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Category: New trends

CHRISTMAS CHEER

New York, 2 January 2016

There was a habit in China that I always found strange – dissonant perhaps is the better word – and that was the locals’ enthusiastic adoption of typical Christmas decorations. One would enter any self-respecting mall at the end of the year and there, standing proudly in the foyer, would be a resplendent Christmas tree.
imageA tree was sort of OK. Pine trees grow in China, right? and one could imagine the Chinese covering them with colorful baubles. I could even live with the muzaked Christmas carols that invariably were being played in the malls. Seeing Father Christmases in China, though, was really strange to me.

A man dressed as Santa Claus walks past two security guards in downtown Shanghai December 23, 2010. Officially recognized by the Finland government after a four-year training, the man is one of 50 officially registered Santa Clauses who is paying a visit to Shanghai, warming up the Christmas holidays. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY)

I mean, Santa Claus has his roots deep in Northern Europe, in some place like this
image
and not in the arid plains of northern China.
image
Luckily, I never saw any Santa elves while in China. That would really have been too much, I would have had to take to my bed.

My Chinese office staff always got enthusiastically into the swing of things in the first weeks of December, sprinkling the walls and other surfaces with Christmas decorations.

image
I tolerated all this Yuletide good cheer à la chinoise, although the first year I found it somewhat disconcerting that one of the secretaries kept her decorations up around her workspace way after Christmas: a cheerful Santa ho-hoing away and a couple of reindeer-drawn sleighs as I recall.
image
In July, I finally got around to asking her why she kept them up. They were cheerful, she replied. OK, why not? My role in running the office did not extend to policing the interior decorations, so long as they didn’t offend public morals.

Luckily, now that we no longer live in China I don’t get this weird feeling of something not quite right around Christmas time. In fact, this year, in Brooklyn, I get the feeling that everything is absolutely right. In this part of Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens), many of the brownstones have small gardens in front of them. Their owners have enthusiastically filled them with various Christmas-themed stuff, many of them lit up at night. The result is a very pleasant walk for me and my wife from the subway stop down to our daughter’s apartment. I throw in here a gallery of the community’s efforts in Christmas son et lumière (actually lumière only; there was no son except for the wind rattling the branches of the trees above our heads).

Here we have a bare-bones offering, although the lights do give off a cheerful glow.
image
In these next few photos, the owners have created somewhat more complex tableaux
image
image

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whereas in the next cases the owners have made some serious efforts
image
image
image
All these efforts culminate in a wonderful series of tableaux where compressed air (I guess) has been used to create large and exceedingly cheerful balloon-like sculptures, which wave gently with every passing breeze.
image
image
But a whip around the web shows that all these efforts are nothing compared to what some people have done. Here, for instance, is an unutterably cool house somewhere in Queens.

The owners should get a medal for their efforts.

All things considered, my feelings of discomfort about seeing such cheery Christmas scenes in China are silly. In this highly globalized world of ours, where we all dress the same, eat the same, buy the same furniture and furnishings, see the same movies, and play the same videogames, where’s the harm in the Chinese decorating their apartments, houses, offices, and malls with Christmas paraphernalia? Especially since it’s all made in China.

image
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Christmas tree, China: http://www.ocweekly.com/news/south-coast-plaza-looks-a-lot-more-chinese-these-days-and-its-not-by-accident-6781849
Father Christmas, China: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/what-china-loves-about-christmas-and-doesnt/250488/
Winter, Sweden: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/8355017/Skiing-in-re-Sweden-the-place-to-go-for-Europes-best-snow.html
Winter, Inner Mongolia: http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-winter-grassland-inner-mongolia-china-image50804885
Christmas decorations in office, China: http://godfatherstyle.com/creative-inspirational-work-place-christmas-decorations/
Santa Claus wall decoration: http://www.aliexpress.com/store/product/2Pcs-28x21cm-Merry-Christmas-Santa-Claus-Wall-Stickers-Christmas-Decoration-Random-Pattern-Christmas-Stickers/532381_32242806520.html
Garden Xmas decorations: my photos
Highly decorated house: http://indesignss.co/best/best-christmas-decorated-house-in-queens

