Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fake Food Globalization

First post in a loooonnnng time. Couldn't help it. Don't know how much was paid for this, but I was stunned when I found it in the pantry. I am guessing that my better half had a promotional coupon. OK, Let's see. Nowhere on this package do the words "harira", "halal", or "kosher" appear. Of course not. It claims to be two servings, but I've never seen even a single serving of harira look like what came out of this package. The alleged two servings add up to a whopping 360 calories. More importantly: does it taste like harira? Yes and no. It's got date puree (not so far off the mark, but not as soup ingredient), but also sugar in it. Made with yellow lentils, not brown. What's up with the chicken? And not very liquidy. I don't know who the intended buyer is, what demographic. Not vegetarians. Someone who wants to "Go" (fast, presumably, or maybe to Morocco?) and "to rock those chickpeas." Someone too lazy to cook up a whole pot of soup. Not us, certainly not my wife. No disrespect intended! Just sayin'...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Not for Vegetarians

So we leave Austin, Texas, not long ago, heading southwest from the original Whole Foods navel of the universe, and the wonderfully cool and independent Bookpeople store. Our destination: Driftwood, to the Salt Lick Barbeque. Yes, Driftwood. We decided to take our first vacation in two years to a place we'd never been, and settled on Canyon Lake between San Antonio and Austin. Terrible drought. Learned that FM roads means "Farm to Market." Anyway we naively thought that at 8 pm there wouldn't be many folks at the Salt Lick, only to discover about 500 cars in the parking lot. No matter. Didn't take long. Wayyyy too much meat. Attention most folks from India: don't go there! : our server told us that 60% of customers pay an extra five bucks for "all you can eat." What is wrong with this picture? The cole slaw had a nice Asian tang because the man who started the place had a Japanese wife. Beans were wonderful too. But, as is often the case, there were mind-boggling juxtapositions, this time in the hill country of Texas. Not so far from this place is a Hindu property replicating Vaishnaivite pilgrimage to Vrindravan (Vraj), where Krishna, I believe, was a cowherder sporting with the gopis. It's just so bizarre. And somewhere around there also is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower research / wander around place. Very nice. But it was over 90 degrees, and I couldn't walk more than 1/4 mile due to my disability. Oh well. Got a few nice photos. I must admit that for the most part, our food was tasty. But what we had belongs to a form of trayf that comes our way once every three years or so. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


"India Ink": a clever title for a new New York Times online blog perhaps a week old at the time of this writing, but which doesn't yet appear to have received the attention it deserves. Even for college graduates, I think, the "Incredible India" marketed to tourists is more often than not "Incredibly Incomprehensible India." For anyone with a heart and half a brain, the atrocities that accompanied Partition in 1947, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and Gujarat riots of 2002 are beyond incomprehensible. And lo and behold, one of the Times' blog's first pieces was a "Newswallah" item reporting what the English-language press in India is reporting about the latest judicial developments regarding alleged state complicity in the Gujarat violence, a topic for which the "comments" section received a mere three posts. One was from a well-wisher encouraging the blog's editor, and another from "Guj", who compared Narendra Modi to George Wallace and the "Dixiecrats", suggesting that communal violence in India is not unlike the lynchings of pre-civil rights America. He added that Americans of that or any other time wouldn't want outsiders to come and lecture them about morals. He didn't raise the possibility of truth and reconciliation. Many Gujaratis seem to want it both ways: to forever be in the foreign public's eye as the Mahatma's homeland, despite having the worst record of communal violence since Independence of any state, yet have no truck with the calls for "Hindu-Muslim" unity that got him assassinated. Perhaps they and their Nano Smart Cars will, as Indians say, "give the fillip" to those who think they can out-develop them. They have vast diaspora resources of creativity and paise to tap, but as the "Guj" poster wrote, they are known to be conservative (read: tee-totaling, vegetarian, marriage-arranging, upholder of religious rather than secular values) but for many it also means being anti the 20% of the population who are not classified as "Hindu"(unless, like Tata, they are billionaires and tell foreign investors they are "stupid" if they are not investing in Gujarat). I love the Gujaratis with whom I am acquainted, but I am a hater of haters, no matter who they are, even when this paradoxical statement includes myself. America has changed in my lifetime (though recent developments among Republicans remind me how downright stupid and scapegoatingly-racist so many people can be). It remains difficult to discern a vast flowering of seeds for the flowering of MLK style brotherhood in India. I won't hold my breath for Anna Hazare, already lauded as a reappeared Gandhi, to fast for that cause. Pervasive casteism and class and religiously-based "vote bank politics" remain the order of the day. I recently listened to an interview with Varun Gandhi, who has audaciously hitched his star to that of the BJP, and hopes to attract the educated, supposedly rising, and well-intentioned middle class of his younger demographic. I'll take a wait and see attitude, just an outside observer on the sidelines. Oh---the third comment post to the Times was my own, which I reproduce below:

