There is not much my mother could ever say to make me physically cringe, except . . . Now I am not sure why this always fell to me but every night, just before dinner, my mother would raise her voice slightly so she could be heard above the TV and say, “Tom, come make the milk for dinner.” There are two things that I want to say about this.
- We were a large family and the cost of fresh milk was a burden on the grocery budget so we had powdered milk which I would mix every night for dinner. Now if I made it early enough, and my brother did not drink it, it was almost palatable. Most times it was slightly cooler than tap water and not much more flavorful.
- There is absolutely no reason for me to tell you that story as it positively does not relate to curry. Except that the container that I mixed the milk is was an oval shaped, obscure colored, plastic pitcher with a click top lid that had a round pour spout at one end which also had its own click top lid.
The year was 1973. Some of you may remember that time as that of flower children, civil rights, the Vietnam War, free speech and women’s lib. The latter plays heavily as a catalyst to the following story. My mother, you see, was as thoroughly modern as Millie. What I mean is, she decided that, in the era of separate vacations, she would take our Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser wagon across the country to pick up my sister Suzie who was returning from Denmark after a year as an AFS student. Being my mother’s favorite, of course I was invited to go along. My brother, who had recently turned 16 and had his driver’s license, would go as well to share in the driving load. Not wanting to be overwhelmed with two young boys for over 6000 miles, my mother invited my sister’s best friend Cathy to join us on the trip. Two men, two women, a larger station wagon with 4 people driving to New York City and back seemed nice. Plenty of room or so I thought.
What I have not told you is that we belonged to a church, which at the time, was hosting a priest from India. Paul Jesuraja, a doctoral candidate at the University of Berkeley School of Theology, heard of our planned trip around the United States and asked if he could please join us. As it turns out he was, to this day, one of the nicest men I have ever met and any initial anxiety I had about traveling with a priest, in close proximity for over 6 weeks, were almost instantly allayed. The story I am about to tell you is how the dear Doctor Paul introduced himself to an all American white bread family and it has everything to do with an oval shaped plastic pitcher.
Paul wanted to make a good impression and offered to prepare a traditional Indian meal for the family. I like good food and was all for it. If I was to spend 6 weeks in a cursing free environment the least I could expect is the occasional exotic meal. (Remember it was 1973.) I remember that Paul arrived laden with fresh and exotic foods with which to create our meal for the evening. My father, the consummate host, poured the adults a whiskey and for the first time ever all 5 children were gathered around the kitchen our senses filled with the colors and sounds and smells that had we had never experienced before. I mean, the closest thing we ever had was at the Chinese buffet two towns over and that in no way compared to what we were about to experience.
Now, I am not exactly sure what he served us but I believe there was some Chaat, Saag, and even some Korma. My mother assisted and made, what was for our family, a large pot of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. (Look, I know it is not Basmati but it is part of the story.) The milk was made and my family anxiously awaited whatever food had made our house smell so wonderful. We said grace and Paul served each of us a plate with a taste of every dish. My mother placed her fork on her plate signaling that we could all begin eating. Wait for it. As it turns out, traditional Indian food comes with a certain level of piquance. Screw that, it was hot! Our tender little palates, while impressed with the flavorful dishes, were almost immediately blown out by the amount of chilies Paul had incorporated in our meal. The milk? Gone in a flash. Now it seems that for whatever reason I had become the designated beverage forager. “Tom,” someone shrieked,” fill the pitcher with ice water.” And so I did, repeatedly. “Eat the rice,” Paul said. That too was gone in a flash. Pitcher after plastic pitcher of ice water made its way onto our table. The food was too good not to eat and we had no time to make more rice, so as a family we suffered through what I would argue to be my first best meal. Indian Curry.
Much closer to home and serving Samosa as big as my fist, is a lovely little place that I am sure all of you have already found. It is the Vaishnu Express Café at 4380 Sonoma Blvd. Like my dear friend Paul, the owners and staff working there are some of the nicest people I have ever met. The menu is entirely vegetarian, and as an omnivore I am not put off at all. The restaurant itself is simple in décor and the family focuses its attention to preparing lovely food, with an appropriate amount of chili. The Saag is dreamy and the Chaat delicious. I am a big fan of Naan and always have an extra piece with garlic. I find this restaurant captures the heart of Vallejo for me and I hope that you enjoy the simple pleasure of their good food. Hopefully as much as I did Father Paul’s.
Until next time,
Eat Well and Smile Often