Josna Rege

352. Parents Modeling Manners

In 2010s, Education, Family, Food, parenting, Stories on January 30, 2016 at 8:35 pm


While out on Saturday errands with Mum this afternoon, I had the opportunity to witness three different parents modeling manners to their children, consciously or otherwise. In each case the parent was alone with one child; and in each case the child’s behavior mirrored the parent’s perfectly.

Our first errand was to pick up some take-out Chinese food for dinner. Mum negotiated the walk from the car to the restaurant and back like a good sport, though it was a bit of a rigmarole. On the way back out I had one hand full with the bag of food and the other one holding Mum’s, so I was happy to see a little girl, maybe ten or eleven years old, run up from behind us and hold the door open for us; I thanked her, and then heard her mother giving her quiet directions in a language I couldn’t readily recognize (Polish, perhaps, or Albanian?), after which she hurried back through the first door and opened the outer door as well. After thanking her again, I said to Mum in a voice loud enough for both mother and daughter to hear, “What a nice girl!”—at which she gave us a shy smile and skipped back to her mother’s side.

rsz_5d7a5851_grandeOn to our favorite small supermarket, which is usually ridiculously crowded on the weekends; but Mum doesn’t mind because she likes seeing all the children and babies. We only needed a couple of things, and when I saw the long lines at the checkout counters, I half-regretted having come, but it was too late. So we took our place in a queue and I hoped that the ice cream wouldn’t melt before we were through.

Parallel to us in the next line over was a dad with his son, also ten or eleven, I would guess, and a shopping cart loaded to overflowing with provisions. The father had just realized that he had forgotten a particular item, and was describing it to his son so that he could go and look for it. He was a foreigner or a new immigrant, I guessed, since he was speaking quietly in French to his son, who listened attentively and then darted away with a will, as if on a treasure hunt. While he was gone, his father was continually looking around, clearly a bit worried that the boy might be getting lost. He returned eventually, brandishing a packet of pre-made guacamole, but it turned out to be not quite the right one. It was the spicy variety, and Papa had wanted the plain; close, but no cigar, as Andrew’s Grandpa Victor used to say. So off went the boy again, while the father resumed his alert waiting.

Now came a third parent and child into the mix: a father with a girl-child, perhaps eight or nine. He stepped up behind the man with the overloaded shopping cart, and said to the girl, in a rather-too-loud voice, so that everyone in the vicinity could hear: “This looks like the shortest line—only an hour to wait, maybe two; unless you would rather put this back.” It could be seen that the little girl was in a fine fury, and that the only item they were purchasing was the bar of chocolate that she was clutching. The father was clearly just about out of patience with her, but she, just as clearly, had no intention of giving it up.

Of course the soft-spoken man with the overloaded shopping cart told the girl’s father that they could go on ahead of him, since they had only the one item. Without a word of thanks that I could hear, and certainly without a “Say thank you to the nice man who has offered to let you go through first,” the girl’s father gave her a five-dollar bill and instructions on where to stand, told her that he would be waiting up front for her, and promptly disappeared. Now the boy’s father was not only looking round anxiously for his son but also feeling compelled to keep an eye on the girl, whose face was screwed up into a fixed scowl, and brow beetled into a dark thundercloud.

(from The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies)                                                                    (from The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies)

The boy came back, this time with two packets of guacamole. Bingo! One was the right one, but the other needed to be returned, and since it was going to be a few minutes more before their turn came, Papa gave him one last errand to run. Off he went, without a murmur of complaint. Meanwhile Sulky Susan was waiting impatiently to get to the top of the line, and, without anyone on whom to vent her spleen, was getting furiouser and furiouser. Well before the checkout clerk had finished with the shopper in front of her, she was leaning in with both elbows on the counter, shoving her purchase and her money in front of him and scowling even more ferociously. The clerk was keeping his temper by studiously ignoring her, which, of course, only infuriated her still further. Dad was still nowhere to be seen, probably taking long draughts on a cigarette out in the parking lot.



At last the boy returned triumphant, bearing with him the special box of hot-chocolate preparation that his father had described. Rewarded with a loving high five from Papa, he took his place beside the cart just as they got to the top of the line. I didn’t see the reunion of father number two and darling daughter. Mum and I had got to the top of the line ourselves, and Mum had waited uncomplainingly all that time, just watching the world go by.


A couple of additional pieces of information, which may or may not be pertinent here: the French-speaking father and son were black, while the father-daughter duo were white Americans, the little girl a blonde who might have been pretty if it hadn’t been for the grimace, which made her look like a gargoyle.

IMG_3380If someone had offered me a place ahead of him in that long line today, I would have thanked him profusely and instructed my child to do the same. However, if she had been behaving as that girl was, I might have said, “Thanks a lot, it’s very kind of you, but I think we’ll wait our turn.” That would have modeled politeness and fair play, and might even have made her ask herself whether she really wanted that chocolate bar after all. But surely a thinking American could also have considered the recent history of his or her black compatriots being relegated to the back—the back of the line, of the class, of the bus—while whites took their place in front as a matter of course. What kind of manners was that father modeling to his child, who was likely to grow up taking her (white) privilege for granted, pouting her way to the top, and quite certain all the while that she was the one being hard done by.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

Taking a break: bear with me

In Notes on November 29, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Much as I love writing Tell Me Another, I’ve decided to take a break from it for a while. Many other tasks are pressing themselves forward ever more insistently, and writing a new story on my blog, being the most enjoyable, ends up being the default selection on my To Do list, trumping (oh no, terrible word choice, given the current array of U.S. Presidential candidates) more urgent items. If TMA weren’t an option, would I turn to these other items more readily? Perhaps I’ll let you know when I find out. Wish me luck!

