October 10, 2011

The Silk Road: Caravans, Lawrence of Arabia, Exotic Locales & Cuisines....

The name 'Silk Road' conjures up images of caravans, Lawrence of Arabia and exotic locales. This is the famed route that Marco Polo took when he brought back, the 'wonders' of the Orient. The term Silk Road was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the famed Red Baron.

Most have a common misconception that The Silk Road was one long route, but as you can see by the map above, it was actually a series of many routes, which changed constantly between the land and sea between China, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe. All routes started from the capital in Changan, headed up the Gansu corridor and reached Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklimakan. It connected the Yellow River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea and passed through places such as Chinese cities Kansu and Sinkiang and the present-day countries of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Silk Road routes were often disrupted due the presence of bandits, political alliances, passes closed by snow, droughts, storms, seasonal changes, wars, plagues, horsemen raids, and natural disasters. Many Silk Road towns and caravanserais were located within fortresses for protection from bandits and marauding horsemen. Many also had security forces.

The term Silk Road can be a bit misleading though, as commodities were also traded, from gold and ivory to exotic animals and plants. Of all the precious goods crossing this area, silk was perhaps the most remarkable for the people of the West, and is likely why the name was given, but many caravans heading towards China carried many commodities including, porcelain from China; pepper, batik, spices, perfumes, glass beads, gems and muslin from India; incense, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg from the East Indies, diamonds from Colcond; nuts, sesame seeds, glass and carpets from Persia; as well as coral and ivory from Siam. Other goods that made their way west included furs, ceramics, medicinal rhubarb, peaches, pomegranates, and gunpowder. In cold areas, flint and steel were among the most sought after products.

In the opposite direction, coming east, traders brought fine tableware, wool, horses, jade, wine, cucumbers, and walnuts. Ivory, gold, tortoise shells, dugs and slaves and animals such as ostriches and giraffes came from Africa. Frankincense and myrrh were brought from Arabia. Mediterranean colored glass was treasured almost as much in some parts of the East as silk was in the West. The main reason for the voyages of Christopher Columbus was in search of a new 'Silk Road' to the Orient, so some might argue that the discovery of America is directly related to it.

Spices were among the most valuable commodities carried on the Silk Road. Without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Basil, mint, sage, rosemary and thyme could be grown in family herb gardens in Europe along with medicinal plants. Among the the spices and seasonings that came from the East--affordable to merchants and burghers but not ordinary people--were pepper, cloves, mace and cumin. Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron--the most valuable of spices from the East--were worth more than their weight in gold.

During the Middle Ages, one medieval town sold 288 kinds of spices, many of whom had an unknown origin. Cinnamon, people were told, came from an exotic bird and cloves were netted in the Nile by Egyptians. Caravans that carried pepper were heavily armed.

Bactrian camels were commonly used on the Silk Road to carry goods. They could be employed in high mountains, cold steppes and inhospitable deserts.

Bactrian camels are camels with two humps and two coats of hair. Widely domesticated and capable of carrying 600 pounds, they are native to Central Asia, where a few wild ones still live, and stand six feet at the hump, can weigh half a ton and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -20 degrees F. The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water has made them ideal caravan animals.
Bactrian camels can go a week without water and a month without food. A thirsty camel can drink 25 to 30 gallons of water at one go. For protection against sandstorms, Bactrian camels have two sets of eyelids and eyelashes. The extra eyelids can wipe sand like windshield wipers. Their nostrils can shrink to a narrow slit to keep out blowing sand. Male Bactrian camels slobber a lot when they get horny.

The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of 18 inches and individually hold as much as 100 pounds. A camel can survive for weeks without food by drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. The humps shrink, go flaccid and droop when a camel doesn't get enough to eat as it loses the fat that keep the humps erect.

In the larger towns, the larger caravans stayed for a while, resting and fattening up their animals, purchasing new animals, relaxing and selling or trading goods. To meet their needs were banks, exchange houses, trading firms, markets, brothels and places where one could smoke hashish and opium. Some of these caravan stops became rich cities such as Samark and Bukhara. Caravanserai had rooms for caravan members, fodder and resting places for animals and warehouses for storing goods. They were often in small fortresses with guards to protect the caravans from bandits.

A typical caravanserai was a set of buildings surrounding an open courtyard, where the animals were kept. The animals were tied to wooden stakes. The rates for a stopover and fodder depended on the animal. Caravanserai owners often supplemented their incomes by gathering manure and selling it for fuel and fertilizer. The price for manure was set according to the animal that produced it and how much straw and grass was mixed in. Cow and donkey manure was regarded as high quality because it burned the hottest and kept mosquitos away.

Traders and travelers had problems with local food and foreign languages like modern travelers. They also had to deal with rules prohibiting certain native costumes and get permits to enter city gates, which explained their wants and needs and showed they presented no threat.

Sources: www.wikipedia.org, en:Image:Silk Route extant.JPG, www.ess.uci.edu/~oliver/silk.html, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia , www.siemerhand.com, ,www.sfusd.k12.ca.us, singlemindedwomen.com  www.sandomenico.org ,www.veeriku.tartu.ee, www.ruby-sapphire.com,

July 07, 2011

A Nod to the Originals...The TV Chefs Who Started It All

I recently posted a story on twitter, about the evolution of what is now referred to as the genre; Food TV. Obviously, when you read that phrase, if you are a foodie, you immediately think: Food Network, Top Chef, and the 1000's of 'clone' reality cooking competition shows that we are now being inundated with. Ok,  I exaggerate but, it sure seems that way, even to me, a so called 'foodie.' Now don't get me wrong, I and the James Beard Foundation agree that there are still actual quality 'cooking' shows out there such as this years award winning Eric Ripert's, Avec Eric. And that comes to the basis of my thoughts today.

