Pass the Cake: A look at food, family and being together when you’re not
Sometime about 2006, my family started doing these semi-huge reunions. I say semi-huge because we’re kind of an overwhelming bunch. What we lack in number (and there are quite a few of us), we make up for in noise and pure dimension. I always think I’m tall until I get a crick in my neck from hugging my cousins. We’d pick the Fourth of July or Memorial Day — some extended weekend — and get together almost every year.
As it’s the middle of Middle America, a regional identity I’ve come to take a lot of pride in, my hometown of St. Louis was always our hub. The kids would stay in my parents’ house, and the wiser folks would be 10 minutes away at my grandparents’. As time passed, the location sometimes changed, but St. Louis has always been our center. My grandparents have been there for 30-plus years, moving there from Detroit shortly after immigrating from India.
It was, and is, without fail, my favorite weekend of the year. All my cousins set up camp in my room; the half-dozen of us stumbling over one another whenever someone did so much as try to stand up. Every inch of the floor was covered in makeshift beds and old blankets. Our guest room was empty, but it didn’t really matter. This one moved across the world and that one changed professions and the other two found a place in Texas — so, it didn’t matter. Right now, we were all home, here, and we wanted nothing more than to kick one another in our sleep and trip when we walked to the bathroom. And, of course, eat.
The only time we move as a unit is when food beckons. Loading into my mom’s car (I’m in the trunk. Again.), we make the trek to Nani’s kitchen. I’ve been calling my grandma “Nani” since I was a tyke, and, eventually, everyone else started calling her “Nani,” too. There’s power in being short, chubby and wild.
We smell the food before we get out of the car. The turmeric and homemade ginger-garlic paste wafts out to the driveway, and I see Nani around the side of the garage, picking curry leaves from her karivepaku plant in the garden. It’s the same scene, every year. Heck, she finds something to do with that plant every day.
Leaving our shoes outside the back door, we follow her into the house. My grandpa’s in the sunroom, munching on chakralu and reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nani’s already adding her leaves to the chicken. We disperse around the various kitchen cookie jars, most of them holding boondi and decade-old caramel calcium chews. My uncle is peer-pressuring us to eat the papaya he just cut. Last year, it was jackfruit. It’s chaotic, and there’s pomegranate in my hair and it’s home.
My family is tethered together by this event, this sensation, this food. There are some cousins I’m not involved with for months at a time, too busy with our own schedules to keep up regular contact. But, always, in the weeks leading up to these fleeting holiday weekends, we’re all talking endlessly. About the chili chicken from last summer and the lamb Nani kept telling us was tofu and the mess we consistently make trying to help with the chapatis.
About the fifth year we all got together, we were celebrating Nani’s birthday, and we got a full sheet of ambrosia cake from Dierberg’s (a St. Louis grocery store). It’s a vanilla base, topped with fresh pineapples and kiwis and magic. My cousins and I have tried to find an ambrosia cake as good as the one at Dierberg’s, but it just doesn’t exist. This is a fact.
The evening of the big birthday dinner, we walked into the kitchen after dessert, and we see this leftover cake being dumped into giant Tupperware containers. My aunt, my mom, Nani — they’re taking spatulas to the slab, shoveling it into random bins. I repeat: spatulas.
That is, and always will be, the most I have ever laughed. Here we were: A bunch of entitled, oblivious, blissfully stuffed cousins, watching the best thing that has ever happened to us being dumped into vats. Something about the act was so bizarre yet felt oddly normal.
As a first-generation child, I’ve grown up with a little (a lot of) spice in my life. Seeing the Dierberg’s masterpiece turned into mushy mountains was the first time I think I realized just how much I took my culture for granted. This brazenness and warmth are pieces of my everyday life because they’re entwined with my vibrant, brash, South Indian family. This was almost four years ago, and we’re still giggling about it.
My family. They’re my favorite people in the world, and I say that without hesitation. That night with the cake, we stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m., just gossiping and belly-laughing out of our food comas. And when we woke up, we went straight for our tubs of ambrosia. We’ve made the cake a staple at each get-together since.
Almost every year turned into almost every other year, which turned into family weddings, or as often as we could. But I know that if, right now, at 11:29 p.m. on this rainy weekend night, I needed someone, anyone, from my family, they would get here as fast as they could. Even the ones a plane ride away.
We’re not just a bunch of hungry relatives. I mean, we are, but food is a currency of love for us. It’s what we’ve used to bring us back to one another. When words aren’t enough or time gaps get too big or some trivial kinfolk drama clouds our judgment, the food roots us. We share it with one another and create it for one another because it’s a way for us to be together, even when we’re not.
My grandmother’s cooking has become such a routine; it’s always there for us, whether that be in the form of dinner every night or the tea she brews at 3 p.m., every day. When something is so familiar, so normal, it’s easy to lose sight of what a blessing it is. I’ve lived 10 minutes away from my grandparents since I was 8, and now that I don’t anymore, I miss it. I miss them. So, I put on a pot of rice every now and then. I drink a cup of tea each afternoon.
Food has this incredible capacity to just let you be there, wherever “there” is for you. Eating is such a habitual practice. Eventually, concrete images and specific moments start attaching themselves to each meal. Every time I’m on my bed, curled up with a cup of Darjeeling, or I order a chai from Espresso, I’m with Nani, watching her do cryptograms and dip biscotti into her steaming mug. I’m helping my mom grate fresh ginger into the boiling milk on the stove. I’m 532 miles away, but I’m there.
No matter where I am or what I’m eating, food always, always, always makes me think of my family. I think of what Nani cultivated for us in all her whizzing around the kitchen. Without her cardamom or chili peppers or whatever it is she does that makes everything taste so good, I don’t know what our relationships would be like. I don’t want to know.
I can’t tell Nani I’ve gone to a South Indian restaurant without her coyly asking, “You know mine is better, isn’t it?”
I always say yes, and it’s always true. I have a hunch that everyone in the family would agree because we’re always getting more than just a meal with Nani. We’re finding vignettes of her life in India and creating traditions and plunging into this feeling of home being able to exist inside of everyone.
If there’s one snapshot I’ll hold in my heart until the world stops spinning, it’s sitting around the wobbly wooden table in my mom’s sunroom, the morning after one of Nani’s feasts, and eating ambrosia cake for breakfast. It’s a scene we’ve set multiple times now, and it never gets old. We pull up extra chairs from the kitchen and dining room. There’s a pot of coffee brewing, which has already been emptied and restarted two or three times that morning. A dozen donuts from Dunkin’ are sitting on the kitchen table, because we obviously haven’t had enough sugar. In all its hectic glory, it’s warm and peaceful and dependable. It’s home.