The Invention of Piece- Pahz by Devi Laskar
Piece-Pahz is a short-form creative non-fiction piece from Devi Laskar, digging into a memory about a family-made after school snack, the simple joy it created for the writer, and the poignant connection between family members from its making. In direct and vivid language, Devi paints a picture for the reader of the meal and the people in her world.
Devi S. Laskar is the author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues, winner of the 7th annual Crook’s Corner Book Prize (2020) for best debut novel set in the South, winner of the 2020 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (selected by APALA); selected by The Georgia Center for the Book as a 2019 book “All Georgians Should Read,” finalist for the 2020 Northern California Book Award, long-listed for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature and the Golden Poppy Award. The novel was named by The Washington Post as one of the 50 best books of 2019.
Laskar's second novel, CIRCA, was published on May 3, 2022, by Mariner Books. Her third novel, MIDNIGHT, AT THE WAR, will be published by Mariner Books next year. In 2022, USA TODAY named Laskar among "50 AAPI authors" to read and Goop selected CIRCA as its June Goop Book Club pick.
Laskar holds degrees from Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prizeand Best of the Net. She is an alumna of both TheOpEdProject and VONA, among others. In 2017, Finishing Line Press published two poetry chapbooks. A native of Chapel Hill, N.C., she now lives in California with her family.
RECIPE POSTED AFTER PIECE!
Fried Eggs & Rice Writing Prompt: Devi's piece starts with an image of her maternal grandmother, RaniMa, experiencing snow for the first time. Consider a moment where you experienced something for the very first time. In your preferred genre, write about the wonder and emotion you had in that moment. This does not have to be food related.
The Invention of Piece-Pahz
(With thanks to the late J.R. Dasgupta)
By Devi Laskar
I am six and a half years old when my brother is born. Shortly before his birth, my widowed paternal grandmother came to visit while our small North Carolina town was besieged by unexpected snowfall. Forty-six years have passed and I still remember RaniMa’s silver-white hair pulled into a bun and her slight frame laden with scarves and mittens and a thick brown coat as she stepped out onto the back porch, the snow soft and smooth like white icing on sheet-cake. I still remember her wonder at the snow, at the relatively empty city streets, at the stocked grocery store shelves and – once the baby came – at her newest grandchild. I’ve tried to carry her smile and delight and optimism with me ever since. I was the granddaughter who was considered most like her: her love of pineapple and adventure, her love of retelling long stories like The Ramayana and for breaking the rules. She stayed a few months and returned to Kolkata.
When my maternal grandparents came to visit for four months, my baby brother was sitting up, rolling over, learning to crawl. The school year began and I was sad every weekday morning to leave – and overjoyed every afternoon when I stepped through the screen door. The smell of butter and chicken and spices permeated the air. If I closed my eyes as I breathed in, I was instantly transported to my grandparents’ Kolkata kitchen: The smell of onions frying. I pictured bodies bustling to prepare a meal. This was the precise moment every day that I knew my grandparents loved me, their first grandchild. I could smell their love.
Every weekday was the same: my grandmother would wake up my grandfather from his post-lunch nap just moments before I’d step off the school bus. He’d lumber down the stairs into the kitchen to make me an after-school snack he invented: Piece-Pahz, savory and hot; a dish fit for a hungry girl. Only he knew that the mean older boys on the bus regularly stole my lunch and that I’d be super famished by the time I was home.
Piece-Pahz was heaven: basmati rice fried in butter, crispy and golden brown at the bottom of the pan, with bits of chicken, potato, carrots, beets and tomatoes thrown in – spiced with cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, and garnished with cilantro. A generous heap in a bowl with an extra pat of butter on top. While I ate he asked me about my studies and all the day’s troubles receded.
A few of those days my grandfather was still asleep when I walked in the door, and my mother urged him to rest and told him she would make me a sandwich. Something easy for the maker but dull for the consumer. But he never followed her suggestion and always ambled down the steep staircase, his hand hovering over the rail, and turned left into the kitchen with sage-green walls – and made my snack. And my grandmother would peek in and smile big.
Every day, I missed my paternal grandmother, RaniMa, and wished I could see her when I got home from school. Every day I thought about her and how lonely she must be. I wanted her to join in my fun. One day I told my grandfather my fondest wish: to make Piece-Pahz for my RaniMa who has been widowed at that point for nearly 30 years. A shadow fell over his face – it was forbidden for widows at that time to eat meat. Back then, most Hindu, Bengali widows wore white and became vegetarians once their husbands died. The news made me lose my appetite, and I peppered him with uncomfortable questions about rules and customs. His answers were unsatisfactory – he became sad with every Why? Why? Why? I asked.
Fast-forward several years. I’m about to enter seventh grade. I’m in India and my dad, my Baba, has brought his mother along to visit his in-laws. Lunch in Baguati, the crowded enclave of Kolkata near the international airport where my mother’s parents had settled when my mother was finishing high school. It is an elaborate meal and my maternal grandmother and aunt and mom have been hard at work all morning. Somewhere in the middle, between their arrival and the moment we all sat down to eat off banana leaf fronds, my Dadu catches sight of me playing with my brother and cousin, smiles at me, and then hurries away.
At lunch I’m sitting next to my RaniMa, when my grandfather, my Dadu, sets down a small, stainless steel bowl between us. Buttery Piece-Pahz! Beets and tomatoes, carrots and peas and rice – no chicken. A special treat, he says. I smile and am quick to offer RaniMa a generous portion; my movements and words help me fight back the tears.
That day I felt full and happy; the sting of loneliness, the distance between America and India disappeared. It was a pleasure for us to see RaniMa relish the Piece-Pahz, and I was so touched that my grandfather remembered our conversation.
Many years later my parents tell me the story of my Dadu when his only daughter, my mom, married into my Baba’s family: how, it turns out, he and my RaniMa were childhood friends who had lost touch, how happy he was to have the two families joined in marriage, how he presented my RaniMa with an elegant sari as a gift, ivory with a blue silk hem, how he was the first one to speak out against the custom of widows wearing all white, how he tried to change the custom from the inside.
And yes, this story ends as happily as it could: he helped me fulfill my wish.
I gather a little courage every time I remember him and the weekday ritual he invented on his trip to America.
Note from the Author: These days I make my grandfather’s dish on high temp for three hours in the slow-cooker. It’s comfort food and I take shortcuts....
1 rotisserie chicken, meat peeled off the bones
1 onion chopped
1 tomato cubed
1 can of whole beets, drained and chopped
1-2 large carrots sliced
1 large handful of frozen green beans
1 potato cubed
2 bags frozen rice (each box of frozen rice usually has three bags inside, use 2)
1-2 Teaspoons Turmeric
Salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons Cumin seeds
Several pinches Garam masala
1 Cinnamon stick and a teaspoon of cloves and cardamom
Butter and a dash of olive oil
1. Turn on the crock-pot and coat the bottom with olive oil.
2. Add spices and wait until you smell them cooking, then add everything but the cilantro and butter and stir thoroughly until the ingredients are mixed well.
3. Add butter to top of mixture and put cilantro on top and close the lid.
4. Two hours later, open lid, and stir well — everything should be bubbly and smell wonderful — if it looks dry and not as moist as you’d like, add another pat of butter and a few more sprigs of cilantro.
5. Then cover and turn the heat to low for the last 45 min to 1 hour. Then serve and eat.