Beefeaters

Nirej Sekhon describes his experiences as a school boy from a traditional Indian family, who is introduced to the American beef culture.

Nirej Sekhon | October 2003 issue
Chicken-fried steak was among the more unyielding mysteries of my American boyhood. My school cafeteria served a vast array of breaded grey meats dubbed ‘chicken,’ along with a host of other culinary conundrums: egg salad, cheesecake, corn dogs, chicken pot pie. Nothing, however, rivalled the sheer contradiction of chicken-fried steak.
My parents dismissed my curiosity out of hand. As they saw it, there was no point in investigating the perversities of the American table. I had no siblings to ask. And I could hardly have posed the question to any of my nine-year-old classmates, who seemed perfectly comfortable with the mongrel meat. I had been the lone Indian at school long enough to know that there were no innocent questions. Resolving my chicken-fried dilemma was not worth a chicken-fried thumping.
If my family had gone out to eat more often, I might have realised that chicken-fried steak was actually a red herring: the school cafeteria was perhaps the only place in southern California that served chicken-fried steak. But even if I had known that the dish was Southern – slightly less than all-American – I would have been no less intrigued.
Chicken and steak were as distinct as could be. Chicken made regular appearances on my family’s dinner table in various incarnations: masala’ed, curried, sometimes tandooried. I was fond of each version, so long as it remained on the dinner table and stayed clear of my lunch box. (The tandoori thumping was no less fearsome for its rarity.) Steak was a different matter altogether. It was never what’s for dinner.
In those days, multiculturalism had not made its way into the American classroom. Then again, I’m not sure it would have saved me. The more vigorously I tried to fit into American society, the more vigorously I would be asked why we worshiped cows and wore dots on our forehead. My protests that I did neither of these things didn’t seem to help. The cow jokes were especially irksome. Once the stampede of cattle humour began, there was little I could do to hold it back. There were jokes about cow transport (how I got to school), cow patties (how we fertilised the lawn), cow sex (how I, well, never mind). Even my public consumption of beef – hamburgers, keema, whatever – didn’t quiet the controversy. There was something effete about my attempts. I may have eaten beef, but I could never be a Beefeater.
Steak. It was exemplary in its beefiness, beef with a capital B, the reddest of meats. A thick piece of seared flesh that held the promise of perfect satisfaction. Steak transcended mere gastronomic pleasure by unlocking a realm of corporal plenitude. To eat steak was to exist on a wholly different, more exalted plane than those who did not eat steak. There is no doubt about it, I had a steak fetish. But I certainly wasn’t alone.
Everybody loved steak. The fourth-grade boys were the most vocal, uttering words they had inherited from their male kin, or heard on their favourite television shows. ‘I had a great steak last night.’ These words were pronounced with a tinny, prepubescent vehemence that might have sounded absurd had I not been so desperate to join the club. There were variations, to be sure – ’My mom made me a great steak last night’ or ‘We had great steaks last night’ – but there was a clear and resounding consensus. Steak was always great; it betokened greatness.
Of course, I loved steak. I loved steak even though I had never actually tried it. I never said I had, either, though I was often tempted. Steak loomed too large in my imagination, and I didn’t think that I could perpetrate a lie of that magnitude without suffering the ultimate indignity: a beefsteak thumping.
There was animated talk about steak at home, too, but it was very different from the talk at school. My parents found steak revolting; there was no better example of American savagery. Steak was terribly un-Indian.
My parents and I talked a lot about ‘the Americans.’ Speaking in Punjabi, we marvelled at their business acumen and efficiency. More often, we would denounce their greed, high divorce rate, obesity, lack of roots, spiritual naïveté, and throwaway culture. Among our reproofs, there was an entire subgenre devoted to the American diet. My parents pilloried the Americans relentlessly for their bad taste. Americans ate bland, unhealthy food prepared anywhere but at home – which was not surprising, since they came from broken homes. They ate grotesque amounts. And when they did manage to have a home-cooked meal, it was always something horribly unpalatable. Like steak.
