For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation. The range of responses was surprising: We heard about a failure of familial reconciliation, a longstanding family disagreement about bologna on the wall, and today Somali Roy reveals her fraught relationship with pumpkin and reminds us of the usefulness of younger siblings. Roy is a freelance writer in Singapore who has previously written about her relationship with her (mother-in-law’s) kitchen and the joys of eating in a Kolkata cafeteria.
Giving Second Chances
By Somali Roy
At a very early age I came upon the profound wisdom that siblings, especially younger ones, are tiny minions sent by God to make growing up easy and entertaining. I engaged mine as a playmate when friends weren’t around and would occasionally bully her. But mostly I used her as a means to escape eating unfavored food by shoving it onto her plate when nobody was looking. And that condemned food, which my sister grew up obliviously consuming in copious amounts, was pumpkin.
Unfortunately, because it was my mother’s favorite, there was no escaping this soppy, milquetoast, gourd-like squash. I liked to characterize vegetables as people with real feelings. “Pumpkin is not assertive. It has no defining taste or character—it’s mild, squishy and uninviting,” I ranted. Being opinionated and judgmental about vegetables certainly didn’t help. Wasting even a mote of pumpkin under my mother’s supervision was sacrilege, so I had to improvise.
There were several variants of pumpkin dishes cooked in our house, mostly influenced by traditional East Indian recipes. Two of them that were remote possibilities for my palate were Kumro Sheddho (boiled and mashed pumpkin seasoned with salt, mustard oil and chopped green chilies) and Kumro Bhaja (thinly sliced pumpkin dredged in batter and deep fried). Both recipes successfully masked the pumpkin taste that I so resented. Anything other than these was offloaded on my sister, who was too hypnotized by the cartoons on TV to notice the pile on her plate.
When college started, I moved to another city and lodged with my grandmother. She, I discovered, nursed an even greater love for the vegetable. My days were peppered with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes. I missed my sister terribly. Once again I was forced to improvise. I offered to help my grandmother with her chores, and the responsibility of grocery shopping was readily relinquished to me. Starting then, the pumpkin supply at the local bazaar suffered, either due to untimely monsoons or truck strikes and roadblocks or just bad crops—whichever excuse suited my whim. I was thankful that my grandmother never compared notes with her neighbors.
Two decades passed in successfully dodging and evading this vegetable in a world that’s enamored with pumpkin so much that it’s used as a term of endearment: I love you, my Pumpkin. How was your day, Pumpkin? Come to dinner, Pumpkin Pie. It may be the 40th most beautiful word in the English language (according to a survey by British Council), but I knew I wouldn’t have coped well with this moniker.
However, December 2008 had different plans for me. We were relocating to another country and it was my last Christmas in Munich. The day before our office was closing down for holidays, a colleague invited me to share her homemade lunch—a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup. My heart sank. Already burdened with the pain of leaving a city I had come to love, I definitely did not need “pumpkin soup for my frayed soul” to lift up the mood.
There wasn’t enough time to Google pumpkin-induced allergies (if any) that I could fake. So I obliged my host and perched myself on the kitchen chair, staring haplessly at the bowl for an entire minute. There was nothing else to do except take that huge leap of faith. The rich, creamy taste, mildly sweet with a hint of cumin and ginger spiked with a dash of lemon was not something I was expecting at all. While going for a second helping, I double-checked that it was genuinely pumpkin, in case I didn’t hear it right. Could it be carrot or yam? She assured me it wasn’t, so I asked for the recipe.
Thus began a phase when I ordered only pumpkin soups for appetizers while eating out. The result was undisputed. Pumpkin finally redeemed itself and bagged a one-way entry ticket to my humble kitchen. When I made my first pumpkin soup using my colleague’s recipe, it was sensational and a comforting reminder that giving second chances are worthwhile. As for my sibling, she grew up to love pumpkin—whether on her own accord or as a result of intervention remains ambiguous.