The cook, war and peace

Topics Coronavirus | Lockdown

The cook needed a day off — in fa­ct, several days off — having been positioned firmly in the kitchen since the lockdown began. Unable to ta­ke a break, she agreed to what any sensi­ble person might hope for — a little re­s­pite from the daily grind of steaming and sautéing. Everyone at home agreed to pitch in to relieve her of her duties provided she still cut and chopped, braised and kneaded. If she was available to lay the table, steam the rice, soak the lentils or marinate the fish, no one would gru­dge her time out as the family took charge in the kitchen.

My wife was the first to volunteer, causing collective anxiety in the family. While she can rise to great heights when catering for company, her insistence on “healthy” ingredients to build “immuni­ty” at the cost of taste soon proved a downer. A sample of her menu, dear re­ader, will indicate the misfortunes this family had descended to in these dire ti­mes: neem-infused omelettes, bitter-go­urd sandwiches, pumpkin-stuffed pa­ra­thas, spinach crepes, pasta with bottle-gourd sauce, an array of rolls stu­ffed with some variety of bitter leaves — bitter, in fact, being her leitmotif, in food and in speech, as the family undertook a resolve to resist the attack on its palate. With zucchini smuggled into cake batter, and kale pakoras, the battle be­tween hunger and taste entered an ugly phase.

But, in low times, there’s always in­s­tant noodles. Also, boiled eggs, potatoes, loaves of bread, ketchup, mayonnaise, cheese, various packets of fried thingies, cream biscuits and chocolates to feed one’s pangs. Smuggled in surreptitiously, hidden behind cushions, tucked away in cupboards — and out of sight and reach of the dog — to be eaten furtively. But man cannot live by snacks alone. Alas, our trysts in the kitchen proved less successful than desired. My son charred the tandoori chicken (and his hand). My daughter-in-law burned her praline (and, yes, her husband’s hand). My att­empt at pudding may have been successful for its copious amounts of alcohol but was hardly the stuff of mains. My daughter shut herself up in her room claiming her ability to survive on a diet of cold coffee, unwilling to join the family’s culinary ministrations.

The cook, meanwhile, looked on stoically, refusing blandishments to consume what was on offer by members of the clan to rid itself of all that was un­pa­latable. Instead, when we were done and dusted with the kitchen, she would ease herself in to cook herself curries that had us salivating for a bite of her lunch or di­nner. She made dosas and sambhar, ap­pams and stew, hot-and-sour vegetables, even a chicken roast, mince and green chillies. Our stomachs, accustomed now only to the blandness of stems and le­a­v­es, rumbled at unaccustomed aromas not intended for our consumption. He­aven awaited on a platter — but not for us.

A family conference reasoned that the cook had enjoyed enough time — if not days — off, and needed to return to her duties. A raise was agreed upon. She was restored to her premium role in the kitchen. Last night’s south Indian mutton roast was a hymn to the gods of gastronomy. Lunch today has been leftovers (alas!), but given the pounding and grinding in the kitchen, all is well with the world — almost.

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