Superb Blurb: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Cantankerous white boy meets literature-loving Desi girl … what’s not for me to love? This bit is from an amusing taste-testing scene at the Taj Mahal Palace restaurant in preparation for the Golf Club dance, themed “An Evening at the Mughal Court.”

The dishes came quickly, small bowls of steaming food, blurry with color and fragrant with spices that were familiar and yet could not be readily named. Grace nibbled her way through them all, pursing her lips in determination at some of the more dark and pungent offerings. The Major watched with amusement as she wrote them all down, her writing becoming more labored as the food and several servings of punch made her sleepy.

“How do you spell ‘gosht’?” she asked for the third time. “And this one is what meat?”

“Goat,” said Mr. Rasool. “It is the most traditional of ingredients.”

“Goat gosht?” Grace maneuvered her jaw around the words with difficulty. She blinked several times, as if she had just been told she was eating horse.

“But the chicken is very popular, too,” said Mrs. Rasool. “May we pour you another glass of lunch punch?”

The Major had detected the merest scent of juniper in the first glass of punch, which Mrs. Rasool had presented to them as a lightly alcoholic lunchtime refresher. It came in an elaborately scrolled glass pitcher garnished with cucumber slices, pineapple chunks, and pomegranate seeds. But a crook of her finger when she ordered the second round must have been a signal to lubricate the proceedings with a healthy dumping of gin. The cucumbers were positively translucent with shock and the Major himself felt a desire to fall asleep, bathed in the fragrance of the food and the iridescent light of the silk curtains. The Rasools and Mrs. Ali drank only water.

“My parents’ tradition is to serve this dish family style or buffet,” said Mr. Rasool. “A large clay platter with all the trimmings in little silver bowls around it—sunflower seeds, persimmon slices, and tamarind chutney.”

“I wonder if it might be a little spicy for the main course,” said Grace, cupping her hand around her mouth as if making a small megaphone. “What do you think, Major?”

“Anyone who doesn’t find this delicious is a fool,” said the Major. He nodded his head fiercely at Mrs. Rasool and Mrs. Ali. “However …” He was not sure how to express his firm conviction that the golf club crowd would throw a fit if served a rice-based main course instead of a hearty slab of congealing meat. Mrs. Rasool raised an eyebrow at him.

“However, it is perhaps not foolproof, so to speak?” she asked. The Major could only smile in vague apology.

“I understand perfectly,” said Mrs. Rasool. She waved her hand and a waiter hurried into the kitchen. The band stopped abruptly as if the wave included them. They followed the waiters out of the room.

“It’s certainly a very interesting flavor,” said Grace. “We don’t want to be difficult.”

“Of course not,” said Mrs. Rasool. “I’m sure you will approve of our more popular alternative.” The waiter returned at a run, with a silver salver that held a perfectly shaped individual Yorkshire pudding containing a fragrant slice of pinkish beef. It sat on a pool of burgundy gravy and was accompanied by a dollop of cumin-scented yellow potatoes and a lettuce leaf holding slices of tomato, red onion, and star fruit. A wisp of steam rose from the beef as they contemplated it in astonished silence.

“It’s quite perfect,” breathed Grace. “Are the potatoes spicy?” The elder Mr. Rasool muttered something to his son. Mrs. Rasool gave a sharp laugh that was almost a hiss.

“Not at all. I will give you pictures to take back with you,” she said. “I think we have agreed on the chicken skewers, samosas, and chicken wings as passed hors d’oeuvres, and then the beef, and I suggest trifle for dessert.”

“Trifle?” said the Major. He had been hoping for some samples of dessert.

“One of the more agreeable traditions that you left us,” said Mrs. Rasool. “We spice ours with tamarind jam.”

“Roast beef and trifle,” said Grace in a daze of food and punch. “And all authentically Mughal, you say?”

“Of course,” said Mrs. Rasool. “Everyone will be very happy to dine like the Emperor Shah Jehan and no one will find it too spicy.”

 

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