Cooking for a Party of One
It’s 2013, and my husband of 10 years, partner of 17, is completing his MBA from UCLA, commuting every other weekend from San Diego. We have just celebrated our decade-long marriage, watching Roger Federer at Indian Wells in Palm Springs, our usual anniversary celebratory weekend.
“Madhu,” he says as he drives me to the airport. “I’ll come in April, okay?”
I fly back to Maryland, where I head the R&D division of a cancer diagnostic company. It’s a bicoastal marriage, but one that we agreed would be bicoastal for only a few more months before he would join me.
I call him late, nearly 10 p.m. My usual call before I go to bed.
“When will you be here?” I ask him.
He doesn’t hesitate: “Madhu, I won’t ever visit where my parents aren’t welcome.”
We are Indians; even though we left our country decades ago and are now American citizens, we’ll always be Indians. Parents are always welcome. Mine died years ago, so his parents are what we have. And even though my only sister is also in the US, for two decades my life has been his siblings, their spouses, their children, his cousins, their in-laws, the extended-family members.
In those 10 seconds, all our conversations flash through my mind. “No,” I say. “I never said that. I asked you to be in Maryland when they visit — after all, they’re your parents, and I travel three weeks each month for work. You need to be in Maryland so they’re not alone. That’s all.”
He hangs up. I call him back, as I have done for 17 years, every time we’ve had an argument. He hangs up. I call back. He doesn’t pick up my call. I call again. He ignores my messages. I call again.
“Don’t put words in my mouth,” I whisper to the walls of my empty home. “I never said they weren’t welcome. Pick up the phone, please.”
But for 214 days, he doesn’t.
In New Delhi, I was used to exploring new and old restaurants with my sister. One day, it was the golguppas at the university bus stop — the chaat wala deftly poked a hole in the fried semolina dough, added a few lime juice–sprinkled garbanzo beans, then dunked it in spicy water spiked with tamarind, chilies, and chaat masala before handing it to us in dried leaves, woven together to resemble bowls. The next day, it was the Hong Kong restaurant in the Greater Kailash neighborhood of South Delhi — the Indo-Chinese spot where my family has celebrated anniversaries, birthdays, jobs, and scholarship awards since the 1970s — where we could get Gobhi Manchurian (cauliflower coated in cornstarch and ginger-soy sauce), Sichuan chicken, and Hakka noodles, with vegetables and shredded omelette. Or dumplings from the Bhutan food stall in Dilli Haat, near the All India medical hospital. Or the Mughlai parathas with ground spiced goat meat and scrambled egg deep-fried in a thin naan, near Market 1 in Chittaranjan Park, the neighborhood I grew up in. Every milestone in our lives, we have celebrated in these places.
I am Bengali, from the eastern part of India — I was brought up on discussions of politics and food. In 1995, I met my husband — South Indian, handsome, tall, confident, with a laugh that could light up a room. We bonded over music, driving to unknown lands, silly jokes, and, of course, food.
In the beginning of our relationship, eating out was the fun part. He used to say, “Madhu, you eat like you’ve never eaten before.”
I would have to agree. Start with soup, appetizer; then move on to a veggie dish, a chicken or fish dish; then dessert. Savor each course. It’s scientific, too, as Ma used to say. Have the greens first, mustard greens especially — they cleanse your palate. Veggies before meat (get the fiber in, before more protein). Fish before chicken. The level of protein content increases as one moves from course to course. You end with dessert, preferably something yogurt-based, for the probiotics. It calms the stomach down when you end your meal.
“You can eat the whole world, can’t you, Madhu?” he used to say, shaking his head in mock amazement at my never-ending hunger.
The first week, I wait for him to cool down. I wait for him to say, “You’re right. I’ll be there next month, Madhu. That was silly of me.”
But he doesn’t. The house is supposed to hold happy memories, but I don’t have any yet. The boxes from San Diego are still unpacked. I set up my in-laws’ suite — place the Hindu gods the way they would like, arrange their clothes in the walk-in closet. It is afternoon. I call him again. He doesn’t pick up.
I look at our photo albums — trips to Brazil, us drinking coconut water from stalls next to Copacabana; to Costa Rica, where he chased a porcupine in the dense forest night, mistaking it for a very prickly and fast-moving sloth. “Take the photo,” he instructed as I screamed for him to get back in the car. The porcupine fanned out its needles. The photos remind me of how we scarfed down leftover patacones, inhaling each bite of the coconut oil–fried banana chips. We giggled with relief that we were inside, and that a very angry porcupine was outside. Photos of our wedding in India, when all our parents were alive, eager to see us married. Photos of Ma and me in Pondicherry, the former French territory in Tamil Nadu. Eating vadas, South Indian fried patties of fermented and ground lentils, dunked in coconut chutney and sambhar daal. Photos of us making mozzarella sandwiches in Arches National Park, and of his 39th-birthday barbecue on a San Diego beach.
