One Sunday morning in 1981, I came home from church and my soul was on fire. Not because anything exceptional had transpired during the 10:30 service, but because of the way my house smelled when I walked in the side door. My dad was making Indian dishes for the first time. Whatever was happening in that kitchen was weird and wild, and it twined into all my senses, drawing me toward the simmering pot and away from everything else I'd understood as food in my nine years on Earth thus far.
My mother had made most of our meals up to that point — dutifully, methodically and not unkindly, but as a means to an end, getting her husband and two daughters fed. Though she cares greatly for the communion of the dinner table, the artistry of its contents doesn’t especially concern her. It’s not a failing on her part at all — just a seed that had neither been planted nor encouraged to bloom by first-generation American parents who were grateful to have anything to eat at all.
She cycled through a small repertoire of high school home ec dishes: solid, ketchupy meatloaf, spaghetti with jarred Ragu, chicken a la king, pork chops with ketchup and onion slices, and a grey-gravyed, potato-clotted beef stew that still haunts me in the night. There was always a salad (iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges and a cut-up Kraft single if she were feeling frisky), always a juice glass filled with carrot sticks, and never, ever a sense of adventure. That was fine with me; I didn’t know to expect one.
My dad — Dr. Kinsman to the world at large, and "Pup" to me at home — is a scientist to the core. He's curious about the world and what makes it spin and twitch the way it does. Whether he's patenting phosphate-free dishwashing compositions containing an alkyl polyether carboxylate surfactant, painting a landscape or adding a Hudsonian Godwit or Red-necked Grebe to his birding life list, he pursues it with purpose and passion. Cooking is no different.
That particular Sunday’s cooking jag had been prompted by the chance spotting of Madhur Jaffrey’s “World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking” on a bargain table at a Barnes & Noble. My mother ran the religious education program at our Catholic parish on Sundays, and Pup had taken up the task — and eventually the art — of getting a big midday meal on the table when she got home. A few weeks into the new arrangement, he was, in his words, “off and limping along,” and itching for a chance to experiment with something unfamiliar.
He’d been entranced by stories about India since childhood, and the fire was re-stoked when PBS aired Louis Malle’s “Phantom India” documentary in the early 1970s. A decade later when Jaffrey’s book manifested in front of him at the bookstore, it just seemed like divine intervention.
With some effort, Pup assembled the necessary ingredients (no small feat in our smallish Northern Kentucky town) and served my mother, my sister and me a feast of spiced rice with nuts and raisins and caution-light-bright turmeric-spiked yogurt and chickpeas. My sister (who had been going through a phase of eating only white foods) and I cleaned our plates. We helped ourselves to seconds. We sprinted home from church that next Sunday, and for many Sundays afterward and eventually tied on our own aprons to help.
I asked him about that meal a couple of years ago, seeing as I was 9 at the time he’d served it and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a story I’d cooked up in my weird kid brain.
He told me, “I have been told by Indian friends and acquaintances that I have not yet had ‘real’ Indian food. I don’t know what ‘real’ means. Is New England fare the ‘real’ American stuff, or does it have to be Texan, or from South Carolina, or something else? So I can’t say what 'real Indian' food is.”
“I just know that with India’s population being over a billion people and its land mass running from the Himalayas to deserts, sea coasts and about everything in between there seems to me to be a lot of room left for me to do culinary exploration if I can somehow manage it. Maybe I can get an Indian home cook to whip up something for me some day. A man can dream,” he continued.
But it hadn’t even occurred to me to call any matters of authenticity into question. I mostly just needed him to know that the meal changed my life.
I’d just seen The Wizard of Oz for the first time, and as I was breathing in the heady scents of toasted cumin and cardamom, tasting pungent turmeric, ginger and garam masala, and biting into tender, nutty chickpeas it occurred to me that my senses of taste and smell were suddenly turning from perfectly serviceable black and white to beautiful, blazing Technicolor. I’ve no idea what was being served up in Kansas or Kerala in the early 1980s, but I certainly knew my tastebuds weren’t in Kentucky anymore.
Emboldened by our response, Pup set out to explore the world’s cuisines, and we happily, hungrily set out with him. At home over the next few years, we ate our way through Hungary, Sweden, Wales, Italy and wherever else his growing cookbook collection could ferry us. At events like the annual Greater Cincinnati International Folk Festival, Pup and I made it our business to collect, consume and contrast the egg rolls of any nation that had cared to tote a deep fryer to the Convention Center.
(At the Japanese booth, he was kind enough to suppress his amusement as I winced and snorted through my first-ever bite of wasabi, and at the Polish booth, we both quickly learned that un-schmeared and un-toasted is not the optimal introduction to the wonder of bagels.)