Before the Food Network changed the palate of America, and frankly, the world, (...it's for you decide for yourself if that change is for the good, or for the bad. As for me, while I do believe that the influence Food TV now brings is more negative than positive, it did not start out that way. Though in my opinion, the positives are fewer, they have, however, been such influential positives that they probably outweigh the impact of the negatives...) most of our food information came from the food companies themselves.

A few decades ago, the culinary landscape (at least on TV here in America) changed forever with these 11 simple words, spoken in a voice full of culinary wonder and passion many have imitated......but few have mastered......"Hello everyone, I'm Julia Child and welcome to 'The French Kitchen."

With the broadcast of that show, Julia, truly started "Food TV. Then joined with another Original, Jacques Pepin, she brought us the award-winning 1999 PBS series Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, which  was honored with a Daytime Emmy in 2001. Others were spawned, some just as notable, such as: The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr, The Frugal Gourmet with Jeff Smith. Wok with Yan with Martin Yan  and don't forget Justin E. Wilson who taught us Cajun with "I gar-on-tee!" long before we were 'bammed' about the head and shoulders with essence untill we bled to death...

And friends...THEY spawned the culinary passion of the aspiring chefs who are today's 'culinary icons.' Not just the ones we see on TV today, who rarely cook anymore, but the countless unsung line chefs and sous chefs and pastry chefs and on and on and on, who anonymously, gladly and sometimes, thanklessly (ask a chef his first thought when he sees a plate return to the kitchen..) tire in a kitchen unseen, to bring you art on a plate.

Now, let's back up...while I say most TV chefs do not cook anymore, I further contend, they have succumbed to a celebrity life that is no longer driven by the food, but by 'network's' needs and goals. Worries include things like drives for ratings, advertising and competing for air time with other stations and chefs for market share. The food? That's now just the vehicle on which this new industry rides. I do not begrudge these former chefs anything. But, some have lost site that for foodies, and for them once, food wasn't a vehicle to celebrity, it was the celebrity...and they were passionate showcasing about IT. Now it seems, they spend most of their time showcasing themselves.

I challenge them to question what their passion is now. That's not to say I'm a hypocrite as I completely understand. If you threw $150,000 at me to show up at an event for two hours, cook something flashy in a pan...make it flame so the crown goes 'oo, ahh,' then sign a few autographs...I'd probably take the gig too. For them, (not all)) to be where they are is a credit to them...and to the passion for the FOOD that drove them to the excellence that garnered the attention they initially received from the food community. I would argue though, that some, not all, have actually changed careers.

While they were once in the kitchen 80 hours a week, earning their stripes as 'chef', doing Friday night covers, or the early Theater Push...on the line of their own, sometimes 'self named' restaurants, they are now "TV Personalities who used to chef." Folks, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. Good for them. I enjoy their food and lots of their greatest hits from the PAST where I actually got to witness their passion for food while watching them, just them and just the food. They taught me about kale...or making bread, or'grillin'..or fenugreek, or Mother Sauces...Like the Originals...

Ask chefs on the line why they chef?.. (and don't forget that cheffing is a 'service'...in the 'hospitality' industry... where others happiness is the key ingredient..) they'll tell you it's about that look on a persons' face when they take that first bite...the pleasure of knowing that this thing, this dish you just created, is making people happy...The Originals knew that.....they weren't about ratings...or "who's the best cook on a given day with these ingredients...Ready Go!!! , now buy our cookbooks, aprons, pots,  pans...yada yada yada" ...

Look, I actually like some Food TV. I had alot of 'cooking heros' on the tube..(in some cases that ended immediately when actually I met them and reality did not match the completely BS TV persona.....) and Food TV is directly responsible for my current culinary predilection. But, The Originals..... and some who are still doing 'a cooking show' for the right reasons, are the staying, last connection to my type of  'foodie' point of view. The same point of view The Originals had:  a simple love and passion for the food........and sharing that love with others. Period.

The numbing of Food TV........by the glut of so called 'culinary shows' that are no more than staged cooking competitions cloned over and over again, with pretty food, and the newest 'panel ' of celebrity judges of folks who used to cook but are now professional tasters, along with the contrived drama........is starting to become an insult to actual, passionate foodies. For these shows and for some of these chefs, passion for ratings, celebrity and the latest way to hook the viewer, has surpassed passion for the actual food, the Original reason we all tuned in. It is that same mis-guided passion that explains....
~Why we are starting to tune out;
~Why most Michelin acclaimed chefs are rarely seen on TV;
~Why Michelin Stars are rare;
 ~Why James Beard Foundation awards are so coveted and go to the 'traditional shows,' like Avec Eric

So in conclusion dear readers..let us try something tried true and oh wait, I know..

"Back in the Box....it's the new 'outside the box"...:

'As opposed to shows being about the network...or the chef....or dare I say, one chef dissing the other in those little intimate,  just you, me, the chef, the camera only shots they let us in on... sigh.............I say it's time for Food TV to get back to being about..... wait for it.........THE FOOD!!!

Long Live The Originals...

Bon Appetit!