Food My Lovers Taught Me to Love, Part I

You know how advice columnists always say, “If he’s trying to change you, put on your lace-up flats and run!”?

Now usually, I’d be completely on their side. If ‘love’ for someone is predicated on wistful goodbyes to everything else, then the time to cut the cords is NOW!.

However, ‘change’ could be a good thing. It might mean ‘positive affect’. It could be a broadening of horizons. It can certainly be personal growth, and in some cases it might mean ‘intensifies’. For instance, you might be a clock-watcher dating another punctual type. If you two move in together, you’ll probably enable each other till you’re both obnoxious human clocks, being forever on time and tut-tutting at the rest.

Don’t go down that route unless you fancy punches to the nose.

Now me, I’ve had some pretty colourful relationships. And being Bengali, a large chunk of them have revolved around food. My first relation propre was with an Anglo-American gent. In my initial American months, mealtimes were a despondent chore. I cooked simple curries twice a week and hated eating them, because cheap supermarket vegetables in America taste like soggy newsprint, and I knew no other way to make them more edible. I also hated cheese, dismissed bacon, ill-trusted sausages, and looked with suspicion upon roasting and baking.

Then, as my supply of home-ground spices was finally running out, I met him.

He was tall, blue-eyed, Boston-blond, and just as impoverished as I was. But he knew his way around American shops and kitchen. He introduced me to high-protein breakfasts, salads-from-scrap, crispy bacon, sausages with mustard, fluffy pancakes cooked in lard, homemade pasta sauces and deli-end sandwiches. We could rarely afford the good stuff, but he also taught me to love cheese – the nutty gouda, the sharp cheddar, the rich goat, the creamy brie.

When I look back at my time with him, I almost can’t believe how comprehensively he changed my palate, yanking at the edges of my considerable stubbornness till I gave in, and fell in love with it all.

My range in the kitchen expanded dramatically, too. Till the Transatlantic Sojourn, I was a dab hand at Bengali things, but everything beyond that was a vague, foggy mass.

Union Stars and Stripes helped me bake my first cake, and taught me how to make a lovely four-ingredient salad dressing. When November rolled around, we bought a turkey, made our own stuffing, prepped and roasted the bird, and made a lip-smacking gravy with the pan-droppings. You’d think mashed potatoes are easy, but before I met this kitchen-dreamboat, I had no idea alusheddho with salt, butter, milk and pepper – instead of, you know, mustard oil and green chilies – could be so divine.

By the time our relationship had unravelled beyond repair, I had begun keeping roasted garlic and pine-nuts in my kitchen for comfort meals, homemade peach preserves and cantaloupes for snacks, broccoli and pork chops-on-sale for quick pick-me-up dinners. If ever a man succeeded in endearing boiled broccoli to a woman, it was this man. Of course, he also drove me to the best chowder and bisques in town, but as a Boston man, I’d think that was more his civic duty than an act of love.

The best thing he taught me to make and love, however, was damn near a miracle, for it involved almost every single thing I once hated: bacon, hard-fried eggs, cheese. What he put together with these things, though, was just fabulously wonderful. I’ll call it the baked egg, because ‘baked’ is effectively what the eggs become.

You begin by lightly greasing a thick-bottomed saucepan, and layering it with deli-ends or bacon. You flip the meat after a minute of browning, and layer the cooked side with cheese, onions and chopped chilies. Then, you break whole eggs over it, two eggs per person. The final garnish is salt and pepper, and maybe a little parsley and sage. You give the eggs a minute to cook on medium flame, then cover the pan, and simmer. In about three minutes, you have soft, creamy baked eggs, on a bed of melted spicy cheese and crispy bacon or meat. This, you eat with hot buttered toast (though I must say Americans are rather stingy with their toast. ‘A stack of toast’ is not a transatlantic phenomenon).

It’s been a few years since the Anglo-Am and I have broken up, but the strange foreign things he taught me to love has changed the way I cook and eat almost completely. Tucked away beyond north Calcutta, I missed the cheese and meats for months, as my tongue readjusted to dal-bhaat and curried veg at every meal. It’s true we had rather fierce arguments about food and cooking, and there are favourites of his that I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole (banana-split, yuck!), but a man who imparts the secrets of crisp pork fat has, in my opinion, transcended the judgement of schmucks who used to turn away from bacon.

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