It began with a new email alert, the subject line of which read: Should we try this? Enclosed was a hyperlink to a piece about starting a virtual cookbook with friends while in lockdown. The idea was simple enough―a Google doc sheet where people shared recipes of what they were cooking and how they were cooking, while under lockdown. “At worst, it will be a non-starter,” my friend argued when I demurred. The love of eating has been the basis of a lot of friendships in life. But the joy of cooking? Everyone I know loves the idea, but few have the stomach for it, sometimes, literally.
Food had been one of the most straightforward joys of my childhood, and in a peripatetic lifestyle, also the most comforting. Curiosity about it came later. Maybe, it was first stirred as I watched my mother beat egg whites into stiff peaks to be cooked into meringues for a French dessert, or maybe, it popped its head on successive hot summer afternoons when mint and coriander were pounded by hand on a sil batta for chutney even as a food processer stood idle on the same kitchen slab. Maybe, I had asked why. Maybe, I was told that when you pound by hand, the herbs release their oil more gently, the fragrance is enhanced, the flavour more pronounced. Or maybe, I was not, but there was a distinct sense of déjà vu when Lidia Caveri, a 73-year-old Italian woman explained the logic behind hand pounding pesto in a mortar pestle to food writer and chef, Samin Nosrat, in the Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
‘Once upon a time, food was about where you came from. Now, for many of us, it is about where we want to go―about who we want to be, how we choose to live,’ wrote John Lanchester in ‘A Foodie Repents’ for The New Yorker in 2014. Lanchester was writing about his mother though it was also true for mine. Married at 21 into an organisation whose lifestyle suffered from a heavy colonial hangover, particularly in its socialising, she mastered everything from a Russian salad (potatoes can never be included) to how to layer the perfect trifle, demonstrated rather helpfully with a detailed diagram in a notebook she maintained. There were jottings on the margins, some in Hindi, some in English, of her experiences as she experimented with the dishes, strove to make her palette, which had been formed by traditional Garhwali cuisine, into something that was expected of her in her new role.
Food as an identity marker and creator was a metaphor I was thus primed to inherit by the time I started making forays into the kitchen. If my mother’s generation had pot roasts to master, I choose the world of pizza bases and layered cakes with more ingredients than I could count on one hand. It wasn’t conscious but there was a rejection of Indian cooking, a condescending dismissal of the food of my ancestors but with an affectionate smile. It wasn’t until my first stint at living alone in a city some 12,000-odd km and two oceans away from home that I realised food wasn’t just about feeding the belly but also the soul. It was a sentiment that a cousin, who drove for an hour, to teach me how to make dal, understood well.
By the time I went for my postgraduate degree, there wasn’t an elaborate meal I hadn’t met that I wouldn’t try to re-create. The spluttering of the mustard seeds, the popping of the dry red chillies, the sizzle of water as it met a hot pan became substitutes for the cacophony of voices from my childhood home which I missed desperately. The more the sceptre of grades loomed, the more I soaked, chopped, sautéed and tempered. So by the time March 24th, 2020 rolled around complete with the ongoing lockdown, I had a survival plan in place. And now my friend wanted me to make a Google doc out of it. Was I prepared for an onslaught of sourdough loaves and pizza base recipes?
I carefully curated a list of those who would be invited to participate in this ‘lockdown cookbook’, from the friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in two years but I knew still cooked up a storm to the former colleague with whom just the day before, I had had an argument over how to pickle onions. There was the expat who spoke, rather non-ironically, about guacamole made from the avocados that grew in her backyard to the newly-married friend who couldn’t boil water but who’s husband spent all his spare time browsing for recipes on the internet. Categories for meals were created, meant only to be mere guidelines and a cocktail tab thrown in for the sake of aspiration. A heartfelt introductory note was penned down, share link clicked upon and the lockdown cookbook came alive. I shared a fuss-free pahadi recipe for chickpeas to set the ball rolling and P, a friend, shared what she called the easiest cake you could ever bake, involving biscuits. Another friend wanted to try out the cake recipe but there was no oven at hand; what to do? Comments started flying back and forth as the two debated on pressure cooker baking and what could be used as a suitable layer. Salt? Beans? Is it true that sand actually is the best?
“My baking these days is in a pateela. It’s got a very thick gauge. I rarely bake in the oven anymore,” texted the friend who had been absent for almost two years. “Tell the girls to invest in a good stand,” she advised. No, she was not going to participate, she told me. “I will send my inputs via email. You add them.” A palak patta chaat recipe was in my inbox before I had even closed my WhatsApp. A friend pinged to ask if she could add more people. A scientist came up with the most poetic description of curry leaves throwing a tantrum when put into hot oil while a writer shared rasam recipes as she tried different variations. A basic chicken soup recipe was spiced up with the addition of a cumin garlic tempering someone else got off an Instagram account they couldn’t even remember while the ‘world’s easiest ice cream’ followed the ‘world’s easiest cake.’ A Kashmiri friend shared her recipe for collard greens but only because she felt she was leaving way too many comments but no recipes. She came back with different additions as they kept striking her. Another friend pinged to say, this needs a Misc. tab and went onto create one, while another left encouraging notes on the margins for those who followed her formatting. The recipes, instead of becoming just a boring list of instructions, became mini testimonies complete with playlists thrown in. The ingredients were almost always pantry staples and almost all recipes came with recommendations on what to eat them with. Most of these seemed to involve rice and a dollop of ghee.
“Whatever setbacks he had faced in his life…he always knew that he would make it through, as long as when he woke in the morning, he was looking forward to his first cup of coffee,” recalled Katey Kontent, the protagonist of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, about her father. In the initial days of the lockdown, as I struggled with the aftermath of the split second between waking up and remembering what was happening, I almost always thought back to Kontent’s father and the cup of coffee that awaited me. Now, I think about the cookbook. Who would the last edit be by when I open it? Will there be a comment or another recipe? Who is the anonymous contributor? People I had never even met had taken ownership of an idea I had reluctantly agreed to, and embraced it. With every stir of the ladle, every scrape of the knife, I thought of them standing next to me in the kitchen, sharing what their day was like and asking if that isn’t too much salt for a dish that already involves tamarind? Cooking, always an intensely personal, deeply meditative act had become a community effort, albeit from behind phone and laptop screens. It wasn’t going to magically make our present reality better but it had found a way to make it more bearable. People still bemoaned the absence of a ramen bowl in their life but there was always the simple chicken soup recipe with an Instagram inspired tempering to tide over. And there was still no pizza dough recipe in sight.