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About Veronica Sidhu

When Roma Kaur of Kaurs, a new magazine for Sikh women, contacted me to do a six page spread on my culinary life  with my mother-in-law, Bebeji Jagdish Kaur because, “women can inspire more women in the family,” it was a confirmation of all that had transpired in my life to that point. It was a tribute to all the talented women who had been my role models.

My two grandmothers were my earliest culinary teachers. Both from Mittel European heritage (Germany and Hungary) with some signature dishes in common -– delicious soups and dumplings, wilted lettuce and cucumber salads.  But my Grandma Veronica was the gifted pastry maker. She made heavenly strudel with paper- thin dough, nuts and home-made cheese –- with milk from her own cow!
 
Having joined a very strict Catholic missionary convent when I was only fourteen, I was taught by very dedicated, inspiring women. But when an injury sustained in a diving accident sidelined me from the formal Catholic religious life, there was much work in store for me in another religion. I met my future husband, a Sikh, in a little town in Michigan while I was recovering. It is a wonderful story of kismet (fate) that I tell in the first vignette of the book, and I was eventually propelled into a totally different world  
 
I had always loved to cook, even at an early age, duplicating the recipes I found in magazines. Some of them were not always well received by my family, especially Chicken with Cherries and Molasses Chew Chews; and they let me know about them for years! But my cooking was greatly appreciated at the University of Michigan, where I not only prepared food for the women who lived in our co-op and for the boarders, (my future husband was a boarder), but I quickly became the steward in charge of all the meal planning and buying of food for forty hungry students.

After three years of marriage, my husband, (who was an only child) and I had saved enough money to migrate to India to care for his mother who was a widow. By that time we had a son who was nearly two. There, in Punjab, I watched my mother-in-law and other women cook over cotton-stick, charcoal, or dung fires and the occasional hot plate depending on whether we were in the village or the city. They were all gifted cooks and produced truly memorable food. I learned from professionals in the homes of the wealthy and watched the sweet makers, all men as I recall, produce the stuff of childhood dreams. The memory of the simple village meals and fragrant dishes from the open-air dhabas and vendors in the bazaar are still tickling my taste buds. All of these wonderful scenes and those tasty dishes I try to capture in my recipes and stories.


Bebeji in 1990

When we returned with my mother-in-law to the USA, where our two daughters were born, she and I began working every day in our kitchen together, a collaboration that would continue for thirty years. We called her Bebeji (mother) as did the entire congregation that formed around her. She was an unusually strong woman, deeply spiritual, who went, in one lifetime, from being a village bride with an elementary education and veiled from head to toe, to jetting across continents.

We were one of a handful of families who began to organize the first Sikh community in New Jersey, and the first temple. During those thirty years, I not only learned the Punjabi language, but also learned dishes from other Punjabi women, learning to cook Indian food in large quantities for the free community meal every Sunday and to prepare meals quickly and efficiently for the hundreds of guests we would entertain over the years.
         
The education of children was dear to my heart as Director of Counseling for a public high school and as a teacher in our temple. With Mrs. Surinder K. Puar teaching shabad/kirtan (music) and Mrs. Surindra K. Dhaliwal teaching the youngest children, we founded the first Sikh children’s education program in New Jersey. I taught a course I called “Living Sikh Religion and History” every Sunday to a variety of age groups for twenty years, making up my own materials since there were none available. My husband and I also developed the first summer camps for Sikh children in New Jersey. My husband was busy as well, raising funds for the first gurudwara (Sikh temple) building and was the president of the congregation when the first hall was built. Our own three children have married wonderful spouses and the family has grown by leaps and bounds with two amazing sets of twins and two wonderful teens. We are so grateful to God for the life given to us.

But no life is without suffering as Gautama Buddha realized long ago. The cookbook was born from tragedy. Our grandson, Bennett Singh, who was not quite five, died in 2002 suddenly from what we would later discover to be a rare immune disorder, CGD. A friend suggested to my daughter that a project – a new playground where our kids went to elementary school - would be a lovely memorial to him. We thought so too and we threw ourselves into fundraising while concurrently going into grief counseling. I desperately needed some glue to hold my body and mind together while my soul tried to not fall into the ever-present pit of grief. I thought it would be a good mental and physical discipline for me to teach Indian cooking. I had not written down any recipes in all thirty years of cooking, so I began to standardize them for my children and for a class of six plus my husband and myself. It took several months to get five menus together with standardized recipes and then I taught all five menus consecutively in one week in my own kitchen.
    
I don’t remember exactly when we learned that there was enough money for the playground, but when we did, I was enjoying the process of developing recipes and menus and teaching the classes so much that my husband and I decided I should continue. We began a scholarship fund in Benny’s memory. From our own seed money and that of our generous niece, Beth, and the contributions of many other family and friends, we have already been able to distribute over $26,000 to gifted, deserving students for academic summer programs. The students hail mainly from the school where I was a counselor before my retirement. All proceeds from the cooking classes have gone into the fund. We are hoping to expand our own ability to give to a new project through the sales of the cookbook and through the generous donations of those who feel moved to give.

So many guests who have tasted the food in the cooking classes said I should develop a cookbook. So here I am with you, on the brink of a new and exciting chapter in my life. My spirit feels quite young, as if all the work gone before is just a beginning. And I hope to share this adventure with you.

Here are two pictures of me during the only time in my life I did NOT cook!


Left: My family—mother Margaret, sister Catherine, father Nandor and brother Edward.  Right: From my convent days at Holy Ghost (now Holy Spirit) Convent in Techny, Illinois: my dear mentor, Sister Theresine, S. Sp. S. and me dressed as her patron saint, Theresa of the Little Flower. Happy Days!


 

 
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