Several months ago, Saveur Magazine (to which I am a subscriber and of which I am generally a big fan) tweeted about vada pav, linking to a recipe and calling the sandwich “Mumbai’s answer to the hamburger.”
I took issue.
One culture’s dish is not necessarily an “answer to” another, and to imply so betrays bias—in this case, a Western one. To say that a vada pav is “like” a hamburger–or, more accurately, a veggie burger–would make sense as far as providing useful context for your audience. But the language “answer to” implies that Indians developed vada pav in imitation of the hamburger, which is ridiculous; we’re talking about a country with one of the richest food traditions of all time, built through the process of repeated foreign invasions and the influence of vastly diverse cultures, none of which give a shit about American hamburgers.
But it’s just wording, you might be saying. Why get so angry over semantics?
Because semantics matter. Because semantics are about more than just semantics. I’m certain that whomever at Saveur (a food publication that usually tends to be much more sensitive than some of its peers about positionality and exoticizing and assuming audience) tweeted that seemingly innocuous comparison, they were not thinking about any of the implications that later got hashed out on Twitter after I responded to the tweet and my response caught the attention of folks in the Houston food community and beyond. That’s my point, though; they didn’t think.
It’s easy not to think about these things when they don’t affect you. It’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s not that big a deal!” when the language in question is not reductive of you or your people. It’s easy to think that someone’s just making a fuss when you aren’t the one feeling dismissed or discounted.
I’m an English teacher and a writer, so of course I believe that our words matter; but I’m not the only one. Nearly every religious tradition the world has ever known invokes the power of language: in their creation myths (think of “In the beginning was the Word”), in their ritual (Hindus & Buddhists, among others, utilize mantras), and in their practices (many Jews will not write out God’s name, out of respect for the power that it wields).
Shiv, who turned two in July, has exploded with language in the last month or so. It’s been incredible to watch, a marvel really, how quickly his brain acquires and connects and makes meaning. I am reminded of the Old Testament scene from Genesis, where God gives Adam the authority to name the creatures; as my son walks and names what he sees, it is almost as if he grants things their very being. His world comes to life through his speaking, and he relates to that world in a completely different way now that he can speak about it.
They say that one reason for “baby amnesia,” the fact that most of us have little-to-no memory before the age of two or three, is also related to language; without language, the structure through which humans make meaning of their surroundings, we are unable to record our experiences.
Speech carries great weight—we’ve all experienced this in our own lives. Just a few words, the “right” ones or the “wrong” ones, can stick with us forever, can cause us to shut down or open up, to decide in an instant to change our life’s path or join our life with someone else’s.
So yeah, it matters to me when our culture casually perpetuates sloppy, harmful language, reinforcing dangerous forms of “normality” and turning a blind eye to stuff that really matters. Would we care about “domestic” violence more if we simply referred to it as violence? Why am I a “lesbian writer,” when all of my straight friends are just writers? How is it okay call Shiv my “adopted son,” but would be weird if I talked to a colleague about his “conceived-by-IVF daughter”?
The good news is, I’ve found, most folks—at least the ones I’m lucky to know—are willing to engage with another perspective, to look and see if something they’ve said might have a host of implications they hadn’t considered. We’re all guilty of it, myself included.
It’s easy not to think about these things. That’s why it’s so important that we do.
MY MOM’S PAV BHAJI
I’ve never been that big of a fan of vada pav, but pav bhaji–that’s a different story. More vegetarian sloppy joe than hamburger, pav bhaji is a delicious, delicious comfort food that works perfectly for colder weather months and is one of those meals you can make mostly ahead/eat throughout the week.
My most distinct memory of this meal is working at the kitchen table in my parents’ house growing up (the table where I sit right now, in fact, as we inherited it from my mom when she moved here) on weekend afternoons. During junior and senior year, when I was working my butt off on Calculus and college applications and my World History II term paper and Physics and Mock Trial, my mom would deliver chai and pav bhaji to the table; I could eat & drink with one hand, and keep working with the other.
Because my mom is basically the best (as is clearly demonstrated by the story above and about a zillion others), she took the time to measure out the ingredients and write down the method for her pav bhaji recipe, a thing so rare that we should consider it a great gift indeed. And just as delicious as I remember from high school.
one large red onion, diced
1 T finely minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
half a head of cauliflower, cut or broken into 1-inch pieces
4 large, ripe tomatoes, diced (substitute 14 oz. can of diced potatoes)
2 medium-sized Russet potatoes, peeled & diced
1 cup cubed fresh carrots
1 cup frozen peas
¼ cup butter
2 T canola oil
small pinch asafetida
generous pinch ground turmeric
2 T pav bhaji masala (mix is available for purchase at Indian grocery stores, or you can make your own)
salt, to taste
Place potato and cauliflower in a pot with enough water to cover. Add cubed carrots and bring the vegetables to a boil, cooking until potatoes are tender. Mash vegetables gently with a potato masher, not to a pulp but in order to create a “sloppy joe” kind of texture. Do not discard the leftover water.
