Friday, 29 November 2013

America - and The Art of Shaving!

Just off Union Square in SF, I noticed a glitzy showroom with an enticing banner. It said simply `The Art of Shaving’. An entire store dedicated to shaving, I wondered. Puja dragged me away. “It’s far too high end!” she said. Considering that I buy all my shaving needs from the CSD Canteen, `high end’ would probably be an understatement! Still, curious as a cat, I walked in. 

An attendant rushed towards us, all obsequious and salesman like. “Welcome, sir!” he gushed. I noticed the three day stubble on his chin. Seriously? In a store called `The Art of Shaving’? 

He thrust a pamphlet into my hands. `Welcome to the Brotherhood of Shaving’ it said. Now I was really intrigued!  We shavers, hardy men of the world, had got together to form a brotherhood, and no one had seen fit to inform me? “Go on”, I told him “tell me more!”

They not only sold shaving products, they also had a saloon where you could get a shave. A `Royal Shave’ he told me would last 45 minutes, and would set me back by 55 US$. That was around 3,500 bucks! Check out the Youtube video – The Royal Shave @ The Art of Shaving.

“The perfect shave,” he explained “has four elements – the pre-shave, the lather up, the shave and the moisturise.  We start with a hot towel compress that opens up the pores”.  Seeing my incredulous look, he went on “It isn’t called a ROYAL shave for nothing!” For 55 dollars, I thought, my pores would be as wide open as the Grand Canyon I’d been to the previous week!

“That may be so” I reasoned, “but lets say I do spend 45 minutes and 55 dollars today, and guess what, 24 hours later I’ll be back to Square One – I’ll need another shave! So do I come back again for a another round?”

“You shave daily, sir?” It was his turn to be incredulous.

Flashback to January 1971. It’s a freezing winter morning at Dehra Dun, and I’m a first termer at the IMA, standing in my first ever `Pre-muster’ fall-in at about 4:30 am outside the Sergeant’s cabin. He runs his hand over my cheek, and notices a faint hint of stubble. “You haven’t SHAVED??” he roars at me, thrusting his jaw line into my face. “No sir” I reply softly “I don’t shave daily”.  He is apoplectic. In the space of about 15 seconds, he tells me what he thinks of my response, then quickly moves on to my breeding, my upbringing and my worth in life - all the while making wild insinuations about my mother and sisters. 

I figure there’s no point trying to explain that I’m not yet out of my teens, and therefore don’t really need to shave daily, so I quietly fetch my razor and give myself the `dry shave’ he orders me to. My face soon resembles something out of `The Walking Dead’.  And I thought they called it a safety razor because it was supposed to prevent nicks and cuts!

Ever since that bloody experience some 40 odd years ago, I have indeed shaved daily – including Sundays, national holidays and even while travelling by the Indian Railways! On that story, maybe another post – woh kissa phir kabhi!

But back to the present. “Yes”, I assure the attendant “I do shave daily!”

He shakes his head in disbelief. “Before, after or during your shower?” he asks me. During? I swear he wasn’t kidding!

The free samples
The shaving products they sell cost a king’s ransom (50 dollars for a cup soap that costs under ten bucks at the CSD). He then gives us a demonstration of the products, which is dazzling. But I quietly pocket the free samples he offers, and promise to return after trying them out.

I did try them out, but lacked the courage (and the budget) to return. Check out their website It’s an eye opener!

I had actually run out of shaving cream during my trip, and was dismayed to find none in any of the stores – Walgreens, Safeway, Shoprite – they only had gels and foams. The one I saw in one of the In-n-Out stores at gas stations (see – I no longer call them petrol pumps!) cost $7.49, which my quick math converted to around 500 bucks, which my equally quick common sense told me would fetch me ten tubes at the CSD, so I quietly moved on.

