Mealtime Rituals is a set of essays that explore the comfort so many of us have sought in food at a specific point in the day as our lives are upended by the coronavirus lockdown.
Sunday, 3 May 2020. My brother turned 35 today. We’re apart, but it’s reason enough to dip into the last of our almond meal stash and bake his favourite flourless chocolate cake.
3pm. Our three-year-old and I are building a domino-inspired track with Lego, a wooden stacking rainbow, toilet paper tubes, a box of cornflakes, whatever’s available. Cameron’s covert attempt to whisk and fold ingredients together, without our son running interference, is exposed by the aroma of melted butter and chocolate. Can I have a liiiittle bit? I can crack the eggs! Can I lick the spoon? Is the cake ready yet? Is it ready now? Now? NOW?
This exercise in patience, for everyone involved, will eventually culminate in a tea party. A pre-pandemic activity that started as a desperate attempt one evening to calm a threenage meltdown over a missed birthday party. (He’d napped through it!) During this indefinite lockdown, where days seem to lump together, swirling time into an amorphous batter, our mid-afternoon tea parties have risen to ritual status. It punctuates the day, much like the 6pm paper plane–flying with kids in neighbouring windows.
It is also the one ‘meal’ we put together as a family. Cameron, the resident chaiwallah, relishes the process with a mindfulness that isn’t quick enough for an enthusiastic pre-schooler and my sluggish self. Mr Small diligently lays out the picnic mat — a decade-old dhurrie from a handicraft fair or a yoga mat — and serves the food, plates balanced on upturned palms like a pro.
I’m responsible for treats, which truly are treasures with erratic supplies and all. Fortunately, decluttering has uncovered sugared gifts that were previously hidden from eager eyes and eventually forgotten by tired minds. I found chana doce (a Goan dessert) from mum whose philosophy of giving is “just keep extra, never know when you’ll need it.” I know now! Lindt teddies, from Cam’s last work trip, sweetened a teatime viewing of Here We Are, the animated adaptation of children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers’ eponymous bestseller. Bags of banana chips, undelivered presents from our pre-lockdown trip to Kerala, have been torn open.
On weeks we’re feeling secure with supplies, we indulge in messy cooking with curious, little hands. I’m especially thankful for urban foraging — part of a banana harvest from the building compound starred in cake, ragi pancakes and smoothie desserts. I hope this period of rationing is teaching our kid balance, not just cheeky ways to stretch the concept of sharing.
5 pm. Our apartment smells like cake. “Jules’ tea?” asks Cam. We must! It’s actually Deepka, a masala chai from Australia; a gift from Jules, my sister-in-law. We’re aware of how odd it is to bring chai back to India. But we love it, this memory-in-memory of our Indo-Aussie homes away from home.
I suddenly miss everyone more. Jules and her turning-the-teapot ritual. My mother-in-law who’s never short on home-baked goodies. My Dad and the way he signs the letter ‘T’ when he wants a cuppa. His brothers, one who’s been crushing it (literally and figuratively) with his masala cha concoction; the other whose secret ingredient in tea was orange leaves from his garden. Lazy family lunches that aren’t over until the last cup of chai has been drunk. I remember my godson and our shared passion for maska khari and chai. “Soon!” I tell him over a call. My friend Yash who wanders through words, forgetting about the tea and requesting a reheat like she’s at her favourite café. The process looping, until it’s time for a G+T.
For some of us right now, joy is laced with guilt. It feels wrong amidst a pandemic that hits closer home each passing day. On ones when it feels particularly impossible, our son reminds me otherwise. Faced with the fleeting nature of being, the tiny pockets of sunshine are really all we have. He reminds me that celebration needn’t be excessive nor perfectly curated. It’s a game of Go Fish on a yoga-picnic mat; it’s ‘magic-ing’ a biscuit from full moon to sailboat to sickle moon to gone! He reminds me that unbridled enthusiasm, clinking cups and everyday banter is enough. And that three’s a party too.
Gretchen Ferrao Walker is an editorial consultant who has collaborated with Indian and international publications like GQ India, Forbes India, Time Out, Architectural Digest India, Design Anthology and Collectively.org. She is the former editor of travel bimonthly Time Out Explorer and current mum to a three-year-old. She enjoys embroidering and making pictures.
Madhav Nair was formerly part of the editorial team at Paper Planes. Most of his work as an illustrator and graphic artist is published under the pseudonym @deadtheduck.