My parents always came back to steak. ‘How could they eat that?’ they would ask. ‘Why do they eat like animals?’ Steak was the nadir of gastronomy: it was massive, fatty, and unrefined. No masala whatsoever, just a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Steak took virtually no time or energy to prepare. Straight from the blood-sodden cellophane to the grill. It was the blood that seemed to disconcert my parents the most. ‘They don’t even cook it properly,’ one of them might exclaim upon seeing a particularly lurid commercial for A-1 steak sauce.
A ‘great steak’ was not just unseasoned – it was raw, or so we imagined. The images of steak in grocery store flyers and steakhouse advertisements confirmed our worst suspicions. The ads usually featured close-ups of seared turf, splayed to reveal swollen, red flesh. Being a laboratory worker, my mother was quick to point out the various micro-spectres that lurked in raw meat. It was hard to imagine that malevolent army, but the prospect of being struck down by invisible parasites was terrifying. Americans’ taste for steak was symptomatic of their culinary morbidity. They seemed to crave death’s telltale drippings. ‘Their stomachs are like graveyards,’ my uncle Sumunder Singh once remarked. He spoke from experience. His American colleagues had once lured him to a steakhouse, where peer pressure made it impossible to order anything but the house specialty. Panicked, my uncle drew upon an Indian death ritual to save himself from a raw deal. When the waitress asked how he would like his steak cooked, he took a deep breath and told her, ‘Cremate it!’
‘Our’ food was refined. Dal, sabzi, chapati. Occasionally, we would have a meat dish: some sort of chicken, usually, or keema – minced beef or lamb. My parents heralded these dishes as a triumph of culture over barbarism: ‘No straight-from-the-fridge-to-the-oven monkey business.’ Each home-cooked Indian meal was the culmination of a world-historical encounter between ingredients. The masalas that flavoured our food were not just blends of spices, but distillations of a rich and storied culture. So my parents served up dal-sabzi with steak-induced self-consciousness, ever mindful that a lapse in culinary discipline might lose me to the Beefeaters.
I often wanted to get lost. Our food wasn’t my food – not exactly. There were Indian dishes that I enjoyed, but the daily dal-sabzi I could do without. Why did we have to eat the same thing every night? Why couldn’t we ever go to McDonald’s? My mother nipped my protests in the bud: ‘What? Do you want to be American?’ It was as loaded a question as anyone could have asked me. No matter what I said, I would have been lying.
Yes, I admit it: I found burgers and pizza appetising, more appetising than I found our food. Burgers and pizza made good playground sense. They were foods that my classmates could imagine themselves eating, meals to be envied. Why risk a dal-sabzi thumping? The previous evening’s meal, however, was a frequent subject of playground conversation, so I developed a knack for evasion. What did I have for dinner last night? ‘Oh, nothing good.’ ‘Same old stuff.’
It wasn’t always so easy. Every once in a while, a health or science teacher would assign the class a week of dietary auto-surveillance. We were to record everything we ate, classify each item by food group, and report back to the class. I could maybe convince my mom to prepare a ‘normal’ dinner on one of the assigned days, but for the remaining six, it was dal-sabzi. Revealing my family’s dietary perversity to the class was out of the question. But creating a fictional American diet seemed too risky. My limited repertoire of American foods – burgers, pizza, fried chicken – might have prompted the teacher to sic a social worker on my parents. So I opted for literal translations of dal, sabzi, and chapati: lentil soup, sautéed vegetables, and wheat bread. (I expunged the cucumber raita, though it would have earned me valuable dairy points.) With a few boiled eggs thrown in to make up for my gaping deficits in the meat group, I would be prepared to discuss my diet. My presentations usually provoked a few titters, but they managed to keep me safe on the playground.
Eating steak would have made the presentations easier, I suppose, but I never thought of steak in strictly utilitarian terms. It was much more than protein. Steak was sacred and profane, awesome and terrible, better than the best hamburger I’d ever tasted.
It was only fitting that steak would come to me as manna from heaven. Actually, it was a $25 gift certificate from my father’s employer, but to me it seemed perfectly divine. The certificate was redeemable at the local outlet of a chain steakhouse famous for its $6.95 sirloin dinners. I had been watching the restaurant’s commercials for years: an invisible hand tossed a redoubtable piece of marbled flesh onto hell’s grate; huge tongues of flame rose up to lap at the sizzling, smoking meat. I would never have thought of asking my parents to visit a steakhouse at their own expense. Eating out was among the myriad profligacies they imputed to the Americans. My parents occasionally indulged my Big Mac craving, but going out to a sit-down restaurant seemed like the definition of extravagance.
