All my little words: Escaping the microwave


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Water is fine," I say. A chorus of nods. "Me too," someone echoes. Menus close. The waitress taking our order looks scornful, but unsurprised. No drinks, no appetizers and the smallest tip decency allows. Students, she seems to say, are the last thing she needs.

As a student, my usual food joints are hardly the haunts of a gourmand. I choose them because they are fast, cheap and easy - and if that sounds eerily like a Las Vegas hooker - well, I'm not looking for caviar and roses, I'm just looking for something to get me through the day.

It is very different than the way I was raised. Food is an event in my house. Our spice rack is enormous, filling three shelves in the cabinet. Those jars fascinated me as a child. They were filled with bright powders and aromatic leaves, mysterious as an alchemist's apparatus. They sizzled and spat flames, as my father tossed them into the pot with an easy hand.

My father, the perfectionist. The man who, after standing for three hours in front of the stove, will continue to hover over his audience, ladle in hand. "A little more salt?" He'll muse, no demand. "How does it taste? Describe the flavor! Maybe more pepper. Just a tad?"

When I was younger, this inquisition generally drove me to frustrated tears, sobbing and threatening him with my spoon, "It tastes like soup! Okay? It just tastes like soup! It's delicious! It's spectacular! Will you go away now?" To this infantile outpouring, my father would simply shrug sadly, as if disappointed that the world did not share his exacting standards.

Unfortunately, I cannot escape my genetic destiny. My family remembers places by what we ate there. Vienna is the memory of the decadent Sachertorte, the rich bitterness of the chocolate lightened by a sunburst of apricot jam. Washington, D.C. is the taste of Persian rice pudding on a warm summer night laced with the cooling scent of orange blossom.

This has led to my best friend describing me as an "absolute fatty. Not physically, mind. Psychologically."

I claim the title with pride. I adore food. This makes eating at the dining commons a weary process. Particularly as a vegetarian, I find myself consuming a consistent diet of breakfast salad, luncheon lettuce and dinner greens. At least you can't overcook fresh vegetables.

About once every two months, my friends and I escape the confines of student life and go to a nice restaurant. The kind of place with cloth napkins and a dessert menu. Our traditional stop is Trattoria La Siciliana on College Avenue. Their dip has become something of a legend amongst my friends. We soak up bowlfuls of the spicy olive oil with crusty bread, our mouths smarting from the tang of garlic and onion. I still remember the first meal I had there, after several months of failed cooking adventures and microwave meals. My friend and I were silent the entire meal and when my eyes fluttered opened after the final bite of airy tiramisu, I could see him watching me, amused understanding on his face. "I know," he said in response. "I know," I replied, and we both laughed, with the kind of dazed happiness only a great meal can create.

I spent a lot of last summer cooking, trying to recreate remembered flavors and resurrect old meals. While I was cooking or baking, the kitchen was my personal domain. I would blast The Strokes, dim the lights and dance around barefoot with a ladle as my conducting stick. Occasionally, someone would tentatively poke their head 'round the door, braving the lion's den, to ask cautiously if I needed help. Intruders were shooed away with a wave of my baton and a "Go enjoy yourself, it'll just be a moment."

That was the summer we spent bicycling all over Berkeley in search of lemon trees, preferably on public property, not wanting to spend good money (50 cents!) on what could be easily found. We discovered a tree down College that was on the shaky legal ground between garden and pavement. My friend was halfway up the tree, sandals dangling in the air, when the owner came out. He laughed at the sight of us and gave us a handful of cherries from his garden, which we ate on the ride home, juice dribbling down our chins.

It was a summer of cutting swathes of lavender from the side of the road for shortbread cookies and snatching rosemary for roasting almonds. Suddenly, Berkeley had become an Eden-like jungle, with bounty hanging from every tree.

Occasionally, we need too look beyong our Cup Noodles and Easy Mac. Good food warms the stomach and good company soothes the heart. When I said that I remember events by food, that wasn't entirely true. The truth of the matter is that I recollect by what I ate and by the company I kept. Great meals to me are the dance of flavors on my tongue and the distant sounds of my friends' laughter. As Ruth Reichl, food critic extraordinaire puts it, "Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious."


Contact Meghna Dholakia at [email protected]

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