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California dreaming: A life of memories, many of food

Inventing a dish is a lifelong memory, re-lived, recreated, rewritten, each time it is cooked.

, ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Updated: Oct 04, 2019, 02.32 PM IST
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So much of the business of being a human is about memories, so many of which are around food. (Representative image)
Videos of kyushoku, the legendary Japanese school lunch, has inspired my seven-year-old to drag a chair from the dining table to the kitchen, stand upon it and get to work. He measures, washes and cooks rice with the organic green beans we got from the farmers’ market outside our house on Saturday. And the organic green peas from our year-round freezer garden. Separately, he cooks an omelette with turmeric like I’ve taught him to. He knows that food is medicine, healing us from within. Soon enough, he has cooked a deconstructed fried rice dinner, friendly enough for the world’s most reluctant vegan, his mother, his egg-avoiding father and his egg-obsessed self. In spite of trying to contain it, a proud smile of accomplishment bursts through his milk teeth, one of which, Mr. Wiggles, is dancing. He demolishes his dinner at record speed, careful not to swallow his wiggly tooth like his friend did.

I watch him, making a memory of him making a new food memory. As parents we become record keepers of moments. So much of the business of being a human is about memories, so many of which are around food. Isn’t this what the love of all food is? The essence of comfort food? That we hope will give us each time what it gifted us the very first time we ate it. A mother’s love. The royalty of being a grandchild. Accomplishment. Safety. Love.

​The author's seven-year-old​ enjoying a meal.
The author's seven-year-old enjoying a meal.

As the cooking parents this year at our son’s parent-participation school, my husband and I are interviewing children about their favourite foods, hoping to cook something which magically meets consensus and allergy and dietary restrictions. And create happy memories they can remember as grownups. Writing about my own childhood and being around children has made me conscious about children’s memories.

Catherine (author of 'American Family') from my writing group whose children attended this school decades ago shares that her grownup children say how it was among their best times. The responsibility is subtle but strong. Inventing a dish is a lifelong memory, re-lived, recreated, rewritten, each time it is cooked. But even more so for children whose lives are an infinite series of firsts. It is a joy and a privilege to be a part of this. My friend Amrita calls to thank me for the mango ice-cream I have especially made for her and her family at her mother-in-law’s request. My solitary secret recipe, which I last made when I was not a mother, a favourite of our friends here from when we were young.

For several years, Amrita has also asked me to make tiramisu. I used to lovingly shop at four separate places for the ingredients, fussing over the marsala, the mascarpone, the eggs, knowing they’d determine the zabaglione’s destiny. But in these four years of veganism, I’ve forgotten the skills I had once worked so hard to master. I can no longer whip up egg whites to perfection at the speed of light to create perfect pavlovas, meringues and tiramisu, faster than it takes to cook a basic daal. I’ll have to relearn what I had once achieved a complete mastery of, impose new memories upon old ones.

rituparna-california-dreaming
Rituparna Chatterjee is a San Francisco-based writer, journalist, vegan cook and energy healer.

But there is a comfort in this emptiness, devoid of identity. An important life skill for immigrants. We have to shed layer after layer of places, things, people, cultures we have built our identities around. When we visit the memories that kept us alive, making living in multiple worlds, the intertwined businesses of belonging, unbelonging and isolation bearable, we realise they are no longer there. Bombay turns into Mumbai. The chili chicken of childhood made by my late stepmother — like her and like my love for animal protein — has become a ghost. We realise they never were there of their own accord. That it is us painting them with emotions which made these names, places, animals, things, special. Making peace with layers upon layers of things that don’t exist, that only existed because you created them, that finally were defeated like all things by time. Growing old means realising that we are our memories. And so, in some sense, we are all refugees of time, surviving, living with, living against and living in spite of time.

The chair returns to the round dining table holding our dinner. I sprinkle a special podi made by Nirmala Aunty, my friend Vijaya’s mother. During an impromptu lunch, this magical powder had transformed a humble lunch of steaming rice and beetroot subzi into an unforgettable meal. A new food memory. At my son’s birthday party a few weeks ago, Vijaya gifted me a salsa jar recycled specifically to hold this new food memory. I look at my beaming second-grader, unaware of the buffet of memories in front of him — some same and shared, some different and private. Very soon, we will recreate them in ways we don’t know now. Like all memories, they’ll help us live through and live with what the decades ahead hold for us.

*The author is a San Francisco-based writer, journalist, vegan cook, energy healer and a former foreign correspondent with The Economic Times. Her books include ‘Nawazuddin Siddiqui: An Ordinary Life’ and ‘The Water Phoenix’ (upcoming for Bloomsbury). She can be reached on Twitter @ReadRituparna.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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