The steakhouse was in a strip mall next to the miniature golf course. Neither I nor my parents would say it, but we all understood that the evening was special. I picked out my softest corduroy pants and a pair of white socks, new ones, with elastic that still hugged my calves. The three of us entered the restaurant in silence and heeded the placard: ‘Please wait to be seated.’
Soon, we were shunted from the waiting area to a dim, claustrophobic booth. Menus awaited us, vividly illustrated with close-ups of various grilled meats. My parents began gingerly separating the sticky pages. I did the same, if only to confirm that the $6.95 steak dinner wasn’t a cruel hoax. To my relief, it was not. Barely audible scepticism had begun to simmer on the other side of the table. Sab kush fikla hai, Everything is bland, remarked my dad. Chalo, mufth lee hai, At least it’s free, my mom responded. ‘I’m having steak,’ I announced. Perhaps my parents were too busy contemplating their own fates to comprehend my choice; maybe they were just caught off guard. In any case, there was hardly a trace of disapproval in my dad’s warning: Kachcha nahin lana, Don’t get it raw. It was a concession I was more than willing to make. Steak was steak, and I was on the cusp of becoming a Beefeater.
The waitress broached the question in her treacly voice: ‘Ya ready t’order?’ We were, sort of. My mom asked for a nondescript chicken entrée. ‘D’ya like souporsalad withat?’ My mother seemed perplexed. Why would anyone refuse a super salad? I tensed, grasping for an unobtrusive way to translate. ‘What kind of soup is it?’ I squeaked. Crisis averted, sort of. My dad ordered a nondescript chicken entrée as well (with salad, thank you).
And me? ‘I’ll have the steak please.’ ‘How d’ya like it cooked?’ I paused. ‘Rare’ was the only formal option that I knew of. ‘Not raw’ seemed tactless, particularly for such a milestone event. Thinking quickly, remembering Uncle Sumunder’s wise words, I bellowed: ‘Cremate it!’
I learned the expression ‘well done’ that evening. I had a tough time containing my excitement during our short wait for the food. I poked away at my salad, lost in whimsy. I thought less about how the steak would taste than about how I would describe it the following day at school. I resolved to be nonchalant, as if the milestone had not been a milestone at all, just the latest in a long line of great steaks. The reverie was churning vigorously when the waitress set down before me a plate bearing an anaemic baked potato and a palm-sized round of charry gristle. It was a bad omen. A very bad omen. Undeterred, I began to eat my steak. Each carbon-laden bite defied my anguished attempts to chew. I sawed at the torched leather, trying to create pieces that I could swallow without choking. My humiliation grew with each passing bite. By the fifth or sixth swallow, I had begun retreating into the upholstery of our booth, taking refuge with the desiccated crumbs of earlier inedible meals. It was then that my parents, who had been wrestling with their own meals, took note. They were gentle: Jai nahin teek, na ka, If it isn’t right, don’t eat it. It was a short meal. The waitress cleared our dishes and delivered the check without asking if we had enjoyed our meals. Our unfinished plates answered for us. My father deposited the gift certificate with a few additional dollars, and we made our exit.
I rode home in silence, trying to make sense of the chasm separating great steak from the burnt gristle palpitating my little belly. Maybe steak really did have to be eaten raw in order to be great; I couldn’t even try medium rare. Would I never be a Beefeater?
‘Real’ Indian restaurants began to sprout up in southern California soon after the steakhouse affair. These were sit-down restaurants that catered largely to white patrons; they had names like India Palace, Gandhi, and Taj Mahal. Later restaurants would bear slightly more subtle monikers like Tandoor or Raja, but for the trailblazers, avoiding confusion was critical. Virtually all of the restaurants had lavish interiors: Mughal miniatures, fanned peacock feathers, brocaded walls and furniture, and, inevitably, ambient sitar murmurings in the background. They were crass reproductions of faded empire, garish islands of colonial kitsch moored in a sea of strip malls. The menus were provincial, featuring a limited number of North Indian dishes. For most patrons, though, the fare and decor were exotic enough. American sahibs could satiate their worldly appetites while the Chinese people next door starched their dress shirts.
