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How a Multigenerational Household Cooks and Eats Together While Balancing Different Diets

Name: Rachita Sharma Pate
Location: Edison, New Jersey
Number of people who eat together: Six (Rachita; her husband, Michael; their 5-year-old daughter, Kassie; her parents; and her brother) 
Avoidances: Rachita’s parents are vegetarian. 

Rachita Sharma Pate has loved to cook and eat for the three decades I’ve known her. When we were tweens — Rachita and I grew up on the same street — she would whip up a decadent vegetable lasagna and the softest garlic bread for our sleepovers. 

Five years ago, Rachita returned to our hometown as part of a career change — from lawyer to physician’s assistant. She, her husband, and their then-infant daughter moved in with her parents, who have since provided invaluable support to her as she pursued her educational and career goals. 

My conversations with Rachita always revolve around food and are often over a meal. I was thrilled to speak with her about her daughter’s favorite foods, the passing of food traditions from one generation to the next, and how family preferences often determine what’s for dinner. 

What’s important for you and your family when you’re looking at a recipe?
It depends on who’s eating. Is it the entire group of six? Is it just me and Michael? Is it going to be vegetarian for my parents? Is it going to be a taste that Kassie can manage because she’s still picky about stuff? I tend to choose recipes that either are vegetarian or can be made vegetarian. It also depends on my energy level. Sometimes I find myself Googling “frozen chicken breasts Instant Pot.” Other times I’ll swing to the other side: I’ll make bread, which is an elaborate process that starts three to four days beforehand.

Where do you shop for groceries?
We almost always buy the exact same list of things from Costco every two weeks: peppers, mushrooms, apples, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, Dave’s Killer bread, hummus, yogurt. We go to Trader Joe’s for what I call “non-foods” — the sauces and condiments, like the Chili Onion Crunch and the Italian Bomba Hot Pepper Sauce — all those blends that can be thrown on chicken or fish and call it a day. We have gone to Whole Foods in the past if we want to do something that’s fresher in terms of steak or fish. We’ve also tried stuff from the internet. We got lobster meat from Wild Fork Foods recently, and the price was great but the texture was not great. We go to a [neighborhood] butcher called Nick’s Meat Depot

Who cooks?
My mom and I are the two primary cooks. We rely upon my mom for feasts and holidays where we want to celebrate with special dishes. I also let her make basic roti and subzi because it’s easier. I’m the designated onion, garlic, and ginger chopper. I make all the other cuisines for the family. If somebody is in the mood for Mexican or stir-fry or Thai, I go from there. 

I have to give my mom credit for pulling Kassie through her toddler years where she was not a good eater. Kassie had been underweight, and the doctor said, “I want her to gain weight.” My mom was her designated food person at that age. My mom would make yogurt for her using heavy cream. She made tons of kitchari and rice with vegetables. That slowly stretched itself to roti with potato or some other vegetable. From that one dish — kitchari — we were able to push her eating boundaries in a lot of different ways — to rice on its own, to dal on its own, to chutney, and more. 

What are your favorite childhood foods, and do you still eat and cook these now that you live with your family again?
My top favorite childhood Indian food is kadhi chawal. We eat that probably once a month. There’s something about it that feels special because it takes time to simmer on the stove and you start to really smell it. I remember being really impatient to eat it when I was a kid. When I smell that throughout the whole house now, it makes me feel the same way. And Kassie enjoys it too, so that also makes me feel happy that she likes that. 

What has surprised you about mealtimes or cooking with your mom as an adult?
My mom takes for granted how intricate the cooking she does is. She will make sambar or chana masala and not even use a spice blend. She knows how to add spices and when to add them. There’s no recipe. When I explain some other type of cuisine to my mom, like making taco beans, she’ll say, “That’s really hard; I don’t know how to do that.” And I’ll say, “You sauté the beans. You take the Costco Spice Islands Taco Seasoning and you shake it on. It’s nowhere as complicated as what you do.” For my mom, she’s often unsure what things should taste like, so she won’t try to make it. I’m surprised by how our eating experiences inform our cooking. I try to reassure her, but she still expresses reluctance.

You have two kitchens. How does that work for your family?
When we moved in, Michael and I agreed that we weren’t going to cook non-vegetarian food in the house. I really wanted to cook chicken at home, but also I respected the fact that my mom and dad are vegetarian. But some time into [living together], we realized that we can’t just order that kind of food or go out to eat it all the time. There was a little bit of hesitation about meat being in pans that my parents use. I think the cooking smells are really hard for them. 

Since the house has a finished basement with a refrigerator, counters, and cabinets — not quite a kitchen, but definitely an entertaining space — we turned it into a kitchen. Over time, other appliances have slowly made an appearance, like a microwave, a toaster, the Instant Pot, an air fryer. The cherry on top was the induction burner I found at IKEA. We have to bring dishes up and down to the kitchen sink for cleaning, but we can do all the cooking downstairs. That’s how it started — because we wanted to eat meat but we didn’t want to totally impose on them. Sometimes my mom says, “Are you making fish?,” and then I’ll run around Fabreezing or turn on the exhaust fan, but for the most part it works out.

Are there any conflicts around food? 
We communicate a lot, so everyone knows what’s on the table — pun intended. On Fridays, I will sometimes make Italian food, because I know everybody enjoys that. Sometimes Kassie is the driver [of a meal]. She’ll say, “I didn’t eat pizza for ages,” and I’ll say, “It’s been five days, Kassie.” Pizza has become our default Mother’s Day and Father’s Day meal, because it’s easy, comfortable, familiar, and delicious. We can concentrate on listening to music, or having a dance party, or making cocktails. 

My mother has never expressed this, but I think she feels sad we don’t eat more Indian food. At the same time, she’s also not obligated to make food for us. This could just be me feeling guilty for not eating more Indian food.

I wonder what Kassie’s experience of Indian food is going to be. Is she going to cook it? Is she going to eat it? Is it going to be two times a week like us, or is it going to be once a week or once a month? I want her to be inspired by what we eat and how we make it. That being said, the reality is that I can’t cook Indian food as well as my mom does. Sometimes that will spur me to actively cook with Kassie — but not as much as I should. 

What are Kassie’s favorite foods? Does she help in the kitchen?
Kassie’s favorite food is pizza because she’s 5. She likes anything with black beans. Her common denominator is cheese: quesadillas, ravioli, pizza. But she also loves kadhi. 

We made cookies yesterday. She is really good at cracking eggs. She likes using the stand mixer with me — putting the butter in, locking it, turning it on, varying the mixing speed, cracking the eggs. I let her do all of it, even measuring the flour. We have disagreements about the knife. I’ll let her use a small knife by herself and only when I’m actively watching her. She tends to think that she can julienne all the carrots. She’s interested in cooking, probably because me and my mom are almost always in the kitchen. 

Thanks so much for talking with us, Rachita! 

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.

Pooja Makhijani

Contributor

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey. Her bylines have
appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Real Simple,
The Atlantic, The Cut, Teen Vogue, Bon Appétit, Saveur, and BuzzFeed
among others. Her essay, “The Path to an American Dream, Paved in
Vienna Fingers,” was named Notable in The Best American Food Writing
2019.

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