Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sugar- A bittersweet history

I bought this book from the legendary Citylights book shop in San Francisco.True to the history of the bookshop, this book entertains you to the core in spite of its rather scholarly structure. The writer, Elizabeth Abbot is the former Dean of Women Trinity College, University of Toronto. She explains the evolution of sugar production along with the anthropological milestones it achieved on its way. In today's world, where sugar has already caused enough havoc, it is amusing to read about the initial reactions to the sweetener. It was a regular custom at Royal gatherings to make plates and spoons out of sugar and eat the cutlery when the dinner was over. To regale the grand audience, sometimes sculptures were made out of sugar. Sugar sculpture was a booming business in the early eighteenth century. Hollow sculptures were built around live doves and frogs. When the guests ate enough of the sculpture, the helpless birds flew out for their lives and the frogs jumped at the ladies' elaborate dressing gowns. Crazy as it may sound, in today's health and safety obsessed world, it was a big part of entertaining guests for rich people.
During the industrial revolution, sugar fueled the workers in factories in the form of tea breaks. The concept of high tea evolved during this time, when working women could not organize elaborate meals for the family.
This is just one face of sugar-evolution. It has a more serious and almost literally, dark face. Sugar Industry started slave trade across Africa. African slaves were sent to all the European colonies to work in cane fields. Abbot describes the plight of sugar slaves in well referenced, yet immensely moving descriptions. Although blacks were considered totally inferior to the whites, white men did not hesitate to devour their women. After a few generations of inter-racial mixing, the masters devised, like the writer puts it 'bizarre and complex' ways to categorize the offspring.
The offspring of a black and white was a mulatto. The offspring of a mulatto and a black was a sambo; the offspring of a sambo and a black was a black. The offspring of a mulatto and a white was a quadroon; the offspring of a quadroon and a white was a mustee; the offspring of a white and a mustee was a musteephino; the offspring of a musteephino and a white was a quintroon and the offspring of a quintroon and a white was an octoroon. Most of the last two classifications were 'white' enough to pass off as whites and therefore were considered whites!
Brazilian, French and Spanish sugar colonies had racial distinctions with as many as 128 permutations of mixes between native and white, native and black and native and mestizos (people of mixed European and native ancestry).
Skin color dictated the amount of back-breaking labor the slaves were 'destined' to perform. Slaves with a lighter skin tone were given domestic duties. As the skin tone got darker and darker the jobs went further away into the hot cane fields. This also lead to an establishment of hierarchy between the slaves which served the master's ultimate objective of keeping the slaves divided.
As the French chefs were inventing their irresistible chocolate mousse, slaves in Haiti and Jamaica were taking whiplashes on empty stomachs. Ironically, just like her creators, even sugar was subjected to color discrimination. Initially it came in a brown loaf, just like bread, as it was coated with molasses. However, towards the end of the eighteenth century sugar refining became just as lucrative as sugar plantation. The colonizers started shipping raw sugar back to the refineries in Europe in order to keep a monopoly in making the finest white sugar.
As the British strong hold in cane sugar manufacturing increased, Napoleon commissioned his scholars to discover ways of making sugar from sugar beet. Beet sugar is still produced in parts of Europe with climate that is unfavorable for sugarcane. Sugar trade played an important part in post-war treaties.
As the men and women in England began to realize the abject exploitation behind their cups of tea, an abolition movement was started. This motivated the British to move bases to East India (or India). The East Indian sugar was free of exploitation as it was not made by slaves.

Before I read this book, I had never thought of globalization in this perspective. Sugar trade put Africans in Louisiana and Florida, Indians in Fiji and South Africa and led to so much of mixing of races even in a time where it was completely against the social structure. And as sugar refining met international standards with the help of scientific commissions like ICUMSA, the minds and motives behind the commodity also underwent great refinement. My mother works as a referee to ICUMSA. It is not unusual now for black, brown, white, male and female sugar scientists to sit together at a table and exchange methods. However, if we look back to the times when it all started, this day feels like some sort of a Divine intervention!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Fusion Food

