His charming eccentricities were known on every side
The creatures’ popularity was wonderfully wide
He frolocked with the Rector in a dozen friendly tussles
Who could not but remark on his hippopotamuscles
If he should be affected by depression or the dumps
By hippopotameasles or the hippopotamumps
I never knew a particle of peace ’till it was plain
He was hippopotamasticating properly again
I had a Hippopotamus, I loved him as a friend
But beautiful relationships are bound to have an end
Time takes alas! our joys from us and rids us of our blisses
My hippopotamus turned out to be a hippopotamisses
My house keeper regarded him with jaundice in her eye
She did not want a colony of hippotami
She borrowed a machine gun from from her soldier nephew, Percy
And showed my hippopotamus no hippopotamercy
My house now lacks that glamour that the charming creature gave
The garage where I kept him is now as silent as the grave
No longer he displays among the motor tyres and spanners
His hippopomastery of hippopotamanners
No longer now he gambols in the orchards in the spring
No longer do I lead him through the village on a string
No longer in the morning does the neighbourhood rejoice
To his hippopotamusically-meditated voice
I had a hippopotamus but nothing upon earth
Is constant in its happines or lasting in its mirth
No joy that life can give me can be strong enough to smother
My sorrow for that might-have-been-a-hippopota-mother
My son gave me the most thoughtful gift on Mother’s Day- this story!
I stumbled, tripping over a loose rock on the road. ‘Damn it’, I thought to myself. ‘Stay focussed’. I glanced at my watch. Twelve minutes to go, and about ten minutes of walking lay ahead of me. This was cutting it fine. Into thin slices? Too thin and you’d have the equivalent of a paste, with no real sliced texture; you’d be better off shredding, or even just blending… I stopped that train of thought. ‘Focus’, I told myself, diverting my attention to the road in front of me. It was always too easy to get lost in the details; where you would meet with the devil, right? The devil being in the details? Bah. Whatever. I quickened my pace, kicking a wet stone out of the way.
The road was blackened by moisture from the early morning due. The air was chilly, winding its way into the nooks and crannies of my jacket, raking its icy tendrils against my warm flesh. Damn, I hated the morning cold. Especially when under-slept and under-nourished. The latter part was ironic, considering I had been spending the last month and a half preparing for a gourmet food competition. You’d think I’d eat more, being a cook and all.
There are three types of cooks in the world. The first are those who cook to eat. These are the happiest of cooks: the classical fat and jolly chefs, with their healthy jowls and infectious grins. These are the people who have found that enlightened alignment of occupation and vocation, doing what they love and loving what they do. Yet, that means that such a cook is easily satisfied with their creation, and focusses more on quantity than quality. The cook who enjoys his food is ultimately cursed with satisfaction with mediocrity. I will never say that such a cook does not make good food, but it is rare for them to make great food.
The second type of cook is the one who makes for others. This is a truly pathetic beast, and I loathe these poor devils with all my heart. Well, with my entire professional… heart? I loathe them from a professional standpoint, is what I mean. These are the cooks who cook for employment, and not for achievement. These are the people who work at mess halls and fast food joints. They don’t create meals, they assemble them.
Finally, there are the cooks who strive to achieve something more. The cooks who don’t just produce, and don’t even create, but who sculpt and mould and paint and give birth. The cooks who are as much artists are they are producers of nutrition. These cooks are never satisfied with food, and will always think of how to improve and innovate. These are the cooks who seek perfection.
I think of myself as the third type of cook. Which is why I hate the food I make. I can never stomach my own meals. Even those creations of mine which my kith and kin rave about; I can only manage a few bites before I am plagued with a bitter sense of dissatisfaction, and I find mistakes and imperfections. Something might be wrong with the texture of one bite, or the tastes might not be what I intended. Anyhow, I quickly discard most of my culinary creations. Of course, by discard, I mean give them to my friends and associates, who are more than willing to devour my work with gusto. I derive some pleasure from seeing their appreciation.
So how exactly do I stay alive? Well, that is thanks to my mentor. The Boss, as we call her. A prodigious chef and the one person whose appreciation I truly seek. There are not words to describe her food, and I will not dare try to find them. I will only submit this analogy: if the world was a desert, and the greatest of cooks were those who could generate drops of drinking water, the Boss would be a freshwater river, flowing with the sweetest, most quenching water that you had ever experienced. I would be not but skin and bones if not for her cooking.