September 13th, 2011
Gujarat 2002 tops the list of floodgate-opening topics that I referred to when congratulating the Times for launching "India Ink". Most Gujaratis, whether in India or abroad, just want all mention of the 2002 pogroms to go away. They are disturbing reminders of: Pakistan's very existence (problematic in its own right), the atrocities of Partition and later anti-Sikh violence, the supposed weakness and peril of Hindus in their own Holy Land, the absence of true civil society (at its worst, police "without orders" to protect citizens of a certain type), ongoing Kashmir insecurity, etc. Couple these with a political culture of callous caste and class-based "vote-bank" politics, half the kids not in school, farmer suicides, environmental degradation, women's issues, the slums and decrepitude blighting urban landscapes, etc. and what you get is Modi as "Mahatmamodiji", leading "Shining Gujarat" forward, not into the past. Allegations of complicity in the 2002 atrocities become irrelevant. He is the pro-globalization, freely-elected Chief Minister they hope to see as future PM of India. Some of the most retrograde and most modernizing forces alike converge upon him. Distressing news, whether in English or any other of India's languages, upset India's rising middle class and world-class entrepreneurs, and divert the world's attention from the "vibrant" economic developments that have turned parts of Gujarat into a showcase of what a better-managed India can and should be. Gandhi as the apostle of a land of non-violence has been old news for a very long time. His latest "reappearance" in the form of the fasting, anti-corruption leader Anna Hazare is a dagger that the BJP, inconvenienced by investigations of itself, wishes to plunge even further into the heart of Congress rule. Is it little wonder that Varun Gandhi, a maverick scion of India's ruling dynasty whose age-demographic reflects most of the population, has thrown his hat into the BJP ring?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I had never heard of this Indian actor, nor of his family ("the Barrymores" of India) until 2006. Several people in India told me that I resembled him: not the young, dashing Bollywood heartthrob, but the Shammi Kapoor of his elder years. I read up on him a bit, and learned that his life deeds show that he genuinely understood the meaning of seva, or "service to others." So, one more of the world's short supply of better people is gone, funeral on India's Day of Independence. I hope that he too will now be free --- of maya

Monday, February 7, 2011

Being Poor in Egypt

This photo of a girl, standing in a field of corn, was taken by me as I sailed down the Nile on a tour boat in the summer of 1976. I can still smell and taste the wonderful corn on the cob, grilled in the husk, that was a common street food in Cairo. The British turned the Delta in a region for cash-crop long-staple cotton production. As Egypt's population boomed, the country was forced to import cereal grains. Food riots in the 70's followed the government's requirements to toe the line of the IMF and decrease the subsidy on bread. In the 80s, I recall reading an article in which Egyptians expressed their dissatisfaction with a government proposal to add corn flour to the mix for making daily bread. Which brings me to the topic of the post preceding this one, about my astonishment to discover a box of Corn Flakes, made in Egypt, in one of those "Dollar Stores" that proliferate throughout the U.S. Many years ago, a Russian-American sociologist, Ptirim Sorokin, opined that World War I was all about "boire et manger." I think he was on to something! Please check out my other posts about food, whether on shelves in Indo-Pak groceries, or Israeli and Arab products
"coexisting" on the shelves of local ethnic markets. If we all ate together, and limited Americanization to Corn Flakes, we would all get along much better, I am sure of it! But no corn to export out of Egypt, please!

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Egyptian Corn Flakes

UPDATED 2-4-11: WHAT GREATER EVIDENCE IS NEEDED OF EGYPT'S MIND-BOGGLING POVERTY AND DESPERATION? WHAT KIND OF GOVERNMENT EXPORTS FOOD IN A COUNTRY WHERE NEARLY HALF THE PEOPLE LIVE ON THE EQUIVALENT OF TWO DOLLARS A DAY? WHO PROFITED FROM THIS? In 2009, for this blog, and as promised, I searched my vast archives of global flotsam and jetsam for this strange artifact of New World Corn in an Old World context making its way back to the New World in a most unusual transformation, which lends itself to discussion from any number of angles. But I am too tired to do that, so all I will say is: I believe that Egypt's average per capita income is about $700 annually. So why corn grown there ends up in a low-rent "Global Foods" box that is actually shipped back to the U.S. and sold in those (usually) Chinese-owned "Dollar Stores" boggles my mind. Which is plenty boggled as it is.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Luciano Pavarotti, Shammi Kapoor, Emmaneul Chabrier and Me: Part 2

It was the summer of 2001, and I was enjoying six weeks in the company of other teachers on a study-tour of China. It didn't take long for me to notice a series of peculiar events. Wherever we went, there were always more Chinese tourists than non-Chinese, and time and again I was either stared at or asked to pose with an individual or with an entire family for a picture. At first, I thought, well, they are not used to seeing foreigners, so they want their picture taken with one. After all, I have a beard, in addition to being a bit overweight. But this could not have been the case when, on Beijing's most upscale shopping street, I was snapped by several upscale Chinese, while on my way to the main branch of the Chinese Foreign Language Bookstore. It just kept happening. I won't exaggerate, but it happened at least twenty times. OK, on one of my final days in China, while walking along the marvelous Bund in Shanghai, a companion told me that "The Three Tenors" performance in The Forbidden City, which had occured not long before, was playing virtually non-stop on Chinese CCTV throughout the country that entire summer. That program, along with movies portraying Mao at Yenan, The Long March, and the 80th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. So it finally hit me. The people who wanted their pictures taken with me thought that I was/am Luciano Pavarotti. I DID once "go as" Luciano Pavarotti to a Halloween party, years ago. I suppose that it would not have occurred to many of them that the great tenor had left the country, nor that he would not just be walking around the tourist spots of China like any regular person. It amuses me now to think that in at least a few Chinese homes, there are framed portraits of family members atop lace doilies, with their arms around me, smiling and making the "V" for victory sign, along with Luciano Pavarotti. Nessun dorma, indeed!