Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

405. Not So Grinchy

In Books, Childhood, Food, Music, seasons on November 27, 2017 at 1:10 am

Perversely, I’ve rather prided myself on being a Grinch at Christmastime. The adult I, that is; as a child I loved the whole season, from St. Nicholas’ Day to Twelfth Night, when the tree came down and we stopped singing carols: the anticipation, list-making, decorations, card-counting, opening each new window of the battered Advent Calendar, carol-singing (Good King Wenceslas with Dad roaring “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”), Mum’s sausage rolls and shortbread on Christmas Eve, waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, the  tree (magically decorated overnight), the specially embroidered (by Mum) pillowcases that were our stockings with whole walnuts and tangerines (rarities in India in those days) down at the bottom. It was Mum who made Christmas, though Dad was her willing helper, Mum who maintained a childlike delight in it and passed on that delight to us. I kept up her Christmas spirit, or tried to, throughout Nikhil’s childhood; but in recent years, now that he and his generation have grown and gone and all seasons are the same to dear Mum, it has become more and more of a strain, and I find myself wishing, with hardly any feeling of guilt, that I could just take off on my own and hide away until it’s all over.

Nowadays, as the frenzy of the season gets underway, I resist it actively. Some of that resistance comes from sheer hatred of shopping and consumerism; some of it from sheer busyness: with end-of-semester grades due a couple of days after Christmas and my biggest annual conferences just after New Year, it is an extremely hectic time for me; and I can’t deny that some of it is down to a mildly depressive frame of mind in which I question the point of it all—Christmas, that is, not life itself.  Nevertheless I persist, trying, albeit in small ways, to quiet the cynic within and quicken instead a sense of wonder.

This year had been no exception. I resolutely shut my eyes to the holiday hype that began even before Halloween. Then, after Thanksgiving as always, came the weirdly-named Black Friday, the day the Christmas shopping season officially begins, and one on which I usually observe the buy-nothing rule. This year, for once, I did venture out, with Andrew for support against the feared onslaught of Black Friday shoppers; but it was all very low-key (though admittedly we didn’t stake out a spot in line at midnight or darken the doors of any big-box stores), and I surprised myself by not only not hating it, but actually beginning to feel downright cheery.

We made a beeline for our favorite thrift store, the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, all done up for Christmas. I browsed at a leisurely pace, picking up a hundred things, putting down 95 of them, and coming home with a handful of treasures—nothing especially valuable, but little things that made me smile, like a soap dish for the olive-and-argan-oil soap that our old friend Tamara brought us back from Crete. The place was crackling with Christmas cheer, with a retinue of volunteers carrying in large, colorful gift boxes reminiscent of scenes from A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s transformation.

We kicked it up a notch and went into the discount store, T.J. Maxx. Andrew was tasked with checking out their supply of Christmas crackers, but we rejected them all in the end because of the miserable quality of their prizes; still, we did find one thing we needed there, and emerged unscathed into the bargain.

Trader Joe’s was our last port of call—just for food, nothing more. It wasn’t particularly crowded but there too the atmosphere was electric, with everyone wreathed in smiles, scents of fir, rosemary, and pine, piping hot coffee on the go, and the shelves groaning with spiced cider, specialty cheeses, and boxes upon boxes of chocolates and pannetone. Despite my innate Grinchiness, I was moved. Not to buy anything, you understand; that would have been an unrealistic transformation. But I came home with a spring in my step, put the soap in the new dish and washed Mum’s new baby-blue flannel sheets with snowmen on them.

Come to think of it, the season had actually begun in earnest the previous week with my favorite church bazaar, always the weekend before Thanksgiving, where in the past I have been known to find most of my Christmas presents (which pleases me, but not necessarily my hapless victims). This year I picked up only a few little bits and bobs (as my Auntie Angy would say), but the big find was at the jams, jellies and pickles table, where I bought a small jar of shimmering violet jelly and a larger one of pear mincemeat with nuts and rum from a courtly old gentleman who told me that the violets were from his garden and advised me on how to make the mince tarts. He had just sold his last jar of Madras eggplant pickle or I would surely have borne that home as well.

