Legend has it that on the day my father’s family went to arrange my mother’s marriage to their oldest son, she was asked whether she could cook—to which she shook her head firmly: No.
My father’s family was taken aback. In the India of the 80s, when daughter-in-laws were scouted, they came with pots and pans and a repertoire of recipes that they would bring to their new home.
My father, however, was so struck by my mother’s beauty and temperament that he didn’t care whether this girl who stood before him could muster an array of dishes for his daily dinners.
Two weeks—and three dinner meetings at a Chinese restaurant near my mother’s house in Bangalore—later, my parents were married. My mother was 26, and moved hundreds of kilometers to New Delhi to be with my father. When she arrived, distant relatives visiting the new bride asked her again:
“Can you cook?”
“Not really, no.”
In the stories told about food, it is always mothers in the center, turning tables and running kitchens in Herculean feats of culinary heroism that keep families alive and well. In those of Indian families, mothers are forces of nature: spinning bowls of chutney from gnarly coconuts and overripe tomatoes, using generational trade secrets to create dishes that conquer dinner tables, feeding and stuffing the veins and hearts of those they love with butter-laden rotis and puffy mountains of rice.
Mine wasn’t one of these mothers. She treated mealtimes with a detached disdain—chortling when asked about what vegetables would match the night’s dal, punching my father’s arm in jest when he asked when dinner would be served. “But you know, it was OK,” she said to me once, when I asked her if she was criticized for not adhering to her duties as a new member of the household. “You know your father’s family—they’re hardly pish-posh eaters,” alluding to the fact that my father and grandparents weren’t big on food—they were people of simple tastes, or no taste at all.
My mother’s aversion to the kitchen flew in the face of my own obsession with it. As a child, I was known to explode into a frenzy if we ran out of milk, baffled by how we’d drink coffee without it. She took my fixation as an object for her own amusement—teasing me about my preferences, taking every demand for a snack as an opportunity to make a new farcical concoction aimed at my distress: sandwiches stuffed with funny leftovers, apples ladled with something unwelcome like mayonnaise, or with sweet strawberry jam.
“I made it up; it’s a special snack,” she would twinkle, repressing her laughter at as she presented her creation. “It’s from a foreign country,” she would take it further, knowing my fascination with places and foods far away. It would send me into screams, aghast at my mother’s trickery, baffled at how she always had the energy to turn a simple demand for food into a stunt.
All the visions of domestic tranquility I grew up with were centered around women—a wife and mother cultivates a nice family life with hot, well-cooked meals. My mother challenged this, making her way to my father’s heart not via his stomach but with her own unabating wit, teaching my sister and I to defy the popular stereotype: Men ate for pleasure, and women, in turn, cook.
“Is that what makes me a good mother?” she said to me one day, in mock-Bollywood drama, her hands stretched over her head, as I grumbled in her kitchen complaining how she never had enough green vegetables or herbs.
“Cooking-shooking, that’s all?”
Unfortunately for me, I have none of my mother's charm, nor her effortless humor. Like my father, I believe that love is labor, and I spend my life boring my way into people’s hearts by spending countless hours in front of the stove. The same night, when I cooked for her and my friends, it was still her that stole the show, arriving at the table with fresh plates of aloo chat: fried potato patties drizzled with chutneys made from anise and mint, her source a well-kept, enviable secret that she bragged about as she bustled around the room sending my friends into cackles with imitations of us smoking cigarettes as teenagers.
Though she didn’t spend much time in the kitchen, Ma made sure she got her cake, and she made sure she ate it, too.
Often, I think about how to come to terms with this. How do I cook when I was never taught? What will I tell children (if I ever have any) about my mother’s cooking? How I will pass on their “grandmother’s recipes,” of which everyone else has thick, daunting books? Can I even say I know anything about food without the guiding force of a maternal parent?
While Ma didn’t cook for me, she taught me a vocabulary that forced me out into the world, peering into other people’s homes, knocking on doors of strange shops in alleyways, forging relationships with samosa sellers in our neighborhood, watching on as others bustled around stoves for hours at end, producing steaming pots of food that I would grow up to love: kosha mangsho with floating black cardamom and thick chunks of meat, rajma chawal in which spicy red beans fell over hot white basmati rice.
“This one,” she would say, pointing at me to her friends, as we lounged in their kitchens slurping broth from spoons. “Just feed her. She wants this and that. She’s always thinking about food.”
There is plenty to tell about my mother, but no recipes bound and weighted by rituals, no tales of a mother figure carrying the weight of my family’s life at the table. It is how it is. And besides, my mother taught me a new way to make traditions. They didn’t always have to be old and heavy: They could, as hers do, begin and end at myself.
These days, though, it is possible to find my mother in the kitchen. Some days she imitates my grandmother's recipes because she misses her. She assists her sisters—both avid cooks who can cook for numbers that range between three and 200—with equal gusto. It is possible to find my mother rifling through the spice box or roasting something for the next day, but at the prospect of doing something else—like watching a film trailer on TV, or finding an excuse to talk to my father—she is still the first one to drop the ladle and run.
“Your mother made a really special thing,” my father said two weeks ago, as my sister and I walked through the house’s doors. "Vodka and lemon," he enunciated each word like they were in a language we didn't speak, “Think about it!” he continued in Hindi, excited, impressed at my mother’s apparent expertise with pouring liquids into a glass. Ma winked at us and danced around the table with a cocktail shaker she’d nicked from me.
“Your mother, yaar,” he said, holding up his drink as we sipped ours: too bitter, too strong, with an unwelcome grainy dose of cinnamon, and my sister rolled her eyes at us all.
“She’s something else.”