An Ode to My Favorite Auntie

With a wave of your hand, the acquisition of some spare folding tables and the procurement of 15 plastic table cloths, you could turn any room into a dining hall in under two minutes. At Costco, you never over- or under-bought, rather knew the exact number of bags of potato chips, 2-Liter bottles of Coke, containers of Dannon and bags of hard candies to feed a crowd of any size, plus any last-minute, non-RSVPed guests.

Those who didn’t prostrate before the altar of your vast knowledge of crowd control before birthdays, graduation or anniversary parties often paid the price in more ways than one. Functions without your fingerprints were never as good.

You weren’t scared of anyone. You had a PhD from the School of Hard Knocks and when you spoke, everyone listened. I’ve seen you go head-to-head with everyone from mess hall cooks to American wedding planners, janitors to Hindu priests, elected officials to Indian musicians, usually within the same afternoon. You always won. He who dared doubt you often felt your ire and disgust for years on end.

You never forgot the rigatoni. You were a visionary and realized early on that it was the appropriate side to every imaginable combination of Indian cuisine.

You also never forgot the thair chadam…knowing that there was no location too proud, no occasion too fancy, no table too formal for a stainless steel vessel filled to the brim with curds, rice, and fried mustard seeds, best served in heaping mounds with a plastic soup ladle. Once, in my adolescence, I saw you make it with your bare hands in the kitchen of the Omni William Penn in a $700 sari wearing $2000 worth of gold jewelry while the hotel’s uniformed catering staff looked on in disbelief. When I was standing idly by and watching you, you handed me a plastic bag-encased bottle of Bedakar mango pickle from the depths of your Mary Poppins purse, and ordered me to find a spoon and add it to the buffet line. I hesitated momentarily, afraid of the way the offensive oily, orange-lidded jar of spicy, pickled mangoes would look against the grand opulence of sheer white linens and sterling silver trays, and, on your way out of the kitchen with a pathram of rice balanced on your hip, you snatched it out of my hands and did it yourself. You barked at me for not immediately following your instructions — irritated that I was embarrassed by the sight of empty buttermilk containers in the kitchen of one of the city’s most ritzy hotels — but I loved you all the more.

You had no less than 30 aunties buzz around you at the onset of every function like worker bees to the queen. They knew their role, their function, their designated vegetable in the buffet line, and always responded to your command like troops to the general. You always delegated, but they rarely focused and usually messed things up. You knew things only turned out right when you did them yourself.

You knew everything. Everything. Without asking a single question. People confided in you because you had practical, applicable solutions to any problem. You always had needles, thread, yarn, scissors, super glue, Sharpies, plastic spoons, safety pins and crepe paper on hand in case of emergencies.

You were the stuff of legend. Once, I swear I saw you feed 100 people on 5 minutes notice with a spoonful of rice, a handful of flour and two potatoes. Another time you stretched 2 cups of chakra pongal across a line of 400. And you made the best panchamritham of my life with a single banana, three grapes, and two spoonfuls of brown sugar.

Your efficiency and style and street smarts deserved their own show like “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway” or a million-dollar, high-flying, party-planning gig for P-Diddy where you were able to silence him and his entourage with the fire of a single glare and convince them to use plastic table clothes for cost-efficiency, but you stayed and catered to us: the undeserving.

And now, though your hair’s a little bit grayer, your gait a little bit slower, and you haven’t hiked up your sari on one side and leapt across a stack of plastic chairs to stop someone who wasn’t following your directions in quite some years…every time I go home and see you organizing and directing and orchestrating the details that matter the most, I know that my childhood, my hyphenated-American experience, my memories of the perfectly organized buffet lines of yesteryear would not have been the same without you.

45 thoughts on “An Ode to My Favorite Auntie

  1. Pathram! We totally use that word instead of saying “pot” or “tupperware.”

  2. colorful, but pretty cliche. My mom was a psychiatrist, and though she is an excellent cook and does carry pickle with her on vacation, she certainly wasn’t defined by only domestic duties.

  3. Dark Knight: The auntie in question wasn’t defined solely by domestic duties either. She is multi-faceted; this is one of her facets.

  4. OMG I’ve become auntie!!!! I’ve become my mother. Never has it been more apparent to me then in the past year or so and I used to think it was a freaky notion and would depress me. It’s not. If I could be even half as efficient and smart about everything as my mother I’d die a happy woman. Thanx for the story Barmaid. I read it out aloud to my mom and she loved it.

