Yesterday afternoon, all I wanted to do in life was to come back to Mysore at the end of my trip and become Tina’s apprentice.
Tina, of course, is the proprietor (proprietress?) of Tina’s cafe, which has two locations in town and a loyal following for delicious food and good company. The breakfast joint is operated out of Tina’s house, and she offers cooking classes here by request. As I sat around a table just outside her kitchen, I was so taken aback by her knowledge of cooking, the care with which she explained everything, the role that food plays in her understanding of family and culture and tradition. She was so at home behind her small portable stove that she used for demonstration, speaking us through each recipe with such ease that the words seemed to move right from her heart to her mouth without even consulting her brain.
As she mixed the dough for roti, the ubiquitous unleavened bread served at almost every meal here (and especially in northern India), she explained that this was her first job in her mother’s kitchen as a child. As she grew older, she graduated to the more difficult tasks: kneading the dough, rolling it out, cooking it and carefully flipping the delicious bread from side to side. You could tell, watching her roll and knead and dust and cook, that this bread was in her bones. No recipe to transcribe, not a science to teach, but rather an art to demonstrate. Not only was I in awe of her skill, knowledge, and love of cooking, but I also never wanted to leave the room. Ever. I just wanted to keep coming back, learning from her, watching her cook, listening to her talk about each dish and her mother’s kitchen and how her children roll out their own roti when she’s too busy to do it herself. Because cooking is fun, and eating — well, eating might be one of my favorite things in the world. But the act of cooking foor that your mother’s mother’s mother made, food made with love, for those you love, food that embodies a culture and swells wth meaning and history and instinct — that’s the kind of joy that must be cherished and remembered. And passed on.
As the seven of us — students and teacher alike — sat around devouring the spread of dal, stuffed okra, stuffed eggplant (my favorite!!), and freshly made roti, a silence filled the table. It’s that kind of silence you hear when a table full of people can’t do anything but bask in the food they’ve just shared, enjoying the satiety in their stomachs and the flavors still lingering in their mouths and the opportunity for a shared experience, even with those they may have just met.
I’ll be back at Tina’s next week for another class, more stories, and more food. This is the kind of woman, the kind of teacher, whom you want to come back to visit as often as you can. Inspiring and nurturing and tough as nails. And damn, does she know how to work some flour and water together to make magic.