By Tom Philpott
When the going gets tough, the tough get cooking. That’s the main lesson I’ve gleaned from my friend Vimala Rajendran, a legendary underground cook in Chapel Hill, N.C., who has recently gone legit by opening Vimala’s Curryblossom Café.
Doing justice to her life story would require the skills of a Salman Rushdie or a Mira Nair: childhood in middle-class suburban Bombay, peeling cardamom at her mother’s knee; youthful marriage to an academic scientist and passage to the United States; a stint as a young housewife and mother, expanding her culinary horizons in cosmopolitan Ann Arbor; survivor of a violent, collapsed marriage in Chapel Hill; sudden status as a penniless single mother of three without job or immigration papers; and then salvation through underground community dinners cooked and served at her home. And through it all, the scent of aromatic spices gently sizzling in ghee and the chop-chop-chop of a knife on a cutting board.
What makes Vimala, 52, a New Agtivist is her commitment to Chapel Hill’s extraordinary surrounding “foodshed” — a fancy name for a regional food ecosystem, encompassing its growing, distribution, and consumption. No foodshed can thrive without a robust market for local produce and a cadre of people who know what to do with it; Vimala has done more than her bit to support both. At her community dinners and now at her restaurant, she relies on the produce of her friends in the farming community. She makes it work economically by buying in bulk when produce is abundant, often taking top-quality but cosmetically flawed goods the farmers might otherwise not be able to sell. She also serves the foodshed as a cooking teacher.
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