Venba - A Poem To Cooking

Venba - A Poem to Cooking (and other thoughts)

Venba lays on a couch, her hair is a mess. She stares at the title.

My parents decided that the kitchen was no place for a boy. Instead, on their command, I shadowed visiting labourers -- carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers -- working on our home, a renovation project that never ended. My parents hoped I would learn something from them through osmosis; as a child, I was so shy I'd bury my face in couch cushions to avoid eye contact. Now, an adult and comparatively trepid, I still can't imagine interviewing a man about elbow pipes and straights while half his legs hang out from under my sink.

While cooking was kept clandestine, food was, and remains, beloved and unavoidable. The matriarchs in my family had an enviable talent -- in under an hour, with any combination of ingredients, they could prepare a weeknight dinner that was inoffensive and often delicious. Over the weekend their powers were unleashed. On their feet the entire day, they would cook a big late breakfast that flowed into a feast for dinner. Coconut milk perfumed the house, husked from the coconuts from the tree outside, and used in just about everything. Breadfruit, roasted and wrapped in last week's news, was sliced thin and fried until crispy and not a second longer. Overnight soaked peas (kidney beans) were pressure cooked until tender then stirred into rice cooked in, of course, coconut milk. Oxtail braised in browning, a sauce made of brown sugar and water (almost caramel-like), until it barely clung to its bone. I could go on.

Today I woke up to an empty house and the sounds of traffic. There is no breakfast bustle and will not be until I saunter out of bed, past the sink filled with last night's, and possibly the night before's, dishes and towards the stove. I will not husk a coconut, I will hover over a kettle and wait to pour boiling water over a cup of instant ramen. Most days and most meals are like this -- quick, easy, food as fuel and nothing more.

Many video games interpret this literally. Food fills various gauges -- health, mana, or some equivalent resource -- buffing stats, providing extra lives, etc. Even games nominally about cooking, such as Overcooked! and Cook, Serve, Delicious!, focus more on the restaurant industry, bringing in more customers, and earning more money. Phoenix Simms, for Paste Magazine, wrote about the commodification of food in video games and how Visai Games' Venba shows that cooking can be so much more.

There are moments of great aesthetic pleasure regarding food in games, such as the evocative animations given to the hundreds of recipes one can cook in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Or moments of comfort and comic relief, like the cooking sequences in Monster Hunter World. But until recent decades, games centred on food and cooking have been ones that characterize food as buffs, achievements or part of a commercial venture (think Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley and any number of restaurant simulators). Not often has cooking in games been allowed to simply show us the identity of the characters we’re playing. 

Venba alternates between cooking and dialogue. As the titular Venba, you recreate recipes from a damaged and poorly documented Tamil cookbook. In between cooking, you click through exchanges between Venba and her family -- her husband Paavalan and their son Kavin -- discussing the issues that most immigrant families face in majority-white countries; returning home, facing marginalisation, and assimilation. Food isn't separate from any of this. Venba makes Tamil food because she is Tamil and never entertains being anything else. Her food connects her culture and more directly, to her mother.

Food takes on added importance after Kavin is born. He's never been to India and has to learn how to live, without a guide, as a 2nd generation immigrant. I've never been a minority, not outside of trips to the States to visit family. It was not a thing I appreciated until I was followed by a security guard at Publix when I was 12 years old. I wasn't even a particularly large 12-year-old, just suspiciously black. But I've been susceptible to the allures of North America. When Kavin demands pizza over his mother's cooking, it's painful but understandable. Neither Tamil nor Jamaican food makes the television ads or the billboards you see on your way into town. It's "Louisiana Fast", it is "Fresh never Frozen", it's "When you're here, you're family." Learning to love your own culture is guilt-inducing work, it's seeking atonement for years of betrayal to yourself.

I think cooking is the ultimate act of love. Taking food, something we all need to live, and turning it into something else, something more than its ingredients, to give flavour to sustenance is beautiful. Every dish has its story and learning how to cook it, should be learning that story, to connect with the people who cooked before you. That's important to me. I'm black and Jamaican. Where people have family trees, we have shrubs. But the dishes we make tell the stories of the people who never got a chance to be the loving parents you see in Venba.

