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“They Say” that the French are small minded xenophobes who hate those who don’t speak French, that they are stingy and ungrateful and altogether despicable.

Scene I.  It is 1977 and my wife and I are in Paris on a vacation. We are in a Metro station trying to figure out the ticket vending machine and we are failing badly. Next to us is an elderly Frenchwoman, a grandmotherly type in a shapeless dress, who has no such problems. Hesitantly, I approach her, a French banknote in hand and, in my broken French, explain my problem. She responds in rapid fire French which of course I don’t understand. Shaking her head, she reaches into her copious handbag, pulls out some coins and feeds them into the vending machine. It spits out two tickets which she hands over to me. I am grateful and extend the banknote to her in payment. At least I try to. She waves me away, as if offended, and scurries away. I follow her trying to get her take the money but she is adamant. Mind you this is not a rich woman. From her appearance, she appears to be an old age pensioner. Yet, she helps out a stranger with her hard earned money. Forty years later, I am still humbled by her gesture.

“They say” that New Yorkers are the worst. That they are rude, obnoxious and heartless with no time for anyone but themselves.

Scene 2. A packed E train during the morning rush hour. People are packed in like sardines. Suddenly, a childish voice pipes up. “Mommy, I HAVE to go.” It is a five year old boy, his face scrunched up in discomfort. His mother shushes him, saying “One moment.” She pulls out a half full bottle of water, quickly gulps it down. She unzips his pants and holds the bottle while he does his business shielding him from the public gaze. Not that she needs to. The people next to them look away and give them privacy. The child finishes his business, the mother zips him up and caps the bottle. Another passenger hands her a tissue to wipe her hands and yet another gives her a plastic bag to put the bottle in. All this without a word being exchanged except for murmured “Thank you’s” and “You’re Welcome.”

What did I tell you about New Yorkers…

“They say” that the poor are lazy bums who prefer to walk the streets rather than do an honest day’s work. That most of them are alcoholics or drug addicts in search of their next fix, their next drink.

Scene 3. (The Final Scene). Circa 1982. Late evening. A woman in a NYC apartment receives a phone call. A male voice she does not recognize asks, “Is this JoAnne?” Hesitantly, she replies,“ Yes. Who is this?” The man continues, “Listen. You simply have to make up with Bill.  If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. He truly loves you.” Mystified, and a little angry, she demands” Who IS this? Are you one of Bill’s friends? Did he put you up to this because he didn’t have the guts to call himself?” The man doesn’t answer the question but continues to plead Bill’s case saying she will never find anyone else so well suited to her, who loves her so much. By now, Joanne has had it. She snaps, “If you don’t tell me who you are … right now… I am going to hang up.” At this, the man comes clean. He is a homeless man who had been rooting through a dumpster looking for food when  he came across a bundle of love letters that Bill had written to Joanne and which she had thrown away when they broke up. What is remarkable is what this man says next. He says “ I would have called sooner but I didn’t have the money for the phone call.” Imagine that. This homeless man who didn’t know where his next meal was coming from was willing to spend his last dime to help a stranger.

So this is what I think …

Generalizations are wrong. People are individuals first and last. Fifteen year old Anne Frank wrote in her diary,” I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

Can we believe any different?

( The first story happened to my wife and me as described. The second is a recent one from the N.Y. Times; so is the third, dimly remembered from almost forty years ago.)

 

 

 

 

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“You really have to try this.”

“No way. Absolutely not. You know I don’t eat fish.” I reply.

“Try it just once. You’ll love it. Just once and you will be hooked.”

I tried it. Then I tried it again. And yes, soon I was hooked on sushi.

I think my experience parallels that of many other Americans. In the early eighties, most people confronted with sushi had the same reaction “Raw fish …Ugh!” That perception changed steadily over the years and now there are sushi restaurants in even the smaller towns in N.J.

What is it that I like about sushi? It’s everything… the aesthetics, the textures, the variety, the taste and, something I find amazing when I think about it… it does not smell like raw fish.

When Shula and I go to a sushi restaurant, I like to get a table that allows me to watch the sushi chef work his magic. Such a pleasure to observe an expert at work and, believe me, these chefs are experts. I am entranced as he selects the prime cuts of fish or seafood, the sureness of his hands and his motions as he slices it , lays it and the other ingredients on a bed of rice on a sushi mat, then rolls the whole, firms it up and slices it into six rolls. Other times, he molds the rice into an oblong and carefully tops it with a thin slice of fish or clam or a piece of shrimp. Once he has prepared our order, the sushi are placed with a mound of pickled ginger and a little wasabi on a distinctive rectangular plate with upturned corners. It is brought to our table and we revel in the different shapes and colors.

