Every night before bed time I have this negotiation with my daughter about what will be in her lunch box the next day!
“Paneer”? She asks
“No peas or palak at home” I retort
“ What about Shahi paneer” she suggests.
“No” I reply playing the tough mom.
“ How about chapatti and curry” I offer when I see that sulky look on her face.
“ Phulka and aloo dum” I say and close the negotiation for the day!!!
I remember my days at school. We just took whatever was packed. In case we brought it back uneaten we would be made to eat it when we got back home! So we gulped down whatever was inside ( if friends did not want to eat it) until I decided one day to throw my curd rice into the dustbin. But the fool that I was, I forgot to remove the spoon from the box. In the inquiry conducted by Amma on how a stainless steel spoon was missing from my box, it soon became apparent that the lunch was thrown out. I was given such a lecture about the sin of wasting food that I thought it might be better to force myself to somehow eat it.
But that was more than three decades ago.. Times today are obviously different.
The husband tries to be very nice whenever I ask him about lunch options- “ Oh whatever you can ..”
But I can never forgive him for telling me once that the reason he always eats alone at lunchtime in the office is because “ there is no telling how something that you have given me for lunch might taste. I don’t want to lose the few friends I have in the office by sharing my lunch with them” !
Now, I have never made tall claims about being a great cook like my mother. I was never given a formal training in cooking. I learnt how to cook by trial and error. I guess the number of “errors” have been a bit too many. But I do try.
One of my major problems in the kitchen is the inability to follow a set recipe. I just cannot follow all the steps in a recipe. I try to improvise, “innovate” and sometimes in the process land up with results that can be bizarre ( to put it mildly). My major objective is to complete the cooking as quickly as possible – the reason why short cuts seem so appealing! I am also always multi tasking- running between the sink and the stove, often paying more attention to conserving water rather than attending to the saucepan on the burner..!!
One of the few things that I have learnt from the cookery shows on TV is to serve out the food attractively. My kitchen has some brightly colored serving dishes to make up for the lack of culinary skills. But can the eye deceive the tongue? I think it can.. that is if the tongue is only used to a certain standard of food!
Let me explain this with an example. I was making “semiya upma” ( a vermicelli dish) for breakfast. Rushing around the kitchen in my usual way, I stretched out my hand and took from the shelf what I thought was semiya. However it was “ Haldiram’s Bhujia” that I actually took out and poured into the boiling water! I tried to fish it out before too much damage was done. But I found that it was disintegrating and coagulating into a sticky mass!! I did the next best thing I could. I garnished it with coriander leaves, put it into a lovely red Tupperware box and packed it with chapathi for the husband. I don’t think he would have noticed, had I not developed guilt pangs by lunch time and called him to ask if he had had his lunch. I guess this uncharacteristic behavior of mine – calling him to check if he had had his lunch was what gave me away!
While he makes a lot of jokes about my culinary expertise ( or lack of it ) I must say that my husband always finishes whatever is on his plate or in his lunch box. The reason I think is because his mother who was also a working woman was not a very great cook either . He often tells me about how they ( he and his siblings) always had a cook and in the absence of the cook they had to eat what their mother cooked. I am regaled with stories about how chutneys would be “flavored” with burnt match sticks and how some poor soul would get that ladle of sambar which would have a big piece of asafetida that had stubbornly refused to cook! Ofcourse, post her death I think the family feels guilty making jokes about her cooking. So the stories I now hear are about how “Mummy would make that effort to cook even though she was so busy” !!! Seems like there is hope for bad cooks once we are gone from the world.
Opening my daughter’s lunch box in the evening is like opening her report card. One never knows what to expect! At times it is licked clean while at other times it is filled with bits and pieces of what was packed. On days when it is clean I sometimes ask her if she liked what I had packed. “ Don’t know. The boys ate it” she says. I now have a fairly good idea about which boy or girl in her class eats what I have packed.
On the days when I travel the kitchen is managed by both the father and daughter. I think they enjoy it for the first few meals but soon realize that cooking is also about cleaning. They do not say it in so many words but I suspect they are glad when I am back. And judging by the increase in the number of take away boxes washed and stored away I realize that they had probably started ordering food for the last couple of meals!
I don’t know why people assume that we women would be instinctively good cooks. Every other ad has this lovely looking mother cooking delicious dishes. I remember telling my daughter once in a fit of anger about how I was not “raised to make sambar and rasam”. Yet, I have taken on the role of cooking for my family. I did try cooks but I realize supervising a cook is more nerve racking than doing it yourself. Besides, most cooks in India are not very particular about hygiene standards. But I think another reason why I do not like to employ a cook is that I treat the kitchen as ‘my space”. I get quite threatened whenever anyone else tries to cook here. Every time I get back after travelling I have to spend about an hour putting vessels and things in the kitchen back to where I think they belong.
I have often wondered why I feel so possessive about my kitchen? I think instead of learning to cook, it is this behavior that I have learnt from my mother, who to this day does not allow any one of us to cook in her kitchen ( it is so clean and shining it looks like an operating theatre on a space ship) ! I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that once upon a time the kitchen was the only sphere where a woman wielded power. The senior women ( like mother in law , senior sisters in law) showed the younger ones their place within this sphere. They had to do the more menial tasks like chopping vegetables, cleaning vessels, grinding the spices etc. I remember my maternal grandmother telling me once that until the day her mother in law ( that is my great grandmother) died she could not really take any decisions around the kitchen. Even when my great grandmother became too old to move around in the kitchen my grandmother had to seek her opinion about the menu for the day and come by once in a while to get her views on whether something was smelling right or cooked enough.
None of this is relevant now. But we continue to replicate this behavior. I suppose, it takes a few generations to unlearn such things. I think it is slower in more conservative cities like Chennai where fewer people employ cooks. Since there is less demand, the number of good cooks are also lesser.
But let me tell you this, the way to a man’s heart is NOT through his stomach ( and I can vouch for that). It is usually through his brain. And about children, I think the sooner we teach them to cook what they want or like to eat, the better it would be for them to move towards being self reliant.
So ladies, the next time someone forgets to tell you that you are a great cook, tell them that if they want to eat good cooking they should learn it. This is about as much as you can do as a wife or a mother! The sooner they accept it the better it would be.