research institute for compassionate economics

Christmas Cookies – Sitapur Style

Written by Diane Coffey on February 20th, 2012

Around the world, holidays are all about the food. In my family, for instance, my dad starts mixing dough for Christmas cookies just a few days after Thanksgiving. Here in Sitapur, Holi, a Hindu holiday that celebrates the coming of spring, is still two and half weeks away.

Nonetheless, one of families that I’ve been visiting to help me think about how the early childhood environment affects growth was busy with the culinary preparations for the holiday. Not only did I get to learn about Sitapurian Christmas cookies, I also had an opportunity to see food preparation in action. (This is a first for me in this particular project, because people have been really private about food so far. I’m not entirely sure why people have been so much more closed about food than in other places where I’ve worked, but I think it might have something to do with how salient caste is here.)

When we got to Nandani’s (name changed) house, she was stirring a big pot of gooey rice over a wood and cow dung burning chulha. We exchanged niceties while she took the pot off the chulha and added a packet of orange colored powder to the rice. We asked about what she was making and she responded that it was cathori, a treat that she and other women in her extended family were making in preparation for Holi celebrations. She said she was also going to make aloo papard, and proceeded to start mashing potatoes for this purpose.

For the next hour and a half, I watched Nandani and the women in her family preparing the treats. While it is well known that food in U.P. villages, and villages around the world for that matter, is not prepared under the most hygienic of conditions, it was still an important learning experience for me to see the exact ways in which the germs got in the food, and then into the children.

Nandani squatted on the ground to mash her peeled and boiled potatoes on a long slab of rock. Several times potato bits fell to the ground and she simply incorporated the fallen potato back into the dough, presumably not wanting to waste it. After she’d mashed the potatoes so thoroughly that they were nearly the consistency of bread dough, she put the dough aside and rinsed her potato-covered hands in bucket of grey water and food bits.

Throughout the day, as she prepares food, Nandani keeps this bucket at her side. Things like potato peels, pea pods, and the food that gets on hands while cooking is mixed into this bucket. The water from this bucket was also used to wash the mashing stones. This system ensures that the calories that humans will not consume are not wasted—Nandani will give the contents of this bucket to her cow to eat/drink at the end of the day.

Without washing her hands with fresh water or soap, Nandani turned back to the potato dough. She used her hands to mix in some salt and cilantro. The two mixtures were ready for the next step in the treat-making process.

We went over to a neighbor’s house and ascended the stairs to the roof. Two women were already busy laying out aloo papards to dry in the sun. Their eight and fifteen month old baby girls crawled about. One of the women offered to make Nandani’s cathori for her—it is, after all, hard work, and Nandani is about 8 months pregnant.

The woman took one look at Nandani’s rice mixture and announced that it needed more water. She dumped into a large, shallow bowl, and incorporated some more water. Then she used a piece of cloth with a hole cut in the middle to squeeze the mixture onto two plastic sacks laid out on the roof—one that looked really dirty, and another that looked pretty clean. I asked where the bags that were being used to dry the cathori had come from. Nandani replied that one was from insecticide used in their fields, and the other was packaging from her relative’s DVD player.

Then, the eight month old baby started to cry. I picked her up, as her mother was busy with the cathori. She continued to sob, and Nandani took her from me. She scooped up a bit of the potato dough with her finger, and fed it to the baby, who was momentarily appeased.

When she had finished squeezing out Nandani’s cathori mixture, the woman filled the shallow bowl with some more water, presumably so that the leftover rice did not get caked on, making it hard to wash off later. A new cow bucket was born. Several times I saw the women go over and wash their hands in it, or pick up a scrap of food off the roof and flick it in.

Sometime later, one of the women realized she’d lost her ankle bracelet, and there was a frenzy of activity while we looked for it. Hearing the commotion, several other people, including more little children made their way up to the roof. A goat followed. As the matter of the ankle bracelet was discussed, the goat proceeded to trample through the cathori mixture. The women shooed it away, but made no attempt to remove the cathori dough that had come into contact with goat hooves.

Seeing the women distracted, a four year old boy moved in on the drying cathori. After he’d gobbled a couple of pieces of the drying dough, the women noticed, and shooed him away. Then, he came upon the shallow cow bucket. His eyes lit up. He plopped down on the roof and dug in—using his hands to scoop out wet bits of rice. The fifteen month old baby and a two year old who had come up with the crowd toddled over to see what the boy was up to. He generously fished out some globs of rice mixture for them too. I looked over at the eight month old baby—she had a sandal in her mouth.

When I am observing in the villages, I try very hard not let my emotions show; after all, I want to make people feel comfortable so that I can get a glimpse into their daily lives, and thus build intuition that will be useful in future research. At this point, though, I may have shuddered, just the slightest bit.

Professor Deaton, an economist at Princeton, talks about the big changes in global health that can be linked to the introduction of the germ theory of disease. I wonder what changes in child growth would ensue if the germ theory were a bigger part of the worldview of women in Indian villages.