Of course, the reason she is called the Boss is that… well, she is the fire in which the strongest chefs are forged; and for that, the fire must burn unimaginably hot. Each year, she takes on about a hundred new apprentices. Each year, about five of those new remain. She does not care for cooks of the first kind, and definitely not of the second kind. Only the best of the third kind can pass her muster, and even then, many of them break.
I glance at my watch. Three minutes left. Uh oh. I look up. The building is right ahead of me. I should be there in under a minute. I pick up my pace.
The trials and tribulations endured with the Boss is a tale for another time. To cut a long story short, I was one of the few that survived the long and arduous apprenticeship. Today was our final test: a contest between the final ten students. A cooking contest, of course. What else; an obstacle course?
I pushed through the doors of the studio without breaking my stride. The kitchen was in the back and I could hear the sounds of the others in there already. The shifting of metal and wooden implements, the fluttering of aprons, and the rustling of sanitation caps and gloves. I wasn’t late, but I was probably one of the last to arrive.
“Ah, number nine” said the Boss, as I entered the kitchen. Eight other apprentice cooks were already there, ready at their stations. I quickly moved towards the station designated for me, as the ninth cook. I surveyed the table, the implements and equipment, and the cooking materials. The vegetable tray, the spice rack, the bottles of oil. Everything seemed to be in order. Well, maybe not the exact order that I would have wanted it in, but I was barely on time, so I didn’t have that luxury.
I dropped my bag on the stand, slung my jacket after it, and quickly grabbed my apron and sanitation equipment. Within seconds, I looked as ready as my fellow apprentices. Whether I was or not was a different question.
“So…” began the Boss, on the dot of the hour. “It looks like number ten is a no show. A pity”. My insides squirmed a bit, thinking about what could have happened to our tenth compatriot. Illness, injury, death? Or did she just chicken out? “Nevertheless, the show must go on” continued the Boss. She paused, taking a contemplative and dramatic breath. “Surprise me. But in a novel way”. She paused again. “Make me a normal, everyday dish…” she explained. “…but make it in a way that is unique. In a way that improves upon the dish without changing it’s… its essence”. She looked at all of us. “Begin”.
Nine bodies moved in unison. Nine bodies grabbed a plate, assembled cutlery for tasting, and setup a place for a continental midday meal. Now, the Boss was well versed with all forms of cuisine, from every culture imaginable (and possibly some unimaginable). However, there was an unwritten rule that the tests were always a continental setup. Why? Just another one of the unanswerable mysteries of life.
Nine bodies finished setting up the place, assembling their base ingredients, cleaning and preparing their workspaces. Nine bodies started moving differently. Three dived into the vegetables. Two headed for the meat closet. Three started their stoves, preparing different garnishes.
I had decisions to make. Many decisions. Meat centric, or vegetable centric? What was the overall taste I was going for: sweet, sour, savoury? What textures? What flavours? What nuances?
My personal philosophy behind cooking was always relatively… radical? In my view, sublime and complex flavouring was not mutually exclusive from strong flavouring. I wanted my dishes to have powerful and memorable impacts on the palate. I wanted my meals to move the consumer. I didn’t care for the bland, wishy-washy, watery garbage that so many others thought of as high cuisine. I wanted strong, bold flavours… but I also wanted intricate flavours. Just because the flavouring was strong, didn’t mean that it had to be overriding in one aspect. No, I wanted a rich melange of tastes and aromas; a whirlwind of gustatory ideas. Some in parallel, some in sequence. A vivid landscape, with bright colours, but with ornate detail. A synesthetic masterpiece.
I started making my decisions. A vegetable base. A crushed mixture of zucchini and cucumber to provide a neutral backdrop. Tomatoes and lemons for the sour taste. Onions and crushed mustard seeds for pungency. A light pre-garnish of cilantro and cumin. A dairy based sauce, with parsley and rosemary and thistles. A fried garnish with black peppers and thyme. A pea and lentil infusion, coupled with small quantities of boiled mashed sweet potatoes. A mix of shredded lettuce, cabbage, and celery to add consistency (and roughage; after all, a cook has to ensure that the diet is healthy as well as tasty).
That’s when disaster struck. Rather, that’s when I realised that disaster had already struck. As I went about my preparations, I picked up the rosemary bottle, and suddenly realised that something was off. I peered inside the bottle. The rosemary leaves were too thick. I glanced around. Everyone else was doing their thing. I checked my watch. A healthy amount of time remained. I carefully shook a single rosemary leaf out of the bottle. Except… a parsley leaf fell out.