Now it’s nose to the grindstone until classes are over and final grades are in. But now I am committed to washing my face and making mince tarts with custard. You’ll be seeing no transformation (to quote Fagin) but I can think I can report with some confidence that the plans for stealing Christmas are officially off. It’s beginning to look a little less Grinchy.

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391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kolhapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.


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387. Not So Posh

In 1970s, Food, Stories, United States, Work on August 6, 2016 at 10:46 am


In the late 1970s, when Andrew and I lived in New Mexico, I worked as a waitress at an establishment by the name of The Posh Bagel. In those days bagels were still a specialty of New York, not yet a national food (no national chains like Bruegger’s, no breakfast “bagels” at Dunkin Donuts) and so they were a novelty in the Southwest. Not satisfied with plain old cream cheese or even with the magisterial cream cheese and lox, The Posh Bagel dressed up its bagels with all sorts of other non-traditional fillings, like roast beef. It further embellished its menu with ultra-cheesy attempts at humor. Nearly 40 years on, I still remember that the roast- beef bagel was called “Rubber Buggy Baby Bumper” and a dessert fruit bowl was called “Can’t Elope (O Honey, Do).” The bagels were okay, nothing to write home about but they were fresh and, in any case, the Posh held a virtual monopoly on them in Albuquerque. My co-workers were friendly, as were most of the customers (except for the West Texans, who were notorious for not tipping) so the job would have been fine, if it hadn’t been for the manager-proprietor, my boss.

Thankfully I have long forgotten his name, but I remember him as a weaselly man, always trying to sniff out employee graft. He didn’t seem to realize that disgruntled employees are much more likely to steal, especially if they work in a restaurant that doesn’t give them free food. Every time I worked the morning shifts, which ended at lunch-time, the cook would make me up a lightly-toasted sesame-seed bagel, loaded generously with cream cheese, thickly-sliced tomato, and red onions (I can’t recall whether or not it contained lox, and if I did, I’d probably plead the fifth) and slip it to me surreptitiously on my way out. I don’t think I’ve never enjoyed a bagel so much; my mouth waters just thinking of it. If the boss had allowed his employees a free bagel after every full shift, I might not have enjoyed it quite so much; and I certainly wouldn’t have taken such pleasure in conspiring with the cook.

My manager wasn’t just a miser; he was a lecher as well. At the time I was passionately involved with an anti-nuclear group called Citizens Against Nuclear Threats (with the rather unfortunate acronym CANT), which was working with a statewide coalition to oppose the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a high-level nuclear waste repository (dump) planned for Southern New Mexico, right near the Carlsbad Caverns. So one day my boss, finding me alone, actually offered to give me a donation for the cause. But of course there was a catch: I had to give him a kiss. If you’re saying “Ewww”, that’s the sort of person he was.

Another mark of his character was his anxiety to present a posh exterior coupled with a disregard for basic principles of health or hygiene. One day, needing to find busywork for me, he asked me to fill the half-empty tomato-ketchup bottles on all the tables. When I demurred—surely it wasn’t good practice to pour fresh ketchup on top of old—he ordered me to do what I had was told. So I did. Later that day—I must have been working the afternoon shift—I heard a loud report, as if a gun had been fired; and, in short order, another. Then a wail from a hapless customer: it was the ketchup bottles exploding! Hah!


I must confess that I took a malicious delight in my manager’s consternation. The jumped-up Posh Bagel, and its equally puffed-up proprietor, didn’t look so posh that day.

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384. Auntie Bette’s Litmus Test

In 1980s, Britain, Family, Food, people, Stories, travel, United States on June 28, 2016 at 9:35 pm


My Auntie Bette has always had impossibly high standards and we were anxious not to disappoint her. In the summer of 1984, older then than I am now, she stepped off the plane at Logan Airport looking regal in a powder-blue jumpsuit, as ravishing as if she had just stepped out of a beauty salon, rather than having survived the ravages of a seven-hour transatlantic flight. England, of course, was the pinnacle of perfection and in her eyes, the U.S. would always be playing catch-up. For years she sent us massive care packages at Christmas, telling the neighbors, sweet-shop man, and post-office clerk that it was “for my poor sister out there in America who can’t get a good Christmas pudding for love nor money.”

