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On the face of it, a chow mein sandwich seems an impossibility. Chow mein is a noodle dish and a sandwich is something between two slices of bread. How can the two be merged ? Well, it seems they can and they have been.

The history of the chow mein sandwich is an interesting one. During the Great Depression, in 1930’s America, some enterprising Chinese American eateries in Fall River, Massachusetts created it to satisfy the needs of hungry, impoverished patrons. The sandwiches – hamburger buns stuffed with crispy noodles, meat and vegetables, all doused with brown gravy – were more filling than regular chow mein and yet cheaper. Workers from the textile mills, students and families flocked to the restaurants for the hefty sandwiches which only cost a nickel. The sandwiches  sometimes came in a hot dog bun, less frequently between two slices of white bread. They were either ” strained ” ( meaning” without vegetables”) or “unstrained”. Patrons who did not like  noodles could order a chop suey sandwich and those who could not make up their minds could ask for a half and half. Usually the sandwiches were consumed with  French fries and a can of orange soda. Sounds perfectly ghastly, doesn’t it ? But as a cheap belly filler, these sandwiches could not be beat. Their popularity spread all over Southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island and even as far as Coney Island in Brooklyn. Even today they are sold in schools and senior citizen centers in the Fall River vicinity though they are less seen elsewhere. One must remember that these sandwiches were invented in the days before McDonalds and Burger King. In addition to being affordable, they had the virtue of portability.

The chow mein sandwich came into being out of economic necessity but the noodle burger was a fad and a short lived one at that. It first saw the light of day in Japan and it consisted of a meat patty between two rounds of crispy ramen noodles. It made the leap across the Pacific and debuted in New York City about four years ago. In it’s heyday, people stood in line for up to two hours to get one and this scene was repeated in Los Angeles. One customer was quoted as saying it was ” the best thing he ever ate” (  some people will like anything trendy! ) but others called it what it was: a novelty that had nothing to recommend it except that it was something new. Nowadays, you don’t hear much about noodle burgers. Their meteoric rise and return to obscurity was to be repeated later by the cronut, that cross between a croissant and a donut. I haven’t heard about cronuts lately. Have you?

A curse on you, tennis gods ! Why couldn’t you have let Roger Federer  have one last moment in the sun? How perfect it would have been if he had won his eighth Wimbledon title and his 18th Grand Slam tournament on his favorite tennis court !!

But it was not to be. Novak Djokovich, the best player in the world the last couple of years, elevated his game and beat Roger Federer in a thrilling four set final that saw some beautiful tennis by both players. Federer matched Djokovich stroke for stroke as they split the first two sets but then faded as Djokovich emerged a deserving winner. Coming on the heels of his emphatic though hard-fought victory over Andy Murray in the semifinals, Roger proved with his performance today that, even at age 33, he is the second best grass court player in the world. Even though he lost, he ( and Novak) gave us some moments of rare beauty for the scrap book of our memories. We could not have asked any more from him.

There is no point in giving yet another stroke- by- stroke re-telling of the match we saw yesterday, one which is still fresh in our minds. Better to remember the at-times thrilling stroke-play, especially that in the first two sets. An inside-out backhand by Federer that left Djokovic standing. Novak rifling a backhand winner off a 126 mph first serve by Roger. Roger threading a down the line winner on the run that had Novak staring in disbelief. Novak running all the way from deep on the forehand side to beyond the other sideline to scoop up and put away a Federer placement that looked like a sure winner. These are the things that I will take away from the match.

To be sure both players committed their share of errors. After all these are human beings , not automatons. Federer was not as decisive as he had been against Murray in the semifinal and his first serve was not clicking the way it had on Friday. Novak too had his bad patches. However, what the armchair critics seem not to understand is that many of the errors were caused by the pressure exerted by their opponent. It is easy for someone to sit at his computer, a person who for all I know has never played competitive tennis, to pontificate about what Federer should have done: That he should have realized that he had no chance against Novak in a baseline duel; that he should have rushed the net more. The truth is that Novak’s returns were so good, his shots so deep that they kept Roger pinned in the back court. Even when Novak’s first serve didn’t click, he mixed up his second serves so well that Roger was unable to take advantage. Time and time again, Novak ran down Roger’s best shots and returned them for winners. How disheartening it must have been for his opponent.

In short, Roger played as well as he was allowed to and it is to his credit that he made the match as close as it was.

After the match, Federer said that he would continue to play on and return for another crack at the Wimbledon title.
Next year, he will be close to 35 and it is difficult to imagine that he will be able to better his performance this year. But Roger is Roger and one can always hope.

