When making ghee, there's a particular moment when it must be pulled from the heat. Wait too long, and the ghee burns. Don't wait long enough, and it fails to attain its mellow, nutty, almost-butterscotchy delectableness.
This process of clarifying butter — boiling out its milk solids over low heat to a particular consistency, and then filtering it for storage — originated thousands of years ago in India, where its uses ranged from cooking oil to indigestion medicine to burn remedy.
Though I'd eaten ghee throughout my childhood in New York and the Midwest, I stopped during my teenage years. In the 80's, fat was considered the enemy, and its consumption, the primary reason for weight gain and a myriad of diseases.
And what was ghee, after all, but fat boiled down to its fatty essence?
For many years, I turned my nose up at it, scoffed internally to see older family members generously dousing their rice and lentils with this obviously unhealthy accompaniment.
Then the kids came.
When my kids were little, ghee wasn't stocked in grocery stores and Costco as it is now. There were few, if any, articles in mainstream media about its benefits and uses and possible status as a superfood.
However, during that time, I was hypervigilant about nutrition advice related to children. My ears perked up at information that I'd likely tuned out earlier — that ghee consumption was correlated with higher brain development in young children, specifically with respect to intellect and memory.
(Besides, the kids could afford the fat, right?)
And so I learned to make ghee, burning some batches and undercooking others. During my early attempts, impatience made me leave the stove to perform other tasks, certain I'd return in time to pull the ghee from the burner. Inevitably, I didn't.
Finally, I surrendered, waiting by the stove, tapping my toes, peering intently at the golden liquid, and waiting for that perfect moment of extraction. Thankfully, a watched pot eventually does boil.
A friend suggested I look at the irksome process as a meditation. (It's possible that I rolled my eyes at her.)
Over time, my ghee achieved the taste I remembered from home — and no, no store-bought brand compares. Just ask the kids.
Why So Long?
In recent years, ghee found its way back into my own diet as well, a cravable and satisfying pleasure, as well as a connection to childhood and heritage. And I listen eagerly as various media explain that ghee contains Vitamin A, reduces inflammation, aids digestion.
Here's my question: why did it take me so long?
Did my eventual re-acceptance of ghee spring merely from the realization that my parents knew what they were doing after all? If so, all well and good.
I am concerned, though, that something more insidious was also at work. On some level, did I need this traditional aspect of my culture to be re-packaged and re-gifted by the western world in order for me to accept it?
I remember rolling my eyes at ghee and so many other pieces of my heritage, while the dominant culture around me rolled its eyes as well.
In fact, if I examine the timeline of the practices I've adopted over the recent decade and a half — a daily meditation routine, a regular yoga practice, increased consumption of fresh turmeric and ginger, and so forth — it's the same timeline for their greater acceptability here in the U.S.
Given the lack of knowledge about India and Indian culture when and where I grew up, it's pleasing and often thrilling to see the proliferation of such practices in modern American life. And while I do feel authentically connected to these practices, I'm wondering at my relatively recent ownership of them.
I was always proud of where I came from. I learned classical Indian music and dance, willingly followed (many of) the customs I was taught, avidly explored the history and literature and philosophy.
But subtle aspects of my birthright of ancient wisdom may have slipped through the mesh of my Indian-American identity into a cloudy soup of unacceptability — the ghee, the spices, the natural remedies, the yoga, the meditation, and many others. They, too, were worthy of honor and celebration, but I'd turned away from so many, rather than integrating them into my American life.
I grew up amidst teasing and bullying and ignorance about my ethnicity — compounded by the vulnerability and confusion I felt from inhabiting the space between cultures, belonging simultaneously to both and neither. Despite my pride in my heritage, I suspect that shame took root and grew into a thin layer just beneath my skin and my thoughts.
Knowing what I know now, and with the benefit of my life experience, how do I weed out that unconscious shame?
And what if the roots of that shame run deeper than I realize? Have the experiences of my parents and relatives who endured far worse discrimination as immigrants in the 60's and 70’s also filtered down and through to me? Does it incubate in my children as well?
And if I look to my parents, I must also look to my grandparents and great-grandparents who lived in India, a country subjected to hundreds of years of colonization, during which its citizenry was strategically divided, its culture suppressed, its people humiliated. I believe that this collective trauma impacted and even decimated any pride in living in one of the wealthiest countries of the ancient world, with an even more valuable treasury of spiritual and philosophical wisdom.
M. Gerald Fromm, the editor of a collection of essays on intergenerational transmission of trauma, suggests that such traumas fade from social discourse, but can still pass to the next generation.
Such "psychic legacies," as they are referred to by those who study this field, are often unconsciously transmitted through anxieties, fears, and even values. Psychologist Molly S. Castelloe asserts that messages flow between children and adults, in the stories shared, morals taught, and ideas resisted.
Those messages become part of one's identity.
To dissipate such trauma and prevent its future transmission, Castelloe advocates expanding the narratives told by previous generations and listening to stories of the past within their social and historical context.
The decision not to carry our forebears' pain into the future while still preserving our memories and history is, of course, a complicated balance, requiring deep consciousness and sustained attention.
With this in mind, I think I will re-attempt following my friend's advice: to treat ghee-making as a meditation.
As the butter clarifies over the heat, perhaps my sustained attention will produce other types of clarity. As the milk solids boil away, so can my formerly unconscious shame and resentment, both experienced and inborn, as unnecessary parts of the final product. That final product is an identity and heritage fully embraced, free and clear.
Castelloe, Molly S. "How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations." Psychology Today. 28 May 2012. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-me-in-we/201205/how-trauma-is-carried-across-generations.
Fromm, M. Gerard. Lost in Transmission: studies of trauma across generations. 2012. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Kazan, Olga. "Inherited Trauma Shapes Your Health." The Atlantic. 16 October 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/10/trauma-inherited-generations/573055/.