Thursday, February 26, 2009

Amazing Food Masala

At the risk of appearing to be obsessed with food, I have another food post, inspired by something I saw at lunch today.

The weather’s been unseasonably warm, so I walked around for a bit and then, needing a dollar in order to participate in my office's lottery ticket pool, went into the snack shop at a downtown bank to break a twenty. Because truly, I'd feel silly if I missed out on being in the group that bought a winning $173 million dollar ticket.

So I bought myself a moderately healthy snack and a soda, and on my way out, I saw this:

One of the most American of foods: deep-fried pork skin. One of the most British of flavorings: salt & vinegar. A most unexpected and arresting masala. I stopped. I stared. No, I did not buy them. I’m not at all averse to the delights of pig fat, but eating fried skin is just not my thing.

Incidentally, the process by which packaged fried foods are flavored was developed by an Irish potato chip (crisp) company, Tayto, which does not credit itself with the innovation at their site.

But maybe they have no need to toot their own horn: Tayto is the generic term for crisps in Ireland, and their mascot, Mr. Tayto, has a Facebook page with 7,530 fans.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More fun with Pączki

Yesterday's post hopefully gave you an insight into the affection and passion Poles have for pączki. But since I probably did not adequately convey the contempt with which my people hold ersatz Polish food, I submit the following two items:

From an aunt, who stood in the rain for half an hour last year while waiting for fresh pączki in Hamtramck:
"Lots of fun conversation with strangers, and the custard filled are still the very, very best. Prune come in a close second for me followed by strawberry. You can only get the real thing in Hamtramck. The large grocery stores just make regular jelly rolls and try to fob them off as pączki. They chintz on the fat."

From a cousin, in an e-mail entitled "Stupid poser pączki":
"And of course our work cafeteria has pathetic powdered sugar covered oversized jelly donuts today that they're trying to pass off as pączkis. Lame."

I am now seriously considering road tripping to Hamtramck for next year's Countdown to Pączki Day. Maybe I'll bring back some good kielbasa, too. I'm certainly not going to bother with the mass-produced stuff; I don't even think they use real garlic.

Monday, February 23, 2009

You Say Fat Tuesday, I Say Pączki Day

Pączki Pals hover above the real deal.

This is going to be a longish post because it’s about food, and I am Polish, and Polish people do not mess around when it comes to food. We know that butter makes it better and the flavor’s in the fat. Case in point: Pączki (POONCH-key), heavy balls of delightfully rich, deep-fried egg dough filled with fruit or custard, traditionally made in the weeks leading up to Lent.

Pączki originated as the answer to the question, “Whatever shall we do with all the sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, for alas, we cannot have any of that yummy stuff between Ash Wednesday and Easter.” If you happen to live in Detroit, or any another heavily Polish area, you can probably find them in grocery stores, though I have it on good authority that those are really just larger versions of ordinary jelly donuts and therefore not worth eating. According to one of my cousins, the time-honored practice of frying pączki in lard imparts “a crisp outer texture with a cakey interior until you get to the filling goodness.” (She is an engineer, and as you can see, her precision extends to food.)

I was born in Motown, and my family lived for a time in Hamtramck, the originally German, then heavily Polish, and now amazingly ethnically diverse community north of downtown Detroit. But since my family moved to another state before I was two, and my husband Mowgli (not his real name) did his graduate work at Wayne State University, he has waited for pączki, whereas I, an actual Detroit Pole, am sad to say I have not.

That’s right, I said, “waited for pączki.” The lure of tradition and confection is such that people wait as long as 24 hours, in the middle of winter, in numbers topping out in the thousands in some communities. Hamtramck holds an annual Countdown to Pączki Day, which involves a pączki cook-off, a pączki toss game (oh, the humanity!), polka music, a bus tour of participating bakeries, and wonder of wonders, free pączki. I'm already hatching a plot to drive up for that next year; it’s only nine hours away, and I’d really like to add that T-shirt to my collection.

A few days ago, I put out a call for pączki memories, and my family responded with food-fueled passion. The funniest item is this: One of my cousins ate 12 pąckzi in one day when he was a junior in high school. He chose his time well; young arteries can handle that kind of assault.

