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Tortillas, black beans with mole skillet sauce, corn salad and guacamole. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Tortillas, black beans with mole skillet sauce, corn salad and guacamole. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

Over dinner, a reunion on the other side of the world

Reunions can be fraught events, but this one, with an old friend from another culture, reveals how shared memories and comfort are great levellers

Reunions with old friends can be fraught events. You change, your friend changes, times and circumstances change and—worst of all—your food habits change, and there can be nothing more awkward than that.

Imagine, you are still eating all that you always have: red meat, dried fish, offal and other things many now find awful. Imagine that your old friend has turned from unreconstructed animal eater to reconstructed vegan. I have nothing against vegans, I must hasten to add. It’s just that you may no longer share something you once did, and food is an important shared memory.

Time can dim memories and old connections. Sometimes, you can make a reconnection, sometimes you cannot. I treasure old connections and friendships because I rarely had friends while in school. My father, a police officer, moved every two years or less. I was reticent and shy, and I never had enough time to make and keep friends.

The friendships that lasted were made in college and later, and these were no more than a few. So, I find it distressing when I find I have lost a connection, common ground or eating habit with a friend whom I thought I might keep for life.

There are, of course, more things to worry about than food. More significant is the loss of shared values. You may still be driving a motorcycle, and your friend may have moved into Porsche territory. You may have returned or stayed on in your old home town, and your friend may have become a citizen of a distant country, with a new passport, new politics and a new sense of what is right and wrong. Or your friend might have never left home but may be intolerant of the differences you once celebrated together, a situation that is increasingly common.

So, when you do reconnect with an old friend, somewhere on the other side of a distant ocean, and you find not that much has changed in your relationship, you celebrate familiar comfort, warmth and memories. This is a feeling I experienced earlier this month when I, fortuitously, reunited with Molly Marsh, my friend from postgraduate college—or grad school as they call it—in the American Midwest.

A gentle, soft-spoken and kind woman with a ready laugh, Molly was, like me, not great at keeping in touch. We have known each other for 28 years, as she pointed out this time, but we rarely write (we are now on WhatsApp). Yet, we manage to meet whenever I go to the US or she—once—came to the subcontinent. This time, I was in New York and had posted a photograph on Facebook that Molly happened to see. Samar, you are here? Are you coming to Boston? As it happened, I was. Serendipity has always played its hand in our reunions.

A week later, I found myself in Molly’s wooden-floored, 80-year-old ground-floor Boston flat, where the walls are thin enough to transmit amorous goings-on from above and outside where a rabbit makes his home under the pines. Settling down on her sofa before dinner and getting myself updated about her life and its distractions was a familiar feeling.

In college, we met almost every week, over wine and dinner, either at a restaurant or home-cooked. At the end of two years of our master’s degree, Molly drove me home 550km north to Iowa, where I met her twin sister, her parents and other family, including an uncle who sheltered a mountain lion in his backyard. The same uncle, she tells me, has now sawn off and moved a giant grain silo and plonked it on his property, after ripping off the top to install a telescope and a bedroom one level down.

I remember the freezing winter—well, to my tropical bones anyway—of 1994 with warmth because that is what I experienced in the Marsh household. Molly says her father remembers I “killed" Tetris on their old Macintosh and signed off with “Down with veggies". I recall none of this, but the slur against veggies is something I might have dished out in my brasher days (before I acquired a vegetarian spouse).

Even before we met again, I was confident enough of taking her for granted, so I took along a friend, former Mint journalist Ashwaq Masoodi, who is on an year-long fellowship at Harvard’s Nieman foundation. Molly insisted on cooking, hoping to use her newly acquired expertise in Mexican cuisine.

She made corn batter from scratch, and as it rose, we did what we could to help. Ashwaq, it emerged, had a good eye for making tortillas in a press that was exactly like the ones we use for chapatis. I helped cook the tortillas on a griddle, while Molly laid out the rest of her spread: a corn salad, guacamole and black beans with mole skillet sauce (the last from a packet because ingredients were missing).

The food was a bonus, but, really, the evening was made special by the comfort of knowing that on the other side of the world, a special bond endures, and an old friend would ever be so.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Twitter - @samar11

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