Food My Lovers Taught Me to Love, Part I

You know how advice columnists always say, “If he’s trying to change you, put on your lace-up flats and run!”?

Now usually, I’d be completely on their side. If ‘love’ for someone is predicated on wistful goodbyes to everything else, then the time to cut the cords is NOW!.

However, ‘change’ could be a good thing. It might mean ‘positive affect’. It could be a broadening of horizons. It can certainly be personal growth, and in some cases it might mean ‘intensifies’. For instance, you might be a clock-watcher dating another punctual type. If you two move in together, you’ll probably enable each other till you’re both obnoxious human clocks, being forever on time and tut-tutting at the rest.

Don’t go down that route unless you fancy punches to the nose.

Now me, I’ve had some pretty colourful relationships. And being Bengali, a large chunk of them have revolved around food. My first relation propre was with an Anglo-American gent. In my initial American months, mealtimes were a despondent chore. I cooked simple curries twice a week and hated eating them, because cheap supermarket vegetables in America taste like soggy newsprint, and I knew no other way to make them more edible. I also hated cheese, dismissed bacon, ill-trusted sausages, and looked with suspicion upon roasting and baking.

Then, as my supply of home-ground spices was finally running out, I met him.

He was tall, blue-eyed, Boston-blond, and just as impoverished as I was. But he knew his way around American shops and kitchen. He introduced me to high-protein breakfasts, salads-from-scrap, crispy bacon, sausages with mustard, fluffy pancakes cooked in lard, homemade pasta sauces and deli-end sandwiches. We could rarely afford the good stuff, but he also taught me to love cheese – the nutty gouda, the sharp cheddar, the rich goat, the creamy brie.

When I look back at my time with him, I almost can’t believe how comprehensively he changed my palate, yanking at the edges of my considerable stubbornness till I gave in, and fell in love with it all.

My range in the kitchen expanded dramatically, too. Till the Transatlantic Sojourn, I was a dab hand at Bengali things, but everything beyond that was a vague, foggy mass.

Union Stars and Stripes helped me bake my first cake, and taught me how to make a lovely four-ingredient salad dressing. When November rolled around, we bought a turkey, made our own stuffing, prepped and roasted the bird, and made a lip-smacking gravy with the pan-droppings. You’d think mashed potatoes are easy, but before I met this kitchen-dreamboat, I had no idea alusheddho with salt, butter, milk and pepper – instead of, you know, mustard oil and green chilies – could be so divine.

By the time our relationship had unravelled beyond repair, I had begun keeping roasted garlic and pine-nuts in my kitchen for comfort meals, homemade peach preserves and cantaloupes for snacks, broccoli and pork chops-on-sale for quick pick-me-up dinners. If ever a man succeeded in endearing boiled broccoli to a woman, it was this man. Of course, he also drove me to the best chowder and bisques in town, but as a Boston man, I’d think that was more his civic duty than an act of love.

The best thing he taught me to make and love, however, was damn near a miracle, for it involved almost every single thing I once hated: bacon, hard-fried eggs, cheese. What he put together with these things, though, was just fabulously wonderful. I’ll call it the baked egg, because ‘baked’ is effectively what the eggs become.

You begin by lightly greasing a thick-bottomed saucepan, and layering it with deli-ends or bacon. You flip the meat after a minute of browning, and layer the cooked side with cheese, onions and chopped chilies. Then, you break whole eggs over it, two eggs per person. The final garnish is salt and pepper, and maybe a little parsley and sage. You give the eggs a minute to cook on medium flame, then cover the pan, and simmer. In about three minutes, you have soft, creamy baked eggs, on a bed of melted spicy cheese and crispy bacon or meat. This, you eat with hot buttered toast (though I must say Americans are rather stingy with their toast. ‘A stack of toast’ is not a transatlantic phenomenon).

It’s been a few years since the Anglo-Am and I have broken up, but the strange foreign things he taught me to love has changed the way I cook and eat almost completely. Tucked away beyond north Calcutta, I missed the cheese and meats for months, as my tongue readjusted to dal-bhaat and curried veg at every meal. It’s true we had rather fierce arguments about food and cooking, and there are favourites of his that I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole (banana-split, yuck!), but a man who imparts the secrets of crisp pork fat has, in my opinion, transcended the judgement of schmucks who used to turn away from bacon.

Brax Landing Restaurant, Harwich MA

[This review is from July 2010]
Yelp rating: ONE STAR
I’m not sure why this place has a queue a mile long, apart from maybe the absolutely lovely view.

