Home Cooking with Savita Nair & John Carroll
TRAVELERS REST. Furman history professor Savita Nair experienced her first American Thanksgiving in college at the home of her then-boyfriend John Carroll, the eldest of seven in a big Irish Catholic family. “It was like something from the movies,” she says. “Everyone coming from all around, Chicago, New York… and gathering for this sit-down turkey dinner. It looked Norman Rockwell.” More than thirty members of John’s family were gathered in his parents’ home in Aiken, South Carolina, where John’s mom cooked the turkey and everyone else contributed a side dish. “I couldn’t believe things like that really happened in the US,” Savita says, the memory still able to evoke a smile.
Eager to contribute to the family she would one day call her own—but still uncomfortable cooking American food—Savita decided to make what she knew. On Thanksgiving Day, the rows of tables offered up a feast of pearled onions, green bean casserole, hand-mashed potatoes and turnips. And there amongst these southern staples: Savita’s spicy coconut shrimp. She couldn’t have predicted the dish would please her brothers-in-law and nephews so much they’d request it the next year and the next, ultimately making coconut shrimp a Thanksgiving tradition for the entire family.
Both Savita and John grew up eating dinners with their entire families. Although she moved to the US when she was four, Savita grew up eating Indian food every night, a time- and energy-intensive tradition in which foods are cooked primarily on the stovetop. When she started cooking for herself in college, she acquired techniques from her Korean roommate. John’s family spent years living in Taiwan and Japan, so he relies on Asian tradition, cooking stir-fries with chopsticks. His grandparents, though, were Irish immigrants. The flavors and traditions of the couple’s native cultures have combined to create a hybrid food culture in the family’s Travelers Rest home that is more than just delicious; it is magical. The family is warm, the kitchen is warm, the food is warm. Today we eat Savita’s famous coconut shrimp; tomorrow night Irish food is on the menu.
Savita and John have many different food tastes and preferences, but the family shares an appreciation for “old world traditions.” The family’s connection to world cultures is apparent even in their middle daughter, whose fingernails are painted with broad green, white, and orange stripes. From one angle, she tells me, they make the Indian flag. With a flip of her wrist, I see: from this new angle, the stripes transform into the Irish flag.
But the magic that seems to happen at the Nair-Carroll dinner table hasn’t always come naturally. Savita tells me about the time she attempted meat loaf and, having never cooked ground beef before, washed the raw meat in a colander in the sink until it fell apart. Another time, John entered the kitchen to find lasagna noodles draped over the backs of chairs as Savita attempted her first lasagna. On his part, John had to grow accustomed to Indian food. “Irish people don’t like spices!” he jokes.
Even these days, in a household with two working parents and two daughters involved in ballet until late in the evenings (one daughter is away at college), cooking at all is a challenge. “I don’t cook at home because it’s convenient. I think cooking at home is a value,” Savita tells me.
I hold up my plate for seconds. She doesn’t have to convince me.