The Canteen Omelette

#cooking #omelette #JNU #memories

 The other day I was reading an article in ‘The New Yorker’. It was called “ Mastering the Art of Making a French Omelette’ by Bill Buford. A delightful piece of writing, it proves what I firmly believe in : that cooking is a highly creative idea and process.So when women ( mainly) either complain about  the drudgery of cooking or consider it fashionably feminist to avoid the kitchen, my brain formulates a rather tart response. Somewhat along the lines of ‘ You need intelligence and a rich appreciation of beauty to be able to cook’. The same applies to men who scoff at this ‘un-macho’ activity and tend to categorise it , most regrettably, lower than speeding and soccer.

 

In about a thousand words, the author conjures up images of such sensuality and  perfection, that one wonders if one is reading about cooking an egg or listening to Neruda’s poetry! Or this as well–“There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk”.( MFK Fisher) In 1956, American columnist Harriet Van Horne wrote an article for Vogue magazine , which started with the words “Cooking is like love — it should be entered into with abandon or not at all”. The description of omelette making in the article by Monsieur Buford belongs to that category and condition of l’amour.

 

Then I thought about that ‘omelette’ which perhaps most of us are familiar with here in India.It forms an essential part of growing up and  the fond nostalgic ideal of the carefree college /university days. It perhaps can rightfully be thought of as a rite of passage that marked the beginning of flying away from the nest and ended with responsibility and choices of the adult world. I am talking about the omelette that is the staple food in college canteens served between two slices of bread  and most usually with the other iconic ‘cutting chai’.

 

I studied in JNU,Delhi and I relate to the ‘bread aamlet’ or ‘bun anda’ of the Ganga dhaba. Each college/university would have its similar point of rendezvous and  similar fare.In fact, this fabled bread omelette, along with a few grounded, plebeian dishes, is almost akin to the ‘ little tradition’ of that place. Till date, I keep coming across people at parties and happening do’s–successful, erudite, the movers & shakers etc– who after settling into a comfort zone of good booze ( mainly),good food, good music wage wars about ‘whose canteen was better in college’! The conversations veer off towards gut wrenching sentimentality and the end result is most certainly ‘  hamara bread omelette’ of mythical and magical prowess.

 

The omelette would be normally made out of two eggs and whisked in a very disreputable steel glass with an equally sad bent spoon. In would go, thrown with flamboyant dexterity, chopped onions,green chilly salt and an alarmingly colored powder–it , I guess, was a mix of pepper, red chilly, garam masala and the dust in the atmosphere. This would then be dumped on a huge frying pan where oil of doubtful vintage sizzled; side by side, two slices of bread or a bun sliced into two would also be lightly grilled. My friends, both, male and female, would glare at Sushil, the gentle dhaba chap ( God bless him!) coz invariably he was partial towards me–so my omelette would have a dash of chopped green coriander and much, much, much extra maska on the bun.Many theories were advanced for this treachery by Sushil but the one I loved and believe/d in was the common love for dogs that we shared.A very important ritual of this omelette was also the part of  conveying that the dish was ready– ‘Do bun anda , Boss’ would be shouted across the transistor blaring in the background and general din of voices. Here,enters a magnificent feminist aphorism—”boss’’ could be a girl or a boy. I loved it and would often think that there should be a study on this —how mundane and ordinary people or stuff sometimes contain great thoughts, ideas and attitude. 

 

How would this omelette be rated by gourmets and connoisseurs of fine food/dining? I really cannot say! There was a  dismal,significant lack of those parameters by which its loftiness would be judged— the method, color, texture, shape, right temperature, ingredients ( free range eggs, aux fine herbes etc ), fragrance, the utensils used. Yet, I guess, it would pass the test solely on one account–the cheerfulness, devotion and love which went into making the omelette and feeding it to those far away from home. Disclaimer:The nobleness  and magnanimity of this thought must also take into account the infinite wonders of a hot omelette over the horrifying hostel mess food! 

 

 “in the abstract art of cooking,

ingredients trump appliances,

passion supersedes expertise,

creativity triumphs over technique,

spontaneity inspires invention,

and wine makes even the worst culinary disaster taste delicious.” ( Bob Blumer)

 

Apply that to the omelette and raise a toast to it—wherever, whichever, however! 

 

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