In Nilesh Patel’s documentary film, A Love Supreme, his mother’s fingers dance with the elegance of a silver screen star. Her hands cradle an onion, her nails tracing the edges of its papery skin and disrobing it in one deft movement. We see a flash of henna-stained palms as delicate fingers pop peas from their pods or juice a plump lemon. Fingers fix into a claw shape to whisk flour with water; later, they cup softly around samosa skins as they are filled. With the rhythms of cooking drummed into her muscle memory, every movement is performed by heart.
As a child, Nilesh watched transfixed as his mother’s hands spun magic in the kitchen. But by the time he started filming A Love Supreme in the late ’90s, rheumatoid arthritis was already creeping across his mother’s knees and shoulders — Nilesh wanted to record her hands in case the arthritis spread. As such, the film is less about food than about the hands that make it — about Indumati’s endangered dexterity and the traditions that came alive through her hands’ work.
In the years since, Indumati’s arthritis has spread — at points, she could barely turn on the tap — but still, she cooks. In the film she made with her son, she has a record of the intricate jobs that her soul remembers but her hands can no longer perform, a meditation on our most masterful kitchen tool.
It’s a strange time to be writing about the power and potential of hands. Lately, my hands haven’t felt like a part of me. Every time I touch a door handle or pick out groceries, I’m aware that these hands could be unwitting vessels for a pandemic, so I wash, touch, wash, touch, wash, repeat, my nerves bristling across soap-withered fingertips. But in the kitchen, I’ve found a place of unlikely respite.
It’s a strange time to be writing about the power and potential of hands. Lately, my hands haven’t felt like a part of me.
When I cook with my hands, my senses stretch back out along the length of my arm and into my fingers as I rub olive oil into kale, pluck parsley leaves from their stems, and smear butter and spices across chicken skin. It’s…