He is my best friend. This isn’t infidelity. Or an accident. Or even memory loss.
I look around my house. The bedrooms echo with each breath I take. The kitchen is gleaming steel, beautiful, silent. The house is still.
He doesn’t call.
My best friend tells me to forgive myself.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because you did nothing. This is abuse. He’s abusive. You know it.”
“No,” I say.
“Forgive yourself if you want to eat an extra slice of cake, or drink an extra glass of wine. Or order out for weeks. Forgive yourself. You’ll pick yourself back up again.”
I don’t listen to my best friend.
“Stop it, Madhu. This is mental torture. A classic case of narcissistic manipulation.”
“Don’t use big words,” I say.
I can’t accept what is obvious about my crumbling marriage. That he’s done this many times. And each time, I’ve begged him to come back, and apologized, so he feels better. I have saved my marriage for a decade by eliminating myself in it. Now my heart races; I can’t sleep. My tears soak my pillows. I can’t breathe. I head to urgent care. Panic attack, they say.
“Calm down, Dr. Ghosh,” the medical team says. “We’re sorry you’re going through this, but you need to take care of yourself. Got it, Dr. Ghosh?”
I ignore them, too. My life is focused on scanning my emails with a forensic urgency. I stop calling him. I don’t email him anymore. I wait.
It has been months since our last phone call. It is a Sunday when I decide to cook.
In my Bengali family, we have celebrated and solved everything with food. Ma’s first words every day when I returned from school were: “Khidey paychey, are you hungry? Come, let’s eat.”
Of course, every culture celebrates its joys with food. And what about sorrows? Deaths, yes — in India, after the customary 11 days of mourning following a death in the family, we have what is called niyom bhongo. The breaking of custom, to break the cycle of grief. The first meal, after praying for the soul’s peaceful departure to heaven, feeds everyone who helped take the deceased to the funeral pyre: the neighbors, the family. Feed them their favorite foods. Feed the roadside mongrel dogs the cauliflower curry, the chicken curry with turmeric and tomatoes, the sweet yogurt with jaggery. Ask for peace. We solve everything with food.
So why not this, too?
I head to my brand-new kitchen that muggy Sunday. The only thing I can focus on is cooking. The sound of my knife slicing through red onions will counter the silence that has dominated 2013. I am in a city of strangers — I am not familiar with the roads or the speed limits or the grocery stores here — and I’ve never cooked for one. I come from a family of people — gaggles of cousins, broods of friends. I’ve never been left alone like I am now.
But I pull the onions out of the bowl and slice them. I clean the chicken, like my father taught me when I was a child. I rub a ginger-garlic paste on the chicken breasts, then marinate them in a glass bowl with yogurt, crushed tomatoes, coriander seeds, cumin, garam masala, a dash of soy sauce, salt, chili powder, turmeric, and cumin powder. I place it in the fridge, the yogurt tenderizing the meat, the flavors penetrating the chicken as I make the rice. Fried rice, as we called it — a quick rice that Ma was known for. Sauté frozen peas with bay leaves and cumin seeds. Pour in a cup of washed white rice, sauté it with slices of red onion for flavor, add salt and a pinch of cumin powder, and mix in a teaspoon of clarified butter with olive oil. Add raisins and cashews after that.
The single-occupant house now fills with the fragrance of rice as I add water and lower the flame. I heat another pan with just a teaspoon of oil, my nod toward lower-fat Indian food. I sauté tomatoes with onions and ginger. With each stir of the base sauce, I focus on the acidity of the tomatoes, the pungency of the onions. When I lower the flame before I add the chicken, I don’t wonder what he’s up to. I don’t think of the silence, because there is none. There is a party in my kitchen. A party of one.
I cook the chicken on low heat, cover it to cook the yogurt with the ginger-garlic paste. It is evening. I set the table with a plate my mother gave me the year before she died — with happy orange and yellow flowers. The dinner plate of a child, suitable for the youngest cousin in a large Bengali family. I scoop the rice and the chicken onto the plate. I sit down. I raise my glass of water in a toast. To a party of one.
It has been three years. I have moved back to San Diego. I still relish cooking, and cooking for one even more so. With each eggplant curry, chicken kofta, or kebab, I celebrate the family that’s no longer here, and even a relationship that was meant to be forever, but then wilted. I applaud what is fleeting. I have grieved the loss of a love that was supposed to last, and now I celebrate what I am grateful for.