And perhaps best of all, he gave us a way to consume the world — with pleasure, method and gusto, but no judgment about the people and places from where it came. We all eat, we all drink, we all gather. Bon appetit.
But as my sister headed off to college, our mother’s health, which had been fading for a while, took a palpable dip. While she’d never provided the kitchen razzle-dazzle that Pup did, she’d always undertaken the unglamorous midweek shift, and I was grateful. During my last couple of years of high school, I did my best to keep the now-trio of us fueled with baked chicken, breaded pork chops, porcupine meatballs and cube steaks, and saved my dreaming for the weekends.
I lived for those weekend outings and cook-ins with Pup, and I’m pretty sure he knew the need he was feeding. Whatever else was happening at home could quietly slide to the back burner as he and I trekked the 45 minutes to Jungle Jim’s International Market to pick up plum paste, basmati rice and the chrysanthemum candies my mother seemed to like.
We talked over my college plans over lamb rogan josh and mango lassis at a tiny Indian restaurant we’d stumbled across while record shopping near the University of Cincinnati. And when we went to visit the school I eventually attended, he scheduled our flight home from Baltimore specifically so we’d have enough time to fit in a meal of Kung Pao chicken at the now-defunct Tony Cheng’s Szechuan. He’d done his homework because after all, he’s Pup.
And if a man can dream, so can his daughter. When I travel to a new city, or am lost in my head in my own, something deep in my gut sends me out in search of a meal or a grocery store I've never been to. It’s the way I connect with the place where I am, or find safe passage from it for a little while.
It may be time for me to turn the tables now. My mother and Pup moved to South Carolina last year, and it’s a whole new cuisine for them. He sent me an e-mail the other day saying, “I had a lifetime's worth of pimento cheese at lunch. Never again.”
I’m a big fan of pimento cheese, and Southern food in general. I think pretty soon, I’m going to have to make a trip down there. I'll set out a spread of every version of pimento cheese I can find and have Pup try them one by one to find the kind he likes. For science, of course.
Editor's note: Why yes, that is indeed a "Dad" tattoo on the author's shoulder.
Do you favor foreign flavors?
5@5 – Kitchen tips from dad
Spouse vs Spouse: battle of the Father's Day brunches
Great article. I like to know how chefs get inspired. Read about Jason Zygmont, exec chef @ Five & Ten in the Taste Issue of Eide magazine,
LOVED this piece! I learned most everything about cooking from my mom growing up, just watching, then through college calling and asking how to make a particular recipe I'd grown up with. I still have that collection to this day.
I have over the years, broadened my food horizons as well (though haven't delved into Indian yet!), some more successfully than others. I'll take a lot of this to heart and hopefully my kids will continue to ask me if they can help cook dinner!
Irrelevant to this article in every way, shape and form possible. Why must dolts like you ALWAYS make some kind of anti-Republican rant? You are the twit here, just FYI.
They do it to get a rise out of others.
Love this piece. Probably because that's the way my dad was too. My mom was a great cook, but when my dad cooked, it was as if he was a chef at a restaurant. It wasn't just dinner, it was an event. Often it was something he'd cooked many times before, but not something we had often, so it was a treat. Other times he'd experiment with something new. Generally speaking, he was very good at it and whatever was the product of his experimentation was very tasty. Sometimes though, they were complete failures, but in all honesty, the quality of the food wasn't really important. I admired the adventurous spirit and the willingness to take chances on something new. Even when it didn't turn out that good, the event was memorable and exciting, and we'd always have a frozen pizza on standby.
Yes, exactly, yepitsmeaagain... In our case, re-run pancakes with leftover fried rice really FAILED big time, but we appreciated just about everything else. Exploring and adventuring really does open up possibilities. Things that were actually quite good that otherwise we'd not have done the adventure towards trying. I'll deal with the re-run pancake mixture combined with leftover fried rice because it means so many of the OTHER options really expanded our taste palate in truly positive ways.
Very awesome post! I opened this article thinking it was going to be about fancy dog food, but was pleasantly entranced by what I just read! And you are likewise from Kentucky! (There never seem to be many of us.) And yes, Dad was the adventurous cook in my home, too. Mother made some great meals, but it was Dad who explored other cuisines, especially when we moved to New York City and the markets were available.
I cook with pups all the time. They are very tender and juicy.
At first, I thought it said cooking with poop.
A wonderful read and brought so many memories, thank you! When we were old enough, my sisters and I did all of the cooking, so the adventure started there. Mom would cut out recipes and leave them for us to figure out...egg foo young when I was 12! I thought Chinese food came in cans. LOL
Thanks for sharing your memories of your "Pup" with us!