OF CABBAGES AND KINGS

New York, 5 January 2014

Kale is king of culinary cool this year in New York. Or so it would appear from a cursory glance at the offerings in the city’s food emporia: every restaurant seems to have a dish with kale in it, every supermarket a ready-made salad containing kale.  Several articles tracking the growing popularity of kale have appeared in the New York Times, while a very recent article in the New York Daily News, reporting on a survey of 500 dieticians, has these worthy people predicting that kale (along with ancient grains and gluten-free diets) will be the top nutrition trends of 2014. Why, even a celebrity chef like Gordon Ramsey has weighed in, making lots of approving noises about kale. He went so far as to propose that a National Kale Day be instituted!

Which is all rather surprising to me, since I have always associated kale with something that you feed to cows.  I don’t think I had ever intentionally eaten kale until a week or so ago when I picked up a take-away tomato and kale soup from a Hale & Hearty Soup outlet somewhere near Park Avenue and 45th Street.

Quite what is so remarkable about kale is not clear to me. It is purported to help you fight various cancers, lower your cholesterol, detoxify yourself, and I know not what else. Having been around a while, I am, like this reporter in the Huffington Post, somewhat skeptical of all these claims. How many foodstuffs have I seen over the years for which extravagant health claims have been made!  It is true that kale is stuffed with vitamins K, A and C.  So if you need those, kale might be your thing. But as for the rest …

To my mind, all the froth and frenzy about kale is nothing compared to the wonderful story behind its very existence. Around the northern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean, in what are now Italy, Greece, Turkey, and maybe further south along the Lebanese and Israeli coast, there lives a humble member of the large family of mustards. This species is known to science as Brassica oleracea, but we can call it cole (a name rooted in the Celtic-Germanic-Greek word for “stem”). With time and I presume human interference it spread from its original homeland and now can be found further north in Europe. Since it tolerates salt well and likes a limey soil, it tends to be found on limestone sea cliffs, as attested by this picture, taken on the chalk cliffs in the UK (I didn’t find a picture of the plant in its original homeland):

Cabbage-wild

Anyone familiar with mustard plants will immediately see the family resemblance. And those long stems are what gives the plant its generic name of cole.

At some point, humans found that the plant was edible and presumably added it to their list of plants to gather. Some 3-4,000 years ago, maybe more, as part of the slow move to agriculture, humans began to domesticate the cole, and as they have done with just about every species which they have domesticated they began a forced process of natural selection to encourage desirable traits in their domesticates and eliminate undesirable ones. So far, so good.  But the cole must have a very flexible DNA because over the millennia farmers were able to coax out of this one plant an astonishingly different array of vegetables. From the plant we see above waving on the cliff top, they managed to obtain our friend kale:

Kale-Bundle

Its close cousin, collard greens:

SONY DSC

The cabbage, which itself comes in several varieties, the common white cabbage:

Cabbage isolated on white

the red cabbage, seen here with the green cabbage:

cabbage-green and purple

the Savoy cabbage:

cabbage-savoy 2

Then we have broccoli:

Fresh green vegetable, isolated over white

Cauliflower:

Cauliflower

and its close cousin the strange-looking romanesco broccoli:

romanesco broccoli 2

Brussels sprouts:

brussels sprouts

Kohlrabi:

kohlrabi

And last but not least, the Chinese kai-lan, also known as Chinese broccoli:

Chinese_Broccoli 2

Pretty amazing …

The following picture shows which bits in the original cole plant all those generations of farmers fiddled with to get these massively different vegetables:

brassica oleracea-evolution 4

When seeing all these vegetables sitting next to each other on a supermarket shelf, it might be difficult to believe that they are actually the same plant, but when you see them still in the field the family resemblance is more easily recognized.

