Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved to eat and to read. When the two intersected, it made for interesting reading! Books were expensive and so we bought second hand books, borrowed them from friends or rented them from libraries. I have fond memories of reading comics while a til (sesame) laddu lounged in my mouth or of eating piping hot aloo-parathas with butter while reading James Herriot at tea. Food was usually mentioned in passing in the stories, but to me, they made the story even more interesting.
Amar Chitra Kathas rarely made any mention of food. There would be illustrations of fruits and laddus and jalebis but they were not the focus except perhaps while talking of Bakasura’s appetite. The two comic characters that stand out in my memory are Obelix and Jughead. Illustrations of Obelix feasting on roast boar tickled my imagination. Pork was not cooked at home, so I dreamt of whole Tandoori chickens instead! Cheese took on a new meaning after reading “Asterix in Switzerland”. That was the first thing I remembered when I had my first (and last) fondue dinner at the Melting Pot. Jughead’s voracious appetite for burgers and shakes at Pop Tate’s choklit shoppe probably inspired a whole generation of Bangaloreans to eat burgers at Indiana and Ice and Spice. I never ate there though, I did eat a “burger” once at my school canteen – a chicken patty sandwiched between two halves of a bun. The first thing that I ate after landing in the US was a burger!
I first learnt of fruit chaat when I read Ruskin Bond’s “The Hidden Pool” in third grade. This was not a South Indian dish and I tried it home by sprinkling salt and pepper on slices of apple, guavas and oranges. I could not lay my hands on chaat masala. Ruskin bond does describe Indian life in the hills beautifully.
Enid Blyton captured the imagination of millions of kids around the world (but surprisingly not in the US). As I followed the adventures of the Secret Seven and Famous Five, antics of Brer Rabbit or the story of the Children of the Cherry Tree Farm, the description of treats that the kids (and animal characters) ate, stood out in my mind. Scones, cakes, crumpets and pies. Freshly baked bread with fruit jam, tarts and jugs of cream and cold milk. Evening teas and potted meat for dinner. I ate my first scone at an International food festival while at school in the US. It was somewhat of an anti-climax for me, I imagined it to be sweeter, more like cake. Happily though, that has not stopped me from eating scones whenever I get a chance.
I graduated to reading Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson. This was closer to home and the stories of the man eaters of Champawat, Rudyraprayag and Magadi set my imagination racing. Even though we lived in a city, I wondered if tigers and leopards lurked around the corner. Given the rate at which forests are vanishing in India, it is all the more saddening to read Corbett’s Jungle lore or Ken Anderson’s “ghooming by night” now. There is mention of fruit trees – jamuns, jackfruits and mangoes. Of simple meals comprising of chappatis and curry. Of a leopard running away with a leg of roast mutton at a campfire. The Jim Corbett and Ken Anderson omnibuses now occupy a pride of place on my bookshelf. I don’t know if my daughter will ever read them, I do hope that she does some day, if nothing, for her old man’s sake.
Gerald Durrell’s description of his idyllic life in Corfu is almost utopian. Now that I think of it, considering his brother Larry’s friends, it is almost bohemian! He was born in Jamshedpur and his mother loved to cook Indian food. His brother Larry threw wild parties and Gerald Durrell describes all the dishes his mother cooked – a fair number of them Indian. He also describes the simple pleasures of rustic food. Pink watermelon slices, sweet grapes, figs and olives and freshly caught fish. I can’t remember how many times I’ve reread his “Garden of the Gods”.
I am fortunate to have an older brother who was an avid reader when we were growing up and he would recommend books for me to read. I first read James Herriot in seventh grade. James Herriot along with Gerald Durrell, Jim Corbett and Ken Anderson are soul food to me. Whenever I am sick, I go back to them. Herriot writes beautifully about farm animals, his description of life in rural England in the town of Darrowby is so vivid that I could imagine those places in my mind. British food has a rather poor reputation but I would not have guessed reading about sausages and bacon sizzling in the pan along with eggs and toast on cold winter morning along with coffee. He does mention that Yorkshire puddings are doughy, the only pudding I had eaten at that point was the delicious bread pudding that my mother made, so I assumed that Yorkshire puddings were also delicious. Then of course there is the copious amount of beer that is consumed at the “Darrowby Inn”.
