Actually, I was touched by a bunch of Indians, but only one touched my soul. The setting was a college friend’s Bollywood style four-day half-a-million-dollar wedding extravaganza in Orange County. Jonathan and I were late to the party. We’d missed the mehendi and masti party on the first night where everyone got henna tattoos. And we missed the casino night of sitar music and dancing. Instead we were fashionably late, arriving the day of the five-hour wedding ceremony, just before the groom, his family and his closest friends were being packed like sardines into a Mercedes convertible and chauffeured across the cobblestone pathways of the Rancho Las Lomas estate towards the bride and her family in waiting. This was the Baraat Swagat and Dwar Pooja ceremony, aka “the welcoming of the groom and his family.” Traditionally the groom is carried on horseback, but in modern-day Southern California, a Mercedes and its 400+ horsepower was gonna have to do.
Did I mention there were white Bengal tigers at this wedding? Exactly!
Jonathan and I took it all in. Mostly the food like roasted green peppers, spiced puppodums, mango lassis, and the mysterious spiraled fried dough soaked in rose water that melted in our mouths.
In addition to every doctor or lawyer in a 50-mile radius, every color of the rainbow was invited. Spring green, pink, orange, purple and more, splashed around like a Jackson Pollack from floral arrangements, crepe wall coverings, to hanging lanterns strung like garlands across the magical outdoor setting where the ceremony was going to take place.
I was mesmerized by the aunt-eees in sarees gilded with gold and hand-sewn rubies and pearls as they gossiped and flirted with all the “vight boys” in the bridal party. Their chests covered in pounds of ornate soft gold and semiprecious stones. This was clearly a happy celebration, unlike the subdued, traditional, and seemingly elegant—bland is more like it—black and white weddings of us westernized folks.
A film crew operated a camera boom, which bobbed, weaved and swooped down from time to time in the middle of dancing and celebration, reminding everyone of the opulence of the occasion.
Since I’ve been good friends with the bride since college, I learned how to blend-in and dance like an Indian….if it’s even possible for a big-boned white Jew to blend in with a bunch of exotic brown-skinned beauties. When in doubt, put your hands above your head and pretend like you’re twisting a light bulb in and out of its socket and nobody will give you a second look.
College friends from my past seemed to come out of the woodwork for that cliché of a conversation that we all know too well. “Hey how are you? It’s been too long? What are you up to these days?” There was the hot guy with the nipple piercings everyone had a crush on who came to introduce us to his fiancé. “This is Philip,” he said, “one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.” And once again, I was reminded of why I liked him so much. That, and his bad-boy-I-used-to-have-pierced-nipples-smile still made me weak in the knees.
There was the bitchy girl I shared a room with one summer, who was spilling over her saree, because the bridal party broke out the champagne at 8am. I saw a few more people I hadn’t seen since graduation—aka “Facebook friends.” I was showing off Jonathan and playing catch-up, pretty typical wedding stuff if you know what I mean. But then something strange happened. A woman I wasn’t particularly close to in college, but knew well just the same, came over to say hello.
“Do you remember me?” she asked, giving me a big hug. “I’ve been thinking about you and was hoping you’d be here.”
For the purposes of this story, we’ll call her Shira.
To be honest with you, I’d never in a million years thought Shira would have spent an ounce of energy thinking about me since then.
“Oh my god! Hi Shira! Of course I remember you. This is my partner Jonathan.” I said, prepared to launch into my standard “what have you been up to?” and, “oh you haven’t changed a bit,” chit-chat.
And we did just that. We exchanged pleasantries while the celebration went on around us, because who knew?….you’re allowed to talk during Indian wedding ceremonies.
So here’s the backstory….
In college Shira was always my friend’s ‘friend from home’ if you know what I mean. We hung out with Shira from time to time in the dorms and at one of the six Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs in Westwood. We even took a few classes with her, but she was never part of our core band of misfits. My friend (the bride) always seemed like she was straddling two worlds in college and Shira was in one, and I in the other. She had her cultural connection to the Indian community of students from Orange County; the group of students I’m sure her parents hoped she’d spend her time with and maybe date from within. And then there was the eclectic group of us from Hedrick Hall. Marcy the Japanese Hurley chick in Rocket Dog foam flip-flops—think badass Hello kitty; and Josh the gay Mexican slut who was the most sexually experienced in the group at the time…and probably still. There was Rebecca, the curly-haired big bosomed Jewess from the Valley, and Jamie our Chinese-Goth-punkrocker and indie music aficionado with a monotone response to everything. And me, a quirky Jew from San Diego with the sensibilities of his New Yorker parents using sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism for all my insecurities. I’ll save that for another post.
