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The Light of 1000 Suns

(by Lally Pia)


I think the sky would fall down if my mother stopped cooking.

 

Let me back up. My parents are Tamils and in the minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. They left Sri Lanka for Ghana in 1961 when I was six months old, reeling from anti-Tamil pogroms and violent persecution, which culminated in an all-out civil war. Thousands lost their lives, and Tamils fled the island any way they could. We landed in Ghana because my father’s sister had moved there and touted the relative safety and prosperity in the country. Ghana had gained independence from Britain in 1957, the first African country to do so.

 

So why has food played such an important part in my mother’s life?

 

It’s cultural. Her whole family in Sri Lanka does the same thing. When we visited there every summer, my grandmother would exhort us to “eat, eat, eat,” and any time visitors showed up at her home, even dropping in without an invite, mouthwatering snacks were dispensed within minutes. If I turned down a second helping at my aunt’s home, her downturned mouth indicated that I had mortally wounded her. And heaven forbid if you’ve just had a meal when you go to my mother’s home. The wrinkle on her forehead won’t dissipate until you try something. My anxiety ratchets to high gear until she sits back beaming because I finally accepted that fragrant fried meat patty. (It was likely hidden away in the freezer for an occasion such as a visit from her oldest daughter.)

 

From my birthplace in Sri Lanka, to Ghana, the United Kingdom, and finally California, each location has refined my mom’s repertoire. Thankfully the fiery spices that blocked my ears and made me sweat in Sri Lanka were toned down over the years, and all manner of English desserts infiltrated our meals. But she never used a cookbook. I always marveled at her determination to get the best for us, even navigating severe food shortages at the end of our time in Ghana. She’d trudge through the muddy meat markets in the blazing heat of the day to obtain goat meat. I accompanied her once, and only once, in my late teens. The stench, racks of bloody meat on tables, and crush of bodies in the grisly market did not make for an endearing experience.

 

The families of my friends in Ghana were wealthier than mine, but always said that we had the best food in town. Only later in life did I learn how my parents’ paychecks were whittled down to almost zero each month, even though my mom worked two jobs, teaching math in elementary school and high school at the same time. “Saving” or “scrimping” were absent from her vocabulary—she believed that our money situation would always work out. (She was right.) Our garden had vegetables from okra to peppers that would have made Michelle Obama grin. My siblings and I grew up oblivious to the number of hoops she jumped through to keep us fed.

 

My mother’s optimism and selflessness imbue her with the light of 1000 suns, and she sees food as an extension of herself to the universe. Take school lunches: Nothing would do for her children but homemade sandwiches or toasted bread pockets, followed by tea time at home, a feast of pastries, freshly baked cookies, cake, or English chocolate biscuits with milky sweetened tea. For dinner, she’d sit with us at the table and listen to our day’s stories as if nothing could be more exciting, commiserating with anything that went wrong. She’s like that. Anything, it seems, is palatable on a full stomach.

 

When we arrived in the United States, my mother was a Special Ed resource teacher during the school year and worked the tomato cannery in the summer. Her work ethic inspired all of her children—we worked our tails off and excelled. To this day, if my mother sits on the couch for more than a few minutes, I start to worry about her. At the age of 92, she still cooks for her family. Multiple brightly colored, carefully labeled plastic containers bear witness to her culinary creations. These are often stowed in a disposable refrigerated ice chest that can withstand the six-hour trip to Los Angeles to see her grandchildren or the three-hour trip to Santa Cruz for her great-grandkids. And she’s been petite and svelte at 115 pounds from my earliest memories. Her secret? She makes everyone else eat, but she just “nibbles.”


“Nibbles” were what she requested when she came to my house to watch the recent Super Bowl. Like me, she never misses a 49er game. (I swear she knows more football stats than I do.) I Googled exotic recipe suggestions for the game—maybe sliders with a side of guacamole? Cheesy lasagna? Or one of her favorites, shepherd’s pie?

 

“No, Lally, no,” she insisted. “Just some snacks. Popcorn, or chips with dip. Something small to nibble.“ Then I got a call. “Lally, I’m bringing fish cutlets.” She couldn’t resist.

                                                                                                   

My mother has taught me that if I mimic her positivity, my tank will never run dry. When someone wrongs you, let it go. Look for the good in others—it will come back to you. Her unwavering belief that something good is waiting around that next boulder has informed my own decision-making and contributed to my overall happiness. People to me are beautiful jigsaw puzzles with all their complexities, opinions, flaws, and drama. I love it when folks show up without calling. My home may be a mess, but if they can’t handle that, then they’re no friends of mine.

(With my my mother Ranee, daughter Shanthi, and granddaughter Surasi)


Of course, I cannot escape my heritage (nor would I want to): When friends drop by, every cell in my body starts vibrating: Food. Make sure you have food. More! Prepare more. It won’t be enough! And I hope that my multicultural grandchildren not only imbibe our culture, but feel sustained by it, the way it has always sustained me. May they spread this philosophy around so that their friends, too, burn with the light of 1000 suns, like their great-grandmother.

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Lally Pia, MD, is a child psychiatrist who lives in Davis, California. She is the author of The Fortune Teller's Prophecy: A Memoir of an Unlikely Doctor. She is a member of the Davis Writers Salon, the California Writers Club, and the Elk Grove Writers Guild. She can be found at https://www.lallypia.com/.


Shepherd’s Pie

 

For the filling:

1 1/2 lb. ground beef

1 large onion, chopped

1 stick celery, chopped

1 t. finely grated fresh ginger root

1 t. finely chopped garlic (2 cloves)

2 T. chopped cilantro

6 oz. can tomato paste

1 T. flour

1 t. salt, or to taste

3/4 t. black pepper

butter for greasing casserole

 

For the topping:

8 medium new potatoes, scrubbed and quartered

1/4 c. milk

1/2 t. salt

1/2 t. pepper

1/4 c. butter, plus additional for baking

.

In a large, skillet, sauté meat and onion, until meat is browned and onion is transparent.

Add celery, ginger, and garlic, and stir for 5 minutes.

Add cilantro and tomato paste, and cook for 2 minutes

Stir in flour until mixture thickens, about 1 minute.

Spoon mixture into a large buttered casserole.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook potatoes until they fall easily off a fork when poked.

Drain potatoes, add milk, salt, pepper, and 1/4 c. butter, and mash until creamy.

Taste for seasoning.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Carefully lay mashed potatoes by the spoonful onto the meat mixture, and level with a spoon.

Use the prongs of a fork to score a pattern on the potatoes.

Put little dabs of butter on top of the potato mixture.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes.

Serve with Brussels sprouts or steamed broccoli.

Keeps well if covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 3 days.

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