The Taste of Comfort

a person holding a bunch of okra next to a pot of Okra Curry
Devarajan’s okra curry.
Image credit: DiMicco | Longcore
Karen Grigsby Bates ’73
June 15, 2021

In the last year, as the pandemic has raged on, as we have experienced fires, floods, and political turmoil, most of us have been going out a lot less and cooking a lot more. There is often something soothing about the rhythms of meal preparation, especially when you have time to do it. The peeling, chopping, stirring bring a sort of comfort. So do the aromas wafting from the kitchen: bread baking, meat roasting, a pot of chai on the stove. Comfort can come from an elaborate, multicourse meal or an impromptu snack eaten over the sink. (Aficionados swear that’s the only sane way to consume a sandwich made with the summer’s first ripe tomatoes.)

We all have foods—whether sweet or savory, spicy or mild—that are the culinary equivalent of a warm hug. The recipes here come from five alums who return to these foods over and over, at the request of family and friends, or just to please themselves. When they’re served, they provide sustenance for the stomach and the soul.

Kumari Devarajan ’17, Los Angeles
Kumari Devarajan ’17 usually lives in Los Angeles, where she is a producer for NPR’s Code Switch team (and, full disclosure, sometimes produces my radio pieces). But when I spoke to her, she was in Washington, D.C., at her parents’ home, working remotely for a few months.

Kumari did not grow up cooking because she didn’t have to: “I was very lucky because my dad loves cooking, and so we always had home-cooked meals, at least four out of five weeknights,” she says. Her parents were both economists at the World Bank. Her mother doesn’t cook, but she is a great baker. “In my house, all the cookie jars always were full,” Kumari says. “Whenever there was a bake sale or I had to bring anything for school, I didn’t even have to ask twice.”

She didn’t start cooking for herself “until after I graduated from college and was living on my own and just kind of had to start from scratch. I think what helps is I know what a good meal is supposed to taste like and smell like because I grew up with it. So that kind of motivated me to try to get good at it. My staples [are] pad thai or roasted green beans—and I like spending a whole day making Bolognese sauce.”

Paula Penn-Nabrit’s mixed greens with smoked turkey, garlic, onions, peppers, and shallots.

Kumari’s dad is a Tamil Sri Lankan, and when her paternal grandparents lived in the States for several years, her paatti (grandmother) missed her homeland and tried to replicate some of her favorite dishes with approximate equivalents from local grocery stores. She even wrote a cookbook, Curry in a Hurry, for others who wanted to try Sri Lankan food. Some of the ingredients, like coconut milk, are easily found in most grocery stores today, but back then, they were considered exotic and hard to find, so she substituted evaporated or dried milk. Making curry powder from scratch is common in much of South Asia, but for American cooks, commercial curry powder was probably a safer bet. Kumari’s dad (now a university professor) says the page with his mother’s curried okra recipe is “the most stained, because it was the most used.” It’s simple and quick and, Kumari says, is often served alongside a curried omelet for a light, satisfying dinner.

Paula Penn-Nabrit ’76Columbus, Ohio
If you’re friends with Paula Penn-Nabrit ’76 on Facebook, you’ll see posts showing gorgeous baked goods, from bread to a pound cake made from her mother-in-law’s coveted recipe. There are pictures of glass jars filled with bounty from the community garden she established in memory of her late husband, Charles Madison Nabrit III, and nutritious drinks for everything that ails you. Paula says her interest in food started in childhood: “Everything revolved around food.”

She grew up in a deeply faithful family. “We come from the Apostolic Pentecostal tradition. And so what that means is you don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t go to a movie. You don’t play cards. You don’t go to dances.” Given those parameters, “food is a form of entertainment. It’s also what you do when something bad happens. If somebody has a death in the community, we show up with food. It’s what you do to celebrate. When something wonderful happens, we eat.”

Some of her fondest memories center around going food shopping on Saturdays at Columbus, Ohio’s North Market with her father. She’d listen to his conversation with the butcher, the greengrocer as they debated the merits of this chop, that pear. “So, food was never a casual thing.”

This is an excerpt from an article by Karen Grigsby Bates ’73 that appears in the spring 2021 issue of “Wellesley” magazine. Read the full story on the “Wellesley” magazine website.