“Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words.”
– Claudine Rankine, Citizen
One of the pleasures of serving food at festivals is swapping edible gifts with neighboring booths and food trucks.
At the 36th Annual Festival for the Eno River a few weeks ago, my family and co-workers were handing out lunchboxes full of homestyle cooking – rice with chicken curry and chickpea curry, idlis with sambar, local vegetable tamales, chaat, and local muscadine juice.
Guests arrived hungry from the river and let their gleaming tangled hair and swimsuits dry in the sun while they waited in line to order. Our neighbors from the Jamaica Jamaica booth crooned reggae songs (really) as they swapped plates piled with grilled chicken, black beans, and sticky-sweet plantains with us.
The Oak City Fish and Chips folks had just delivered our team an exciting mountain of spicy fried shrimp. I returned the favor, sliding glasses of mango lassi to the couple through the food truck window as I spoke to their customer who was waiting to receive her order. I testified, “The shrimp is out of this world.” and she asked me which restaurant I worked for. “Vimala’s Curryblossom Café!” She sneered and responded derisively, “Oh, I knew Vimala when she was just a nanny.”
My smile plunged and I felt old shame surge up before good sense could intervene. I imagine the resemblance between my mother and me is hard to miss. Did this unfamiliar person actually know my mother or was she passing gossip that circulated in her circle that happened to be sharp glittering fact? Was this some kind of forced intimacy?
Why was my mother’s former labor as a domestic worker the first thing that popped into her mind when she heard the name of our restaurant, and why didn’t she filter it to be thought-but-not-said? I imagine this stranger was unaware of the two master’s degrees my mother possessed while she working for low wages as an undocumented immigrant childcare worker, but that’s not really important to this story.
There is a book my brother Rajeev pressed into my hand during a tempestuous period. It’s called “Citizen: An American Lyric” and it is a small poetic atlas for navigating the racist microaggressions of daily life and the treacherous cultural landscape of wealth-driven America (including an amazing and timely chapter about greatest athlete-angel Serena Williams).
Author Claudine Rankine writes, “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.” Then a stranger can say something almost random and if you’ve let your skin become too permeable, everything past is spilling from the cupboard and being felt anew.
When the stranger said “just a nanny” I felt things I thought I knew better than to feel. There was something subtly classist or caste-ist within her statement – an embedded assumption that being a nanny is inferior; that being a nanny at one time is then a condition of permanent inferiority; that if you didn’t elegantly elect to become a chef because it was the hip, artisanal, artsy thing to do with your wealth and your fancy culinary education, you are not a real chef.
My mother is a chef because her food tastes exquisite. Her food tastes exquisite because she drenches it in love. And her pathway to this work from the beginning was about getting free, about forging resilience, about putting rice on the table.
There is abundant honor in raising babies, in cleaning floors, in feeding people, in serving others. My mother restores dignity in these undervalued forms of labor with every purposeful step she takes, and with every effort she makes to honor her team of amazing workers at Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, including paying a living wage. I try to remember this in the moments at the shop when she loses her cool because she is exhausted, recovering from the cumulative trauma of decades of degrading treatment to her face and behind her back. There is a personal cost.
Last weekend our family’s restaurant hosted a party for Makani Themba, longtime freedom fighter and the outgoing founding director of Praxis Project, a 13-year old social and environmental justice national movement-building organization. Three hundred people from Praxis Project’s Roots and Remedies Conference, members of many grassroots organizations from around the U.S., milled in the restaurant and courtyard, dancing and feasting. After the meal, the evening’s emcee introduced my mother and all the workers by name to the crowd and they roared in applause.
One of the co-owners of Cocoa Cinnamon coffeeshop in Durham, Areli Barrera de Grodski, is also a DJ of “uptempo global bass feminine brilliance” and she had the whole crowd of all ages and backgrounds moving to the beat. My fellow restaurant workers Sijal and Saba and I hopped into the circle wearing our aprons and danced too. Everyone was cheering as we fell out of the circle laughing and returned to our tasks. I sliced a wedge of coconut-passionfruit cake for a guest from Florida and she said, “I liked seeing you all dance! It’s great to see workers not expected to be invisible.” Being visible, feeling joyful – it should be part of a day’s work.
Readers may write to Manju Rajendran in c/o The Chapel Hill News at firstname.lastname@example.org