My parents greeted each new Indian restaurant with a mixture of exultation and doubt. We tried several of them, but the food was always lacking in some unforgivable way. Too bland, too watery, overcooked, undercooked, stale, oily. Real Indian food was made at home.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of Indian restaurants did not make my grade school existence any easier. It was not until I left home for college that I encountered non-Indian people who relished Indian food. Prominent among them was a cluster of unkempt, left-wing Indophiles. My parents called them hippies, though that seemed somewhat dated. Like their precursors, they looked to India for existential and spiritual inspiration. I was startled to learn that anyone might derive spiritual clarity from sandalwood incense, sitar music, and saag paneer. Where I had spent the bulk of my youth trying not to be Indian, these neo-hippies had convinced themselves that they were.
I found it impossible to relate to them, though there was something vaguely affirming about their interest in India. In a way, they were like the bad Indian restaurants back home. Whatever else the hippies believed, they took it for granted that India had worth. There was also something obliquely resonant about their insatiable hunger for Indian food: the steak of my dreams was their dal-sabzi. But there are limits to analogies. The Indophiles were never interested in becoming Indian the way I wanted to become American. Most of them were merely on culinary vacation. In any case, they were still Beefeaters. Being a Beefeater meant not being afraid to say what you had for dinner; never being asked how your English got so good; never having to say when you came to ‘this country’. You can’t get there just by eating steak, however you fry it, no matter how rare.
Nirej Sekhon is a lawyer in Seattle. He mainly specialises in racial inequities in the legal system. His views on legal issues have been published in the New University Law Review and Manushi.
Adapted with permission from Transition (issue 94, 2003), a quarterly magazine founded in 1961 in Uganda as a forum for intellectual debate. Following its rebirth in the United States it has become a medium where mainly African and Indian writers and thinkers discuss politics, culture and ethnicity. For subscription information: Transition, 69 Dunster Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, United States, transit@fas.harvard.edu, http://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/transition.

Solution News Source

Beefeaters

Nirej Sekhon describes his experiences as a school boy from a traditional Indian family, who is introduced to the American beef culture.

Nirej Sekhon | October 2003 issue
Chicken-fried steak was among the more unyielding mysteries of my American boyhood. My school cafeteria served a vast array of breaded grey meats dubbed ‘chicken,’ along with a host of other culinary conundrums: egg salad, cheesecake, corn dogs, chicken pot pie. Nothing, however, rivalled the sheer contradiction of chicken-fried steak.
My parents dismissed my curiosity out of hand. As they saw it, there was no point in investigating the perversities of the American table. I had no siblings to ask. And I could hardly have posed the question to any of my nine-year-old classmates, who seemed perfectly comfortable with the mongrel meat. I had been the lone Indian at school long enough to know that there were no innocent questions. Resolving my chicken-fried dilemma was not worth a chicken-fried thumping.
If my family had gone out to eat more often, I might have realised that chicken-fried steak was actually a red herring: the school cafeteria was perhaps the only place in southern California that served chicken-fried steak. But even if I had known that the dish was Southern – slightly less than all-American – I would have been no less intrigued.
Chicken and steak were as distinct as could be. Chicken made regular appearances on my family’s dinner table in various incarnations: masala’ed, curried, sometimes tandooried. I was fond of each version, so long as it remained on the dinner table and stayed clear of my lunch box. (The tandoori thumping was no less fearsome for its rarity.) Steak was a different matter altogether. It was never what’s for dinner.
In those days, multiculturalism had not made its way into the American classroom. Then again, I’m not sure it would have saved me. The more vigorously I tried to fit into American society, the more vigorously I would be asked why we worshiped cows and wore dots on our forehead. My protests that I did neither of these things didn’t seem to help. The cow jokes were especially irksome. Once the stampede of cattle humour began, there was little I could do to hold it back. There were jokes about cow transport (how I got to school), cow patties (how we fertilised the lawn), cow sex (how I, well, never mind). Even my public consumption of beef – hamburgers, keema, whatever – didn’t quiet the controversy. There was something effete about my attempts. I may have eaten beef, but I could never be a Beefeater.
