My Few Months in the US- Part 1: Big Dogs & Baby Steps in Cooking
I stepped off the jumbo jet at the JFK airport, clutching my precious bag of passports, papers and my (proverbial) eight dollars, and….
One glass in my spectacles cracked, vertically from top to bottom.
Was it thermal shock? Not really. Probably culture shock!
My third-world, PL-480-fed countenance was shocked by the glory of the best of the first world, the great “States”.
I overcame the minor hurdles that followed, including understanding the deep South accent of the lady at the counter of Allegheny Airlines, and arrived at Monroe County airport, Rochester NY. (The “NY” was very important, as I found out later, because there are 18 other Rochesters in the US—Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont, etc., etc.)
Ahh, no big deal, we have a Rampur in every state and an MG Road in every city and town.
At the airport, I was met by a young girl who held a placard with my name on it. She was from my ‘friendship family’, people who had volunteered to host incoming foreign students for a day or two after they arrived to join the university.
After a few failed attempts at pronouncing my name, she hit upon ‘Ben’—a truncated version of my nickname at home, which thereafter became my name for the duration of my stay in America.
“Do you like dogs, Ben?” 
A strange question, I thought. I was jet-lagged out of my mind actually, having flown in several hops all the way from Calcutta, non-stop, with short breaks at Bombay,  London and JFK airports.
“Well, yes,” I said, “No, not really, no. But why do you ask?”
“We have dogs, two dogs actually,” she said. “One is quite big.”
“Big? How big?”
“Well………big,” she said.
A pregnant silence followed.
“He likes to chew suitcases,” she said, by way of clarification, perhaps.
Chew suitcases? What kind of dog chews suitcases? Dogs chew bones; that much, I knew. And my suitcase, my brand-new full leather suitcase!
Seeing the look of consternation on my face, she turned to me and said, as if by way of consolation, “We have nine cats, too.”
Big help, I thought, against a suitcase-chewing dog. But, out of sheer politeness, I nodded. The rest of the journey was spent in silence.
We reached her home well past 11 pm. It was a sprawling house set on a big lawn. The main door was wide open.
Who keeps the door open at night, I wondered.
She read my thoughts, I think, and said, “Toby.”
Whether it was an answer to my unstated question or a summon was not clear but, in either case, the answer was the same.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
A deep rumble sounded from inside the house and a dark shape came bounding out.
It was a monstrous dog, the size of a well-developed calf. I realised that this was Toby, and also immediately understood why the door did not need to be locked at night.
After a perfunctory wag of the tail at the girl, the monster turned to me. I stood immobile, not out of any intent, but sheer fright. I was frozen stiff.
The dog came in front of me, wagging its tail. A good sign, a voice in my head told me, dogs wag their tails in happiness.
Yes, Toby was indeed happy to meet me. As proof of his happiness, he put his front paws on my shoulders and licked my face, thoroughly, every corner.
My cracked glasses were now covered with dog spittle.
My hostess rescued me from Toby’s affection, and my suitcase from his fangs, and led me indoors. I reached my room, shut the door, and collapsed.
Later on, I was told that Toby was an Irish wolfhound, one of the biggest breeds of dogs. He ate a 50-pound bag of dog food every week, plus an occasional suitcase.
The next morning, I found my way downstairs to an empty house with sounds emanating from one corner, which turned out to be the kitchen.
“Oh hello,” a cheery lady detached herself from her cooking and turned to me. “Welcome to our home, and to America. Did you sleep well?”
After the usual niceties, she asked me, “Would you like some breakfast?”
When I nodded assent, she asked me what breakfast I would like. Fried eggs and toast seemed quite safe, even in America, I thought, so I chose that.
“Fine,” she said. “Here’s the bread, here’s the eggs, that’s the toaster, and you can use the gas burners while I prepare dinner.”
Holy cow!  She expects me to make my breakfast myself?
I had never ever cooked anything at all, not even made a cup of tea. I remembered seeing toast being made in a toaster, so that was feasible. But fried eggs?
Brainwave! I had read about the three-minute egg. I could do that!
I found a saucepan, filled some water and boiled two eggs for six minutes, not three, just to be on the safe side. Toast was easy.
The lady, obviously my hostess, turned to me with a look of surprise.
“I thought you said fried eggs!” she remarked.
“I changed my mind,” I said.
Thus, did I take my first step in cooking!
Advancement in cooking came later, after I moved into the three-room apartment that I was to share with two other Indian students, both doing PhD.
The senior, the venerable Swapan-da, informed me that I had to cook for all three of us twice a week, as part of sharing household chores. When I confessed that I didn’t know how to cook, he led me to the tiny kitchenette and opened the doors of the cabinet above the gas range. Stuck to the inside of the doors were four sheets of paper, each half an A-4 in size.
Swapan-da explained that these sheets listed the process for making rice, dal, veg and non-veg.
I applied myself diligently, IIT-style, to learning how to cook as per laid-down processes. Soon, I was able to produce food that was edible but not attractive, which,  I realised later, was the key to ensuring that I was able to partake of the fruits of my labour, and someone else didn’t eat it all up. How that worked, I will explain later.
A month passed.
I went to Swapan-da one day and said, “Whatever meat or sabzi I make, tastes the same. Why is that?”
Swapan-da nodded sagely.
“Now that you have understood this,” he said, “it is time to learn the differences between cooking different vegetables, and between cooking chicken, lamb and fish.”
As you can see, my journey into cooking continued, as it still does. My daughter recently gifted me a cast iron pan which she got free with her new cooking range (she is a cast iron cooking fan), and a new chapter has opened up in my cooking journey.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
Divakar Goswami
1 year ago
Enjoy reading your columns. Took me back 30 years ago when I was grad student in the US and learnt how to cook and many other household tasks. Probably the biggest learning i took away from my grad life in America
Amitabha Banerjee
Replied to Divakar Goswami comment 1 year ago
I also developed a hatred for curry powder.....................
1 year ago
Good to see that you will continue to write for Moneylife, whatever be the subject. Interesting to read your first steps in life as student in a foreign country (I suppose) many years back (maybe 35-40 years), when there was no internet, no mobile phone and long-distance international calling cost a bomb. Perhaps you will cover something on this aspect in next part.
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