Cooking up dreams in the kitchen

Her mother couldn't equate 'food writing' with 'career.'

SPICE FOR LIFE: A typical Indian spice box is essential to a woman who's preparing a curry dish in her kitchen in Bangalore, India.

I stared at the spice rack, and it stared back at me. My spices – which had been my friends and companions through thick and thin; which had flavored my food with pungent tastes, earthy aromas, toasty warmth, and gentle heat; which had been faithful for nearly three decades – had deserted me for the past few months. Nothing I cooked smelled right. Nothing I cooked tasted good. What was going on? I tasted the chicken curry I had made for dinner that night – it was bland, it had no depth. I cringed at the taste. My husband, who was doing the dishes saw the look on my face. "There is nothing wrong with the food, that chicken tastes fine. You just miss her. Why don't you just call her?"

Call her? How could I do that? I had let her down, and there was no way she would speak to me, even though she was my mother. My mother, who can cook a feast with the ease of preparing breakfast, had taught me everything I knew about the kitchen. She taught me how to sauté onions until they caramelized and sweetened, how to roast spices on a griddle, how to perfectly marinate kebabs. "Cut those okra evenly or they won't cook properly," she would say as I'd haphazardly, lazily chop the okra. She coaxed out the marrow from the tiniest lamb bone, made curries that were the perfect union of tomatoes and onions, used the bathtub to clean bunches of bitter greens, peeled garlic by smashing it on the counter, never used a cutting board, and thought no one ever ate enough. All these traits and idiosyncrasies I gladly inherited.

Yet, when I turned to food writing, after leaving a lucrative career in corporate America, she stopped talking to me for almost a year. I had broken her heart. I was making a career out of food, but my mom – whose life revolves around food – did not see how that was possible, which, I guess is where her disappointment came from.

"You are an engineer, you have all these master's degrees, how can you do this?" she asked. A first-generation immigrant to the Middle East from India, she wanted nothing to do with a child "who has all this education, a good, well-paying job, and has thrown it away to chase a wild dream." In her mind, losing financial security was as close to disaster as one could get. Following a dream had no place in the world of practical, hardworking people.

I could do no right – being published in national American magazines and newspapers meant nothing. "Mom, they pay me well," I would tell her, but being so far away, in a different country, it was hard for her to imagine her daughter's life without a full-time paycheck. To her, that defined who I was. In India, being a journalist meant – at least to her – that you had married rich. During this time, my mother was also receiving treatments for an illness, and my soul would sink whenever we talked because I could not hold a conversation with her without making her angry. No matter how hard I tried, nothing worked. We exchanged pleasantries and shared news about her grandchildren, but when the conversation came close to food or writing, she would pass the phone to my father. Friends offered well-meaning advice: "You are an adult, you can do whatever you want, why do you care what she thinks?"

I did care. I missed her terribly. I found that I could no longer cook as I used to. I used to be able to call her in the middle of a Herculean effort for a dinner party, "Mom, what is the combination you use for that spinach curry that Dad loves?" or "Mom, I think I added too much salt in the chicken, now what?" or "Mom, can you tell me how you made that lamb curry that I so loved the last time I was over?"

Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that the food would just never taste the same again. On a dreary and cold Monday morning in January, almost a year after I changed careers, things changed. My mother called my Washington, D.C., home from New Delhi. "I was at the hairdresser this morning," she said. "And he came up to me and showed me the local Delhi paper, and it had your photo in it. I had no idea. He showed it to everyone, and he said this means that you are really famous. Also, many of my cousins called today. They saw the paper too ... it is ... good."

I did not have the heart to tell her that it had earned the least of all my assignments. "Mom, I'm now writing for National Geographic...." There was silence on the other end. "You have your kids to think about. What if your son decides to do this? What will you do then? Will you let him follow his crazy dreams, or will you allow him to be sensible and get a job?"

I was stunned. I had never quite thought of it that way. If my children wanted to follow their dreams – what would I do?

In an instant, the answer was clear. I love my mother very much, but I decided I had to be who I was, especially if I was going to be a role model to my kids. I was living my dream, and if my kids wanted to live theirs, I would be very proud.

My mom and I still have our arguments over what is good and what is not. But today, my chicken curry is back to tasting delicious, my spices are my friends again. I am not just cooking like my mom, I am cooking as a mom and that in itself is enough reason to love being in the kitchen again.

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