I pour some soy sauce into the little rectangular saucer, mix in a little wasabi and I’m ready for my sushi experience. A delicious moment of indecision and anticipation… which one shall I try first? Finally I make my choice. I top it with some pickled ginger, dip it in the wasabi-soy sauce mixture and pop it into my mouth. Sheer bliss as I savor the taste and the texture, the coolness of the fish, the faintly vinegar tang and firmness of the rice. I try to make my mouthful last but, alas, all too soon, it is gone and I am reaching for another piece of sushi, a different one, and another and another. At the end of the meal, when every last piece has disappeared, we are content, sated but not stuffed.

I do not want to give the impression that I am a connoisseur of sushi. Far from it. A true  connoisseur would be horrified to see me in action. For instance, I use too much soy sauce. Instead of dabbing it on the fish, I dunk the bottom of the roll, the rice part, in the soy sauce. Positively barbaric! I will also eat only some types of sushi. I stay away from the stronger tasting types of fish such as mackerel though I am trying to expand my range. I once read a piece on the proper way to eat sushi. It was by Ruth Reichl, the one- time NYT food critic and editor of Gourmet magazine, and it was a revelation. I became painfully aware that my palate is not sufficiently refined to appreciate the finer nuances of sushi. And it never will be, either. I was happy however to find that the proper way to eat sushi is with the fingers. Great news for one who has never mastered the art of eating with chopsticks.

Sushi anyone?

 

A woman in her forties walked up to the library help desk and asked for help finding true-crime books. She was tired of reading mysteries and detective novels, she said, and wanted to try something different, non-fiction rather than fiction. The librarian gave her the names of some authors in the true-crime genre and showed her where the books were located in the stacks.

A few months later, she told the librarian how the switch had affected her reading habits.Each night, she said, she would climb into bed with a true crime book and  a bowl of popcorn and read for about forty five minutes, then hop out of bed and make sure that all the windows and doors were locked before going back to sleep. All those years she had been reading detective novels she had never been worried about her safety but now she was overcome with fears that some degenerate killer might break into the house and assault her.

But she continued to read true- crime books.

Which begs the question… Why do we like being scared? What is the attraction that scary books , and movies, have for us? Why do we go bungee jumping or ride on roller coasters?

As for coasters or bungee jumping, it’s to ” prove” ourselves, to show that we are brave,  unafraid to do things that others can’t bring themselves to do. Ditto for scary movies, which we see in the company of others. But books? Reading is a solitary activity. No one knows (or is interested in knowing) what we read. there is no question of impressing others. Those who read books that scare them probably do so because they like the feeling. For the life of me, I can’t understand why.

 

I am not a fan of cocktails. Give me a beer or a scotch any day. But there are certain times when a cocktail seems called for. On my birthday last October, I was treated to a lunch at Junoon, a Michelin starred Indian  restaurant in New York. It was a memorable meal from appetizers to desserts and it got off to a great start with the amazing cocktail menu. My wife had the  East India Gin Tonic ( Bombay Sapphire East gin, St.Germain, Pavan, fresh juniper berries, paan leaf and house made Junoon tonic). It was served in an outsize balloon glass with a huge paan  (betel) leaf half immersed in it . Another good choice that day was the Adraki ( ginger) punch made with fig infused vodka, lemon, grapefruit juice and honey ginger syrup. The long list of cocktails also included several named for Game of Thrones characters — Arya Stark, Lannister, Kings Landing and Jon Snow. The rest of the cocktail menu had some wonderful sounding drinks with decidedly unusual ingredients… Saffron infused maraschino liquer, jalapeno maple syrup, cinnamon orange bitters and spice smoke. They sounded interesting and, when presented at the table with a flourish, I can see how they might seem irresistible.

In the past, Indian restaurants have not been known for their drinks menu. Beer goes best with Indian food and that is what most Indians are accustomed to ordering, when they do drink alcohol. Most of the time they are content with lassi or with soft drinks. However, as Indian food has become more popular with mainstream Americans , Indian chefs have come up with ” designer” cocktails to appeal to their new clientele. Floyd Cardoz, the chef at the now defunct Tabla,was probably the first to do so. At Tabla and at his more recent ventures, Cardoz has had cross- cultural creations such as Mumbai Mule, Tamarind Margarita, Watermelon Mojito and  Kachumber Cooler. Kachumber is the name for shredded cucumber salad and the Kachumber Cooler is made by muddling cucumber with green chilly, pepper and cilantro with a gin base and straining the mix into a cocktail glass. Innovative, yes?

What started me on this subject (Exotic Indian cocktails) was something I came across when writing my last post on Blends, Single Malts and Monkey Shoulder. Specifically, it was an ad for Monkey Shoulder which claimed that the experience of drinking it was like “ Riding bare-back on the wild moors of Scotland with a flame haired maiden on Christmas morning.” WOW!

