Cooking Gave Her A Sense Of Control In These Unsettling Times
An author saw cooking as a trap for Things Women Are Expected To Do. Then, something changed
For a lot of my life, I thought in terms of black and white. If you were this sort of person, you'd do these sorts of things. I found myself frequently surprised when people broke out of the lovely boxes I'd built for them.
Cooking fell into this polarity. I saw women on Bombay local trains, women going home to prepare meals, pulling fresh veggies out of plastic bags and then unfolding a chopping board, miraculously finding space in all that crowd, to start preparing a meal for their families. My father cooked large Show Off meals—sexy prawn curries and spicy fish—his face red as he leaned over the stove, a lot of orders being given at the same time for chopped onions and the knife, no, the good knife. “This is the curry of your life,” he'd say, finally when I served myself. Otherwise, my meals were a duality of the cook and my working mother, and since we all came home at different times of the day, I grew used to eating as solitary, something to do with TV or a book, and food as something not to think about but to consume while I did something else.
When I moved out as an adult, I saw cooking as a trap for Things Women Are Expected To Do. I did not want to be that sort of woman. I thought being learned in the domestic arts meant I would be failing my own burgeoning ambition. I didn't want to cook just because I was a woman, it felt like learning how to put together a meal would open a trap, which I had skilfully avoided so far and the moment I expressed an interest in cooking, then the whole world would say, “Wait, I knew you were a woman! Now come and be interested only in female things! Put aside your career and think about marriage!” Silly—but I hadn't even articulated these fears to myself, I just felt a vague dread. So when I cooked, for friends, maybe, or when I was bored of what was at home, I made a production out of it. I dirtied every single dish I could, I worked laboriously, like a sculptor and made exotic meals: lamb burgers with haloumi cheese and caramelized onions. Things that required a shopping trip to a fancy grocery store. This was cooking as entertainment, men did it all the time, so I was okay embracing it.
But recently, the last month, our End Times lockdown, I found myself cooking-cooking. Cooking like the sort of woman I never thought I'd be, which is to say, instead of fancy meals, I'm making things that we feed ourselves with. If I was in a matrimonial ad right now, I'd be “homely”. The satisfaction I feel at a tomato rasam and potato fry dish tasting exactly how it did in my memories is equal to the satisfaction I feel by writing a good sentence. I astonish myself by how much I have taken to cooking, I, who once tried to make coffee out of hot water from the geyser because I had no stove and no kettle. In part, it's because I have no control over anything else, I can't change the world, I can't make the virus disappear, I can't bring us all out of lockdown and still be safe. Smaller: I don't know what will happen once we emerge from this, I don't know if anyone will pay me to write about the things I write about, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know.
But I do know that if I add mustard seeds to oil, there's the sound like the opening of many little champagne corks. I know that mixing together these two things leads to a third unique thing, like I married tomatoes and onions and this is their delicious baby. I know that salt is like the hostess of a large party, just the right amount brings everything together in a brilliant crescendo, too little and her shyness has made the party too lacklustre, too much and her dominating the party means no one else gets a chance to speak. I know that I can operate the Instant Pot, a wedding present that is my favourite thing in the kitchen, and if I can operate that, I can cook on the stove, and if I can cook on the stove, then I can stir with one hand while I slide things in with the other.
God knows I don't feel like writing right now in these end times. There's no room in my head for creating new people. But if my creativity is a pressure cooker, building up steam and threatening to explode, then cooking is what has finally taken it off the hob, and gentled it. Cooking keeps my head at a low simmer. I like it that way.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is a writer and blogger.