Friday, 31 October 2014

Know your Food--1

Instructions and Rituals

My earliest memories of food are also connected with many rituals and instructions we grew up with about any kind of food is to be consumed . Ours was a traditional Brahmin house in the Uttarakhand hills so naturally my memories can easily be dubbed as casteist or elitist today. But I believe most families that ate jointly and at home those days, maintained strict rules for cooking and consumption of family meals that guaranteed equal portions to all members of the family, no matter how financially indigent. The head of the family considered it his or her moral duty to feed all who came into the family kitchen for a meal. If it meant a little less of luxuries for big earners, so be it ! Widows with no source of income and several children also were family and though the widows' meals customarily omitted some food items allowed others, their children were fed equally. One can certainly have a quarrel with the patriarchal rules that forbade widows foods like meat, fish , onions , garlic and veggies like tomatoes, but care was usually taken by the kind women of the house to see that they ate adequately if not too well. These women, we must remember, were powerless to break the rules that guided their lives. Most of those taboos are now gone . And good thing that they have, but the protection provided young widows with fatherless children seems to have also gone.

The first instruction cum fact dished out at meal time, was that Anna (grain) is Brahma (God the Creator) and must never be carelessly approached. Each grain was sacred and must be consumed with reverence. I remember many weepy encounters with the last few mouthfuls that one was forced to consume before getting up. This prevented waste and encouraged simplicity. Large meals meant waste so barring festivals, meals even in well off families, remained simple and non elaborate in the hill region where food was expensive and cooking took longer than in the plains , due to the altitude.

The second fact we learnt, was that food cooked in the home kitchen is a great equaliser and any one ushered in the vast eat- in kitchen in grand mother's house, is an honoured guest above all queries except those related with servings. The guest, no matter how alien, must be served each food item with love and utmost humility till he or she was full. I am often pulled up by my children for forcing food on guests at our table . Many of them, would be deemed by the standards we were raised in, to be eating far too little. Urging them to have just one more serving of this and that is , therefore, a natural reaction of many in my generation. I often wonder if there is some connection between the vetoed out love that flows with the traditional urgings to eat more,  and the stress that turns our lovely young men and women into stressed out bulimics with size zero figures.

Rule number three, especially applicable to us children was, thou shalt not speak as you eat. We signalled with eyes and hands when we needed more or were done. No chatter that would pollute with food particles flying around, was tolerated. We carried out our platters as we left and put them in a designated spot for washing before running off to school.

The fourth set of instructions related to maintaining absolute cleanliness and purity during the cooking and serving of meals. Meals in large joint families were then cooked and served by the women of the house, and in case the women were indisposed or unavailable for some reason, by specially appointed cooks. Women got up early, bathed no matter how cold the weather, wore freshly laundered clothes ( usually just a sari) and had hot meals ready for the first and vast batch of Schooliyas ( school going children). The old lady of the house presided over the eating business and her sharp eyes quickly detected any sign of rude behaviour or flouting of the food rules. Children were served special servings of butter, ghee and greens, all considered good for making brains sharp and eye sight good.

They were followed by batches of office wallahs (office going males)and Kutchery wallahs ( rural relatives or family friends visiting the town in connection with complicated court cases up for hearing in the district courts). The latter category was sizeable and despite the cooks and family members not being too familiar with how they related to us, were dealt with with utmost grace. A famous family lore about one such relative(?) dubbed Thumia, is illustrative of their status.
The above mentioned gentleman earned the name Thumia because for almost 6 months he came and ate in the family kitchen sitting behind a pillar( Thuma).
(Tomorrow, the tale of the Thumia)


At 31 October 2014 at 08:21 , Blogger Suresh Pant said...

An interesting and true account of the days gone by. Looking forward to know more on Thumia.


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