So when we took her to New York City we wanted to show her something really impressive. But was there anything there that could match London? She didn’t think so. FAO Schwartz wasn’t bad, she conceded; the Statue of Liberty: well, all right if you liked that sort of thing; bagels, meh. We’d heard of this building that had just opened a few months before and which we hoped would be just Auntie Bette’s cup of tea: unashamedly luxurious, in-your-face-opulent, totally over the top. It was named Trump Tower, after some wealthy toff who had developed it, no shrinking violet himself, by all accounts.

Atrium, Trump Tower

Atrium, Trump Tower

The building’s massive foyer—the Atrium, they called it—was dazzling with gold glinting and reflecting off every surface. The walls, the ceilings, even the escalators were gold. Auntie Bette didn’t think so. Gilt, she was sure, and showy; she remained singularly unimpressed. We checked out the restaurant, but no dice: the menu was ordinary and overpriced, and you couldn’t get a good cup of tea. Suddenly Auntie Bette said, “What about the loos? Are the seats made of gold? Now that would be something.”

There ensued a half-hour search—upstairs, downstairs, and in my lady’s chamber—but most of the building consisted of a hotel and high-end retail stores, and we couldn’t find a public toilet anywhere. Finally, deep in the bowels of the building, in some lower basement, we found it. There was a line of expensively-dressed ladies waiting outside in the corridor for a few miserable stalls to be vacated. We joined them, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other until it was our turn. What a disappointment! They were just ordinary toilets; no gold seats or gold faucets, in fact, not a glimmer of gold anywhere in sight, except on the ladies’ fingers. “I thought so,” said Auntie Bette; “All show and no substance.”  Or words to that effect: maybe she said, “Flash waistcoat and dirty knickers.” You can always judge a place by its lavatories, says my Auntie Bette, and I fully concur.

photo by Joseph Burke (

photo by Joseph Burke (

Thankfully, America did redeem itself that day. On the drive home we broke our journey at the legendary Secondi Brothers truck stop where Andrew’s brother Dan always had breakfast on his weekly food co-op truck run to New York. (Sadly, the restaurant is no more, only a gas station and convenience store.) This was a place guaranteed to fill the stomach of the heftiest trucker, but Auntie Bette is a good trencherwoman and more than a match for anyone. And breakfast is her favorite meal.

She asked for a fried-egg sandwich, with home fries on the side. If I recall, she gave the amused waiter detailed instructions about how she  liked her eggs and how many pieces of toast she wanted. At least, he started out amused; by the time he had finished taking the order he was quaking in his boots. It was going to be hard to satisfy this customer.

But Secondi’s delivered. When the massive platter arrived, steaming hot, with the food threatening to fall off its edges, even Auntie Bette was suitably impressed. There was silence all round for a few minutes, as she did justice to the order and we all looked on, amazed. Her only remark, halfway through, was, “three eggs!” And at the end, she went up to the front personally to thank the cook. “Now, they know how to do breakfast,” she pronounced, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Secondi Brothers had her seal of approval.

Trump Towers, however, failed to pass Auntie Bette’s litmus test. And I suspect the man behind the (gilt) curtain would do the same.

(from the guardian.com_

(from the


Note: Word must have gotten out that the TT toilets had failed to pass muster because, in search of images to illustrate this story, I found a 2012 article listing the locations of the top ten public bathrooms in New York City, guaranteed to “make you feel like royalty.”  Whaddya know? Listed at number seven was Trump Towers at Columbus Circle.

(not at Trump Towers)


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369. the Outdoors

In blogs and blogging, Britain, clothing, Family, Food, health, Nature, parenting, Stories on April 18, 2016 at 7:53 pm

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  Theme: Bringing Me Joy



OWhen I was in secondary school in England, age 14-15, the prefects, older students with positions of authority, enforced the rule that we had to spend recess out of doors, in fair weather or foul. They would patrol the hallways, especially in the winters, rooting out any poor soul who might be huddling in a corner, hoping to avoid being thrust out into the cold and wet. I remember ducking into the girls’ lavatories with a friend of mine and hiding in the cubicles, only to hear the prefects’ footsteps loom louder and louder, until finally, they heaved open the door. In a trice we climbed up onto the toilet seats and squatted there, so that our feet could not be seen when they peered under the doors. Fortunately we were lucky, that time, and gloated at our victory over the fresh-air police.

