Writing about women achievers who broke the glass ceiling would not be possible without the mention of S Meenakshi Ammal. This gritty lady wrote and published her first cookbook – Samaithu Paar (Cook and See) in 1951! This was even before the term ‘glass ceiling‘ was coined.
Published almost seventy years ago, the book is a repository of traditional recipes cooked in a typical Brahmin household. Meenakshi Ammal wrote this book at a time when a cookbook was unheard of and Indian women did not write much.
Married at 19 and widowed at 23, her life was as tough as it could get.
A two-year-old son, a mother-in-law, and a seven-year-old brother-in-law, Meenakshi Ammal embraced all her responsibilities without getting overwhelmed by them.
She had her one key strength – her amazing cooking skills – and the confidence to back them. Bit by bit, she built her life through sheer hard work.
The Better India caught up with Priya Ramkumar, the grand-daughter-in-law of Meenakshi Ammal, to understand the authoress’ life and the genesis of her book.
Since 1994, Priya has been running the publication along with her father-in-law, who managed it until then.
Priya begins, “I started slowly, and once I had learnt the ropes, my father-in-law entrusted me with the running of the publication and the blog.”
Recalling the time when Meenakshi Ammal made her foray into the publishing world, Priya says, “My grandmother-in-law was known for her ability to cook for very large gatherings. She could cook for more than 50 people at a time! In those days, there was no option of outside catering, or eating out, so everything had to be self-made.”
Gatherings in those days were also very large since the immediate family itself would consist of more than 20 people.
Relatives would often call Meenakshi Ammal for help with cooking during festivals or other family gatherings. It was her uncle, K V Krishnaswami Iyer, a well-known lawyer in Chennai, who encouraged her to write the recipes and publish a book for the family members.
“It was meant for circulation within the family. It was a very practical suggestion to help pass on these recipes from one generation to another and also help all those who sought Meenakshi Ammal’s help from time to time. In the course of writing the book, it became larger than what it was intended to be,” says Priya.
Meenakshi Ammal even had to pledge her jewellery to publish the first book!
“In those days, it was uncommon for a widow to do all that Meenakshi Ammal was doing. There were many detractors along the way, but what kept her going was perhaps her passion for food and the unflinching support she got from her uncle. He believed that there was a market for her books.”
The first book was not an instant hit. In those days, there was no marketing and social media. “It was just word-of-mouth that ensured sales. The mass migration of people from Madras (now Chennai) to various parts of India and outside, helped the sales of the book as well,” recounts Priya.
Sharing a sweet memory, Priya says, “During those days, there was no telephone facility either. Young brides used to book trunk calls to speak to Meenakshi Ammal for help in cooking. So in a sense, the book she published came as a boon to many people.”
This one rang home for me, for I had received the book as a gift, as a newly-wed setting up a new life. It taught me that rasam no longer meant just two or three varieties, there were many different kinds.
Meenakshi Ammal passed away at 56 in 1962, so Priya never got to meet her, but everything she knows about the legend is from her father-in-law, who held his mother in high regard.
While she saw the success of the book for ten years after it was published, Meenakshi Ammal would have never imagined the extent of its success–how it made her a household name across generations.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)