Fritters … Warm and Crisp
Settling in a new country is always particularly unsettling initially. Parting from familiar settings makes us feel insecure. A Bengali by heart and stomach, along with emotion, it was a gastronomical shock for me as well when my husband and I, a newlywed couple then, landed in a small town in Virginia almost twenty years back! With no car in possession those days, our life was restricted. The apartment complex we rented was within a couple of miles from a supermarket. This distance was walkable to us for weekly groceries as it was not winter at that time. I was a novice in cooking then, and like any other newly acquired skill, was very enthusiastic about applying my culinary knowledge for various preparations. My husband was the guineapig of my cooking experiments -- without much choice! That town did not have an Indian store then. So, I was terribly missing the familiar Bengali dishes like jhingey-posto , macher jhol etc. But the most I was craving for used to be the spicey fritters or ‘Teleybhaja’, the typical Kolkata street-food style! We couldn’t find gram flour or ‘Byason’ in the American supermarket. I was regretting not packing it in our luggage while traveling from home.
One experienced senior Didi advised me that I could make fritters with corn flour and bread crumbs that were available in American grocery stores. Summer was approaching. The weather outside was warm and inviting for a leisurely stroll. One sunny afternoon, I thought of walking to the supermarket and buying the ingredients to make fritters. It would be a surprise for my husband. After finishing the household chores quickly, I dashed out of the house carrying my purse. The walk to the store was pleasant. Grabbing a shopping cart, I went inside and allowed myself ample time to pick each and every item without a rush. Soon my cart was full. By the time I came out of the store, already two hours had passed. Both of my hands were full with multiple grocery bags. They were pretty heavy to carry. But I was grinning from ear to ear, thinking about the crunchy fritters I was going to make soon!
My smiley face took a reverse turn as soon as I stepped out of the supermarket! Where did the bright sunny afternoon go? Instead, I found the sky covered with thick grey clouds, with thunder rolling fiercely. Was it supposed to rain today? It never occurred to me that the weather there could change so drastically. Oh, I should’ve checked the weather forecast before leaving!
Without giving a second thought my feet started moving forward with big strides. I had to reach home before the impending downpour. The wind started howling. My walk turned into labored running and I was panting. Didn’t see anyone in the vicinity. The number of cars on the road was also reduced significantly. Everything looked deserted all of a sudden. Halfway down the road it started drizzling. I could hardly see clearly through the dusty wind gust and prickly rain.
That small town in Virginia was not similar to the urban setting I knew in India. Back home, we used to find a shade or an awning or someone’s covered porch where we could huddle if it startsed to rain suddenly. Most importantly, we always found other people who might be stuck in the same situation. Being one with a few others gives one a feeling of courage. Finding myself completely alone on a road in an unknown place, and in the middle of a brooding storm, terrified me. Those days smart phones were not available to call for help. I was fanatically looking for a shelter!
Suddenly I noticed a dim light coming through a glass window decorated with some bright floral arrangement round the corner. I propelled myself towards that and found a glass door beside the window. I gathered all the grocery bags in one hand and with the other hand opened the glass door with an impulsive jerk. It rang a bell with rattling sound over my head.
I scurried in and found myself in the middle of a well-lit room immaculately decorated with various showpieces in wooden shelves. This must be a gift shop, I thought. “Oh…what do I do? Should I start looking at the items closely as if I’m here to buy something?” I asked myself silently! After all, it was rude and might seem suspicious to barge in like that!
I was lost in thought and didn’t really notice an elderly woman approaching towards me slowly from the back of the room, until she was pretty close. My grip tightened nervously on the grocery bags I was holding. The lady came closer and with a very soft and caring voice said, “Oh dear, you’re wet! Let me get you something to dry yourself.”
That one sentence made a huge, almost magical, impact on my mind. From a state of panic and helplessness, I immediately felt much assured and normal! Her gentle approach and the soothing voice had a special tinge of sympathy that was surely not to be missed. I noticed she went to the back corner of the room behind a counter and grabbed a handful of paper towels from there. She came back in a composed manner and handed me the paper towels. I stretched my right hand to get them while keeping my eyes fixed on her. The lady did not seem shocked or offended to see a stranger like me in her store out of nowhere.
I used the paper towels to wipe off water droplets from my hair and face, still holding the carry bags in one hand. I hesitated to put the wet plastic bags on her floor. A muffled ‘Thank you’ automatically came out of my mouth.
“No problem, dear. I see the weather tricked you”, she said with a chuckle. Her smile was so warm and friendly that it produced an exact reflection on my face.
