The children troop in, one after another, tired, messy hair and cold. The routine is the same every day. I insist they put their boots away, hang up their jackets and use the bathroom before snack time.
I stand by the kitchen island, three bulging school bags lined next to each other. I am methodical. I go for lunchboxes first. Most days, two out of three boxes come back empty. There are rare days when I find food in all three. Then, there are the days when the lunch explodes and I have to deal with a soggy mess.
I steel my nerves; I physically prepare myself each day before I open each box. My shoulders slump, my body relaxes when it is what I expect. I have tried to make sense of my outsized relationship with food and being a mother. I am still searching for answers.
When my twins were little, I would spend each evening feeding them what is left of their lunch before preparing a full dinner. I would then feed them until they sometimes fell asleep mid feed.
I’d like to think I have changed with the years. I am much more cognizant of how much their little tummies can handle now. That does not stop me from trying to sneak in one extra helping of the vegetable or rice each night.
My youngest is picky. Each morning she comes downstairs, sleep still lingering in her eyes. “What’s for lunch?” is what she leads with. Depending on my answer, her eyes would light up or she would throw herself against the tan, worn couch in the living room. If my answer pleases her, she would then ask “What’s for breakfast?”
Food is the cornerstone of our existence as a family. I talk with my mom multiple times a day. “Saaptacha?” she would ask. It is routine, this asking if I have had my meal. It is akin to saying “I love you” or “How are you?”. Some days when I have not talked to her as much as normal, she would text me late at night “What was for dinner?”
My sister and I, when we get together once every year, talk about our mom’s obsession with food. Lately, we realize we are our mother. No matter where the conversation starts, it meanders to what we feed our respective daughters. There is pride in my voice when I tell her how wide my children’s palate is. She beams with pride when she speaks of the healthful ingredients in her daughter’s smoothie or the newest recipe that she tried that was a hit with her daughter.
We laugh about it too, this preoccupation with food and its unhealthy relationship with the kind of mothers we are.
I think back to my childhood. All my pleasant memories have to do with what was on the menu that day. I started helping my mother actively when I was about twelve. I would use the aruvamanai, the old-fashioned kitchen blade, attached to the wood so ancient, I can’t tell you what color it was. I would squat on the kitchen floor, my one foot anchoring the blade and lean forward so my weight would help scrape the coconut flesh into soft white heaps. The next year, mom taught me to make chutney, adding fresh green chillies, a handful of pottu kadalai, just the right amount of salt to grind into a coarse side for the crispy dosais she would make for dinner.
I would read about moms and daughters bonding over shopping and movies, knowing my bond with my mom would always be the memories of the dim kitchen and the smells I associate with love.
My daughters are ten and five. They watch as I cook. Lately, I have been letting them help me pound the chappathi dough, their tiny hands working the gluten after I have had a go at it. They help their dad chop vegetables, precisely, all pieces cubed, even. On rare weekends, I get to sit back and watch my three daughters and their dad prepare and make rava dosai.
The effort to get those crispy crepes on the plate takes roughly two hours. The children are maddeningly patient as they crowd around their dad. One child reads off the recipe. One measures the ingredients while the youngest adds it all to a deep vessel and stirs solemnly. They set the timer for it to soak, to absorb the pungency of the ginger and the tartness of the curds they have added.
On the days I return from work sullen, upset over things outside my control, I talk to my mom. Her first question as always “Saptiya?”
I eat to oblige her. I eat because it sates me. I eat because I know when I am done eating, my worries have lessened.
These days when my children throw a tantrum, I counter with “would you like a banana?” or “are you hungry?”
Food, it turns out is medicine. It is a salve for broken hearts, mean girls at school, hard to crack math problems and of course, hunger.