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LAce Posted Monday, January 12th, 2004
Latkas and Coconut Oil
Rebecca Shwartz

The chanting from the Hindu temple next door reaches a fevered pitch as I grab one of the thick, sickle shaped blades the women use for everything. I look at the knife, and the potato in the other hand, and realize that this, like everything in India, is going to be harder than I thought.

I am living with a family in a small rural village in South India, where I am doing some volunteer work. The women of the family are constantly involved in some form of food preparation. Though they are happy to have me watch, and chat in our language mish-mosh, half laughter and pantomime, they never let me so much as chop a carrot. At first I assumed this was due to my guest status and would settle down in a week or so. After three weeks of no change, I decide that it is time I cook a meal for the family. It is mid December, and I realize that with the heat and daily chanting, I have forgotten that it is Chanukah.

The next morning I announced my intention to the women in the kitchen, and set off for the market, in search of the ingredients for Latkas and applesauce. I return an hour later feeling confident — I had been preparing or assisting with this dish for as long as I can remember. But things here are never what I think they’ll be. Once again, I am totally lost.

My host sister Smitha offers to help peel the potatoes, and produces three smooth white ovals to every mangled, brown speckled one I managed. I fumble for a while with the dried coconuts between the stone blocks we cook on, until Mother takes pity on me and gets the fire going. I squat down on the sand next to the fire and promptly singe the bottom of the clothes I am unaccustomed to wearing. While I frantically pat down my smoldering garments, a crow carries off one of my eggs, which I never thought to cover. “Rebecca is very poor in the kitchen!” laughs my host sister Ragi. I want to tell her that with a potato peeler, and a stove and a kitchen where crows don’t steel my ingredients, I’m actually quite good. I say out loud, in rapid English that I know no one will understand, “In America I know how to cook and wash my hands and ride the bus without anyone having to show me!”

I realize now that perhaps the reason I am never allowed to assist with the cooking is that these women knew, from the way they lead me around like a child in this place, that I would resemble one in the kitchen. “Can I help?” I ask every day. “No, no” you sit here” like a good little girl. They lead me inside and switch on the English movie channel. Legally Blond seems oddly incongruous as I get up to shoo chickens and ducks from the door, but can do nothing for the toads hopping across the floor, or pale lizards holding court upside down on the walls.

It’s an odd feeling, at twenty-four, to suddenly be a child again. I rely on people for more than I have in years, and am constantly baffled by the basics of everyday life. But with this confusion comes a sense of wonder that distills life down to its essentials, and generates happiness from those small things you tend to overlook if you’ve been around someplace for a while. The intricacies of coconut eating, for example or the way the lizards defy gravity around the light bulb, feasting on the mosquitoes that sometimes bring me to tears. I am filled with accomplishment when I manage simple tasks - harvesting nutmeg fruit when I have a stomach ache, navigating the busses alone, or finally cooking a meal.

The latkas have a distinctly coconut flavor, since coconut oil was the best I could do. Still, they taste pretty good with the applesauce I prepared. My family makes a big deal about how delicious my “festival food” is, but I’ve picked up enough Malyalam to know that to each other they are saying “They’re ok, but there’s no spice!”

Knowing that at least I tried, I content myself with being a casual observer in the kitchen. Tonight I sit in the soft evening light. Chili assaults my nose, though I am feet away from the stove where vegetables I can’t pronounce are frying in coconut oil. Smitha slowly slices the snake gourd, pink innards spilling out like the split belly of its name sake onto the table. She is careful to explain each step of her preparation, so that I will be able to return home and cook curry for my family. Ragi steps in the door, a naked baby with painted eyes in one arm, and a bundle of sticks in the other. She peels the twigs and explains the use of cinnamon in meat curries. The sharp odor, combined with the others currents attaching themselves to my inhalations, is almost more than I can take. I understand why explorers set sail into the unknown, just to find a faster way to get to this place.

On this side of the world, in this kitchen, the things I know are turned on their heads so fast, and so frequently, that I am left dizzy and breathless, intoxicated. Sometimes its all I can do to sit here, and let this world wash over me. Trusting, with the enthusiasm of a child, that one day I will understand it.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by jacob shwartz on Tuesday, January 13th, 2004 at 3:38 AM
A breataking story that takes the mind on a journey into the human condition. Rebecca manages to convey lush vivid imagery and sensory utopia through clever mastery of the english language. She also manages to make her brother look really bad considering he has been traveling for three times as long, yet has barely managed to punch out a single email. Nevertheless, five stars.

Posted by Salome Homeyer on Tuesday, May 10th, 2005 at 12:49 PM
I now feel as though I've traveled to this small village in India....thanks for this beautifully written piece.

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