I have had ample moments of "stupid enlightenment". It is when you arrive at a certain thought or a phrase on your own, only to find out later (courtesy-Google), that it has been arrived at and published decades before you were even conceived. "Fusion Food" is one such phrase. My usual way to unwind after work is call my mom. I give her an account of my extremely banal life by adding some spice to it. Not the dishonest kind though. I believe that you can only fit your curves the way you want. You have no moral right to create new data points. Anyway, I should get to the point before the nerd in me comes to life.
Owing to my obvious aversion towards talking about work, I end up giving my mom accounts of my culinary adventures. She has made herself a place in her circle with her empirically established epicurean tastes and likes to pass judgment, for no reason, on the food others cook. Since I volunteer to place my neck between the blades of her guillotine, I end up enjoying her judgments to a great extent.
What I like about her judgment is that she ends up anthropomorphizing all the ingredients.
"What did you cook for dinner last night?"
"I made Greek Easter Soup"
" Really? What are the ingredients?"
"I used chicken, mushrooms and spring onion"
"Oh! Poor spring onion. Why would you put a nice green vegetable like that in a soup with chicken and mushroom?"
"The recipe said so. Actually the recipe says we should use entrails of lamb and other animals that are slaughtered. I replaced that with chicken because you cannot buy entrails without the animals around them"
"That is just disgusting! I won't be able to get over this for a while. Why can't you cook normal food?"
I have no idea what "normal food" means. She thinks I am taking advantage of the innocence of my flatmates when I cook roast vegetables for them.
"How can you just chop pumpkin, zucchini, eggplant and onion and toss it in the oven without any spice? And they agree to do the dishes in exchange of THAT?"
"No! I add spice. Basil and chili flakes. I coat all of that with lots of olive oil too!"

The other day, when I told her that I made chole with Spanish chorizo, she requested me not to share my bizarre recipes with her anymore. She pulls a Raj Thakrey at the idea of making a cheese sandwich with Maharashtrian dry potato curry. She finds it culturally threatening that when I have my friends over, I sometimes serve mixed vegetables and paneer with tzaziki. When I told her that tzaziki is actually made from cucumber and yogurt with just an addition of garlic and vinegar she almost accused the Greeks of plagiarism. Indeed it is quite plausible that Alexander the Great allured one of her great^n grandmothers and stole her recipe of kakdichi koshimbir on his way out. Then when he was back in his home town entertaining his ten thousandth girl/boyfriend he suddenly ran out of mustard seeds and decided to replace them with garlic and vinegar instead!

Today, I was describing to her what we had for dinner last night. My new flatmate from New Zealand cooked a "fish pie". The ingredients of which are as follows :-
1. (Mandatory) canned fish fillets
2. Boiled, mashed potato
3. (Mandatory) canned corn
4. Hard boiled eggs
5. Half a kilo of cheese
6. Tomato
The end result was too much even for a left/liberal foodizen like me. In fact, the consistency and the appearance of the end result was too much even for the cook. So we were thinking about a makeover for the leftovers. Amongst things like deep-fried fish pie balls, fish pie popsicle, fish pie soup (5 times dilution),etc., we also ended up creating a fish-pie-roast-veggie-sandwich.
And instead of her usual state of horror, my mom surprised me with her two cents. Fish-pie thalipeeth and fish-pie kothimbir vadi. Making me write about it was her idea too. I am sure she would be a bit miffed with the way I paint her!
Kudos to you aai. I dream of the day when I can make you eat all that I cook!

Friday, April 02, 2010


We still live the story of Adam and Eve
That began with a simple,
Unambiguous Divine instruction,
Of not eating the Fruit of Knowledge.
The innocent, primeval couple left it
Faithfully unquestioned, until..
Their oblivious bliss was choked
Between the glistening coils,
Of a slithering serpent from Hell.
It spun a web of irresistible
Almost compulsive attraction around Eve
And Eve gave in.

She could not hold herself back
From the Fruit, she surrendered!
And the coiling Serpent left,
With the scars of a million Births
On her primal, unsure Womb.

I love Eve.
Even the Garden of Eden faded
In the light of her careless Blunder
And Adam was dragged with her
Into the river of abysmal Sorrow.
Not just Adam, but the entire
Human existence as well!

Although they both created it,
Adam is just the Reason of Chance,
But Eve, in all her beauty,
Is the sole,Reason and Agent of Choice..

She appeals to me, not for the Philosophy
That surrounds her.
I like her way of self-surrender.
She chose her inevitable destiny
To have the fruit
And Lust was born.

Lust, is a labyrinth..
Eve may have given us
A lifetime of suffering
But she is also the one
Who opened this labyrinth for us
And showed us the beauty of
An unassuming, empirical God
That is silently superior
To the Obvious.

That is the debt humanity owes her
And can never pay her back!
She stands like a Goddess
In our circles of Lust and Sorrow
Because of her very first surrender..

(Translation of a Grace Poem from Marathi)