Joseph and his dizzying array of dishes

While Dad went to university most days with the students, my mom quickly and efficiently set up our new household in Kandy including hiring several domestic workers. As I have stated before, the idea of employing servants was a completely foreign concept to me. However, having a staff of household helpers was very common in Sri Lanka. All of our friends, including some of our employees, had part-time or live-in help. The first to join the team was Joseph.

Joseph had been the cook for the family that previously rented our home on Sri Pushpadana and stayed on. Joseph was a Sinhalese Roman Catholic. Only about eight percent of the Sri Lankan population is Christian and a majority of those are Roman Catholic. Joseph was a quiet, serious man who smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. He always dressed in a white button down short sleeved shirt with a white sarong which starkly contrasted his very dark skin. A smile from Joseph was a welcome, but not regular occurrence and was mostly reserved for my sister and me.  He was very fond of both of us. Although not a gregarious man, the 67 year old did like to talk about his seven children. Not long after meeting Joseph, a new acquaintance was sure to hear his laments about his 34 year-old daughter who was still unmarried with no proposals in site. Her marital status was quite distressing to him and he shared his woes with anyone he encountered in the hope that somebody would know of a young man in a similar predicament.

October 14, 1982

Joseph is a very good cook – makes terrific soups. It’s good to have someone else take over the kitchen – especially the messy part of cleaning up! There’s no kitchen aide, disposal or dishwasher.

Judith Bloss

The previous tenants of the house had also been Westerners, and Joseph indicated that he prided himself on his ability to prepare meals that were sure to make us feel like we were back in the United States. But, anyone who has spent time in a third world country is likely to have discovered that things are never quite the same as home. Even armed with a well worn copy of the Joy of Cooking, logistics necessitated Joseph make frequent substitutions.  In addition, as a working chef for many years, Joseph would often look at the ingredients for a new recipe or simply a photo and then rely on his experience to create the dish rather than follow step by step instructions. On top of that, Joseph had raised seven children and was used to the inevitable thrift that comes with a large family situation. These combined traits let to some interesting concoctions.

sb070

After one memorable meal, as Joseph cleared our dishes, he told us that he had a special dessert that he had seen in a magazine. The bowl of trifle he brought to the table looked amazing as he carried it in, and I couldn’t wait to dive through the whipped cream layer to get to the cake below. As my dad served us each portions, a strange look crossed his face. The trifle was filled with leftover dessert from the day before and some strawberry jam from the pantry layered with leftovers from the previous day’s main course including peas, ground meat and pearl-sized onions. Joseph was very proud of his thrift, and we didn’t have the heart to tell him that in this particular case the flavor combinations were not ideal.

On another occasion, my family was called to dinner, and Joseph came to the table with two steaming dishes. “Beef burgundy and noodles,” he announced as we sat down the table. It smelled delicious, and I have never been one to shy away from any kind of pasta, so I heaped a large portion of noodles on my plate and covered them with the beef mixture, spooning extra gravy on top. As we chatted about our day, and ate, the lights flickered and then dimmed. This was a common occurrence during the dinner hour when demands on electricity in the area stretched the limits of the local grid. After getting through about three-quarters of my dish, I started to slow down. My face felt flushed, and I wondered if I was coming down with something. “Eyes bigger than your stomach?” Mom asked? “I think I am just really tired,” I said trying not to make a big deal out of how I was feeling. But, in reality, I was feeling hot and a bit dizzy, and the lights seemed to be flickering more than normal. Mom felt my forehead and satisfied I did not have a fever, sat back to give my sister some bananas. She and my father started discussing a student who was having difficulties with her Sri Lankan host family. Mid sentence, Mom’s eyes suddenly grew wide, and she zipped into the kitchen. When she returned she said, “Well Johanna, the good news is I don’t think you are getting sick. The bad news is…I think you might be drunk!” It turns out that Joseph had poured an entire bottle of red wine into his beef burgundy as the last step of his cooking process. With no time for the alcohol to cook off, Joseph had essentially given me a glass of wine with my meal.

Joseph served us Western-style meals at dinner time, but we always enjoyed Sri Lankan fare for lunch. Lunch became my favorite meal and the only part of midday meals that left me dizzy was the array of fresh fruits that was served at the end. One of things that I am most looking forward to when we travel back to Sri Lanka is sampling all of the fresh fruits I have missed for so many years!

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Johanna

Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

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