I tried the one Sukh uses (Kiehl’s, costing around 25$), but it was non-foaming, and supposedly brushless, ie one had to rub it into the beard using ones finger tips. Strange, I thought. In our day, the best shaving creams were advertised as the ones that produced the maximum foam! Remember Kapil Dev and his `Palmolive da jawab nahin’? 

Foam apparently is passé. The old belief was that foam comprises of millions of miniscule bubbles, and the more the bubbles the denser the foam, and hence the smoother the shave. I remember Godrej advertising their shaving creams as having `x million bubbles per cubic millimetre’, which was twice that of its nearest competitor. Utter nonsense, says America. Bubbles being spherical, the surface area actually in contact with the skin is much less. Hence, non-foaming is better. Non-foaming is IN. My stubble, like me, however is old school, and prefers the good old `jhaag’ any day!

Razorless Shaving
I decided to do some more digging. To my horror, I found that, not only were all American shaving creams foamless and brushless, but some of them were also, I kid you not, razorless! Directions – Wet skin, apply cream to area to be shaved, rinse. Simple! The best way to avoid razor burns, they advertise, is to avoid razors altogether!  I suppose these are just hair removers, a la Anne French!

There was also some form of `Shaving Powder’ which I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what, how and why about. The times, they certainly are a-changin’. 

But back home at the ranch, I’m happy with my jhaag wala shaving cream, and my trusty old double edged razor – maybe I’ll make a Youtube video of MY version of the Royal Shave!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

America - and the way to THIS Puri's heart...

I had all my lists ready – To See, To Do and To Eat. Well begun is half done, they say. So the American trip promised to be really hectic.

Topping the `To Eat’ list was a simple entry – `One cheesecake per day’. Ambitious, I agreed, impossible Puja predicted. American portions, she assured me, were humungous.

The list wasn’t too grand. Chinese take away out of a white cardboard box, a fresh hot dog from a Manhattan cart, ice cream out of a tub, and of course burgers of every description (we have no qualms over meat of any kind – just about anything and everything is kosher).

Having landed at Newark and proceeded to our accomodation at Edison, NJ, we proceeded to tick off the Chinese take away. If Edison wasn’t disappointing enough (one felt one had landed at a Bangalore suburb), the Chinese take away was even worse – it tasted of the cardboard it was packed in, and we had to junk most of it. As starts go, it was inauspicious to say the least.

Off the next morning to Atlantic City. First stop – the world famous Nathan’s Hot Dog. Disappointing. The relish (their version of chutney) lacked punch, and Sowmya wouldn’t permit onions. So bland. The `funnel cake’ – again Sowmya’s recommendation – was just ok, nothing to write home about. American food – where art thou??? The answer lay in Atlantic City’s much touted `White House Sub'. At long last, we were actually tasting America!  

The Philly Cheese steak
Off to Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Cheese steak is world famous, and the one at Jim’s really lived up to its billing. The beef was tender, juicy and the sheer volume of the cheese made my arteries scream in protest! The next morning we tried the `street food’ version – off a cart just outside the Independence Hall, and it was, well, good.

Pork is a meat we generally avoid eating in India. Although the `pulled pork’ burgers we tried at Arby’s were quite good (Sid and Sowmya, do I see you  salivating?), what was really WOW were the prime ribs we had at Jack Fresh at DC, and Home at LA. Tender, juicy and smothered with Barbeque sauce, these were worth walking miles to eat (and with the traffic/transportation scene at LA, we actually did walk miles to eat it!).

Clam chowder soup
Sea food is on my `take it or leave it’ list generally, but the clam chowder soup, served in a bowl made of bread (yes, a huge hard crusted bun with the insides scooped out) at the Fisherman’s Wharf at SF was a definite `TAKE IT’. After a ferry ride, which takes you around the island of Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge, all the while spraying you with the ice cold Pacific, the piping hot clam chowder is a God send!

The iHop Breakfast
The breakfast in America varies from the humble `bagel and cream cheese’ to the king’s ransom that the iHop restaurant dishes out. Philadelphia cream cheese, thankfully, is now also available at Pune (at Dorabjee’s), and am now scouring the local bakeries for a genuine cinnamon-raisin bagel.

