Aparna and Nigam were my first friends to marry. I loved them dearly, and I wished them every happiness. I believed that their marriage began a new stage not only in their lives, but in mine. In some sense, I felt that on their wedding day, my entire generation would grow up, accept the responsibilities and rewards of adulthood, and embark on a life formed on our own terms, in a world we would remake in our own image.
All this I wanted to express in my wedding present. So I decided to make them a tandoor oven.
Tandoor ovens are barbecues – clay, cylindrical structures with round tops. They resemble oversize ornamental vases, if you can imagine vases that reach internal temperatures of 500 to 750 degrees F. Naan, the famous flat bread of north India, puffs to perfection a few hundred seconds after being slapped directly on the oven's wall. Luminous red tandoori chicken takes five minutes from center skewer to serving plate.
One hot Chicago summer when I was 17, I discovered the joy offood cooked in a tandoor. A friend from work borrowed his mother's faded blue Volvo station wagon and drove us to the mile-long south Asian strip along Devon Avenue on the city's north side.
Jewish immigrants had once dominated Devon, and we saw the changing demographics as kosher bakers yielded to halal butchers, and the street's honorary designation switched from Golda Meier Boulevard to Gandhi Marg.
Not that I needed signs. I could close my eyes and follow the cumin. By September, I was more mango lassi, a sweet yogurt shake, than man.
I moved east to Boston for college, where I met Aparna. She shared her recipe for fried red chili peppers that would almost melt your tongue, and for raita, a yogurt salad, to restore it.
I convinced a local chef originally from New Delhi to truck his tandoor to our dorm for an impromptu cooking class. (The dining hall never figured out why nobody showed for dinner that night.)
When I moved to London after graduation, the bulk of my correspondence to Aparna concerned my feasts on Brick Lane, Europe's curry capital. She, meanwhile, described her budding romance with Nigam in Manhattan. By the time they announced their engagement, I'd returned to a Chicago apartment within walking distance of Devon.
Almost every restaurant on Devon had a tandoor oven, but no one was willing to sell. A few phone calls to restaurant suppliers gave me a base price of $1,000 on the simplest, smallest tandoor. That was over my budget.
Not to be denied, I turned to the Internet for do-it-yourself instructions. Fortune smiled. If I sawed a square vent in the side of a 55-gallon steel drum and lined it with cement, one website promised, I'd be slapping down naan in no time.
Or, better yet, Aparna and Nigam would be thanking me as they munched on heavenly homemade fare.
A world-weary Chicago Transit Authority bus driver transported my steel drum home from the hardware store without batting an eye. Friends and family helped me lug mortar mix and cut the vent. Every Saturday afternoon for four weeks, I lined the barrel – and the basement floor – with cement.
Each Saturday night, I treated myself to a Devon Avenue thali, a serving tray of some half-dozen dishes – from saag panir (a creamy, chili-packed spinach and cheese curry) to seviyan (Indian vermicelli cooked in milk, clarified butter, dates, and sugar and decorated with almond flakes and chopped pistachio nuts to make a sweet pudding).
At the end of the month, it felt as though my basement and I had together gained more than 300 pounds.
The Sunday after I'd finished, I considered my handiwork in the cold light of morning. It would require considerable effort to get the cement barrel eight feet out of my basement, much less 800 miles to New York. And – only now did I ask myself – how appropriate was it to give an oven to someone in a Manhattan apartment?
I stared at the tandoor, and the tandoor stared at me. I took a deep breath and smelled mortar mix, not naan. I knew what I had to do.
Monday morning I somehow wrangled the oven up the back stairs, through the yard, and into the alley with the garbage cans. That afternoon a Chicago Streets and Sanitation truck took the tandoor to its final resting place. That night I fried eggplant in a seasoned oil dressing of cumin and dried red chilies and packed for the wedding.
Sometimes growing up means giving people what they can use instead of what you want them to want. That's why I gave Aparna and Nigam a pizza stone as a wedding present. It would be a great way to cook naan in a conventional oven, as well as compact enough to manage readily and light enough to pack when they moved on.
Or so I thought.
A few weeks after the wedding, Aparna sent me a thank-you note. I wrote back, asking if she'd begun baking. Her reply was something of a confession: "The pizza stone is too big for Manhattan ovens, but it's exactly the size of our counter. Last week we made chapatis [fried unleavened whole-wheat bread]. We used the pizza stone to flatten the dough."