There is nothing pleasant about death, yet I have seen glimpses of pleasure on the attendees’ faces after a good meal served at a funeral service. Some are perplexed at their absolute lack of control over their bodies’ gastronomic impulses, while some are making no efforts to hide them. At my father’s service, most of them inquired about the cook soon after saying the usual parting remarks and reassuring us of calmer days ahead which they, especially after the meal, could foresee with a lot of clarity, but somehow, we couldn’t.
That same day in the evening, our much-celebrated town cook had a wedding reception to cater. He knew my father; I am sure he knows most of his clients in the town who hire him. I sometimes wonder if this existing knowledge about the people and their lives finds its way into his cooking. No one asks him that. No one sits for a chat. People hire him. They meticulously, almost with school children like deference, provide him with every item on the lists he requests. He prepares the food on-site – a slightly secluded spot away from the main party venue or a designated kitchen provided for him and his small team of three to create magic. After ensuring his campsite is all set, the hosts and everyone else forgets about his presence. Dot on time with a short intro of all the magnificent wafts the food appears.
He works for relatively smaller groups, like never more than a hundred guests. His specialty is a traditional menu. Over the years, his menus have weathered the waves and disruptions of the modern, continental, fast food, chocolate fountains, celebrity chefs, and the ongoing YouTube recipes and menus. The last one has been particularly challenging since even the three-year-old birthday girl can instruct now on how to cook her favorite pizza. But our town cook’s menus haven’t changed in the last thirty-five years, and even the three-year old’s dad still fondly reminisces about his childhood feasts. To have a taste of his food, some people throw multiple parties for the same occasion– one with traditional meals with close friends and others with more massive crowds and more eclectic menus. The town cook doesn’t allow mixing menus!
Choices, however, remain and strictly followed without compromising on taste. Town cook never contradicts his hosts and instead sincerely allows religion and community, caste and class, affluence, and its lack to influence his recipes. For him, food doesn’t need progress. All it needs is attention, and that perhaps does the magic. He does not have the ambition of business, never set up his kitchen, or diversified in other ways. He is the consultant who dives wholeheartedly into the context and leaves you feeling uplifted, how much ever momentarily, and whatever the occasion. He has cooked for lawmakers; he has cooked for crooks. He has cooked for charity parties; he has cooked with ingredients procured from black markets. He has cooked in candlelit kitchens and outdoors, next to a gushing stream under the autumn blue sky. He has secretly handed fritters to the kids before the food got served and occasionally indulged the diabetic gourmet with the forbidden dessert.
Rumor has it that the one time a bride who ran away from her wedding just before the groom arrived had her lover hide in the kitchen with the cook’s help. Allegedly, he even packed some food for the eloping couple on the run. Well aware of the cook’s reputation, the groomsmen and other attendees found it hard to resist the food that was later served at the runaway bride’s father’s request. Everyone was oblivious to the cook’s role in the scandalous exit of the bride the entire time. Once, our town cook almost got embroiled in some heated politics when it came to light that the mess kitchen where he cooked served student members of an impassioned rebel outfit. He deserves some book rights for these stories.
Cooking to the rhythms of the distant party music – from rock and rolls to the discos, MJ’s pop tracks to DJ’s Bollywood music, town cook has moved and grooved to it all while smoothly sliding the marinated cauliflowers in the deep-frying pan. He first came to the town to work as an apprentice with his uncle, who ran a small eatery. After the uncle’s demise, he left town and tried his luck in the city – in clubs and even in domestic households. He came back after a few years with his family and has never left. Many years ago, a film crew on their way back from a nearby location remained stranded in our town due to some countrywide political strikes. They had hired him for a few days. The superstar lead actor became a fan of his cooking and left him an autographed teacup.
“I knew your dad. I had accompanied him on a road trip with a group of his friends and families. They set up camps for a night, and I did the cooking.” He sighed and paused for a long time. “It was before you were born. Long time.” After saying goodbye, he started leaving on his way to create memories, somewhere, before the day ends.
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Author: Staff Contributor
Illustration/Photograhy: TDLM Design Team