Steak. It was exemplary in its beefiness, beef with a capital B, the reddest of meats. A thick piece of seared flesh that held the promise of perfect satisfaction. Steak transcended mere gastronomic pleasure by unlocking a realm of corporal plenitude. To eat steak was to exist on a wholly different, more exalted plane than those who did not eat steak. There is no doubt about it, I had a steak fetish. But I certainly wasn’t alone.
Everybody loved steak. The fourth-grade boys were the most vocal, uttering words they had inherited from their male kin, or heard on their favourite television shows. ‘I had a great steak last night.’ These words were pronounced with a tinny, prepubescent vehemence that might have sounded absurd had I not been so desperate to join the club. There were variations, to be sure – ’My mom made me a great steak last night’ or ‘We had great steaks last night’ – but there was a clear and resounding consensus. Steak was always great; it betokened greatness.
Of course, I loved steak. I loved steak even though I had never actually tried it. I never said I had, either, though I was often tempted. Steak loomed too large in my imagination, and I didn’t think that I could perpetrate a lie of that magnitude without suffering the ultimate indignity: a beefsteak thumping.
There was animated talk about steak at home, too, but it was very different from the talk at school. My parents found steak revolting; there was no better example of American savagery. Steak was terribly un-Indian.
My parents and I talked a lot about ‘the Americans.’ Speaking in Punjabi, we marvelled at their business acumen and efficiency. More often, we would denounce their greed, high divorce rate, obesity, lack of roots, spiritual naïveté, and throwaway culture. Among our reproofs, there was an entire subgenre devoted to the American diet. My parents pilloried the Americans relentlessly for their bad taste. Americans ate bland, unhealthy food prepared anywhere but at home – which was not surprising, since they came from broken homes. They ate grotesque amounts. And when they did manage to have a home-cooked meal, it was always something horribly unpalatable. Like steak.
My parents always came back to steak. ‘How could they eat that?’ they would ask. ‘Why do they eat like animals?’ Steak was the nadir of gastronomy: it was massive, fatty, and unrefined. No masala whatsoever, just a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Steak took virtually no time or energy to prepare. Straight from the blood-sodden cellophane to the grill. It was the blood that seemed to disconcert my parents the most. ‘They don’t even cook it properly,’ one of them might exclaim upon seeing a particularly lurid commercial for A-1 steak sauce.
A ‘great steak’ was not just unseasoned – it was raw, or so we imagined. The images of steak in grocery store flyers and steakhouse advertisements confirmed our worst suspicions. The ads usually featured close-ups of seared turf, splayed to reveal swollen, red flesh. Being a laboratory worker, my mother was quick to point out the various micro-spectres that lurked in raw meat. It was hard to imagine that malevolent army, but the prospect of being struck down by invisible parasites was terrifying. Americans’ taste for steak was symptomatic of their culinary morbidity. They seemed to crave death’s telltale drippings. ‘Their stomachs are like graveyards,’ my uncle Sumunder Singh once remarked. He spoke from experience. His American colleagues had once lured him to a steakhouse, where peer pressure made it impossible to order anything but the house specialty. Panicked, my uncle drew upon an Indian death ritual to save himself from a raw deal. When the waitress asked how he would like his steak cooked, he took a deep breath and told her, ‘Cremate it!’
‘Our’ food was refined. Dal, sabzi, chapati. Occasionally, we would have a meat dish: some sort of chicken, usually, or keema – minced beef or lamb. My parents heralded these dishes as a triumph of culture over barbarism: ‘No straight-from-the-fridge-to-the-oven monkey business.’ Each home-cooked Indian meal was the culmination of a world-historical encounter between ingredients. The masalas that flavoured our food were not just blends of spices, but distillations of a rich and storied culture. So my parents served up dal-sabzi with steak-induced self-consciousness, ever mindful that a lapse in culinary discipline might lose me to the Beefeaters.
I often wanted to get lost. Our food wasn’t my food – not exactly. There were Indian dishes that I enjoyed, but the daily dal-sabzi I could do without. Why did we have to eat the same thing every night? Why couldn’t we ever go to McDonald’s? My mother nipped my protests in the bud: ‘What? Do you want to be American?’ It was as loaded a question as anyone could have asked me. No matter what I said, I would have been lying.