Rare is the case when a player retires at the top of his game. Most hang on, trying to squeeze out one more triumph and failing with increasing regularity. It is a painful for their fans to watch yet I was not as upset by Federer’s loss yesterday as I would have been in the past. Partly, it is because of my diminished expectations but it is also that, in the case of Roger Federer, there is much to admire beyond his won- lost record. The beauty of his all-court game. The effortless grace with which he covers the court. The majesty of his one-handed backhand. His impeccable demeanor on and off court. These are the things that I will remember and which I will continue to savor as his career winds down.

Records are meant to be broken and one day his records will be too. Perhaps by Djokovic, perhaps by Nadal or perhaps by some as yet unknown teenager whacking tennis balls on a public court somewhere. It doesn’t matter because, regardless of where Roger Federer is in the standings, he will always be Number 1 with me.

I don’t think anyone gave Garbine Muguruza much of a chance against Serena Williams. How could they? After all, here was a 21 year old playing her first Grand Slam final , her first final of any sort, facing a twenty time Grand Slam winner on Wimbledon’s Center Court. The most we could hope for was a competitive match and some good tennis. That Serena and Garbine certainly delivered.

The match started off auspiciously for Garbine as Serena committed two double faults and gave away the opening game. In Garbine’s initial service game she showed off a powerful first serve and some heavy groundstrokes, particularly on the backhand, to go up 2-0. The next few games went on serve but gradually Serena assumed control. As Garbine’s first serve percentage went down, Serena teed off on the weak second serves and returned them for clear winners. Garbine did show gumption in holding her serve to go up 4-2 but Serena broke her twice and ran out the first set 6-4.

In the second set, Garbine started feeling the pressure and committed several double faults. Her ground strokes, so impressive when the match began, began going awry as she either shanked them or hit them long. To be fair, her mishaps were often the result of stellar play by her opponent. Serena ran down everything that Garbine fired over the net and hammered the ball with authority to the far corners of the court. She was rarely troubled on her own service and , anytime she looked like she might be getting into trouble, she reared back and fired another ace. Some of her serves were clocked at 120 mph and over, almost 15 mph faster than Garbine’s. Before I knew it, Serena had cantered to a 5-1 lead and the center court spectators must have begun thinking of the ride home.

Then came Garbine’s finest moments. With Serena serving for the match, Garbine broke her at love , then won the next two games to climb to 4-5. This period saw the best tennis of the match with both players unleashing some powerful shots. One glorious rally went for 14 strokes. The last game Garbine won was the most pulsating of the match. Serena fell behind love-40 on her serve, fought back to deuce, then saved one more break point before losing the game on the fifth one. However, that was to be the last flicker of Garbine’s resistance as Serena served out the match at love, a deserving winner.

The match proved one more time what we all knew: Even at this late stage of her career, the only one who can beat Serena is Serena herself. She just has too much power for the others to cope with. It is apparent that Safarova, Halep,Wozniacki, Kvitova, Kuznetsova and the other East Europeans are no match for Serena.Even Sharapova, who once looked like a credible opponent, has not been the same since her shoulder injury and has lost seventeen straight to Serena. At least Garbine with her big hitting game holds out the promise of sterner opposition in the future.

For the first time in years, I sat through an entire tennis match – two matches actually- and loved it. As a rabid Roger Federer fan who hopes that the Maestro can make it 18 and 8, I tuned in early to Breakfast at Wimbledon on NBC and was glued to the set for the next five hours.

The Djokovic – Gasquet match was  of only passing interest to most tennis fans, even if those who are not followers of Federer. With Gasquet’s dismal record against the Big Four, I don’t think anyone gave him much of a chance against Djokovic. Never having him seen him play before, I was curious about the man who had beaten Stan Wawrinka in the quarters. He started inauspiciously and was broken early but clawed back to play Djokovic even for most of the first set . Then at 4-4, he muffed a routine overhead that might have led to a break point and never again threatened. He played some lovely flowing backhands but was always under pressure to hold his serve  as Novak ran out the match in straight sets. To be frank, I was left wondering how Gasquet beat Wawrinka in his previous match; it must not have been the same Wawrinka we saw in the final at Roland Garros. I thought Djokovic played well but not spectacularly so. Perhaps he was playing to the level of his opposition.

