Immigrant Bengalis

In virtually all social gatherings of the predominantly Hindu immigrant Bengalis there are two unspoken rules: a) do not serve any beef dish and b) donot discuss the subject of eating beef. When it comes to religion, the Hindus are something of a unique breed in the sense that we do not have a regular religious ritual like going to churches on every Sunday or a daily prayer session. I suspect that most of my Bengali friends in the USA are like me; they call themselves Hindu simply because their parents were Hindus. They really do not practice anything religious except for those annual puja celebrations and ceremonies like wedding and annaprashan where they get hold of some make-believe "purohit". Such purohits are typically anyone who is a Brahmin and knows some relevant Sanskrit "slokas" and ”mantras.” I do not mean to imply anything negative about Hinduism; on the contrary, from a philosophical and spiritual point of view, I am proud to call myself a Hindu. When it comes to life, death and the universe, the Hindu holy men have said it all thousands of years ago and all other religious books are merely some rehash of it in one way or another.

Even though I will be hard pressed to describe any specific religious practice that the Hindus are supposed to follow very rigorously, one rule that was drilled into my head from childhood was that Hindus were not supposed to eat beef. I am not sure if anyone explained to me the reason or what, if anything, was said about this in our scriptures. What I gathered by piecing together various comments was the following: we are supposed to drink our mother's milk when we grow up. While we do that during the first several months or so after our birth, we rely almost exclusively on cow's milk after that. So cows play the role of our mothers. Therefore it is logical that one does not kill one's mother to eat her meat! At least, this is the explanation I always give to my American friends who ask me about the custom. I have much more difficulty in answering questions about why the cows are allowed to roam freely on city streets and the origin of the expression "holy cow"! I always add, however, in my usual dead-pan style humor that "we celebrate cow's day in India instead of Mother's day" and that "I would often go to Wendy's restaurant and cry out: where is no beef?"

I decided to do a Google search with the question "Why are Hindus not supposed to eat cows?" while I was writing this article. A very comprehensive response has been given by one gentleman who has mentioned that there is not just one reason, but several; in addition to the reason I mentioned above, a cow can be one's pet (you don’t eat your pet's meat), one's "work-horse" in farming (you don’t kill horse to eat horse meat), and the preservation of cows simply makes sense in order to increase the overall milk output. He also mentions a religious connection through Lord Krishna's role as a cowherd. The only scriptural reference was to a hymn which regards Geeta as a cow, Krishna as a milkman and the essence of the Upanishad as milk. Perhaps this entire custom of shunning beef has nothing to do with a real cow. It may be just a metaphor; "don’t eat beef" really implies "don’t destroy Geeta".

In spite of all these teachings, one goes through an urge of doing forbidden things during one's teenage years. For me, one such moment came when I had a "beef roll" at a restaurant called "Nizam" near the Elite movie theater during my college days in Calcutta. It was probably the most daring act that I could think of, next to losing my virginity before marriage. There was another incentive: the mutton roll cost 50 paisas whereas the beef roll was only 35 paisas. Frankly speaking, I could not tell much difference; if anything, the beef roll tasted slightly better!

So it was an easy transition for me, without any moral hesitation or guilt, when I had my very first lunch of hamburger, French fries and coke at a McDonald's after coming to USA in 1971. The hamburger cost me 19 cents and the whole lunch was under a dollar. I do not remember if I even had a choice of a Fillet-o-fish or a McChicken sandwich in those days; probably not. It was a case of "love at first bite". In spite of the existence of all the other hamburger joints – both old and the recent trendy ones – there is something magical for me about eating a hamburger at McDonald's. It is certainly NOT the taste. I do not know if it is the cheerful ambiance or a feeling of nostalgia or a menu that I know by heart, but I am always drawn to it. In fact, my daughter's very first outing outside the house when she was only a few months old was a visit to a McDonald's, and one of her first words (other than mama and dada) was "Macdo".

Fortunately or unfortunately, for many years, hamburger remained my only beef based food when I ate out. There were occasional adventures around it of trying out a "whopper" or some other variation, but I never dared to try steaks or other dishes like beef stew or pot roast. At home, ground beef immediately became our favorite, partly because of lower price and partly because of ease of cooking. One of our good friends, Mr. Lahiri, who always loved to tell funny stories, convinced us that we were not missing out on anything by not eating steaks. He said that he decided to order a ten ounce steak on a recent occasion of eating out because he had been hearing so much about how great a good steak tasted. He was greatly disappointed! He asked the waiter to pack it up in a "doggy bag" just after taking two bites. Next day, he asked his wife to cut the steak into pieces and cook it in a typical Indian style of cooking goat meat and the result was delicious.

During the early years we were not very aware of the fat content in meat. We would typically buy ground beef that was on sale without paying much attention to check if it was 75% or 85% lean. We also did not know that it was best to drain the fat during cooking. One of our very good friends, several years older than me, died of a heart attack when I was still in graduate school. We often wondered if it had something to do with eating too much ground beef, cooked without draining the fat.

