—a Hindu of the highest caste traditionally assigned to the priesthood
—a person of high social standing and cultivated intellect and taste;
—(in the US) a highly intelligent or socially exclusive person, esp. a member of one of the older New England families
In my youth, I felt that my mother’s theory on kitchen karma simply did not apply within the ramparts of my daily life. Over the decades I have revised my opinion. I realized one afternoon that the line dividing perfection from imperfection was subtle. You could cross the line in the blink of an eye and it was never more evident as it was in cooking.
When I was raising my children, managing a home and working in the corporate world, my mother would tell me that of all the qualities she looked for in a person, what she valued the most was vivaram, a Tamil word, which means “expansion.” My mother used it to refer to detail. She stressed another quality too: nidaanam, a word in Tamil that alludes to composure. Taken together, my mother said, those two qualities defined character. In turn, she said, they shaped destiny.
My mother cooked with all her senses. Her repertoire was limited. She believed in the simple, honest meal. She didn’t cook with a distracted ear to the phone. She didn’t rustle up a meal while watching television or engaging in gossip with my father or her guests or her maid.
Our mother cooked every single day as if her husband and her children were gauging her and giving her a grade. She planted herself firmly in front of the stove, watching for the little shiver of a boil, a faint ripple at the edge of a vessel of morkuzhambu that signaled that it was ready. A kootu made with spinach called for one turn of the switch on her Sumeet grinder, just one and not one more, because the resulting spinach and coconut gravy had to be both coarse and fine in parts. An avial perfectly formed called for a ladle that was flat, like a spatula, so it didn’t accidentally dice through cooked julienne strips of vegetable.
In 2002, when she found herself too ill to cook, my father and my sister began juggling her health challenges and the maintenance of our home. My father had one requirement. “For as long as I live, I would like a Brahmin to cook for me. I pray every morning and offer a little food to the deities,” he said. And so we did as he wished and began looking for a Brahmin cook in Chennai who would come home every morning, cook a meal and a prayer offering of rice, lentil and ghee.
My mother passed away in July 2005. An era of a well-cooked meal at our home ended the day she died. We struggled constantly to find a committed cook. Unpredictable Brahmin women trooped in and out of our kitchen. They ill-treated my mother’s marble, her Ultra grinder, her pressure cooker and all her antique stainless steel vessels. But here I must write an ode to one of my mother’s favorite cooks, Rukmini, who dragged her mammoth body over fifteen kilometers and framed our doorway one fine morning blotting out the morning sun. We were mortified. Would a woman of her girth and immense breathlessness even have the capacity to boil water? We judged too soon.
The biggest compliment our family could pay Rukmini was that she was worth her weight in gold. Like a heavy, seasoned cast iron pan, Rukmini too had traditional sensibilities, sautéeing, roasting and grilling everything to perfection. Her only fatal flaw was her love for the melodramatic characters in a television serial called Nambikkai (Trust).
In an ironic twist, my mother lost her faith in Rukmini on a morning when Nambikkai was playing on the television; in a careless moment, Rukmini had let the Almond Halwa slide into Almond Burfi which then progressively dessicated into Almond Brittle.
I felt my mother’s frustration deep within my bones that day. I empathized with her helplessness at having to relinquish her hold on her kitchen and embrace another’s flaws in her territory. In her overreaction to Rukmini’s oversight, I saw how the story of a delicacy and, consequently, of one’s life, could change in one fragile second.
I considered the imperfections in our tiny kitchen over the decade. Cook Jayalakshmi was in such a frantic hurry that she wouldn’t take the time to boil potato down to its core. As my aunt said while eating Jayalakshmi’s potato roast, if God had meant for us to eat potatoes in the form that they were in the ground, we’d have been born hogs or raccoons. Then Cook Gowri overheated the morkuzhambu so much that it assumed the appearance of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill; once you removed the oil and sludge off the top, you were left with gallons of discolored ditchwater. I must not forget to mention how Cook Geetha’s roti would have made an extra-hard, extra-thick, quarter-inch Frisbee on a humid morning at Chennai’s Marina beach.
Last week, after eleven long years, we bid goodbye to the cooks who disgraced our mother’s kitchen. Vinayagam, who is not a Brahmin, has begun cooking my father’s meals.
He prepares the daily prayer offering. He asks me for recipes. He has kept up my mother’s kitchen more immaculately than my mother ever did, following her dictates and quoting her unknowingly sometimes.
Today, I sweat in what is now my father’s kitchen, tuning in, with my body and my soul, to a simmer, a boil, a roast, a deep fry, a splutter, a crackle or a pop. I figure that everything in life is about engaging oneself, about committing fully to something in that moment, and about giving it one’s all. I realize now how Vinayagam has cast himself in the mold our mother set for us all. Ultimately, that has begun to matter more to my father than caste.
A few days ago, he watched over my shoulder, nodding approvingly. “If you hadn’t used coconut oil for seasoning this dish, ma, I would’ve subtracted some points. Not bad. Perfectly done. Like your mother.”