That over-the-top description reminded me of a drink that Floyd Cardoz used to serve many years ago at Tabla. I can’t remember the details but I think it involved flavored vodka,  ginger syrup, champagne and some sort of seeds ( I don’t think they were pomegranate seeds; they would have to be something lighter, perhaps subza, basil seeds). The bubbles from the freshly poured champagne would carry the seeds to the top before bursting and letting them sink to the bottom; more bubbles would then repeat the process, a mesmerizing effect.. One woman who sampled the drink wrote that it “ made her want to set her hair on fire, rip off her clothes and run stark naked down Madison Avenue.”

Now, THAT’ S what I call a real drink !

 

 

Last week, at the monthly Men’s Club meeting in our Active Adult development, we had a Spirits Tasting. A local liquor shop made a short presentation on different types of Scotch and Bourbon and then offered tastes of six different liquors with a commentary on each. I have been to wine tastings before but this was something new to me. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event and also very educational. I learned that I do not have a discerning palate when it comes to liquor!

Like most Indian Americans who came to America in the sixties or seventies, I gravitated towards Scotch because it was the fashionable thing to do. Everyone in my circle was drinking scotch ( some with lots of club soda, a few  with ginger ale!) and I did too. At the time, all we knew was the blended variety and I quickly settled on J&B. No particular reason. It was one of the popular brands at the time. Later, I switched to Johnny Walker Red ( Black, when I could afford it). Still later, under the influence of my brother-in-law, I switched allegiance to single malts. He was (and is) a McCallan man, but I had no particular favorites. I tried a different one each time. Sometimes I chose a single malt because I liked the description on the label, or I liked the name or , very often, because it was on sale. I learnt to appreciate smoothness in a whisky and I knew that I did not like a very strong peaty flavor but beyond that I did not ( and still do not) know much about scotch. It is fun though to share a single malt with friends and listen to them expound on the merits of a particular distillery. I like hearing about the history of scotch but don’t really have the refined taste of a discerning drinker.

At the Men’s Club tasting, we were each given a glass and each table of six was supplied with little bottles with an eye dropper. The dropper was to be used to add a couple of drops of water (no more) to the liquor before we sampled it. The common wisdom is that adding a little water helps release the flavors, ice on the other hand condenses them. Ice also has the disadvantage of diluting the drink as it melts and thus impairing its consistency.

One by one, we were given a small amount of liquor to taste, six different liquors in all. We started out with a Scotch and a bourbon, then a rye, then two single malts and Monkey Shoulder. I passed on the Monkey Shoulder and one of the scotch varieties because I’d already tasted them and because I have to watch my intake of liquor ( mild medical condition). In between, we munched on potato chips and pretzels to cleanse the palate. To be frank, I couldn’t detect the hints of pecan, or cherry or apricot or whatever that distinguished one brand from another. I did detect the difference in one particular single malt that had been aged in barrels used previously to store rum. It was fun.

Which brings me to Monkey Shoulder, a blend of three different Speyside single malts, (Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kinnivie),  all of them between six and eight years old. The name derives from a condition common in distillery workers who had to constantly shovel mounds of barley to turn them over. The repetitive motions caused them to have one shoulder lower than the other, hence Monkey Shoulder. It is described in the advertising as having a zesty orange marmalade flavor with hints of mellow vanilla, honey and spiced oak. ( What is spiced oak?). It is also claimed to have a super smooth finish, ” 007 in a tuxedo wetsuit” according to the ad. I couldn’t taste any of the flavors (maybe I haven’t drunk enough Monkey Shoulder) but I will agree that this is a very smooth scotch. I can see myself buying more of it in the future. I don’t understand how Monkey Shoulder is different from blends like Johnny Walker ( after all, this too is a blend) but I love the name, I like the smoothness…. and it is half the price of Oban.

When it comes to the division of labor between married couples, the task of cooking almost always falls to the lot of the wife. With rare exceptions, it is she who is the better cook and, besides, ” it’s in her job description”. Men, when they do cook, only do so occasionally to provide much needed relief from the daily grind of planning and preparing meals. It is only summer barbecues that are their domain.

Retirement brings big changes. After 40 or more years of cooking daily meals, women are understandably tired, and bored.  Cooking for just two seems an unnecessary burden. So much easier to eat out. Many of the couples in our Active Adult community do just that, eating out almost every day. Not my wife and me. While we do eat out more often than we used to, we still eat at home (or at friend’s homes) 90% of the time. Eating out is great, but not on a regular basis. Nothing to beat home-cooked food.

It helps that we both like to cook. My wife is an excellent cook in many different cuisines and I am not bad though my repertoire is more limited and I have to have a recipe to refer to. Since I don’t cook as much, I’ve never developed the familiarity with dishes that women cooks or housewives do. I mostly cook Chinese, Thai and other Asian dishes and always like to try out different things. In the kitchen nowadays , my wife and I have become an effective team. I do the  prepping -washing, paring, cutting and chopping; she does all the cooking. In other words, I am the garde manger, she is the chef. It works out well though there are still some problems.

