What was your first ‘grown-up’ meal?
- One of my favourite scenes in fiction is from ‘When The Time Is Right’, a translation of Buddhadev Bose’s novel ‘Tithidore’
- It takes place at a Chinese restaurant, when over the course of a meal, the heroine enters a different, more adult world
In Buddhadev Bose’s 1949 novel Tithodore, nothing very much happens to young Swati, growing up in Kolkata. But also everything happens to young Swati growing up in Kolkata. One of my favourite scenes in fiction is in the 500-odd pages of When The Time Is Right, Arunava Sinha’s superb English translation of Bose’s novel. And it takes place in a Chinese restaurant.
It is 1941. Swati and a set of newfound, seemingly sophisticated friends have gone to dinner at a fancy Chinatown restaurant. “At Chaang Aan, Swati seemed a different person," says the narrator, setting us up for a scene in which nothing happens, but if you follow along you realize this is when the teenaged Swati experiences adulthood for the first time. “And as soon as she had had a spoonful of soup, a sharp hunger seemed to awaken within her—a hunger not just for food, but for conversation, laughter, a hunger for friendship, a different hunger—for the world of living people outside books."
I have always wondered, what was in that soup? Not that it matters. People report all sorts of things as their first “grown-up meal". A friend’s two-year-old daughter recently asked for a sip of her coffee. When my friend refused, her daughter argued that Baby Neel has it, so she should too. Baby Neel is real but his getting coffee was a figment of her imagination. What was real was the toddler’s assessment that this was a Big Person Beverage she ought to have.
Coffee features in a surprising number of people’s memories as their first grown-up drink. Even more than alcohol. As web designer Avinash Kuduvalli, 28, says: “You are fairly young when you have coffee for the first time and your mother is the one to give it to you. Alcohol is more about choosing friends over parental controls." Rachita Taneja, creator of the comic strip Sanitary Panels, echoes this. Being given coffee instead of milk at age 15, along with the adults present, “made me feel super adult," says the 27-year-old.
Abhishek Mody grew up in a food-loving vegetarian household. When I first got to know him, he was making sushi. Today the 30-year-old is an inventive chef in Chennai. He remembers eating meat, and, later, drinking alcohol as very intentional moments of growing up. “When I first ate meat, I was in class VI and at a friend’s house. I loved it. I knew I was going against family rules but knew it was my responsibility. Later, when I was 18 and I tried alcohol for the first time, it was the same. I knew I was ready. I could handle it. It would be my responsibility."
For my friend Paddy, who grew up in a vegetarian household, that moment was more of a shock. “Eating fish curry for the first time was a revelation. I felt like I was born to it. Like I should have had it long ago."
Bengaluru student Nithila M. K., 21, has comical taboo-breaking stories. Her parents didn’t like her eating processed meats but, she says, the “first time I ate hot dogs I fell in love. It’s meat and bread with tangy sauces, what’s not to like." It remains an “osm" memory.
Her buddy Shalom Gauri had no age-based limbo pole to shimmy under at home so she made up her own. She had her moment of food-related daring in her two years at an international school. “I remember trying brain fry on the street. It was not very different or exciting. But it was cool, because I was looking forward to freaking out all my classmates the next day."
I say it probably didn’t matter what Swati and friends ate because sometimes it was a big deal to just go to a restaurant. Many people in their 40s today, and those even a whole decade younger, remember a distinct lack of outside food—a combination of frugality, casteism and suspicion of commercial kitchens. And on the rare occasion you were taken out for a meal, you had little control over what you ate. Not a bad thing when I was 6, since I had to be frequently stopped from ordering the toast-and-jam that was mysteriously present on 1980s’ menus.
What a grown-up feeling when you finally got to order! As 33-year-old artist Deepikah Bharadwaj says: “Going out for food is still considered a big no-no in my family in Delhi. When I was 25, I forced my parents to go out to dinner. I took them for an Italian meal, ordered wine and everything. Paid for it all. I guess it was a rite of passage."
Chef Mody, who is often witness to other people’s gastronomic lives, says the chance to carefully consider the menu and spend on a memorable meal for the first time—accompanied by a smug feeling of wise choices made—is still a big moment.
For others, early adulthood is marked by the moment they got bored eating out. Writer Anna John, 40, says: “I started eating out regularly when I was 21, doing my master’s in Pune. It took just a year and a half to get to the stage when I looked at a menu and felt incredibly depressed. I just wanted a hot meal at home and the thought that there would be none unless I made it was an unhappy adult moment."
Back in 1941, it is the talking that goes to Swati’s head. “She was the queen of the conversation. Whatever she said either hit home or made people laugh. The hour that they took over their meal seemed to last only 5 minutes to her." The 5 minutes to adulthood.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.
FIRST PUBLISHED19.07.2019 | 12:34 PM IST
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