Recipes for Childhood
I sit cross-legged on the concrete floor of my relatives’ shack in Gouripur, Bangladesh. There’s a yellow and blue pati laid beneath me: a stiff mat made from woven sugarcane strands, grown near the shores of Bangladesh. A pati is used as a traditional bed mat, since its fibers feel cool against the skin during hot and humid summers in Bangladesh.
There are dishes from a kid-sized, tin kitchenware set laid out in front of me. I stroke the curved bottom of the dome-shaped korai and grip the thin metal handles of the flat, pan-shaped thawa. I twist my fingers into the pati, imagining that I’m turning a knob on a gas stove and watching the burners ignite.
Mami looked at me and let out a soft laugh, with one eye squinted and her dark pink lips curled into a kind smile.
I tear off a piece of banana leaf and place it in the korai, pretending to cook spinach, like I’ve seen Ma do at home in Northfield, New Jersey. This morning, I found the leaf under the banana trees that line the lake of Kala Bagan, where my mother’s family lives. It’s a small Hindu community consisting of tin-roofed shacks within the village of Gouripur.
This morning, a dukhandar, or local seller, came to Kala Bagan. He was carrying toy dishes on top of his head with a bira, or a large, paddy-fibered basket.
“Can we go?” I asked Mami, my aunt, as I pointed to the dukhandar out the metal- gated window. Mami looked at me and let out a soft laugh, with one eye squinted and her dark pink lips curled into a kind smile. She has deep brown skin, a large gold, flower-shaped nose ring, and a bun pulled tightly beneath her neck. She wore a floor-length, rose-printed dress called a mexi made of shuti, a thin, lightweight cotton cloth used to make most Bangladeshi clothing. Many Bengali women wear mexis at home. Most of the women in Gouripur are housewives, constantly cooking and cleaning all day.
Mami put down a bucket of clothes that she had handwashed beside the iron tube well, the only water supply in the entire shack. “Of course, Mamoni,” she said, holding my hand as we walked out the door, toward the dukhandar. Mami calls me Mamoni, just like my parents do. It means “dear, little daughter” in Bangla. She tells me that I’m her daughter, since she has two sons and no girls of her own. She calls me her chad, or moon, since I’m the only girl on Ma’s side of the family.
When my American friends would come over to my Northfield house and walk into the kitchen, they’d squint their eyes and point to the stove. “What are those things your mom’s cooking with?” they’d ask. “Don’t you use pots and pans?”
The dukhandar pulled toy kitchenware out of plastic bags as parents pointed their fingers at tin dishes, asking for prices. Sweat dripped from his forehead, seeping into the back of his short-sleeved, checker-print shirt. He was around my age, in his early twenties, with deep brown skin, a pockmarked face, and a bowl-shaped haircut.
Mami stood beside me as I pointed to toys, not knowing the correct Bengali names for each kitchen tool. She translated for me, telling the dukhandar which ones I wanted to buy. I smiled as he handed me a korai and thawa, the two dishes I recognized. Ma always uses them at home in New Jersey to cook curries and heat up white flour rotis.
When my American friends would come over to my Northfield house and walk into the kitchen, they’d squint their eyes and point to the stove. “What are those things your mom’s cooking with?” they’d ask. “Don’t you use pots and pans?” I’d get embarrassed and lie, saying that I didn’t know what they were, and that Ma was weird. But in Bangladesh, I appreciated the novelty of Bengali cookware. I examined each toy for dents, scratches, and rust stains.
During my childhood in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I played with Barbies until I was seven. In second grade, girls would make fun of each other for playing with dolls. We all feared the label “girly girl” and strived for this “tough girl” image
Mami held the toys that I wanted, her arms filled with miniature Bengali saucepans, ladles, and woks. Beside us was a schoolteacher who teaches at the Gouripur Girls’ School down the street. In the mornings, I see schoolgirls walking down the dirt path in front of Kala Bagan, wearing the traditional Bangladeshi salwar kamis. “Who are you buying those for?” she asked, watching me through large, wire frame glasses as I twirled a belna, or spatula, in my hands.
“Oh, they’re for me,” I said, half- smiling. Her daughter, a preschooler, burst out laughing. She was shirtless and light-skinned or foscha, with a pixie cut. We locked eyes as she covered her mouth and pulled a corner of her mother’s sari over her face.
“It’s okay, Mamoni,” Mami said softly. “She doesn’t know that you never got to play with these toys when you were a child.”
During my childhood in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I played with Barbies until I was seven. In second grade, girls would make fun of each other for playing with dolls. We all feared the label “girly girl” and strived for this “tough girl” image. We pushed and kicked boys when they teased us during recess, wearing our navy school uniform skorts and Velcro sneakers from Walmart.
