My mother would ask me this question on Sundays. I must have been thirteen then; still a child who loved to be treated as special, almost an adult who wanted to make big decisions. The line was plagiarized from a TV ad for a popular brand of oil but I loved repeating the routine with her, one that ended with both of us smiling. She would then proceed to prepare my favorite food. The heat of a kitchen in Mumbai in the month of May dissolved against the sweet juice of the alphonso mangoes that were in season. I would peel off my wet school uniform on rainy monsoon afternoons and bite into fried onion pakodas. I learnt to make dosas and fry pooris in my mother’s kitchen. I would munch on nuts from the countertop as I told her stories of my day. Sometimes I would chop tomatoes or roll out the rotis for her. She would wipe the sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari. I would hug her regardless of the humidity that discouraged human contact.
What is it about food that stirs up so many feelings? Not just memories.
Is it the fact that eating is one activity in which we use all our senses? As I pick up each morsel, it carries with it not just the flavor which the tongue seeks but the sight that makes it irresistible, the sounds in the kitchen when its prepared, the aroma of spices that hover in the air and the texture of the food as it moves in my mouth. Each of these sensory experiences contributes to the overall joy of eating. Later, each sense brings forth its recollection, hidden deep in its archives as individual entries. Each sense holds a piece of the puzzle that when recalled together creates an entire memory, like a rerun from an old TV show that takes you back in time many years later.
I was a troublesome little kid when it came to food. Not eating much, always in search of the perfect bite. My dad used to say I ate air, referring to my tiny appetite. I liked to eat, but I wanted every bite to be perfect. No half-cooked, unevenly salted, unappetizing looking food for me, thank you very much. Almost as snooty as a food critic, I would take second helpings only if there was perfection (perfect for my palate of course). I ate my vegetables but I craved sweets. I was game to try new stuff but took refuge in comfort foods. I showed no interest in learning how to cook although I was a competent sous chef. “She will learn cooking when she needs to. She will learn quickly like she learns other things. Its not rocket science” said Mom, when others asked her if I had been trained in the kitchen arts.
I didn’t really like to cook, even when I had to. I chose to make simple stuff that was quick to whip up. I prided myself on my ability to put together a balanced Indian dinner made from scratch in 45 minutes. Until DQ came along.
She didn’t like milk (to this day), ate only fruit and lingered for hours (at least seemed like it) over every meal till she turned eight. Friends suggested I feed her food that kids liked, pizza and fries, pasta and burgers. But even that was not enough incentive for her to eat at a reasonable pace. I chose to stick to offering her healthy vegetarian food but in my quest to make it more attractive, I started doing the unthinkable. Looking up recipes!
I learnt to make quesadillas with broccoli, bruschetta and veggie wraps. In an effort to expand her palate, I broadened my culinary abilities. And over a period of time, DQ became more open to eating regular food and has turned into what I call a “food purist”. She enjoys every bite, appreciates what is cooked and occasionally shows an interest in how it is made. She continues to be the one to finish last at any meal earning her the nickname “Tuas” – short for two hours, the average time spent on a meal.
I think I breathed a sigh of relief too soon because now I have Princess, who thinks vegetables are an unnecessary evil and has vowed to stay way from them unless it is a matter of life and death. So my quest has started anew. This time armed with the limitless wisdom of Google, I am once again on a search for new and exciting ways to camouflage essential food groups into interesting creations. We make bean burritos, corn and cheese sandwiches, paneer parathas, and creamy mushroom pasta. I ensure there is an endless supply of fresh lemonade and banana nut muffins. Every meal has to sound exciting and please the picky eater as well. Progress is slow and changing eating patterns takes time. I know. It has taken me four decades to be classified as “not fussy” when it comes to food.
It bothers me sometimes, this focus on food. We don’t live to eat. We eat so we can nourish our bodies. We need a healthy body to progress in life, literally and otherwise. Making it the highlight of my day feels like I am settling for less. I should be doing more, or at the very least, doing something else, growing my brain in so many directions. Planning and cooking a meal seems almost too trivial.
We have friends coming for dinner. Princess wants to know what I am planning to make. She enthusiastically beats the eggs, sugar and butter. DQ offers to help frost the carrot cupcakes. They linger in the hot kitchen, adding to the noise and mess. DQ wants to use the pretty tablemats. Princess takes the plates and glasses to set the table. They take pride in their creation, eat enthusiastically and share stories at the dinner table. I observe my family and have my epiphany.
I am not preparing a meal. I am creating memories.