An aunt who now lives in northern Michigan and raised 10 kids still makes them from scratch after starting the tradition 5 or 6 years into her marriage. “I found a Pączki recipe in the Detroit News. From then on, we made Pączki every year without fail - we double the recipe (with so many famished young 'uns, it was a must), so we usually made about 100! Hubby kneaded the dough, someone cut it into rounds, someone fried all 100 (tho we took turns as that is an onerous job). When cooled, someone slit a small opening and someone stuffed it with apricot, raspberry, grape jam. Powdered sugar was lavishly sprinkled on each yummy just before serving.

“Hubby and I still make them. I do manage to freeze as many as I can squirrel away, so that we can serve them to whoever comes up that spring. They go fast. Last year, we didn't fill them until just before we enjoyed munching them. Saved us mucho time! (Never too old to learn new tricks!)”

This is from my mother, who is the oldest of nine: “In my very Polish family, Pączki Day was on the many Saturdays my mother went to Hamtramck to the Polish bakery for fresh bread – rye and/or pumpernickel (dependent upon availability) – just out of the oven. When she was early enough (pączki sold quickly in a Polish bakery back in the day), had enough spare cash (needed at least a dozen for her brood) or the spirit moved her, we were the lucky recipients of the best pączki ever – jelly were our favorite (raspberry, as I recall).

"The last time I had any of those carb-filled, lard-fried delights that came even close to arousing my taste buds’ memories from my childhood was at a Polish bakery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. My niece took me there (we liked the ones filled with the prune jam [powidła]), a Polish classic.”

Incidentally, pączkis were traditionally eaten on Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent, but the main day of consumption was shifted with the American influence of Fat Tuesday. This does not, however, stop bakeries, churches and grocery stores from supplying them in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras.

I'll end with some pączki trivia: they go by different names in different countries: gogoşi (Romania); pirashki (Iran); ponchiki (Russia); pampushky (Ukraine); Berliners (Germany and Denmark); bola de berlin (Mexico); krapfen (Austria); spurges (Lithuania); malasada (Portugal); sonho (Brazil); fank (Hungary); and bombolini (Italy).

Ah, just one last thing. If you're local to me, you can find decent ones here, though I doubt they fry them in lard. Pity.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire Top Ten

Two guys who hopped into the frame in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, March 2008. I would love to know their thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire.

People who know I am married to a South Indian tend to ask me about Indian stuff, which is great. I love an opportunity to educate as much as the next person. Here’s a list of the stuff that’s been coming up lately with the success of the film Slumdog Millionaire.

1. There are Hindus and Muslims in India. Also Jews, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and lots of other religious orders. It has always been that way.

2. Violence between Hindus and Muslims happens to this day, and sadly, it probably always will. See also: Catholics vs. Protestants, Bosnians vs. Serbs, Hatfields vs. McCoys.

3. Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu extremist who was upset about Muslims getting too good of a deal with the creation of Pakistan and the subsequent partition of the country.

4. Partition was voluntary. Many millions of people felt compelled to migrate to where they thought they’d be safer, and many millions of people died along the way. But many people stayed where they were, and according to Mowgli, India today has more Muslims than Pakistan.

5. Mowgli and I agree that the battery scene was torture porn. Not that torture doesn’t exist in India, but in that situation, it was gratuitous.

6. Dharavi, where parts of the film were shot, is the largest slum in Asia. It happens to sit on prime real estate, near Mumbai’s financial center, and is the center of Mumbai’s recycling industry, as its people are forced to do what they can with what they can find. To get an idea of the scale, go to this link and zoom in, and then look at the area between 90 Feet Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road.

7. Neither of us viewed the film as poverty porn. Slums are awful places where awful things happen, in addition to being full of vibrant life. The film shows both sides, and perhaps now that the world knows more about Dharavi, more will be done to help the people who live there.

8. The film is based on the book “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, who is an Indian diplomat serving in South Africa. Interestingly, the hero’s name n the book is Ram Mohammed Thomas, a name that represents Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, respectively.

9. Dev Patel, who played Jamal Malik, was born in London and is Hindu but played a Muslim.

10. The film has had a controversial reception in India, partly because of the term “Slumdog” in the title. During a recent Skype call with my in-laws and a few cousins, I learned that it’s an extremely derogatory term left behind by the British.

