Graduate Student becomes Chickpea Master Masher

Finding new skills in unfamiliar places
DEC 2019
Geeticka
C.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

I am sitting at my desk, debugging some code that does not seem to work. The week has been tiring, to say the least. But next week is Brunch Week!

When I first joined MIT, I was plagued by the usual imposter syndrome. This fear of not fitting in not only impacted my work, but also my confidence in making new friends. Living away from my family and country for four years had inculcated a sense of independence in my life, but I craved the feeling of community and family in the new city of Cambridge. In this quest to make my life outside research more colorful, I formed fond memories with new friends. In the process of forming my community, I gained unexpected skills like cracking hundreds of eggs within half an hour, large scale cooking, managing 30-60 students, and earning the odd title of Chickpea Master Masher.

My journey began with helping organize events in my dorm, Sidney-Pacific (SP). The first event I helped at was Brunch, a unique gathering where 30 graduate students volunteer to cook breakfast items such as pancakes, eggs, and bacon for the 200 attendees. I was nervous when I first entered the kitchen in the midst of the SP Brunch chaos. There was not a familiar face, but I was greeted kindly by a helper who asked me to speak to Jackie, the current brunch chair. She offered me a breakfast sandwich and asked me to make some pancakes for our guests. That was my first time contributing to making 200 pancakes!

I found myself going back to these monthly coffee hours and brunches to experience the warmth of the organizers surrounding me. I enjoyed making the in-house guacamole, for which we used chickpeas as a filler ingredient. To maintain the right consistency without compromising the flavor, I started mashing the chickpeas. Students that enjoyed this new twist to guacamole started calling me Chickpea Master Masher.     

At the end of the year, I signed up to be a brunch chair and became Jackie’s successor. I wanted to follow Jackie’s style of welcoming new helpers and helping them meet more friends. I quickly realized that brunch was better than I had dreamed: I learned how to manage a large number of volunteers (our record so far has been 60!) in a chaotic atmosphere and acquired unusual skills, such as designing aprons and cracking more than 300 eggs within a half hour. Once I became comfortable with the standard menu, I began experimenting with new dishes. I missed the kidney beans my family cooked at home, so I scaled up the family recipe and found that students really enjoyed it. 


Making chickpea salad! Not mashing this time.

I found a great co-chair who was excited about my crazy ideas and brought his own cool ideas to the table. We successfully managed to cook South-Indian food over an intense period of 2 days, with the help of 40 volunteers. I never thought that graduate students would be so passionate about food: many stayed strong during a marathon red onion chopping session and had intense discussions about the ingredients to use. The dish attracting the most debate was Sambar, cooked with lentils, tomatoes, and mixed vegetables. Our substitute for the regular pigeon-pea lentil was the red lentil since it was faster to cook on a stovetop. The substitution choice, coupled with our accidental purchase of cherry tomatoes, caused more than half an hour of discussion with certain helpers who were determined to cook the dish in a more authentic fashion. During this chaos, I was taken back to my hometown in India, where our conversations are loud and the people are very passionate about their food and culture.

This feeling of home makes me look forward to brunch month after month. While completing logistical tasks three weeks before the event, I get to write the helper email informing students of an upcoming brunch. Helper email is my opportunity to fulfill my silly writing fantasies while trying to encourage graduate students to join us in brunch preparation. Sometimes, I start with excerpts from song lyrics that describe my current feelings, and insert puns along the way such as “I’m blue dabadeedabadai” while asking helpers to be environmentally friendly (in other words, I ask them to be green). Other times, I give directions to the kitchen by asking helpers to close their eyes and follow the sound of music.

The day before brunch is reserved for food deliveries. My morning starts with meeting Sal, our potato dealer. He brings various seasonal fruits, but the highlight of his deliveries are large quantities of potatoes, ranging between 30 and 50 lb. Conversations with Sal about seasonal food take me back to my mom haggling with her vegetable vendor in India. Sleeping in at home is never an option because the mornings are littered with grievances about the price of tomatoes and multiple deliveries of fresh food and flowers for prayer. 

The brunch day itself starts with half an hour of solitude, which allows me to center myself before the volunteers join for the preparation. As I empty the drying rack and turn on the ovens and warmers, I usually plan for the upcoming week in lab. This time also allows me to reinforce the dish preparation order in my mind. If I finish these tasks quickly, I start cracking the eggs while singing along to my favorite songs. After the volunteers arrive, I look forward to 2 activities: fruit cutting and breakfast sandwich preparation. My family in India enjoys eating various seasonal fruits, and my favorite childhood moments were spent with my grandfather eating sugarcanes from nearby farms. The large amount of seasonal fruits chopped by volunteers at brunch takes me back to the memories of my grandfather, who enjoyed chopping and feeding me delicious fruits.

At the end of preparation, we celebrate by counting down the moments until we open our doors to the larger body of graduate students. Serving usually involves food replenishment, as well as efficient line movement, so that we can finish serving 200-500 students within a span of fifteen minutes. Brunch day always ends with a heavy feeling of tiredness and awe at the amount of food attendees wipe out within an hour. 


Getting ready to serve the large body of graduate students!
Dean Blanche Staton is one of our most fun helpers!

In the eyes of many, an MIT graduate student is supposed to be a serious researcher with very little time for extracurricular activities. Being brunch chair not only brought the joy of cooking into my life (and shock at the foodie nature of graduate students!), but also taught me that being a serious researcher is not disjoint with pursuing extracurricular activities to connect with my community. Putting myself in the unfamiliar and scary situation of running SP brunch helped me form great friendships with amazing graduate students and taught me very valuable leadership skills under a high-pressure atmosphere. Cooking as a community and being surrounded by this amount of food also brought back simple food-related childhood memories with my family that are not possible to recreate anymore.

So every Monday morning of Brunch Week, I sing It’s a beautiful day and I can’t stop myself from smiling and look forward to Brunch Day.


The helper family!