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07.06.2018

I was in a rare mood when my DIY pizza kit - a recent innovation from Chicago Pizza - arrived. It was 8pm and I wasn’t feeling up to fetishizing my own labor. Nope, no desire to Insta-story the tear-jerking onions I’d just chopped, no desire to light up while foaming the dishes, Betty Draper in mind. I even thought to forego that glint of private joy I get when I watch my fingers turn to the texture of sundried tomatoes, rinsed with that shade only synthetic blue washing powder can bring.

A real pity, because Chicago Pizza’s home-made kit seems to be a small triumph in India’s recent embrace of DIY kitchen work: an industry built on the adulation of one’s own labor. My banker friends in New York seem to love it, and don’t subscribe to my angry arguments about how Blue Apron is a perverse fantasy of white-collar work, an expensive package that allows them to feel for a moment, what it’s like to “cook.” There is no mess, “no waste” (or so, the loyalists say), and most advertised benefit of all: no waste of time.

For me, if you’re cooking to not waste time, making food to have nothing to clean, and tidying up the meal with nothing to store in a little box, you haven’t cooked. It’s not that I want everyone to be in the kitchen all day; I just don’t think it’s reasonable to compare this experience of millennial domestication to what its like to actually cook. Then there’s the fact that in the real world, or at least the real India, grocery shopping is a form of social therapy – keeping people sane since the beginning of time.

Further, I wonder: what do these mechanical-meals do to the aesthetic of our desi fridges, where half-cut lemons regularly sit next to biryani and Sagar Ratna take-out boxes, each filled with no more than two spoons of yesterday’s daal and sabzis? That’s not even getting to its invisibilisation of labour; the economy-of-scale excess of its product; the squareness of it all.

Still, the pizza box – large and strong – stared at me, and I knew that the company had done a good job at meeting its goals. I decided to deal with my self-cooked angst by asking someone who is still in the business of having his labor fetishized by others, to join me. He arrived promptly: a six-year old boy, hungry and big-eyed, backpack weighed down by coloring books.

We neatly cut open the big box, and examined the anatomy of dinner, spread out: it consisted of packages upon packages, disconnected and self-announcing. The biggest ones were for tomato sauce and cheese, and the smaller ones each contained a different topping, quantities pre-measured: not that we wanted any sweet corn, but this package weighed the least; mirroring population preference, we suppose. Four white ready-made crusts cushioned the box, each amounting to a size ‘medium’ by standard delivery norms.

Feeling ready as surgeons in the theatre, we got started, reading out each step printed on the back of the box. We took turns making big deals out of the little steps: scattering the pre-cut tomatoes, dotting the pie with machine-cut olives. Even though the instruction of washing your hands and putting on an apron is missing from the cleanly written copy, this is something you just intuitively do, because the feeling of DIY cooking is ironically, the feeling of being watched.

About 45 minutes later, by no surprise, we had the house smelling like hard-earned labor, and I understood why these boxes are what my banker friends turn to on the come-on-over, third-date. The waft is of a good life-long partner, clean, and ready made. Sterile only if you know what’s going on.

Taking out the pies of the oven, I saw the delight on my little friend’s face. I didn’t want to say it then, but even the little ‘z’ shaped smoke they released looked modulated. They tasted exactly how they were supposed to: like take-out pizza, assembled by someone no different from us.

“We made it,” my companion announced mid-way, throwing up a high-five. He proceeded to take out his coloring book and fill in his pre-drawn, life-size pie.

We did make it, I suppose. I just wasn’t sure how.

Getting there: Call Chicago Pizza and ask for the pizza kit. A box of 4 medium pizzas costs Rs. 700.

This story was contributed by Meher Varma.

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