My blood ran cold.
I unloaded my spice rack onto my workspace. One by one, I looked into each of the bottles, checking the contents against the label. Most of the contents were accurate. However, some were not. Parsley and rosemary were switched. Sage and asafetida. A couple of others.
Luckily, the ones which I had used in my dish had all been switched with spices that I had used in the same step. Like the sage and parsley. However, I had to be sure.
I glanced around again. Checked the time again. I was safe, especially considering that I was nearly done.
I carefully traced my steps, starting from the very beginning. I checked the spices I used at each step. I made small samples of each step using the correct spices, just to be sure that it tasted right. However, I realised that I had run out of thyme. No, not run out of time. Thyme. I had none left. Apparently, I had used it all in the fried garnish. How could I replicate that step?
Discreetly, I moved over to the empty workspace in the kitchen. I picked up the thyme container from the spice rack, and took it back to my workspace.
I quickly prepared a sample of the fried garnish, and compared it with the leftovers from the initial batch of fried garnish. Something was off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I picked up the empty bottle of thyme that had come from my rack, and I sniffed it. A faint odour lingered, oily and fruity with a hint of turpentine.
“Ok, now”, said the Boss suddenly. “That’s time”.
I balked internally. What?? I thought we had more time! My mind scrambled. Wait… I was done, wasn’t I? But was it done? One of the steps in my preparation was inconsistent. What could I do?
“Remember, this time you get only an hour, instead of the usual hour and a half” said the Boss. I swore at myself under my breath. I just remembered. For this we had less time than usual. The Boss had informed us of this just the last week. How did I forget? Ah, it was no use chiding oneself; now I had to act.
As rapidly as I could do, without revealing my state of mind, I put together the final dish: mixed the garnish into the base, poured the sauce, and sprinkled the last of the garnish over it all. Then I cleaned up my workspace, quietly returning the container of thyme to its origin.
Time for evaluation. Oh, this was not good.
Nine bodies stood perfectly still, watching as the Boss moved over to the first workspace. Nine bodies waited with baited breath as the Boss tasted the first dish. A forkful of honey glazed minced sausage and gravy. A contemplative stare into the distance. A nod of approval. A sigh of relief from number one.
Number two. A spoonful of mango-laced rice pudding. A shorter stare. A shake of the head. A choked back sob. A more in depth evaluation would come later, and that might overrule the initial decision, but that was very unlikely.
Three. A strange combination of salad and gravy. Used meat-based broth, but devoid of meat itself. A curious glance. A wiry smile and nod. That was unusually successful.
Four. A variation of shepherd’s pie. Spoon returned very quickly, with a curt shake. It was two for two, so far.
Five. The last meat-centric dish: a steak of some sort. A slice cut off, and daintily hoisted on a fork. A long stare into the distance. The Boss shrugged. Ok, this happened sometimes, and meant that the later evaluation would tell.
Six. Another salad, with fruit and meat mixed in. A daring concept; one I could appreciate. A second bite. Maybe the Boss also appreciated it? No, a shake of her head. She liked the idea, but not the execution.
Seven. Mushrooms, stuffed with vegetables and a breadcrumb-rice mixture. Pretty exotic. Nod.
Eight. A soup of some sort? Interesting, I guess. Unfortunately, a shake.
Now the score was three nods, four shakes, and one shrug. My heart was in my mouth. Not literally – that would be simultaneously disgusting and fatal. However, I was incredibly nervous.
The Boss came up to my workspace. I stood perfectly still, almost as if with the hope that if I didn’t move, the Boss wouldn’t see me, and would not be able to evaluate my meal negatively.
The Boss picked up a fork. Then she put it down. My creation would be better eaten with a spoon. The Boss did just that – she picked up a spoon, scooped up a spoonful of my dish, and sipped at it. She lingered on that sip for what felt like an eternity. Then she put the spoon in her mouth. It came out empty. Good.
Then, to my great surprise the Boss put the spoon into my dish again. Picked up another spoon. Put it to her lips again. Consumed.
Like an impossible dream, the Boss did it again. Another spoon. Consumed again. I could feel my heart playing 6 different drum-sets in my chest. I could not believe what I had just seen.
Then it happened again! The Boss picked up a fourth spoonful of my dish and ate it. Four spoons? That was… unbelievable!
