By Vyasar Ganesan
Suvir Saran superstitiously asserts in his cookbook American Masala that “when you give away the recipe for your family’s pickles, you are giving away the soul of your family’s cuisine.” It is not too sweeping an assumption to say this is the case for any family recipe, across cultures.
Centuries of grandmothers have kept recipes from prying eyes, fingers, or mouths, passing them down filial lines only. But for as long as there has been this tradition of family secrets, there have been those who hungered for the secrets of other families.
In India, it would cross too many lines to ask another family for the secret to something as innocuous as their harissa mix. But America is the country of cutthroat entrepreneurs, and my family moved here to be cutthroat, to be entrepreneurial. We are soul stealers, to Saran; we hunger after secret recipes, relishing their hidden, forbidden flavors. Our spoils are scraps of legal pads, yellowing printouts from archaic printers and endless flocks of sticky notes. They come from families with much longer legacies than our own, families who had fabulous cooks, talented gourmands, expensive tastes, just as easily as they come from families with less than nothing. No collection of them exists outside of the floating paper piles in Naniji’s kitchen, and perhaps it’s better this way. After all, the best thieves leave no trace.
I remember having Thanksgiving dinners in northwest Austin with the Burman family, friends of my grandparents from the old country. In our button-down shirts and rich silk saris, my mother, her parents and myself entered the sumptuous home, decorated by four teenagers on the second floor and their parents on the first. Sushma Burman always greeted me by grabbing my cheeks with hands like turkey claws and pulling the fat right out of my face, as she cooed and fawned over me. By the age of eleven, I dreaded her touch and hid behind my mother.
At the table, we were served the soup course first. Naniji, my grandmother, eyed the concoction pouring out of the ladle. “What is this, Sushma beti?”
Sushma smiled, her first mistake. “This? Oh, it’s just a cheese and broccoli soup. I picked up the recipe when I came to America.”
Dipping her spoon in, Naniji pulled a few mini-florets out and gave them a gentle slurp. “Very good.”
From then on, Naniji was after that recipe. It didn’t matter how much I said I hated broccoli or how sensitive her stomach was to dairy. However unhealthy the proportions of butter and cheese to vegetable, she wanted it. It was broccoli and cheese soup, not a thing so secret she couldn’t have gotten it from a cookbook or more generous acquaintance, but Naniji wasn’t after just the recipe. For her, it was about providing her children something they didn’t have. In Dehradoon and Delhi, she’d run a textile industry out of her home to feed and clothe all five of her children, cutting dresses and patterns out of magazines and brazenly copying them down to the last detail. Theft was standard practice for her, and in America, in her limited Indian community of us, the Burmans, and the Sunday temple crowd, there was no one to deny her (no one was older). It took three Novembers, but Sushma finally gave her a pale yellow sheet of paper after dinner, trying her best to look like she was being generous.
Theft is a comfortable subject for most of my family. On trips to visit relatives in Arizona and Florida, someone is bound to point out the abundance of fruit trees in the neighborhood.
Our host, either my fiery aunt Alka masi or my taciturn uncle Ishu mama, will grin. “Oh yes, we should go picking later.”
Picking. That’s what they call it, that’s what it is to them. The fruit trees of America are no different from India’s, where, according to the adult authorities, anyone can partake of nature’s bounty. They know the reality as well as I: it doesn’t matter if you’re half a world away, private property is still private. The only difference between myself and my elders is not respect or conscience, it’s perception. This is what they were raised to do: crawl under fences, wade through the mud, dodge dogs and landowners for mangoes, guava, or apricots. I was raised with McGruff the Crime Dog and Monk – if it doesn’t belong to you, taking it is bad, and one way or another, the bad guys always lose.
But out we will go, grocery bags stuffed in our pockets. I am always dragged along, rather embarrassingly, because of my height. And at every opportunity to snatch fruit, I will go, make sure no one can see me, and pluck a lemon from the tree. Oranges take considerably greater time, with several twists to free their thicker stems from a branch, so often a passing car will force me to let go and act like I was just stretching. Down the streets we will go, a caravan of fruit thieves, stripping the bounty off the trees in plain view of the houses, passing cars, the neighborhood watch.
Back home, my mother used to leave for a walk of mysterious and indeterminate length, and return with muddied knees.
“What happened?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Nothing, nothing.” Walking over to the counter, she’d empty her pockets: keys, phone, wallet, and several round objects.
“Where did you get those?”
“Oh, well, you know the house on Chisholm with the overhanging pears? I talked to the person who lives there, she told me to take as many as I like.”
“And what about those?” I’d say, pointing to a group of things that are distinctly not pears They are rounder, redder, heavier. “Were those from her house too?”
