A few years ago, I took a class with a professor who was known as a tough grader. A lot of people thought he was too exacting, but I actually valued his feedback since he would write neat and elaborate notes next to anything he thought was good or worth improving. I finished his class with a 97% and felt very good about it. That was until my daughter saw my final paper lying around and said, “What happened to the other 3%?” She was 10 at the time, and I laughed and told my professor later, “Who needs Indian parents? I’ve got a child who asks me the devastating questions!”
My mother is visiting as I write this, and I think about that other 3% a lot when she is around. You see, when I cook around her, I’m never going to get that 3%. Let me start by saying that I was (and in my heart will forever be) a tomboy. I played sports, never grew my hair long or stuck a single flower in it, and tried my hardest to stay out of the kitchen. When I came to the United States at the age of 20, I could make a cup of tea. Yes, that was my repertoire. Tea. Perhaps served with a biscuit if I could summon up some hospitality. At 20, my mother had been married, had a one-year-old, and could cook well enough to please the in-laws, who believed fondly that “she could almost be from Palghat,” though her family was from Tirunelveli. So you know she must have had the culinary touch, but apparently she failed to pass it on.
This week, I pulled out my Madhur Jaffrey book and decided to follow her recipes to the letter. Well, said my mother, the cauliflower was fine, but the dal “needs to be a little softer.” The other day, it was rice where “the grains could have been a little more sticky” if I had only added more water. I hissed sotto voce to my husband, “Why is Gayatri not confident with her cooking?
Exhibit A: Amma!” He made some soothing noises about how she had told him years ago that his aviyal was fine, but “it just needed a little more salt.” That 3% again.
My mother owns a cookbook or two, but it appears to be beneath her dignity to actually follow a recipe through from start to finish. I’ve tried to ask for recipes when I’ve particularly enjoyed something, and her response usually sounds like this: “Oh, it’s nothing, Gayatri. I just took some rice, added some vegetables, a bit of that persimmon and mint chutney I made yesterday, and a few spices … and it all came together.” And I’m supposed to replicate this? Where will I find “yesterday’s persimmon chutney?”
Children of creative culinary geniuses stay out of the kitchen for a reason. I remember when she tried to get me to roll chapathis. I think I got as far as flattening out the ball of dough, when she said, “Ok, let me do it,” grabbed it back from my hands and whipped out a meal in five minutes flat. At the time, I was glad to flee the kitchen, but I should’ve seen the big picture. It just killed her to see the ineptitude!
She decided to send me instead to the Cultural Academy in Santhome, Chennai one summer, to get some … well, culture, I suppose. Cooking was singularly boring, and I’m pretty sure the sewing teacher hated me. I suspect they sent me off with a certificate, because, horrors, I might return if they failed me. I never told my mother that the saving grace that summer was my father’s office being round the corner from the Academy, and I dashed over every day for lunch and a chat with him, instead of hanging out with the other home-making prodigies.
Don’t get me wrong. I can make more than tea now. I have amassed a nice collection of cookbooks representing cuisine from every corner of the world. After some complaints about how I “boiled meat,” I even learned to cook fish and chicken to please my husband’s western palate. But then Amma comes along and I turn into a hopeless and helpless weakling in the kitchen.
And finally, there’s South Indian coffee. I’m just not a fan. My taste buds are fine-tuned to a particular tea from the Nilgiris, which this very same mother served me as a youngster. My husband uses the filter and makes the decoction coffee in this house, and serves it to any visiting Indian (or anyone, really) as proudly as if he had fashioned the contraption himself and as if it was his heritage. I consider it a nice balance in our marriage. I bring the spaetzle and he brings the coffee.
But my mother, who was otherwise quite liberal with my upbringing, decided this summer that I must get a lesson in being a good hostess, and what kind of hostess would I be, if I, a South Indian woman, could not serve coffee? Maybe my friends are being polite, but I have not seen anyone leave my social gatherings with “Gayatri, that’s it. No coffee, no friendship. Goodbye!” I tried pointing out to my mom that if I had said, “I don’t drink alcohol, so I won’t serve beer,” nary a protest would have been heard. Well, logic is not her strong point, so she continued to say, “But, you’re South Indian!” And then she committed the worst crime—she brought her coffee over to where I sat with my wake-me-up cup of tea non-pareil, and tried to give me a lesson in coffee making. I will say no more, but invite you readers to picture the best Diwali fireworks you can! Apparently, when my professor holds on to the precious 3% I say, “I learned a lot from his comments,” but when my mother does the same, I slowly inch towards insanity.
By the way, I just graded her. Anyone who sullies my morning tea simply does not get cent percent. 97% perhaps.
Gayatri Subramaniam is a San Jose-based instructional designer and writer. She is an ardent tennis fan who believes that if she had only been taller, stronger, faster, and blessed with more talent, she would’ve been a Grand Slam champion.