Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Please Pass the Sauerkraut!

Last week, I walked into the library and spotted the latest book by Robin Hobb winking at me from the New Arrivals shelf. I danced a little jig (which the librarians completely understood), and took the  heavy, shiny new book to my house, where I devoured it over the course of three or four days.

But normally, as you know, I am very careful about when I allow myself to read fiction, taking into consideration my ability to completely and utterly forsake every other activity--such as feeding the children, showering, or working--until I've finished the last word.

It's an addiction. I admit it.

So my last checkout, which was a non-fiction book, totally surprised me by being just as readable as any fiction novel. I've pored over it and neglected stuff almost as much as when I read fiction, only because there are no characters or plot line in which to become personally invested, I have an easier time putting it down. Still, it's fascinating.

The book is The Art of Fermentation: An In-depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World (with practical information on fermenting vegetables, fruits, grains, milk, beans, meats, and more) by Sandor Ellix Katz. Who wouldn't want to tear into something with that intriguing title? And, since I have had great success in making my own delicious fermented sauerkraut and rejuvelac (a beverage made by soaking whole grains in water), I was hooked.

Katz's previous book, Wild Fermentation: the Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Food offers more specific recipes and how-to's, but The Art of Fermentation takes you around the world to get a peek at how globally prevalent fermentation is as a method of food storage as well as cultural cuisine. Before refrigeration and electricity were the norm, people had to preserve foods in other ways. Fermentation not only preserves foods for long periods of time, but those foods provide a great deal of nutrition along with their rich flavors.

Fermentation is the process of encouraging specific, desirable cultures of bacteria (or, in some cases, mold) to begin breaking down the sugars, fibers, and cell walls of a food before consumption. The fermenting process literally pre-digests the food, allowing your body to reap greater benefits from the now unlocked nutrients that are normally trapped within. The environment of a successful ferment also prevents the growth of the types of bacteria that spoil or putrify fresh food and cause illness or even death (I'm looking at you, Clostridium botulinum!).

Americans probably don't consider just how much of our food is fermented. There are the obvious alcoholic beverages, of course, but we regularly consume fermented vegetables (pickles of all sorts, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.), dairy (yogurt, kefir, cheeses, sour cream, buttermilk), meats (salamis, sausages), breads (sourdoughs) and others. Commercial food production has taken so many shortcuts that we are no longer likely to get truly fermented food products on the grocery store shelves anymore, but the ones we do buy and eat were originally based on truly fermented food.

Truly fermented food, though it can be an acquired taste, is so good for you. The same bacteria that make up a healthy human gut also populate fermented foods, so when you eat real ferments, you are strengthening your gut. Gut health is largely ignored by Western medicine, but when you have a healthy gut, you have a healthy body. Prescription medications, antibiotics, junk food, and refined foods are insidious because they cause a massive imbalance in the gut flora and fauna. This imbalance allows one or two strains of microbes to overproduce, which is why so many people suffer from an overgrowth of Candida yeast, for instance. When the gut is healthy, microbes grow in a balanced, beneficial way, and work to extract the nutrients from the whole foods you eat and distribute them to your blood stream, cells, and tissues. If you have an imbalance, the yeasts and bacteria that become too prevalent demand the foods they love--usually sugar and simple carbohydrates. The gut can no longer adequately break down and absorb nutrients, and your gut becomes severely damaged, leading to chronic diseases and inflammation of the entire body.

I'm not sure I'm ready for fermented mare's milk, but I don't live on the Mongolian steppes, where mare's milk is one of the primary sources of food. But I would love to step up my fermenting experimentation with more vegetables, grains, and dairy and use some of the methods that other cultures have used. Asian cultures, especially, have perfected fermentation. I would love to try making my own tempeh (which is actually culturing mold, not bacteria), for instance. Or Japanese koji, which is similar to tempeh but also uses rice or barely as substrates on which to culture the right mold.

My cabbage sauerkraut is going to get some other vegetable additions, too. And rejuvelac and other beneficial, non-alcoholic fermented beverages are so exciting to me. Kombucha, anyone?

