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Water, Cool Cool Water

Thursday, September 3, 2009
Recently, Leena Trivedi's blog discussed the recapture of part of her Gujarati heritage by taking a cooking lesson from Lila Khaki (her aunt).

Like dipping the oft-cited Madeleine into Linden Tea, her story triggered memories of my own childhood.

One wouldn't think that we had much in common (she being young and nicely brown, while I am old and sickly white), aside from our unnaturally strong affection for food, but there it was: "...as soon as I drank some pani (water) from that stainless steel cup, it reminded me of visiting my relatives while growing up."

My cousins (Truly, Twila & Tina) used to live on a small peanut farm outside of Cisco, Texas. When I visited them, as a child, it was like stepping into a virtual museum of old-time rural America -- not that I would have thought it at the time.

Back home we had a black telephone, with no dial -- you just picked it up and told the operator what number you wanted. If it was long distance (to Texas for instance) the operator would take down the info and keep trying until a line became available, then call us when the connection was established -- sometimes ten or fifteen minutes later. Then folks on both ends of the conversation would have to yell to be heard over the intervening hiss and crackle of 2000 miles of wire. Truly's phone was made of wood, attached to the wall near the back door, with a crank-handle on the side. Like our Yankee phone, it didn't have a dial either. If you wanted to make a call, you just held the earphone to the side of your head, leaned into the black mouthpiece sticking out of the front of the wooden box, and gave the handle a good crank. When the operator answered, you said something along the lines of, "Morning, Velma... can you try Billy Bob for me, not the one in town, the one over t'other side of the lake?" Today, we don't remember numbers because they're all filed away in our cell phones. Back then, in rural Texas, folks didn't need to remember numbers either -- operators took care of that.

Needless to say, this story doesn't have much to do with the history of telephony. That little digression was just to set the mood, and possibly distract you long enough so that you will have forgotten where this is supposed to be going.

I know it worked for me.

Despite the Texan heat, there was no air conditioning. No big deal, there wasn't much air conditioning, up north, in the early fifties either. Truly's house was airy, because every window was open, allowing the ever-present wind to flow through. There was, however, no flowing water in the house. Water was carried in from a cast-iron hand pump in the back yard. Some of that water was left in a large black enamel-ware pot next to the telephone (see? there was a reason for all that palaver after all).

Hanging inside that pot was a steel ladle, from which everyone would take a cooling drink as they came in from the scorching heat. That water always tasted of steel, a kind of galvanic flavor that was unforgettable. Today, like Leena, one sip of water from a stainless steel cup transports me instantly to my past, to childhood memories of places that ceased to exist ages ago.

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