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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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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 !

 

 

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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.

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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 !

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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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Notice I said Souper Bowl, not Super Bowl.

Each year, in spring, the Women’s Club at our Active Adult community organizes three or four Souper Bowls to raise funds for charity.  For an eight dollar donation, members and their guests who sign up enjoy salad , bread and butter and desserts. My wife and I had heard of these events for the past four years but had never experienced one until last week, the last such event for this year.

The event was  to begin at 12:30 and we were there a few minutes earlier , only to find that almost every seat was taken. These events are [popular! Luckily, my wife and I and two of our friends found seats together in a corner of the Grand Ballroom where the Souper Bowl was being held. As first time attendees, we were entitled to receive bowls     (repeat guests bring their own), so we picked them up and got back to the table. By that time, the salad bowl at the center of the table was sadly depleted as the ‘early birds’ had been busy. We did manage to get some salad though and it was very good. Nothing fancy; just iceberg lettuce, olives, cranraisins, some slivers of onion and tomato wedges lightly bathed in a vinaigrette. The whole, however, was more than the sum of its parts as the vinaigrette had been dispensed with a master’s touch. The salad bowl was re-filled soon after but the new batch was not near as good. We barely had time to taste the salad and tear off a hunk of bread to eat with a dab of butter when the soups made their appearance. Volunteers had donated  large tureen of their specialties which were carried in and placed on the serving tables at one end of the room. The volunteer cooks then stood proudly behind their creations ready to dish them out. Their were five different soups: chicken soup ( two kinds), minestrone , bean and ( for the vegetarians) lentil soup. Since there were 10 tables with 150 diners in all, we were summoned by table number and to my surprise and delight, our table was the first one to be called. Both my wife and I had the chicken soup but hers was decidedly better. It had been made by a Puerto Rican friend of ours  and it was rich with chicken cubes, a variety of vegetables, noodles  and herbs . Full of sabor. My own was a regulation tomato based variant, thicker and heartier but not as flavorful. I should have taken the minestrone.

The soup was the main item but there were plenty of others. Some local businesses had donated their products: three kinds of pasta, cookies, pastries and bagels. As if this was not enough, one of our members was celebrating his 75th birthday and there were two huge cakes to celebrate the milestone. I had a slice of each  and they were both very good.  I really shouldn’t have but , what can I say… the flesh is weak.

As good as the food was, the most enjoyable part of the afternoon was sitting with a bunch of people whom we did not know earlier and being able to chat with them. In such situations, once the ice is broken there are plenty of things to talk about. The lady next to me had been a teacher in Queens and she was perfectly familiar with Indian names and the Indian- American community. Next to her was a lady who had taught in Edison N.J for many years and had lived there for almost 40 years as we too had done. It turned out that our houses had been within a mile of each other. A third lady, another teacher, happened to have a niece in the U.S Foreign Service and we were able to exchange experiences with each other since our daughter too is a diplomat. We were strangers when we sat down but friends by the time the Souper Bowl was over.

Next year, you can bet we will be attending the Souper Bowl again, perhaps more than once. Not only that, but we’ll be there early to get that yummy salad and, knowing what we do now, I’ll be more expert in picking my soup.

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Last week I attended a talk on Irish Tea, Customs and Food Lore at the local library. The speaker was Judith Krall-Russo, a Food Historian and Certified Tea specialist who has been giving such talks for the past twenty years and more.

I had thought the talk would be mainly about tea but it was actually about the history of food in Ireland. Ms. Krall- Russo, though not Irish by birth, has an encyclopedic interest in Irish food lore  and had the rapt attention of her audience. In her hour long talk, she gave us an avalanche of information, all of it interesting, some of it new and startling even to those who of us in the audience who considered themselves foodies.

In olden times, Ms. Kraft Russo said, the Irish diet consisted mainly of seafood, particularly eel, herring ( which was plentiful and known as the poor man’s food) and mackerel. With the Norman invasion, food habits underwent a change and meat became more  prominent. At one time, the Irish consumed about 80 lbs. of pork each per year. Each family kept two pigs, one for their own consumption and the other ( which was known as The Gentleman Who Pays the Rent) for sale. Surprisingly, salted meat was more expensive than fresh meat. After Cromwell and his Roundheads defeated Charles I, he rewarded his soldiers by giving them land in Ireland that he expropriated from its Irish owners. The loss of grazing rights meant that cattle could not be raised as hitherto and potatoes became a mainstay of the Irish diet with 40% of the population living exclusively on potatoes, each person consuming on average fourteen pounds of spuds each day. This may seem like an unbelievable statistic but potatoes do not have much nutrition. All went relatively  well until 1845 when the potato blight devastated the potato crop and the Irish peasantry had nothing to eat. In the four years between 1846 and 1850, over a million Irish men, women and children died of starvation and disease and another million emigrated to America. In a time of such privation, food was actually being exported to England, an unconscionable act of inhumanity. Oats and barley were the chief grains grown in Ireland as wheat was unsuited to the Irish climate.

Some interesting sidelights:

Potatoes grown on one acre of land could sustain a family of 6.

With the improvement in farming techniques, the potato yield jumped from 2 tons/ acre  in 1590 to 10 tons/ acre in 1840, a five -fold increase. Over the same period, the Irish population jumped from less than a million to 8.2 million. No surprise there.

Brown bread was for the poor, white bread for the gentry. Ironically, brown bread contains much more nutrition than white; the poor got the better of that bargain.

Shepherd’s Pie , a picnic food made with left over lamb or beef, is wrongly thought to have been a poor man’s dish. The poor could not afford any meat at all.

And what about tea, you ask?

The Irish , it turns out, are #1 in the world when it comes to drinking tea, consuming on average about 7 pounds of tea per year. At one time, 20% of the household food budget was spent on tea.  The Irish like their tea strong and hot and milky, sometimes adding up to 1/3 the volume of milk. In Ireland they say,” If it doesn’t burn your tongue, its not hot enough; if it isn’t as black as Guinness, it’s not strong enough”. The Irish also like their tea sweet; sometimes, two or three different types of sugar are laid out with the tea service. Irish hospitality is well known and guests are treated royally. When a guest sits down to tea, he gets more than just a cuppa. Tea is likely to be accompanied by sandwiches, scones, cookies, bread, butter and jam. I read elsewhere that HobKnob biscuits are a tea time favorite. I just loved that name Hob Knob so I looked it up and found that they are digestive biscuits ( similar to McVities) and are available in the U.S though they are pricey. I also read that the Irish like to add a lot of milk to their tea to disguise its poor quality. Until 1960, they bought it from English importers who gave them the worst quality teas, reserving the best for their English customers. After 1960 though, the Irish bought their tea directly from the source and cut out the British middlemen. By that time though, the Irish taste for milky tea was set and it continues to this day.

Before the talk started, we were invited to pour a cup of tea for ourselves and have some biscuits ( cookies). The tea was good and strong and the biscuits went well with it though they were not Hob Knobs. A delightful afternoon.

P.S. Ms. Kraft- Russo is not merely an authority on Irish food and tea. She has also studied Japanese tea ceremony , led a tour called ” Taste the World of Tea” and lectured on sundry food topics including the food and agriculture of New Jersey. A most enterprising lady and one I’m a little jealous of; I’d love to have done  what she is doing.

 

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