Bonus fact from Mowgli, who helped me fact-check this post: Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, was born in Lahore, Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf, former President of Pakistan, was born in New Delhi, India.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

International Word Fest

Yes, that is the cutest whisk in the universe.

There is no way to say this without it oozing geekiness, so I won’t even try to clean it up: I love words. I love finding new-to-me ones (ninebark), rediscovering dusty old ones (groovy) and shoving them back into circulation, and wearing out the ones I’ve loved since forever (fabulous). And this being North America and me being a native English speaker, many of the words that have shaped my language life come from abroad.

When I was growing up, my dad used the word “skosh” to mean “a little,” as in, “I’ll have just a skosh more coffee.” I never knew how to spell it, but when I lived in Japan, I learned where it came from: sukoshi, meaning “a little.” So I wandered around Tokyo and Hokkaido using the parent form of the word my dad used. If I had to guess, I would say the GIs brought it back from WWII after the occupation was over; Merriam-Webster seems to agree.

My first serious boyfriend was from Liverpool, and we used to stage word-battles between the versions of the language we both spoke: pavement vs. sidewalk, elevator vs. lift, car park vs. garage. Neither of us ever conceded defeat as we passionately outlined the ways in which our respective word choices were vastly superior, although now see how “lift” gets to the point faster than the overly formal “elevator.”

A fella from Manchester helped me seduce that same lad by teaching me rude Liverpudlian and Mancunian slang. I shan’t repeat any of it here, as this is a family show, but it is funny to remember that words played a significant part in that portion of my life. Rude words, at that. But then, I was 22, and at the time, rude words worked well in selected situations.

Tokyo was also where I learned about cockney rhyming slang: “apples and pears” for stairs, “dog and bone” for telephone, “plates of meat” for feet. I’m still sad that I don’t live in a country where I can use clever, musical phrases like that and have people understand me.

In my kitchen, there’s a metal sign I picked up at a flea market in LA that says, “tout va bien” (everything is fine, or will be fine). It’s a nod to my 13 years of French class as well as one of my overall philosophies. Call it simplistic, but those three words on that little sign have the power to calm me.

One of the sweetest memories of my childhood is learning the Polish for stock household phrases such as “what a pig,” “good soup” and “give me a kiss.” (Respectively, they are, “taka schvenia,” “dobre zuppa” and “dammi bougie.”)

When I traveled to Poland in 2000 with my mom, I served as the translator, because with two weeks of studying with tapes in the car to and from work, I was better prepared. Also, I am good with languages, and not afraid to make a complete fool of myself to strangers. For all these qualities, and for confidently waving aside the waitress’ concern about our order, we were rewarded with approximately 40 huge pierogies at a restaurant in Krakow. Behold the power of words.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Family Mystery Involving a Captain of Industry

Great-grandpa was always conscious of the camera.

My family is Polish, on both sides, as far back as anyone has researched, though I hesitate to describe myself as 100% Polish because of the fluidity of the country’s borders. One family name is awfully close to that of a Russian statesman, and my maternal grandmother’s lovely olive complexion led to speculation of Romany or Albanian blood. Meanwhile, my features are so solidly Central European that a Bosnian checkout lady once spoke to me in her language; we shared a laugh when I explained why she took me for one of her own.

Poland’s wealth of natural resources and strategic location smack complete with a port on the Baltic Sea conspired to make it the long-suffering scrapper of the region. Its neighbors (Germany, Prussia and Austria) continually angled for control of its lands and resources, resulting at one point in the dissolution of the country in 1795. It returned as a satellite state in 1807 thanks to a deal Napoleon made with the Prussians, and returned to the map in 1918, but for over a hundred years, its main functions were to supply food and soldiers for whatever conflict was being fought by whomever was in control.

When my great-grandfather fled his miserable peasant sharecropping life, the power in charge was Russia. At one point in his journey, he hid in a hay wagon with his boat ticket sewn into the lining of his coat while Russian soldiers poked the hay with pitchforks. If they had found him, he would have been conscripted into the Russian army, or killed, or conscripted and then killed.
He was still a teenager when he arrived in the U.S., and once he was hired onto the Ford line, he worked there until he retired. We don’t know whether he worked on Jeeps or Lincolns, assembled engines or added steering wheels, but we do know he was a huge fan of “Old man Ford” and disliked the younger Ford.

