Thursday, 29 April 2021

Table Talk with Antoine Lewis

This Sunday, our guest will be pal Antoine Lewis, food writer, culinary experimenter, and, he insists, not an influencer. 

We will talk about this whole authenticity thing, how cuisines influence each other, travel, morph, have descendants, change. Antoine has also been a literary curator, so we will perhaps also talk about food and books.

 We'll chat for 45 minutes to an hour, and have questions for 15 to 30 minutes. So, like an hour to a maximum of ninety minutes. 

You will need to go to this link on Zoom and register with a valid email address, after which you will get the link to join the event.

Please join us?

Monday, 26 April 2021

Field notes for disaster relief (suggestions for those wanting to help on social media)

You want to help, you’re limited to being able to offer only your time online or on the phone, but you don’t know how to get started. Here are some tips from Dina, Bala, Neha, and me, based on our own experience long ago running and allied and subsequent efforts.

YMMV and all that.


We believe in the power of one. But we would also strongly recommend collaboration. (Which, if you come to think of it, does require that one person to make the first move.

Many like-minded folks working together make for a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Even if members each have modest followings in the social medium you choose, you can reinforce each other’s posts and increase reach by each one amplifying to their own audiences.

A collaborative effort can also be the foundation of life-long friendships. Trust us at least on this.

Most of the rest of this is about such collaborative work.

So, what next?

Step 0.

Look around for people who have already formed groups to do things like collect and sort information. Volunteer to join them. There are many already out there. Follow their methods and ignore the rest of this post. (Folks who are running groups like this, please leave a comment so others can find you.)

If that doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, perhaps you could start a group of your own. In which case you might want to read these tips.

What do you want to do? Will you list fundraisers? (What kind? Help for individuals? Organisations raising money?) Help people find home medical help? (Source oxygen tanks + ventilators etc? Medicines?) Source medicines? Hospital help? Help people who are quarantined?

It makes sense to look around and see what is needed.

There are three broad types of info needs we see right now: emergency, persistent, and clarity.
• ‘Emergency’ would be all the cries for help we see where people require oxygen or hospital beds NOW or they will die.
• ‘Persistent’ or longer-term needs would be reliable (and current) sources for O2, medicines, lists of beds available, medical help at home, meal services, and similar.
• ‘Clarity’ is needed because there are many, many questionable and troubling rumours and superstitions being passed around as facts, which need debunking, and many good sources of sound info and can-apply-right-now tips that need amplification.
Each requires slightly different skill-sets.

Decide: Which type will your group handle?

(It may make sense to focus on one and do it well rather than flounder as you try to do it all. Of course, if you have a large group, you may be able to pull off many things at once. We did, that time, with TsunamiHelp, because we had several hundred people in the effort.)

A collaborative blog would probably work better for the ‘Persistent’ type of need. Your effort could be a constantly updated repository or aggregator.

‘Emergency’ needs could prob be done with a blog, but may be more efficiently done by working as individuals but coordinating.

‘Clarity’ needs could be met by individuals supporting the efforts of fact-checking sites and healthcare professionals; donate to the, re-share their posts.

So, step 1.

Decide exactly what you want to do.

Then put it into words.

A clear ‘mission statement’ helps everyone focus. (Mission statements are for internal use, meant to inspire your team and give it direction. It isn’t necessarily the name of your effort or your hashtag.)

Step 2.

Think through the various tasks that will need to be done, and then divide you team accordingly.

For instance (with titles, some of which we used):
• Collect information: ‘Seekers’
• Sort info: ‘Sifters’
• Verify info: ‘Checkers’
• Clean up and format info: ‘editors’
• Make it accessible in multiple ways (including to people with disabilities) and on different platforms: ‘Translators’; ‘Specialists’
• Delete info that is outdated or sensitive: ‘Cleaner-uppers’ (This is important. Someone required a hospital bed and shared a phone number; the bed is got (or worse, is not needed any more), but the person who asked is still getting calls at a time when they have other needs. Or a supplier is out of stock, but still getting besieged by requests. And we’ve seen women who posted numbers getting dickpicks and lewd calls. Never post private numbers in public if you can help it.)
• Answer requests: ‘Call Centre’; ‘Helpline’
• Onboard new volunteers: ‘HR’; ‘Trainers’
• Solve tech issues: ‘IT’; “Fixers’
• Coordinate all this (no mean task): ‘Managers’
• Your effort is very popular and the media wants to chat? Have ‘spokespersons’ with agreed talking points.

Step 3.

Put people in charge of each of these functions; we suggest working in shifts with handover protocols.

Bring new volunteers in quickly (a shared document with goals, methods etc would be great) but ensure that they're on board with your central goals AND methods. If you can hear out people who disagree with your goals/methods, fine, but it's cool to shrug, thank them for their time and wish them godspeed elsewhere.

How do you run this?

