May 7, 2020
It was the 1940s, Los Angeles. A hand held up a black-and-white picture of actor Rita Hayworth smoking a long cigarette, and behind the photo was the real thing. “To John and Jimmy?” she asked, to be sure as she signed the names of the two brown men in three-piece tweed suits in front of her. They nodded, and Rita, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, the Brooklyn-born daughter of a Spanish immigrant, obliged, gladly. John and Jimmy had just come to America on holiday, taking the Queen Elizabeth I cruise ship from London to New York, where they stayed at the New York Statler. They even signed their names in the fresh cement on the top floor of the Empire State Building. At a restaurant in Manhattan, the brothers fell in love, briefly, with French onion soup. Jimmy announced that he needed to get the recipe for his popular restaurant, Shady Grove. The harried chef came to their table and listed out the ingredients — onions, Gruyère, bread, cognac, beef broth. They didn’t remember the rest as the affair ended there. The brothers, born and raised in Bannu in the Northwest frontier province of pre-partitioned Punjab, promised each other not to tell their strict vegetarian family that they had ever tried the thing.
April 10, 2020, Oslo. Lars Henrik Mathiesen kept checking on the oven to make sure that the Gruyère was toasting over the ten soup bowls. It was his 40th birthday, and the world was in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown. He was already breaking the rules by having more than five people over, but since it was only family and a momentous occasion, he figured this could be an exception. Welcome chocolates were poured carefully into a silver bowl, covering the engraving “Mathiesen-Eidsvold Vaerk.” The piece was one of many that had been made to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the Mathiesen family business. When the food was ready, Mathiesen put back his wedding band on his right hand — “the Norwegian way” — and the family ring on his left pinky finger. The Mathiesens are originally Danish and the same names had been continued through the centuries. “It’s just really important that when we have children that they have Indian names as well,” said his wife, me.
This is my cue.
A few weeks prior, I had been in Tijuana, Mexico, interviewing Michael Enright, a British-born Hollywood actor who had gone to fight against ISIS for a documentary. In addition to Enright’s fascinating and harrowing story, which will air on TV later this year, the other thing I discovered is that the Caesar salad had been invented in Tijuana, by American-Italian restaurateur Caesar Cardini. I remembered that when I was at JFK on March 5, as I munched on the romaine leaves doused in too much dressing, and as I washed down my dinner with pinot noir, I opened my organizer and started to edit: no two-week visit to see my parents in New Delhi or film a dynamic young martial artist in Hyderabad, no stopover in Madrid to see my brother en route to India. My Schusterman fellowship — which involved a week trip to Israel and Palestine — was postponed, and the Mathiesen Easter holiday in Portugal was canceled. What I did know for sure was that I was leaving New York and flying to Oslo. That was my choice. To have a choice of where to be, and in current coronavirus times, where to get stuck is a luxury, and the question of belonging, for many, is a burden.