Life has plenty of problems. Some are dark and depressing, some urgent but negotiable. Some go away when solved, and others persist. Some can be solved, and others just cannot. But there is one problem that never fails to bother me. It is said that an army marches on its stomach. And living in the States, I’ve been told enough times on TV that it is an Army of One. Well, in that case, I am an army, and my marching stomach comes home hungry every single night after a hard day’s work, and unfailingly asks
“So, what’s for dinner tonight?”
Thousands of years ago life was simpler. Humans were simple hunter-gatherers, and the evening meal depended on the ability of the group to manage to find some food. If they found and killed a mammoth, it was mammoth a la carte for dinner. If all they found during their quest were some gnarly roots, bitter berries or rotten carcasses, well, that was for dinner.
Then humans began to prosper as they learnt agriculture. Before you knew it, thousands of years had passed, fruit, grain and livestock had been domesticated, salt and spices painstakingly researched and then, finally, there was real food. With real food and prosperity came the joy of choice, and people the world over (at least those who could afford it) could choose what they wanted to eat every day.
Which brings us back to the problem at hand; that of my dinner.
Life growing up in India was exceedingly good. Mom was always there toiling away to provide the best she could manage for dinner. She would select the choicest of vegetables everyday, and bring them back from the market. Then, each day a different dish would be painstakingly prepared for dinner, with rice and lentils on one day, or spinach and chapattis on other days. A South Indian spread on some days, or a North Indian effort on another. All I had to do was to come back from school, finish some homework, show up on the dining table, consume unimaginably large quantities of a delicious dinner and then complain that I would have preferred puris and chole to rasam and cabbage. My poor mom.
But now life’s not easy for us. We’ve got to come back home after impossibly long and tiring days and then decide what to make for dinner. The body, mind and heart all insist that the only reasonable place to be is the couch, but that rascal stomach wills us on towards the kitchen. And here is where being an epicure really, really sucks (I’ve always wanted to use that word, “epicure”. Almost sounds sophisticated). As far as calories go, there is never a problem. There’s always the option of eating a sandwich or opening a box of macaroni and cheese or consuming some ever reliable Maggi or Ramen noodles. Pizza or takeout? Naah. Unfortunately, those are just calories. If they were ever used to describe food, food would wrinkle its nose and walk away. Sure, I can eat sandwiches or cereal on one night, but if I ate that two nights in a row, that dictatorial tongue and stomach just do not permit it.
And this puts me in a quandary. If I want good food, I’ve got to (to use an American cliché) make it happen. Now, don’t get me wrong here, I love cooking. But the problem is that I like it so much that it has to be done well. The tomatoes have to be lovingly sliced, and the onions perfectly chopped and laid out on the cutting board, and then caramelized to perfection. Simple rice and lentils don’t do it for me, but fried lentil balls, now that is something. The tongue demands a different taste every night, from spicy and tangy to mild and sour. These things require time and energy, and that, on weekdays, is like the proverbial Mastercard, priceless.
So here is the quintessential dilemma. I need to eat good food. In order to eat good food I need to make good food. In order to make good food, I need time, readily available groceries and energy. I don’t have all three of them.
But I still need to eat good food.
Can there ever be a solution for this? Can the stomach ever stop saying “what’s for dinner tonight?”