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.
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.