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Cooking as an act of resistance

Updated on: 17 May,2024 06:36 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Rosalyn D`mello |

By catering to the multitudes in times of imposed famines, cooks demonstrate that preparing meals can be political. I hope our child, who is learning to feed himself, becomes invested in feeding others

Cooking as an act of resistance

I want my child to evolve a healthy relationship with food. Representation Pic

Rosalyn D’MelloI was probably five years old the first time I cooked independently. It was not part of our daily script. I’ve written before about growing up in a household with two much older siblings, two working parents and a younger sister. Our caretaker, Mangala, made many things possible. My mother told me many times the story of how she was looking for help when I was perhaps four and my sister three. Mangala interviewed for the position. ‘You’re an educated woman, go work; I’ll take care of your kids’. Or at least this is how I remember the anecdote. One morning she was late. My sister and I were hungry. We were home alone, sitting at the kitchen table waiting for her to show up. I still have this memory of putting the frying pan on the stove, lighting it, taking an egg out from the fridge and frying it. I didn’t feel any trepidation doing these actions. I had seen them being done and had clearly learned. I don’t know if there were eggshells in the pan or if I had broken the egg fluently. I don’t even remember eating the egg. I only remember what happened next. Mangala showed up and was livid. We had no business touching the stove. Why hadn’t we just waited? She took us down to our neighbour Michelle’s house to complain about our misbehaviour. When she later met our mother on a rare day when our mother was home, I think she complained to her—I heard her—but we faced no recrimination for this particular misdeed. 

In my adult life, I began to wear it as a badge of honour, the fact that I was somehow able to provide for our hunger at an early age. That I ‘took’ to the flame as if it was something my body simply understood. My memories of early evenings from the time between the ages of 7 until I finished school involved cooking with our father. I saw him make everything from a recheado  masala to a béchamel sauce to mayonnaise. I learned to make a cross on a tomato before scalding it briefly in boiling water to peel the skin off so we could make a great sauce to go with fish. For a very long time, my sister and I were only tasked with stirring things, but we inadvertently learned that the basics of a good dish lay in how well the onions were cooked. We also learned how to incorporate flavour. My father showed us his way of ladling a small portion of whatever he was cooking onto his bare hand, then licking it with his tongue. This was the taste test. We saw him incorporate a range of ingredients to ‘fix’ flavours, to add elements of crispness or sweetness to balance things off.

It was only when I began living with other people that I realised not everyone had such a culinary upbringing. It wasn’t ‘normal’ in any way. I have been thinking about it more and more as I navigate my current domestic life in a region where ordering in is not a thing and eating out more than twice a month is financially unviable. The absence of anything resembling Zomato or Swiggy forces you to be totally autonomous. Because I was always fed well by my parents, I am too accustomed to eating good, nutritious food, so I cannot make do with anything that’s hastily put together and possibly lacking in complex flavour profiles. Since more than a year, I have been cooking us one big meal that we eat twice. This has been an efficient way to be a full-time working professional as well as a full-time mom. As a parent, I want my child to evolve a healthy relationship with food, but I also have a goal—which is to have him cook me an egg by the time he is five. I want that history to be repeated.

The other day he broke two eggs in a bowl and when the pan was hot enough, I held him up to the stove and let him slide them onto the oiled surface. He is not yet a fan of eating eggs, but is exuberant when asked to break and beat them. It felt like I was initiating him into a rite of passage. I explained to him how he could hold his hand above the pan to gauge the adequacy of the heat. Always use the handle, I told him, keep it on an angle. Never touch the stove’s floor (we don’t have gas here). I’ve been showing him how to beat the egg efficiently, how to peel a boiled egg, how to use the knife (he has a child-safe set) to cut through it. It’s so much fun! 

All the other kids here his age have their own toy kitchens. Our apartment is not big enough for something like that. I suppose he will have to make do with the real thing. These days, as I struggle to digest the horrific news of imposed famine, I see the vital role played by cooks who are able to feed multitudes. The act of cooking feels so political, like such a crucial part of resistance, from Palestine to the Congo. By teaching our toddler to feed himself, I am hoping he will invariably be invested in feeding others.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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