I slice an emerald zucchini in half lengthwise, then again into quarters, and hum along to the repeated swish-thwack of my knife hitting the butcher’s block. I cup my hands over my nose and inhale, relishing the near-bawdy earthy essence of raw, chopped vegetables on my fingers. I began Kindergarten at Madison Elementary school two weeks after my family emigrated from India. Ms. Keeley, a kind white lady was teaching us foods of the alphabet. She asked me to recite the alphabet in front of the whole class. I said “zed” at the end, she corrected me and said it was pronounced “zee.” When she asked me to name a food that began with z, I shrugged. Ms. Keeley said, Do they not have zucchini where you’re from, honey? We did. It was called turai and it’s delicious with chapati, but I didn’t share that.
Once, we were invited to someone’s house for Diwali dinner. They served lamb. We liked lamb. My mother said we didn’t eat meat, so we ate rice with steamed pigeon peas instead. My mouth salivated as I watched the boy seated next to me at the table take third helpings of lamb biryani. What kind of clowns eat meat on Diwali? Mom cursed on the way home. The next day, she made dal palak and lamb biryani that she swore was better than the garbage served at last night’s dinner. I guess it was okay to be clowns, as long as she was the ringmaster.
In my lifetime, I’ve eaten approximately 186 cheeseburgers despite my strict Hindu upbringing that dictates I should not eat beef. Cows are sacred, next to God. What kind of damnation awaited me in the next life? Fuck. Whatever it was, I decided long ago, it’d be worth it.
After the zucchini, I continue chopping more vegetables and before long I admire the heaping wealth of prepped produce in front of me, displayed like a Mumbai street vendor displays his pungent spices in burlap sacks to attract customers away from his rival who sells chai and mini fried samosas. Maybe I should make some samosas, my husband’s favorite. I think it’s okay to hate samosas, and still love the people who eat them.
I married a vegetarian and after the wedding my mother-in-law quietly suggested that I learn some scrumptious chicken or lamb recipes so her son would eat meat again, as he once did as a child. I said I’d try, but he never strayed. Fifteen years later, now I’m vegetarian too. My mother-in-law’s silent disappointment penetrates through the culinary delight of every family holiday, like the effect of a solar storm.
I never appreciated the exquisite, delicate allure of fresh vegetables until I met my husband. The delicious, crisp bite of steamed broccoli tossed in a light garlic-lemon vinaigrette will accompany tonight’s main course, a creamy spiced lentil soup chock full of onions, zucchini, celery, carrots, potatoes, and spinach. Just before adding the vegetables into the Dutch oven, I roast the spices because according to the white chef on America’s Test Kitchen, who calls it GAY-rum masala, instead of guh-RUM masala, it will create the ultimate flavor bomb.
Very little provides complete nourishment for the mind, body, and soul, than good food. In my writing, I often utilize food as a catalyst, either for character development or scene setting. Sometimes food is a prominent story element, other times it is a silent observer, but it always sparks something: a change, a growth, or even an end.
Renuka Raghavan is an Indian-American author who writes short-form prose and poetry. She is the author of Out of the Blue (Big Table Publishing, 2017) and The Face I Desire (Nixes Mate, 2019). Her third collection of flash fiction is forthcoming by Cervena Barva Press. For a complete list of her previous publications, visit her at www(dot)renukaraghavan(dot)com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @RenukaRag.