Granted, this place has excellent clam chowder and good lobster bisque; unfortunately, the buck stops there. I’ve had THE most bland main courses here, made with barely mediocre seafood… and it’s on the damned Cape, for god’s sake! If Boston and Cambridge can serve better food in terms of freshness, a psuedo-fancy more-expensive-that-it’s-worth ‘landing’ in Harwich can at least aim for better raw material.

Speaking of more-expensive-than-it’s-worth, this place ran up a bill of $70 for a cup of clam chowder, a bowl of lobster bisque, one baked fish served with french fries of EXACTLY the same texture and taste as McDonald’s fries (in fact, the party of six at the next table observed precisely this loudly right after I whispered it to my friend), and one fish n’ chips, all fish dishes made with cod. I thought only thrift store versions of seafood places made fish n’ chips with cod, but anyway.

This exact meal costs us less than $35 in the Harvard/Central/Inman area, and to take just a random example, S&S serves haddock instead of insipid slabs of cod in both dishes, with exponentially better french fries, the option of mashed or baked potatoes if we want it, AND a large bowl of salad. Brax doesn’t offer mashed potatoes, by the way. Not at all. What sort of a stupid place does not offer mashed potatoes, something a five year old can make?

To sum up my experience at Brax: disappointment, annoyance, and a much deeper hollow in my pocket than a meal twice as good as this wouldn’t deserve. Disgusting profiteering.

P.S: A note to fellow-yelpers. My friend picked this place because of “great Yelp reviews”. After I returned home, I logged into Yelp to check these reviews, and saw that most five or four star reviews had things like this to say: “food was decent enough”, “server was nice and attentive”, “wonderful view”. And so on.

Certainly it was my friend’s fault for not reading these empty, vapid reviews and go by just their ratings, but please try not to adorn a restaurant with four stars because a young, easy-on-the-eye server smiled at you. And especially reconsider your rating if a $18.99 seafood main course at a seaside place called a ‘landing’ was only “decent enough”. Jesus, people, don’t you have to work for your money?

Punjabi Dhaba, Cambridge MA

[This review is from May 2010]

Yelp rating: TWO STARS

All right, fair’s fair – this place does have those elusive ‘comfort food’ dishes not served in any other local South-Asian place I know of. Anda bhurji, the green chillies plus diced red onion omelette… yum! On the other hand, I can make these things very easily at home. The other good stuff – parathas, chhole-bature, masala dosa – I could also make at home, but for one person it’s simply not worth the effort. And Punjabi Dhaba makes them quite well, too.

So why the two stars? Well… have you ever eaten *in* this place? Have you ever peeked into the washroom upstairs? Eek. And double eek. I’ve seldom been so disgusted. And yes, I’ve eaten at plenty of “authentic” highway-side dhabas in my life, and most of them are far cleaner than this. Given that this place is in the US, I couldn’t believe they were allowed to maintain such revolting levels of hygiene – honestly, for their own sake, someone needs to report them! Sure, we’ll do without aloo paratha and dahi chaat for a couple of weeks, but then… pristine new dhaba!

Won’t that be nice?

The Best Our Service Industry Has to Offer?

This is my review of the Best Buy at Park Drive, Boston, where I had the most amusing (in retrospect) corporate shopping experience. This was posted as a review on Yelp, where I rated the shop ONE STAR.


What an absolute bloody waste of space.

If you must shop at a Best Buy and are averse to ordering online, drive a little and go to the one in Kendall Square (I haven’t been to the one down Newbury St., so can’t vouch for it).

Usually, I always do my research online and call ahead for a store pick-up, because who has the time these days to actually *shop* around in a store, especially at a place that charges you for parking more than 10 minutes? But sometimes not all questions are answered by online research, and isn’t that what shop assistants are for? Apparently not.

Today, I called ahead to make sure they kept a monitor of a specific make aside for me to pick up in thirty minutes. It took me 22 minutes on the phone to do that, of which 2 minutes were spent talking to a human voice, and the remaining 20 to a recorded message.

When I showed up at the store, it took three people – including the cashier – about fifteen minutes to locate the box, which turned out to have been kept right under the cashier’s computer-desk.

While the search for my monitor was on, I stepped into the computer section to check out netbooks, which against my better judgement I’m considering buying. I had a question, but there was no one around to ask it to. After lounging about for nearly ten minutes, I see a chap wearing a name-tag. He, however, says he knows nothing about computers and goes to get another chap in a name-tag.

