Baking my way through ethnography: cakey encounters with diabetes during a pandemic
05 March 2021
In January 2020, I set out to research how IT-employed Hyderabadis diagnosed with diabetes eat, purchase and cook food in order to manage their illness. My plan was to spend time eating, shopping and cooking with them. However, on the 24th of March my hopes of eating scrumptious home-cooked meals across Hyderabad were dashed. The prime minister of India had announced a nation-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which meant that for my participants, finding ways to manage their blood sugars with limited access to specialized foods was paramount. The challenge that lay ahead for me was to keep the connection with them alive with all the physical restrictions that were in place.
Motivated by my participants’ restrictions against sugar I set off on a culinary adventure; I had started to learn how to bake diabetes-friendly ‘keto’ cakes with almond flour, grated zucchini and low-carbohydrate sweeteners. I would bake them every other week and drop them off at participants’ homes. Four months into the lockdown, as the restrictions were easing up slightly, I decided to venture out into our residential community, to enquire if any of our neighbors had diabetes. Naveen, a lean, balding, 36-year-old man who had been diagnosed with diabetes four years ago, volunteered to be an interlocutor as well as a taster for my baking experiments. Naveen was a self-professed foodie, committed to keeping his blood sugars in control through exercise, because for him there was ‘no compromising’ with food. After ‘hanging out’ in his home for a couple of days, I decided that speaking to Naveen in a semi-structured interview was vital for my project. On June 4th, an evening before the interview, I went with my freshly baked, first ever batch of peanut butter fudge brownies and rang the doorbell of his home. Priya, his wife, answered. I held out the box, “some sugar-free brownies” is all I said. Priya called out loudly, “there are some sugar free brownies for you!” and Naveen hastily came to the drawing area from wherever he was – in short, quick steps – and gingerly took the box from me. Standing next to the front door, in the middle of the corridor, without saying a word to me, he opened the box and started devouring piece after piece, as if none of us were there. He was almost meditative. I let him finish his first piece and asked if he would be free the next day at 3PM for our conversation.
“If you’re bringing more stuff like this, I’m definitely free!”, he said.
I promised him I would.
The next day, Naveen had forgotten about our meeting and had gone out for another engagement. I was pretty frustrated that someone would arrange a time and then forget it altogether. A tad annoyed at this, I decided I wouldn’t take the lemon cake I had baked for him that day. An hour later, Naveen showed up at our doorstep and asked if I was free for the interview. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I followed him to his home and completed the chat. I was mindful that I had not carried along the lemon cake I had baked for him, and I assumed he had forgotten about it as well. After the interview, he directed a quick question at me: “So you said you’d be bringing something for me? Did you forget?”
I promptly went back home and returned with a box of cake. With Naveen, as with my other participants, the cakes I brought in, which were to assuage my guilt of inconveniencing them, punctuated chats, initiated recollections and became an object and site where “bodies, places and care meet in a semiotics and embodied politics of ‘sweetness’” (Zivkovic 2015:112). By engaging in and enabling a system of reciprocity, through the exchange of time, cake and ideas, I was acknowledging the “obligation to enter into debt/credit relations as vital to the creation of self-reflexive folds that make social and cultural worlds possible” (Povinelli 2011:04).
I was creating my field.
Before I left for “the field”, I received a litany of advice as to how to go about navigating one. I was directed to resources, made to design interview schedules, asked to specify research methodologies and handed recorders and notebooks. As an ethnographer, I was told that “you are the best tool”. I was advised as to how to recruit interviewees, speak to them about the value of their time and the possible benefits they would receive from their participation in this project. As I reflected on this, I had to contend with a continued, niggling discomfort with research being an extractive process. Tapping into people’s lives and experiences and transforming them through my presence and intervention into “information” or “data” were terms necessarily used by institutions and ethics boards. One particular clause in the consent form which I had to share with my participants irked me. It read:
“Although I understand the purpose of the research project, it has also been explained that my involvement may not be of any benefit to me.”
The idea that someone might be participating in a study for a possible benefit felt intensely uncomfortable to me, particularly when I couldn’t promise them any. While introducing my project, research benefits were hardly discussed – my participants responded marginally when I explained the utility of the project in the grand imaginary of helping “solve” the “diabetes problem” in India. Most times, they were just curious as to what participant observation was or what questions I would ask. Above all, my performative willingness to listen and be empathetic to their stories, while also being open to sharing my own – in all honesty – helped them open up. I would often start with how my mother has diabetes, her struggles with eating and the trial-and-error cookery that had become our everyday life, and that opened the floodgates to uninhibited disclosure.