Mexican food is a big hit on the West Coast, and the ubiquitous `Chipotle’ is a household name. But it left me quite cold. Imagine taking a roomali roti, and wrapping some rajmah-chawal in it, along with some sauce, some pickles and some greens – boy, these Mexicans must be really famished!

America is sandwich country. They have sandwiches and sandwiches – some even stuffed with, I kid you not, French fries! But the `Ike’s Sandwich Place’ in SF serves some of the most delicious, if messy, sandwiches. They even have a `Meatless Mike’ for the vegans!

Sukh, more on a whim than anything else, has turned vegan. So his frig has loads of `vegan’ sausages, and chunks of `vegan’ chicken. They are said to look and taste `just like the real thing’. But I wasn’t fooled for a moment. They look awful, and as for the taste – it’s like Hugh Jackman says in the Micromax ad - `They’re nothing like anything! 

Have never been much of a pizza man. But the Chicago deep dish pizza at Patxi’s in SF, topped with two farm fresh eggs, was something else!

The sweet tooth of the Puris is legend. To add to that, I am an unabashed ice cream fan. And go ahead and de-friend me if you will, but the classic vanilla is the ONLY real ice cream! Add ons and toppings are a strict no no, except at Cold Stone Creamery.

There, ask for the cookie dough. The attendant takes two generous scoops of French vanilla, tosses them in the air with a flourish, and slams them on to the eponymous `cold stone’ slab. She then adds some cookie dough, some caramel and kneads the creamy mix before scooping the whole thing into a cup (or a cone). That, in short, is heaven in a cup (or a cone).

At San Francisco, there’s an ice cream outlet called `Smitten Ice Cream’. Here, they pour the ice cream mix into a churner, and pass liquid nitrogen through the mix as it churns. Liquid Nitrogen, at an astounding minus 198.5 degrees Celsius, instantly freezes the mix before your eyes. Since the process is instantaneous, there’s no time for crystallisation at all, and what you get is the smoothest, creamiest ice cream you can ever imagine. My choice of flavour? Classic vanilla of course!

The Super-duper burger
The third ice cream that is literally to die for is the `frozen custard’ they serve at Shake Shack. Now if you ever visit New York, you could give the Statue of Liberty a miss, you could skip the Empire State Building, but you cannot, you must not skip the burger at Shake Shack. We went to the outlet off Central Park, and had the juciest, smoothest, melt in the mouth burger imaginable. Despite being stuffed to the gills, we ordered a second round, and my resoundingly vocal `Oohs’ and `Aahs’ almost got me thrown out of the place (I totally ignored the glares of my children). I topped this with the frozen custard, and almost went to heaven!

And lastly, the best, the one single reason I want to migrate to the States – the original New York cheesecake! Walk into any outlet of the Cheesecake Factory, ignore all the other (30 odd) flavours laid out, and go straight for the original – the New York cheesecake. You don’t just want to eat it, you want to marry it, take it home, and make love to it – it’s that good! Oh, how I miss you, sweetheart!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Four Score And Seven Years Ago...

Admittedly, I’m a history buff. So a visit to the United States would have to include (in chronological order) the infamous Boardwalk at Atlantic City, the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall at Philadelphia, the Ford’s Theatre at Washington DC, and the notorious Federal Penitentiary at Alcatraz, off San Francisco.

Also, as a fauji, the not to be missed sites included the battlefield (now a Military Park and Museum) at Gettysburg, the Arlington National Cemetery at Washington, and the 9/11 Memorial at New York.

If you’ve been following the enthralling HBO series `Boardwalk Empire’ as I have, you’ll no doubt understand my keenness to do a Nucky Thompson. In the 1920’s, America, in what proved to be an asinine move, imposed prohibition across the country. This was the genesis of the bootlegging and organised crime empire that sprung up at Atlantic City and Chicago respectively. Enoch Johnson, Al Capone and J Edgar Hoover became household names as they chased each other across the country in an internecine warfare that has been breathtakingly captured in the serial.