On being approached by his colleague, the second fellow loudly demands, “What the hell is HER problem, man?” When the first fellow shrugs and points at me, Name Tag 2 saunters over, still talking into his bluetooth phonepiece. Talking and chewing gum, he waves his hand in front of my face, as if to ask what my ‘problem’ is.

“Is there an alternative way to reinstall the OS on this one, since it doesn’t come with a disc drive and I don’t want an external one?” I ask, pointing at an Asus netbook. I was trying to see if the store provided an XP equivalent of Windows 7 USB installer.

The dude stares blankly at my face. Then, he says, “Yeah, I TOLD you I’ll be over for dinner, I’ll just be late, okay? We have like ten thousand people just walking in and we have to deal with them, all right? I have a fucking job here!” Then he looks at me and says, “Sorry, what did you say?” Before I can open my mouth he says, presumably to the person on the phone, “Not you. I’m talking to someone here at work, okay? Just give me a minute here!”

At which point I grit my teeth and ask if he would mind being with just one conversation at a time, preferably mine. He says, “I’m fine with both conversations at the same time. If you have a problem with that, get someone else”. And walks off.

What an unprofessional little bitch. And the store is teeming with them. One word: avoid. Unless of course you want to delude yourself into thinking, like Yelper Zack B. on this thread, that Best Buy is the electronic equivalent of Family Dollar Store, and that somehow, a customer who is guilty of actually taking opportunities retail outlets are throwing at him/her deserves to be treated like rubbish for this grave sin. “Goodness, buying at a sale? I fart in your general direction!”

Obviously, if we don’t respect ourselves, sloppy out-of-high school shop assistants aren’t going to bother.

Flav’s Red Skiff, Rockport MA

[This review is from July 2010]

The quaint little skiff, with matching tiny tables inside.

There are two words for all the little seasidy restaurants that dot the New Englad shoreline: unjustifiably expensive. Red Skiff messes up my pretty opening line, however, since it’s dirt cheap, but if they charged more, it would have been entirely justifiable.


The delicious Red Skiff fish ‘n chips.

This place has turned me into a BIG fan of the old clam chowder, which I only tolerated before (given that my only experience with chowder was in random cafes in the Somerville area). About six bucks buys you a yummy, creamy bowl of delicious chowder. Nine buys you the freshest haddock you’ve tasted in a while, baked or fried and served with potatoes. It’s the best fish and chowder lunch I’ve had in a while, and it was made extra sweet by the knowledge that I was paying less than half of my fellow tourists lunching in the fancier places :-)

By the way, this place only serves lunch. If you’re going to eat late, get takeout and leave it in your car. It will still be better than going to some of the other places (except maybe Ray Moore’s lobster shack).

This Language Bug

Written during my initial months in the USA. Things have only worsened since.

I have recently encountered the thesis – from a very well-read and socially-aware person – that language is an apolitical thing that has no connotations beyond communications. “Language is just something people use to get ideas across, and I really don’t understand people can politicse something like language”, he complained. I’m always charmed by such naïveté, so I paid for his latte.

I realise I’m obsessed with local forms of languages – in particular of English – and quite frankly I didn’t spare it a thought earlier, but I’m beginning to think this obsession is becoming a superobsession and slowly taking over my life. First of all, I notice differences between American and Rest-of-the-world English that international students living here for ages didn’t notice, and on occasion that they did, ceased to notice them almost immediately. Example: laying (US) and lying (r-o-t-w). Second, given that I can’t forget one system and adapt to another completely, these days I feel slightly queasy when I look at a sentence about healthful foods on colorful plates, and ALSO a sentence about healthy food on colourful plates. When I look at “outside of” and “visited with” and so on, I’m definitely bothered by the unnecessary (to me) prepositions. But then, when I read a book with a marked absence of the superfluous prepositions, there’s this nagging feeling that there’s something important missing. And the worst are the new spellings that haven’t been concretised yet, or older people (professors and old American texts) which use some r-o-t-w spellings. ‘Glamour’ persisted for a while, and Margaret Meade used ‘labour’, while members of faculty email us saying they’ll be ‘travelling’ and are therefore ‘cancelling’ a meeting. Students, on the other hand, write in to say they are affraid they cannot make a deadline because they have a young proffessionals’ meeting off campus.

It’s all rather confusing. And the automatic comparison feature inside my head is driving me a little insane, I think.