My tryst with keto cakes started as a haphazard attempt at a banana walnut loaf, to help my mother adhere to her keto diet on a long road trip in Tamil Nadu. To my surprise, it turned out to be delicious. It made me question my own assumptions around “eating healthy” and its correlation to taste – why was I surprised that keto food tasted good? Why did I take for granted that something healthy would not be tasty? These questions guided the conscious and unconscious ways in which I approached my research henceforth.
In one of our early conversations, Arunlekha, my first interlocutor, spoke about her confusing and imbalanced relationship with eating sugary things. Having now accomplished a keto cake successfully, I told her that next time, I’ll bring her a banana walnut loaf. “I love bananas”, she said. The next week, I took a loaf with me, picked up Mukesh, her partner, who was walking in the neighbourhood park and drove to their place. Arunlekha came down to make herself some tea and greet us. I told her as I placed the cake on the table, “It’s for you”. She made herself a cup of darjeeling tea, and cut a slice of cake, when Mukesh lamented, “Pallavi you can make keto stuff for me too!”. Why was the researcher prioritizing the participant with diabetes in the sweetening of relationships? Mukesh wanted as much a part of this exchange as Arunlekha. They both took turns to break off bits and ends from the cake using their hands and exclaimed with “oohs” “aaahs” and “yum”. “This is so good”, said Mukesh.
Unwittingly, I was placing before them an object that represented an “intimate entanglement of physiological responses to the taste of sugar and the sweetening of social relations” (Zivkovic 2015 :111). It was then that I realized that cakes helped me move and moved me. As Elizabeth Povinelli reminds us, ”spheres of life emerge and collapse, and expand and deflate, as things move and are moved across space and time” (Povinelli 2011:01). I noticed how when I told my interlocutors that I would drop by with cake, the tone of our conversations changed dramatically. Accompanied by cake I was welcome in unexpected ways.
These cakes took my interlocutors ‘back’ to the time when they could eat sweets, or rather weren’t medically advised not to. It reminded them of the freedom and privileges they’d enjoy – perhaps nostalgia was an important part of the lived experience of prohibition. The remembrance of taste past is essential to the sense of self. They would go into details – “have you eaten cutlet at Ohri’s? Before it became famous?”, “You put a plate of jalebis in front of me, I would eat the whole lot. Now I restrict myself to one or two”. My accidental “cake-carrying” behaviour, which came from being habituated to never going to someone’s house empty handed, turned into a point of conversation and a key to the materialization of my relationships with interlocutors.
Before my interlocutors took their first bite, I was asked a number of questions or to just put it away from their sight. It took some effort to convince them that this particular cake was good to eat. Until their diagnosis, they had experienced sweets in the quotidian, taken-for-granted capacity that we all do – as a source of pleasure and happiness, used to mark celebrations or offered as gifts or rewards. With diabetes, sweetness became an experience of contradiction – a juxtaposition of the prohibitions elicited by dietary advice with the ways in which they attended to their bodies and social relations with care (Mol 2010). With the keto cake I was no longer naively enabling a craving or a hidden desire, I was disrupting the very notion that sweetness is “bad”, and that it could be “taken into” the body without guilt or suspicion. What happens when sweet things are no longer bad? What if they no longer threaten to spike your blood sugars, make you put on weight, or force you to run the extra mile?
Cakes provided a whole new vocabulary where “health” and “pleasure” could co-exist and speak to each other. “You’re giving hope to diabetics”, said my interlocutor Pradeep, as our families got together one afternoon for a potluck brunch. This was our first group interaction after nearly 6 months in lockdown. It was a celebratory moment. I had taken along a mango souffle and a lemon cashew cake with a cream cheese frosting. Before having a bite, Pradeep enquired with concern and suspicion; he took pride in his abstention from sugar, something he hadn’t touched since 2007. He would be disrupting his identity as a disciplined individual by eating cake – “Is this keto? Can I eat it?”, he asked.