I haven't been more successful at ferments simply because I haven't gotten into the rhythm of taking care of them. Ferments, starters, and cultures are kind of like pets in that they need regular attention in order to thrive. If you start small, I'm sure you get accustomed to it gradually, both in developing a taste for fermented foods and getting better at nurturing them to maturity.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

It's Not about My Ego: It's about What Needs to be Done

I'm doing some contract work for the company that just laid me off.

Hey, it's money, and while I look for another job, it helps boost the budget.

My contact is the president who delivered the bad news last week, and we're both trying to figure out how this works now. It really is like being dumped and then having your ex ask if you still want to be friends, and then both of you figuring out what the new boundaries are and how you're going to communicate. For instance, can I still talk to all of his friends (my former co-workers) who used to be my friends, too? Do I log in to their communication and organization software in order to move assignments along like I used to, or do I only communicate to them through my contact?


I like them all fine. They are good, upstanding people. But I cannot lie and say that it doesn't kill me just a little to have to accept contract work from them. I'd much rather find some awesome new job and then tell them I'm too busy so they can find someone else to do the contract writing and we can all be on an equal footing once again.

Meanwhile, I will be researching and writing extensively about one of my least favorite subjects: golf. Golf! I've only ever played mini-golf, but I am writing to an audience of avid golfers, so my work is definitely cut out for me.

I am also polishing up my resume and looking around at my options.

Monday, October 5, 2015

"Pardes," a Fun Adventure into Indian Patriotism and Hip Hop

I've been watching a movie in pieces. It's a long show--over three hours--so maybe it won't surprise you when I tell you it's a Bollywood film. I would watch a few minutes here or there during a break or while I ate lunch, but today I finished watching it. I mean, what else do I have to do, except a million things on my to-do list?

Pardes (translated as "Foreign Land") was released in 1997, the 100th-year anniversary of India's freedom from British rule (and this explains the very strong patriotic "I Heart India" slant of the entire film). It stars Shah Rukh Khan as the male lead, Arjun, and Mahima Chaudhry as the female lead, Ganga, with a couple of mainstays of Indian cinema such as Amrish Puri, who must have had a lifetime contract to never be portrayed as irredeemably bad even if the characters he played were almost always stubborn and arrogant (Puri died in 2005).

All the way through the thing, I was very aware of the cultural and political undertones of the plot line. I'm not nearly savvy enough with the Indian culture, however, to also catch any nuances like subtle sarcasm or satire, so I am not entirely sure if the way they portrayed the American culture was  grossly heavy-handed by accident or was just a humorous wink-and-a-nod for Indians who have lived in or who have relatives in the U.S. After I got over being slightly offended at having all Americans stereotyped as shallow and materialistic, it was funny to watch the director mimic some of the tricks of American soap operas: the well-dressed woman full of nefarious schemes and the lingering shots of the scheming woman's face, her mind whirling through further nefarious plots and plans. (FYI, this side story did little to further the overall plot, but it was amusing nonetheless.)

STOP READING HERE UNLESS YOU WANT A FULL REPORT OF THE PLOT. I can't think why you would. Are you bored? If you're that bored, you can watch the full three-plus hours of the movie on Netflix Instant Watch. Be sure to note all the political messages embedded within. Enjoy the fact that the characters constantly break into song and dance. Relish Shah Ruhk Khan's million or so patented soulful glances.

But if you're game, read on. Spoiler alert.

The plot is as follows: a young, beautiful Indian farm girl named Ganga (Chaudhry) enchants her father's visiting friend (Puri), who is a NRI (Non-Resident Indian) who has made it big in America and has wealth beyond measure. During a visit to his childhood friend's rural farm in his beloved India, the wealthy man asks for the daughter's hand in marriage for his thoroughly Americanized son, Rajiv. Ganga, the perfect example of a pure, sweet Indian girl, will save his son and family from further Western corruption when she comes to live with them in some unnamed American city.

Against the wishes of the mother, aunt, and grandmother, Ganga's father accepts the suit, and Ganga prepares to meet her handsome suitor when he arrives for his first-ever visit to India. Accompanying Rajiv is Arjun, a man who was taken in as an orphan by Rajiv's father and who has served him humbly and loyally ever since. Arjun was born and partly raised in India, so he guides Rajiv through some of India's strange customs (it's interesting to see India-as-a-foreign-land through the eyes of an Indian director).

