Monday, May 23, 2011

Nothing In The Dark - The Twilight Zone

A still photograph from the episode of The Twilight Zone
Nothing In The Dark 1962

There was an old woman who lived in a room, and like all of us, was frightened of the dark, but who discovered in a minute last fragment of her life that there was nothing in the dark that wasn't there when the lights were on.  Object lesson for the more frightened amongst us, in or out of The Twilight Zone - Rod Serling

Wanda Dunn, the elderly woman (played by Gladys Cooper), lives in an old abandoned building that has been ordered to be demolished.  She has victimized herself by the fear of "Mr. Death" and has not left the room in many years.  She is tormented by the fear of dying and daily lives a vivid nightmare, that "Mr. Death" is waiting for her outside.

One day, she hears loud gunshot sounds right outside of her door. She is frightened by the sound and opens the door just a crack and peeks out fearfully. There is a young man (played by Robert Redford), laying wounded on the ground, and claims that he is a police officer by the name of Harold Beldon.  He begs her to help him as he is bleeding, and is in need of a doctor.

She explains to him that she cannot open the door as she has a firm belief that "death" is out there and ready to take her if she leaves the comfort of her room and steps outside. The door is what separates her to her doom. She somehow knows the officer is there to claim her as everyone outside is suspect.

After much convincing by the wounded officer, she opens the door and brings him inside. She spends several days nursing him to better health while she expresses to him her fears of "Mr. Death".

She believes "Mr. Death" is out there and everywhere and he shows up knocking at her door. One week he knocked and claimed he was from the gas company, after that he knocked on her door again, claiming he was a contractor hired by the city.  But she knows it's "him", so she refuses to open the door.

Her fear began many years ago, while she was riding on a bus. Sitting in front of her was an old woman knitting. Then a young man got on, and even though there were empty seats, he sat down beside her. The man did not speak at all, but his presence upset the old woman. She noticed that the young man touched the old woman's hand after picking up the yarn that had fallen on the floor. The young man got off, but when the bus reached the end of the line she was dead.

Now she believes to see the young man everywhere. Every time someone she knows dies, he seems to always be there. He shows up disguised like an ordinary person.  A person you would not notice unless you were "watching".

The old woman tells the officer, "I would rather live in the dark, than to not live at all".

One last time there is a knock on the door. She refuses to open, but the wounded officer convinces her that there is nothing to fear. When she finally goes to the door, a contractor, with an evicting order, forces himself inside, knocking her down.

She begs Harold for help, but the contractor does not see Harold at all. Wanda looks in the mirror, but sees the bed empty where Harold is lying, but not Harold himself.  She realizes that Harold, is in fact "Death", and has come to take her with him.

After the contractor leaves, Death explains to her that he set her up that way so that she would stop fearing and go with him peacefully.  She thinks he has tricked and betrayed her trust.  He convinces her that he is gentle and that her life will end, but at the same time begin.

He says, "Mother, give me your hand." She is finally convinced to touch him.  "You see. No shock.  No engulfment.  No tearing asunder.  What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper.  What you thought was the end is the beginning."

She is standing beside her body laying on the bed and the old woman and Death walk together through the doorway, out of the darkness and into the sunlight.

Stunningly filmed to express the light and the dark, interpreting life and death, this is one of my favorite episodes of the collection of The Twilight Zone, by the mastermind Rod Serling. Directed by Lamont Johnson, it is a testament and a reminder of death and a world beyond our control.

The episode also reminds us that death is not worth being preoccupied with as it only results in a life not worth living.  

Rod Serling - Creator of The Twilight Zone

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chapulines - An ancestral tradition in Oaxaca

Chapulines at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, Oaxaca, Mexico
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008 All Rights Reserved

There is a local myth that says:  If you eat chapulines from Oaxaca, then you never leave.   It translates to:  If you eat Oaxaca's extraordinary cuisine, then you take a piece of Oaxaca with you and you will return again. 

Situated in Southwestern Mexico, Oaxaca is bordered by the states of Guerrero to the west, Puebla to the northwest, Veracruz to the north,  and Chiapas to the east and as a bonus:  the Pacific Ocean as its backyard,  drawing tourists from all over the world.  It is indeed a paradise that meets all the senses.

The state is best known for its indigenous peoples and cultures, and for its exotic indigenous cuisine.  In 2010, Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its lists of the world's "intangible cultural heritage".  