According to family lore, Henry Ford regularly walked the assembly line and knew my great-grandpa and his coworkers by name. In 1919, his son Edsel succeeded him as company president, and again according to faded collective family memory, he was interested primarily in efficiency and profits. His anti-union stance was the chief source of great-grandpa’s ire, although Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “The UAW would organize Ford over my dead body.” There is also the very well-documented 1937 Battle of the Overpass, wherein UAW organizers were beaten by factory security forces in broad daylight – in the presence of Detroit Free Press photographers.

I’ve been trying to get my head around this inconsistency; the best theory I have so far, bolstered by an aunt, is that Henry Ford treated his workers well as part of a strategy to keep the unions out. We do know that in 1913, he introduced the $5 a day minimum wage, doubling the going rate of the time, stabilizing his workforce, and rankling his competitors.

The aforementioned aunt shared the following story: Grandpa would spout about what they got from the union, money, blah, blah, their house, and grandma would let him go on until he got to the house. Then she’d interject, “Union, bah!” (or some Polish version of ‘bah’) “Union didn’t give us this house. Gott gave us this house!” End of argument.

My father took an oral history of great-grandpa for a college anthropology class, but sadly, I don’t have a copy of it, and since they’ve both gone to the kielbasa buffet in the sky, it’s lost for now. There may well be a copy in a barn in Phoenix, but that’s definitely fodder for a future post.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Guitar Circle

I've just come home from this guitar circle. I did not want to leave, but since my body wakes up early regardless of what the rest of me wants, I did the sensible thing.

Sitting there, absorbing excellent songs performed by excellent people, I realized I was surrounded by snips of other cultures. In the songs were references to Ireland, lyrics that originiated as Turkish Poetry, and a Middle Eastern-tinged tune called "Minaret." One guy did an astonishing acapella version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."

I had to clip my nails with a device made in China before I started playing (it's been a while, and long nails do not make for good chords). The friend I brought with me wore a ring she bought in Ireland; it depicts the archetypal peat cottage of her ancestors.

The host brought out a Kilim rug, thin and beautifully rich in earthy tones, to mellow the garage floor. Judging from the parts on tables and the Sharpie-written label on a box, he's in the process of restoring a Norton motorcycle.

And to round out the international elements, there was homemade absinthe and African moonshine available.

Just another night in the American midwest.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mango Love

I’ve been thinking of doing a Valentine’s Day post about how I met Mowgli, but it would take a long time to get it right, and I’d rather spend time with my honey today.

Yesterday I resurrected my habit of going to the farmer’s market, where I was thrilled to find five peaches for a dollar and red peppers for a reasonable price, and came very close to picking up some mangoes. When I told Mowgli about all of this, he supplied me with my topic by reminding me of a longstanding mango-based tradition.

India and Pakistan are both famous for and proud of their mangoes, and they practice mango diplomacy: an annual mango exchange between the countries' leaders, no matter the state of affairs between them. If relations are tense enough to eliminate direct flights between the nations, the fruit is routed through a neutral country such as the United Arab Emirates.

The custom dates to the mid-1800s and is thought to originate in Sindh and the southern Punjab provinces, where tribal tradition dictates that if you accept a crate of mangoes from a rival, whatever feud you had is gone instantly. A welcome side benefit is the evaporation of the need for an embarrassing and potentially tricky verbal apology.

To do it completely by the book, however, the mangoes must be from your own orchard – picking up a crate from the market is not acceptable.

Mangoes are also exchanged between politicians who are on good terms, brought as a gift on special occasions, and are so well-loved that there is an official annual festival, complete with eating contests, a mango quiz, and a slogan-writing competition for children.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Consider the Banana

Above: Bananas that look small to Americans, but just right to South Asians.
Below: A variety of bananas for sale.

My eating habits go through cycles and fixations. In winter, I can happily live on roasted root vegetables, stews and soups. A few weeks ago, I realized I hadn’t had a banana in quite some time, and ever since then, I feel a little bereft if I don’t have some on hand.

