Monday, June 13, 2011

When fathers cook

Supratik Guha

Jhumpa Lahiri has written an affectionate essay in the New Yorker (2009) about her father and his skills at cooking rice.  It is a rice that he has made for decades, feeding at times upto hundreds of people.  The site has an accompanying web video showing the 80 year old gentleman make Persian fried rice, a Pollao, as it is referred to in Bengali.  He seems an endearing gentleman, a meshomoshai, at peace with himself, in a kitchen that could belong to so many East Coast Bengali immigrants-- happy suburban professionals in split levels, colonials and ranches, where the gentle breeze of Bengal blows in every day, thru the snow,  through the virunga like green foliage after the summer rains, through the ochre and sienna Fall. 

Mr Lahiri makes a mean Pollao and watching the multitude of precision steps in his cooking, two things come to mind.  The first is the sizable chunk of butter that Mr. Lahiri drops into the frying pan.  This is not just fried rice, it is langorous rice bathed in contentment after an orgy with molten triglycerides.  My second thought is, why does the father get all the attention when it comes to cooking?

I have seen this in my own family.  I remember the kosha mangsho (dry mutton curry) that my father made in Pune when I was 5, though it is my mother who does the lion’s share (very big lion!) of the cooking.  It was the same when I had my own boys, who—when young and not yet insouciant teenagers--would whoop with joy when Daddy concoted a dish that had more enthusiasm than substance.  Mom’s cooking was the constant dedicated supply of balanced nutrition, Dad’s creations the blips on top, at times adding, at times subtracting, but always remembered beyond their technical merits.

In the West, grilling has assumed the mantle of the stereotype for the male non-professional cook.  Jim Harrison, writing in the newly released collection of essays “Man with a Pan”, has this to say about grilling and men: “Men learning to cook often start with the BBQ grill, perhaps because they have been roasting meat over fire for a couple of hundred thousand years.  Of course women do it equally well, but then they must think, Let the d***head go at it, I’m tired of doing all the cooking.”  This is perhaps true, and I would venture that that a hot grill is self cleaning, and therefore a point of great appeal at to me.  Indian men in India do not grill, indeed grilling is not common among either sex there (you will not find tandoors—Indian grills—in the average Indian household), but Indian food generally goes well on Western grills and Indian men in the US have adapted to this technique.  Meats marinated the Indian way need some caution during grilling: spice-yogurt based marinades tend to burn quickly, so the heat needs to be directed from an indirect source.  Removing the skin of the chicken, as we often do, also leaves the meat dry after grilling, so constant basting with the marinade is advisable.  Vegetarian dishes like paneer (sort of like a farmer’s cheese)—get the one called Nanak paneer—grill nicely, marinated with some olive oil, cumin and coriander powders.

Why do men cook?  A British report can be found floating around on the web (see, describing “The Gastrosexual Man”,  heralding a new generation of men who are more generally involved in cooking than their predecessors: "It is certainly true that women cook more than men. However, it is interesting to note that it is not the occasional male cooks, not the barbecue kings who claim the most enthusiasm for cooking....” Through data gathered from polling the British public the report claims that more men in the 25-40 age group are cooking these days, in part anchored by the idea that it makes them more attractive to the opposite sex.  On the other hand they are 4 times less likely to be doing the cleaning and laundry compared to women, new avenues, possibly, for furthering their appeal.  I am not sure what to make of this study—was it an instance of trying to push a catchy title by putting some statistical meat around it?  Poking around on the web, it is easy to see that this is an oft touted concept and understandable at some level.  This is still not a satisfactory reason, I believe the answer lies deeper, probing other urgencies of the mind.

The aforementioned Jim Harrison leads us to a couple of other speculations: “For the man who cooks perhaps twice a week, the prime motive in cooking is to have something to eat worthy of your heart’s peculiar desires.”  This is believable.  Cooking can also be a be a counterpoint to one’s working life, what you cook is entirely within your control, a remedial lever to what you cannot control at work: “I recall a day when I got fired (for arrogance) yet again from Hollywood, and the murk of the dismissal was easily leavened by grilling five illegal baby lake trout,…..

Back to Jhumpa Lahiri and her father.  Mr. Lahiri is depicted as a creature of habits with a strong sense of measurement, of the type that a good experimentalist would have.  He has 15 raisins on his oatmeal each day, he knows exactly, and in a scalable manner, how many glasses of water are needed for how many cups of rice.  He seems to like a set routine.  I know people like that—like Dr. X, who is also a creature of habit.  Dr. X used the four letter word once a week, right after taking the wrong exit on Rt. 287 while ferrying his son between piano and guitar lessons every Saturday morning.  Since this was a routine occurrence, Dr. X built the 10 minute delay into his schedule, leading to a satisfactory solution that corrected his errors. Grilling for him was an exercise in set pieces, a robust reaffirmation of causality.  It was a Newtonian world of mechanical fulfillment that had its own contentment--the click of the piezoelectric fire starter, the low growl of the three burners as they catch light in sequence, the linear blue flame that plants butterfly kisses on the nozzles streaming past them with the turn of the gas, the pork ribs marinated in Indian achar(pickle) and olive oil, the adjustment of the burner settings to a touch below “medium”.   You let Dr. X know when the ribs needed to be ready, and he would build the time factor in:  7 minutes for getting the gas grill hot, 5 for slitting the plastic package around the ribs and slathering them in achar, 45 minutes for the ribs with a turnover inbetween, and then 5 minutes for cool down.  He would consume one Amstel or Heineken Light during this process.

Dr. X also has a chicken stock that he makes for his family, the recipe adapted from his wife, then usurped as his own, injecting into it the drum beat of his methodology.  The process is undeviating—the back and wings of a free range chicken immersed in water along with pieces of celery, whole black pepper, coriander seeds, chopped onions, chunks of ginger, cilantro, bay leaves, a spoon of vinegar to leach out the calcium from the bones.  Boiled on a low, simmering, bubbles-rising-to-the-top kind of heat for an hour, the aroma plays lightly around the kitchen.  There is something wholesome about steam rising from a big and heavy cooking pot, particularly on a winter’s weekend morning.  The liquid is strained out, then chilled to raise the fat to the surface for skimming.

Dr. X cooked on occasion, because it gave him a sense of rhythm, and the melody of a loose recipe that drove him as in a hunt.  There was a sense of satisfaction, of a completed evening within a larger incomplete one, when the food was laid at his table.  And then the expansive  sense of elegance beholding one’s creation, and transcribing into words in one’s mind, the method, the smells, the sounds and the wholesomeness of handling heavy cast iron pans, the steam and the clarity of the liquid in the broth with its globules of fat suspended as little bubbles, scattering the ambient light helter skelter.

Just listening to the elegance of a dish is in itself a kind of meal.  And here is an example where Pablo Neruda, in his Ode to Conger Chowder, gives the following prescription for cooking a kind of eel:
You bring the conger, skinned,
to the kitchen
(its mottled skin slips off
like a glove,
leaving the
grape of the sea
exposed to the world),
the tender eel
to serve our appetites.
you take
first, caress
that precious
its irate fragrance,
blend the minced garlic
with onion
and tomato
until the onion
is the color of gold.
Meanwhile steam
our regal
ocean prawns,
and when
they are
when the savor is
set in a sauce
combining the liquors
of the ocean
and the clear water
released from the light of the onion,
you add the eel
that it may be immersed in glory,
that it may steep in the oils
of the pot,
shrink and be saturated.

Such is the power of  the poet’s recipe.

1 comment:

  1. I think you've nailed it on men and cooking, the whys and the hows.