George Plathottam, sdb
The last time I wrote about death and about memento morti. This time I wish to write on a more mundane subject -- food preparation and eating. I hope you will find it "palatable"!
We are still under lockdown and social distancing. Many have lost work while many others are unable to go out and find and work for their daily needs. Quite many others are lucky to have work and do so from home. Kids from the kindergarten to students in the universities pursue their studies online. We watch the Mass on television or other digital devices. Most people are homebound, fully or partially "domesticated." It is hard to say whether marital bonds and family ties have deepened, or conflicts and discord have sharpened and aggravated.
When asked what work your wife or mom do, the response often is, oh he is not working, she is a “housewife.” That simply is an understatement and sounds disparaging for the work the women do -- cooking and mending and managing the house. Surprisingly, all that and more that a woman does at her home is not considered work! I wonder today if we can say "house-husband" or "house children" to all who are homebound!
The last time I wrote about PhD as "Preparation for a Happy Death," I received a lot of accolades and encouraging comments. This time I wish to write about another degree -- MCA. When I did my college in the late Seventies and early Eighties, there were no subjects such as computer science or biotechnology. We never spoke of algorithms and artificial intelligence. So, later whenever I would hear these words, I would develop goosebumps, but in the elite academic circles I found myself in, instead of disclosing my ignorance, I feigned wisdom.
Now in my sixties, I have acquired a new degree that I would like to call MCA. You might think it is Master of Computer Science. You are mistaken, it is Master of Culinary Arts. Having eaten for years food cooked by kind mothers and sisters (often with little appreciation or acknowledgement for their hard work) I have in the past few months acquired the ability to cook food. Though I am making steady progress, I won’t invite you to a meal I have cooked till another time. I hope the universities will soon recognize this branch of academics and give it the respect it is due.
I have learnt first-hand the labor, the concentration, and the patience, among many other virtues, one needs in order to cook food. As we have migrated from typewriter to the computer, and found things pretty easy, the culinary arts too has made much progress with ready-mix masalas and processed food items, efficient cutters and grinders and pressure cookers. No doubt the hardships of traditional cooking has significantly reduced, and the speed and efficiency has increased. The time to prepare a meal has considerably lessened. That of course is good news.
People sometimes think that cooking is not a decent, dignified job. Some years ago, while I was attending a conference in Macau, our food came from one of the prestigious hotels in the city. I was told the main chef was an Indian and so I went with one of the organizers to meet him. I discovered that he was from my home state, and that he had won the best Asian chef prize for three years in a row. He was a fine gentleman who loved his work. He earned a fabulous salary, too.
I have often wondered why the chefs are usually dressed in white. The thought dawned on me -- some of the best and dignified professions have men and women wear white uniforms -- captains of the ships, pilots of the airplanes, doctors and nurses, and priests. Maybe the chef’s white uniform indicates the dignity of his or her profession. Better we look up to them, show them more respect and appreciate their work.
But like all important professions, one should be able to stand the heat, literally. Work in the tropical kitchens is demanding. You have to also deal with grease and oil, and trash. Today I know first-hand the hardships most women endure, and though late I wish to express my apology on the one hand, for taking things for granted and presuming that food preparation did not need much skill or competence, and appreciation.
Having tasted palatable food all these years, I never paid attention to the intricacies of its preparation, the hard work, the love, and selflessness that went into it. Even when men are reluctant or unwilling to voice their appreciation to the ones who have prepared a delicious meal, the women who make it are invariably delighted to see what they have prepared have been voraciously consumed. To all of the persons whose hard work I have enjoyed all these past many years, I say thank you, and sorry for being late to say so.
If I decided to award the MCA degree on myself, it is not out of presumption or a desire for self-gratification, but to acknowledge that cooking is not child’s play, though as children we may have play-acted cooking rituals with leaves, mud, and sand. That was then, but now I have come to the realization that cooking is not a fool’s pastime, but needs nerve, muscle, mind, maturity, concentration, and patience besides of course much skill and competence.
In my school-going days I used to read to my mother a regular culinary column by Mrs. K.M. Mathew in Kerala’s leading daily, Malayala Manorama. The author of the column was a member of the family that owned the newspaper. But that was not the reason for her column to appear in the paper. She really was an expert on the culinary science and had a lot of recipes under her sleeves, and they were popular with women.
Many of the recipes later appeared in book form. When I used to suggest to my mother to try out some of those dishes, she would exclaim: “With all those ingredients mentioned in the recipe, I can make even better things.”
I did not then think how difficult it would have been to procure the expensive spices and the many ingredients that were prescribed in order to make those delicious dishes. Though we were not privileged to enjoy such exotic dishes, what was cooked at home for a large family like ours was good enough to keep us healthy and happy. Those were the days when fast food and "take aways" and drive-through restaurants were unheard of. Needless to say, in any given day, all one needed was a good appetite to relish whatever was served.
But to prepare such a fare for the family and place them on the dining table on time day after a day was a woman’s work then. Men would not probably succeed in undertaking a feat like that. We owe it to the women who make this happen in so many kitchens of the world without fail. In this age of lockdowns and imposition of heavy restrictions on our life and liberty, no government can declare a complete "lockdown" of our kitchens. I am sure there will be such a revolt that no law enforcement authority would be able to quell.
So, to the men who still brag their wives, shout, and yell at the women who toil in the kitchen for hours, complaining of less salt or extra chilly in the food, or for repeating the menu or for delay in serving them, I say, control your instincts. Develop a greater sense of calm. Don’t spoil the peace of your home and more importantly, don’t risk starvation! But if more good sense prevails, try to show appreciation, say thank you, and try to extend a helping hand, don’t hesitate to step into the kitchen and do so.
Our family bonds will be stronger and become deeper if we can develop a more wholesome and participatory approach to our food preparation and eating habits. Today, many women have started to step out of the kitchen to go to work and take up all sorts of occupations. But the balance can be restored by more men stepping into the kitchen, working alongside their wives, and sharing the joys and burdens of preparing food and consuming them together. A good family meal strengthens the bonds of communion. The way we do it defines our character, nay even our culture and civilization.