Monday, May 28, 2007

Swinging Summer!

Detail from an illustration for Timeout, Mumbai.
Click on it for a bigger view.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


It was not just mad, over-arching ambition that drove me to try the Betty Crocker pre-mixed cake.

I really felt like the universe was winking at me in a suggestive, encouraging manner. First, in a Bloom County strip Milo developed a crush on Betty, the epitome of American womanhood, and all that she stood for – clean living, mom, home-bakes, family picnics, a forgotten, pre-lapsarian America. Following a lead in The National Enquirer, he set off to find her and was shocked to meet a crusty, cynical broad, who actually didn’t know what a sheesh kebob could be.

Then, we found this amazing Betty Crocker Outdoor Cookbook at the FBD sale. It was printed in the ’60s and was spiral bound with a hard cover. It had lively, small, two-colour illustrations, incredibly cheesy text and lurid pictures of family picnics. And this totally chatty, Reader’s-Digest tone of happy bonhomie. Plus lots of recipes for sheesh kabobs and the like. The illustration for the ‘Outdoor Indian Pilaf’ recipe (An excellent accompaniment for beef… adapted from a famous dish of exotic India) was hilarious. Two dancing girls, bindis and loopy smiles on their faces, stood with their hips stuck out at an angle, and arms laden with plates full of rice. Sort of like slim, happy, pilaf-serving Kalis. And the book began with a letter from BC herself (Starts Dear Friend, Who doesn’t love eating outdoors… and ends with a flourish of Cordially, Betty Crocker). There was something reassuring about that cheerfully upright signature, like this was someone you could trust to take you smiling thru every cooking Situation. More about that signature later. 

My cousin got me a Betty Crocker pre-mix from Canada, and I was thrilled. Not because I knew the first thing about baking, but because, well, if you can't trust foriegn pop culture icons, I mean, who can you trust? I felt like I'd been delivered an industrial strength nudge in the midriff. That's why I went mad and tried baking.

In the subliminal way that we know most American icons, I felt I ‘knew’ Betty. I took my doubts to google and discovered that Betty was a phoney. Like the red-clad, rosy-cheeked Santa Claus. Of course. Thank you, Corporate America!

I giggled dismissively to myself and marched onwards and upwards to my almost-first attempt at baking a hopefully fool-proof cake... Of course, what I ended up making was Cake, With a Frosting of Dark Thoughts

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Cake, with a frosting of Dark Thoughts

When I say I’m terrible at baking, I’m not being cute or coy. The recent cookie experience (see below) had me in raptures of triumph and joy because – trust me – it’s the first time I baked something that didn’t induce nausea and / or depression in those who tasted it.
Take cakes. I’ve friends who bake marvelous, light, dreamy cakes – and have done so since we were all 15. I’d smile indulgently at them and think, secretly, that some day, when I really set my mind to it, of course I’d bake just as well. I’m 36 now and dead sure I can’t. My cousins who were in their cretinous teens when I was a kid, used – I’m not kidding – an ‘oven’ constructed out of charcoal, sand, a griddle or a tava and a ‘Hindalium’ vessel to bake wonderfully soft, yummy cakes. So why can’t I – armed with an electric oven and an adult brain – get it right?
The answer lies, I think, in my inability follow the rules and to focus properly; and of course in my laziness. I look at a recipe, and I’m thinking, ok, what can I avoid doing here? Must I do everything by the book? Is there no freedom left? Being creative is one thing. Not following the dictates of commonsense is another altogether. In life and in baking, I think, I tend to throw simple, sensible ideas to the winds. (I can talk about my baking blunders; the goof-ups with life are too many and too mortifying to go into here!)
Recently, I thought I’d finally met the cake recipe of my dreams. It was pre-mixed; it came in a box; it was developed by the Betty Crocker company, which made up a whole fake woman, for god's sake. Above all, it from America, land of the lazy. How could I go wrong? So, grinning in an oddly frozen way at Amit’s deadpan witticisms, I surged forward. Everything went in (yes, even pre-mixes need some outside help apparently). I stirred and stirred till I could stir no more. To add to the pressure, n was ‘helping,’ so really, there was no room for blunders. Bunged it into the oven – for 25 minutes the box said – and lay back dreaming of n and Amit fighting over my delectable pre-mixed cake.
When the ding! sounded I rushed to the oven eagerly. I opened it and my heart welled up. Perfect! I smiled in gentle triumph. Finally I would be the baker of my dreams. I would become Betty. I turned the mould over and tapped the cake out. And died. 
While the outside was beautiful, inside, in the middle, was a weird, uncooked mess.
Bravely gathering together the shattered pieces of my earth-motherliness, I shoved the cake back into the mould and gave it five more minutes in the oven. And five more. And five more. And five more.
Fifty minutes in the oven and the damned centre cooked. It looked like a vital organ – a thick, lumpy mass – stuck inside a cake, but by god, it had cooked. I shook my head in exasperation and then looked at the box again. What had I done wrong? That’s when I saw it.
Betty Crocker’s Moist Centre Cake Mix. The uncooked middle was the frickin’ Moist Centre.
GARRRH! I'm not a bad baker; I am a space cadet. Talk about life-defining moments, I tell you!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blogward bound