The second match between Federer and Murray was all that one could ask for in terms of the quality of the tennis. Federer served superbly, attacked relentlessly and moved about the court with his customary fluid grace. Murray matched him shot for shot and uncorked some lovely lobs and passing shots. Both men were going for the lines, running down each others best shots and gradually the rallies lengthened. This was lawn tennis at it’s best, the rapid fire serve and volleying so much more enjoyable than the interminable baseline rallies on clay courts. Curiously, in each of the three sets, Murray held his own for the most part only to be broken late. However, I give him a lot of credit for his fighting spirit , particularly the manner in which he staved off five break points in a single game to hold serve and even the score at 5-5 in the second set. I was concerned that Federer might be disheartened by the chances he had squandered but I need not have worried. Federer said after the match that at this point he was screaming at himself inside but you would never know it from looking at him. He won his next service game at love and immediately broke Murray to go up two sets to none. Murray seemed to come unglued in the middle of the second set, talking to himself and pumping himself up– something he had not done earlier. After the second set, one got the feeling that Federer would not be denied. Murray fought to the end but Federer ruthlessly closed out the match in three hard won sets.

What we saw today was the vintage Roger Federer. It was difficult to believe that he is 33 years old, soon to be 34.There were two points he played today that were absolutely breathtaking. Late in the first set, Murray had him on the run, jerking him from side to side with sharply angled shots. Fed somehow ran them down and got them back. Murray then unleashed a wicked forehand deep to Roger’s forehand only to see him reach it at full stretch and whip a crosscourt forehand that left Murray standing. Even more delectable was a deft backhand he played towards the end of the second set, a wristy last-second flick which went almost parallel to the net and which Murray could only watch in despair.

Sports writers will no doubt remark about the excellence of Federer’s service game today. He got almost three quarters of his first serves in, rifled twenty aces and had Murray on the back foot all day. That he faced only one break point in the entire match is a telling statistic. Whenever he was in trouble, it seemed he was able to reach back and slam another ace. As great as Roger’s serve was, I was equally impressed by his return of serve particularly as the match wore on. Murray served well, his serves usually in the low 120’s and sometimes even 130 or 131; yet, Roger returned them with ease, hitting them early on the rise and giving Murray no respite. All in all , it was a masterly performance.

Based on today’s performances, Federer would have to be the favorite in Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic. Novak did not look nearly as impressive against a lesser player as Federer did against the third seed who was playing in front of his home town crowd. But so slim is the difference between these players that on a given day either one can win.

Federer having made the final, a good friend e-mailed me that he is OK even if Fed doesn’t win on Sunday. I agreed with him but, inside , I was thinking what a shame it would be if that happened … making the final and then losing in probably Federer’s last chance at a major. Surely, the tennis gods would not be that cruel.

Chinese restaurants were few and far between in nineteen-fifties Bombay . There were only about six of them, all at the other end of town. Consequently, going out for Chinese food was a rare treat . Usually we went to the Kamling on P.M Road, sometimes Nanking or Fredericks. Just entering the restaurant and getting a whiff of the smells, so different from those of Indian cooking, was a delight. Even now, the smell of sliced chilies steeped in vinegar takes me back to those days.

We always ordered the same dishes: Egg rolls, Sweet and Sour Pork, Fried Rice, Chicken Chow Mein and Chop Suey. Real Chinese Food !! This was before Szechuan and Hunan cuisines became popular and this was the only Chinese food we knew.

When I came to the States in the late sixties, I ate my share of chow mein. In my student days, most times, it was a can of La Choy or Chun King chow mein quickly heated and poured over hard brown noodles. Gloppy and not particularly tasty, even with generous amounts of soy sauce, but a welcome change from TV dinners of Salisbury steak , meat loaf or fried chicken. Occasionally I sampled the chow mein from Cantonese take-outs; it was better, though still not what I remembered from my Bombay days.

Chop suey , however, had completely disappeared. The Chinese take-outs that dispensed other staples like egg rolls , fried rice and chow mein seemed not to have heard of chop suey. I never once saw it on their menus. It is only recently I found out the history of this dish and the reason for its banishment.

Chop suey is described as ” meat ( chicken, beef, pork or shrimp) and eggs, quickly cooked with vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage and celery and bound in a cornstarch thickened sauce”. There are many versions of its origin. One early account claims that the name is derived from tsap seui which means ” assorted leftovers” in the Taishan dialect spoken in parts of Guangdong province. Most other versions discount the Chinese origins of chop suey and claim that it is actually a Chinese American dish. One version says that it was invented by Chinese American cooks working on the trans-continental railroad in the 19th century. Another says that it was invented by a Chinese cook to satisfy a bunch of drunken miners who descended on his restaurant after hours and demanded to be served. He was out of food and,to avoid being beaten up, he stir fried some left over meat with vegetables and a sauce that he concocted. The diners loved the dish and asked for its name. ‘ Chopped suey ( chopped leftovers)”, he replied. They turned up again the next night and the next and demanded chop suey and thus was born the most popular Chinese dish of the early 20th century.( Isn’t the story very similar to the genesis of Chicken Tikka Masala in England or Buffalo Chicken Wings in upstate New York?) So popular did the dish become that many restaurants had neon signs advertising chop suey and the name even made into the lyrics of popular songs. While there can be no definitive opinion about the origins of chop suey, it seems more likely than not that it did originate in America , not China.