  5. My mom (also a physician) is exactly the same. Wow…that generation of Indian women was (maybe I should say ‘is’ since most of them are still alive) truly something else. We won’t see their likes again…

  6. This post really hit home. Thank you very much Barmaid. I just celebrated a graduation and my 30th. Because I had no money to go to Vegas like I wanted, I just invited everybody I knew to my parent’s house to let my mom do her thing. It was awesome and she was happier than a pig in s**t. I think my parents had more fun than I did and my “school friends” loved every bit of it. So, here’s my addition to memory lane. Remember when you were a kid and the fam loaded into the Olds Cutlass Cruiser for the trip to visit relatives in Boston, or go see Niagra Falls? These trips often included a big ass cooler of pre-prepared food. Is it me or did the tupperware that housed the thair chadam and the idli w/ mologa puddi (pre-spread on the idli, of course) somehow make it taste better?

  7. Wow…what an incredibly insightful post. I would email it to my MyFavoriteAuntie but I know she would just brush it off, say it was no biggie, and won’t for one minute acknowledge what an impact she had on us kids. Brought back so many memories Barmaid – LOVE it. And LOVE the thair chadam with kadagu, maanga, and maybe some raisins or inji. Hmmm.

  8. The tupperware did make it better. Ususally because it had a familiar stain and smell to it. Just the thought of that salty thair chadam (with Lays potato chips) in the middle of a long, summer car ride sends me into near ecstasy. :)

  9. Sriram, I’m convinced the only food item that tastes better than idli (with pre-spread molaga podhi of course, as you said) straight from the cooler is puliyodhare from the same cooler. Before any roadtrip that required more than one meal, my father would religiously pack the puliyodhare in a sheet of aluminum foil and then put in a ziploc bag. Those tight pouches of puliyodhare would stay fresh for DAYS.

  10. VBSF, totally forgot about the puliyodhare. Man, reading/writing these posts is making my mouth water. And Barmaid, I always prefered Pringles, ;) .

  11. Puliyodhare is good times but doesn’t have nearly the comfort food quality of thair or rasam chadam.

    I also used to like sambhar chadam especially when it cooled down a little bit and took the shape of the tupperware container and you could cut it out in perfect little cubes.

    I think we should have a potluck dinner. I’ll bring the beans curry. And avial.

  12. ..and i’ll get the vadu mangas. barmaid-excellent post!
    another addition- the way the aunt anxiously scans weather.com’s 15 day forecast while planning the vethal/vadam season, during rainy unpredictable new england summers, the way she returns your preppie neighbor’s stare, who is wondering what in voodoo-fcuk is going and if it will affect his house’s zillow value

  13. Also the way the auntie could work a 15-hour day for TheMan and still show up at your house for dinner with a tin of fresh, perfectly-sized, scrumdiliumptious pedas.

  14. This post has triggered too many memories! Have to add:

    1. The way she always knows the perfect thing to say to make you feel good about yourself and your life, or at the very least, be grateful for what you have.

    2. The way she always has your back – ESPECIALLY in arguments with your parents.

    3. The shortcut to making vethal-kozhumbu in less than 20 minutes (and it tastes just the same)!

    4. The way she doublechecks and tripechecks the guest list for any ‘function’ to make sure she hasn’t left anyone out.

    5. The way she never loses touch with anyone, particularly the 12 year old girl she tutored 14 years ago.

    1. The way she always makes you feel glad you came to a “function” that you didn’t want to go to.

    2. How good it feels when she trusts you enough to gossip with you

  15. Great post Barmaid ~ a part of me is sad that I’ll probably never be one of those “cook up a feast on 10 minutes notice” aunties like my Mom. Maybe it will come with age though =)

  16. Great post Barmaid ~ a part of me is sad that I’ll probably never be one of those “cook up a feast on 10 minutes notice” aunties like my Mom. Maybe it will come with age though =)

    It comes with the bellyrolls, you know, the type that hang over the petticoat or belt of the auntie/uncle in question ;)

  17. VBSF:

    2. The way she always has your back – ESPECIALLY in arguments with your parents.

    Oh lord yes, or with your grandmother

  18. Nice post, barmaid. Also:

    2. The way she always has your back – ESPECIALLY in arguments with your parents.

    No joke – although she always makes suure you know that your parents are, in principle, right, and she’s only doing this out of the goodness of her heart. In my case, the aunt in question has, despite her migraines and work for the Man, tolerated two musician nephews who play all sorts of music at all sorts of volumes at all hours of the night and day — and she just makes us chapatis.

