Hollandaise sauce. That’s where I found inspiration for this week’s column. It started with a midnight tweet by a popular Bangalore chef. He was complaining about a diner asking for well-done hollandaise sauce. To me, that sounded like a perfectly reasonable request. If you like something well done, you are perfectly within your rights to request it. Besides, many seasons of Masterchef Australia have taught me that ‘well done’ and ‘caramelised’ are phrases indicative of a refined palate. So I was surprised when the tweet led to a barrage of complaints from Mr Chef’s culinary friends.
I was reminded of another instance a few months ago. I’d been invited by the global head chef of a five-star’s Italian restaurant to try its revamped menu. Despite my embarrassingly poor knowledge of food and wine, I accepted the invitation with giddy anticipation. I was doing okay—I’d managed to show enthusiasm for the hors d’oeuvres and the adjectives I’d dropped seemed compatible with the wine in my glass. But then the main course arrived—pasta with a gazillion cheeses and no masala. I’m one of those kids who got through five years of college on Chinese food so spicy, I wouldn’t be surprised if it burnt a hole the size of a moon crater in my stomach lining. Since I couldn’t ask the server to be a darling and get me a bowlful of Schezwan sauce from the Chinese restaurant downstairs, I did what any self-respecting 90s child does: ask for ketchup. My hostess was horrified. Sully her prized dish with ketchup? It was unheard of. Yet there I was, asking for it like a petulant child.
Which brings me to the topic of this column: shame.
Even before we’re old enough to understand or discover who we are and what we want, we’re assigned a rule book that tells us what should make us proud and what ought to elicit shame. You’d think the story of shame would end at jungle-gym wars and poor marks in algebra, but it never does. From food to fashion to emotions to sex and even life choices, we’re constantly being shamed into pretending to be a version of us others would like to see.
I was talking to a friend last week about shaming and she told me something she’s never mentioned before. If there’s one person who knows what shaming means, it’s her. She’s the girl I wrote about a few months ago—the one whose boyfriend woke up one morning and decided to give her a concussion. When she decided she wasn’t going to let him get away with it, she was shamed. For wanting to exact revenge, for seeking the closure her sanity demanded and for not letting it go. So many people who waxed lyrical on Women’s Day about the strength of a woman were, a few months ago, making fun of her for demonstrating that very strength. She did what she had to do, and when she was ready, she let it go. But that evening, she admitted that for several months after the incident, she missed him so much she wore his T-shirt to bed. If she’d told me at the time, I’d probably have hollered, “How can you miss someone so vile and despicable?” I’d probably have given her a liberal dose of shaming. Given the option, she’d want to fall out of love with him instantly. Kick the carcass of that relationship, not spend another second on him, move on like the world was advising her to do. But is it ever that simple? No. Does being made to feel bad about your jumbled thoughts help at all? Hell no.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed a freshly out of college kid for a job. She claimed to love literature. I assumed she meant the classics. My expression must have resembled my unfortunate chef’s when she launched into a monologue about Kane and Abel and Tell Me Your Dreams. Then I remembered my book shelves. Occupying pride of place are books I will definitely finish—some day. There are autographed copies of prize-winning novels that I abandoned after yawning through 20 pages. Hidden at the back are some dog-eared, tatty books falling apart from overuse. I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey in public, but did that stop me from deriving great voyeuristic pleasure from the trilogy? No.
What I’m trying to say is, it’s okay to pretend to like escargot and claim to understand The Inheritance of Loss—social interaction would be unbearable if we were all exactly who we claim to be, but the real you deserves a chance too. Imagine, at the end of your life, still burning to find out How He Met His Kids’ Mother. Every once in a while, ask for ketchup; the chef will survive.