Kat , I read and enjoy many of your pieces but this one was exceptionally well written. We grew up in a similar food situation. My mom cooked during the week. All of the meat and potatoes with salad standards. When dad was home on the weekend we would get something new and exotic every night!
This experimentation on weekends is what started my love of food. Thanks for bringing me back to those wonderful times.
I really appreciate that! Thank you! I don't have kids, but my husband and I cook good, but more standard meals during the week and then take the time to play with our food on the weekends. We use that time to really connect and catch up from every thing we missed during our busy week. I am positive that comes from the meals I had as a kid, and I'm glad you had some of the same pleasure in your life!
Yet another fan of your work here. This piece made me want to "broaden my horizons" when it comes to trying different foods. I am of Italian background and, am told I am a pretty decent cook–but it's usually the "tried and true" with not a whole lot of experimentation thrown in. For instance, I've never tried Indian food. We have locally a Thai restaurant, Somalian and a Japanese restaurant and I've tried none of those. I've wondered if I'd be able to read the menu (if it was in a language other than English or my rudimentary Italian or French) and worried about embarrassment and not knowing what to order as a "beginner."
Anyway, I hope you continue to inform us with your pieces for a long time to come!
If you live in the US most restaurants will have English menus printed. At the least they would have it printed in both languages. If I go into a restaurant in the States and they aren't in a language I know I'm not at all embarrassed to ask the wait staff for help.
Nice story & cool tatt!
During World War II my father took a trip across Northern Africa, the Middle East, Southern Europe, and finally after giving up their B-25's to British forces in Burma, the air crews made their way from Burma back to Southern Italy via anyway possible. Back in the state my father did his best on the weekends to recreate the food he remembered during the 6 years he made his way back and forth across what was probably the best "eating tract" on earth available at the time. We loved the weekends and never knew if it was going to be Northern African food or Southern Italian, but it was always great and contributed to my love of food today. Thanks Dad!
Could there be a better testimonial to ones father, on Father's Day ?
I think not.
A most wonderful piece of writing! It tugged at my soul (AND my stomach!). I hope to read many more of your writings and recipes. I related very well to your story of youth and food. I now try every dish I can get my fork into. You only go through life once and if you pass up one dish, you may never get that chance again!
Loved reading this. Thank you :)
I loved it, this is the value and the result of a family that grows in the hands of the Lord. This is a great example to follow.
Thanks to the author for sharing her story. It's a fine tribute to both of her parents, but especially her father.
Your story brought tears to my eyes when you described your mother's devotion to feeding her family as my mother did in India. My mother became a widow at the age of 35 with five mouths to feed, eldest among them a mere 12 year old. She toiled and moiled to make sure that we were fed as well as anyone with the kind of resources she had. Even when she couldn't cook herself and had a servant do it for us, she lamented if the dish, she instructed and supervised, did not turn out as well as if she had cooked herself. Your story also touched me when you described how you eventually appreciated your dad the cook and his cooking and relishing the tastes of the world's cooking but especially those of India. You see, I too am an organic chemist (used to be known as cookbook chemistry) always wanting, although not succeeding as well as your dad, to try my hand in the kitchen!
What a wonderful story... thank you!
Superbly done! Pictures were painted for me – you have a wonderful gift. Thank you.
Thank you for that. As a father and an afficianado of Indian fare, I really enjoyed your article. Great way to start Father's Day.
I thought this was going to be about cooking dogs. It wasn't.
Another CNN garbage story.
I thought it was a nice fluff piece on an appropriate day. Way to kill the spirit of something nice. If you people don't like it then either work (no comment) to change it or go some where else. When is this country going to get back on track of the productive exchange of ideas to lead to a better tomorrow. It seems that everyone just wants to ridicule and mock like immature high schoolers. Sad.
Not sure I could have said it better. I'm a high school teacher. The rule in class is that you may not criticize someone else's work or idea unless you have a better one to propose.
I must have mikssed the mandate that said you HAD to finiish reading it. Why didn't you just shut up and move on?
You need an operation to remove the stick out of your posterior orifice. Go read Fox news, it's more your speed.
I liked the story, thought it was timely and the author did a great job. But what on earth does Fox news have to do with anything? With partisan comments like yours, you sound no better than the poster that you are chastising. Grow up, we're sick of you people!
hey bo,check yourself for a pulse.of course it's a puff piece.a very well written and engaging puff piece.
yet you took the time to read it and comment on it. eat much garbage?
How about you run yourself to the nearest Home Depot, grab a large bag of rocksalt and proceed to pound it high and hard up your @$$...
Feel free to go phuque yourself.
Thanks so very much for taking me along your heartfelt journey. Your words took me soaring back to my very own little Appalachian hometown and for that, I am grateful.
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.
Join 8,174 other followers