And all this came upon me as an epiphany while I was reading Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy (in succession). The translation was done in the UK, or so it appeared anyway, from the verbs spelt [another verb-form absent in the US. They have no truck--mostly--with the 't' ending] with an ‘s’ to ‘programmes’, ‘labour’, ‘colour’, the usual deal. And then, suddenly, amongst the many hundred pages, one word jumps out at me. Math. Yeah, that’s right. Math, not maths. And I knew in an instant, in a bleeding instant, that the chap translating was American. In a few decades American English will become the lingua-franca and we shall be the tiny minority that giggles at mentions of ‘fanny pack‘ while the majority adjusts them to their belts, but mathematics is still shortened with an ‘s’ in most parts of the world that hasn’t made the star spangled switch yet (ninety percent of Indian internet users, I’m obviously not talking about you). And while I’d been putting off getting a bite to eat and going to the loo for the past hour because the book was riveting and my bed warm and cuddly, I immediately hopped off it and went to look up the translator online. The link above was the result. He was American. Elementary, my dear reader.

At the end of the day, though, I have to admit: there’s an interest in languages, and then there’s unhealthy scab-picking obsessive behaviour. Clearly I lack the wisdom to know the difference. Or the tantric arts to reprogramme my brain.

HuffPost Lauds Man For Telling Woman to Eat His Dick

Yes, it’s a bit hard to believe, what with the indie pro-oppressed groups rep HuffPost has build for itself. But this is how it promotes its story about Elan – a chap who allegedly produces the shows Bachelor and Bachelorette – antagonising an irate woman during a flight, invading her personal space multiple times, and when she retaliates with a slap, tells her to eat his dick. He has since called upon his Twitter fans and fellow-cunts to tell people like this woman to eat their dicks. From this I presume he’s talking only to the male of the repulsive and hopefully small community.

Was the woman – a Diane – a nice person? Hell no. She was one of those who complain incessantly about the inevitable, magnifying their own problem to such an extent that there is no room in their heads to accommodate the rest of the world. Of course, our only access to any info on Diane and indeed the whole incident is from Elan’s testimony, and as we’ve established before, he’s something of an immature cunt, so one can’t quite take his word for the absolute truth. But let us assume this happened, and he was at least right about the fact that when an attendant tried to sympathise with her Thanksgiving flight delays by saying he was being kept away from his family too, she said, “This is not about you”. Had a fellow passenger reminded her politely but firmly, that the staff was suffering just as she was suffering, and they had to work through it in the bargain, I’d be all for them. It’s very difficult to tolerate entitled people throwing fits at other people compelled by the wage and social hierarchy to smile politely and put up with them. It shows a flash of the ugly, selfish underbelly of humanity that makes the bile rise.

On the other hand, the woman could have been ill, in the middle of an emergency, of an anxious disposition, or not capable of dealing with changes to schedule due to a differently tuned mind. Let us also assume, for Elan’s benefit, that she was not any of these things.

Which in no way excuses what he did to harass her all throughout her flight. After his Twitter updates, which were fine and dandy and richly deserved by someone who was being mean to service staff. Then he started sending her successive little notes, boasting later that he enjoyed goading her immensely, and had wine delivered to her with the comment “Hopefully if you drink it, your mouth won’t be able to talk”. After that, when Diane retorted via a note of her own that he had no compassion, he tried to have two little bottles of vodka delivered to her, and when the attendant refused, walked past her, leaning into her personal space to drop them onto her table. He then recorded the sort of thrill and fear this act brought to him, not unlike the excitement of a truant child who throws a rock through a neighbour’s window.

By Elan’s own admission, she was seeking help for this harassment. “She is pressing the call button a lot”, he reports, after his harassment first began to escalate. Then she wrote him a second note, asking him to stop interfering with her and threatening to involve the authorities. Probably realising how little support she would receive from any kind of authority, Elan disregarded her completely. Finally, at the point of exit for this flight, she walked up to him and slapped him for what must have been a horrible flight for her. And then what happened? Well, of course the guard at the point immediately restrained her, and urged Elan twice to call the cops on her.

The thing about her violence is this. Supposedly an entire long flight of harassment across the United States – during which she was supposedly extended no support, because Elan gloats that the male attendant “making a ‘let’s just pretend this never happened’ face” at him, and “shaking his head a lot” – because the woman was annoying and dismissive of the service staff. This is unbelievably out of proportion with her offence, and a terrible retaliation besides, because it does nothing to make the woman realise how awful she has been and inspire her to make amends, but instead fuels her belief that the universe is conspiring to mess with her. In return for the absurd harassment and emotional assault on her, Elan gets a slap in the face. Given his idea of vengeance, I’d say it was perfectly in proportion.