We slowly but gradually made the transition towards trying other cuts of beef: stew beef for making curries, sliced roast beef for making sandwiches etc., but steaks were welcome into our acceptable menu after several more years and the idea of actually cooking steaks ourselves came much later. At the beginning, "well done" was my standard answer to the waiter’s question "How would you like your steak done?" Restaurants like "Sizzler" which offered an "all you can eat" salad bar on the side with the steak were heaven for me. It took my taste buds a while to appreciate a "medium cooked" steak which still had a hint of pink meat inside and the associated tenderness, and to be able to distinguish the rather subtle differences between say, a T-Bone steak and a Rib-eye steak. I started to really enjoy eating all preparations of beef: from Filet Mignon and Chateaubriand to the Japanese style "Shabu Shabu" (very thin slices of marbled beef immersed in boiling hot water for a couple of minutes and served with a savory sesame sauce) and Korean "Bulgogi" (small pieces of beef, grilled right on the table).

Although the Bengalis never talk about or serve beef in social parties, it seems that there is a hypocrisy of some sort. It is clear from their comments that most of them do indeed eat beef. Although they do not prepare any beef dish in an Indian style I do recall attending Bengali bar-b-q parties where beef hamburgers were served. Everybody loves pizza, fully knowing that sausage and pepperoni pizzas contain beef. I even know a gentleman who used to perform as a purohit for Durga Puja in a large US city but enjoyed eating beef steak when no one was looking.

So what is the hang-up? If it is not explicitly mentioned in our scriptures that "thou shalt not eat beef," and most of us are eating beef anyway, why not make it a perfectly acceptable food item in our social Bengali menus? Perhaps it is out of respect and consideration for our elders, especially parents living with us or visiting us, who would be appalled at this westernization. Perhaps it is because good quality beef is both expensive and difficult to cook in Bengali style. Or, perhaps we just love to project an idealized morally and politically correct fake image of ourselves in everything we do.

The recent trend in this country is to shy away from beef, mainly for health concern. Much to my disappointment my daughter and son-in-law, both of whom are medical doctors, have given up beef for this reason. I am sooo tired of eating chicken – especially the chicken breast; it tastes like chunks of rubber to me. I can still handle grilled or fried legs/thighs from Kentucky Fried Chicken and tandoori chicken, but otherwise, would prefer even tofu over chicken! However, as I am growing older, I am also losing my craving for beef, which was an "acquired taste" anyway. Thanks to my Bengali heritage, my alternative to beef is fish and I love all kinds of preparations of all types of fish, even if it is served uncooked as sashimi.

Speaking of sashimi, I must confess that about twenty-five years ago, while on a business trip to Europe, I did the unthinkable. I tried raw beef served as slices with slices of onion. It did not taste bad at all; quite tender and more like sashimi. However, I had this mental block that I was doing something really bad which prevented me from fully enjoying it.

Do I feel guilty that I have not only enjoyed eating beef in this country, but have been quite open about advocating it while claiming to be a Hindu? Well, I have developed a rationale so that no one can lay this guilt trip on me. Just take a good look at a cow that you see in this country. Does it look anything like a cow that you grew up with when you were in India? Of course, not – certainly not the kind of cows Lord Krishna used to attend to. So, I simply do not consider them as "cows"; they are an entirely different breed of animals to me and the Hindus should not have any objection to eating their meat! After all we have no problems in eating meat from goat, lamb and pig even though they may be considered as pets and many of us drink goat's milk.

(Posted February 1, 2017)

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Comments from Shipra S. received on Feb 6, 2017.: "I thoroughly enjoyed reading Basab Dasgupta's writing."

​Comments from Parha S. received on Feb 11, 2017: "Basab Dasgupta's 'Where's the Beef?' seemed like my story.  Maybe it is the story of many of us: initiation to hamburgers and McDonald's; flirtations with ground beef (an elderly friend loved to call it 'gorur gnuro'); on to beef curry, goat meat style; graduating to steak; developing to 'medium'; and finally a drastic reduction in consumption of the 'holy cow' due to age, heart disease and increased taboo that 'it is not good for you.  I am happy to say I am  not yet a 'teetotaller' in this regard - I occasionally indulge in a hamburger and much less a steak.  
I also enjoyed Mr. Dasgupta's forays into historical speculations as to why beef eating is prohibited for Hindus.  Let me humbly add my two cents to it.  First off, the tradition of the prohibition is not as ancient as the Vedas.  Mohamohopadhyay P. V. Kane, arguably the greatest Sanskrit scholar in modern times and a Bharat Ratna (only one to be so honored for his Sanskrit punditry) notes in his magnum opus History of Dharmashastra that there is evidence of beef eating in ancient times.  And finally, the inimitable Nirad C. Chaudhuri takes serious issue with the thinking that the prohibition is rooted in the idea that we are brought up on cow's milk and thus the cow is like a mother to us.  His position was that the most vociferous ardent supporters of beef prohibition come from the Hindi Belt.  But the staple in those parts is buffalo milk, and buffalo is not holy nor is buffalo milk prohibited."

Where Is The Beef?

Basab Dasgupta