Freedom Lab Event Report on “Gandhi, Vegetarianism, and Culinary Cosmopolitanism”

By Ruihan Wan

Class of 2022

On April 13, 2020, The Freedom Lab invited Professor Nico Slate from Carnegie Mellon University to lead a discussion on the topic of “Gandhi, Vegetarianism, and Culinary Cosmopolitanism.” The Freedom Lab co-directors, Professors Jesse Olsavsky and Selina Lai-Henderson hosted the discussion. Humanities Research Center co-director Professor James Miller, Lab Manager Tim Smith, Professor Titas Chakraborty, and around 25 students attended the discussion.

Professor Chakraborty began with a brief introduction of the guest speaker. Professor Slate is a famous historian who studies the transnational linkage between US and India through social movements, particularly the movement for African American liberation and the decolonization of India. He published several books on these topics. The discussion came from his latest book, Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind (2019).

Professor Slate shared two important lessons he took from Gandhi’s life. One was a quote from Gandhi: “my life is my message,” which demonstrated that Gandhi strove for a life of integrity. Gandhi’s own values and ideas were reflected in his actions during his whole life. The other was that Gandhi’s views changed dramatically over his lifetime. He challenged himself to improve and to better live according to his values. Professor Slate showed this by discussing Gandhi’s evolving relationships with race, South African food, caste, gender, and class. In Gandhi’s relationship with food, he showed that Gandhi’s thoughts on food were a way of linking his vegetarian habits to larger political commitments within the Indian freedom struggle. From Gandhi’s constantly-evolving dietary and social views, Professor Slate saw that the great man did not succeed in figuring everything out but, kept on trying, which Slate felt to be quite admirable.

Then the discussion jumped into the Q&A session.  Regarding to Henry Stevens’ question as to why Professor Slate focused on food. Professor Slate answered one reason was that Gandhi was obsessed with food, which meant a great amount of his works were about food, including his works on politics. The other reason was Professor Slate himself was passionate about the topics of food and nutrition. Yue Qiu asked whether Gandhi’s diet reflected Orientalist, anti-imperialist or utilitarian ideas. Slate replied that Gandhi was not anti-imperialist in his early life. Even his views on India were very orientalist, shaped by Western scholars. What changed his values were the radical vegetarians he contacted with in London, who objected death penalty, fought for women’s rights and critiqued empires, as well as his experiences organizing in South Africa. These experiences helped gradually shift Gandhi’s view to anti-imperialism by the 1920s. For utilitarianism Slate argued that on the one hand Gandhi tried to help as many people as possible, on the other hand he was driven by a profound sense of his own ethical system. When it comes to the question of how the story of Gandhi’s experiment with food helps us understand the history of Indian diaspora, according to Professor Slate, Gandhi was open to experimenting with different culinary traditions to appropriating them, but in a way that was different from other people in the Indian diaspora. He had resources and time to try the syncretism of food, which distinguished his class identity from others. Other students and faculty also discussed with Professor Slate around questions of Gandhi’s values on anti-racism, cosmopolitanism, anti-colonialism, salt, fasting among other diverse topics.

The 1.5-hour-long discussion was fantastic which interested the audience greatly.   As a leading Gandhi scholar, Professor Slate introduced the unique personality and stories of Gandhi by choosing interesting topics, raising plenty of examples and actively responding to the audience, which triggered the audience to think on many important issues.