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Plating Memory – The New York Times

Plating Memory – The New York Times

“Can you repeat the steps all over again?”

Gradually I learned that like my mother, I too am a whatever-is-in-the-fridge-throw-in-the-pot-kind-of-cook and I too would eventually learn to cook for a multitude of guests at even a moment’s notice. I too rely on a sixth sense for spices to know which ingredients will go together and a certain aroma to know when a dish is done. I am my mother’s daughter: Some turn to yoga and music to relax; I chop onions, julienne carrots and cube bell peppers. A kitchen to me is the comfort and care of a mother’s arms.

Two years after moving to Georgia, I had a miscarriage at 16 weeks. I could not even stand to be in the kitchen. Knives reminded me of breakage, tomatoes of blood and smells of all the meals my baby would not eat. Food stopped being about the abundance of past memories and turned into a reminder of future memories that would never be.

My mother counseled me to prepare rich foods cooked in ghee to mend my body and drink doodh pati chai, in which tea leaves are simmered in whole milk, cardamom, cloves and sugar to heal my heart, but grief had left me incapable of entering the kitchen. Instead, we lived on delivery pizzas.

A few weeks after the miscarriage, my doorbell rang one afternoon. It was the mother of my 5-year-old daughter’s best friend. She hugged me and told me my daughter had told her daughter and she was so sorry. Through a blur of tears, I took the aluminum dish she handed me. She instructed me to bake it for 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

“Enchiladas,” she said. “I hope you like chicken.”

I had not yet acquired a taste for Mexican food and I was not a fan of chicken, but I thanked her. After she left, I told myself that all I had to do in the kitchen was turn on the oven to 350 degrees. I put the dish on a rack. I switched on the timer. When the timer pinged, I placed the dish on the table and held my hands over it. The fragrant steam warmed my cold fingers. I inhaled the smell of a food I’d never eaten in my life. I lifted a forkful to my mouth. I chewed and chewed and finally I managed to swallow. I did not like it and yet I chewed and swallowed and chewed and swallowed because the fact is it was not enchiladas I was eating.

I was eating the kindness in the thought to make me, a veritable stranger, a meal. I was eating the effort involved in shopping for the ingredients. I was eating the money spent. I was eating the time that had gone into preparing the dish and delivering it into my hands. For the first time in a long time I was eating maternal care.

I did not finish the enchiladas. In fact, I made sure to leave a little in the container and I let it take up as much space as it needed in the fridge for as long as possible. It would take me years to develop a taste for Mexican food and a few more years before I’d try a recipe at home. I made enchiladas with chicken in red sauce and with each bite I thought of the woman whose kitchen-kindness rescued me from aloneness and brought me back, forkful by forkful, into the world of the living where people cooked and ate and drank and made memory.

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