Rajiv courts Ganga, who finds him suave and handsome. But Ganga develops a friendship with Arjun, as well, whom she trusts to tell her the truth about Rajiv. Arjun, eager to fulfill his assignment from his adopted father to make sure this lovely pure girl marries Rajiv and saves them all as good Indians, glosses over Rajiv's flaws and reassures Ganga that Rajiv is a nice guy and will make a good husband.

Arjun wisely convinces all parties that Ganga should have a chance to visit America before the wedding, since she will be living there and will need to become accustomed to the culture. In order to keep things completely proper, Rajiv and Ganga are formally betrothed before the trip so that the neighbor's gossiping tongues will be stilled.

Once in America, Ganga begins to realize that Rajiv is not the man she thought he was. Like all Americans (including all his relatives), he is corrupt, immoral, materialistic, and completely self-centered. Ganga accuses Arjun of lying to her about Rajiv, but although Arjun realizes he is in love with Ganga, he is too loyal to his adopted father to either steal Ganga away from the increasingly violent Rajiv or even admit to Ganga that Rajiv is a pretty nasty piece of work. Instead, he vows to never see Ganga again and leaves quietly after Rajiv's father senses romantic trouble brewing and creates a business position for Arjun in the faraway city of Los Angeles.

Finally, Ganga runs away from Rajiv after he attempts to rape her during a trip to Las Vegas, and she ends up alone on the mean streets of Sin City. Arjun, alerted to her disappearance (and who happens to also be in Las Vegas, for some reason), manages to find her. At first, he urges her to go back to Rajiv and his family, but she absolutely refuses. When he realizes that Rajiv has attempted to rape Ganga, Arjun accompanies her back to India to return her to her family.

Back in India, Ganga's father is furious with Ganga. He refuses to believe that she is not having an improper relationship with Arjun or that Rajiv is not perfectly upstanding, and a phone call from Rajiv's father convinces him that Ganga is guilty of all of his suspicions. Arjun intercedes before Ganga's father can actually kill her with a sword. Arjun is forced to leave the house, and Ganga is locked into a room to await Rajiv's and his father's arrival.

Meanwhile, Ganga's female relatives and siblings work to get her out and away from the house before she suffers an honor killing. The climax occurs as Ganga, Arjun, Rajiv, Rajiv's father, and Ganga's father and grandmother all end up at some ancient ruins. The young men start battling it out with sticks and fists. Rajiv and his cohorts manage to beat Arjun nearly senseless, but Arjun finally rallies enough to give Rajiv a proper whoopin', just as Rajiv's and Ganga's fathers show up to witness the goings on. Arjun, bloodied and handsome, delivers an impassioned speech to his adopted father in which he admits he lied to Ganga about the rascal Rajiv because of his loyalty to his father and then asserts that he never did anything improper with Ganga, even though he also admits he loves her and always will. Then he sweeps up his backpack and dramatically stalks past Ganga and out into the Indian sunset.

Rajiv's father gives it some thought in the pause that follows, during which Ganga's grandmother pops up from between the columns to deliver some wise words. Finally, Rajiv's father gravely announces that Ganga is still his daughter, as per the agreement he made with Ganga's father. But Ganga will not marry Rajiv, who has been exposed as the cad he is. No, she will marry Arjun, the true son of India.

Thrilled, everyone runs around looking for Arjun, who has gone back to the farm and has been patched up by the children. Arjun's adopted father warmly embraces him, and then Ganga shows up, running down the road towards them (where the heck was she when everyone else was looking for Arjun?). Ganga warmly embraces her own father, the loyalty of a daughter to her father allowing  her to overlook the fact that he was ready to kill her a few short hours earlier. Arjun's and Ganga's eyes meet lovingly over their father's respective shoulders.

I'm not kidding when I tell you that Shah Rukh Khan is the master of soulful glances, with or without a sincere welling up of real tears and a trembling of the lips. You tell me if it gets to be a bit much by the end of the film. Although I enjoyed it for the most part, I did find myself yelling exasperated advice to the characters on the screen, but I imagine I did that because my corrupt, immoral, materialistic, and self-centered American tendencies blind me to the beauty other cultures and their practices, such as blaming the woman for being raped. I admit that. Otherwise, fun movie.