I sat in the Hoboken NJ train terminal waiting for my train that will take me to Chicago IL. My father, because he worked for the Indian Railways, had found out that they had a courtesy arrangement with US railroads and I could go across the country, by train, to Portland Oregon, free of cost. This was music to my ears as I would save upward of $200, a large sum in 1966 and alleviated my impoverished student existence.
I still had a few hours before I needed to board the train. I sat down and had time to look around. This train terminal looked so empty and so different from the one I was used to in India. Where was the humdrum of all the people walking around dressed in brightly colored garbs? Where were the hawkers selling their ware to the travelers? Where were the hot tea and snack vendors bringing savory smelling freshly fried samosas, hot puris and potato curry? Not that I was hungry. I had a good solid breakfast before I took the subway from Manhattan to Hoboken train station. It was the soul food, gemutlichkeit, the familiar train station smells that I missed.
We traveled so much on the trains as a part of my father’s job that I had literally grown up on train stations. Even though there was a coffee and donut shop and a newsstand across from where I sat, the ambiance was so different. Most of all where were the people? There were so few of them around. In an Indian train station, there was never a time that there were not thousands of people present. I would see the children running about under the careless eyes of old and young women chatting in their circle and old men chatting in theirs. Old men and women puffing on freshly lit Hukka, like the one I filled with tobacco, every day, for my great grand mother when she was alive. Stray dogs weaved in and out looking for scraps and yes, even a few stray, cud chewing, cows and buffaloes were around with their feeding calves. Women collected the cow dung and carried it home in baskets on their heads. They made cow patties, which could be seen drying by the sides of their huts as one rode the trains. It made fuel for the fire on which their meals would be cooked. None of this was present where I was. Instead, the whole place was antiseptically clean. Every thing looked spic and span, almost sterile.
Finally, an older plump woman came and sat down on the bench beside me. I was so glad to see another human being, even though she looked so different. She was short and stocky, dressed in a short, floral patterned skirt with stockings, and heeled black leather shoes. She wore a cream colored jacket over her crocheted pink blouse. Her hair was auburn and set in waves and short cut. Her face was made up with bright red lipstick. Her hair was heavily teased and sprayed to conform to the style of the day, and not a hair was out of place. What a contrasting pair we made. Her legs showed, my sari attire displayed my slender midriff. She had short hair, whereas mine was long and braided. I wore sandals, while she wore closed shoes. I was dark and she was light. Nevertheless, I was so glad to be able to talk to someone. I approached her and said hello. She replied, with an accent that was different from the ones I had heard earlier when I bought my breakfast.
“Hi, I’m Maria Vittoria. Your dress pretty. Where you come from?”
“From India. And you?”
“I came from Italy many years ago. My children grown.” She added in an Italian accent. I thought Italy, what do I know about Italy? Spaghetti came to mind. In order to be friendly I offered. ”Oh I love spaghetti.”
Her plump reddish face beamed and excitedly she said. “I make the best spaghetti sauce. I give you my mother’s recipe. It is delicious” she said, bringing her closed hands to her mouth and kissing it with an approving sound. “You write down. I tell you.”
Obediently, I got out my little writing pad and pen and began writing down as she dictated in her lilting Italian accent.
“You take one onion and garlic. Chop it up. Then heat some oil in pan and sauté onions till smell good. Then you put one pound of hamburger in it and cook.” I looked at her incredulously. “whole?” Thinking she must have made a mistake. I had worked at a fair in India and sold hamburgers. They were a potato patty with ketchup and fried onion in between two buns. My visual picture was not computing with her culinary directions.
She continued, quite oblivious of my dilemma. “Yes, no problem. Just stir it around and it will break and cook. Add a can of tomato sauce and tablespoon of oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until it is ready to eat. Real good! Yummy!” she said smacking her lips. I wrote it all down dutifully and thought to myself, she must be from another planet. What she just told me is not what the spaghetti sauce in India looked or tasted like. We continued our chit chat, until it was time to board the train. I thanked her for her heirloom recipe and we parted to our respective cabins.
I arrived at Stanford and stayed with the Browns in Menlo Park. They were the host family assigned to me. Mrs. Brown, a pleasant middle aged lady with three teenage children welcomed me into her family. She worked as a scientist at Stanford in a research Laboratory.
As we were leaving to go to the University next morning, I noticed that she had something red on top of the dryer. Curious, I asked her what that was. She said. “Oh I was defrosting some hamburger for dinner tonight.” I looked at her and asked stupidly. “Hamburger? What is that red stuff?” She looked at me patiently with a smile reserved for an imbecile child that one is just tolerating. ”Blood.” I must have turned a strange color of green about to faint. For, she added kindly. “Have you never seen hamburger before. It is beef.” Of course I had! I said to myself. Two buns with a potato patty and onion and ketchup, that is a hamburger. I sold it! Outwardly I said to her, feeling sick. “I am a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat and I have never seen beef before.” She had that look of “Oh Lord what will I feed her.” I wondered “Where am I. How will I survive?” But, at least now I understood how to make Maria’s recipe, even though I could not eat it!