I love them with yogurt, cooked into hot cereal, with Nutella, mashed up on a plate with peanut butter, or au natural. Last week I was sick and seeking bananas to soothe me, but the store I slunk into had only hard-as-rocks, green-as-spring monstrosities. I bought a four-pack of banana cream pie pudding, which surely contained no actual banana anything, and I ate all of it within 36 hours.

Bananas, in addition to being full of fiber and potassium and the world’s largest herb, are a most international fruit. It is generally agreed that they originated in Malaysia, were brought to India by travelers in the 6th century BC (they’re mentioned in Buddhist Pali texts from that time) and tasted with delight by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC.

Our yellow friend took a long, leisurely sojourn around the world: Madagascar, Africa, Guinea, Portugal, the Canary Islands, Santo Domingo, Central America, North America. Arabian slave traders are said to have bestowed the name we know it by: In Africa and Southeast Asia, bananas have always been about as long as a finger, and “banan” is Arabic for “finger.”

By 1870, they were popular enough in the U.S. to be described in the Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information as, “…eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. … roasted, fried or boiled, and are made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades.” Tinfoil wrappings were used to dispel the suggestive nature of the fruit (this was the Victorian era, after all).

In Hinduism, bananas, other fruits, flowers, incense and other items are offered to gods and goddesses in a process of giving and receiving that is central to the faith. The items are placed in front of the idol as bhoga, meaning something enjoyable, and prayers are offered to the god or goddess. It is then received and consumed by the faithful as prasada, a blessing or mercy.

When I was in India last year, I tried four different kinds of bananas, all small, quite sweet, with slightly different flavors. It would be interesting to set a wine taster loose on them, to see what notes they can detect -- they are all separate cultivars, from different areas of the country.

The U.S. is somewhat unique in using only the fruit of the plant. Banana flowers are eaten raw and cooked in parts of Southern India, and as in other parts of Asia, the leaves are often used as plates. I've eaten sushi from a banana leaf in Tokyo, and the food at our wedding reception in India was served this way; the photo below is of some of our guests.

Here’s a bit of etiquette in case you ever find yourself eating from a banana leaf: The point of the banana leaf should be on your left. If you are attending a happy occasion, you should fold your leaf in half toward you when you’re finished to signify that you wish to return to another happy occasion. If you’re attending a funeral, you should fold it in half away from you to indicate that you don’t wish to return to such an unhappy occasion.

Sources:,, “Banana” by Dan Koeppel

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Special Grammy Edition

Above: An Indian gentleman playing tabla. We're not sure if he's Northern or Southern.

I’ll start this post global and then take it local.

Mowgli and I have been listening to A. R. Rahman’s amazing Oscar-nominated Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack since we picked it up a few weekends ago. In particular, track six, “Ringa Ringa,” has been keeping us entertained.

I had it on repeat for a week’s worth of commuting, which means that for 30 minutes a day, “Ringa Ringa” was all I heard. Being a classically trained singer and songwriter, I’m a sucker for a song that’s complex, well-done, and moving. This song is all three. It has sections that come and go, different call-and-responses at different times, a wonderful vocal performance (which I have tried and failed to imitate – I really don’t understand how a sound that comes out of a human can be so ultra-nasal and pure), a killer set of beats that remind me of belly dancing classes I took a year ago, and, well, it’s rather sultry.

Mowgli flipped to it in the car the other day so he could tell me how Northern it is. This is an important distinction in India – just as in the U.S., Northerner jokes are told in the South, and Southerner jokes are told in the North. The food is different – rice-based in the South, wheat-based in the North, with various regional specialties. There are stereotypes: Northerners are burly and a bit dim; Southerners are puny and smart.

A. R. Rahman is from Chennai (formerly Madras), which is definitely in the South. According to Mowgli, “Ringa Ringa” is about as northern as Indian music gets, from the beat, to the form (which he thinks is Qawwali, or Ghazal), to the instrumentation. Rahman worked with many Southern Indian musicians on the album, but still, the overall sound he chose is very Northern, perhaps for increased appeal to Bollywood fans (some of the film’s dialogue was translated into Hindi to make it more relatable to Indian audiences).