Around the nineteen sixties, chop suey fell out of favor with Americans because of it’s dubious authenticity; they wanted real Chinese food, not a Chinese – American hybrid. A decade later, Szechuan and Hunan cuisines took America by storm as American taste buds woke up. Cantonese food fell out of favor and chop suey disappeared from Chinese restaurant menus.

What now puzzles me is the connection between chop suey and chow mein. The latter’s name is reputedly derived from chau meing or fried noodles but the ingredients of both dishes are strikingly similar. Reading articles to define the differences between the two only leads to confusion. For instance, one article I read states that chop suey is always served with rice , never with noodles. The next article that I see contains a chop suey recipe that calls for ” one cup chow mein noodles”. Go figure! The only differences I have been able to pinpoint are that chow mein originated in China and it is a blander dish than chop suey. Luckily, there are plenty of recipes for both dishes on the internet and I will be cooking ( and eating) both dishes in the very near future.

One dish I will not be making is American Chop suey which is defined as ” elbow macaroni, cooked ground beef, sautéed onions and green peppers in a thick tomato sauce; a dish prepared in a fry pan rather than baked in an oven.” Ugh!

Recently, the toilets in our house stopped up. Rodding didn’t get rid of the blockage and I had to call in a local drain cleaning service. The technician came , “snaked” the drain line for a length of fifty feet and appeared to have solved the problem. The toilets were once again flushing properly which was a big relief.

“What was the problem and how do we prevent it from happening again?”, we asked. Well , according to him, it might have been caused by the cleaning lady dumping  disposable wipes in the toilet. Even though they are marked ” disposable”, they really are not, he told us.

It seemed like a reasonable explanation.

Three days later, the toilet stopped up again.

Unable to get the cleaning service to return our calls and fed up with waiting we rang up Roto Rooter. Their technician showed up when scheduled, took his time analyzing the problem, and told us the probable cause. He also guaranteed his work for six months. We agreed to the price ( it wasn’t cheap) and he proceeded to clear the blockage. The probe that he used had a camera attachment and we could clearly see that the line had been cleared of all obstructions. So far, ten days later, everything appears to be OK.

His explanation for the blockage is very interesting and illustrates how new problems crop up as we  avail ourselves of modern conveniences. Nowadays, most everyone uses two ply toilet tissue ( Charmin, Quilted Northern etc) and that is the root cause of most blockages because the modern water saver toilets use so much less water than the old ones did. Fifty years ago, toilets used 7 gallons per flush. This was reduced to 3.5 gallons/ flush and then to 1.6 gallons/ flush about twenty five years ago. With so little water being used , there is not enough to sweep the toilet paper away. The water drains off but leaves the toilet paper behind. Compounding the problem are modern house designs, particularly Active Adult ( or Senior Citizen) dwellings  which usually do not have basements and have multiple toilets on the first floor. The waste lines from these toilets are connected with horizontal pipe runs that often have several bends in them. When the toilet is flushed, the waste and the water quickly flow away but the toilet paper tends to clump up, particularly at the bends. So , to summarize… thicker toilet paper clumps up more easily and degrades more slowly and modern house designs with their horizontal runs of pipe at the first floor worsen the problem.

If you want to avoid a similar problem, this is what you are advised to do:   1) Make sure that the cleaning lady doesn’t throw disposable wipes down the toilet. 2) Use one -ply toilet tissue if possible but, whether it’s one-ply or two-ply, use as little as possible. 3) Once every month or two, use a preventive maintenance treatment such as Pipe Shield. Not only does it prevent build-ups by digesting grease and other fats, it  gives the drain pipes a protective coating.

In developing countries,  most people use water to cleanse themselves; toilet paper is an undreamt of luxury. And in ultra-modern societies like Japan, the toilets have a built in device that squirts water onto your nether parts so that you can clean yourself.