But we were in grey school uniforms (

But in 1968 we were in grey school uniforms (

1024px-Traditional.Sunday.Roast-01We weren’t getting off so easily. During that year, my mother, sister, and I were living with our Uncle Ted and our two cousins, Jacky and Carol, while waiting for the arrival of our green cards so that we could emigrate to the States with our father, who was still in India. Uncle Ted, it turned out, was a fresh-air fiend, one of those parents who believed that children should spend as much time as possible in the Great Outdoors. So when, on the weekend, just as we were leaning back lazily, loosening our belts after a massive English Sunday roast with all the trimmings, Uncle Ted would invariably say, in hearty tones, “Who’s for a brisk country walk?” we would all groan, because we knew that it was a rhetorical question—we had no choice. We would turn appealingly to my mother, who wouldn’t let us off the hook, but sweetened the deal with the promise of tea and cakes when we returned; and so there was nothing for it but to put on our heaviest boots and plunge into the country lanes and byways with Uncle Ted.

It was always an adventure. Our sulks would be forgotten before we’d rounded the first bend and one of us had spotted our first artefact for the shelf back at home. We argued and speculated about everything we found, and eventually determined it to be an ancient Roman arrowhead, a nail from a hob-nailed boot, the tiny skull of a shrew, or an as-yet-undiscovered species of fern or fungus. We bore them proudly back home, covered in mud, like the rest of our persons, to be displayed on the special shelf, duly washed and labeled. And then we had tea and cakes.

Britain is famous for its footpaths, and one can still ramble the length and breadth of the island on both short-and long-distance national trails. Much as I detest the self-important officiousness of school prefects, and root for the rebels who refuse to catch their deaths out in the rain simply because it’s supposed to be good for the character, I can’t help but applaud the parents who instill a love of the outdoors in their children.

I just read a sad story in a British newspaper, reporting that some middle-class parents are refusing to let their children ramble around the countryside because they (the parents) can no longer read maps and, besides, their offspring might come home covered in mud.

Long live map-reading, and muddy boots, and the glorious Outdoors!

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366. Lemons and Limes

In blogs and blogging, Food, India, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 15, 2016 at 9:48 am
my Meyer lemon

my Meyer lemon

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LComing home from work late, tired and hungry, I opened the fridge to see what I could see. Two slices of leftover eggplant pizza—not bad. But pizza, at this time of night? Then my eyes alighted upon a little tub of cut-up lemon wedges and I perked right up. Forget pizza—this was just what the doctor ordered.

I always keep a bag of organic lemons or limes in the fridge. Just knowing they’re there makes me happy. On a swelteringly hot day, a tall glass of nimbu-pani, just water with lemon juice squeezed into it, is the best thirst-quencher there is. We squeeze lemon juice on everything, though: on fish, of course, and on salad, a simple dressing of lemon juice and olive oil beats just about any other.

When I came to the United States I couldn’t understand why lemons seemed to have such a bad rap. When a newly-bought car is defective, it’s called a lemon; when life gives you lemons, I was instructed, make lemonade. Well of course, I thought; until I understood that it meant one should make the best of a bad situation.

It is understood, in the U.S., that the lemonade one makes from life’s lemons must be sweet; sickly-sweet, in my book. Somehow, among Indians, who certainly can’t be accused of not having a sweet tooth, there is a greater fondness for savory, sour and bitter-tasting foods. This seems to be particularly the case for women, and even more so for pre-teen girls, who crave green mango sprinkled with chili, salt, and lime juice.

The lemons in the fridge at the moment are delicious Meyer lemons—my dear mother-in-law Anna’s favorite. Back when they lived in San Diego, one of her friends had a Meyer lemon tree whose fruit just ripened and fell to the ground unused. Anna couldn’t bear to see that, of course, so she asked her friend if she could pick them. One day we received a large parcel from California. In it were dates, figs, and a big bag of Meyer lemons; what a treat!

Standing in the kitchen I ate the lemon right down to the skin. Remembering how, as kids, we used to make orange-wedge smiles, I noticed that at ten in the evening, after a long workday, there was a broad grin on my face. Lemons and limes bring me joy.


By the way, I did go right on to eat the leftover pizza as well.