But because of his jackassery, someone who was just an irksome person escalated to becoming a potential jail-bird for at least a few hours, while he, the agent of this change, gets away scot-free, admitting his delight with himself and being lauded on media. And lauded on media is right, for the promotion of this piece on HuffPost’s side bar is this: “LOOK: Annoying Airplane Passenger Got Exactly What She Deserved”.

He later says, apparently, that it was class solidarity that made me him do it, because he had had low-level jobs and suffered women like Diane himself. It’s a pretty excuse, that completely doesn’t hold. First, as we said, he didn’t say a single thing to make Diane aware of her entitlement or rudeness, instead escalating the matter till violence erupted. Second, if anything, the incident shifted attention completely from a classist slight to a provocative harassing ‘prank’, and the self-adulatory playing-to-the-gallery on Twitter. If social justice was somehow served in the process, it has passed completely under my radar.

In short, on the day America unwittingly celebrates the massacre of its first people, Elan and fans of his little vigilante escapade can proudly add institutionalised immaturity misogyny to the list.

How to Make Enemies: Anti-terrorism Version

My friend M linked to a letter by Johns Hopkins professor Chris Callison-Burch, addressed to the president of the United States. It concerns the callous way in which the nation’s government took refuge behind bureaucratic opacity to flaunt their racist terror of a Middle-Eastern Muslim man — otherwise known as security ‘profiling’.

Of course, said man might turn out to be vewy vewy dangerous indeed, and oooh, how silly would C-B look then, but if that were indeed the case, then the process by which the US government and their privatised visa process blocked him was doubly stupid, for you do not want to humiliate and antagonise an enemy so potent.

What strikes me most about this incident, however, is the sneaky school-boyish trickery employed by the US Embassy. They lured Omar with the promise of ‘looking into’ the tearing-up of his ticket to US, and the moment he handed them his passport, stamped ‘CANCELLED’ all over it. Gotcha! Hee hee hee!

I wonder if they high-fived each other after he left.

On his return flight back to Baltimore to defend his thesis, he was not allowed to board his plane in Cairo. The flight staff tore up his ticket without explanation. He returned home to Jordan and went to the US embassy where they told him that nothing was wrong with his student visa. A week later, the embassy called him back to say that they had found the problem. They said that if he came in, they would fix it. Instead of fixing it, they stamped CANCELED across his student visa without explaining what was wrong, and refused to answer any questions as to why. They handed him a piece of paper saying that there was no appeal process and that he would have to re-apply for a visa. He did. The interview went perfectly well, but the application remained stuck in \Administrative Processing”. After months of waiting, we finally held his thesis defense via video conferencing, and Johns Hopkins University awarded him his PhD. Omar was unable to participate in the graduation ceremony since he was never allowed to return. Microsoft sought an H1B visa for him, but because of prolonged delays in securing that visa for Omar, the company has given up its efforts and instead placed him in its Cairo.

Omar is exactly the type of person who the US should be actively recruiting to come to the country. [For reasons cited, see the article.]

Postcards from Friends: New English Snow

Seeing my post about New England yearnings, a friend in the area very kindly sent me these two pictures of the last snowstorm that was mentioned in the comment section of the yearn-post.

I’m very touched. Isn’t it sweet to be in people’s thoughts? And isn’t technology a wonderful thing?

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New England, New England

For all that it is a beastly cold place (8 inches of snow and counting, says my old mate Tegan) and people don’t know what to do with their lovely seafood (boiled and dipped in butter. I ask you!), I rather like New England. And I rather miss it. There’s something about the blizzards and snow drift and constant rain that casts a charm. I’m damned if I know what it is exactly, but whatever it is, I miss it. Oh, Boston. You pretty, pretty thing. I wish I were back amongst your lovely old red brick.

Incidentally, Boston was also where I bought my first camera. I was a bloody awful photographer then, brand new and with no idea how to point it and what to shoot. ‘Still’, you might say, ‘you recorded all your happy memories. That counts for something!’ Hah. If only. By stupidity and sloppiness, I have since permanently deleted two years’ worth of photograhps from my hard drive. Many tears were spent over that spilt milk, I can tell you.

However! Praise be social media, I had uploaded a few of those pictures on Facebook. Not the best ones, just ones recording the first snow, the first snowman, and so on. Since I’m mourning the crisp coldness of those  New England mornings, glinting around the edges after a cleansing snow-storm, here is a set reminiscent of those days. Forgive the rank amateurness of the shots.

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