In a separate, heavy-bottomed pan, add butter and oil and head over medium. Once hot, add asafetida and turmeric—they should sizzle. Immediately add onions, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until the onions have browned slightly. Next add the tomatoes and pav bhaji masala; cover the pot and allow the mixture to simmer for 3-5 minutes. Add the mashed vegetables and any accumulated liquid, along with frozen peas and salt to taste.
Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring regularly to make sure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom. Continue to cook until all water is evaporated and the mixture is thick. Stir in half the cilantro and garnish with the rest.
sliced sweet onion
bread of your choice—soft rolls or hamburger buns are traditional
pav bhaji masala
When ready to eat, melt a little butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add a pinch of the pav bhaji and swirl the pan, then toast your bread in the pan, flipping to season both sides. Repeat as needed.
Pile the pav bhaji mixture onto the bread to eat as sandwiches, or use the bread for dipping. Squeeze lime on top of everything and enjoy bites of onion in between bites of bhaji. Best enjoyed with a proper cup of chai.
I’ve got a cat in my lap, very insistently settled, as she has been on each of the nights since school started that I’ve been up late, working (there have been quite a few). She’s “helping” me.
I’ve got this Instagram picture of some oatmeal, which isn’t really up to regular blogging standards, but it’s been over a month since I’ve posted a recipe, and this one is a winner, humble though it may be to look at.
I’ve got a kid who, as of last week, sleeps in a big boy bed, speaks in three-word sentences, and remembers EVERYTHING in this way that is both freaky and totally endearing.
I’ve got a pack of new students—most of whom are not in fact “new,” but instead, kids I’ve taught before, some of them twice, and now I get to see what they look like as starter adults, and it’s a pretty amazing vantage point, I tell you what.
Living and working on a school calendar means that September always seems to be a “taking stock” month for me—I can’t help but plan out my personal bits and pieces while I’m planning out curriculum, too. I ask my students to write mission statements for themselves; I write one, too. Blank squares on calendar months become etched with pencil, then crossed off in pen.
These almost-fall days (at least that’s what we have down here; my friends in Canada posted the first snow pictures today!, which felt incomprehensible in my mosquito-ridden reality) are prone to over-filling. We do too much, we schedule too much, we take on too much, and everything becomes a blur and before you know it, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s.
So I did this radical-for-me thing a few weeks ago. I decided not to throw a Diwali party.
One of the most difficult things for me to accept about living a balanced, grown-up life is that it’s not the saying no to things you don’t really want to do that’s hard; once you disabuse yourself of the notion of needing to please others or trying to be someone that you’re not, saying no to that stuff gets easy. What’s much tougher for me to swallow is that I’m going to have to say “no” to things that I actually really want to do.
Those of you who’ve been around this blog and/or my life for the last several years know that Diwali is a big deal for me; it’s my thing, my family’s tradition. I started throwing the parties after my dad died in 2006, and I’ve relished the planning, the cooking, the fellowship between friends from disparate groups in our lives, and the sacrament of sharing my culture with others. I love it.
But I’m not going to do it this year. We have a full fall calendar of close friends’ weddings, and though I could fit in an event, I know it would max out my financial, emotional, and temporal resources—all areas where I’m really trying to stay focused. So I’m breaking with tradition and ignoring the “supposed to” voice in my head, and instead choosing what I know is healthiest for me. A CRAZY NOTION, I TELL YOU.
I felt relief immediately after I shared my decision with mom and Jill (who had both been pulling for the side of sanity all along). I keep waiting for the regret, but so far, all quiet on that front. Actually, I feel proud of myself—really proud and not a little bit surprised that I’ve actually managed to stick by my values and priorities, a task made easier by the incredible friends who support me in these kinds of conversations every day (I’m looking at you especially, my Courtneys) and remind me that my identity is bigger than the parties I throw or the things I write or the food I cook.
Sometimes, saying “no” is the most powerful affirmation there is.
GOLD STANDARD OATMEAL
slightly adapted from Megan Gordon by way of The Faux Martha
This recipe is crazy simple but totally a game-changer in terms of method; the oats retain their shape instead of devolving into mush. The texture is IDEAL for someone like me who still has issues with pudding, and toasting the oats before adding the liquid, and adding salt (don’t skip this!) means that your oatmeal actually tastes like something, not just what you dump on top of it.
Shiv and I both love ours with toasted nuts (sliced almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, you name it) & a dash of maple syrup, and I splash in some extra milk in his to cool the whole thing down. This oatmeal is also a great place to sprinkle hemp, flax, and/or chia seeds; you can use cinnamon or other spices, but I don’t find that the oatmeal needs it. Butter is the best flavor of all, y’all!
1 ½ T butter
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
generous pinch of sea salt
1 cup liquid (3 parts water to 1 part milk, i.e. ¾ cup water & ¼ cup milk)
In a wide, shallow skillet (make sure it’s one that has a lid!), melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the oats, the pinch of salt, and toss to coat in the melted butter. Stir regularly for at least 5 minutes while the oats toast, until you see a slight color change and smell a distinctly nutty aroma.
All at once, pour in the liquid; the mixture should immediately begin to boil. Remove the skillet from heat, cover with the lid, and leave it alone for 8-10 minutes.
When you’re ready, serve with the toppings of your choice.