As food rots, so does my legacy

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The world asks me to taste it, but all my tongue knows is the rarity.

My grandparents used to take me to the market a few times a week, before both of their knees gave out from old age and arthritis. I knew the traders well and they loved me. The old man from Bilal Store comes to mind, as does the cashier from Rahat Bakery around the corner with round glasses and a kind nose. Kokoji, my clever Scorpio grandmother, knew everything by heart, the inner life of fruits and things that grow in the ground. His fingertips possessed the precision of a fine medical instrument. They pushed and pushed the brown spots on a lone pear or the carnations of a potato with such ease that it still amazes me to this day. Cilantro seemed to exhale with relief into his hands. The food seemed to want to jump in, and I watched, over time, the tiny little leaves at the top of the clump turn brown to a muddy chartreuse.

We used to shop only at Bilal store for small things and Naqshbandi for big items. We knew the bag boys and the traders. If they were sick, we found out. When I got chickenpox, they gave me extra candy (chocolate caramel eclair – the kind that viciously clung to my molars). We could call and ask them to deliver. And if we didn’t have enough cash on us, the delivery man would nod and leave, confident that we would pay the next time we shopped there.

Strawberries! You could only find them for about three weeks a year, around February. Strawberry vendors appeared on the streets like popcorn in your microwave. There is one, then another, then a few more. Then an explosion, which peaks just as you begin to appreciate the rhythm. A loner here and there. Done until next time. It was a luxury. You would buy a kilo or two, then freeze them, cherish them and ration them. Even today, I only eat six or seven strawberries at a time. It’s too excessive not to be careful with them.

Tasting them felt forbidden in a delicious way. Strawberry seeds still stuck to the notches between my teeth, settling. I wondered if they were from Swat or Mansehra. I wondered if maybe the runners were planted in Swat in the summer and then transferred to the heat of Punjab, where I lived. I imagined the Strawberry Man. I wondered if he was afraid they would go wrong. I tried to wrap my mind around the resilience of this small fruit, so sweet and perishable, coping with the bumps on the roads of Lahore. Around GT road or Sheikhupura. They coalesce around Barki Road and Saddar, then scatter like seeds.

Eating chicken, too, was a story. Babajani, my sweet and jovial grandfather, picked the chicken before his eyes. They were sitting cooing in metal cages and the butcher chopped it up right in front of us. I was young and I felt a touch of sympathy for them. I felt grateful to have been made aware of this little secret, that I knew the life I was consuming. Now in Durham, I scour the aisles of Target and Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s, dissatisfied with how easy it is to find boneless, prepared chicken for me. They are too immaculate, these supermarkets, and too imposing with their gorged concrete bellies. I can’t find rejected chicken pieces thrown on the ground for cats to eat. I can’t find any languid, tongue-out, panting dogs, companions of the proud butcher.

I’m living off campus this year, so I choose what I eat. I can find strawberries all year round. I have to check that they are not rotten, but I cannot choose them one by one. They taste good, but they’re not as hot or neat as the ones I found in Lahore. I wonder about supply chains and rot. In Lahore, a friend tells me that the good fruits are exported. We don’t taste it. In Istanbul, a new friend notices that the fruit no longer tastes the same as before.

These days, when I visit home, I notice Kokoji’s stomach giving out, following his knees. She mostly eats steamed vegetables, especially as a teenager, swimming in brown broth like rhinos in a swamp. I sit next to her, trying my best to inhale her scent and see the food as she once did. I wish I knew an upside down clove. I wish I could rip a lady finger off to stuff it to the brim with masalas, then stitch it back up so it bursts with what I gave it.

I’m afraid of losing everything. Much of it is already lost, the intimacy of knowing the delivery person, the closeness of picking your fruit and meat, and the slowness of pickling your own carrots. So much more will be lost, too, with age, as my tongue loses its mind and settles into the sweetness of steamed squash and porridge. So much is precarious, as the days pass and I settle into the steady hum of life at Duke, planning rushed lunches with friends I wish I had time to cook for, remembering wistfully at how slow life was in my grandparents’ house.

When I fall in love, make art, or cook for someone I love, I want to taste as much as possible. If you were to have coffee with me, or if I cooked for you, I would have a hard time imagining the bite of pastry falling down your throat. If I try to imagine food like I once did, I can again feel the layers unraveling, separating, and sticking to the side of your throat. I can follow the tough layer of ganache as it moves down. As school children, we believed that gum stays inside you forever, and if you swallow it, you’ll grow a gum tree out of your throat. I want everything to stay inside forever.

Ayesham Khan is a Trinity senior. Their column is broadcast on Tuesdays alternately.

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