Oaxaca's regional cuisine is considered exceptional, and a trip to the markets uncovers just how unique and exotic the gastronomical experience is.  To foreigners, there is a peculiar snack that causes second thoughts.  But to the people of Mexico, this snack or "botanita", is a delicious protein packed delicacy: Chapulines.

The word chapulin is specific to Mexico and derives from the native Nahuatl language.  They have been collected and eaten as a food source for thousands of years and are known as comida prehispanica, or prehispanic food.

Chapulines are grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium. Indeginous to the region, they are collected only at certain times of the year, (from their hatching in early May through the late summer/early autumn). After being thoroughly cleaned and washed, they are roasted on a comal (clay cooking surface) with garlic, chile, lime juice and sal de gusano (salt made from the roasted maguey worm), making them crunchy, sour-spicy-salty, and may I add adictively delicious. 

The chapulin is an important and indispensable food source for the locals.  During the harvest season, it is very common to see large groups of people collecting them in the milpas, or maize fields.  They provide nutrition as well as income for the locals during the traditional Lent season.  

There are two kinds of chapulines that are harvested.  The one that can be collected from within the maize fields, and the one that can be collected from the banks of the fields.  The first is considered best in size and flavor, as they feed on the corn fields.  The second are smaller in size and they feed mostly on grasses and brush, making them a little bitter in taste.  

Many cultures eat insects.  It is termed as entomophagy (from Greek éntomos, "insect(ed)", and phăgein, "to eat") it is the consumption of insects as food.  However, in some societies it is uncommon, even considered taboo.  It is very rare in modern countries, but in Mexico, there is little to no concern over modern taboos.  Chapulines are eaten to the hearts content.  They are an excellent source of protein, calcium, zinc, vitamins and minerals, and they contain no fat.   
A tlayuda with chapulines
They are served alone as a street snack, or in the cantinas with an ice cold beer, or in tacos with guacomole and salsa.   For a more complete and healthy snack,  they are served on tlayudas.  The tlayuda is a large handmade tortilla that is toasted over coals, then covered with a thin layer of refried beans, shredded lettuce or cabbage, guacamole, and topped with roasted chapulines, smoky salsa, and for coolness, a little drizzle of mexican crema.  It is heaven to the adventurous foodies, and for those whom care to venture out into the extraordinary.

Para Español

Monday, May 9, 2011

Madhubani Paintings

In the Mithila region lies a small village in Bihar, an eastern state in India, called Madhubani, dotted with small clay and straw huts, and quiet with its tranquil and serene village life.  What makes this village standout is its internationally acclaimed school of folk art painting named after the village: Madhubani.  The village name itself literally translates to forests of honey.

The origin of this Asian folk art is traced back to epic periods, perhaps during the time of the Ramayana, when King Janak commissioned artists to paint the walls at the time of the marriage of his daughter Sita, to Lord, Ram.  

Villagers had the tradition of painting walls of their newly plastered huts for the purpose of ceremonial rituals as well as for the beautification of their homes.  Creativity was personal and original and artists relied on nature and mythological figures as the main themes to be painted.  Hindu deities were given utmost importance, followed by regional flora and fauna.  

To mark the seasonal festivals, many village walls were painted according to the honored festivity on the calendar.  Life cycles, especially the rite of marriage, was given special treatment when depicted on the walls.  The asian art in khobar or the nuptial room at the brides house was decorated in such a way to bestow a blissful life on the newly married couple.  There never failed to be painted in abundance images of fertility, love, and conjugality.  

Other symbols include the moon, considered the source of heavenly nectar, the sun to fertilize and impregnate turtles to bring beneficent powers to the matrimonial alliance, parrots to symbolize the couple and fish as a mirror of fertility.  

Animals are depicted in a naturalistic form, but the human figure is painted mostly abstract and linear.  The colors are mostly simple with no shading.  For the outlines, a double line is drawn, with the gaps between the lines filled with cross lines mostly in black inc.  In very traditional paintings, the colors are all extracted from plants.  

Today, artists render their art on handmade paper, cloth and canvas.  Stories are painted to reflect the modern times and modern experiences, but still with an emphasis on preserving the old methods of painting with natural dies. 

Madhubani painting has traditionally been taught and passed on from families to newer generations and by nature the style has remained unchanged, mostly painted by the women.   Each family makes patterns and templates that they keep for the purpose of repeating the motifs in a skillful manner, in which they can produce works of art a lot faster.  