The point is, Shira was never part of that group. We hung out with her out of respect for our mutual friend, but none of us ever called her directly or hung out with her one-on-one, because that’s not the relationship either of us wanted. Our group and Shira had this mutual tolerance for each other—and that’s all there was to it.
But from time to time her tolerance towards Josh and I—the gays—seemed to disappear. You see, Shira was so entrenched in the Indian student body at UCLA that she wasn’t as open-minded and accepting as others. From time to time, she made comments about Josh’s and my sexuality. Ignorant statements like “being gay is a choice,” or “what you guys are doing is really disgusting. I can never really accept that part of you.”
Fortunately for Josh and I, we had an amazing support group at UCLA, and Shira was more of the exception than the rule. We disregarded her comments, knowing they came from a sheltered upbringing, one that I’m sure a lot of first generation American’s from varying backgrounds just didn’t know how to address, because where they came from, homosexuality was wrong and swept under the cultural rug. Her parents were dealing with the challenges of raising brown kids in a white community. That was probably hard enough without tackling the issue of homosexuality too. Regardless, I knew Shira’s comments weren’t maliciousness or hateful and I chose not to let any of them bother me.
Flash to a decade later, and I’ve not thought about those homophobic comments once. Not even the sight of Shira brought those memories back. Instead, I was remembering the late night trips to Taco Bell on Pico Blvd with five of us crammed into the backseat of my Ford Thunderbird, and the time we studied together for the History of Indian Religion class we took freshman year. Yup, I’ve read the abridged versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Do I remember any of it, no, but that’s not the point.
“So I know this might sound a little strange,” Shira said, her voice sounding more serious as she continued, “but I’d like to say I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” I asked, her apology coming out of left field. I turned to Jonathan hoping he knew what she was talking about, but as expected, he was more confused than I. All he knew is this woman and I were reconnecting after twelve years and she was apologizing for something.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot for the past few years, and from time to time, I thought of reaching out to you via Facebook or sending you a text message, because I still have your 310 number from college, but I…well…I just didn’t know if it was okay to bother you.”
At this point I’m thinking it could be anything. I’m wondering if we got wasted on Jell-O shots one night senior year and I got her pregnant and she’s about to tell me I’m a father. I wondered if she was somehow responsible for me getting a B- in that Indian religion class. I had no idea where this was going.
“This sounds serious,” I said, “what is it?”
Shira’s lips quivered, and tears ran from her eyes, pulling some of her liquid eyeliner with them.
“I’ve been wanting to apologize for how I treated you back then. It wasn’t until I really grew up that I was able to look back and realize how horrible I was. I can’t believe all those homophobic things I said to you. And you were nothing but nice to me the entire time. You probably don’t remember, but there was that time you took care of me when I was wasted.” I had completely forgotten about that. “And there were other moments too. I’ve never forgotten about your generosity and kindness, and I’m sorry for how I treated you. I really am.”
BAM! Like a freight train, it all came rushing back to me. Specific moments where she was insensitive to my coming out of the closet. Moments when I was vulnerable and she served up insults masked in jokes and a laugh as if it didn’t strike a chord in the fragile queerling-heart of mine. If I didn’t have the friendships I did, she could have sent me running back into the closet prolonging the real me. The me I am today.
As she continued to tell me how bad she’s felt for all the horrible things she said to me more than twelve years prior I began to cry, which caused her to cry some more and then we were the two friends of the bride crying on her special day.
I turned to Jonathan to see if he was crying too, but he wasn’t. Which is fine, because I’ve come to learn he has no soul. He doesn’t even cry during the Sound of Music! I’m telling you; a heart of black obsidian he has—but I digress.
