Beyond Economics, A Dish A Day
“Each morning as I make my way to MIT’s campus on my new kick scooter, my mind drifts to the work ahead- papers, classes and the endless meetings- before settling on the most important subject of the day. What should I cook that evening?”
Abhijit Banerjee is an India- born, naturalized American economist who is currently the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did his schooling from South Point High School, Calcutta. He completed his BSc in Economics from the University of Calcutta and went on to do his MA in Economics from JNU, Delhi. He then obtained a PhD from Harvard University in 1988. One of the more defining attributes of the Nobel Laureate is his absolute love for cooking. Banerjee has spent a huge chunk of his career in economics trying to understand how the poor live and the choices they make-groundbreaking work that has won him and his colleagues, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, the Nobel Prize for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty in 2019. One of the things that he came across, contrary to common perception, whether you are rich or poor, the joy of a delicious meal trumps nutrition.
Abhijit Banerjee was born to a Bengali father and a Marathi mother in Mumbai, both of whom were Professors of Economics. His father, Dipak Banerjee earned a PhD in economics from The London School of Economics.
In an interview with Vogue, the Nobel Laureate exclaimed with a hint of warranted pride that he had been cooking since he was 15; men in 70’s India saw the kitchen as a space that was designed and intended largely for women. The only time Mr. Banerjee was able to spend time with his mother, a busy academician and activist, was when she was cooking which led him to become her unofficial sous chef. It was all about a young boy’s need to connect with his mother, he said. In another interview with Mint, he explained that the word “economics” comes from the word “oikonomia” which means management of a household. Economists are trained to think about how to make the most of limited resources- and that instinct drives what we do in the household as much as anywhere else. He remarked that food has an important, if uncomfortable, place within economics and went on to say that Adam Smith, who as much as anyone founded modern economics, in the much quoted expression of his credo tells us that “ It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” It is the butcher, brewer and baker, notice, not the cobbler, carpenter and candlestick maker. However, for Karl Marx, another out-sized influence on the field, food is important because it provides fuel to the workforce, but cooking is a distraction- at least from the point of view of a social scientist. But Abhijit Banerjee’s love for cooking is born of a celebratory attitude to food. He said, “If we needed to simply fulfill ourselves with nutrition to live, we could eat boiled eggs, raw carrots, plain rice. But we don’t. We dream instead of a chicken curry with almonds and raisins, a salad of burattas and mangoes, potatoes smothered in sesame seeds. The magic of cooking is to make something out of nothing, to bring to our lives a little sparkle, conjuring food that helps make the day a little less stressful, a little less dull.” When asked the question “How did you learn to cook?”, the Nobel Laureate promptly replied- “By making mistakes. I have cooked cakes that leaked dough, meat that tastes like old leather, fish that suddenly melted into the stew. And in making these mistakes I’ve learnt two invaluable lessons- First, there is no shame in starting again and taking comfort in the fact that it’s a big part of your learning experience. Second, embrace gadgets because they save time and make food taste better.”
His latest project, a whimsical cookbook titled “Cooking to save your life” is punctuated with humour and playful illustrations by Cheyenne Olivier. Abhijit Banerjee explains how his book is connected to his work as an economist, “We are exploring the social dimensions of cooking. I thought it would be boring to just write recipes, to be honest. So every chapter has an introduction, which is more social science.” In an age of restaurant dinners and takeaways, he is hoping to convince readers to discover the satisfaction of creating delicious meals for their friends and family.
Mr Banerjee spent a huge part of his life measuring the effectiveness of his actions in improving peoples’ lives. Pursuing something as taxing and demanding as alleviating global poverty must’ve come with a series of dead ends and sleepless nights. As a student of Economics, knowing that the Nobel Laureate does deviate from his academic pursuits, only to go home and make a delicious meal is somewhat comforting. The meals we eat frame our day, bring us joy and connect us with other people. Cooking a meal is instantly rewarding and it’s a beautiful way of expressing ourselves. It keeps you humble, with abundant opportunities to learn about imperfection, perseverance, hard work, willingness and ultimately leaves you with a simple choice- quit or try again. The most valuable lesson I took from the kitchen was that it’s okay if I don’t get it right the first time. Above all, cooking has taught me that the things worth doing cannot be rushed. We’ve all thrown out a dish that we thought would be a masterpiece, but all mastery comes from enthusiastic, repeated and devoted practice. Things can go wrong in the kitchen, and they inevitably do, no matter how prepared you are. We just have to be willing to wade through the challenge and be open to the lesson that accompanies it.
– Mrunmayee Joshi