A family recipe & other writings. . .
There are many things which resist naming,
And that is why we write.
We write because language is slippery
And the truth is
We write because
The light we have to see by
Is always shifting
Never forget that writers are prophets
We speak in tongues
We are for each other a believing mirror
Our words make us visible.
Our listening makes us heard.
-"Floor Sample" by Julia Cameron
I just returned from Commonweal, which is a non-profit center in Bolinas, CA. Founded in 1976, Commonweal works for the "common weal," the well-being of the community of life on earth, through twelve programs in health, education, and the environment. Commonweal is a cancer help program taking the form of a retreat for people with cancer and their significant others; it is home to the Writer's Journey which is more about loosening up the boundaries of how we write and less about a teaching process;however above all, it is a site of exquisite natural beauty. In learning to turn off the inner editor and let more freedom and creativity come into one's writing, some stellar pieces were produced. I reproduce one here, below:
A FAMILY RECIPE. . .
It's Sunday night. My sixteen-year-old daughter is prowling among the refrigerator shelves for something to eat. Friday evening's orange chicken and chowmein from Panda Express. Nope. Last night's chicken Vindaloo and basmati rice that I picked up from Vidya, who does home-made Tiffin service out of her home in Dublin. Nope. The assorted collection of last week's takeout from Pasta Primavera and Chaat Cafe that are collecting mold at the bottom of the Styrofoam boxes but still appear pristine and edible when peered at from just the right angle from the top. Nope.
"Mom, did you make rajma?" she yells at me. I pull my errand-weary body off the couch, just as I was getting to relax into the 10th episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey and about to witness a hair-pulling, cursing-spitting cat fight between Teresa and her estranged brother, Joe.
Rajma is the only Indian dish my daughter will care to eat. Never one to withstand the wrath of the sixteen-year-old demon who resides in my daughter's teen body, I have to obey the summons. I dutifully take down the jar of red kidney beans and soak them for 30 minutes. I then scoop them in the pressure cooker and get to enjoy a few more minutes of my guilty pleasure before the whistle blows calling my name in plumes of white smoke.
I chop the onions and tomatoes to make the curry for the rajma and as it simmers on the stove a distant memory rises. A similar setting, yet dissimilar. A small, airless kitchen with an exhaust fan in a cramped two-bedroom house in the metropolis of Delhi. My mother teaching me how to make rajma as I stood by with a green single-lined, double-spaced journal in my left hand. Like every good Indian girl coached in the virtues of keeping a suitable Indian husband happy, I was being schooled in the art of cooking. I see my mom shaking the spices into the curry rapidly and haphazardly. I can't stop firing my next question. "What measure of the cumin did you add? How much turmeric did you sprinkle?"
My mother shakes her head dismissively. "I cook from instinct, like the real chefs do." Her tone is contemptuous.
I try a placatory tone. "I understand, Mummy. But can you tell me what you estimate you put in?" My tone is dulcet as if ghee wouldn't melt in my mouth.
My mom is notorious for being crabby if her afternoon nap hasn't been complete and dreamless. I already know my younger brother to be the noisy culprit that disturbed her slumber this afternoon.
"Half a teaspoon of cumin. One teaspoon of turmeric," she rattles off.
Years later when I cook the rajma I learnt from my mom in my mother-in-law's kitchen, I know from their dissatisfied expressions that there's still a lot to be perfected in this family heirloom. Now after having worked and re-worked the recipe endlessly, I have it down to where it pleases my pernicious sixteen year-old.
"Mom, is the rajma done?" the Princess of Jacaranda (what I've begun to label her since she entered the terrible teens) yells. I hoist my supine body off the couch and trudge wearily into the kitchen again.