Yes, I admit it: I found burgers and pizza appetising, more appetising than I found our food. Burgers and pizza made good playground sense. They were foods that my classmates could imagine themselves eating, meals to be envied. Why risk a dal-sabzi thumping? The previous evening’s meal, however, was a frequent subject of playground conversation, so I developed a knack for evasion. What did I have for dinner last night? ‘Oh, nothing good.’ ‘Same old stuff.’
It wasn’t always so easy. Every once in a while, a health or science teacher would assign the class a week of dietary auto-surveillance. We were to record everything we ate, classify each item by food group, and report back to the class. I could maybe convince my mom to prepare a ‘normal’ dinner on one of the assigned days, but for the remaining six, it was dal-sabzi. Revealing my family’s dietary perversity to the class was out of the question. But creating a fictional American diet seemed too risky. My limited repertoire of American foods – burgers, pizza, fried chicken – might have prompted the teacher to sic a social worker on my parents. So I opted for literal translations of dal, sabzi, and chapati: lentil soup, sautéed vegetables, and wheat bread. (I expunged the cucumber raita, though it would have earned me valuable dairy points.) With a few boiled eggs thrown in to make up for my gaping deficits in the meat group, I would be prepared to discuss my diet. My presentations usually provoked a few titters, but they managed to keep me safe on the playground.
Eating steak would have made the presentations easier, I suppose, but I never thought of steak in strictly utilitarian terms. It was much more than protein. Steak was sacred and profane, awesome and terrible, better than the best hamburger I’d ever tasted.
It was only fitting that steak would come to me as manna from heaven. Actually, it was a $25 gift certificate from my father’s employer, but to me it seemed perfectly divine. The certificate was redeemable at the local outlet of a chain steakhouse famous for its $6.95 sirloin dinners. I had been watching the restaurant’s commercials for years: an invisible hand tossed a redoubtable piece of marbled flesh onto hell’s grate; huge tongues of flame rose up to lap at the sizzling, smoking meat. I would never have thought of asking my parents to visit a steakhouse at their own expense. Eating out was among the myriad profligacies they imputed to the Americans. My parents occasionally indulged my Big Mac craving, but going out to a sit-down restaurant seemed like the definition of extravagance.
The steakhouse was in a strip mall next to the miniature golf course. Neither I nor my parents would say it, but we all understood that the evening was special. I picked out my softest corduroy pants and a pair of white socks, new ones, with elastic that still hugged my calves. The three of us entered the restaurant in silence and heeded the placard: ‘Please wait to be seated.’
Soon, we were shunted from the waiting area to a dim, claustrophobic booth. Menus awaited us, vividly illustrated with close-ups of various grilled meats. My parents began gingerly separating the sticky pages. I did the same, if only to confirm that the $6.95 steak dinner wasn’t a cruel hoax. To my relief, it was not. Barely audible scepticism had begun to simmer on the other side of the table. Sab kush fikla hai, Everything is bland, remarked my dad. Chalo, mufth lee hai, At least it’s free, my mom responded. ‘I’m having steak,’ I announced. Perhaps my parents were too busy contemplating their own fates to comprehend my choice; maybe they were just caught off guard. In any case, there was hardly a trace of disapproval in my dad’s warning: Kachcha nahin lana, Don’t get it raw. It was a concession I was more than willing to make. Steak was steak, and I was on the cusp of becoming a Beefeater.
The waitress broached the question in her treacly voice: ‘Ya ready t’order?’ We were, sort of. My mom asked for a nondescript chicken entrée. ‘D’ya like souporsalad withat?’ My mother seemed perplexed. Why would anyone refuse a super salad? I tensed, grasping for an unobtrusive way to translate. ‘What kind of soup is it?’ I squeaked. Crisis averted, sort of. My dad ordered a nondescript chicken entrée as well (with salad, thank you).
And me? ‘I’ll have the steak please.’ ‘How d’ya like it cooked?’ I paused. ‘Rare’ was the only formal option that I knew of. ‘Not raw’ seemed tactless, particularly for such a milestone event. Thinking quickly, remembering Uncle Sumunder’s wise words, I bellowed: ‘Cremate it!’
