS - If you want to hear Anne’s story directly from her, check out the piece she wrote on the NPR food blog The Salt.
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Interstitial music in this episode from Black Label Music:
- "Child Knows Best" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Third Try" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Saturn Returns" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "I Still Can't Believe" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Minimaliminal" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
Photos: Courtesy of Anne Saini