Rosalyn D'Mello: Of making a mystical, fabulous meal

This Easter really felt like a blessing, where the spirit of all things divine and plentiful hovered over our gathering

In her slim but enjoyable domestic treatise, The Reluctant Hostess, Ethelind Fearon reveals what she believes to be at the crux of successful merrimaking. “Any party stands or falls, as much as anything, by the nature and excellence of its drinks,” she writes authoritatively in chapter 3, that’s dedicated squarely to the art of mixology. My sister Ramona and I decided we’d honour the onset of spring with a watermelon cocktail. We had invited at least 20 friends for whom we had begun preparing a feast three days before Easter Sunday. We bought lime and mint and had two big watermelons at our disposal. Each batch was uniquely made, with inventive additions of lemon, ginger, honey and godknowswhatelse. It helped all of us sail through the afternoon’s proceedings.

A scene from the film Babette’s Feast. Babette marvelously makes a case for spiritual transcendence through the medium of food
A scene from the film Babette’s Feast. Babette marvelously makes a case for spiritual transcendence through the medium of food

I write about it because it was one of the most ambitious luncheons I’d ventured to host in a long time. Cooking for 20 is no mean feat. And I’m convinced it could only be accomplished because my sister, who recently moved to Delhi, is as phenomenal a cook. We both learned from the best — my parents, the eternal busy bees who refuse to take even a moment’s break if they’re in the middle of cooking a feast. Food has always been central to the D’Mello household, and on special occasions, what matters most is the breadth of the spread. At least three kinds of meats must be on offer, and, as a rule, lunch is rarely ever served before 3pm.

My sister made the pork vindaloo in honour of my sisters-in-law’s mother, Christine, whose preparation of the famous dish is the stuff of legends. We delighted in the impeccable redness of the masala, and then the pitch-perfect flavour we’d managed to arrive at through that last-minute capful of cashew that we added in. The mutton for the xacuti had been left to marinate in a mix of ginger-garlic paste, curd and salt for a good five days before we finally married it with the masala drawn out of precariously roasted coconut and a symphony of ground spices and Goan tamarind. The pumpkin caldin was a comfortable green, speckled with mustard seeds and redolent of fresh coconut. The carrot kachumbar was an ode to a dear friend, Devika; my take on her style of making it with grated carrot, bits of coconut and onion, and a mustard tadka. It sat on the table alongside the beetroot raita and spring sprout salad. My friend SK brought to the table his cook’s rendition of a very Mallu-style egg roast and vegetable korma, adding to the plenty. The centrepiece, though, was the stuffed chicken with rosemary made by Sourav. It was so successfully cooked, it betrayed his claims to it being a first-time effort. Julien, himself a creator of delectable food, carved the chicken when we finally laid the table. While everyone served themselves and slowly got quieter, I savoured a glass of white wine and watched the devouring first hand.

When I’d told my mother that morning over the phone what was on the menu and how many we were cooking for, she said, “Lucky friends.” But it’s in fact the opposite. I felt lucky enough to have so many wonderful people who I was so eager to feed. “Cooking is an act of domination, eating an act of surrender,” I remember Anthony Bourdain once saying. It’s so true, there is so much pleasure to be derived from witnessing something you made possible — the consequence of honouring your share of the earth’s goodness and bounty — being rightfully savoured.

There is something almost mystical about a fabulous meal; both in the process of preparation and the act of cooking it. Babette’s Feast, the 1987 film (allegedly one of the present pope’s favourite films) so aptly espouses this sentiment. Through a circuitous series of circumstances, two god-fearing and charitable women come to inherit a French cook named Babette who is presently fleeing Paris for fear of persecution. For years, she abides by their rules, trains herself to cook the bland food that they stoically eat. When one day she wins the lottery, she requests her employers, the daughters of the founder of a slowly declining religious sect, to allow her to cook for the congregation, a real French dinner. Babette’s quasi-ritualistic preparation and serving of the meal is the climax of the film, where she marvelously makes a case for spiritual transcendence through the medium of food.

I’m no Babette, and I doubt I’ll ever be. But this Easter really felt like a blessing, where the spirit of all things divine and plentiful hovered over our gathering. Memories continued to be made as we tucked into dessert; payassam (brought by SK), and Banofie pie and walnut fudge, lovingly made by my sister and I.

It was a fabulous lunch; you should have been there.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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