Sunday, November 23, 2008

Magic beans

Article published in Little India ("Largest Indian publication in USA") in May this year under the title of "My Paper Google", and yet to be paid for.

I rushed to my laptop in a panic while cooking something complicated, to look up "blanching". And ended up very annoyed because I got onion peel on my precious keyboard. Much later, I remembered that I've had a sort of paper Google for years which tells me all I could possibly want to know. And it's survived worse disasters than onion peel.

My mother got this battered blue book when it was new, a present from her cousin in the early years of her marriage. When I left home to set up a kitchen of my own, she gave it to me.

It's a combination of old-fashioned recipe book and surprisingly modern how-to manual on setting up a new life. In the section called Basic Kitchen Aids" – which I read six months after I needed it – I recognised my mother's organised kitchen and therefore the things I had unconsciously bought anyway.

There is also crucial cooking-for-dummies information. The ounce to teaspoon conversion rate, for example. And how to tell a "moderate oven" from the other kinds. Descriptions of different cooking methods, alphabetically listed. What to do if you've over-salted a curry. How to rescue something that got burnt at the bottom. Fascinating tit-bits (of purely academic interest until very recently) such as: citrus fruits dipped in warm water are easier to juice, an egg-shell added to boiling bones helps produce clear stock without skimming, a wet knife slices hard-boiled eggs neater.

There is even a brief but illuminating bit on throwing parties. The advice ranges in tone from the understanding but implacable tenets of my great-aunts: "No matter how shy you are do not forget that they are your guests and you are the hostess" to the eminently practical voice of my mother's sister: "Serve a dish you are confident about so you can enjoy your own party".

The recipes are interesting (now and then I recognise something that has been the staple in our home all my life), but being an indifferent cook – if at all – they have spent more time on my bookshelf than in my kitchen. I've read the book cover to cover of course, but only because I read everything, compulsively.

"The accumulated experience of many a home-maker has gone into the contents of this book" says Rachel Alexander in the preface. She used the current word for housewife 34 years ahead of its time and seems to wear confidently her title of chairman. Possibly she was too busy being one to bother with the mere semantics of chairperson. She belonged to a magnificent generation.

The names in the acknowledgements belong to strangers, but they call up reminiscences like photographs. I spent many childhood summers with one great-aunt or the other and – as the most easily persuaded of the grandchildren – have accompanied those energetic old divas on a million duty visits, tea parties, ladies' lunches, fundraisers and the like. In my early teens I was even occasionally despatched alone as the representative. (I wonder how I could have turned out so socially recalcitrant, but perhaps my rabid introversion is because I've finished my quota of niceties).

It is called "A Guide to Efficient Housekeeping and Good Cooking" and was published in 1973 (a month before I was born) by the YWCA-Chennai as a fundraiser.

The cover shows age, but the book is neat and poised, the papers never askew or unkempt. After a lifetime of wear and tear, the spine is still straight and the spirit, indomitable. Whenever I open it, the pages susurrate like starched cotton sarees rustling around tea-trays on verandahs.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

To the great dinosaur park in the sky

I break my inexplicable silence to say a sad goodbye to Michael Crichton. He wrote many, many books and I've read most of them with relish. Only two were about dinosaurs but that's who he is to me – the dinosaur guy to a dinosaur fan. In memorium, I will lift the equally inexplicable book embargo in my life and re-read Jurassic Park this weekend. And it will still be the gripping, thrashing chase it has been all the other 50 times.

I'd always hoped that another book in the series would come out at some point. But now I'm left with the same hollowness I felt when I came to the abrupt, premature end of The Salmon of Doubt and Sunset at Blandings, the recognition that the only minds that could satisfactorily complete them are irreversibly gone.

Maybe it's actually the great publisher's party in the sky. How horrible.

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