And now, the local news: I have had the great pleasure over the years to work with engineer and producer Adam Long. He is an unfailingly positive, generous, sweet, red-headed guy from Minnesota who somehow became a go-to Hip-Hop and Broadway cast recording sound genius, a musical masala master with an ear straight from heaven. Two albums he worked on last year are up for Grammys, but since another friend has already written about this, I’ll simply refer you to his post about it.

I realize that last item doesn’t quite fit my stated blog parameters, so I’ll add that he’s an Anglophile from way back and loves the kinds of gooey double-cream cheeses that abound in Europe.

Friday, February 6, 2009

More Fun With International Names

I can't quite believe I didn't think to add this given the presence of a Polish character in "The Age of Innocence," but Polish names that end in "ski" become "ska" when a woman uses them. Hence, (that bastard) Count Olenski, but (the alluring and soulful) Ellen Olenska. The photo above is of a street sign in Krakow; if the street had been named after a woman, the name at the top would be "Pl Szczepanska."

Meanwhile, my mother, who works in a hospital out East, tells me that among the Hispanic population, infants are given their mothers' last names at birth, but that changes once the mother and child leave the hospital. Then, the father's last name replaces the mother's last name. If records are requested or the child comes to the ER, the records are tricky to find. Most people who work there understand this and ask a lot of questions, but it used to cause a lot of confusion in the Maternal Child Unit and the nurseries.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Things I Learned at Book Club

A 1905 publicity shot of Edith Wharton

Ah, sweet, sweet book club. Some call it wine club. In my case, it’s book-conversation-wine-food club, and sometimes we throw some gossip in there. My book ladies are a smart, funny, sassy bunch, and I always look forward to meeting with them.

Last night, we discussed Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” -- the unconventional Countess Olenska, namby-pamby Newland Archer, quietly wily May Archer, and the strictures of the society they all lived in. I’m pretty sure the granny’s weight is a metaphor for how she deals with life – as someone put it, literally living large – but I’m still developing that theory and need to read the book again to really hone it.

Inevitably, we talk about non-book-related things, and last night several of them had to do with other cultures. I was excited to tell one lady from Iran about an upcoming documentary about the last Empress of Iran, Farah, and was treated to a bunch of interesting tidbits.

The Shah had three wives. The first, Fawzia of Egypt, bore him only a daughter, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi, and was unable to bear more children. No heir, no good, so he divorced her. The second wife, Soraya, was unable to bear children. Again, divorce. His daughter introduced him to his third wife, Farah – they met at the Sorbonne, where they were both studying architecture. Farah bore four children, including the necessary heir, and was a huge champion of Persian architecture, arts and crafts. She currently splits her time between France and the U.S. (the heir lives in exile in Washington, DC).

Going back to the second wife (Soraya) for a moment: The Shah loved her passionately until the day he died. She lived in France following the divorce, and he allocated a very generous stipend for her. Even after the revolution, the revolutionary government kept the stipend going. The Shah used to spend time in France visiting with her, and sent her exquisite gifts.

Later, the subject of maiden versus married names came up. Iranian women take their father’s last name at birth, and they don’t change it when they get married. So a mother and unmarried daughter going through immigration together will stump the officers by having different names.

Another woman, who lived in Belgium for a time, had her maiden name on her Belgian ID card because that’s the legal naming convention for women there. It didn’t match her U.S. passport, which had her married name.

I added that Indian men add their father's first-name initial (or the initial of the town a man is from) to the beginning of their names, e.g., V. Mowgli Patel. This form is used for legal documents, but is generally dropped in everyday life, which can cause confusion in countries such as the U.S., where such naming conventions are unknown and South Indians are sometimes asked to write out their name in full.

And with that, we went back to debating whether Archer Newland was a coward or a victim of the times.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

“Where is my Coffee?” Part Two

I began my last post with the story of my husband Mowgli (not his real name) coming downstairs and asking “Where is my coffee?” and then segued into the serving protocol in traditional Indian homes. I thought the resolution to the initial Coffee Question Incident might be a good topic for my second post. Also, I suspect some of my readers might be curious to know what happened. For those of you who have confessed to feeling like a spy reading about my home life: I’m not going to tell you anything I wouldn’t tell you over lunch. That’s one of my rules.