Kale:

kale in field

Collards:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cabbage:

cabbage-white

Cauliflower:

cauliflower in the field

Broccoli:

broccoli plant

Brussels sprouts:

brussels-sprouts plants

Kohlrabi:

Kohlrabi-plant

And when these vegetables flower, which they should not, then you see the mustard-like flower coming through, as in this case of a red cabbage:

cabbage-red-bolted

and of broccoli:

broccoli bolted

The early history of all these cole vegetables is shrouded in uncertainty. The Greeks and Romans wrote about one or more vegetables which sound like a cousin of kale and collards. The cabbage seems to have been developed in the colder parts of Europe some time in the early Middle Ages. Southern Italians seem to have developed broccoli quite early on, perhaps already during the Roman period, but it was many centuries before it migrated to other parts of Europe. It is generally thought that the cauliflower came to Europe from the Middle East, possibly via Cyprus and then Italy. As the name suggests, Brussels sprouts seem to have been developed somewhere in the Low Countries around the 15th Century, possibly earlier, but didn’t migrate to other parts of Europe until several centuries later. Kohlrabi seems to have been developed at about the same time, although quite where in Europe is unclear. And then there is kai-lan. Quite how this vegetable, the descendant of a Mediterranean plant, ended up being developed in China is a bit of a mystery. It is theorized that when the Portuguese came to China, they brought with them the cabbage. Chinese farmers then did a second cycle of selection to bring about something which looks and tastes more like broccoli.

Little is known of the history of these vegetables because early European chroniclers didn’t deign to follow the experiments in genetic engineering that the humble farmers were undertaking. In his poem “the Walrus and the Carpenter”, Lewis Carroll has the walrus say at some point:

“The time has come,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings”

But those who recorded history were interested in kings and not cabbages and their ilk, so we will never know who were those legions of farmers who patiently developed this cornucopia of cole vegetables which we have available to us today. I take this occasion to salute these nameless heroes and to thank them for putting such wonderful vegetables on my table.

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Cabbage-wild: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01810/Cabbage_1810864c.jpg [in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/8281088/Britains-wild-plants-make-a-comeback.html%5D

Kale bunch: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4b/Kale-Bundle.jpg/640px-Kale-Bundle.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kale%5D

Collard greens-bundle: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Collard-Greens-Bundle.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collard_greens%5D

Cabbage-white: http://www.realfoods.co.uk/ProductImagesID/2559_1.jpg [in http://www.realfoods.co.uk/product/2559/real-foods-organic-white-cabbage-uk-kg%5D

Cabbage-green and red: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fa/Cabbages_Green_and_Purple_2120px.jpg/451px-Cabbages_Green_and_Purple_2120px.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabbage#History%5D

Cabbage-savoy: http://www.rivieraproduce.eu/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/image_riviera_savoy_cabbage.jpg [in http://www.rivieraproduce.eu/savoy-cabbage%5D

Broccoli: http://livelovefruit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/977599_375755671.jpg [in http://livelovefruit.com/2013/06/benefits-of-broccoli/%5D

Cauliflower: http://blogs.kcrw.com/goodfood/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Cauliflowerimage.jpg [in http://blogs.kcrw.com/goodfood/2012/11/recipe-braised-cauliflower-with-capers-toasted-bread-crumbs/%5D

Romanesco broccoli: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4f/Fractal_Broccoli.jpg/800px-Fractal_Broccoli.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanesco_broccoli%5D

Brussels sprouts: http://ourtinyearth.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/12065713-brussels-sprouts-pile-on-white-background.jpg [in http://ourtinyearth.com/2013/01/08/stories-of-the-misunderstood-brussels-sprouts/%5D

Kohlrabi: http://www.chowlocally.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/kohlrabithroat2.jpg [in http://www.chowlocally.com/blog/2012/03/21/kohlrabi-the-loneliest-vegetable-in-the-world-of-healthy-eating/%5D

Chinese broccoli: http://www.specialtyproduce.com/ProdPics/467.jpg [in http://www.specialtyproduce.com/produce/Gai_Lan_467.php%5D

B. Oleracea-evolution: http://www.doctortee.com/dsu/tiftickjian/cse-img/biology/evolution/mustard-selection.jpg [in https://sites.google.com/site/selectivebreedingofplants/%5D

