Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
Evening picnics along the Cauvery
Thakur Dalip Singh/Fotomedia
My grandmother had come on a rare visit and my mother decided to please her by making watermelon juice just the way she liked it. Not in the blender that grandma abhorred, but by squeezing the manually grated pulp through a fine sieve, and adding plenty of sugar.
"How is it?" Amma asked patti eagerly.
Between finicky sips patti answered, "All right. But if you had added a pinch of salt, a little lime, and a few drops of freshly crushed ginger, it would have been much better."
Patti is uncompromising in kitchen matters. A frail 90 now, she is just as rigid in her food requirements today as she had been in the days when she supervised the huge kitchen with three stoves of hardened mud and cowdung fuelled by wood, and two more of iron with coal fire. A flock of servants could not work as efficiently as she, or indeed care as well for the three cows in the backyard shed. Her cool storeroom held sacks of rice and dal from the village fields, vast jars of pickles, tins of home made appalam, vathal and vadam. Garden fresh vegetables were the norm. No wonder she finds it difficult, even after many decades, to digest pressure cooked rice and factory made pickles.
Ask grandma about the good ol' days and her account will meander through all the nava rasas but end on some gustatory recall. Why not? Every occasion in the past seems to have zeroed in on special dishes made as part of the rites and ceremonies.
In her tiny village (Talaiyur in Thanjavur) on the banks of the Cauvery, every street made an extended family of people belonging to the same caste. The brahmins of the agraharam did everything together, as did the farm labourers in the kudiyanava teru.
As a girl child in the agraharam, Patti had an endless round of household chores. But there was fun too, as during the "padinettam perukku" or the first floods of the Cauvery in the month of Adi. It was the time for evening picnics when the women made four kinds of rice, each spicier than the other - yellow lime, golden tamarind, brown sesame seed, and the mandatory curd rice of the Tamils, pearly white and splattered with green chillies and mustard. ("Flavoured with asafoetida juice, made by marinating and gently rolling the gum with your index finger in a small cup of water," Patti will inform you with pride."None of your odourless powders from a box.") Pickles and fries rounded off this meal by the riverside, served on leaves fresh picked from trees near by, washed down with the cool water from the Cauvery. "You cannot imagine that taste. The gingelly oil from the village press had a fragrance quite unique, as did the tamarind from our own trees that we helped to seed and dry."
Morning picnics were held in Margazhi. Braving the December cold the village elders (only males) would start on their round of pre dawn bhajans.
Such roars accompanied by clashing cymbals would wake the children who would rush out and join the procession as it sang its way to the river bank. Some elderly lady would make pongal on a stove of assembled bricks with sticks of wood. This was not sweet pongal but white stuff dripping with home made ghee ("From a single cow," Patti would add), and sprinkled with jeera and pepper. Oh, to take a dollop of it on a plantain leaf straight from the stove, so that it warmed your palm and tongue in the misty mornings . . . !
Before that, Navaratri brought a blaze of excitement and colours. Preparations with foodstuff began months ahead, but not for eating! "We soaked the rice overnight, ground it to a fine paste in the morning. We rolled it into tiny balls the size of sago (!), dried the pearls in the sun and stored them in an air tight tin."
The young girls also gathered mandara leaves or aathi spinach, to be dried and pounded to make green powder. They picked out the hard cases of bilva or pomegranate, to be sun dried and scorched over coals for making black powder. Turmeric pounded and sieved gave yellow powder and the red came from kumkumam. Orange and lemon were managed by judicious mixing of rice flour with the last two colours.
Starting on day one of Navaratri young women of every household drew a kolam with gum, using a coconut or neem twig pared to brushlike thinness. This was on a huge brass tray scrubbed to sparkle like gold. They next placed the rice pearls in rows over the lines of paste. When it dried the pearls made gorgeous kolams of parrots and swans, flowers and jewels.
In the evening some elder would go down the street calling out the names of the heads of each household. Everyone except the infirm, the pregnant and those with infants-in-arms at once joined him, and all made their way to the village temple. The women carried their kolam trays and placed them in rows before the sanctum of the goddess. Appreciation and criticism flowed fast and free. By turns each family made the mandatory sundal snack of the day which was distributed in donnais after being offered to the gods. ("Kadalai, payattham paruppu or karamani sundal, no rajma or ranima that you people are forever making nowadays. Hard on stomach and tongue," Grandma snaps.)
Pongal was time for massive feasting with three or four vegetables dry and wet, sarkarai pongal drowned in ghee, and other goodies. The vegetable leftovers were mixed and slow cooked once again over the dying embers until a solid mass was formed. This was that special delicacy termed ericha kuzhambu.
The next morning, with their wedding sarees, comb, kumkumam, oil and hand mirror in a taala koodai (wide basket), as also vasanai podi and manjal for bathing, the women assembled at the village tank. The young girls carried the previous day's leftover pongal, curd rice and ericha kuzhambu. They rubbed each other's foreheads with tender turmeric, offering good wishes for long life with their spouses. Then they placed the leftovers in rows of five or eight portions on turmeric leaves. Calling out to the birds they intoned, "I have put out food for the crows and the sparrows. Let me live with my siblings with the unity and camaraderie of the birds". After bathing in the tank, the women would return dressed in finery and prepare yet another feast, this time for their human families!
Patti's most interesting story is about the celebrations on attaining puberty. The village elders made sure this rite of passage was a happy and memorable one. The girl was taken to the river carrying a boy child on her hip. Flowers were tied round her and flung over her head before the ritual bath. She was next fed with fruit and milk, some of which she had to toss behind her for birds and insects. Dressed in silk and jewels, her hair adorned with rakkodi, naagar and kunjalam, she went to the temple for blessings. Then she rode a chariot through the streets and was welcomed home with aarati. Nine silver coins were placed over her head, shoulders and feet. As she bowed to the elders the coins fell making an auspicious tinkle.
A huge mound of rice and paruppu drenched in ghee was served to the girl. She rolled it into balls for distribution with appalam, and kunju vadam, a take-off on vella cheedai, made only for this occasion.
These detailed recollections show that in patti's world, every season and occasion, festival and ritual, was marked by the kinds of food regarded as suitable to it. All made with elaborate attention and loving care. Cooking, serving and eating were then community experiences, fostering closer bonds among people, and between people and nature.
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