It’s tough to slip back into the daily grind after the kind of hectic but interesting weekend we just had. For starters, we had invited an American couple, our former boss and his wife, home for dinner on Saturday night. Since the only guests we have invited home so far have been fellow desis, I was naturally as nervous about this dinner as I had been the first time I had played hostess on my own. I spent the better part of last week agonizing over the menu. ‘Which Indian dishes do Americans like to eat?’, I asked each and every desi in office. To make things worse, the husband and I are vegetarians and we had heard our guests speak glowingly about ‘Chicken tikka masala’ each time Indian food was mentioned in their presence. So strike one against us, we were certainly not going to be able to satisfy their expectations, if indeed they had that in mind.
So well, I finally designed the dinner menu with far more attention to detail than I had spent designing the recent big software project I worked on. We would have jaljeera and idli-sambar-chatni for starters and palak paneer, sookhe aloo, daal fry, boondi raita, peas pulav and rotis for dinner. We decided to get a chocolate cake for dessert – I am not very good at making Indian desserts and we figured the poor things could at least enjoy the dessert if not anything else. After I was done designing the grand menu, I spent the whole of Saturday afternoon cooking, only to have my worst fears come true! Not only did our lady guest eat plain rice (peas pulav) while ignoring the palak paneer and daal on the table in front of her (and I did point her in the right direction), the only dish that she finished off her plate was the chocolate cake! At least I was right about the cake, I consoled myself.
Her husband was a little kinder to me, though not much. I think he enjoyed the daal and he definitely liked what I assume must be the sambar – ‘Very nice soup’, he told me! Oh well, let me look at it this way – at least I will not need to cook for the next few days. Every cloud does have it’s silver lining! The failure was doubly galling for me, I think, since I’ve never had guests who haven’t loved my food, licking it off their plate and repeatedly complimenting my cooking skills. So I was not prepared for such a reception at all. I think it’s now obvious I can cook for desi palates only. The irony is that I had taken so much care to make sure the food was not extra spicy or salty, that I wasn’t able to enjoy it much myself!
Though the food was obviously NOT a big hit, the conversation was almost good enough to compensate. If I could manage to forget the food fiasco for a while, the evening was definitely a very pleasant one, I’d concede. Our guests are in their early fifties, and it was interesting to note that a lot of their childhood memories and value systems are very similar to ours. My guess is that the America of the sixties must have been very similar to the India that my generation grew up in i.e. the eighties and the nineties. For example, we were talking about how fast technology is changing these days, and our hosts were telling us about the black and white television sets they had at home during their childhood. Of course, your generation would know nothing about them, they said and were surprised when we clarified we had those at home during our childhood too!
We had brought a lovely Rajasthani wall-hanging for them from India and I think they loved it but were slightly embarrassed too. Embarrassed because they would have liked to bring a gift for us, but while the tradition here is to bring a bottle of wine or chocolates, they weren’t sure if we drink wine (we don’t) or if we are vegans (we aren’t)! A common mistake many Americans make is to confuse vegetarianism with veganism. I remember walking into an I-Hop once and asking for something vegetarian, the poor guy waiting on us seemed ready to cry at our request! (I-Hop only serves pancakes made of eggs and milk products.) They just cannot understand why we can eat milk and eggs but not meat. In my case it’s doubly confusing since I enjoy eating cakes with eggs in them, but will not touch a boiled egg or omelet! ‘Is fish okay then?’, they hopefully ask. Veganism, which is something of a fad here, they can understand, but vegetarianism leaves them completely confused.
Then on Sunday, the husband and I went skiing with a group of friends on the Pocono mountains in nearby Pennsylvania. It was my first brush with skiing while the husband had tried it once before, but since most of our friends were in the same boat as I, we decided to start with some preliminary lessons on the beginner slopes. Skiing looked deceptively simple when we saw the experts nonchalantly zigzagging down the slopes in the morning, but I know that’s not true now that I’ve tried it. Take it from me, skiing is definitely not easy. But if you are prepared to fall every few minutes the first time you try it, go for it, I’d say. I wasn’t able to pick it up much, but the husband who was the best in our group and was coming down the intermediate slopes by the end of the day, will vouch for the fact that it can be a lot of fun once you get the hang of it.
To compound our troubles, yesterday was an unusually cold day to begin with (temperatures in the single digits fahrenheit), add to that the strong winds and the snow blowing into our faces from the huge snowmaker on the slopes, and just standing outside for two hours at a stretch was a feat in itself, I’d say! We were wearing woollen thermals, multiple layers of clothing, sweaters, winter coats, gloves, face masks and ear muffs – nothing worked! One had to get back into the welcome warmth of the cafe adjoining the ski slopes every couple of hours just to avoid getting a frostbite. What with all the falling over and the bitter cold, I gave up my skiing attempts by afternoon and wasn’t surprised to see some other quitters from the group waiting for me in the cafe with many more joining in over the next hour or so.
The husband and another friend were the only ones to continue right till the end. The husband in particular was childlike in his glee. ‘It felt like one of those summer vacation days when I used to play the whole day long’, he later told me while we drove back home. I was happy just watching the thrilled look on his face. (It’s funny seeing him walk today, though. He is limping around with a very strange limp and I love teasing him about it.) And I don’t feel too bad about quitting halfway. I enjoyed whatever little I tried and feel confident enough to try again on a warmer day. Now that’s more than enough for me!
We also made some new friends yesterday. The ski resort we had been to was offering a considerable discount for large groups, and being the penny-pinching desis that we are, we had gathered friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends from all over the place to get a good discount! So we met a whole lot of new people yesterday, some nice and some not so nice. There was a young mother with a small one year-old baby in tow who did not ski at all. The girl was sweet and fun to talk with and the baby was as cute as one year-old babies usually are, so I had some good company during my quitter phase in the later part of the day. I offered to look after her baby while she went out for some fun, but perhaps she did not trust my baby-handling skills and refused. I was slightly annoyed with her husband though. Couldn’t he have offered to take his turn watching the baby and let his wife enjoy too? Husbands… hmmmmp!
As I was saying, we met some nice people, and some who were not so nice. Another couple from the group fell into the latter category unfortunately. The guy bumped into me and knocked me down as soon as we had put on our skis and were lining up for our lesson on the slopes. He was trying to show off around his wife and fell down while trying to ‘correct’ her and demonstrate how her stance was wrong. It would have been a funny situation had I not been so angry with him. The worst part is that he never apologized to me, nor did he as much as look sorry! And the irony is that his wife was much better at skiing than he was!
His wife was no better in other respects though. When we were waiting in the cafe at the end of the day, my new friend with the baby was about to leave when her baby dropped a bag of crispies on the floor. As a courtesy I offered to clean up while she left. (The baby was pretty cranky and wanted to leave immediately by then.) This lady (the earlier wise-guy’s wife) who was sitting right next to me and participating in our conversation all the while, coolly sat there watching me clean up the floor around us. She was actually so helpful as to offer me some kind words of encouragement while I worked. ‘Oh yes, clean it up’, the maharani said as she sat and watched! All I can say about the pair is – they seem truly made for each other, for sure!