  19. again, i’m kept adrift by the tiring hope that i might one day enjoy such tenderly affections from the very same “Auntie” so many of you seem to share.

    until then i guess it’s just LOCO AUNTIE for me – you know, the one who’d shimmy up by your side at weddings and graduations, curling her flabby AUNTIE ARM around your waist — coming just a bangle short of SEXUAL HARASSMENT. the same one who revels in off-color digressions, like loudly discussing the thinning hair around Veena’s crown, who, although was once so beautiful, will be “lucky if she gets MARRIED AT ALL”. This traumatizing sideshow always came with LOCO UNCLE in tow, who himself shocked audiences large and small with his zany new ideas, like re-establishing the globally abolished SLAVE TRADE under specific by-laws only he knew about, or holding the next “function” on a wild new yacht he purchased down by Barbados.

    GOOD TIMES.

  20. ok – considering how much you love aunties, how many of you ladies out there want to become one such auntie?

    M. Nam

  21. BTW, what kind of food is repeatedly referred to in this piece. Is it South Indian?

    It is mostly classic comfort Southie food…in my case, Tamil food.

    how many of you ladies out there want to become one such auntie?

    MoorNam, funnily enough, after remembering the impact this one Auntie has/had on me, I asked myself the same thing. Would I want to be one such Auntie? More importantly, could I ever be one such Auntie? For the former, in a heartbeat. Who wouldn’t want to have all these things: class, strategy-setting and organizational skills becoming a military commander, compassion, intolerance for incompetence but grudging respect for the effort shown, ruthless efficiency, flair, personal strength of character and devil-may-care confidence? Now she may gossip like no one else, be a nosy busybody time to time, and maybe be a tad bit domineering at times but this Auntie has helped to make me the woman I am today…and one day I would be honored to have another woman say the same thing about me.

  22. It comes with the bellyrolls, you know, the type that hang over the petticoat or belt of the auntie/uncle in question ;)

    Oh, Yuck! It’s already gross enough to see women my age flaunting their bulging bellies in their short top lehngas at parties – I don’t even want to think about what they’ll all look like in 20 years! (Oh wait, I could turn into one of them by then … off to the gym I go).

  23. VBSF,

    Glad to hear that you consider such auties as role-models to be emulated. This is true love, as opposed to simple puppy-love where someone is good only enough to be cuddled and snuggled to receive comfort.

    M. Nam

  24. how many of you ladies out there want to become one such auntie?

    M. Nam: I think I’m pretty lucky that I didn’t have to travel far for role models. Accomplished, sassy, outspoken, respected, efficient, funny, and smart — these women chartered unfamiliar waters and, for the most part, always came out on top without a single pleat of their sari out of place.

    And the bellyrolls are the best part. I mean, to walk into a room and own it like even if you didn’t have the body you had when you were 20? THAT is confidence.

  25. When you can finally understand what’s so great about your so uncool mom and dad, you, my dear, have grown up.

  26. Indeed, Floridian…

    When you can finally understand what’s so great about your so uncool mom and dad, you, my dear, have grown up.

    From the tip line…

    the memoirs of an auntie-wannabe.

    But the B-word reared its head again two years later. I had just quit my job and was looking for something more suited to my interests. “Next year,” I told Shaili when he suggested that we start thinking about having a baby. “You’re 34,” he reminded me, before launching into an analysis of my declining reproductive prospects. That Sylvia Ann Hewlett chose that moment to publish “Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children”–a fear-mongering book filled with examples of women who had lost out on the chance of motherhood because of their career ambitions–just added fuel to his argument. Her appearance on “60 Minutes” sparked a full-blown battle, accompanied by tears, threats of divorce, and slamming doors. “You should have told me you didn’t want children before we got married!” Shaili screamed.
  27. Hi Barmaid: To add to your funny description of the auntie at the party, let’s not forget the ubiquitous yogurt container, an indispensable “Auntie gadget” used widely all over North America for the express purpose of taking home leftover foods from parties. I hate to admit – my wife and I never throw away the containers from the cream cheese, margarine and yogurt. And yes, we are probably the same age as the proverbial auntie.

  28. Mr. Floridian,

    Just promise that, if you ever run into them, you won’t ever tell any of the parents of the “young” people on this site that we actually have boat loads of respect for them. That would just add too much onto the already existing pressure to find a mate and become aunties and uncles ourselves.

  29. Sonia: The link does not work any more.

    BarMaid: Awesome post. I had a mental note going on what I wanted my mom to cook when I was visiting her, now I do not need that anymore. Every single one of those things that you mentioned evoke a special emotion. The panchamritham was my favourite food, yes food for a long time and DO NOT get me started on the Thayir Chaadam.

    There could be many, but there will only be one who can perfectly hit the spot. To each his own.