The brushes are made by wrapping a bamboo stick with cotton.  The dyes are prepared to obtain colors mostly as follows:  black is obtained by mixing soot with cow dung; yellow from tumeric or pollen or lime, and the milk of banyan leaves; blue from indigo; red from the kusam flower juice or red sandalwood; green from the leaves of the wood apple tree; white from rice powder and orange from palasha flowers.  


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mojito - The cocktail that casts a spell

mo·ji·to/mōˈhētō/ or little spell.  
In the 1930's, during the prohibition era in the US, Cuba was enjoying a very cool and refreshing cocktail called Mojito.  The pleasure of this relaxing drink consists of rum, sugar, preferably raw, "hierbabuena" or mint, lime and soda water. 

It is believed it was invented in a restaurant bar called La Bodeguita del Medio, right in the heart of  the colonial port city, La Habana.  At the time, Cuba was one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. 

The name Mojito comes from the African word mojo, which means to place a little spell on all those who drink it.  Some historians contend that African slaves who worked in the Cuban sugar cane fields during the 19th century were instrumental in the cocktail's origin.  The slaves concocted a popular drink made from distilled sugar cane juice called 'guarapo'.  The sweet nectar was drank alone or used in cooking sweets and eventually used in Mojitos.
Another theory referring to the origin of the name relates to mojo, a Cuban marinade made from lime or orange juice, spices and herbs, and used to flavor dishes.
In spanish Mojito is simply a derivative of 'mojadito', which means "a little wet", or simply the dimunitve of "mojado" (wet).
But every great cocktail must have a legendary story to spice up it's origin.  Sir Francis Drake, appears in the weaving of this story.  In 1586, in an effort to control the riches from the America's, Queen Elizabeth I of England, sponsored and encouraged pirates to plunder Spanish cities in the New World.  One such character was Francis Drake, whose job was to sack Cuba where the Spanish crown kept hidden Aztec gold, previously taken out of Mexico.  When King Philip II of Spain, got word of this news, he warned his governor in Cuba of Captain Drakes plan, and the city had time to prepare.  

Fourteen pirate sails appeared off the coast of Cuba and waited there for several days.  Captain Drake did not set foot on the port, he sailed away from the island giving up after firing only a few shots.  

Captain Drake did not plunder La Havana, but his subordinate, Richard Drake, left a legacy of a drink called the Drake or "El Drako" (meaning the dragon).  The invention of the recipe consisted of "aguardiente", the crude predecessor of rum, sugar, lime and mint.  It was mostly consumed for medicinal purposes during one of the worst epidemics of cholera (spread by trade routes by the Europeans) to attack the population of La Havana.  

In the mid 1800's, refining the production of rum, Don Facundo Bacardi established the original Bacardi Company.  The original recipe for the Drake was altered, replacing the 'aguardiente' for rum, then becoming a Mojito.  

La Bodeguita De Cuba
La Havana, Cuba
The cocktail reached it's glamourous popularity when people from the US, whom were escaping a prohibition of alcohol, travelled to Cuba for their vacations.  Since the late 1930's, American mobsters had been involved in Cuban gaming.  It was the gathering point for America's top gangsters, as well as celebrities.  

Ernest Hemingway
"My Mojito in La Bodeguita"
Of notable repute, one such celebrity whom enjoyed the Mojito everyday, was Nobel Prize laureate American writer Ernest Hemingway.  He made a permanent home for himself in La Havana and  frequented every afternoon the bar La Bodeguita del Medio.  It is here where he wrote and published in 1952 his last novel The Old Man and the Sea, set in Santiago, Cuba.  

The Mojito, made its way to Key West, and much of the credit for introducing it into the US goes to Ernest Hemingway.  Due to the geographic proximity of only 90 miles, the transportation of beer and rum from Cuba to Key West during the Prohibition, made the drink ever more popular.  

Then came Miami and the South Beach scene, where it became the drink of choice.  Being a major holiday destination, tourists spread the joy of the cocktail to New York where it became trendy in the Soho clubs and from there spreading all over the world.

To enjoy a Mojito: 
  • Light Rum
  • Lime
  • Sugar
  • Mint
  • Soda Water

Quantities for one drink:

  • 2-3 oz Light Rum
  • Juice of 1 Lime (1 oz)
  • 2 tsp Sugar
  • 2-4 Mint Sprigs
  • Soda Water

Blending Instructions:

  • Lightly muddle the mint and sugar with a splash of soda water in a mixing glass until the sugar dissolve and you smell the mint
  • Squeeze the lime into the glass, add rum and shake with ice
  • Strain over cracked ice in a highball glass
  • Top with soda water, garnish with mint sprig and serve