The Seed of a Mango – Food Memories on Father’s Day

The seed of a mango is often the center of a conflict, at least when Indian children are involved.  My father, the family bully and later beloved patriarch of the clan, routinely won the battle over who got to suck out the juicy bits of a mango seed, leaving his 6 brothers and sisters crying and cursing.  A childhood of poverty forced sharing, or winning, at every meal.  When Papa emigrated to the US and his fortunes changed, he went from social Darwinist to generous benefactor. Able to afford cases of mangoes, he offered them to anyone who crossed his threshold.  There were the fruits themselves, mango lassi, mango rus, and mango pickle.  Summer meant sticky fingers and sweetness.

San Cristobal de las Casas. Municipal Market: Mango vendors
Photo by Wolfgang Sauber

Chicago in the 1970s was not the international food haven it has now become, so mangoes were not available at the average grocery store.  Finding Indian mangoes was impossible because of trade restrictions.  Mexico was the exporter of choice.  Having a medical clinic in the Mexican barrio, Papa was happy to barter medical attention for mangoes by the case.  He would take orders over the weekend from all his friends, and visit the mercado on Monday to fill his trunk.   My brother spent his summer unloading 15-20 cases a week from Papa’s car.  When friends would come pick up their orders, of course my mother insisted they stop for chai, and eat one or two of our bounty sprinkled with cumin powder and salt before they left.

Papa made sure we could eat our fill at every meal.  I’m convinced he believed that part of the ‘giving my children a better life’ move from India included mango prosperity.  I grew up without sibling combat over seeds.  If my brother and I both wanted to suck the center, we just grabbed one for ourselves.   We watched Papa eat all the cut up pieces of mango, only eating the seed at the end.  Seeds were never the appetizer, always dessert.  We learned the proper technique for getting maximum pulp without it sliding out of our fingers and plopping on the floor.  Good times.

I lost my father seven years ago, almost to the day.   On Father’s Day this past Sunday, I called my mother. We acknowledged our loss, happy that we have each other.  For dessert I chose the ripest, plumpest mango I could find.  I devoured the seed, licked every finger, and relished the memories.


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Where are you from? What’s your story?

“Where are you from?” A persistent question asked of most accented or vaguely foreign looking inhabitants of the US.  Most answer obediently with Argentina or Ghana or, “my parents are from Sri Lanka.”  But there is the occasional impertinent reply.  An Egyptian-American with deep black sockets for eyes and olive skin responding, “I’m from Detroit” leaves the interlocutor thwarted and a bit frustrated.   “You know what I mean.  Where are you originally from?” or some variant, and then another parry, and yet another inquiry about her parents or her name or her gorgeous eyes.

The problem lies with the question.  What’s really being asked is, “What’s your story?”  The answer isn’t Detroit.  But nor would Egypt be a satisfying response.  We’re looking for stories to connect what we see and hear to what we don’t know about a new acquaintance.  My standard answer is, “The skin is from India.  The accent is from Chicago.”  That’s at least an opener.  But India and Chicago aren’t yet stories.  They are place markers.  They say nothing of the sugarcane fields of my parents’ youth, or the pilgrimages to Palitana, a Jain temple on a mountain in the dust of Saurashtra, or the mill in my mother’s basement where she grinds her own dal and rice to make dhoklas.

HUSH is about storytellers and their stories.  Join us every Tuesday for a new tale.  Next Tuesday, we will begin at the beginning.  Namely, the state of Gujarat and the story of a shepherd turned child prince willing to try anything put on his thali (plate).