With one match left, the current Ashes Test series has already been decided as England has thrashed Australia 3-1. All four matches played so far have been blowouts and yet the series continues to hold interest for many cricket fans, including me. Even now, I exchange daily e-mails with four other fans: two in Pune, one in California and one in New Jersey. Previously, we used to make our predictions about the upcoming test and who should have been selected/ dropped. Now, our e-mails are more about what went wrong with Australia and what the future holds for the Baggy Green.

Why such interest in a Test series where none of us has any rooting interest,  between two sides whom we do not particularly like ?  It is a question I’ve been thinking about recently. While I cannot speak for my e-mail buddies, I think I know the reasons in my case.

The main reason is that Ashes tests usually end in a result. There are comparatively few draws because the pitches and, in England, the weather conditions make for a more even contest between ball and bat. In England, the vagaries of wind and rain combine for a damp atmosphere that favors swing bowlers; in Australia, the super fast pitches are a fast bowlers dream. The team that masters these conditions can pile up big totals but they have to be earned. Even when there are draws, they often occur with one team hanging on for dear life. Compared to other series, you have few matches in which mammoth totals are rung up and it is obvious halfway through the match that it is going to end in a draw.

What I also like about the Ashes is that they usually feature top class fast bowling with both sides often having packs of genuine quicks, not just one. It is thrilling to watch a fast bowler thundering in and hurling 90+ mph ( 145+ kph) thunderbolts at a batsman while seven or eight close in fielders wait to pounce on any chance of a catch. There are moments of rare beauty when a slip fielder launches himself sideways and grabs the ball as it streaks by him. These caught behind dismissals usually occur off fast bowlers and are  treasured by cricket fans. Who can forget Ben Stokes marvelous catch to dismiss Adam Voges in the fourth Test? Or Stephen Smith’s blinder that sent Moen Ali back to the pavilion? The aesthetics, as well as the intimidation factor and hostility in pace bowling, the clatter of the wickets when a paceman breaks through a batsman’s defenses are a treat to watch. No less enthralling are those occasions when a batsman stands tall and survives the early overs before launching his own assault and driving the ball to all corners of the ground. 

There is not nearly the same charm in watching spinners in action, skilled though they may be. I suppose , in all of us, there is an innate attraction to raw power no matter what the sport. That is why I prefer the serve and volley tennis matches at Wimbledon to the interminable rallies on the clay courts of Roland Garros. That is why, in baseball, home run hitters make more money than high percentage contact hitters.  That is why boxing fans are so fixated on heavyweights even though the best boxers, in terms of skill , are in the lower weight divisions. Power and strength above all.

Definitely, the newspaper coverage of the Ashes adds to their appeal for me. British sportswriters are among the best and the cricket coverage in the Manchester Guardian is outstanding. Such a pleasure to read: in-depth, thoughtful , well-informed with touches of playful humor. The  Aussie papers are pretty good too. In other countries, the coverage may be competent and informative but it is not as much fun to read. I find it too dry and humorless, too fixated on results and on the nitty gritty of the action.

My final reason is that Ashes cricket is, or at least it gives the impression that it is, a sport, not a business. As much as the matches are hard-fought. as much as the teams may dislike each other I get the feeling that , at the end of the day, they will meet at the pub to quaff a couple of beers together.  Well. maybe not after this series. And definitely, Joe Root and David Warner together is not a good idea! It is very different in other series, particularly those played on the subcontinent, where one is all too conscious of the money aspect of the game and the attendant sleaze.

I need not mention the history and tradition attached to Ashes cricket. As cricket fans, we are all well aware of the stories and the personalities that are part of this close fought rivalry. It is also amazing that even with one or the other side having been dominant for periods, the series overall is dead even at 32-32, with 5 series drawn. Test cricket elsewhere may be in the doldrums but the Ashes continue to delight. May it continue to be so.

