A little video about the festival of Vishu, what culture means to me, and how traditions have taken birth, shone for a bit, then faded away.
“The soil in Middle Georgia is so fertile, they say that if you stand at a spot for more than 5 minutes, your twin will sprout up next to you!”
That hilarious quote can be attributed to GA-based landscape designer and artist, James Farmer. I attended his presentation ‘Farmer to Table’ at the Decorators’ Show House and Gardens last week. Farmer grew up on a farm in small-town Georgia, moved to Auburn for college. In his presentation, he recalled his college roommates who ate out daily. Farmer couldn’t see how anyone could derive any pleasure out of eating out every day. One day, he began cooking a traditional Southern meal in their shared apartment – fried chicken, cornbread et al. His roommates were blown by the mouthwatering smells emanating from their tiny kitchen. One of them called his mother, and within minutes, Farmer was on the phone with her… explaining his special recipe, sharing his tips and tricks, answering her questions.
Gardening, cooking, decorating and entertaining are interconnected with each other, as Farmer explained. The notion of ‘farm-to-table’ may be a new one in the foodie circles of today, but in most traditional cultures, it was simply the way to be. Grow fruits and vegetables, pick them when ripe, cook with them, preserve them for future use.
My family hails from Kerala, the southernmost state in India. Lush and verdant, Kerala is a paradise of gently swaying coconut palms, acres and acres of green paddy fields, flowing streams, orchards bursting with mango and jackfruit trees, tea plantations, peppercorn groves, majestic temples and golden sunshine. Although I grew up in Mumbai, there is a special corner in my heart reserved for Kerala. I often remark, “You can take the girl outta Kerala, you cannot take Kerala outta her!”
In summer, the fruit trees are in full bloom, showering their bountiful produce in such generous quantities that one simply cannot keep up. You eat as much as you can until there comes a point when you have to give up. There is such a thing as too many mangoes, as I realized sadly one hot summer. Then begins the process of making pickles and preserves, as a means to use up the excess fruit. Bananas are chopped into rounds/slices and fried in coconut oil into crispy golden banana chips. So also with jackfruit, plantains, tapioca and more. The fragrance of coconut oil perfumes the entire home and its environs… Mmm. Ripe jackfruit and mangoes are also made into preserves, cooked with ghee and sweetened with jaggery.
Every region has (or used to have) its methods to store produce and use it over the entire year. These are tried and tested techniques, completely indigenous to the region’s climate, growing conditions and crops. Unfortunately, even in cultures as ancient as India, these methods are dying, as people develop a fancy for unseasonal fruit and vegetables. Think exorbitantly priced apples from Australia, mealy and limp, or tasteless kiwi fruit from New Zealand… Sigh. Hopefully, things will come back full circle and folks will go back to the traditional techniques of food storage and preservation.
Farmer spoke about how important it was for young people to hear the message from someone like himself, someone they could identify with, someone from the same generation who spoke the same language. The younger generation world over is concerned with appearing hip and modern. That pursuit need not be divorced from age-old practices linked with food and consumption, as one learns from Farmer’s presentation.
A few days back, I discovered brown basmati rice grains hanging off the side of the container suspended by long threads. And then I discovered a worm too. Needless to say, I was annoyed, disgusted… a bunch of non-pretty emotions. I transferred the rice to another container and thought that the problem (and the worm) would be gone. I think it disappeared… but then came back another day.
So I did what I should have done the first time the worm entered my life – I called Mummy.
At my home (and my husband’s home and probably the homes of many friends), it was common practice to buy grains and flours in bulk early in the year. Mom would get thirty-odd kilograms of rice, dals, wheat flour, etc. Clean the whole lot, store it. Plastic was uncommon, we used steel or aluminum containers. A couple for the rice, one for the wheat flour, a couple for toor dal, and so on. Mom also bought spices in bulk… Turmeric, red chilli, garam masala. I remember her sitting on the kitchen floor, the rice spread out in huge steel platters all around her. She would warm castor oil in a little iron ‘karandi,’ pour it into the mounds of rice, mix it up, fill the steel containers. Occasionally, she would throw in pieces of paper too. They worked well to absorb moisture. I am positive that my mother-in-law followed similar tactics.
As a housewife in Mumbai, you have to be smart, resourceful, efficient, skilful. You need to have superb time management skills. You need to know the exact time it takes for you to make twenty-five chapatis so that you can have them ready (along with dal, vegetables, etc.), get dressed, and leave home in time to make it for the 8:13 train. You need to know how to haggle with vegetable vendors, where to get the best greens from, how to determine if the milkman has been adding a little too much water to the milk, how to keep your maidservant happy, if a saree and a shirt are too much/too little to give as Diwali ‘bakshish,’ how much money to give the postman during the holidays, how to use leftover rice efficiently… A whole lot of tricks, small and big.
Managing a kitchen, given a tight budget and limited resources, is a precious skill, and one that my mother, mother-in-law and countless Indian women living in big cities learned and practised. Tips from neighbors, experience of elders, wisdom from colleagues and cousins… a gigantic social network mechanism ran efficiently. I always wonder if Facebook can even begin to think about replicating something of this kind. I doubt it.
So I cleaned brown basmati rice this week. Sieved the whole lot to get rid of dust and stones, moved it into a huge aluminum pan, warmed castor oil, poured it into the rice, mixed it all up, then moved it into another clear plastic container. The whole enterprise took about an hour.
At one point, I suddenly felt like I was back in my old kitchen (I refuse to call it ‘my mother’s kitchen’ – it is/was my home and my first kitchen, although I never cooked in there!). Potatoes in the corner, the little altar with the clay Krishna smiling sweetly, a sink full of dirty dishes, food simmering on the gas, All India Radio doing its thing in the background, Mummy working efficiently. Geetu and I would be curled up in our respective chairs, reading. Dad would be humming softly, reading the newspaper, muttering under his breath (he’s always working on a mathematical problem!).
Home is a place we always wish to go back to, not knowing that we carry it within our hearts, in our breath, behind our eyelids, always.