Kale in field: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-f5RKQQQaduk/T9Fcpear0DI/AAAAAAAAG24/YIJgodBwji0/s400/IMG_4096.JPG [in http://culinarytypes.blogspot.com/2012_07_01_archive.html%5D

Collard plants: http://img691.imageshack.us/img691/1158/collards2.jpg [in http://www.homesteadingtoday.com/country-living-forums/gardening-plant-propagation/397580-ok-collard-greens-growing%85-now-what.html%5D

Cabbage plant: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Cabbage.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabbage#cite_ref-8%5D

Cauliflower in field: http://4photos.net/photosv5/cauliflower_field_india_1342111345.jpg [in http://4photos.net/en/image:105-216983-Cauliflower_field_India_images%5D

Broccoli plant: http://www.ferta-lawn.com/userfiles/image/Broccoli.jpeg [in http://www.ferta-lawn.com/blog-post/Fall-Gardening-Peas-Broccoli%5D

Brussels sprouts plant: http://www.gardeningcarolina.com/veggies/images/brussels-sproutsfull.jpg [in http://www.gardeningcarolina.com/veggies/brusselsprouts.html%5D

Kohlrabi plant: http://www.harvesttotable.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/03/Kohlrabi-plant.jpg [in http://www.harvesttotable.com/2007/03/kohlrabi_kohlrabi_tastes_like/kohlrabi-plant/%5D

Cabbage-red-bolted: http://goodlifegarden.ucdavis.edu/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/bolted-red-cabbage.jpg [in http://goodlifegarden.ucdavis.edu/blog/2011/04/%5D

Broccoli-bolted: http://botanistinthekitchen.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/broccoli_flowers1.jpg [in http://botanistinthekitchen.wordpress.com/tag/kohlrabi/%5D

THE E-CIGARETTE

New York, 22 December 2013

My wife and I have been trying for a while now to get our son to stop smoking. He’s the same age, give or take a year, that we were when we stopped but he’s still on 10 a day – more if the stress levels are high. With us cheering him on, he has tried various things: patches, gum, and I know not what. He even went cold turkey for a while.  All for naught. So when back in May he decided to try e-cigarettes, we redoubled our cheering.
e-cigarette
I know, they’re not the miracle cure they are sometimes claimed to be, but on balance we think they are better than real cigarettes.

Almost immediately, though, our son’s experiment with e-cigarettes went awry. During a night out with the boys just after he started using it the body broke (for the uninitiated, I should explain that an e-cigarette is composed of a body and a head; the two are separable and can be purchased separately, an important detail in the unfolding drama). After much badgering – our son was very busy with his new business (which of course augmented the stress levels and thus the cigarette consumption) – he finally got around to purchasing a new body via internet and received said body through the post. My wife and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that he would imminently be throwing away his cigarette packs. But no. Our son discovered that he couldn’t remove the head from the old body despite the use of much brute strength and wrenches. So still no e-cigarette use.

Things stood thus for several months before we came to New York to spend Christmas with the children. We were determined to move things along. After more badgering, we got some guidance from our son as to where we might go to separate head from body. Our initial thought had been to find a repair shop of some sort. But who runs repair shops these days, especially for so arcane a product as e-cigarettes?

So our search shifted to so-called vapor stores. These are locales which are vigorously promoting e-cigarettes and the vapor lifestyle. Again, to make sure that the uninitiated are following, recall that the principle of e-cigarettes is that you inhale water vapor impregnated with nicotine, taste molecules (our son favors mint and watermelon), and a few other odds and ends. Thus, vapor is central to the e-cigarette experience, thus stores offering this new lifestyle are called vapor stores, and thus the devotees of this new lifestyle call themselves vapers (in contrast to smokers; cute, no?).
ELECTRONIC CIGARETTES
We located two vapor stores in Lower Manhattan. The precise location of the stores is already an indication of the life choices of the fans of the vapor lifestyle. Because when I say lower Manhattan, I don’t mean Wall Street or thereabouts, the hang-out of the Gods of Finance and their acolytes from New Jersey, I mean NoLiTa. This is an area north of Little Italy (whence the name NoLiTa; the serious New Yorker must keep up with the continuous creation of new locational acronyms). I am informed that NoLiTa is now a very cool area to live in for those into the more alternative lifestyles.
nolita
After some blundering around the small streets of NoLiTa, we finally found the first vapor store on our list. As we entered, we suddenly felt like dinosaurs, relics from a past era.
dinosaur skeletons
Everyone in the place could have been our son or daughter, and every single one of them was puffing on an e-cigarette. They looked at us rather surprised. Clearly, troglodytes like us did not enter the shop often, if at all.