But I also think that Atlantic City girls felt like we had to grow up faster. Our parents worked late shifts and long hours at the casinos, so we got used to being alone. We were the “tough girls” who had Hot Pockets for dinner, checked out library books in stacks, and did laundry to distract ourselves when neither the fuzzy TV screen nor our parents or our “too cool” older siblings could keep us company. Without money, we were stuck in Atlantic City’s streets, surrounded by declining school systems and crumbling, cockroach-infested apartment complexes.
Eventually Ma and Baba saved up enough for us to move to suburban Northfield. That year, I started fourth grade at Northfield Community School. Each morning before school started, students lined up outside the yellow-bordered, glass double doors of the fourth grade wing until our teachers came out to get us.
I always stood alone those mornings before school started. Northfield girls liked to stand in monogrammed L.L. Bean backpack circles with their respective cliques, while I shifted to the side in my Back to School Sale Kmart gear. I’d stare while they first compared their dolls’ outfits, hair extensions, purses, and jewelry, before they compared their own.
I’d pick out glittered T-shirts with bubble letters and cartoon-drawn girls, and sweaters with flowers, kittens, and puppies. It went against my anti-girly girl policy that I had abided to in Atlantic City. But I wanted to make friends at Northfield. I thought changing was the only way.
Bratz dolls were a hot, new thing when we were in fourth grade. Bratz are still marketed as “the only girls with a passion for fashion.” And Northfield girls thought of themselves in the same way. I never saw the appeal of Bratz dolls, with their disproportionately oversized heads and detachable feet. I didn’t understand why Northfield girls were obsessed with brand names either. They walked the halls with linked arms, flaunting their Ugg boots, Limited Too tops, Abercrombie and Fitch jeans, and Louis Vuitton purses.
In Atlantic City, we had school uniforms, sold for cheap at Kmart. Baba and I would shop there each Monday, when he had a day off from the casino. After we moved to Northfield, we’d search through sale racks, trying to find shirts that looked like the clothes girls at school wore. I’d pick out glittered T-shirts with bubble letters and cartoon-drawn girls, and sweaters with flowers, kittens, and puppies. It went against my anti-girly girl policy that I had abided to in Atlantic City. But I wanted to make friends at Northfield. I thought changing was the only way.
But Northfield girls still didn’t talk to me. I looked different, and I couldn’t dress like them. Ma never taught me how to match American clothes either. Back then, she mainly wore mexis and saris. She only owned one pair of jeans that were white and high-waisted. She’d wear them with shirts and tops arbitrarily selected from her collection of clearance rack clothes. In fourth grade, I wasn’t sure why I received wide-eyed stares and once-overs from classmates when I wore my yellow, floral print dress with white Payless tennis shoes. I never caught on to the brand name trend until lunch one day, when Katie, a preppy girl from my class, decided to give me some advice.
I imagine bay leaves sizzling in vegetable oil, as Ma stirs in lemon zest and lal shak, our red homegrown spinach. I pretend to tilt water from the empty, narrow-necked kolshi into a fishbowl-shaped pateel to boil basmati rice.
“So, Anuradha,” she began, putting down her sliced turkey sandwich. “Do you want to be popular?” She glanced at me with green eyes and freckled, fair skin. Unlike me, with brown skin and brown-black eyes. Compared to her pin-straight, sleek brown hair, mine was Bengali black, frizzy, and curly. I didn’t know that popularity was a thing at Northfield. When I went to school in Atlantic City, being smart made you cool. I was a spelling bee champ who held the school record for Star of the Week. I never had a problem with making friends over there.
“Um, I don’t know,” I said, staring at the Snapple vending machine behind her.
“Well, Emily was talking about you,” she said. She shifted her eyes and twirled a strand of hair. “She said that you dress like a boy and that you wear the same pants every day.”
I looked at my light blue athletic pants. Dada, my older brother, and I had gotten matching pairs from Walmart. I liked the waterproof polyester fabric, ankle zippers, and white lines down the sides. They were my favorite pants.
Katie looked at me from head to toe. I sat silently, staring at my oversized red cooler lunch box, covered in deep scratches. “Well if you do, go to Limited Too and buy a pair of jeans, two sizes too big,” she said, smiling at me with pearl white teeth. I pursed my metal-braced mouth, glancing at her dark, rhinestone-studded jeans and red T-shirt, stitched with an Abercrombie moose. I only got compliments on my clothes when I wore the baby blue tee that had a white girl in pigtails walking her dog, with Old Navy written underneath. I got it from a relative on my birthday. It was the only brand name T-shirt I had.
“Thanks,” I said, half-smiling. I looked away and tucked my hands inside my pockets. I wished I’d known sooner about brand names. If I did, maybe I would’ve fit in and had friends at Northfield by then. That would be the last time I’d wear those pants.