Some thoughts.
• You’ll need an HQ, a ‘war room’ or ‘conference room’ which could be something like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, or a Google Group.
• Keep a private page updated with what one finds / verifies etc for the group’s internal use. You could use Google Groups, which lets you have stuff in threads, or a private Facebook group with posts under which new info is added as comments. A platform that doesn’t let you easily go just to the threads that matter will became a morass in no time.
• And of course maintain a public page / site / social media handle updated for your target audience. This could be a blog, a Google Drive (or similar) page, Google Sites, a Twitter or Instagram or whatever is most comfortable and hospitable for your team and your audience.
• Use whatever social media you’re comfortable with, and see how you can use (or repurpose) the new tools you have, like Zoom, Google Meet, and similar, Whatsapp, Signal, Telegram, and similar.
For example, we used a blog as a collaborative publishing platform, supplemented that with things like using Yahoo Chat (R.I.P.) as a war-room, Skype (you remember, Zoom people?) as a call centre, Flickr (THE photo-sharing site of that time) as a missing persons album, and so on. None of these were designed with those uses in mind, but they worked for us.

• Whatever you use, it’s important that not everyone should post to the public page — could lead to duplication — so systematic process and defined roles are important.

A word on self-care.

The work you’re doing is important, but you won’t be able to continue to do it if your body or mind get too tired, too stressed. You won’t be doing anyone any good if your mind of body break down.

DON’T TRY AND DO THIS ALL YOUR WAKING HOURS. Take breaks. Cut out completely for some time. Chat with the folks you live with, or loved ones further away. Cuddle you pets or talk to your plants. Eat properly. Listen to music. Watch a movie. Go down internet rabbit holes as you pursue your other interests. SLEEP.

A word on conflict.

Resolve conflict early. Any group of people will have conflicts. In a world in which so much is going to hell in a jet-propelled hand-basket, people will be tense. It’s important to solve disagreements quickly, without rancour. Maybe someone in the team is good at calming people down? Put that person in charge of conflict resolution.


p.s. For other ways you can help, this post might give you some ideas. This kind of action can have huge value, as Anshumani Ruddra has shown with this tweet, and the very many folks emulating him (see the quote tweets).

Update: Some of us are doing Dhan Daan again. More here.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Table Talk

If you’re on Facebook, chances are I have invited you to join Simple recipes for complicated times, a group I run. If you’re in the group, skip the next two paragraphs.

It was a sort of reaction to lockdown, a way for people like me, unaccustomed to cooking or managing their kitchens to get some simple recipe ideas, tips on how to work with whatever was available, and so on, from more experienced folks. It took off rather rapidly, thanks to folks like you who saw usefulness in it and invited friends in and helped spread the word. Membership grew rapidly, until we began moderating join requests as a way of cutting clutter. It’s now at around 6,800. (The group even got a bit of kind press coverage, finding mentions in these pieces by Paromitra Vohra, Priya Ramani, Ranjini Rao, and Manjula Padmanabhan.)

On March 19th, we completed a year. As a way or marking the date, (‘celebration’ seems like the wrong word to use for something born of a crisis), I hosted a couple of video chats on the group, which were fun.

Going ahead, I plan to host a fortnightly chat, each time with a different guest (or guests, max three people). It’s called Table Talk and will be live once a fortnight, on Sundays, 9 p.m. IST. I'll also archive these to YouTube or similar for those who couldn’t be there for the broadcast.

The idea is to have my guests tell stories — which could be in many kinds of media — or do a lecture or a tutorial or a demonstration, or have a debate or chat with two or three people, maybe even things like quizzes. All connected to recipes, cooking and food, of course. This would be, say, half an hour, max an hour. And then we’d throw it open to the audience to join in, with questions, discussion, debate, because the purpose is to involve the community, for another half-hour.

Topics for the first few sessions include: what it takes to actually give up the city and live the farm life, with asides on what kitchen ingredients you may want to carry with you if you’re spending a short stint in another country; summer foods and beverages and also food and literature; tales from one of the group’s most popular story-tellers; what a food reviewer looks for and also why not to be constrained by recipes; writing food for kids, with a reading; a peek into an artist’s travel diaries and a bit about food and art; culinary anthropology and what we know about what ancient Indians ate; creole foods and exploring creole cultures. And more to come.

That lovely logo? Hand-lettered by my talented friend the designer, artist, calligrapher and storyteller Kriti Monga, who was a founding member of the group and frequent contributor.

Gratitude to my friend Shubha Sharma who brainstormed the idea with me and came up with many of the possible subjects we'll be exploring, and Nilanjana S Roy, Manjula Padmanabhan, Rimi N, Venkat Krishnan N, Sameera Khan, Prem Panicker, Kurush F Dalal, Rashmi Dhanwani, Richa Dubey, Anita Vasudeva, Anita Roy, who all took time to critique the idea and offer me their thoughts and suggestions.

If you’d like advance notice of shows, and links to recordings, please subscribe to the Google Group and/or the Telegram Channel. Both are one-way: only admins, i.e., me, can post, so you won’t get any clutter on your inbox. There will be, at most, three messages a week: advance notice of the next live show, and links to recordings of shows just gone by.

Want to be on the show? Get in touch.

p.s. You’ll notice, if you’ve been nice and subscribed to the Google Group and/or the Telegram Channel, that they also reference ‘For Pete's Sake.’ That’s another project I’m developing, about which more soon.