Meena Harris on Ambition in the Kitchen and BeyondThe Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Meena Harris is a lawyer, author, mother of two, and the founder and CEO of Phenomenal. We teamed up with Meena on the second drop in our limited-edition Party Towel series — we hope these towels remind you of your power, in and out of the kitchen. We sat down with Meena to talk about the collaboration and her journey to the perfect steak.
My family has a real love for food, and my earliest cooking memories are with my grandmother. She was an extremely talented cook and created an environment in which I was exposed to lots of different cuisines. She was Indian and cooked South Indian dishes, but she also cooked American foods. Mrs. Shelton — her neighbor and friend — taught her a lot of Cajun cooking. Another of her best friends was Jewish, so my Indian grandmother also learned to make matzo-ball soup for us. My mom, my aunt, and I all use her recipes and borrow from her to this day. I really learned to love food and to show love through food from her.
I really learned to love food and to show love through food from her.
There were so many dishes I got excited about as a kid. I loved my grandmother’s Indian dishes, like vatha kuzhambu (a spicy dish with tamarind) or pulikachal rice (tamarind rice). Definitely her spaghetti — it’s so basic, but I would look forward to it. I’ve actually replicated her sauce, which she always made from scratch. Lots of tomatoes and garlic, and you let it simmer on the stove for hours. My mom was a single mom who was often just trying to get dinner on the table and couldn’t do that kind of cooking every day. A lot of people are in that situation — we put a lot of pressure on ourselves as parents. There’s definitely an in-between for me.
My mom, my aunt, and I all use her recipes and borrow from her to this day.
On the one hand, I have a desire to expose my kids to lots of different foods and food cultures in the way my grandmother did. The process of doing that is fun for me and very creative, but it’s not something I’m able to do every day. I’ve learned that, once you get the hang of certain dishes, it gets easier. I enjoy exploring new stuff, and when I find dishes I really like, I make them on repeat and they become my go-tos. I had wanted to dedicate Sundays as a cooking day, and I've made good on that many times. At the same time, I'm building a business, and sometimes it turns into a workday. It’s always a balance of trying to take care of your family, do what you love, and find those moments for self-care that I think all of us struggle with juggling.
I’ve learned that, once you get the hang of certain dishes, it gets easier.
Nik (my partner) is really a routines guy, so during the week Tuesday is tacos, Friday is pizza, and Monday is chicken. That’s very helpful, and it’s such a Nik thing. Part of it is that he has those down. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Oh, maybe I can give you other Mexican recipes to expand on,” but he’s like, “Nope, I’ve got this.” Again, we’re all juggling so much, so you’ve got to do what works for you.
Nik is a full-time dad right now, so that is definitely disrupting gender norms. He also likes cooking, but when it’s around child care you have to find what’s convenient to make it all work. I think it’s great that they see both of us cooking and recognize that. One day, my oldest daughter was like, “Daddy, you’re a good cook, but Mommy is even better,” and I tried so hard not to react, but I just sat there like, “This is the best moment of my life.” She, in particular, really loves cooking. She’s been coming up with her own recipes, and we've been encouraging that. She’ll be like, “What about this and this and that together?” and we’re like, “Oh, that sounds interesting.”
I think it’s great that they see both of us cooking and recognize that.
Steaks were a huge pandemic discovery and experience for me. One of my good friends, who is a very thoughtful gifter, sent me a box of meat, completely unannounced, early on in lockdown. It was from Cream Co. Meats, which pivoted from restaurant distribution to direct-to-consumer during the pandemic. So I had this box, and I had to figure out how to make this meat.
I started making these steaks, and one of my foodie friends coached me through the cooking technique via Instagram DMs. I’ve got it down to a science, and my steaks are so good. Everyone has their own techniques, but this works for me. It’s been a big journey. Unless I’m cooking for other guests, we usually just sit around the counter and all eat from the pan once it’s ready. I love them hot and straight off the stove.
We usually just sit around the counter and all eat from the pan.
With Party Towel, there was the idea of asserting yourself in the kitchen and subverting the gender norm that women have to cook into something that is empowering, creative, ambitious, fun, or whatever it means to you — it’s on your terms. It’s about unapologetically proclaiming and not hiding your ambitions, your passions, your identity, and the things that make you happy. Being bold and being bold about using your voice was definitely part of the inspiration.
Whatever cooking means to you — it’s on your terms.
I hope that when people see the towels they feel a sense of purpose and that it inspires a real love for cooking as creative self-care, rather than just a chore or something you have to get done. I hope it reminds people that there’s power in that and that this can be a reminder in your kitchen that cooking can make you feel good and fulfilled.