A hundred years ago, eighty years ago, many a young boy dreamed of going away to sea. Harry Grattidge was one such who fulfilled his dream starting his career as a lowly cabin boy and going on to captain both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. Upon his retirement in 1953, he wrote a memoir Captain of the Queens which I read and enjoyed in the Readers Digest Condensed version almost sixty years ago. It was the beginning of my fascination with the RMS Queen Mary, the ship I will always think of as the Queen of the Seas.
People today will not understand my fascination but, before air travel became commonplace in the sixties, ships were the only way to go. The trans-Atlantic voyage between England to America was the most heavily traveled route, the glamor trip. It was a long voyage, 3,450 miles, and speed was an important consideration if travel time was to be minimized. The ship that clocked the fastest average speed on the round trip between Southampton and New York City was said to hold the Blue Riband. For most of the period between 1936 and 1952, the Queen Mary was the proud holder of the Blue Riband attaining a maximum speed of almost 37 mph; her record was only eclipsed in 1952 by the SS United States. But the Queen was much more than a speedy ocean liner; she had an illustrious history.

She was built for the Cunard -White Star line and her construction was subsidized by the British government. The story goes that, while she was still being built, the Cunard directors approached King George V and asked permission to name her after” England’s greatest queen”. Cunard ships had names ending in “..ia” and this ship was to be named for the King’s grandmother, Queen Victoria. However, the King misunderstood. He replied ” My wife will be delighted you are naming the ship after her.” And that is how the ship came to be named the Queen Mary!

In their time, the Queen Mary and her sister ship , the Queen Elizabeth which was constructed a few years later, were undoubtedly the most luxurious, the most glamorous of the ocean liners. Sleek, fast, majestic, offering gourmet dining, dancing to live orchestras, well appointed cabins and first class service they engendered a sense of well- being coupled with awe in their passengers. They also did yeoman service as troopships in the darkest days of World War II. For some reason, the Queen Elizabeth was never accorded the same attention as her older sister; it is always the Queen Mary that people spoke about.

Shortly after America entered the war, it became necessary to shore up British forces against a Nazi invasion. Large numbers of American troops had to be ferried across the Atlantic quickly and the only way to do so was by sea. This is where the two queens came in . Because of their great speed, they were able to evade German submarines and torpedoes. As long as they were moving fast, the troops on board were safe but still it was a gamble. If one of them had the misfortune to run into a sub and be sunk, it would have meant the loss of thousands of troops, an unimaginable catastrophe. There were far too few lifeboats.

I had known that the Queen Mary was used as a troopship but had not known magnitude of the numbers involved. On each voyage, the Queen Mary carried over 14, 000 troops, on one occasion as many as 16,082. All told she made 86 crossings without mishap ( 43 each way) and transported over 600,000 troops to bolster Britain’s defenses. The Queen Elizabeth, presumably, carried a like number. No wonder that Winston Churchill later said that the two ships helped shorten the war by at least a year.

Much has been written about the Queen Mary as a luxury liner, less about her service as a troopship. In his memoir, Big Russ and Me, Tim Russert describes what it was like for the troops packed into the Queen Mary ( his father was one of them). “Berths were stacked six high everywhere, in lounges, function rooms and even in empty swimming pools. The men slept in shifts. They were fed twice a day, also in shifts, and were given only a few minutes to eat. To ease congestion, all pedestrian traffic on board was one way: if you wanted to move forward, you had to keep to the forward side; to move back you used the port side. had to All passengers had to wear life jackets in case they were attacked. There was no smoking, and even chewing gum was forbidden because it was hard to remove from the decks. The weather was rotten and many of the men were seasick.”

The heyday of the queens was from the forties to the late sixties at which time they were both taken out of service. The Queen Mary was turned into a museum in Long Beach CA, and is still berthed there. The Queen Elizabeth was being re-fitted in Hong Kong in 1972 when she was destroyed in a mysterious fire and had to be scrapped. Today, there are new versions of both ships, the Queen Mary2 and the Queen Elizabeth 2, much bigger and even more luxurious than their predecessors but, for me, they do not have the same appeal.

When we went on a trip to California in 1987, I made it a point to visit Long Beach and the Queen Mary. It was everything I hoped it would be but my kids must have wondered what I was so excited about. They , after all, were born after the age of the great ocean liners had passed.

On February 23 2006, the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Mary met for the first and only time. As the Queen Mary 2 entered Long Beach harbor and passed the Queen Mary which was moored there, each ship sounded a whistle to greet and salute the other.

I wish I had been there.

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!

Golden Ripples

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

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