Thank you, dear readers, for our virtual community. Our conversations have been very important to me these past nearly-six years. Wishing you a peaceful holiday season. Until we meet again, let the storytelling continue!  J

P.S. In case you’re a new reader, I thought I’d leave you with a selection of my current personal favorites:

Lively Up Yourself

Hidden Places

His Master’s Voice

My Grandmother

Grandpa Victor and the Story of the Tomatoes

From a Railway Carriage

Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw

The Mango Room


Getting Out of Silver City

October Rains

Feasting or Fasting?

My Uncrowned Queens

Paharganj, January 1984


Slow: Salamander Crossing

Personal Space, Indian-Style

I once was lost (and wish I still were)

The Taste of Home

That Funny Accent

The Yogi of Beals Street

Get Me to the Church on Time

Just Empty your Mind

Watching the River Flow

In the Bleak Midwinter

Con Men, Card Sharks, and Playing a Different Game

Talkin’ ’bout My Generation

The Magic of Found Objects

The Iliad at Bedtime

¡Viva La Literatura!

Darn It!

No, It’s Not Political Incorrectness

Doing it Themselves

Correspondences and Convergence (“Chicks Can’t Dig!”)

Krishna’s Butterball

All the World’s a Stage

Against the Grain



351. Slow Food from Way Back

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, seasons, Stories, United States on November 25, 2015 at 3:06 am


Dad always eats the food put in front of him without complaining, but the effusiveness of his appreciation when I serve even the most basic Indian meal of rice and dal bespeaks his craving for it. As a painter, he occasionally clips photographs of dancers or other elegant female forms from the New York Times, but three years ago as Thanksgiving approached he cut out a recipe and casually mentioned to me that it looked like a good use of leftover turkey. I glanced at A Dish for Pilgrim or Maharajah, noting mainly that it looked elaborate and time-consuming, but, since it was so unusual for Dad to actually suggest that I make something, took it under advisement. That is, I added it to a pile of papers, where it soon got buried, while Thanksgiving came and went.


A month later, though, when Nikhil’s birthday and Christmas-New Year came around, I happened upon the recipe again, and this time decided to give it a go. It was indeed elaborate, but I made sure I had all the ingredients and decided to give myself over to the task, however long it took. As the house filled with the mingled fragrances of onions, cashews, and raisins fried in pure ghee and basmati rice cooked in spice-seasoned broth, all my earlier reservations were swept away. If leftover turkey is capable of inducing a flow state, I was well into it.

The turkey biryani was such a hit that my double batch was completely devoured before the evening was over, and I made it all over again just two days later by popular demand. That too was polished off in short order. The recipe was posted proudly on the refrigerator door, where it sat until the following Thanksgiving, when I prepared it again. That was two years ago now, and I confess that since then my cooking hasn’t extended much beyond the same old everyday fare, and quick-and-easy frozen dishes. As for anything new or experimental, just thinking about it makes me tired.

Let_s_not_eat_up_our_climate1-350x245During the same period of time my friend Anna has become interested in the Slow Food movement, which emerged in the late 1980s “to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” She starts from scratch, making nutritious bone broth and simmering the food on very low heat for hours, until it is saturated with goodness. She has drastically reduced the quantity of food that she eats but dramatically increased the quality, buying nothing but the best ingredients and taking great pains—no, tremendous pleasure—in its preparation. Joining her for dinner is always deeply relaxing, as we eat in her kitchen by candlelight from her mother’s old china and savor each precious spoonful.

But of course until only very recently all cooking was slow, of necessity, since everything was made from homegrown ingredients. In our twenties and thirties, before children and when the children were small, we emulated the old ways, growing and canning our own vegetables, buying whole grains and beans in bulk, fresh-grinding the grains, and soaking the beans overnight, then cooking them for hours on the woodstove. Nowadays I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I buy my beans in cans, already cooked, and make my cornbread from a mix.

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (from

My first cookbook was an American one that that my mother found, circa 1962, while we were living in Greece. It was a hardcover children’s cookbook, lavishly illustrated and printed on glossy paper, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. But when I set out to make some of the recipes, I was completely stymied: all the ingredients were processed foods, and all the steps involved opening a can of this or a packet of that, none of which were available in any of the shops we frequented. The only recipe I was able to make with the ingredients I had available to me was homemade potato chips (crisps), which turned out wonderfully well and made me inordinately proud. I was reminded of that cookbook today while listening to a pre-Thanksgiving radio program which described green bean casserole, a horrible-sounding dish that is apparently a beloved American seasonal staple, made entirely from canned and packaged ingredients.

Indian cooking is slow food from way back. While living on the farm in Winchendon in the 1980s, we would take it in turns to cook. When it was my turn I would frequently make a full-course Indian vegetarian meal, with rice, dal, chapattis, and at least two vegetable dishes. The preparation would take most of the afternoon, and Charlie, tired of waiting, would invariably lose his patience (and frequently, his temper) and make himself a hefty cheese sandwich just as I was entering the home stretch. A dismissive comment by one of my housemates about my “Third-World” cooking still rankles, and probably only strengthened my commitment to the stubbornly, pleasurably slow process of conjuring up a simple banquet from scratch. But with Charlie getting hypoglycemic, the babies getting tired and fretful, and the frying spices filling the whole house with their heady fumes, I can see how my insistence on slow cooking must have tried my housemates’ patience.

I took the yellowing turkey biryani recipe off the fridge today, considered it for a moment or two, then shook my head. Slow cooking is just not on this Thanksgiving, when, for the first time ever, I have succumbed to the idea of buying and re-heating a pre-cooked turkey. But at least I’ll be serving fresh steamed green beans. And the biryani still beckons as I promise myself the pleasure of slowing down for Christmas. Thank you, Dad.

Evan Sung for The New York Times

Evan Sung (New York Times)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents



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