From the Ivory Tower Kitchen: What My Politics and Cooking Have In Common

I am trained in and teach a subject which, by most measures, is exact. One of my favorite courses to teach is “Introduction to Mathematical Logic & Proof” wherein students are introduced to the notion of mathematical abstraction well beyond assigning variables in a routine word problem. I’ve had the good fortune of having met and spent tangible one-on-one time with the legendary Paul Erdős, one of the greatest Mathematicians of the 20th century. From the inception, it was evident to me that although we were both trained in some common subjects, we thought about the subject matter in vastly different ways. How could that be when thinking mathematically is such an exacting exercise of the human mind? I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.

I attended culinary school at a non-traditional age and by most measures, that makes me a latecomer to the party. When I find myself in the company of chefs who’ve been at it from a much earlier age, I sometimes get the feeling that my POV may be just as non-traditional as my professional introduction to the craft. It gratifies me when I am able to step away from the physicality and urgency of cooking so as to be able to process and reflect on my inspirations. That’s a hint.

I was born and raised in what is theoretically the largest democracy in the world. One where corruption among the countless political parties with their leaders and sidekicks all jockeying for allied majority power, runs parallel with erudite, honest-to-the-bone lifelong politicians who see the world as broadly and objectively as the great thinkers of all time. It is easy to point out the flaws of such a system, but in theory, every vote counts equally. There is an invested pride in the process despite the apparent futility of voting. I left India 29 years ago, as a youngster jaded about all matters related to politics. In retrospect, by disengaging, I may have been part of the problem.

This brings me to the real point of this piece. The current political climates (in the United States and in India) are as divisive and heated as perhaps, they’ve ever been. The terms liberal, moderate, conservative, and every label in between are thrown around ad nauseum and while they should indicate one’s tendency and strength of opinion on issues, they’ve instead come to be accepted as specific characterizations of an individual’s stance on issues. My opinions on political issues are grounded in an analytical assessment of the facts as I may see them in conjunction with my values as a human being. I am prepared to be wrongly informed on the premises of my argument, I question my analyses to a lesser degree, but I am most unwilling to budge on my visceral feeling after an issue soaks in long enough. My reaction then is the most meaningful and accurate representation of who I am and why I feel, think, and express the way I do. Paul Erdős did Mathematics differently and immeasurably more successfully than I ever will because for him, it exuded from every fiber of his being. It was visceral for him. When I cook, once one looks past my choice of ingredients, techniques, flavor combinations, and storytelling, the word that best describes my engagement with the craft is visceral. Ultimately, I am a much better cook than a research Mathematician because I’ve been unable to reach the same depth of engagement while doing Mathematics than I think I have when cooking. Teaching is another matter and although some may disagree, I think I’m deeply engaged in the craft of teaching. My intellectual leanings on political issues rival the way I cook in the depth of engagement I have with both. To re-write my own history, I didn’t leave India because I didn’t care, rather I did because I didn’t care for. Someday, I will leave cooking as a profession, but just like I will always have deeply rooted opinions on matters of politics, I will always cook with every fiber in my being.

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