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As food rots, so does my heritage

The world is asking me to taste it, but all my tongue knows is scarcity. 

My grandparents used to take me to the market a few times a week, before both of their knees gave out to old age and arthritis. I knew the shopkeepers well, and they adored me. The old man at Bilal Store comes to mind, as does the cashier at Rahat Bakery on the corner with the round eyeglasses and kind nose. Kokoji, my crafty Scorpio grandmother, knew it all by heart, the inner lives of fruit and things that grow in the ground. The tips of her fingers possessed the precision of a fine medical instrument. They would poke and prod at the brown spots on a lonely pear or at the eyelets of a potato with such ease it astonishes me to this day. Coriander seemed to exhale with relief in her hands. Food seemed to want to jump into them, and I would watch as, with time, the tiny little leaves at the top of the bunch would brown over to a muddy chartreuse. 

We used to shop only at Bilal Store for small things and Naqshbandi for the bulky items. We knew the bag boys and the storeowners. If they were sick, we found out. When I got chickenpox, they gave me extra candy (chocolate eclair toffee—the kind that clung viciously to my molars). We could call in and ask them to deliver. And if we didn’t have enough cash on us, the delivery boy would nod his head and leave, trusting that we would pay the next time we shopped there. 

Strawberries! You could only find them for about three weeks a year, around February. The strawberry sellers emerged onto the streets like popcorn pops in your microwave. There’s one, then another, then a few more. Then an explosion, one that climaxes just when you start to enjoy the pace. A lonely one here and there. Over and done with until next time. They were a luxury. You would buy a kilo or two, then freeze them, cherish them and ration them. Even today, I only eat six or seven strawberries at a time. It feels too excessive not to be careful with them.

Tasting them felt forbidden in a delicious way. The strawberry seeds always stuck to the notches between my teeth, sedimenting. I wondered if they came from Swat or Mansehra. I wondered if perhaps the runners were planted in Swat in the summer and then transferred to the heat of the Punjab, where I lived. I imagined the strawberry man. I wondered if he worried they’d go bad. I tried to wrap my mind around the resilience of this little fruit, so soft and perishable, bracing the bumps on the roads to Lahore. Around GT road or Sheikhupura. They amalgamate around Barki Road and Saddar, then disperse like seeds.

Eating chicken, too, was a story. Babajani, my gentle, jovial grandfather, picked the chicken right in front of his eyes. They sat cooing in metal cages and the butcher chopped it up right in front of us. I was young, and I felt a pang of sympathy for them. I felt grateful to have been let in on this little secret, that I knew the life I was consuming. Now in Durham, I scavenge the aisles of Target and Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s, unsatisfied with how easy it is to find chicken deboned and prepared for me. They are too pristine, these supermarkets, and too imposing with their engorged concrete bellies. I find no discarded chicken bits flung to the ground for the cats to eat. I find no languid dogs with tongues out, panting, companions to the proud butcher. 

I am living off campus this year, so I choose what to eat. I can find strawberries year round. I have to check to make sure they’re not rotten, but I don’t get to pick them out one by one. They taste good, but they don’t taste as warm or looked-after as the ones I used to find in Lahore. I wonder about supply chains and rot. In Lahore, a friend tells me the good fruit is exported. We do not taste it. In Istanbul, a new friend remarks that fruit doesn’t taste the same as it used to. 

These days when I visit home, I notice that Kokoji’s stomach has given out, following her knees. She eats steamed vegetables mostly, especially teenday, swimming in a brown broth like rhinos in a swamp. I sit close to her, trying my hardest to inhale her scent and to see the food as she once did. I wish I knew a clove inside out. I wish I could tear apart a ladyfinger to stuff it to the brim with masalas, then sew it back up so it bursts with what I gave it. 

I am fearful of losing it all. Much of it is lost already, the intimacy of knowing the delivery boy, the closeness of picking out your fruit and meat, and the slowness of pickling your own carrots. So much more will be lost, too, with age, as my tongue loses its mind and settles into the softness of steamed gourds and porridge. So much is precarious, as the days fly by and I settle into the steady hum of life at Duke, planning hurried lunches with friends I wish I had the time to cook for, wistfully recalling how slow life was in my grandparents’ home. 

When I fall in love, or make art, or cook for somebody I love, I want to taste to the fullest. If you were to get coffee with me, or if I were to bake for you, I would ache to imagine the bite of pastry toppling down your throat. If I try to imagine food as I once did, I can once again feel the layers unraveling, stringing apart and sticking to the side of your throat. I can track the leathery coat of ganache as it travels downwards. As schoolchildren we believed that gum stays inside you forever, and if you swallow it, you will grow a gum tree out of your throat. I wish everything stayed inside forever. 

Ayesham Khan is a Trinity Senior. Their column runs on alternating Tuesdays.

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