While pondering life’s persistent questions, my stream of consciousness wandered away from its predetermined path and ended up at a place I had hidden away: beautiful, sunny and warm August mornings in The Ohio State University at Columbus. It was 2001 and I had just arrived, fresh off the plane. In response the whole world seemed just as fresh, the whole campus bathed in the most desirable sunshine I had ever seen. In Chennai when the sun shone it was hot and energy sapping. But this sunshine was cool and encouraging. Or may be it was just the sunlight in my mind shining through. Who knows? It was a time to believe anything is possible.
I reached Ohio State with an apartment and a roommate already agreed upon. But since we were getting our apartment a couple of weeks late, we stayed with some friends in the interim. After a few exciting days of eating chicken sandwiches at Wendy’s, Mark Pi’s hot pepper chicken and whatever else we could find, we started craving some good old-fashioned desi chicken. I was extremely excited to try my mom’s chicken recipe out and so we went grocery shopping to cook at our friend’s place. Everyone had been told that we were cooking chicken. Even the neighbors showed up, ready to dig in to some good food. The apartment was bustling, voices everywhere. We chopped onions and tomatoes, used desi ginger and garlic pastes, fried the masala for the longest time, examining it every few minutes for the sign of doneness – oil glistening on the top. Is that oil? No. Is that oil? No. Is that oil. Wait, yes that little streak in the corner, it is oil!
Once the masala was ready we added in some yogurt, the ground spices and finally the chicken. In went some water and the pot was covered while the chicken cooked. Once the chicken was tender, the dish was done. Ready to be eaten with hot steamed rice and potato chips, which was the side dish of choice for poor graduate students! We gathered around eagerly, the steaming chicken inviting us to dig in. So we all served ourselves and settled down on the couch to enjoy our meal. As I slowly mixed the rice and the sauce and took the first bite, eager with the anticipation of hot and spicy flavors on my tongue, the first taste that hit me was sweet. The sauce was sweet! How did that happen? I ate a little more. Oh it was surely sweet. Everyone agreed, yes it was sweet. But they were polite about it, appreciated our effort and continued eating. It was chicken after all! But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I still ate because I was hungry, but I kept going over the process in my head again and again. Did I put salt instead of sugar? Too many sweet tomatoes? Too little spices? What could it be? I was disappointed; I had let down all my new friends as well.
After the meal was over and I was cleaning up, I picked up the carton of yogurt to put it back inside the fridge and that was when I noticed the label on the front: vanilla yogurt. We had put vanilla yogurt in a hot and spicy chicken curry. No wonder it was sweet. I showed it to my co-chefs and we all had a good laugh. After that day, until the day I left the US, I always, always double checked the label on the yogurt carton before picking it up and never made the mistake again.
Still I never let that mistake dissuade me from cooking again. Things happen, I told myself. I went right on with my cooking adventures. But there have been other mistakes that I cannot forgive myself for. And I will never take up those activities again. Why is it that we are willing to overlook some mistakes and not others? Just because I made a mistake, and believe me there have been hundreds of mistakes made since then too, I have never given up on my cooking. It has pushed me to try harder, understand what went wrong and learn from my mistakes. But with something else, like say research, if I made a mistake, I started doubting myself and my abilities. Until I reached the point that I did not want to do research anymore because I did not believe I had the ability to do it. Yet, that’s not the case with cooking. Why is that? I suspect it has to do with the value we attach to each activity it our lives. May be cooking is more important to me than research. Or may be it’s the other way round: research was so important to me, since it was my profession, my career that I could not bear to be bad at it. I’d rather not do it at all. Cooking is just a hobby. I can be wrong at it with no real consequences. Perhaps if cooking was my job, I would treat it differently.
It seems I have while mining for memories added one more question to the list of life’s persistent questions. Oh Guy Noir how are you going to deal with this one?