Shoba beats Jhumpa in Writing Sweepstakes

by Aseem Chhabra

When the editors of Gourmet assigned journalist Shoba Narayan to write a piece for the magazine’s January 2000 issue, they virtually gave her a carte blanche. The editors had seen some of Narayan’s writing and had liked her personal style. Of course, she was told to weave in descriptions of Indian food, cooking and kitchens in the article.
“I find that I write best when I am given that kind of a broad mandate to write whatever I want,” Narayan, 34, says from her home in Manhattan.
Narayan’s article, The God of Small Feasts’, a 1,700-word piece, full of warm and charming childhood memories of life in and around her joint family’s kitchen, just won the prestigious 2001 MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award given by the James Beard Foundation. She beat two other prominent writers in her category, including last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, who was nominated for her article ‘Indian Takeout’ in the April 2000 issue of Food & Wine.
The James Beard Foundation is named after the father of American gastronomy, who spent his life and career encouraging new talents in the field of culinary arts. Cookbook writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey is possibly the only Indian writer to be awarded by the foundation. Jaffrey has been recognized two times by the foundation for her books — A Taste of Far East (1993) and World Vegetarian (1999).
In her article, Narayan writes about her childhood home headed by her grandmother and including her immediate family, aunts, uncles, cousins and servants. The center of the house was the kitchen where she learnt her first lessons in cooking.
But while her mother talked to her about the benefits of spices (“Cumin and cardamom arouse, so eat them only after you get married…”), Narayan’s mind would wonder off into the world outside the kitchen. As she says in the piece: “I was more interested in fighting with the boys over cricket balls… The kitchen was merely a place I might dart into between aiming catapults at sleepy chameleons and playing under the banyan tree in our overgrown garden.”
While Gourmet may have given her a carte blanche, she did get one set of instruction from the magazine’s editor, Ruth Reichl — to expand on a 150 word essay that she had written for a 1998 competition for The New York Times. In that essay, Narayan described how she had to cook an elaborate vegetarian feast for her family, so that they would let her go the US to attend Mount Holyoke College.
“Ruth Reichl (then the chief food critic of The New York Times) judged the piece and she liked it,” Narayan said in describing the genesis of the Gourmet article. “So if there was any hook, they said we liked that (the essay) and somehow bring that into the piece.”
And so in the second half of the article Narayan fast-forwards to 1986 where she cooks palak paneer, cucumber, tomato and red onion yogurt salad (pachadi), tomato rasam (“It’s the only comfort food I know,” she writes), ghee (“the food of gods”), and rice pudding (payasam) with roasted pistachios, raisins and strands of saffron for desert.
Her relatives loved the food, she writes. At the end her grandmother let out a loud belch and Narayan knew that she could head to America.
Narayan says she writes for people that she meets and sees in New York and so she does not feel the need to explain the intricacies of Indian cooking. “I guess if I lived in the mid-west I will have to explain what ghee means,” she says. “But here people are a lot more sophisticated. They go to Indian restaurants, they go to Kalustiyan (a gourmet Middle Eastern and Asian food store in Manhattan’s Little India area) to shop.”
But Narayan sees limitations even within the sophisticated New Yorkers. “Unfortunately the average editor of a magazine is not familiar with the nuances within Indian cooking,” she said. “I think they are familiar with North Indian versus South Indian food, but they do not know about Bengali or Assamese cooking.”
On Sunday, April 29, Narayan sat on one of the three dinner tables that Gourmet had bought for the James Beard award ceremony, held at the Grand Hyatt hotel. She was surrounded by other writers, who were nominated in different categories. Being a vegetarian, Narayan skipped the hors d’oeuvres that included goose liver, lobster tempura roll and seared venison. Instead of the main course meal of sturgeon and strip lion of marinated beef, she opted for mashed potatoes and mushrooms.
“I wish I could say I enjoyed the meal which I am sure was delicious, with the fancy wines and desert wines, but I was so tense,” she says with a laugh. “What happened was that Gourmet was winning in every category, and so they said to me ‘Shoba no pressure, but looks like Gourmet is winning everything and so don’t let us down.'”

This interview originally appeared in May 2001. 
Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.

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