I told him the mango souffle was not, although I had not added any sugar to it. But the lemon cake was. Pradeep helped himself to multiple servings of both. After the chatter around the table died down, he said to me, “See, probably what you are doing, even if you circulate it amongst people who are diabetic, you are doing them a favor…It’s not about you, you know… you benefiting from it is secondary. So many (people) benefit. I am not somebody who craves sweets. I don’t. But for someone who craves sweets, who can’t eat, you are doing them a favour.”
Further into the conversation, he elaborated, “See Pallavi, let’s be open and honest. We are all human. VLK has got ladduin his plate, I won’t get laddu in my plate, I feel (bad). But if you put a laddu in my plate and say, ‘This is keto, eat!’. You did it! You’re giving hope to diabetics.”
I had not intended to provide this hope. I was as stumped about the “goodness” of sweet cake – nutritionally, socially and now ethnographically – to eat and think with. Whether my research seemed beneficial to my interlocutors or not, my cakes certainly seemed to be.
As it became apparent that my cakes were useful research tools, I began to create encounters – and I wasn’t alone in this endeavour. Cakes were now part of a guessing game that all house guests were subjected to by my parents. My father, who would rarely enter the kitchen, would take it upon himself to cut a slice of cake, microwave it, place it before an unsuspecting visitor with diabetes, and say, “Eat it, it’s keto. No sugar problem. It has no carbs.” After the slice was consumed and the disbelief around its lack of sugar was expressed, my father would smirk and ask, “So, guess what’s in it?” After a spirited exchange, he would then reveal that the cake was made out of zucchini and revel in their expressions of shock. In a very real sense, I had built relationships, routes and worlds through my acts of cooking and gifting food.
By circulating cakes, I was reconceptualizing social space, or as Povinelli (2011) would say, embagging it. “Things do not simply move”, Povinelli (2011: 5) reminds us; the routes they take create worlds and configure the things themselves. Cakes were designed for and designed by these gustatory relationships. No pleasantries marked a beginning or an end. Cakes were placed, eaten and enjoyed. No please, or thank you, and no “would you care for some?”. When I asked a friend if his family had enjoyed the peanut butter cups he had picked up from me, he replied, “the proof was in the dust bin.” They had barely allowed him a bite. In minutes the packaging and paper bags were discarded, and the desserts had vanished.
In the most unexpected form of exchange, where I didn’t ask questions or expect answers about cake, and they didn’t expect to receive a (keto) cake or to talk about it, what happened was an ‘encounter’ in the Deleuzian turn of phrase, that challenged any possible normative assumptions about ethnographic research or interviews to both my interlocutors and me. It placed all of us on a footing where our situatedness became more connected and intimate through our vulnerabilities and sweet teeth. In that moment we reconstituted our relationships with each other, and how we would proceed in weaving a reimagined life with diabetes. At that moment, there was no researcher and interlocutor. There was cake, and the possibilities it presented to both of us.
As an ethnographer, I was the tool, but my cakes did something more – they acted and related to my interlocutors and me, in ways beyond my expectation, agency and control. The cake was not meant to be a gift; indeed, I did not intend for it to be anything but a means for me to feel better about asking my interlocutors for their time for my project. The cake became our project. We exchanged recipes, delighted in each other’s cooking, and decided that perhaps with this, diabetes may not be so bad after all. And that’s the best benefit I could have hoped to give. The scholarship that emerges from this project would be lacking without cake’s role as a research tool, mediator of relations, and marker of sweet, precious moments. As the anthropologist with cake I am different, equipped and sweeter, than the anthropologist without.
 Laddus are sphere shaped South Asian sweets usually made from flour, fat and sugar. They sometimes contain nuts and raisins.
Povinelli, E. (2011), ‘Routes/Worlds’, Journal #27 – e-flux, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/27/67991/routes-worlds/
Zivkovic, T. et al. (2015) ‘The Sweetness of Care: Biographies, Bodies and Place’, in Careful eating: Bodies, food and Care.
Mol, A. (2010) Care in practice: on tinkering in clinics, homes and farms. Edited by A. Mol, I. Moser, and J. (Jeannette) Pols.
Pallavi Laxmikanth is a PhD Student at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Her current research interests surround diabetes, food practices and food markets in Hyderabad, India. This research is funded by the University of Adelaide, Adelaide Scholarship International.
Find Pallavi on twitter @pallavil23