In Bangladesh, while I was buying toys, I saw two little girls playing with their new kitchenware, smiling and sitting cross- legged beside the lake in Kala Bagan. They were barefoot, bronze-skinned, short-haired, and shirtless, wearing pleated cuffed shorts. They could learn about Bangladeshi culture through those toys without feeling ashamed, with friends who looked like them and accepted them. A chance I wish I had as a child.
Back in the shack, I sit on the pati on the concrete floor, stirring pieces of torn banana leaf in the dome-shaped korai. I imagine bay leaves sizzling in vegetable oil, as Ma stirs in lemon zest and lal shak, our red homegrown spinach. I pretend to tilt water from the empty, narrow-necked kolshi into a fishbowl-shaped pateel to boil basmati rice.
I crumple shreds of banana leaf into balls and drop them into a tin-coated, straight-edged fry pan to make fluffy balls of sana, our homemade cheese. I picture Takuma, my grandma, standing beside me and smiling as I cook the sana into her jackfruit curry. I pinch the air to sprinkle in dashes of cumin, coriander, and cilantro.
I use a belna to flip over torn leaf corners in the concaved center of the thawa. I picture flour covering the skillet-like surface as I fry rotis beside Baba. I smile, imagining a large air pocket forming between layers of dough, as I find recipes for my Bangladeshi childhood.
To Eli Lilly & Company, With Love
I’ll never forget the moment I felt
truly patriotic: inflation was dead.
Milligrams replaced currency. I renovated
my home with 30 pounds, made my first
transaction for the American Dream:
green cards for blue slips, swallowed
the old red, round and whole—bondage
was my homeland abbreviated. Now
I’m an American citizen: I hold onto
purple pride for pocket change.
I’m the alpha bitch. I told Betsy Ross
I’d tear stitches and stain her boyfriend’s
teeth purple. I’m the rag to riches bitch—
call center to call girl, an ugly kid in the jungle
til I shaved with the second amendment.
I bought ammunition as an adolescent
with 80 milligrams. Now Congress calls me
Pocahontas in bed. Pharmacies carry
concealer to replace broken seals
with tamper evident protection. The census
named me the universal unit for sexy
after we started going steady. I ride
the preamble with one nation behind me.
I am the standardized constant. Chemistry
took me in a test tube, asked students
to solve for Delta: find the formula for pounds
to drop dead at a gorgeous rate.
With convenience stored behind me, I run
the meatpacking industry. I sell roast beef
sliced and tell Hindus I don’t want them.
I teach the color spectrum how to sing
while it eats purple. Let freedom ring
till the touchtone response tells me,
pull back the curtains; it ain’t over till
the fat kid eats. In my firecracker popsicle
fantasies, I blew party favor kazoos
at birthday parties. Now I’m a modern day
muckraker with a picket fence mouth.
I shed purple on forever stamps
to make up for first times and missed
calls, because it’s always the Fourth of July
in my mind. Kids spot my face on TV
and cereal boxes; enter the sweepstakes:
This Reality can be yours. Join today.
Watch Tony the Tiger carry me
on his shoulders, listen while I eat
Frosted Flakes through wires.
Sparks fly priority postage
with scratch and reveal seals:
stare at my eyelids’ undersides;
picture my ugly kid fantasies in pounds—
I thought a picket fence was the only protection
I’d need. Play the right way to win,
till I twirl tassels through my hair.
I take firecrackers to the mouth,
and swallow whole.
Notice of Baggage Inspection
Do you think I’ll pass with flying colors?
Girls like me
are so smart, our brown mothers
made us promise to get A’s everyday.
Can you tell I’m from out of state? It’s okay,
most people give up after the first guess.
No, I don’t fly first class,
I’m a Best Available kind of girl. You think
I’m one of the guys? I didn’t play baseball,
just softball. Where will we practice?
Okay, I’ll follow you.
Are my hands high enough?
I found the home stretch. So this is what
playing second base feels like.
I always got stuck
at shortstop; Ma never let me wear slider shorts
to practice. I still keep leggings on before landing.
Do I get extra points for that?
I like elevation. You look like you’ve
hit some nice
line drives in your day. Can you believe
it’s Sunday? I got my period,
packed a stash.
Did you check the forecast? Cloudy with a chance
Will that cause turbulence?
Better to be safe than bundled up too tight.
Great weather for a sports bra. Sometimes you
need to break locks, let loose. Nope,
on those panties. You thought I’d do that?
I know, you’re only
looking out for our safety.
Girls like me
take so long to pack, I forget
what’s in there sometimes. Did you find it?
You’re really sweet for checking. I shouldn’t
have packed so many snacks. I know how scary
that can be.
I see your number
on that slip you left there. You must be shy.
Thanks for complimenting my ID earlier, I like
the guessing game.
Where are you headed
for the holiday? Come and meet me here
where X marks