I love food. Most of my cherished memories of the 20+ years of my life so far involve food in some way or the other. The people I am most fond of – my wife, my family members, my close friends – all have some food-related references associated with them in my mind. Food has been a solace to me during bleak times, a pleasure to seek out during happy times, and a mnemonic for subconscious memories that transport me back to various other times in my childhood and young adulthood.
Through all the vivid signposts food has left for me so far, none will mean more to me or last with me longer than the lingering scent of oranges after tatayya (my maternal grandfather) used to squeeze summer-ripe mosambi’s into a glass of sweet golden juice. This is where my love affair with the orange began, and fresh squeezed orange-juice will always remind me of the two special people who were the most responsible for all the good in me: my tatayya and his wife, my ammamma.
Food, even in its most basic forms, has a wonderful quality of giving happiness to both the provider and the recipient. I never understood just how much happiness my grandparents, like most grandparents of the world I’m sure, experienced in making sure that I, their first and most pampered grandson, was properly nourished by them. I almost took their care for granted – for as long as I can remember, my parents and I always lived in the same house or in the same apartment complex as my grandparents, and most of my meals during the day were at ammamma’s place. Even after I moved to the U.S. early in this decade, they would make sure I was well taken care of when I went back home to visit. Tatayya would get fresh meats and vegetables and help prep them, and ammamma would then cook my favorite dishes for breakfast and lunch. Chicken and spinach, minced lamb, tomato dal, okra curry, vadas, gulab jamun- she made them all and he was right by her side helping.
And most days, they had a glass of freshly-squeeze OJ ready for me by the time I went to say good morning to them.
Now, a world about this juice: back home, we get this really sweet variety of oranges called mosambis, referred to as sweet limes in the western world. When I was younger, tatayya would go often to the farmer’s market early on Sunday mornings and hand pick the best fruit to last us a week. He continued to do this till the last year or so, starting up his little scooter and heading to the nearest fruit stand; he truly believed in doing everything himself without depending on anyone. Only in the last year, when an ailment kept him at home, did he have a fruit vendor bring by a bagful of oranges every week.
He also believed that oranges were best squeezed with a simple, manual juicer, like the one in the picture above. Even during my last visit home, when I saw how his hands shook while he turned the orange halves on the rim of the juices and offered to buy him an electric model, he politely refused saying that this was a simple task that required only a little effort and complicated machinery was not required. Looking back now, this sums up the people he and his wife were: very simple people that helped bring out the sweet nectar of happiness from everything in life, and promptly gave that happiness away to someone else. And this fulfilled them, ensuring that everyone around them was well nourished by their hand.
A few days in to my last visit home, tatayya fell sick and had to be admitted to the intensive care unit at a nearby hospital. Ammamma had to come back to an empty home for the first time in a long time, her partner of 50+ years lying in a hospital bed while she struggled to get a grip on her emotions while she figured out how to do things around the house without him around. She didn’t want to eat much, she couldnt sleep through the night and we could see she was just waiting for the morning so she could go and visit him. So imagine my shock when the next morning when I went to her place to take her to the hospital, she had a glass of orange juice waiting for me, just like every other day!
Amidst all her grief, she still took the time to make sure I have my daily nourishment. When I asked her why, she told me that she and tatayya had told themselves that they would make me juice everyday – since they were unable to cook much for me anymore, this was one little thing they wanted to make sure they did for me. And she wasn’t going to let the fact that he was in the hospital stop her from still providing for me. That was the sweetest glass of orange I have ever drank from my life. When tatayya came back home the next week, he got back to making the juice for me again; even though I could see he was visibly weaker from his ailment, I didn’t have the heart to tell him stop making the juice for me for the few days left in my visit. Little did I know that it would be the last time I would have orange juice from my tatayya. :’(
The past two months have been been by far the toughest time I have had to face, and through it all, the promise of this blog, the idea of finally documenting my tango with the world of food has kept me from plunging into the dark abyss of hopelessness. Tatayya passed away suddenly, and I was left to cope with the first death to someone close to me without the man who taught me everything from reading to shaving, to dealing with every other tough situation in my life. He preached patience, was selfless, generous and good-hearted, and was by far the best man in all aspects amongst a society filled with selfish, scheming, heartless men. And the turmoil in the aftermath of his sudden passing shook my world, leading me to question some of the basic tenets of life and family we all hold dear to us as we pass through our childhood. I was finally moving on into the dirty world of adulthood, and his death was teaching me yet more lessons in how to handle this new world.
This was also the first time in my life that I lost my appetite. This is no hyperbole – I have had a voracious appetite though everything else in my life. Through the toughest fights with my wife, through the most stressful times at work and school, through the agony of the JETS seasons, through a scar-inducing appendix removal in 5th grade – I never lost the craving for good food; infact I used the comfort of food to get me through quite a few of them – the vegetable soup served during that 5th grade hospital stay remains fresh in my taste bank. Yet, here I was right after tatayya’s funeral, and I just did not feel like eating. I went without meat for a whole week, did not ask my mom to make me any of the specials I wait all year for, and I did not have my orange juice in the morning.
Through it all, the first question my ammamma continued to ask me, even through her mourning, was: ‘Are you eating well?’. And it dawned on me for the first time why that simple question was always the first they always asked me – they wanted to make sure I was well nourished. Not well fed – well nourished. And I realized just how much I had flourished because of their nourishment throughout my life.
I figured the best tribute I could make to my grandfather was to learn to be self-sufficient like him, be a better husband, be a better man and hopefully a better person all around. And it would all start at home, in the kitchen – I wanted to continue nourishing my wife and I with food we prepared with our own hands, using wholesome ingredients, fresh produce and simple recipes. The time we spent together would help us form a strong bond, so that we could grow old together like the grandparents I grew up learning from; helping each other as we cooked up our favorite foods without resorting to expensive restaurants or cheap unhealthy fast food would go a long way towards building up a happy home- one that may not replace the heaven that was my ammamma/tatayya’s house but would provide a nourishing environment for our kids and hopefully our grandkids in the future.
So I got myself one of those simple, white orange juicers that served tatayya so well; I have a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice every weekend. My heart cringes as little every time I pour myself a glass because I miss tatayya more acutely at that moment – but I know he is still looking over me at every moment and I can feel the smile on his face as he sees me enjoying the sweet delicious juice. “Eat well, Vickybabu” he would say “I will be right here to nourish you whenever you need”.