Pulling Mussels from A Shell

Our neighbors, a family of mussel fishermen, have just completed the loading onto a truck of mussel shells.  From early morning until mid-day, the men are out on homemade canoes gathering mussels in the brackish water.  The men and women, in the afternoon, can be hard in prayer and their faces always show the big smiles of prosperity and full bellies.

The state of Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India: over 90% for both males and females.  Free schooling until age 15, free uniforms, free books.

The crows squawk.

Yesterday, we were given Aruvedic treatments which consisted of stripping naked and being completely drenched in scented oil while being rubbed down, followed by a green powder smeared all over that was then washed off in a shower.  I was to have gone several days of this, but I feel cured after that first treatment.

Later in the day, between naps, I wrote many pages about the psychology of being a chef.

Dinner was a kingfish stew.

 

 

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We Travel on Our Stomachs

Not being 100% yesterday, what with no appetite and a consciousness in a back alley underneath a dumpster, I managed to write about chefs and nap.  Today?  Much better, thanks, nothing like five hours of naps and an early bedtime to cure intestinal distress.

The crows warn of trouble.

Vembanad

Dr. Nair just dropped by with his Aruveda consult.  Wouldn’t you know it? I’m pretty much Pitta with some Vata thrown in.  AKA: A furnace loving the cold and capable of snap decisions.  No cure in sight–Character is fate, noted the Greek–but a massage may lessen the pain.  I’m in.

The Vembanad lake, about five feet from here, is actually a brackish lagoon adjacent to the Arabian sea, which is invisible from here.  Big crows squawk in the coconut palms, the fishermen next door who culled mussels at 645 AM are singing, and all that lies ahead are dosas, fruit, and, late in the day, iced gin.

Overcast, tropical, and wait…they are not singing purely, they are praying!  A man with a yellow cloth on his head wades in,  another man yodels, and now there’s lots of splashing.

Murmuring, immersion.

So much protein in the fish and an abundance of fruit and vegetables and 90% literacy rates and India’s most accessible health care system: People look good and smile often.

 

Southern India

It’s about 755 AM here, men playing soccer on the field, a man cleaning up this living room, to the right is St. Francis church, the oldest in India, so I’m told, cocks crowing, crows squawking, and the view from this building, which once housed the Dutch East India Co, is blocked by trees.

This is a quiet village of many churchgoers, the occasional Muslim, and a Hindu past, with self definition apparently informed chiefly by religion.   Yesterday we waded through crowds of schoolboys who wore long, dark blue pants and light blue shirts and ties on recess from the church school.

At night we’d been invited to dinner at Malabar House.  A tasting menu followed: Tapioca and cumin fritters with mint chutney, roasted eggplants and tomatoes served with uppuma that had been flavored with mustard seeds, marinated and sesame crusted tuna, small meat balls cooked in coriander and served with pathiri, fish biriyani, and a dessert of vatteappam, which is carmelized fruit and accompanied by coconut sorbet.  Everything was very fresh and cooked from scratch with flavors varying from small tapas size dish to the next so that the deepness of taste could be appreciated.

Fort Cochin

On the broad playing fields across the lane, boys are playing soccer. They appear to be ethnic Tamil–dark skin, black hair; later, it will be cricket.  I’ve seen girls their age en route to school in crisp white and blue uniform, hair pulled back in braids, walking in pairs or being dropped off by their fathers.  The academic institutions they attend are typically run by the Catholic church.  Just now two buses went by from schools: St. Mary’s and Canossian Convent.

This area is a vast remnant of a coastal colony: Portuguese and then Dutch with pockets of Syrian Christian and Dutch or Portuguese Jews among them.  Little is evident of the pockets, except for churches and a synagogue, as these populations died out, emigrated, or intermarried and disappeared.  The people here are quite beautiful in greater numbers than I have observed elsewhere, it seems, and my bias is that this is due to the mingling.