I learned the expression ‘well done’ that evening. I had a tough time containing my excitement during our short wait for the food. I poked away at my salad, lost in whimsy. I thought less about how the steak would taste than about how I would describe it the following day at school. I resolved to be nonchalant, as if the milestone had not been a milestone at all, just the latest in a long line of great steaks. The reverie was churning vigorously when the waitress set down before me a plate bearing an anaemic baked potato and a palm-sized round of charry gristle. It was a bad omen. A very bad omen. Undeterred, I began to eat my steak. Each carbon-laden bite defied my anguished attempts to chew. I sawed at the torched leather, trying to create pieces that I could swallow without choking. My humiliation grew with each passing bite. By the fifth or sixth swallow, I had begun retreating into the upholstery of our booth, taking refuge with the desiccated crumbs of earlier inedible meals. It was then that my parents, who had been wrestling with their own meals, took note. They were gentle: Jai nahin teek, na ka, If it isn’t right, don’t eat it. It was a short meal. The waitress cleared our dishes and delivered the check without asking if we had enjoyed our meals. Our unfinished plates answered for us. My father deposited the gift certificate with a few additional dollars, and we made our exit.
I rode home in silence, trying to make sense of the chasm separating great steak from the burnt gristle palpitating my little belly. Maybe steak really did have to be eaten raw in order to be great; I couldn’t even try medium rare. Would I never be a Beefeater?
‘Real’ Indian restaurants began to sprout up in southern California soon after the steakhouse affair. These were sit-down restaurants that catered largely to white patrons; they had names like India Palace, Gandhi, and Taj Mahal. Later restaurants would bear slightly more subtle monikers like Tandoor or Raja, but for the trailblazers, avoiding confusion was critical. Virtually all of the restaurants had lavish interiors: Mughal miniatures, fanned peacock feathers, brocaded walls and furniture, and, inevitably, ambient sitar murmurings in the background. They were crass reproductions of faded empire, garish islands of colonial kitsch moored in a sea of strip malls. The menus were provincial, featuring a limited number of North Indian dishes. For most patrons, though, the fare and decor were exotic enough. American sahibs could satiate their worldly appetites while the Chinese people next door starched their dress shirts.
My parents greeted each new Indian restaurant with a mixture of exultation and doubt. We tried several of them, but the food was always lacking in some unforgivable way. Too bland, too watery, overcooked, undercooked, stale, oily. Real Indian food was made at home.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of Indian restaurants did not make my grade school existence any easier. It was not until I left home for college that I encountered non-Indian people who relished Indian food. Prominent among them was a cluster of unkempt, left-wing Indophiles. My parents called them hippies, though that seemed somewhat dated. Like their precursors, they looked to India for existential and spiritual inspiration. I was startled to learn that anyone might derive spiritual clarity from sandalwood incense, sitar music, and saag paneer. Where I had spent the bulk of my youth trying not to be Indian, these neo-hippies had convinced themselves that they were.
I found it impossible to relate to them, though there was something vaguely affirming about their interest in India. In a way, they were like the bad Indian restaurants back home. Whatever else the hippies believed, they took it for granted that India had worth. There was also something obliquely resonant about their insatiable hunger for Indian food: the steak of my dreams was their dal-sabzi. But there are limits to analogies. The Indophiles were never interested in becoming Indian the way I wanted to become American. Most of them were merely on culinary vacation. In any case, they were still Beefeaters. Being a Beefeater meant not being afraid to say what you had for dinner; never being asked how your English got so good; never having to say when you came to ‘this country’. You can’t get there just by eating steak, however you fry it, no matter how rare.
Nirej Sekhon is a lawyer in Seattle. He mainly specialises in racial inequities in the legal system. His views on legal issues have been published in the New University Law Review and Manushi.
Adapted with permission from Transition (issue 94, 2003), a quarterly magazine founded in 1961 in Uganda as a forum for intellectual debate. Following its rebirth in the United States it has become a medium where mainly African and Indian writers and thinkers discuss politics, culture and ethnicity. For subscription information: Transition, 69 Dunster Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, United States, transit@fas.harvard.edu, http://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/transition.

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