Sometimes, what is old becomes new again…

In Akira Kurosawa’s 1965 movie Redbeard, Toshiro Mifune plays the eccentric Dr. Niide ( Redbeard) who runs a charity hospital for the poor in nineteenth century Japan. At  the beginning of the movie, Noburu Yasumoto , a newly minted medical graduate reluctantly joins the hospital as an intern. A bookish, arrogant sort, he would rather have waited for an appointment as a doctor at the royal court  by virtue of his connections. However, his family feels that working with Red Beard will benefit him and help him forget the sting of having been jilted; his fiancée broke off their engagement and married another man. At Red Beard’s hospital, young Yasumoto is transformed as he helps tend to a horde of poor patients; he realizes  that medicine  means interacting with the sick, that it is not just a career path. Towards the end of the movie, his ex-fiancée comes to seek his forgiveness but , as she kneels down before him, he sees not the girl who jilted him but the mother of a sick child; he at once enquires how her child is doing. Without being told, the viewer understands that Yasumoto’s transformation is complete; he now understands what being a doctor really means.

That, to me, is an example of the film-maker’s art.

Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is now regarded as a masterpiece but it is a miracle, first that it got made and, then, that it was recognized as a masterwork. Before he made Pather Panchali, Ray had never directed a film, his cameraman had never used a video camera and  there was great difficulty financing the film. Somehow, Pather Panchali wound up as India’s entry at the Cannes film festival of 1956. Because of the low quality of Indian films, only the French member of the judging committee attended the screening. So impressed was he that he insisted on it being rescreened and that his fellow committee members watch it. The rest is history; Pather Panchali won the Palme D’Or and went on to garner awards at Edinburgh, Vancouver and San Francisco.

What is its appeal? on the face of it, this story about a poor Bengali villager, Harihar, and his family ( wife Sarbajaya, daughter Durga and son Apu) should not appeal to audiences worldwide. The poverty it depicts is heart-wrenching, the events almost uniformly depressing. In the film’s climactic sequence, Harihar returns to the  village after having earned some money in the big city but is puzzled by his wife’s strange behavior. Unbeknownst to him, while he was away, his daughter Durga, the apple of his eye, has died of a fever that she caught when she was drenched in a sudden thunderstorm. He calls out to his children as he opens his metal trunk and pulls out a sari which he has bought as a present for Durga. At this, his wife who has been wondering how to break the news of Durga’s death bursts into sobs and falls to the floor. Harihar ,when he understands what has happened, lets out a wordless howl and collapses beside her. Watching this scene is like a punch in the gut. The film also has moments of great beauty as the camera follows Durga and Apu around the village. In one memorable sequence, the two children follow a sweet seller, irresistibly attracted to his wares which they cannot afford and are trailed by a stray dog. The whole procession is reflected in a roadside pond. In another, the children run through a field of waving grasses to catch a glimpse of a railway train, a symbol for the mysterious world beyond their limited everyday lives. And at the end, when Harihar packs his family and meagre belongings into an oxcart and departs the village, the last we see of them is a swaying lantern in the back of the cart, perhaps a harbinger of their hope for the future. In its lyricism and universal appeal , Pather Panchali transcends the barriers of geography, culture and time to tug at the heartstrings of moviegoers worldwide.

This, to me, is the film-maker’s art.

I started thinking about this topic after I saw Hitchcock’s ” Vertigo” last week. It too was a groundbreaker in its time and Hitchcock introduced many innovative techniques in filming it. However, one thing about it that turned me off is its heavy use of symbols and hidden meanings, many of them  obscure. For instance , ” Tunnels and corridors repeatedly represent the passage to death. The first tunnel image appears when the camera reveals Scottie’s perspective as he clings to the rooftop gutter. The camera pans straight down the side of the building, creating a tunnel effect. While visiting the sequoia forest, Madeleine shares a recurring dream in which she walks down a long corridor. Nothing but darkness and death await her there. She also dreams of a corridor like open grave. When Midge walks away from Scottie for the last time, it is down a long corridor that darkens around her. The passage marks a kind of death for Midge as she loses all hope of re-kindling her romance with Scottie.” This may be fascinating stuff  for movie buffs but for ordinary viewers like me it is a big yawn. It is too clever by far and seems as if the director is saying ” Let’s see if you get this, you dummies”.

Art, whether it is cinema or painting or something else, should immediately strike a chord with viewers. Real art, in my opinion, doesn’t need multiple viewings or a critic to explain it.  Real art does not make things  complicated or obscure. It  makes things appear natural and simple  and audiences connect with it effortlessly. Or so I feel…

Golden Ripples

About Food, Travel, Sports , Books and other fun things

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A journey through 47 prefectures to capture the stories of Japan's farmers and rural communities

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