The tale of the Founding Fathers, the debates leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (not on 4th July as believed, but sometime in August), the ringing of the Liberty Bell at the then capital of the fledgling nation – Philadelphia. We stood in silence in the very room in which Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin had solemnly debated upon, and finally signed a document that was to define democracy across the globe for centuries to come. (PS - Of course, we also demolished the reputed Philadelphia cheese steak at `Jim’s’ – altogether an unforgettable experience – but of my culinary adventures, wait for another post!)

As a schoolboy, I had had to mug up Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by heart – every comma and full stop in place. To my credit, I still remember most of it. If I’m still around, I plan to make my grand children do the same – even if it totally demolishes Lincoln’s claim that `the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…’

As battles go, Gettysburg may not have turned the tide of the American Civil War (the war continued for a full two years after Gettysburg), but it was definitely a defining moment for the Union, and will forever remain the site where Lincoln articulated what are arguably the most beautiful 272 words of prose ever written.

Of all the characters of history, the one who I grew up admiring the most was Abraham Lincoln. Had he survived to complete his second term, America would have been a different country today. As I gazed at the spot where he had been shot at Ford’s Theatre, then walked across the road to the room where he had breathed his last, I was overcome with a sense of grief, and madness at the way crazed people try and change the course of history through violence.

Arlington provided a sombre reminder of the same sentiment. Kennedy, who had visited the spot just two weeks before Dallas, now lay there forever stilled. Rows upon rows of marble gravestones, from the Great Wars to Afghanistan - such needless deaths!

Arlington became a tourist attraction only after JFK was interred there. But apart from the `celebrities' who lie in repose in those hallowed grounds - I noticed Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber) and Audie Murphy (`To Hell and Back'), among others - the most poignant and for me the most significant, remained the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The solemnity of the Changing of the Guard (only clicking of the heels, no banging of the feet, and the slow march) brought tears to my eyes.

Of course I can never mention Arlington without adding as an aside the American journalist’s description of Islamabad, Pakistan as `half the size of Arlington National Cemetery, and twice as dead!’

New York, of course, cannot – and must not – be seen in the two days that we had at our disposal. The `touristy’ stuff like the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and of course hot dogs from the redi-wallahs at Manhattan were quickly disposed off. Then came the 9/11 Memorial.

The footprints of the two towers have been converted into breath-takingly beautiful `reflecting pools’. The names of all who perished have been engraved on the walls, and a rose is placed thereon on their birthdays. Surrounded by the tall sky scrapers of Manhattan, this is now an island of tranquility. 

But I was in no mood for sombre reflection. The deep sense of outrage at the perpetrators was overwhelming. To date, I feel the most fitting memorial to the 3000 people who perished in that attack would have been to re-build the towers post haste.

 A female guard at the Memorial shared my frustration, as we spoke wistfully into the setting sun. Will they not come here and gloat, I asked her? Is this not so much a memorial, as an abject surrender? Did they actually consider building a mosque at the site, to rub salt in the wounds of the victims? Well, we did get him in the end, she sighed, more in resignation than any rancour.

Apparently, the families of the victims wanted the ground to be left intact, and a Memorial built. The new World Trade Centre, with seven buildings is coming up around the Memorial – the first building is already up, and stands taller than the Empire State Building. It’s the swankiest structure in New York, I agree – and even though OBL is now feeding fish in the Atlantic, it did little to diminish my anger.

It’s a tribute to the resilience of New York, she said. That’s what gets me – the resilience is better shown by teaching them a lesson, not by quickly getting back to your way of life. Turning the other cheek is NOT an option in my book!

Sadly, as Maxim Gorky said, “Man has learnt to swim like a fish, to fly like a bird, but has still not learnt how to walk on earth like a man!”