Everything I knew to be true Shira confirmed. She said she didn’t understand what Josh and I were going through, and her upbringing was so controlling and narrow-minded that it was all just too much for her to accept as a teenager with strong invisible ties to her mommy and daddy in Anaheim Hills. Somehow she thought she was fighting on the right side of history when she cut her friend’s gay friends down to size with biting comments and verbal jabs, but she knew better now.
“So I hope you’ll forgive me,” she said before looking away to wipe the tears from her cheek.
And that’s what I did.
“You didn’t have to apologize Shira,” I said, “but the fact that you did, and without anything to gain, really touches me. And for that I forgive you.”
With my faith in the human race restored, we walked hand-in-hand into the reception area where we enjoyed the most amazing vegetarian Indian food and I proceeded to tell her the story of how Jonathan and I met. And you better believe I emphasized the shit out of all the really gay stuff!
Indian-Spiced Beef Recipe with Potatoes & Peas
*this recipe was inspired by the Indian-Spiced Chicken with Tomato and Cream recipe from bon appétit’s winter survival issue February, 2014.
- 2-3 lbs beef chuck, cut into 2 in cubes
- 4 tbslp vegetable oil divided
- 1 medium white onion chopped to a ½ inch dice
- 2 tblsp fresh ginger grated
- 4-6 garlic cloves (depends on size and how much you like garlic)
- 2 tblsp tomato paste
- 2 tsp whole cumin seeds (ground works too)
- 2 tsp whole coriander seeds (ground works too)
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tbslp packed brown sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ¾ tsp cardamom
- 2 tsp Chaat masala spice blend
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 15 oz can tomato puree
- 8 cups beef broth
- 2 lbs Yukon gold potatoes
- 1 ¼ cups frozen peas
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- ½ cup fresh cilantro chopped
- ¼ cup fresh mint chopped
- kosher salt and pepper
- cooked rice or flatbread for serving
If you’re using whole cumin and coriander seeds, then you can really draw out their flavors by toasting them first. Put them in a small skillet over medium heat and toss them around for a few minutes. When they start to get fragrant they’re done.
Take them off the heat and grind them in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar like this, and set aside.
Pat the beef chuck pieces dry with a paper towel and season liberally with kosher salt and pepper on both sides.
Heat the 1.5 tblsp of vegetable oil in a large dutch oven (or heavy bottomed pot) over medium-high heat. When the oil is starting to shimmer and you can faintly see wisps of smoke, add half the cubes of beef in a single layer across the bottom of the pan. If the pan bottom of the pot is overcrowded, it will take longer to get a good caramelization on the beef, so make sure there’s space between the pieces. Cook the beef for 3-5 minutes per side, until cooked on all sides, and then remove the beef from the pot. Repeat this step with the rest of the oil and the remaining beef chunks. If you’re pot is too small you may have to go through this process a few times. Turn the heat down to medium if the beef is starting to burn. Once all the beef is cooked, set it aside.
If the pot is dry add ½ tbslp of vegetable oil, and cook the onion on medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring as needed.
Then add the garlic and the ginger and cook for another 3-5 minutes until the mixture is dry and pasty.
Add the tomato paste, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, brown sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, Chaat masala, turmeric and stir until pasty and deep brown, about 4 minutes.
Pour in the tomato puree and stir for a minute to burn off some of the acidity and bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes, then add the beef and beef stock and bring everything to a boil.
Once boiling, reduce the heat to simmer, and let cook uncovered for 2 hours, stirring from time to time. After 2 hours of cooking, the sauce should be thickened, but not as thick as we want. Add the potatoes, making sure they’re all submerged in the liquid, and cook for another 30 minutes.
When the meat is tender and falls apart when pulled at with two forks, and a knife goes into a potato with little resistance, then the dish is done.
Stir in the frozen peas, and turn off the heat.
Serve the Indian beef and potato stew over white basmati rice or with some naan bread (you can use pita bread or even French bread, brioche, sourdough…really anything that will soak up this delicious sauce!). Dollop with some plain yogurt, and a garnish of fresh chopped cilantro, and mint. Enjoy!
It doesn’t look so amazing when mushed together, but boy-o-boy it tastes great!