Book Review: A Life of Spice: Stories of Food, Culture & Life

>> Monday, 8 June 2015

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I became enamored with the writing of Monica Bhide when I first encountered her article, A Question of Taste, in Best Food Writing 2005. Given my own interest in food culture and heritage, and how the subject informs identity, and life itself, I am always drawn to food stories that go way beyond a recipe, and in Monica's latest work, A Life of Spice: Stories of Food, Culture & Life, she offers up a platter full of rich life stories through the lens of food. Even though the book is a quick-read, I found myself moving through the pages slowly, as many of the stories gave me pause - to ponder, laugh out loud or wait for the mist in my eyes to clear.

This book is not her food memoir, (that is coming soon, and if the taste - the traveling bread - is anything to go by, we are in for a treat) rather, this publication is a collection of stories the author has penned over the years that have been published in various publications, in print and online. Like a skillful cook, that carefully selects ingredients and assembles them along with flavour enhancers, such as spices and herbs, Monica selected stories and grouped them under six (6) different themes - culture, family, love, identity, faith and writing. In each theme, we read about how food intersects and interacts with life.

When you are a creator of works that are subjective and open to interpretation, it means that everything you do is open to criticism (constructive or not). You are held to a higher standard and fallibility is never an option, regardless of how unrealistic that may be. In this book, Monica bares herself in such a way that makes it easy to identify with her, and lets those who are unsure of themselves, in and out of the kitchen, know that life is not about perfection, rather, it is about the lessons we learn, especially when things don't turn out the way we want or expect them to. Her failed attempt at making Pad Thai, frozen mousse and rock-hard bread makes you want to root for her to give it another try. As a reader you realize that she is human, just like you! However, it's in her story, A Day In Paris, that I found her most endearing. Here, we find Monica vulnerable and nervous in a city she describes as the gastronomique capital of the world, filled with self doubt - about her lack of knowledge of French food and her own ability to make anything that the French might find appealing. This story more than any puts a human face on the trials and tribulations of being a food writer. If you're looking for something to inspire confidence, read this story, first, and heed the lessons of removing limitations we place on ourselves and testing our assumptions.

For a good laugh, read Fasting for Love Pt. 1, where, as a young bride, Monica sets out to observe Karva Chauth - a day of fasting in the Hindu religion where a wife prays for her husband to have a long life.

Food and Family was my favorite section of the book, and within this section is a story, Counting Peas. Movingly told, this story is about bonding and bridging. Engrossed in a task that is not so much about the food being prepared, but about the time shared in each others company, the author creates memories with her son while recalling and sharing her own childhood memories when she (Monica) and her distant relative (Bahenjee) made sev (noodles) while summering at her grandparents home, back in India.

The following is the story of A Familiar Taste.

A mother, chronically ill with lost taste buds.
A daughter, feeling defeated and wanting to feed her mother.
A bowl of cumin-spiced potatoes.

Mother to daughter: Do you remember when I first taught you how to make these? You would cut the potatoes in all different sizes and they never cooked right! You used so much oil that you practically drowned the cumin.

Mother picks up a small piece of potato and puts it in her mouth. "This tastes so good, just like I remember," says the mother, and she eats two more pieces.

A Life of Spice: Stories of Food, Culture & Life is a good read.

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