to July Newsletter
In This Issue of
the Winterline Journal :
Steve Van Rooy tells us of "Things that Go BOOM!"
section featuring our readers' comments,
vignettes & articles.
March - May
Cornelius' "Mamma's Hot Dish"...and
a delicious Kulfi (Indian Nutty Ice Cream)
and an Indian friend discuss Pakistan and India.
We review the movie, "Bend it Like Beckham".
And Sylvia Staub's poem, "Afternoon in Bengal".
Margaret Deefholts' humorous tribute to two temperamental, but accomplished,
cooks from her childhood.
Reviews of Farewell the Winterline:
from our readers around the globe..
Tidbits & Snippets
Teeny tales, flashbacks & vignettes....worthy of a chuckle, a tear
or a sigh
this issue we're sharing Margaret Deefholts' humorous
tribute to two temperamental, but accomplished,
from her childhood. As
she says, " ...thought I'd spin a yarn about
our domestic cook(s) whose culinary wizardry was astounding,
they worked in kitchens equipped with only a basic
chula (coal fired clay stove) and a crudely fashioned
metal 'box' oven."
Fond Recollections of Our
Not So Humble Servants in India
Mariah Das was no fancy looking guy. Barrel shaped
and slightly bow-legged, he had only one front tooth
the colour of old cheese, and hair as tight and springy
as a Brillo pad. He held sway as chef and major-domo
of our household for as many years as I could remember
-- and was, in fact, my Dad's cook-butler long before
my parents were married.
When my father announced his wedding plans, Mariah
Das handed in his resignation. He had no intention
of kowtowing to some la-di-dah young woman who would
haggle over the prices of his bazaar accounts, dole
out rations from locked pantry cupboards, grudge every
extra ounce of butter or rice, and criticize his culinary
expertise. Dad talked him out of it with an assurance
that the memsahib was quiet and non-interfering --
and backed his statement up with a modest salary increase.
Mariah Das growled, but acquiesced.
My mother, a 21-year-old bride, with absolutely no
idea at all about running a household greeted this
news with relief. Like many of us growing up in India,
she'd never seen the inside of a kitchen at her parent's
home, and quailed at the thought of entertaining my
father's office colleagues, his bosses and their wives-not
to mention a large social circle of Dad's friends and
Mariah Das rose to these occasions with aplomb, taking
charge of five course dinner menus -- soups, appetizers,
main courses, desert and after-dinner coffee or tea.
Mother never questioned any of this. It was Mariah
Das (not Mum) who organized the lesser household minions:
the masalchi (kitchen boy) who did all the tedious
cutting up of vegetables, grinding of masalas, (spices)
cleaning chickens, chopping up hunks of beef or pork
or mutton; stood over the scullery lad while he polished
the cutlery, china and glass-ware to gleaming perfection,
and hovered over the shoulder of the bearer (waiter)
as he laid out the table with crisp napkins sitting
fluted or fan-shaped on side plates. The bungalow mali
(gardener) in keeping with Mariah Das's instructions,
provided centrepieces of fresh cut flowers.
By the time I arrived, a year after Mum and Dad were
married, Mariah Das was thrilled with the latest addition
to "his" family. "She was born before
my very eyes!" he would boast to anyone who would
listen -- a pardonable exaggeration since it entitled
me to special privileges. If I threw a tantrum with
my ayah (nanny), it was always her fault...not mine!
He would lift me onto his lap, his kurta (shirt) smelling
garlic, coriander and mustard oil, and croon Tamil
songs (he was a Madrassi from South India), and promise
me an extra serving of "caramel custard" (my
weakness) if I would behave like "a good little
I have no idea how old Mariah Das was. He seemed ancient.
His skin was polished ebony and his voice was Satchmo-gruff.
But even over a space of fifty years plus, I still
remember -- and marvel -- at his kitchen wizardry.