For those of you who have been wondering where I am (thanks for asking, Surabhi!), here's the answer: I’ve been busy resting my back. If you can call it that, since resting your back is the one thing that keeps you totally non-busy. You have to devise activities to keep the mind occupied, so that it doesn’t turn nasty and implode.

As a way to stay sane, n and I have been doing lots of crafty things. We’ve made salt-dough, shaped little things out of it, baked them, painted-and-varnished them (or as n says, ‘niced them’) and then stuck magnets on to them. Then we’ve baked cookies. Which n feels inordinately proud of. Especially as she is gobbling them up. You don’t know what an achievement this is for me – the cookie thing, I mean. Usually when Amit enters the house and smells vanilla essence in the air he winces. I’m a disaster at baking. But I unearthed a cookie recipe that was totally Anita-proof. And n and I are busy baking now. We’ve even tried a whole-wheat substitute and succeeded.

We’ve also made cornstarch colours (haldi, beetroot, palak) and I shamelessly let n splash them on her sheet of paper and splatter the wall. I decided to throw prudence to the winds wall-wise because there’s no other level at which the two of us can have fun together (the last time we went out together was two months back; and I haven’t lifted her since she was 6 months old).

The other fun thing Amit and I did was a series of workshops we took with some kids for The Pomegranate Workshop. I did writing with them and Amit did illustration – during separate sessions, of course. This was the second round of workshops for me and the third for Amit. The sessions were great fun – they helped us open up a lot more too! And the kids were adorable. Bright-as-buttons too.

Separately, we both noticed something odd and disturbing. Among kids between 11 and 14, the boys are a lot more out-of-the-box with their thinking. The girls on the other hand, tended to do well while still playing safe. We saw this across locations. Strangely, this is true only of the 12-and-above kids. Till that age, creativity levels are the same – except for individual variations of course.

Could this be a gender-related thing? Maybe a phase girls go thru? Does co-education have anything to do with it? I read somewhere that girls in co-eds tend to under-perform and try to conform to gender stereotypes… I know this sounds regressive, but sometimes I feel being in a same-sex school gives you a little more freedom to be yourself rather than trying to be your gender… Who knows, yaar?

Anyway, I couldn’t take as many sessions as I’d promised the Pommies I would, thanks to the back, but it was such fun! Gave me a fantastic headrush of joy to: 1. be out, 2. be with kids, and 3. do stuff with them and jog their minds a bit and push them and get them to think and write! Did poetry with the biggies, which was more fun than I imagined it would be – and the kids were wonderfully charged – both girls and boys!

You know, I always wanted to be a teacher…