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Musings: The Cooking of Books: On Becoming a Writer

By Bharti Kirchner Email By Bharti Kirchner
July 2024
Musings: The Cooking of Books: On Becoming a Writer

Hunger was one of the reasons why BHARTI KIRCHNER, who has written four cookbooks and nine novels, once spent hours in the kitchen devising new recipes.

M.F.K. Fisher, the eminent food writer, was once asked why she chose to write about food and not about love or war. She’s said to have replied, “Because I’m hungry.”

I was driven by hunger for new taste sensations as well as hunger to expand my imagination. Surrounded by an array of ingredients, ranging from elegant stalks of leek and pearl-like grains of rice to ruby red cherries and deep brown bittersweet chocolate—I would let my passion run free, halving a potato, grinding cumin seeds, and stirring the pot to produce a new combination. My hunger would already be partially satisfied from being surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, sniffing the fragrant aromas, and listening to the rhythmic clinking of the spatula.

Musings_2_07_24.jpgFinally, the dish would be ready. One experimental meal consisted of braised leeks, coconut cauliflower curry, steamed rice, and chocolate-cherry tart. Tasters—family and friends—assembled in my dining room where I served them the results of my latest frenzy of inspiration.

“Perhaps a bit less turmeric in the curry?” my husband suggested.

“Leeks are one of my favorite veggies, but could you cut them a little smaller?” a friend asked.

“What if I can’t find shredded, unsweetened coconut in the supermarket?” said another.

Happily, I’d take notes of their reactions, then retest the recipes, making modifications if I deemed them appropriate and rejecting suggestions that didn’t fit. My cookbooks, four of them thus born, found their niches in the market, and I developed a readership.

One evening, following another arduous recipe testing session, I relaxed with a travel magazine. Flipping through the pages, I came across a striking photo of a desert scene in Rajasthan, India. Under a buff-colored horizon that foretold the arrival of a sandstorm, a group of women walked single file toward their village, water pots balanced on their heads, faces covered by the train of their colorful saris. I sat there enchanted, staring at the photo, which had brought back memories of growing up in India, as well as powerful submerged feelings I hadn’t known existed.

Musings_5_07_24.jpgThe next morning in the kitchen, while mincing garlic or beating eggs—I don’t remember exactly—an image of a desert in western India flashed into my head. A girl of seven dressed in fine clothes and jewelry stood alone by a long-necked camel with a humped back. Darkness was descending; a storm about to break out around her. The girl’s desperate eyes cast about in vain for someone to rescue her. Later, sitting in my study, still puzzled, I came up with a pair of sentences: “Seven, her people had always believed, was an auspicious number. One’s life began anew every seven years.”

And so I began, playfully at first, composing the story of Meena Kumari, a village girl in India betrothed to her favorite playmate. In her milieu, mass weddings of children were common, although the bride and the groom would not live together until both reached puberty. On the night of Meena’s wedding, bandits swooped in from the desert in a surprise attack, fatally injuring her mother and kidnapping her. I stopped typing at that point and showed the pages to a friend. “What happens next?” she asked.

Although I sensed a bigger story lurked out there somewhere, I had no idea how to grab hold of it. The novel (later to be titled Shiva Dancing) teased the fringes of my consciousness, then flitted away, leaving behind a trail of clues—the gesture of a character, the flash of an event, snatches of dialogue, and a stream of emotions. Increasingly frustrated, I tried to make sense out of these tantalizing fragments emanating from another universe beyond my reach. It was as though I was only getting a whiff of smoke from a fire burning in the distance. How big a fire was it? How tall would the flames rise? How long would it continue? Still, I kept on writing to discover Meena’s story, sparks from that fire lighting my path, as it were, my hours in the kitchen by now greatly reduced.

Musings_3_07_24.jpg

Why on earth did I leave the warmth of my fragrant kitchen to venture into this torturous territory? The answer, I believe, is hunger of a different sort than that mentioned by M.F.K. Fisher Musings_4_07_24.jpg—hunger both to give freer play to my imagination and to partake in the larger experience of another universe. Although the path wasn’t always clear, hunger to explore this other realm propelled me forward. Had I, then, cast aside those rewarding hours in the kitchen to chase and romance some imaginary wild beast from another planet? Quite the contrary. My earlier experience paid off in unexpected ways. Food insinuated itself into my novels as a metaphor for nurturing, a means to unravel the plot, and quite often to imbue a scene with an extra punch and subtext.

Eventually, Shiva Dancing was published, and I embarked on my next project. In the years that followed, I would produce many more novels. There’s some commonality here. I always start a new endeavor intending to maintain a detailed background chart on each important player, the way writers are advised to do. In truth, I have never actually completed one. A sliver of a story grabs me by the collar and demands that I get down to the nitty-gritty details of how, why, and what happened. Do the work it dictates, not the work about the work. And so, I take a short cut and try to discover a few salient points about my characters. Who do they love? What makes them happy? What do they fear? What motivates them? What’s their favorite food?

When well-meaning friends, family, and readers ask me for the recipes of meals they’ve come across on the pages of my novels, I say: I can’t give you the exact measurement of spices, the right vessel to use, the precise time to simmer the ingredients; for the recipes belong to my protagonist. I can only show you a sliver of her day, a heightened moment or two, joys and trials garnished with an unexpected insight, and a few clues to preparing the meal she shared with her lover. I can serve you a story.


A slightly different version of this article appeared in the anthology The Pen and The Key (74th Street Productions). Bharti Kirchner is the author of nine novels and four cookbooks. Her latest detective novel is Murder at Jaipur: A Maya Mallick Mystery. She lives in the state of Washington.

 


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