Review: Nani Power’s Ginger and Ganesh

I’m pleased to host today guest critic Agatha Donkar, whose writings (and photography) I’ve very much admired for some time now; her own blog, Brand New Kind of Photography, is sheer pleasure to read. Here, Donkar takes a look at Nani Power‘s latest book, the memoir Ginger and Ganesh (a follow-up of sorts to her previous memoir, Feed the Hungry; see my interview on that book). Power will be officially launching the new book on Tuesday evening, June 15, at Bambule Restaurant in Washington, DC. More information is available at Power’s own website.

Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking, Culture and Love

By Nani Power

Reviewed by Agatha Donkar

Nani Power takes to the internet — the most modern of conveniences, changing the way we think, talk and communicate — in search of teachers in the field of traditional international cuisine, posting on Craigslist “Please teach me Indian cooking! I will bring ingredients and pay you for your trouble. I would like to know about your culture as well.” That confluence of anonymous internet communication with the strictly traditional Indian home and kitchen is what grabbed me first and foremost about Ginger and Ganesh. The idea that someone could find guides through this highly structured and traditional world in a venue as wild and wooly as the internet stopped me in my track a little, but as everything else is readily available there, I shouldn’t have been surprised that teachers in a traditional discipline would be as well.

Power’s memoir is a study in contrasts. She notes with interest the husbands who hover while their wives or daughters instruct her in preparing recipes that have been passed through families for generations, and she uses the Indian families and the feelings raised by her cooking lessons and interactions with those families to examine her own life, as a single mother to two teenaged boys, making her living as a writer.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Power’s journey through a multitude of Northern Virginia kitchens — as well as the least detailed (there are no recipes for love, unfortunately) — is the romantic relationship she begins with V., the college-aged brother of one of Power’s early teachers. Her relationship with V. colors the path of her cooking as she learns from others how to fix the dishes he likes best, and it simultaneously colors her emotional journey. She writes eloquently of the knowledge she gains of Indian culture from her cooking lessons, but the knowledge becomes a concrete lesson as V. returns to India to care for his ill father. Power presents a situation that she understands intellectually but struggles with emotionally, missing V. while she revels in a renewed independence, the life she led before meeting him, and it is one of the most compelling threads that runs through the story.

Unfortunately, the book’s weakest point is its structure. To build a book around recipes is a perfectly serviceable conceit, but the timeline of the events that flow around the recipes is not chronological, and even the recipes themselves lack an overwhelming organizing factor, be it ingredients or location, beyond a half-hearted attempt to link Power’s teachers to them. (Not all recipes have teachers attached, nor do the groups of recipes seem to have their own distinct similarities.) Some chapters are heavy on cooking instructions and processes, while others concentrate on the melodrama of Power’s relationship with V. and the cultural challenges of the relationship. There is no rhyme or reason, neither chronology nor cooking, to the path of the book, which results in its meandering, disjointed quality — one which is helped, but not quite redeemed, by the book’s ending, because Ginger and Ganesh doesn’t so much conclude as simply stop.

That ending seems to be an interesting meditation on the force of life changing events. The possibility that momentous endeavors can change us without providing a concrete turning point or end cap is one that many people do not consider. Power has written a memoir that accurately reflects life: the things we expect to learn from experiences are not necessarily the ones that we do learn, and then life continues simply to spool out in front of us. It was a refreshing end to an unusual story — not quite complete, but not unsatisfying.

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