Then there was the phase of Alistair Macleans, Sidney Sheldons, Jefferey Archers and Irving Wallaces – pulp fiction as my grandfather referred to them. I can’t remember any description of food in them, though the action and the plots were engrossing enough not to be distracted by food.
Sometime in the Eighties, my brother came across a bunch of the American edition of Readers Digests. They made for interesting reading, the ads though were something else. Colored pictures of ham, meatloaf and roasts! My mother looked at them once and asked where the “masala” was! One article that I re-read a few times and drooled over was on “sub sandwiches”. Spread across two pages was the cross-section of a sub with arrows annotating the different ingredients. Cheese, deli meat slices, mayo, lettuce, rings of tomatoes, olives and so on. I could never try this at home, it was hard to assemble many of these ingredients.
About a year ago, I started reading William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal”, though I never finished the book. Dalrymple researches his subjects in exhaustive detail and his description of an Englishman’s breakfast in the mid 1850’s stands out in my mind! I have reproduced it here verbatim courtesy of Google books:
“By six, Harriet would be busy supervising her large staff of servants in her screen-darkened bungalow. The first task was preparing for the enormous breakfast without which no Englishman in Victorian India would consider starting his day: at the very least a selection of “crumbled chops, brain cutlets, beef risoles, devilled kidneys, whole spatch-cocks, duck stews, Irish stews, mutton hashes, brawns of sheep’s heads and trotters, not to mention an assortment of Indian dishes such as jhal frazie, prawn dopiaza, chicken malai and beef Hussainee. Added to this list were a number of Anglo-Indian concoctions such as kidney toast Madras style, Madras fritters, and leftover meat minced and refried with ginger and chillies. Then of course there was the ultimate Anglo-Indian breakfast dish of Kedgeree, a perennial favourite, even though in Delhi it was considered most inadvisable to eat fish in high summer”.
I can’t imagine eating a breakfast like that! Even if I forget the historical nuances of this book, I shall remember the sheer variety of the breakfast items as well as the gluttony!
At about the same time, Thoreau was embarking on his experiment of simple living. In Walden, he meticulously lists the price of his provisions, the vegetables that he grew and talks on length about baking bread and the inconvenience involved in carrying yeast around. He quotes in Latin, the recipe for baking bread from 200 BC. Thoreau calculated that he would need to work for six weeks a year in order to earn enough money to live his simple life!
Then there are books I’ve read, where the scarcity of food reminds me of how we take our food for granted. Most of these books are related to war and make for hard reading. A piece of stale bread takes on a value of its own, almost as valuable as gold. Bruce Marshall’s “The White Rabbit” chronicles his brutal treatment at the hands of his Gestapo captors in occupied France. He has recurring dreams of food – custard if I remember correctly. “All Quiet on the Western Front” starts off with extra rations of sausages and beans for a group of German Soldiers – it is not the generosity of the German army but the result of almost half the company being decimated during heavy fighting. Elie Wiesel’s “Night” is one of the hardest books I’ve read – hard from the point of the brutal treatment of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Elie writes “I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.”. Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields” eats small lizards to survive in the Cambodian countryside during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. There are no glorious descriptions of food in these books but starvation and the wistful longing and memories of meals eaten at home.
Recipe books were a natural progression and I found that after a time, books that cast light on the region or provided a history of the dish, proved to be the most interesting. In these days of blogs and the ability to search for a dish instantly, I guess a dog-eared recipe book still has its own charm. An ample supply of food and books…I would love that on a deserted island!