“Well, I was walking back when I saw them lying on the ground by the driveway of those new people.” Methodically, she cracked one open on the table, spilling bloody seeds into a bowl, some still clutching banners of yellow membrane. They were pomegranates, pomegranates just like the ones she could have gotten from the supermarket, from a friend, from Nanaji’s garden.
“I couldn’t just leave good food lying there, and you know they never touch them.”
This is not the worst of it. Once, at a family reunion in Turtle Beach, Florida, we booked a group of suites at a resort. My cousins and I were sharing one, hanging out after day in the sun, when suddenly, there was a knock at the door.
“Get the boys together. We’re going for a drive.” Anil mama‘s steps echoed off in the direction of the other resort rooms.
Three of my younger cousins were watching TV in the living room, slackjawed and sprawled. They barely registered my approach.
“Get up, we’re going somewhere.”
Puneet, the oldest of the trio, looked up at me. “What?”
“Anil mama‘s getting everyone together, he wants to go out for a drive.”
Anuj, Puneet’s younger brother, waved a hand to the window. “Have you looked outside?” he asked. “It’s raining.”
On cue, thunder rumbled in the background. I put on my sandals and opened the door to wind, rain, and gulls whirling in the sky. The whole resort was as dark and heavy as a swamp. Shielding my head, I went to the main suite, where the whole family was gathering.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
My mother looked at me, crazed and excited. “Remember all those fruit trees we saw on the way into the island? We’re going picking!”
“In this weather?”
“We’re going picking!”
“Won’t it be dark soon?”
“We’re going picking!”
Everyone was donning shoes and trying to find socks that didn’t have sand in them. Anil mama came up to me and asked if I could drive.
“Sure, but this weather is making me nervous.”
“That’s fine. Ishu will drive one car, you’ll navigate in the other with me.”
Sullen, I ducked out into the storm with the rest of my family. We boarded the two rental vans and left Turtle Beach. For the next two hours, we crisscrossed the island in search of un-fenced-off fruit trees to plunder. The young were the first to grow mutinous. Anuj whispered something with a grim look on his face to Kunal, his cousin, who nodded and sighed despondently. Puneet looked at me.
“Why do we have to do this?”
I tried not to get angry. “Because they’re telling us to. And because we’re tall.”
Anuj snorted. “Why’d we have to come then?” He and Kunal aren’t short, but next to a pair of giants like Puneet and myself, they may as well have been useless.
“The family that suffers together stays together, I guess.”
After about twenty minutes, we found what we were looking for – a fire station with a small cluster of fruit trees by the main road. Pulling into a dark stretch of the street, my family got out. We divided into two groups – my aunts, Puneet and Kunal, who headed to a stunted orange tree, and my uncles, Anuj and myself, sneaking over to the closer mango tree. Nanaji and Naniji stayed in the car. The whole thing took less than ten minutes, but standing in sinking mud, blindly groping for mangos in a rainstorm, I thought it would never end.
Back at the resort, at half-past-eight, the elders counted their spoils. I walked up to Anil mama. “How much fruit did we get?”
He smiled, small teeth showing. “Maybe ten mangoes, a few oranges?”
I got angry. “You made us get up for that?”
“Why not? You were all just sitting around.”
“We’re on vacation!” I shout. “We can sit if we want to.”
“Look, you can still be productive on vacation,” he said, motioning to the laptops on the dining table. “Ishu and I are both working here, too,”
“But why did we have to go out?”
“It’s about the experience. Right?”
Anil mama‘s brows crinkled. There he was, basking in success, sitting on a field of victory, and I had to rain on his parade. I had the argument bug, though. There was no stopping me.
“What about the danger? We were driving in the rain, during a storm. We’re in Florida, for god’s sake. What if there’d been a hurricane?”
Anil mama rubbed his eyes. “Look, did you have fun?”
It wasn’t fun in the rain, and it wasn’t fun out of it. Convinced that I was in the right, I spent the night fighting with every adult member of my family, having more or less the same conversation with each of them, before finally, out of exhaustion, giving in to sleep. There’s no point in arguing with food thieves, but I felt obligated to make some attempt at a moral center. There is a passion, a drive in them, to seek out the free stuff, the specials, the things hanging off trees, begging to be taken. As the old adage says, if it’s not nailed down –
As I nodded off, I remembered the feel of wet bark, the fresh tropical pulp in my teeth, the scent of damp earth around my head while we hid from imagined eyes, and away from my anger, it all felt good.
Vyasar Ganesan is a writer from Austin, TX. He’s been published in various places, including the “National Gallery of Writing”, “Agave Magazine” and “My Entertainment World He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. His specific literary interests are food writing, Indian life in America, and travel writing, among other fields.