A few days before Sen. Kamala Harris relinquished her ambitions for the White House, she appeared with actress Mindy Kaling in a YouTube video titled “Kamala Harris and Mindy Kaling Cook Masala Dosa.” The dish in question is a popular fermented rice and lentil fried pancake stuffed with potatoes, a gastronomic delight for many Indians. The cooking video meandered into humor tinged recollections of family traditions, vegetarianism, stereotypes, chopping skills and recycling habits.
I was curious about the Kaling-Harris act for two reasons. One because it appeared like a cultural coming out of sorts for both celebrities and two because of the particularity of Sen. Harris’ decision to reach out to the Indian American audience.
Kaling and Harris have seldom drawn attention to their race and culture, especially in their public personas. It took Kaling all of 84 episodes on the Mindy Project before committing to her roots. This she did by going on a date with an Indian American man. As for Harris, she has consistently downplayed her Indian background, even as she stepped into her roles as district attorney of San Francisco, attorney general of California and a senator from California. Ironically, Kaling alluded to this in the video, too. “You are Indian, and I don’t know that everybody knows that,” Kaling remarked, to which Harris smiled. It was a significant moment of identity framing for both women.
Certainly, identity politics is a muddled and fraught idea, especially in politics or entertainment, one which the New Yorker writer Hua Hsu describes as “power structures beyond our grasp [that] sort us according to categories not of our own choosing, predestining us to be seen in a certain way by ‘the average person.’”
And both Kaling and Harris have been navigating terrains where being seen a particular way has been critical to their success. The cooking video, however, diverted this “being seenism” and drew attention to their pasts in a way that erased the demarcations of assimilation.
“You have no idea, this is how my mother kept all of her stuff,” exclaimed Harris when she spied the Taster’s Choice jars filled with spices. “This is so funny. I told my dad I was like bringing over this stuff from the store,” Kaling said in response, “he said like obviously put them in Taster’s Choice …” to be interrupted by Harris repeating, “but this literally was how my mother kept all of this stuff.”
This scene uncovered cultural context in a parenthetical manner. Like Kaling and Harris’ mothers, my mother, also from the south of India, exhibits the same tendency toward conservation. Reuse, re-purpose, restore and recycle has been my mother’s mantra, whether it’s old clothes as rags, coffee jars as spice containers, newspapers as shelf liners, yogurt cartons for food storage, water bottles lined up for future use, gift bags, shopping bags, fraying handbags carefully preserved, broken items saved to be repaired and gifts routinely re-gifted.
Beyond these nifty thrifty customs of our ancestors, the subtext was the fiscally judicious tendencies of Indian Americans.
In late November, when the video was published, Harris’ presidential campaign was flagging in both energy and funds. This then was an attempt to curry favor with the Indian American community, who, according to University of Pennsylvania researchers, are “the highest-income and most-educated group in the most advanced nation.” To wit, it was a fund-raising exercise, aimed at loosening the purse strings of a community, who despite being the top ten percent of earners in the country, sparingly donate to political causes.
It seemed to me that the 9-minute cooking experiment aimed at promoting Harris’ wholesome immigrant-girl-next-door image was a less than subtle effort to cater to the Asian American vote and to replenish the Harris campaign coffers.
AAPI Data — which publishes policy research and data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, founded by Karthick Ramakrishnan, the associate dean of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy — released a report in October 2019 indicating that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris were the favored three for Asian American voters. However, when it came to raising money from this segment, the story was a bit different.
In the second quarter of 2019, AAPI Data reported that Harris had been an Asian American donor favorite raising $607,000 with Joe Biden a close second with $511,000, followed by Pete Buttigieg at $468,000.
In the third quarter, however, there was a re-shuffling of favored candidates. Andrew Yang, an Asian American, shot to the top of the heap with $1,420,000 raised from Asian American donors. Biden raised $846,000 and Elizabeth Warren followed with $738,000. Harris fell to a dismal fourth place.
Harris’ campaign likely decided that the way to the Asian heart and thence to the pocketbooks was through the stomach. And thus the grand idea of a cooking video was conceived. But Kaling and Harris’ act lacked incisiveness. At one point, Harris asked Kaling a probing question about the immigration history of Kaling’s parents, but the discussion petered out without much insight or depth.
For me, the video failed to hit the mark because it was too short, flitted from topic to topic, and lacked currency. Neither Harris nor Kaling addressed the mood of the nation, or even attempted to discuss any of the 365 critical issues facing us today. It was too arcane an experiment to make an impact.
But the masala dosa sure did look good.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.