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner” said the Boss. I felt the world spinning around me.
I don’t quite remember what happened after that. I know that I somehow managed to remain conscious, but only just. The combined lack of sleep and food, as well as the stress of the whole ordeal had taken its toll on me. Yet, somehow, I managed to keep it together for long enough to get to a nearby fast food joint, where I scarfed down two of the worst dishes that I had ever eaten in my life.
Sometime later, I was given the full evaluation. The Boss took each of the dishes, and the instructions for how to make them. Then she sampled them further, took notes, made comparisons, and finally graded each of us. I was awarded full marks, and many a compliment.
“So how exactly did you come up with it?” asked the Boss while handing me my full evaluation.
“I’m not quite sure” I said, honestly. “I just started with a few basic ideas, and moved on from there”.
“Well, I especially liked your garnish. That was really… well, it was really good”. This was incredibly high praise coming from the Boss.
“Thank you”, I replied. “Well, you know, it’s as they say…” I continued, “A switch in thyme saves nine”.
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!
Can a poem haunt one? I’ve not been able to stop thinking (I’m sure you guys are thinking- “Here she goes again! One day it’s pigs, another day, it’s poems!”) of ‘Kubla Khan’ written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
The river Alph
Coleridge’s mesmerizing poem, ends abruptly. Almost rudely. Written in 1797, when he was holed up in the tiny Exmoor village of Lynton, STC had the stomach cramps. Taking a couple of grains of opium, he’d nodded off to sleep in an armchair.
Having just read a vivid description of Xanadu – “In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place” by Samuel Purchas in Purchas, his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered , from the Creation to the Present, by an English clergyman and geographer (Yes, I promise you, that was the name of the book- and it almost put me to sleep just reading the title!) Coleridge dozed off and had his dream. “Or a Vision in a Dream”.
Desperate to put pen to paper, STC, was rudely interrupted by, who else, a salesman. The person from Porlock! An hour later, all remnants of Xanadu were a distant past. And that dear readers is the reason. The reason why the poem ends abruptly!
I love the poem. And the wondrous vision of Xanadu. And the wise Kublai Khan….and also the tragic hero Coleridge.
I look forward to my Wednesdays!
Not just the interactions with like minded people, not only the array of delectable treats, but also the learning that comes from these beautifully pared-down talks.
Kabul and Kandahar and their respective roles in the trade along the Silk Route, was our first talk for the day. The story of Kabul was interesting– a city which has seen so many changes of hands that it has never had prolonged peace. The geographic location of such cities, writes the destiny of their histories.
Silk Road(비단길) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption]
That was followed by a presentation on the many exchanges along the Silk Route. Silk, Paper, Gunpowder, Cartography, Astronomy, the concept of Zero, Religion– and enchantingly Tea and Rhubarb!
silk (Photo credit: sarahluv)[/caption]
The last talk was a thoroughly intriguing one on the Romany people and their origins. It was an eye opener for me, to find out that the gypsies of Europe were probably “taken” by Alexander’s armies and by subsequent conquering forces, from western India- only to lose all sense of identity. Unaccepted by their adopted land and unaware of their original homeland!
In S’s words, “They are, uniquely, not only a people without a homeland, but without even a dream of a homeland. Their dreams, and their songs, and their stories, are of the road that has no end.”
A wry African proverb sums up the thought :
“Until lions have historians, stories of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.’’
The new Study Group has begun! And it’s on a topic that appeals to the romantic, in each one of us- the Silk Route.
There was an overwhelming response, and in the space of a mere couple of weeks we had 24 people who signed up to research on myriad aspects of the Silk Route.
M did an overview of the topic, discussing why and when it started, the rigours and dangers of the journey, the rewards and accolades on successful completion. She talked of the goods and treasures that were bartered along the way. The religions and traditions that travelled along the winding routes.
And in the last talk M brought to life the journey to Xanadu. Marco Polo’s long, harrowing and hazardous odyssey to Yuan China–and William Dalrymple’s present day retracing of Marco Polo’s trek 700 years later.
I saw a picture of a cake on the Internet recently. A picture that had gone viral! A cake so cute, that I thought of it constantly.
And finally here it is!
This was an 8″ chocolate cake that I filled and covered with ganache. I didn’t have kitkats, so used Redondo chocolate cookies, which I cut, for the sides.
And my pigs were moulded in record time!
The lady who received the gift told me that she had to fight her son for the last pig! What better compliment?