Do you have drumsticks?” my 85-year-old mother asks the cashier at the checkout counter at Madras Groceries in Sunnyvale, California. The woman points to a pile of long, narrow, cylindrical vegetables near the counter. A half-hour later, a quick inventory of my mother’s cart reveals drumsticks, taro roots, squash, long beans, okra, winter melons, pointed gourd, snake gourd, spices, snack packets of murukkus and a bag of brown basmati rice.
By Jaya Padmanabhan
Food bought, cooked, served and eaten is collectively the barometer of my mother’s moods, which are intricately entangled with her health. When she’s bustling around the kitchen, cooking sambar, kootu or olan with squash and winter melon, and boiling snake gourd or sautéing long beans to serve as a side dish, she’s cheerful and animated. On the days when the stove top stays cold, she sits near her bed dispiritedly, complaining about the insipid flavors of leftovers.
My mother, who immigrated to America in her late 70s from India, views the world through the lens of food. The act of eating or drinking is not only one of survival; it’s an emotional configuration. She is happiest when she has access to the foods she once ate back home, as though harnessing the taste of her memories.
She has never tried pasta, pizza, burritos, sandwiches or salads. Vegetables that she has not encountered in her previous life are anathema, including mushrooms, broccoli or brussels sprouts. She keeps a very close, if obsessive, vigil on her Indian vegetarian palate.
And she is not the only one.