Gladys Morais May 8, 1923 – Nov 8, 2015
We just celebrated All Saints’ Day and Advent is around the corner. A good time to be thinking of my beloved mother who left us for the stars on Nov 8, 2015. It’s been six years, but it feels like she has never left my side. Especially when I am in my kitchen. I find myself thinking about the conversations we had about how to bake or ice a cake or make a curry or a chutney or thengah paal apom–that most intimidating and scrumptious of Indian breakfasts. I know I will keep talking to her as I try to figure out exactly how to make that filigreed confection –a crispy halo around a small pillow of delicious coconut-flavored softness nestled in the middle.
My mother thought cooking was common sense. She said anyone could learn to cook if they just watched and learned. And truly wanted to cook. It was how, as a young bride, straight out of boarding school, she learned and built her repertoire. I loved listening to her talk about her nervousness at getting up very early in the morning to start making breakfast for my father, a newspaper editor, who had to leave for work before the sun was up. She described walking the corridor in the darkness to the kitchen at the other end of the house, a kerosene lamp in hand to light her way. She also learned new dishes with every social event she attended. She tasted and mastered the exotic new flavors she encountered in the many cuisines of the very cosmopolitan community in which she started her married life in what was then British Malaya.
Her instructions, as she tried to teach us to cook, defied the norms of typical recipe books. There was nothing cut and dried about her measurements. It was all art. Use a “thumb-sized” piece of ginger root, she would say. And use “just enough salt”–because anyone with common sense would know how much that meant! When cooking rice, wash it, then lay one’s palm gently over the rice in the pot, and add enough water to rise to the level of one’s wrist. Do that, and the rice cooks to exactly the right consistency. But as wonderful as her repertoire of Indian dishes was, the delicacy of her decorated cakes was stunning. Imagine Jack and Jill going up the hill, a rabbit grazing on a carrot in the garden, a Maypole with little girls in skirts of cake iced in different colors, a ship ready to go out to sea, a clown, a lavender lady in a bonnet walking through a flower garden. An open book with a message tailored to the occasion. Occasions her cakes never failed to rise to when clients called with special requests.
I picked up what skills I now have as a baker by being my mother’s “kai aleh”–Malayalam for being the gopher who did the small tiresome, but essential tasks. Tasks like lining the cake tins, icing the sides of a cake –once my mother thought I was proficient enough to be trusted with that task– cleaning the icing tubes after they had been used, sometimes sketching the scenes on the surface of the cake that she would then use as a guide for her creations in butter icing.
As I watch my daughter, Sheela Jane's adventures in cooking, and see how she experiments and grows ever more skilled at turning out beautiful cakes, I just know how proud my mother would be to see the granddaughter on whom she lavished so much love and attention, continue in her footsteps. The fan cake that begins the slideshow above was for another beloved granddaughter, Jacqueline, and the football player commemorated grandson, Zubin's birthday--just a few of the parade of cakes she invested so much patient energy and love in creating over the years.
On this day of remembrance, Mum, we recall the many relatives, friends, and strangers you welcomed to your table. The many you fed when they were ailing and needed the comfort of a home-cooked meal.
May the angels prepare a banquet of grace for you as you move closer and closer to the Divine.
And may you hold us forever in the light of your love as we hold you in precious memory. And yes, we will carry on cooking and baking just the way you showed us. And sharing the food we have. It’s common sense after all. And just one of the many ways love endures.