“It sure did”, I politely responded with a faint smile holding the paper towels and the grocery bags in either hand awkwardly. She noticed my discomfort and kindly said, “Why don’t you put your bags on the counter and wait here for a while. It’s just a passing cloud. The weather will get better soon.”
I felt so relieved and followed what the lady said. I wiped the grocery bags with the paper towels as well before lowering them down on the counter top. Dried myself a little more and dropped the used towels in the trash bin kept on the side. The lady kept talking casually. “You must be new to this place. That’s why the weather caught you. Rain and shine changes frequently here this time. We always carry an umbrella while going out. You never know when it will start raining. Here take this and make yourself comfortable.” She handed me a stool from the other side of the counter to sit.
We sat down face to face. I noticed her properly now. A simple and graceful woman, must be in her sixties. The short and wheat brown hair with a few grey streaks here and there gave her face a fuller look. The hazel eyes that shone through her golden rimmed glasses reflected kindness and compassion. She introduced herself. “I am Rebecca Hope. Me and my husband run this shop. We live upstairs. It’s very nice to meet you.” She stretched her hand for a handshake.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs. Hope. You are very kind”, I said gratefully taking her hand in mine. Her palm felt warm, soft and a little frail just like my mother’s hand. I told her my name and she made a very earnest effort to sound it correctly by repeating it a couple of times. We smiled at each other and started a very casual conversation. Back then I used to have slight difficulty to understand American English. But Mrs. Hope was talking in a slow and gentle pace. I felt comfortable to talk to her.
She asked me where we came from, why we chose to come to this country, how I was liking here so far, etc. Mrs. Hope said she never lived anywhere else other than Virginia. She came from a mining family. All her family members were mostly around. She felt bad for me that I had to leave my near and dear ones so far to come and settle in here. She wondered how difficult it could be for us to adopt the lifestyle and culture of a new place which might be way different from that we were used to!
I explained to Mr. Hope how I was finding a lot of things similar to home here. We talked at length about cooking styles and food habits. Mrs. Hope said she loved to bake. She had a hearty laugh when I told her How crazy I was feeling to eat homemade fritters that day and the reason behind my unplanned grocery shopping that landed me in this strange situation! She suddenly said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back” and went inside the house.
I had a good look around the room while she was gone. The store was not big, but impeccably decorated with tasteful items. Wood crafted boxes, porcelain dolls, pottery vase, handmade jewelries, nature paintings and many more. A balanced mix of earth shades and bright color palette in each direction. I came to know Mr. and Mrs. Hope started this business after they had retired from their regular office jobs. They used to collect these items from the local craftsmen. This neighborhood shop was not only a business purpose for them, rather it kept them busy and occupied and also a help to the local handcraft market. My respect for this elderly couple grew more hearing that. Before coming to America, I always thought of this place as a mechanical and technologically advanced dome void of simple human touches. Meeting and talking to Mrs. Hope changed my view to a great extent. I felt like home!
Mrs. Hope came back with a tray full of snacks and two big coffee mugs! She put the tray down on the counter and with her natural sweet smile said, “Try this. I baked some sweet potatoes for lunch today. It can make up for your fritters a little.” I felt so embarrassed and repeatedly said this was not at all necessary. She already did such a big favor offering me shelter in her shop during the storm! She ignored my hesitation completely and told me, “This is nothing. I’m enjoying our little conversation as well. Have some and tell me how is it. I love coffee in this type of weather. Thanks for giving me company.”
I couldn’t say no to her. Took a little spoonful of the food she brought. To my surprise, the warm and crispy breaded sweet potato baked with feta cheese and herbs tasted like a piece of heaven in my mouth! “It is delicious Mrs. Hope”, I blurted out spontaneously. We had another round of chitchat over the steaming coffee. By the time I finished my coffee, it was almost past an hour or more. I looked out of the glass window. The storm had passed over; the rain had also paused. “Should go home now”, I told Mrs. Hope. She agreed it was safe to go out. She invited me to visit her again soon and I promised I would.
I took my leave from Mrs. Hope that day thanking her profusely. This was actually the beginning of a new friendship. The cool breeze outside adorned me with a new realization. The difference in age, race, culture, religion, citizenship, lifestyle and every other criterion falls short if we befriend with a heart full of acceptance. The warm and crispy fritters offered by Mrs. Hope not only thrilled my taste but also filled my heart to the brim with unfailing humanity.
(Posted April 1, 2023)
Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org