Here we are four adults, or near-adults, crammed sardine-like into a two-bedroom apartment until we find an over-priced, under-sized house to buy. Living cheek by jowl with teenaged children is like living in a share-house with bears who forgot to hibernate through winter. I do not recommend it for long periods of time. My epithets for the children – Godzilla and the TeenWolf – have never been truer. Their appetites, their ability to generate landfills’ worth of garbage, and their Bollywood levels of melodrama leave me dizzy and gasping.
Appeasing these beasts means waging war in the tiny kitchen with the awful kitchen utensils that come with the apartment. Daily, I do battle with five-dollar supermarket pots and pans that are far too small to cook a meal to sate teenaged appetites. Two-dollar plastic ladles and spatulas that warp and wiggle like Stretch Armstrong abandoned on a hot summer footpath, evade my best efforts to stir and mix. And there are simply never quite enough literal or metaphorical spoons.
This isn’t our first move, and I’ve learned a thing or two over time. I know to take the maximum allowable baggage with me. My usual packing strategy of five changes of clothes is quickly abandoned in favour of two large suitcases, packed to sit-on-to-close capacity. Every possible weather scenario is accounted for. My otherwise frugal toiletries allowance billows to include thrice-a-year makeup and favourite perfumes. All my jewellery is dug out from storage. I clutch my pillow close, because a good night’s sleep makes most things manageable.
And now I also pack my favourite kitchen knife and a sharpener.
Many years ago, my husband and the kids splurged on an excellent Füri Asian chef’s knife for my birthday. It came in a wooden container, carved to house it snugly. This knife is heavy, solid, and made of a single piece of steel. The handle sits sturdy and cool in the palm of my hand. I keep it at paper-shredding sharpness, and its weight reassuringly carves cleanly through the softest tomato. This knife can sliver lemons so each slice is translucent and still perfectly formed, almost a caricature of itself. It’s the knife I rely on most in my kitchen, and no small amount of panic ensues when I can’t readily find it.
I’ve taken this knife camping, on family holidays, and on picnics. It gives me comfort and confidence. It’s an end-of-the-world knife, a Crocodile Dundee that’s-not-a-knife-this-is-a-knife knife. It’s the knife you want in a dystopian post-apocalyptic zombie filled future. And given the results of the recent US election, Brexit, the rise of extreme right-wing politics, and the apparent official rubber stamping of racism and sexism everywhere, that bleak future seems much closer.
It’s the knife I packed carefully in my suitcase as we traipsed to the other side of the globe to resettle in Australia.
Cramped together in a small apartment, jostling for elbow room and quiet space away from the constant competing noises of bickering teens and TVs, this knife allows me an escape into a more peaceful place. While the outside world feels unpredictable and worrisome, I find comfort and control in details, in the familiar, in the little joys of life.
I land, predictably, on cooking.
From my earliest memories of learning to build a fire with copra and kindling in the traditional Kerala kitchens of my grandmothers and aunts, to the laughter and food experiments in my parents’ busy family kitchen, to my own kitchen where I teach my boys to cook, kitchens have nourished my soul. When I was ill as a child, the kitchen was my sick room of choice. It allowed me ready access to whatever deliciousness it expelled, and wrapped me in warmth and family. When my father retired, the kitchen became his domain – and my mother willingly surrendered after decades of producing daily meals. Where other men of his generation fled to sheds or golf courses, he ensconced himself in the kitchen, and like a benevolent dictator, began marshalling his troops to produce one delicacy after another from his own childhood. It’s really no great wonder then that I turn to cooking as a source of stability in the midst of our unsettling settling in.
Though ingredients vary and recipes fluctuate, though politics and finances rise and fall, my trusty knife brings reassurance. A good knife that fits your hand, that inspires you to julienne a vegetable, that enables you to cut paper-thin slices of meat and fish, probably seems like an unnecessary indulgence. But a good knife can make all the difference.
The moral of this story is: purchase the best knife you can afford, one that sits in your hand like a trusted sword, and keep it very very sharp.