He could produce just about anything. His repertoire
encompassed spicy vindaloos, tangy Mulligatawny soups,
fluffy pilaf rice and vegetarian buffaths, or Western
style dishes: steak and kidney pies, mince-filled potato
rissoles, and crepe "pan-rolls". His deserts
were legendary too. "Roly-poly" (trifle)
puddings, semolina halva, gulab-jamuns, wickedly decadent
chocolate soufflés or cakes, and fruit compotes
nestled in pastry as light as a maiden's fancy! The
astonishing thing was that all this came out of a kitchen
with no electronic gadgets, just a wood or coal-fired
open flame clay chula (stove) and an oven consisting
of an aluminium box placed on top of the chula. How
he monitored or controlled cooking temperatures remains
When my sister made her appearance, Mariah Das had
a new baby to coo over-although I still remained his
favourite "first born". He was, however,
by then in indifferent health and little over a year
later, was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. He wanted
to go back to his ancestral village in South India
to "retire" and it was an emotional farewell.
Dad paid his rail fare, and continued to send him a
monthly stipend until he eventually passed away not
My mother was faced with a series of domestic cooks
who came and went as frequently as our family transfers
across the length and breadth of India, Dad being an
officer on the Indian Railways.
We eventually wound up with another "character" who
was with us for the next fifteen years. This time it
was a woman -- and to begin with Kannama wasn't a cook
at all. She signed on as an ayah to my sister Phyllis
when we were stationed in Madras -- but at eleven years
of age, Phyl decided she didn't need a woman-servant
hovering over her. Kannama offered to try her hand
at cooking, and my mother took her up on this. Her
culinary talents were, to put it mildly, pretty awful
to start with (my mother's were even worse!), but she
was a good learner and soon started serving up dishes
which, although not a patch on Mariah Das's meals,
were reasonably palatable.
When we were transferred from Madras, Kannama (a spinster)
was eager to come with us to Guwahati in Assam. The
move brought about a personality transformation.
Kannama looked like a little walnut -- brown, crinkled
and compact. She had eyes as sharp as razors and a
tongue to match. We soon found out that she was a force
to be reckoned with, for in her new environment, as
a "privileged" family retainer, the rest
of the household domestics were, in her opinion, mere
serfs. She cowed the house peon (a very simple young
villager) by convincing him that she'd once decapitated
an offending menial, bawled out the milkman (whose
cow was milked in our backyard under her gimlet eye),
with accusations of diluting the milk in some mysterious
fashion between udder and container and, worst of all,
threatened to cut off the poor old sweeper's fingers
if he didn't swab the bathroom floor properly! My mother
had to intervene in the last instance by assuring the
sweeper that his digits were safe, and by taking Kannama
aside and cautioning her to "cool it".
Like Mariah Das, Kannama spoke English -- after a
fashion. Our dog, Blackie, whom Kannama adored, was
a "my black arsie" (horsey). She had a passion
for animals, and the backyard became a menagerie: kittens,
stray dogs, their puppies, a goat, and a cockerel with
his flock of hens. When we eventually left Assam, Kannama
bade a tearful goodbye to all her pets. Most of them
had been relocated to good homes, but when the new
owners came to collect the chickens, Kannama said, "They
closie their eyesies! Not wanting to say ta-ta to me....Ayeeeee!"
7 months, & Kannama
After Guwahati, we lived in Bombay and Kannama had
her own room in the servants' quarters adjoining our
apartment. My sister and I were now in our early twenties,
and Kannama cast a critical eye on our fashions and
boyfriends. "No wear such tight-tight skirts Missy
Baba -- men will be thinking bad-bad things." However,
she was delighted to cater for a small at-home reception
after Phyllis' wedding, and beamed with pleasure when
I brought my newborn son Glenn, home from the hospital.
He was colicky in those early weeks and Kannama was
convinced this was caused by someone who had cast an "evil
eye" spell over him. "She smeared his forehead
with a sooty mark to avert envious glances, and performed
a ritual exorcism by roasting dry red chillies on the
kitchen stove. "See," she said ominously, "eyes
are not burning from the smell! That means evil eye
is hurting Glenn sonny-baby!" She wore a grin
of smug triumph when -- whether by coincidence or not
-- shortly after this exercise, Glenn's colic attacks
faded away entirely.
When my father was on the brink of retirement and
he and my Mum were about to move to Canada; when Phyllis
and her husband had left India, and my husband and
I with our two toddlers were also poised on the threshold
of immigration, Kannama decided it was time she did
likewise. She announced that a "friend" had
found her a job in Kuwait, and that her passport and
papers were in process. When she said goodbye to us,
she looked old, bent and a little tired. I had the
feeling, however, that she would soon settle down in
her expatriate role and endure -- spirited and feisty
-- for many more years.
Readers may email Margaret at:
or sample more of her writings