My Life in 27 Dresses

Oh, wait. I'm supposed to be blogging again, right?

Unfortunately, our summer has been punctuated by relatively small crises (my son's broken ankle) and large ones (a beloved extended family member with a difficult diagnosis), plus out-of-town guests and the general chaos that having more than 2.3 children engenders.

It won't get much better over the next two weeks when my life will mimic the opening scene in "27 Dresses," as I change in and out of  American and Indian/Pakistani clothes for four formal events, including two weddings, some of which are in other states. 

But after that, school starts. And though I'll miss my children terribly as they head off each day, there will be silence. And writing.  And, with a little luck, blogging.

Learning to Write from Cauliflower

When my husband and I got married, I was a spice-o-phobe. (No, really. It's a word.)  It became a standing question for parties and holiday celebrations with his family : Who's bringing the lasagna for J.A.?

They were cool like that. They even made sure it was vegetarian.

But then my husband and I became sick with the flu at the same time, and his mother brought rice and spiced spinach. I was sort of stuck; it seemed ungracious to ask where the lasagna was.  I spooned an enormous pile of rice onto my plate and a minuscule amount of spinach. Like seriously the size of a quarter. I mixed it in, until basically it looked like green-flakes on a plate of rice. I took a tentative bite.

Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap.

Not the spice. The taste. It was fabulous. And so began my love affair with Indian/Pakistani food.

Eventually, my mother-in-law taught me to make assorted vegetarian dishes--lentils, squash, spinach, cauliflower--while I tried to get her to commit the recipes to writing. I would stand poised with a pen and index card saying things like, "But how much turmeric?"  To which she would point on her finger, with her thumb.  An inch?  I should use an inch of turmeric? A square inch?  A thin inch?  HOW DO YOU MEASURE AN INCH OF POWDER???

It became clear that this was not an exact science. And that I would be expected to conduct my own experiments and serve them to my husband's family. Do you know what else is a word?  Disaster.

Except.

The cauliflower. It turned out perfectly, every time. My mother-in-law would tell people that my aloo gobi was better than her aloo gobi. Which, if you know anything about South Asian familial structure, is kind of a completely big deal.

So what has the writer in me learned from making aloo gobi? 

1.  There are no shortcuts.   Many Indian/Pakistani recipes start with a browned onion. Fine. Even I could brown an onion. Except that I couldn't. I would cook it until it turned some sort of good enough golden color, and then add the other ingredients. But golden is not brown. When I watched my mother-in-law brown her onion slices, they were not golden. She cooked them until they formed a brown clump in the bottom of the pan. A dark brown clump.

A lot of us have some part of writing we don't completely love.  Maybe it's setting or dialogue or transitions or chapter openings. Or the dreaded query letter.  Or the we-shall-not-speak-of-it-ever-again synopsis. Whatever. Take the time to do it right. There is no" good enough." Because if it's not actually done, you probably won't like the result.

2.  Trust yourself to know when to break the rules.

In addition to a browned onion, aloo gobi also calls for a chunk of raw ginger. (Up to the top knuckle of your pinkie finger, if you must know.)  But here's the thing. I can't stand actual ginger. Not the taste or the texture or the smell. Once, when my mother-in-law and I were alone in the car and she was reiterating how good my aloo gobi was, I experienced a not particularly well thought out need to confess. "The truth is," I said, "I don't actually use ginger. I use ginger powder." She was quiet long enough for me to regret every spirit of full disclosure I'd ever had. You know, in my life.  And then she said, "That's fine. You can use powder."  (That noise? Me, and the enormous "whew.")

Adjectives, adverbs, fragments, whatever. Know the rules, but when breaking them works, sometimes it just works.  Embrace your inner powdered-ginger-loving self.

3.  Experiment.  Recently, I was making aloo gobi, and the tomato (which I had just purchased from the store, thank you very much slacking produce department) was rotten.  I had already added everything  else to the pot and didn't want to waste the ingredients. I stood there for a full five minutes, looking back and forth between the stove and the jar of pasta sauce I'd retrieved from the pantry. The sauce was (mostly) tomatoes. But it was flavored, in an Italiany way. Still, it was all I had, and in it went. And you know what? It was actually good. Different, but definitely good.

Maybe you feel wedded to first person pov. Maybe you hate short stories. We all have our comfort zones but every now and then  it's good to try new things.

You have my permission to throw it in the garbage before your mother-in-law arrives, if necessary.