Dosas are the way to start the day: Rice crepes, paper thin, stuffed with a small mash of potato spiced with salt, pepper, and is it cinnamon, with fried onions, and two little sambal of coconut and tomato, nutmeg, red pepper, and cloves.

The daily heat is so intense that a mid-day meal isn’t necessary even after a three mile walk to what’s called Jew Town: Two lanes of chatchka shops leading to the synagogue.

What’s lovely about Fort Cochin is the quiet and the ability to walk everywhere: Back streets have homes and shops of locals, and with a reported 90% literary rate, a middle class is growing.

The plan today, yesterday, and tomorrow is to do as little as possible except read (“All About H. Hatterr”) and write (book on chefs).

We shall see, we shall see…

 

 

Indya

It all started on Thursday afternoon with clear skies and a bellyful of slices that had been served knowingly by Paul who worked beside his brother Ralph at Galleria Umberto inside Boston’s historic North End.

From there it was a veg meal and a cramped flight to Amsterdam and a numb transfer to a second plane that took us to Mumbai.  All sorts of white lies were told on the ground there prior to take off.  Something about four babies taking our seats. Babies turned out to be FAMs, undercover, and while the marshals did their thing, Lance sent us to Business, which made all the difference on the nine+ hours to Indya.

I’d researched digs and the rather splendid ITC Marauthya is no more than a mile from the airport.  Starwood points, and we were in bed and asleep soon.

Mumbai in a mental fog the next day, but sufficient consciousness, after a four mile run, to enjoy dosas for breakfast, a cold beer at the Leopold,  views of the Gateway to India, the Muslim accented Raj era train and police stations, and the tragic interior of the Taj motel now open since the bombings where photos of stars studded a long passage, including one of John & Yoko, looking beatific while barefoot.

Later that night, it was by far the best South Indian veg meal I’d ever eaten, what with beautful sambals, etc.  This is from Dakshin restaurant.

And now we find ourselves in the Fort area of Cochin at dawn: Birds squawking, few people awake, the prior night a wash due to exhaustion and stomach readjustments.  They say the Jews, the Dutch, the Arabs, and the Portuguese made dents here.  the evidence is there in the architecture.

Cocks crow.

White Riot!

Ever get the feeling that you’re at the cusp of momentous change in  world history?  Me, neither.  Most folks I know are more wrapped up in the sauce reduction on golden beets than in what seems more pressing if you have an eye on the future, but none in sight.  Talk about putting a spin on Living for Today.

Anyhow, it’s been a difficult month, hasn’t it?  Was July any better?  A Norwegian take on the putsch, only this time it’s one guy purportedly, followed by thousands of unemployed youths in the streets of England.  Then there is The World’s Least Angry Black Man taking Rodney King’s message to heart: Why can’t we all just get along?  Because we can’t that’s why.  When will America be ready for an angry black President?  Will that happen in my lifetime?

Meanwhile, the markets convulse and heave like a landlubber at sea.  Unemployment among folks of color and Hispanics, 18-25, is well over 20%, and what, as they say in West Cambridge, do these people want?  Jobs, silly, but never having had one, you wouldn’t know.

All this had made me so hungry that it’s been pizza every single day for lunch this week followed by dinners of roasted chicken; pork three ways (belly, loin, and chops); and, big, juicy cheeseburgers.

Now about those beets…

BBQ

I’ve been reading, “High on the Hog,” by Jessica B. Harris.  It’s a wonderful book, well-written, thoughtful, emotional, seemingly well-documented, and full of information.  It notes, for example, the high percentages of folks of color in pre-Revolutionary Illinois and Manhattan; describes Philadelphia as an early Mecca for freed slaves; and, traces the origins of okra, black eyed peas, and other ingredients to Africa.

OK, so at times the book is romantic: The relationships between Native Americans and Africans brought to The New World seemed ideal at times.  But then: What do I know?  Maybe it’s true.

Among the book’s greatest features, of which there are many, is its focus on the culinary.  After all, Ms. Harris is renowned as a cookbook writer and culinary historian.

