Sunday mornings at the Katyal household meant a welcome routine. At the strike of 11 o’clock, my father began preparations for either chocolate chip pancakes or waffles (at my brother’s discretion), and I’d fire up Netflix and stream an old episode of “Top Gear” we had yet to watch. As a family, we had our eyes collectively glued to the screen for the next two hours, laughing at wry English automotive jokes and enjoying the breakfast my dad poured his heart into making that morning. With our mouths full of chocolate and dough, if there was one time of the week we were truly a “family,” it was those Sunday mornings. When our stomachs had enough, we began our five hour affair of traveling two or three towns over to buy our family’s groceries for the week. Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Caputo’s and whatever Indian grocers we felt like visiting were usually on the list. It was innate for us. It was a Sunday constant.
Food was (and still largely is) the focal point of my family. Growing up, my father used to toil at the stove, making us dinner from scratch night after night. His food was sustenance for my brother and me, a means to keep us healthy and satiated. It was something I came to expect, something I never really thought about. It took some time to wrap my head around the significance of it all, but learning how uncommon his dedication was made me realize something.
Those nightly dinners of palak paneer, daal roti or whatever else my father felt like whipping up meant a lot more than what I gave them credit for. Beyond their caloric value, the meals he made contained a sense of love and familial attachment, expressed through his labor and culinary ingenuity. Even beyond our kitchen, my family’s relationship with food was much of the same.
Sometimes, the only way our family could leave the house was if we had a new restaurant to try in a part of town we’d never been to. We expressed wonder, awe and fascination over the meals we shared. At those times, we were unified both in our emotions and our thoughts.
In Plainfield, Ill., where I called home growing up, our options for food were banal and few. Fried chicken from the local Jewel-Osco grocery, bland vegetable lo mein from a strip mall Chinese restaurant, over-salted and undercooked breakfast mush from Larry’s Diner. I guess the lack of a cohesive culinary landscape didn’t really come as a surprise for my father. The town is a bastion of everything we know and love about Middle America; there were farms within two or three miles from my house, and a cornfield in my high school’s backyard. It compelled my father enough to lug his kids around from town to town just to find produce, snacks, meals and whatever else he felt like feeding us that was up to his standard. Our form of a vacation was driving into Chicago and trying a new restaurant we read about, and our form of therapy was strolling through the aisles of Trader Joe’s and picking whatever eclectic snacks we could get our hands on. It was what we did. Hours away from home, it’s something I find myself still doing when I’m in need of a pick-me-up.
I remember strolling through the aisles of Caputo’s with my father on the weekends. He tried teaching me how to find the right mango once. Color, feel and consistency were all paramount factors in the search, he said. He insisted there was a character to each mango, and as a shopper it was my personal duty to separate the bad seeds from the good. I honestly used to think he was full of shit, but tasting the fresh, full flavor of those mangos he brought home taught me the artistry and emotion my father had for food. I remember the face he used to make when he found the right fruit. Sometimes I find myself making the same face. It’s funny.
None of it really struck me as being bizarre growing up. My father’s mania over what he cooked and what he fed us became second nature in our household. I didn’t really understand at the time that food was an escape for my father. But even as a child I knew if something was up, making his kids a muffaletta sandwich was his way of saying “Everything is all right.” It became a canvas for him to express his creativity, a means to channel his soul. The strains of a 12-hour-a-day corporate job might have left my father in a feral, crazed stupor after all these years (I can only imagine that would be the case if I was in his shoes), but I guess cooking was an outlet to protect his sanity. At the end of day, the plates of food he arranged probably brought him satisfaction through a means other hobbies might not have been able to. Plopping plates of meals he arranged on the kitchen table with a face of unabated triumph, watching his family eat his food with expressions of primitive joy and satisfaction — those were the moments he valued most when he came home, I think. And watching my father paint portraits of love and soul through the meals he made led me down a path that embraced food along a similar vein.
There were (many) days where my father had a habit of making something he had never cooked before — usually while we were watching “Chopped” or “Iron Chef.” Watching television chefs animatedly try to shoehorn durian or jackfruit or stinky tofu (or whatever other obscure fruits and vegetables you could imagine) into their various dishes must have lit a bulb in his head. The shift from “bored man watching TV with kids” to “fervent man whose synapses won’t stop firing” was funnily abrupt and blatant.
Sometimes those days excited me, but sometime I also sat in my living room with a mix of fear and awe at what was to come out of the kitchen in a few hours. Whether or not those experiments panned out (though they did more often than not), watching his process was what caught my attention more than the meals he cooked. He was an impassioned man in those moments, a man who couldn’t be pulled from his stove or oven no matter how much one tried.
There were times when he’d ask me to come sit with him when he was preparing that night’s dinner. Sometimes, I indulged him. But looking back, I wish I had accompanied him more often. Watching him cook those nights felt like watching an artisan ply his craft, or watching a strained man expunge his stresses and worries through a labor of passion. No matter if he was at the grill, nursing the stove or chopping vegetable after vegetable on the countertop, the different lens through which he saw life from the graces of the food he was making was always evident. The effort he put in requited my fascination. The personal triumphs he expressed were met with my embrace.
Nowadays, I waste my friends’ time by talking about some new condiment I found at Babo, the meat my father, brother and I smoked during the holidays, or my love for a dish at a restaurant I discovered a weekend or two ago. My friends sometimes like to parrot jokes about my pretentious obsessions, but when it comes to food I’ve always felt there to be a fine line between pretension and passion. I’m not sure if my love for food was a product of an innate predisposition my father and I happened to share, or a product of being caught in the middle of my dad’s illustrious form of an escape (or even just a result of pretentious inclinations). But the countless weekends I spent with him watching him cook, or binge watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” while my mother was at work, created a relationship rooted deeply in the virtues of food. Food is a passion for my father, and it’s a passion he couldn’t help but share with me. As a family, we’ve had our trials and we’ve had our tribulations, but food has been the constant that has bound us together. It’s how I learned to feel love and passion. That’s something I can only thank my father for.
When people ask me what I miss most about home, I don’t really have a singular answer. I honestly couldn’t care less about any specific place or thing left back in Plainfield. Truly, if I could just see my father in the kitchen more often, that’d be enough for me.