Venba and Paavalan stare out the window as we watch from outside.

Jerk Chicken is probably the most famous Jamaican dish. You can find in football stadiums and restaurants around the US and UK. You can find the spice rub in most supermarkets. Jerk has a spicy, smoky, charred flavour that is hard to describe for me; Jerk doesn't taste like other things, other things taste like Jerk. It's the perfect distillation of Jamaican history. Maroons, escaped slaves who lived in the mountains and rugged areas, were simultaneously on the run and at war with their British colonizers. Stripped from their African homes, Indigenous Amerindians guided them on which spices and herbs to combine for flavour and preservation. This was a time when cooking was dangerous, any smoke would alert the British to where they were musket in tow. So the Maroons started cooking in pits, trapping the smoke, and giving the meat its unique flavour.

Sometimes this is what I think about when I eat/make Jerk. Other times I think about my Uncle cooking the best Jerk Pork I've ever had, despite being a vegan and Rastafarian for 45 years prior. This is what I see in Visai Games' Venba -- this is what I feel when an adult Kavin recreates a dish his mother made for him or goes to visit her in India and she teaches him how to make dosas. I want that. I want to learn everything my family has ever made for me so that when we are separated by distance or time or death I can make something that captures how they felt about me. And I can eat it.

Ingredients for a recipe written in Tamil

Why the fuck Do I know how to make a perfect steak?

First, Play Venba.

Okay, level with me because this is going to be messy, inconsistent, and probably won't find a good conclusion. I finished everything above this two months ago. I sat on it because I started to think about food and microwaved my brain. Let's say food, and cooking are everything I said it is, it's love, and identity, and memory -- intimate and collective. Cool, how does that work post-globalisation?

Last year my TikTok algorithm was hijacked because I liked one video about Jamaican Jerk Chicken in Canada and now I'm bombarded by food influencers and they all cook the same thing. I can cook a perfect medium-rare steak. I can make pasta from scratch. Why?

These aren't bad things to know, but they feel increasingly like common knowledge amongst my peers, here and abroad. The other day a friend of mine pointed out that there are roughly 6 cuisines represented in the conventional emoji slate. There's some spaghetti, sushi, hamburger, fries, and baguette. And every supermarket has instant ramen. There's a Burger King on every corner in the world. An earlier draft of this used the term "culinary imperialism" and it's not here right now because I'm having a calm day.

Food is content. Cooking programming migrated from television networks to social media over the last decade and created a bizarre Frankenstein cuisine devoid of cultural history. Everyone is a coffee expert and will tell you about it. Calorie-counting amateur nutritionists show off the next great dish that will maximise your gains at the gym all while going 'ew double carbs.' Male influencer cooks who perhaps were similarly kept out of the kitchen have masculinised the space through sexual innuendo -- jerking off anything phallic and literally 'slapping their meat.'

I don't think this is all bad, the guys jerking off the meat need to fucking stop though, but it's something, right? You don't need an intimate relationship with everything you eat but surely it matters that we're all kind of floating towards the same things? Why this and not that? Is it because sushi is that much more photogenic? Or because certain cultures are inherently pervasive?

And of course, you can develop your relationship and culture with food that's new to you. I think about my mother's lasagna that she made because I panicked and said my favourite meal was lasagna when she was pushing me for an answer. It was fine but I think about her whenever I eat any lasagna.

And I get it, who among us doesn't want a quick, easy meal? Our lives are split into sleep, eating, and work. Despite needing the first two to live, we need to do the latter to get them. They're something to be earned. So you cut corners, cooking goes out the window, sleep is a premium, it's a mess. But we can't all be eating fucking overnight oats???

I was in Chicago when some Youtuber made a viral video about Oxtail and then I was priced out of Oxtail because white people went feral and market forces or some shit. Despite oxtail, trotters, liver, etc., historically being the pieces that white people gave to their slaves. Yeah, yeah, yeah, times change, but you get why this feels weird right?

Anyway, play Venba. It's 90 minutes long. Has fewer words than this piece which definitely got away from me.

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