The biggest is cooking for just two people. We get around that by cooking for four and freezing the leftovers for another meal. However, when it comes to cooking Chinese or Thai food, that is not an option because the food has to be eaten piping hot and immediately; it just does not taste the same when reheated. Also, when one cooks in small quantities, the specialty ingredients are used up at a very slow rate  and remain in the pantry for ever. Sauces and bottled ingredients have to be refrigerated and that too is a problem now that we have only one refrigerator. There is just not enough space to save condiments and sauces that are used only rarely. Right now,I have a bottle of fish sauce and another of shrimp paste that I will have to junk because they are well past their use-by date.

Having friends over for dinner has its own set of problems. People have all sorts of restrictions on what they can eat and the list seems to grow longer and longer. It used to be that people were either vegetarians or non -vegetarians. Now there are sub-divisions in both categories.  I have non-vegetarian friends who will eat only chicken, others who eat only shrimp and fish. Furthermore, as people age, they develop allergies to certain foods and they also give up other foods voluntarily. Some vegetarian friends are allergic to green peppers and cabbage, others do not like yoghurt and still others have to stay away from cloves. It’s difficult to keep all this in mind when putting together a guest list. Consequently, we usually have potluck dinners to cope with this problem.

Because of all these obstacles I have not been cooking much myself.  In the last three months, I think I have cooked Chinese food perhaps four times. Not nearly enough. I find myself chafing at the bit to start up again. Once in a while, I want to be the chef, not the prep cook.  I think I’ve hit upon a plan to resolve the problem of cooking cuisines with specialty ingredients. One part of the plan is to cook those cuisines which do require few such ingredients. Greek and Turkish food comes readily to mind and, with spring around the corner, they are ideal for the season. The second part of my plan is to concentrate on one cuisine at a time so that I can use up the ingredients required for it in several dishes spread over a month. Less demand on storage space and no wastage.

This has an additional benefit.Recently, our go -to Japanese restaurant closed down without warning when the owners decided to return to Japan. The other neighborhood Japanese restaurant that we like is too expensive. How great would it be to cook Japanese at home ! Not sushi or sashimi, of course but dishes like oyako- donburi, pork tonkatsu, miso chicken thighs with a side of tiger salad ( scallions& cilantro salad with  ponzu dressing) or shoyu-ramen. I can hardly wait !

Taystee

Until four years ago, we were living in Edison NJ and making frequent pilgrimages to the Taystee Subs shop. Indeed, if it had not been at the other end of Edison we might have done so more frequently. Established in 1963, the sub shop located in what is little more than a shack has a well deserved reputation for its scrumptious subs ( or heroes, or hoagies, if you prefer). When President Obama made a short trip to Edison in the early years of his presidency, he stopped at Taystee to sample their subs. No surprise, because they ARE good.

On the face of it, there should not be that much difference between Taystee subs and the rest. After all, a sub is a very basic preparation. A variety of sliced deli meats and cheese piled on a long roll, cut in half lengthwise ( usually white bread , though wheat is available for 40 cents extra), topped with shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions, sprinkled with oil and vinegar ( or slathered with mayonnaise if you prefer or both). Nothing could be simpler… and yet Taystee subs are head and shoulders above the rest.

If I had to choose the one factor that elevates them, I’d have to say it’s the bread. The fresh sliced meats are very good but the bread is what puts these subs over the top. It is just the right combination of soft and firm that is able to cushion the meats and other fixings without becoming mushy.

I was surprised to find a branch of Taystee Subs fairly close to where we  now live in Somerset. Who am I kidding? It is twenty minutes away from us, but the subs are worth the drive. There is usually a line stretching out the door when we get to the shop but I don’t mind. It’s fun to watch the assembly line of deli guys ( and gals) assembling the sub. The first in line takes your order ( whole or half?), slices the meats and cheese and layers them on the cut loaf. The next person adds the fixings and cuts the long sub into halves ( or quarters if you prefer) and passes them on to be wrapped in white paper. The last person takes your money ( 5% off for cash) and hands you your prize. It is a supremely efficient operation and it takes about 3 minutes for each sub from start to finish. The deli personnel are polite and really make you feel pampered.

I usually get the #5, the super sub with ham, salami, cappacolla and proscuittini, light on the lettuce please, tomato and onion, and both mayo and oil and vinegar. It’s the most expensive sub on the menu and costs under $ 11.  I ask for it to be cut into fourths and it’s enough for both my wife and me. What a bargain ! She has been making noises about trying the tuna salad sub next time but me I’ going to stick to the # 5. Why mess with perfection?

P.S I wonder whether President Obama also had the # 5. I must ask the guys at the counter next time.

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