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362. Henion’s

In blogs and blogging, Food, places, Stories, United States, writing on April 9, 2016 at 9:09 pm


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HThe Henion Bakery has been in business in our little town for 22 years ago now. I can’t imagine that they need to advertise because if you have been there once, you talk about it to everyone you know. My cousins were visiting from India last year and I thought I had shown them all the local sights, until they asked whether we could pay a visit to Henion’s, since the last family visitors had returned home raving about it. Of course we did, and no one was disappointed.

Henion’s opened just as I was in the final crunch of writing my doctoral dissertation. Not that I was even close to done, but time was running out for me to get it done. During those sleepless nights and stressful days, Henion’s saw me through. When I told co-proprietor David Henion—Barbara Kline is his partner—that his jam doughnuts were the bright spot in my life, he looked quite alarmed at my vehemence, as if he wasn’t sure whether he should be worrying about my state of mind. But I was quite serious, and if I was overwrought, then I had an antidote. Stopping in at Henion’s for a hot cup of tea and a jam doughnut fresh out of the oven made time stand still and all my work and worries melt away.

doughnut+I have mentioned before (TMA #41, Eating for Four) that you must put Dunkin Donuts right out of your mind when you try to imagine a doughnut from the Henion Bakery. This is the real thing. It is doughy rather than spongy, giving you something substantial to sink your teeth into, filled with fresh raspberry jam, and rolled in crumbly sugar.

But Henion’s is by no means just a doughnut shop. The pastries are to die for, and besides the regulars and favorites, they vary by season. They make rugelach and babka, poppy seed slices and Russian tea loaf, sticky rolls and Danish, croissants and brioche. There are fruit tarts with custard, lemon squares, delicate heart-shaped confections for Valentine’s Day and Hot Cross Buns that I order in bulk for Good Friday (see TMA #182). At Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, every kind of pie can be ordered, including mince and pecan pies. My focus on the doughnuts tends to make me forget their cakes, each one a work of art.


And the bread! It’s a bakery, of course, and carries everything under the sun, plus Challah on Friday. For a time I had a standing order for a weekly loaf of Anadama bread which, if I went in early enough to pick up, would still be warm. There’s tea and coffee, David’s pottery for sale on the shelves, exhibits by local artists on the walls, and half a dozen small tables with the daily papers out on them. There’s an ancient bread-slicing machine that makes a godawful racket, but it is all part of the charm of this happening place where it seems that everyone in town, including the mailman, stops in regularly for an extended chat.

When Andrew and I went into Henion’s today, they washed one of David’s tiles for me to display their doughnut on.


The Henion Bakery brings me joy.

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357. Chillies and China

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on April 5, 2016 at 12:23 am


Blogging from A to Z  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

China: I don’t know much about china, not the kind of things collectors know, but I love coming upon beautiful pieces in church bazaars, yard sales, and thrift shops. They must be  inexpensive, in excellent condition, and, with rare exceptions (I know it’s nationalist—what to do?), made in England. Being fine bone china is an added bonus but not at all essential. I don’t collect sets or anything like that; most of what I have is one of a kind. Bringing out my favorite china cups and plates for  afternoon tea with my friends never fails to make me happy.

chillies and china

Chillies: Just looking at fresh green chillies buoys my spirits; holding them in my hands produces an ear-to-ear grin; eating them sends tears—of joy, mind you—streaming down my cheeks. I can’t get enough of them. Memories: going alone into a Bangladeshi restaurant in Brick Lane, London. Must have been the 1980s. A tumbler of cold water on each table along with a bowl of green chillies. Macho me, woman on my own, needing to prove I knew the ropes, chomped manfully into the chillies while waiting for my lunch order and tried to pretend that I didn’t need more water. Hah! More memories: going shopping in the market in Delhi, in what must have been the early 1990s. Economic liberalization hadn’t quite taken hold yet, and neither had plastic bags. When the man had filled your cloth shopping bag with vegetables, he threw in a bunch of dhaniya-patta, fresh coriander leaves, and a handful of green chillies for good measure. And in the present: when burning the midnight oil, buttered toast and Marmite with my tea is pretty sweet, but add a slice of tomato or cucumber and a few pieces of chopped green chilli and I am good to go for another couple of hours. Chillies bring me joy. I couldn’t imagine my life without them.

[For more china, see TMA #273, Everyday Use; and chillies, TMA #294, Without Whom]

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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.

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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)

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