I’ve only once been asked if I ate monkey brains. It was in the seventh grade, science class, from across the giant blacktop lab table. I’m not sure what prompted it.
Her exact words were, “Come on, you don’t eat monkey brains, do you?”
See, she said it ironically, so it was okay.
We both knew she was referring to the scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy dines with Rajahs and British Colonels, sampling the exotic wares of the East: snake surprise and eyeball soup. The scene, and many like it, laughably portraying South Asian cuisine as a platter of Halloween scare-treats, is a common, near-cliché touchstone for Indian Americans to describe Western insensitivity to the culture – Look! This disgusting film! How racist!
The irony is, I’m actually very fond of the movie. It was a big Hollywood film set in India, from Hollywood’s biggest director, with a star who even spoke a couple lines of Hindi at the end. And the mine cart chase is pretty sweet, too.
This is the immigrant’s condition. You know such oppressive stereotypes are wrong, but you grab the whip and cling to it tightly, swinging from one temple outcropping to another, hoping perhaps this one, no, maybe this one, will have the little golden treasure, a signifier of buried truth, whose ancient religious faith you can stow away in your knapsack and disregard for the sake of improving your fortunes in the modern world.
I tell people that I was born a vegetarian but don’t practice anymore, as if I was a lapsed Catholic. Being a Hindu Brahmin, a faith and high-caste known for vegetarianism as a core tenet, and born in Gujarat – the state which adheres to it more strongly than other parts of the country, it was grounds for getting into real trouble with my parents. But I was neither religious, nor a bad kid. I was tidy, clean, and quietly kept to my books. I didn’t hang with the neighborhood ne’er do wells at the train tracks. I had to find my rebellious streak somewhere.
First grade. Pizza Friday in the cafeteria. Normally I bring lunch The menu is otherwise drooping sloppy joes, dry chicken sandwiches, or hot dogs. Today is my one chance to eat like a real American kid.
The lunch lady places the delectable rectangle on my tray. It’s got three discs of flat, thawed pepperoni on it. I ask for a slice of cheese instead.
“Don’t you like pepperoni?” she asks.
“I don’t eat meat,” I say.
She blinks her eyes once. Twice. And another time.
“You. Don’t. Eat. Meat.?”
This is the first time I had to explain being vegetarian. I didn’t have any remarks prepared.
My family’s favorite American food is enchiladas. What an amazing country, where just like us, they eat rice, beans, veggies, and unleavened bread, and they even figure out how to wrap it all up in one tidy unit.
“Sub the beans for beef” was the mantra growing up. To this very day, my mother considers Taco Bell to be one of the more nourishing and pleasant restaurants in America. You got what you wanted, for less than ten bucks, and never had to explain why you needed them to make it different.
Third grade. The entire class gets to go on a field trip to Fort McHenry, where the Star Spangled Banner was written. Another moment for me to be American, to get in touch with my inner America. Afterwards, on a boat in the Baltimore Harbor, where British ships sent cannonballs plummeting to a now-gentrified neighborhood that dines on chicken tikka masala, we will be served lunch: hot dogs and chips.
I didn’t go on the field trip. Didn’t get in touch with my inner America.
It’s Thanksgiving. This will be the third year in a row I’m attempting to eat turkey. This is the one time I have access to meat that’s been cooked by my cousin, who’s been rebelliously popping chicken nuggets since the Eighties, someone I know and trust. The past two years, I hadn’t able to even swallow it. It tasted so…bad. This time I was determined.
Dinner time. The family gathers around the array of corn, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole: Indian Americans filling their plates with meatless foods that, per national myth, was given to the pilgrims by American Indians.
My cousin decided this was the year they would put aside the poultry and respect their Hindu roots. Didn’t get in touch with my historical America.
College food hall. I’m feeling brave. Recently, I’d eaten a chicken quesadilla from Taco Bell, which had made me vomit, but I told myself that it had been the Taco Bell and not the chicken. I forge ahead.
My friend’s plate is piled high with dry, flavorless chicken wings. I pick one up and bite in, following his process. I eat everything crusted by golden brown friend skin, then work my way into the strips along the bone. My friend polishes his wing off clean, then breaks the bone in half and sucks the marrow.
It’s about a year before I learn that most people do not do that.
My social life in college was the setup to your racist grandpa’s favorite joke: an Indian person, Korean person, Chinese person, Vietnamese Person, and Filipino Person walk into a restaurant. Punchline: we hung out together because, like me, they had less of a need to stick with their cultural clique than their peers. We bond in a sort of pan-Asian eating party.
This is where I began eating meat in earnest. When the dining hall food pushed my friends and I to the precipice, we went out for a lavish meal: sushi, dim sum, hot pot, barbecue. I ate it all, because I wanted to hang out, and in doing so, I made myself a “diverse” person, a cosmopolitan, breaking out of a habit I’d been born into, the habit that was a marker of my own foreignness, my own inner America.
I reversed the mise-en-scene of Short Round, our beloved token Asian who kicked ass alongside Indy, sitting at that table, squirming over the faux Indian delicacies, indulging in newer foods of the continent we all hailed from, with some trepidation, but coming out a triumphant hero all the same. Okey-dokey, Doctor Jones, hold on to those potatoes.
There is one other touchstone that uses the monkey brains trope: Clue, adapted from the board game. Early in the film, Ms. Peacock digs into the preparation, licking her lips with each bite and claiming this is one of her favorite recipes. Later on, this also outs her as the killer in one of the film’s alternative endings, because “monkey’s brains, although popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not often to be found in Washington, D.C.”
Ironically enough, this Orientalist line is delivered by an actor named Tim Curry.
Further irony: as I left college and went into my twenties, I began to notice that vegetarian (along with veganism, plant-based, beyond meat, you name it) diets are having a second wind in America, lettuce-wrapped up in an arcane thought-bubble of Whole Foods buzzwords and LuLuLemon lifestyle choices. Choices.
You have the power to be vegetarian; it’s an affirmation, a proclamation, a marker of what makes your identity purer, healthier, more humanely conscious. It’s a movement, it’s a platform, it’s a structure-dismantling ethos. It’s a new, sexy, and exciting America.
Meanwhile, I’m eating everything else – shark, scorpion, and chicken livers just moments from being excised of the poultry’s remains, trying to get in touch with my inner Travel Channel host. And the thing is – I’d probably would eat monkey brains now too, if it were served to me. Not just for the sheer novelty, but indulging the impish full-circle poetry of where this all started. Writers, perhaps my only real inner-identity, always enjoy a spot of irony.
Now when people ask me if I am a vegetarian, I’m still at a loss for words. I rarely purchase meat at the grocery store, but I’m probably ordering it at a restaurant. I haven’t prayed in years, but I’ll still avoid beef. I’ve only recently figured out what seitan is. It leads to some frustrating compromises, like a veggie burger without cheese. But at least the world seems to have moved on from “veggie” meaning the flagrant addition of bean sprouts, those cheap nothings that for thirty years, my mother has been taking to work for her lunch, instead of participating in their pizza Fridays.
Aditya Desai (he/him) is a writer and teacher living in Baltimore. His stories and essays have been published in Tropics of Meta, Barrelhouse Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, and others. He is or has been on the masthead for Guernica, South Asian Avant-Garde Anthology, Hyphen Magazine, and Atticus Review. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Maryland, College Park.