It is a standing joke in our family that I am a collector of pots and pans. I have been told that I am crazy or that I am a hoarder. “Crazy” is a favorite word that R likes to use. I have been asked what will happen to my collection after me. I have been accused of having lakhs of rupees worth of kitchen utensils and pans – money that could have been put to better use. The number of pressure cookers I own has been counted and recounted and an exaggerated figure has been arrived at, in an attempt to shame me. (R peeked at this and said the word was “dissuade”. No, it is “shame”.)
In my defense, I submit that it is all an exaggeration. Everything I have acquired was at a discounted rate from the cheaper shops over the years. I have never spent more than a few hundreds on anything and then only if it was a guilt-free acquisition. Some of them are gadgets seen in any modern kitchen like a food processor or a mini-chopper, electric items that other people generally ruin and either replace or throw out. It is not my fault that I take good care of whatever I have and my decades old machines are still going strong. My mixer blender is thirty years old. My oven is the same age. The other items were replaced because they broke down at some point, being electronic, or because R wanted an upgrade even when I had not made a demand. Like the washing machine which R had replaced because he thought it went with the furniture upgrade. The kitchen stuff costs less than the monster sofa set I am sure.
There are also gadgets and some pots and equipment acquired from the West on trips abroad or supplied gleefully by D on her visits home, or with disapproval by A, and with nonchalance by S who would say “You want them, you get them”. They satisfied the thirst in me for the “foreign” things that every Indian born before the eighties has and others of that generation will remember. (To clarify, A believes in minimalism, D loves shopping for anyone, and S thinks “Each to his own”.)
Before the new millennium, only a fortunate few could and did flaunt possessions gifted by generous relatives living abroad. The rest of us whose relatives were stingy, had to be content with the limited choice in the market because our country was too poor to be able to import goods and what we had was functional sans variety and sans glamour. My rich classmates generally wore Favre Leuba watches on their wrists while I wore the HMT Sujata which my father had bought after a six month wait and had originally intended for my mother. This was a tiny-faced watch with a brown double-thread strap. The only other ladies’ watch made by HMT was called Nutan and was slightly larger. Everything was made in India and was of shoddy quality in those days. Except the HMT watches which ran for ever without breaking down.
So for a decade of foreign visits and trips home by our children, I acquired differently-shaped pans and kitchen gadgets and exotic – to me – cast iron Lodge products. My family was bemused by my fascination. Of course R. was more than bemused. He was enraged, but my children heeded my pleas either happily or reluctantly. I boldly stood up to R and asked him why I should not buy what pleased me when he could get himself shoes and track pants and T-shirts. His reply was always the same – that he was not stopping me from buying myself shoes and track pants too, knowing very well that I did not want them.
Now thankfully I am over this hunger.
I do have a few pressure cookers in my kitchen but I refuse to count them. They are also of different sizes and materials and are for different uses. Certainly they have been well-cared for, and certainly they do not touch double digits as R is fond of complaining to any friend or stranger. When it comes to my kitchen he displays no reluctance in shaming me and it is always a matter of resentment for me. I wonder what a counsellor would make of it. Would he say I have a right to acquire what I like within limits? And who sets the limits? Is it for a husband to give permission to his wife when she is not actually bankrupting the finances of the home? Is it for him to decide what comes into the house , which the husband generally thinks of as “his” house ? Which leaves me wondering what my status is in the house.
But my true love in the kitchen is my collection of eeya chombus and vengala panais – which are for the aficionados really. For those who do not know, they translate into silver-white pots for making the delicate South Indian rasam and the bell-metal pots for cooking rice and rice dishes like upma and payasam, not forgetting the heavenly sarkkarai pongal (which is actually made with jaggery , not sugar or sarkkarai). It would not taste the same made in stainless steel pans. There are also the Kerala urulis made of a heavy bronze and used for making payasam and vegetable dishes. All of these are expensive no doubt but no more expensive than the skin creams or the lingerie of the modern women or their itty bitty clothes where the design costs more than the material used. I never spend money on those. All the things I buy for my wardrobe are cheap and functional.
Spending much of my day in the kitchen, all the things I have acquired over the years make each day more fun than it would be otherwise. I like to experiment and I also like to cook the way my grandmother did, making food that tastes authentic and divine, in more ways than one. Food is “annam” which is offered up or presented to the gods as Naivedyam before we eat it. Cooking must be done after a bath with pure ingredients in a clean kitchen using traditional, sometimes modern, pots and pans. It should be eaten with reverence because we are what we eat. Families should eat together at the same time. Food should, in short, be cooked with love and eaten with love.
I know that what I have said will be a subject for ridicule or counter-arguments. But books that say food should be eaten with “mindfulness’ fly off the counters. To quote an Indian proverb – ghar ki murghi daal baraabar. I do not like bringing a chicken into this discussion – being a strict vegetarian – but this proverb is very apropos. What our parents or grandparents have always said – about eating food – is now being reiterated by many self-professed Buddhist proponents in the West and is being lapped up by our people at home.
In my grandparents’ home, when called to dinner, everybody sat down at their plates or banana leaves at the same time. Food was never served till all had taken their places. It was served in the same order to all and no talking was permitted. No books were allowed. After we had finished eating we either washed our plates or rolled up the banana leaves and put them in the garbage bin for the cows and crows. Then the floor would be cleaned because we always sat on the floor to eat. No cutlery was used and we ate with our fingers. The food was hot and was served with love by mothers and grandmothers who ate immediately after. No food was allowed to be wasted.
That was mindful eating.
It was my generation that started the rot. Dining tables became de rigueur. It began with a proclamation of having “arrived” and became a matter of convenience. Books were allowed at the table because the father thought he needed to read the newspaper and naturally the children wanted to be allowed to read books. The ubiquitous TV was kept turned on because it was a matter of catching up with the day’s happenings or with the serials where the heroines wailed loudly blaming themselves for everything that had ever happened and villainous females cursed the heroine and her family and called down all the plagues upon them. From the book we moved on to the cell phone. Then the children stopped coming to the table because they were busy with their laptops or phones in their bedrooms. The food was plated and delivered in their rooms where it was never eaten hot. The parents moved to the sofa before the TV with their own plates because there was no one to eat with. The next thing was for the food to be left in the kitchen for the children to help themselves if they were hungry and when they felt the need to eat. The parents ate anyway because the father thought of the cost of providing the food and the mother wanted to taste the food she had cooked with so much labor. It was not till the next morning that she knew whether the night’s dinner had been eaten. Then she threw away whatever had gone bad and heated up what she could for her lunch.
Now every Indian home has a dining table in the hall with six chairs. It has one or two bowls on it overflowing with keys and bills and wallets and loose change. Sometimes a bag of groceries and fruits sits on it waiting to be put away. Bags of wafers and chivda – opened and unopened – lie on it for anyone to pick up when they want something to munch on. Now and then, all these are pushed to one side, and the dining table is used as an ironing table. The chairs are never used unless a large group of relatives are visiting and then they are pulled out as seats.
I agree that I may have a lot more in my kitchen than I may ever use, but it is the one place in the house where I can be myself and please myself in cooking and enjoy the feeling of being in my own skin. The other rooms are where I have to please the rest of the family and where I am not at home. The kitchen belongs to me. I own it.
Before I forget, I remember the day when an old neighbor admired my kitchen and said “Oh, I have more cookers than these. Whenever I see a differently-shaped one I buy it!” I repeated it to R” with glee.