We diffidently made our way to the counter where a young man served us, e-cigarette in hand. And as we explained the problem, he sucked on his e-cigarette and breathed out vapor from his nostrils in a fashion that was very reminiscent of angry bulls in cartoons – my wife and I checked notes afterwards and both agreed on this point
bull snorting
After this impressively taurine display, our young man managed to separate head from damaged body and sold us a bottle of mint-tasting e-cigarette liquid. At which point our son rolled in and took over, giving my wife and I the leisure to look the place over.

Calling this a store is clearly a misnomer. What we have here is an experience, an event. Other than the counter and the vitrines in one corner showing off e-cigarettes and related paraphernalia

vapor shop-1

our store had a bar in another corner where various high-end teas were being served – no tea bags here – and where clients could sit at the bar sipping their tea, chatting convivially, and of course puffing on their e-cigarettes together.
vapor shop-4
In yet another corner it had a nook where vapers could sit on smart but environmentally-friendly furniture made with discarded objects, and flip through high-end magazines like Monocle, all the while puffing meditatively on their e-cigarettes.

vapor shop-5

(these photos are not of the store we saw, but the fact that I found them, and many others like it, makes me think that this is the basic blueprint of all vapor stores)

It all rather reminded me of the more traditional smoking rooms of the 19th Century

smoking room victorian england

or more darkly of those high-end turn of the 19th Century Parisian brothels which Toulouse-Lautrec liked to paint
brothel Toulouse Lautrec
Like the French say, “plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more it changes and the more it’s the same thing. In every age, there’s always a part of society which wants to be exotic.

But all my wife and I want is for our son to quit smoking.

_________________

e-cigarette: http://www.vapeitnow.com/pics/joyetech-starter-kit/joyetech-evic-5.jpg [in http://www.vapeitnow.com/products/joyetech-starter-kit/joyetech-evic.html%5D

smoking e-cigarette: http://thegazette.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ecigarettes680.jpg [in http://thegazette.com/2013/10/10/university-of-iowa-considers-e-cigarettes-and-campus-wide-smoking-ban/%5D

NoLiTa: http://dguides.com/images/newyorkcity/areas/nolita.jpg [in http://dguides.com/newyorkcity/areas/nolita/%5D

Dinosaur skeletons: http://www.dinostoreus.com/rex-vs-ceratops.jpg [in http://www.dinostoreus.com/%5D

Bull snorting: http://www.ecigarettedirect.co.uk/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/r/a/raging-bull.jpg [in http://www.eliquid.co.uk/%5D

Vapor shop-1: http://ecigarettereviewed.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/vapor-loft-vape-shop.jpg [in http://ecigarettereviewed.com/so-cal-vapers-creating-their-own-june-gloom/%5D

Vapor shop-2: http://getvapordelight.com/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/IMG_93591.jpg [in http://vapordelight.com/vapor-bar-lounge/%5D

Vapor shop-3: http://www.yext-static.com/cms/af5ee3ea-019d-4b15-991d-76d4fc371fe1.jpg [in http://yellowpages.ny1.com/biz/buffalo-vapor-lounge/buffalo/ny/14216/53824266%5D

Smoking parlour Victorian England: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/clubs/11.jpg [in http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/clubs/11.html%5D

Brothel Toulouse Lautrec: http://www.studiomatters.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/719px-Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec_012.jpg [in http://www.studiomatters.com/art/olympias-heirs%5D