Which got me thinking BBQ.

I have, of course, a smoker-grill in the postage stamp yard behind this shotgun shack.  Made in TX, it’s the size of a Buick.  Last night, though, I didn’t feel like cooking.  Every cook gets a night off and I’d been preparing meals the past eight weeks without a break.

So: Soul Fire BBQ.  This storefront place is on Harvard Street in downtown Allston on a long stretch of stores that make the area look like parts of Queens or Brooklyn.  Tats available; a Brazilian bakery; a huge liquor store with an array of first-rate schochu, sake, and Burgundians plus little brewery beers; Korean groceries; etc.

Soul Fire sold me a rack of ribs, a portion of pulled chicken, and sides of mac ‘n’ cheese, collards, and beans.  Plus buttered corn bread.  Very authentic presentation: Meats on white bread in white styrofoam containers.

The food was really delicious.  Not distinctive in a regional sense: No NC or KC or TX touches, but very deep flavors and the fact that the sides were not neglected says it all.  Fine, you’re not in the Deep South or Detroit, but isn’t it a good thing that the confluence of cultures is right there on the plate?

 

Budget Cuts and Food Safety

Paul Krugman’s column in today’s NY Times is called, “The President Surrenders,” and an equally apt title is, “Apocalypse Soon.”  Krugman deftly notes the failure of democracy to address monetary ills and forecasts a decline in the U.S. economy that will last several years.  He notes that we are well on the towards becoming a banana republic due to the failure of government to face down economic forces that could care less about the public sector.

In the view of the aforementioned economic forces, as I understand them, the public sector is there to buy stuff.   Safety is relevant only so far.  Guy croaks, guy gets sick, another guy’ll come along, sell him stuff the first guy’s not buying.

Link to the column: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/opinion/the-president-surrenders-on-debt-ceiling.html?src=ISMR_HP_LO_MST_FB.

What does this mean for consumers?

Chiefly,  you can kiss food safety goodbye: “The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost of implementing the Food Safety act would be $1.4 billion over five years. The whopping $285 million budget cut makes it likely that many of the enforcement and oversight provisions of the act will not be implemented. FDA told an industry publication just before the vote that if the House funding cuts were approved, there will be a ‘significant delay in implementation of the new Food Safety Modernization Act (including the law’s nineteen priority areas, especially import oversight, training, and inspections).’”

The cut noted above was prior to the “budget deal” that took place yesterday so the FSMA may be rendered even less effective.

This means that health claims of food products will not be evaluated with as much vigor as was intended, that management of food allergies in school settings will not be  as thorough, and…that imported foods will not be subject to the kinds of inspections recommended.

The import issue is critical.  As noted earlier on this site: “Nearly two-thirds of all fruits and vegetables and three-quarters of all seafood consumed in the United States now come from outside the country.”  In terms of numbers, “A decade ago, the F.D.A. was responsible for policing six million shipments annually coming through 300 ports. This year, the number of shipments is expected to grow to 24 million.”

It’s mercury in fish, e coli in sprouts, dioxins, fish that glow in the dark, and food that has been processed unscrupulously and has melamine in it.

One big culprit is China, which is the source of many products on our tables.

A comment from TNYT on the Chinese attitude towards food safety: “Most of them are working like headless chickens, having no clue what are the major food-borne diseases that need to be addressed or what are the major contaminants in the food process,” said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert with the World Health Organization’s Beijing office. Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/world/asia/08food.html?ref=foodsafety

It’s not just China.  The issue is simply: What will be the effects on food safety once the budget for the FDA is cut?

In the European Union (EU), to name only a few recent examples, food safety measures have included: banning milk from China (2008), testing food from 11 prefectures in Japan (2011), and banning Egyptian seeds (2011).  While here: It’s all OK.

Krugman concludes ominously in his piece today:   “In the long run, however, Democrats won’t be the only losers. What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation’s economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can’t.”

That’s a lot to digest.