This morning my father died. It was not an unexpected death, nor a tragic one. It was the end of a painful journey for him, both physical and emotional, ultimately healing the cancer and the broken heart. I had made peace with the very complicated relationship we had and believe that he had too. But sitting on my bed full of tears and halfway across the continent from my grieving siblings, I felt helpless and bereft.
Then life intervened quite literally and a space suddenly opened up at a cookery class I’d planned to sign up for later. I put my grief on my back and escaped. None of the other students knew me, so I was free from sympathetic questions. The Punjabi food was vaguely familiar from Indian restaurants, but I had never attempted to cook it. I entered a world far-removed from lonely mourning, tumbling into a festival celebrating goddesses and women and their feminine power. The kitchen was warm with celebration, encouragement and patience, as well as with the rich aromas and colours of coriander and cumin, chillies and chickpeas, ghee and fenugreek. As we rolled dough, stirred curries and delved into treasure-chest spice boxes, Ritika wove stories of cooking with her family, the women creating an assembly line to make puri for festivals, the particular timing of the addition of spices, her father such a stickler for perfection. As we finally sat down to share the paneer in its rich gravy, the warm bread somehow magicked from ordinary flour and water, and the spicy chickpeas, I realised that instead of being a complete escape, the cookery class was a reminder of the continuity of life.
In a her chapter “Funeral Feast” in the magnificent Feast, Nigella Lawson comments that, “Any food is a vital reminder that life goes on, that living is important. This isn’t brutal: it’s the greatest respect you can pay to the dead.” The food eaten at funerals and commemorations of the dead not only marks and honours the life of the deceased, but also reminds us that those who are left behind are connected by this life force. And, of course, food reminds us of the dead through memories: of eating together, preparing food together, favourite foods, recipes.
As a parent, my father veered, physically and emotionally, from utterly absent to intensely, angrily, passionately present. I have few memories of him behaving in the way Ladybird readers expect of a parent. There are no family snaps on the front lawn, no blustery holiday photos, no family woodworking projects. In fact, I am hard pressed to find a picture of him with any of his children at all. But one abiding memory I have is of him cooking Sunday lunch. It was always roast chicken, roast potatoes, rice and gravy, with mashed green beans and mixed salad, chopped into minute slivers. He would spend the whole morning in the kitchen, usually in his deplorable underwear, dirtying every pot and surface, getting redder in the face and more and more annoyed with the children, and occasional dog, wandering in an out. Finally, he would present the lunch to us, then hover around the table like a bad-tempered stork as we ate it, demanding compliments for his cooking and pressing the despised Pope’s nose on a favoured child. It was both our favourite meal of the week and a weekly ordeal, which embodies the kind of conflicted feelings my father evoked.
Roast chicken remains my comfort food and I serve it to my family often; still, my siblings and I vowed never to allow the hallowed tradition of Sunday lunch to darken our doors. Perhaps, though, this Sunday, far from home, I will prepare a traditional Sunday lunch, and serve it in memory of my dad. Godspeed, old man.