What happened immediately was we went to work, came home, fed and walked the dogs, ate, griped about our days, walked the dogs again and went to sleep.

Then we woke up. Well, I woke up. It is mind-blowing to me when Mowgli wakes up first because it happens roughly as often as a Black man is elected President of the U.S. I get up, feed and walk the dogs, make the first pot of coffee, look at e-mail, eat, maybe exercise, and then decide whether to make another pot of coffee. Big decision.

I’ve been trying to cut back on coffee, and if I make a second pot that is supposedly for Mowgli, I generally drink more because it smells so yummy and I’m so tired and the coffee at work is not that great. I wasn’t feeling strong enough to resist the lovely aroma, plus I was a little ticked about the Coffee Question Incident and therefore not feeling as takey-carey as usual, so I didn’t make more coffee. Also, I wanted to test my darling love, because I am a little devious, and because he sometimes does that to me.

So Mowgli comes downstairs and asks, “Where is my coffee?”

Me: I think the coffeemaker’s on strike.

Him: What? Why?

Me: Are you trying to say you appreciate it when I make coffee for you?

Him: Yes.*

Me: Well, I might start doing it again if you ask me nicely.

Him: No, no. I’ll do it myself.

Me: Right. Because Heaven forbid you ask your wife nicely.

And then I left for work with a “Bye, Honey” yelled up the stairs with a touch of “you jerk” in it. Not my proudest moment, but then, not his either. I resolved not to make coffee for him ever again, since he didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge his appreciation unless I dragged it out of him.

At home that night, he said he was just giving me trouble by asking “Where’s my coffee?” I should know after six years of togetherness that he is nothing if not a provocateur. I feel like a gullible, easily riled American whenever we have one of these exchanges, and I want to dope-slap myself when I realize I’ve taken the bait yet again.

I made us a second pot of coffee the next morning. But then, my first pot had been mostly decaf. And I got a “Thank you, baby.”

*This is the only line of dialogue neither of us could remember clearly. The rest of it is verbatim.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

“Where is my Coffee?”

The other morning my husband Mowgli (not his real name) came downstairs, looked at the empty, idle coffee maker, and said, “Where is my coffee?” I was still a bit sleepy, so I just repeated his question back to him with a bit of incredulity added. If I had been more alert I might have said, “Why don’t you ask the maid?” As it was I acted like a parrot and then shuffled off to work.

His question is not without merit. There are many mornings I do make coffee for him, partly because I know he is slow to wake and needs all the help he can get. But I’m also motivated by some kind of primal desire to take care of him, and sometimes I think perhaps I am setting up a bad precedent by doing this or that for him. If I let myself stew in my head about this, I arrive at a picture of him expecting me to bring him coffee on a tray, in silver and china cups, with milk bikkies on the side. He would absolutely love that, but me, not so much.

When we were in India, my Amma (mother-in-law,) was in a semi-constant state of hostessing, offering people (including me) drinks and food at all hours. Because we were there for our own wedding reception, and I was meeting everyone for the first time, and members of my family were there as well, she had hired a cook to help prepare the necessary masses of food. Still, as the mistress of the house, she spent large chunks of time conveying plates to the washing-up sink outside, buying things from the veggie vendors who rolled their massive handcarts down the street, and serving family and guests.

When I say “serving” I mean it very literally. In traditional Indian homes, women serve meals and snacks to men and female guests, hovering nearby and heaping dal and idli, dosas and upma until additional helpings have been refused several times. The woman of the house only eats once everyone else has finished. This was the case not only in Amma’s house, but in ours when she and Naina (my father-in-law) were here after our wedding.

This custom unnerves me. When I’m in a fancy restaurant, or one with a particularly servile server, I feel slightly unworthy of the fawning attention even though I’m paying for it, so when it’s coming from a family member, it’s just plain uncomfortable. Whenever Amma heaps things on my plate, I thank her repeatedly, and she tells me not to say thank you. It’s a sort of Mexican standoff, but it works.

In our house, I am the cook and usually the server, and Mowgli thanks me. We’ve arrived at this system through a series of discussions, one of which was an actual fight early in our relationship over a rather impressive dessert. Maybe I’ll write about that another time.