Hot Time, Dinner in the City: Compulsive Cookbookery
A cookbook I return to whenever the weather gets hot is Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. I ferry home bags fetid with asoefetida and stretched with burlap sacks of basmati, dried dal, and those medieval spiked cucumbers called bitter melon. The house begins to smell exotic. I even schlep this enormous book around town, reading the description of a Nepali newborn’s first days in a fire-heated stone house 12,000 feet above sea level while I’m on the subway. Sitting in the optometrist’s waiting for my eyes to dilate, I revisit the story of Sam the Sri Lankan tax accountant until the lavish photographs blur into a swirling bazaar.
I should be studying fiction of empire since I’m trying to finish an M.A. in literature this summer, but instead I obsessively plan a menu for my dad’s birthday party:
Tart Green Mango Salsa
Fresh White Radish Slices with Mint and Sea Salt
Gujarati Mango Chutney
Hot-Sweet Date-Onion Chutney
Watercress and Shallot Salad
Fresh Bean Sprout Salad
Pakistani Chickpea Pulao
Lamb Tikka Kebabs
Greens with Coconut
Beets with Tropical Flavors
Key Lime Pie
On the night of the festivities, we spread a flowered tapestry over the table, then strew the surface with votives. Tiny glass spice jars, purchased to contain an overflow of culinary exotica, make charming bud vases. The guests all arrive dressed for dinner, despite the fact that it’s a blazing summer night in Brooklyn. Apparently my efforts were audible when we phoned to invite them.
As the house fills up, I get harried and allow my mother to put an apron over her finery and skewer pounds of marinated lamb. She seems not to perceive my sacrifice. The man of the house stoops in the sun on the patio, grilling the kebabs in batches on our eight-dollar hibatchi. I reach down an enamelware Ikea tray and arrange it with a collection of flowered and gilded glasses, a pitcher of fresh lime juice, chilled simple syrup, seltzer, tonic, a frosted bottle of gin, a dish of lime wedges and a container of ice.
The mango salsa and chips are under siege in the living room. I can hear my dad holding forth on the topic of Nigerian democracy, gesticulating with a beer bottle from the depths of a butterfly chair. I send a clingy guest in with the tray, the stacked glasses and bottles swaying. The ice cubes are awash in their own destruction and everything on the tray clinks. For a minute I just stand against the counter doubting. Then, like an automaton (perhaps the sort found in many Indian kitchens) I pinch off balls of chapatti dough, roll them out and slap them on the griddle. Turning and pressing as they inflate, then wrapping the warm breads in a towel, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve made an unidentifiable mistake.
The fan over our stove quickly exhausts itself and gathering smoke from the griddle heads out the kitchen door. Amid the laughter of my father’s captive audience I hear smoke-induced coughing. I roll faster and less accurately, creating irregular, continent-shaped chapatti. When someone brings the empty salsa bowl in I’m just forming the last flatbread, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a cow.
Everyone seated, the dinner set out, the scene matches the one I’d envisioned–but staged, as if by some avant-garde whim, in a smoke-filled sauna. One guest keeps making wheezy noises, but everyone else is giddy. I shouldn’t have. They’re delighted. From years spent guarding the food on my plate, I recognize the beads of greed in my father’s eyes. The multi-colored plates, each set with a jewel-like dollop of chutney, resemble a sub-continental Thanksgiving. The recipes hail from India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, to which none of us have ever been.
I watch the bowls circulating and the plates emptying. My husband wipes his forehead with his napkin then slathers a chapatti with raita and layers in watercress, shallots and grilled lamb. We drink to my father’s health. I space out, swirling the ice in my drink and wondering what drives me to expend so much energy cooking up this kind of fantasy. When we finally throw in the towel at the end of the night, a fog from the griddle still hovers over the sweating glasses on the destroyed table.
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