Sunday, September 28, 2014


My husband Jim and I spent today at the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival in Saugerties, New York. The trip to Saugerties, according to the fastest route, was about an hour and a half. We decided to take a more scenic route, which made the trip an hour or so longer. That long road trip, coupled with the overwhelmingly heady sensation of sampling about a dozen different varieties of garlic, created a day trip that I will long remember.

I like to think of garlic as an aromatic. It, like onions, is a member of the allium family. This group of plants also includes shallots and leeks. My style of cooking often involves these flavorful vegetables as a base. Fairly typically, I will heat oil, chop up a couple of cloves of garlic and/or some onion and fry it in the hot oil until the air around the cooking pan is fragrant. Then, it is time to add the main element of the dish: whatever meat or vegetable or grain will comprise the key ingredient.

Garlic, as a result, is an important but perhaps under-recognized element of each daily meal. It was a treat, as a result, to spend a few hours hobnobbing with aficionados and to get a sense of what can happen when this base ingredient moves out of the sidelines and takes center stage.

Our entry into the garlic festival began with a stop at the first booth, manned by a garlic entrepreneur known as Jake. The booth, like many others, featured wooden boxes of both loose and bagged bulbs of garlic in several varieties, and small dishes set out in front. In the small dishes were bits of raw, fresh garlic diced into pieces that we perhaps a quarter-inch in diameter. Next to the dishes were toothpicks. Visitors were encouraged to select a toothpick, pierce one of the diced bits, and pop it into the mouth.

My first taste was of a fairly mellow German white variety. It was fresh and sharp. I felt both the freshness and sharpness penetrate my tastebuds, waking them up. In the meantime, my husband was sampling a different variety: a hard neck variety of garlic known as Georgian Fire. "You've got to try this, hun," he exclaimed. "I pierced one of the pieces and felt the fire slip down the back of my throat."

"Wow," I exclaimed.

From Georgian Fire, we moved to sampling what are known as soft-necks: a Chamiskuri variety that came from one of the former Soviet Republics and the famous (or infamous) Elephant Garlic, which is known for its large cloves and its mild flavors.

From each, along with several other types of hard neck garlics, came the sharp freshness over and over again.

To return to an unanswered matter, the difference between a hard necked garlic and a soft necked one has to do in part with the stem. Garlic grows from a clove planted about four inches deep into the ground. From the clove sprouts a green shoot that eventually stretches upward about four feet and thickens and dries into a stalk. If the stalk is firm like a small stick, the variety is a hard-neck. If the stalk is soft and pliable like a piece of twine, you've got a soft neck. Hard necks also produce a scape, which is a long green stem, just as the bulb growing from the clove underneath the ground begins to mature. Growers learn quickly to cut off the scapes -- partly to promote the bulb's growth and partly because the scapes are a delectable savory treat in and of themselves.

Most of the local farmers in our part of New York grow primarily hard neck garlics because soft necks are more vulnerable to cold. However, even if the soft necks are vulnerable, they tend to store better, retaining their aromatic headiness up to a year after their harvest. We wanted to give these soft necks a try, and a consultant with the Garlic Seed Foundation encouraged us to give it a try. A little bit of extra mulch would help protect it through the winter as long as we remembered to start pulling off those layers of mulch once the snow melted in April.

We left the garlic festival with a pound of the Chamiskuri soft necks, a pound of Elephant cloves, and a pound of the peppery Georgian Fire that had first kicked our taste buds alive. We also left feeling the heat of the late September sun baking through our skin and the sharp hot fragrances of the miniature pieces of garlic that we had sampled warming our stomachs.

I rarely eat garlic raw. Like most people, I see it as something that requires roasting, frying, or baking in some form or fashion. I also see it as an enhancement to dishes, not a singular ingredient. But eating it raw and by itself opened up an amazing discovery. Garlic, by itself, smells and tastes good. It is powerful in its strength and its freshness. What I had sampled had awakened my taste buds and kindled my appetite. It had cleansed my palate and made me eager for more.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Finding the Source

My name means Snow, which my mother told me throughout my childhood was Princess of the Snow. I was always embarrassed by the princess reference because it seemed pompous and girly. These days, it's funny when sometimes people call me "princess" -- as a sign of affection, mostly. I like it. I did like the idea that my name meant snow, and as I grew older, I realized that the snow references also were tied to the Himalaya mountain range. I saw the Himalaya briefly in 1973 when our family went to India and took a trip to Simla, where my mother was born. I felt -- or imagined -- some connection to the mountains.

Later still, I learned that the Ganges River, which Hindus refer to as Ganga, had its source high up in the Himalaya mountains and that you could actually trek to the source. I never felt very connected to the Hindu religion -- it was a little too offbeat for the Midwest sensibility all around me -- but I longed to see the source. I think actually I wanted to climb into the mountains, and I felt that seeing the source of Ganga would be an appropriate excuse.

Growing up in the Midwest didn't give me a lot of opportunities to be around mountains, but I always felt that I would enjoy them. I remember feeling very excited about being near the mountains when I had an internship in Boise, Idaho, and loving the Cascades and Olympic mountains when I moved in 1988 to Seattle.

I got an opportunity to trek to the source of Ganga in 1999 when I traveled to India as a graduate student, as part of a study abroad group organized by a couple of professors from University of North Carolina. By this point, I knew that the town where one began the trek was known as Gangotri and that it was at about 10,000 feet. I also knew that the source of the river was actually a glacier, with the name of Gaumukh, and that it was all but impossible to get to the source -- the point of origin -- because the size of the glacier would vary with the seasons, which meant that the source was never a fixed point, a point that becomes obvious when one looks at the concept of an origin from the perspective that Michel Foucault offers in his essay Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. This essay teaches that there is no origin, only beginnings, with emphasis on the plural. Still, I was excited to make the trek.

The hike was 18 kilometers (about 12 miles) one way. It was supposed to be a relatively easy walk, but I was out of shape and relatively easy on a mountain trail at 10,000 feet has a meaning of its own. I was in my mid-thirties, and I was with a group of students who were mostly in their teens. I really could not keep up with them, but I wanted to do the trip.

There were tea houses along the way -- which were essentially huts built into the mountain where shepherds and other mountain folk would live. Serving tourists was a big part of their livelihood, and the tea and samosa and hot paratha that we could get at these rest stops were quite nourishing.

Most people walked to the base of the glacier, and stayed overnight in an ashram like guest house at the base of the glacier. We were going to do the same.

Our group of some fifteen to eighteen people kind of split into clumps. There were a few very kind people in the group who walked with me, mostly older men. One of them was the study abroad group leader Afroz. The other was a graduate student like myself, whose name I'm not sure of. I think it was Vinnie. Anyway, I caught up with a group at the last teahouse before the guest house. One of the girls in the group had gotten some altitude sickness and while she wasn't seriously ill, she didn't want to continue. She decided to stay overnight in the tea house at the shepherds' invitation. This made me a bit skeptical, but Afroz queried the men and gave his approval. It worked out okay, from what I could tell.

I then started walking with Afroz. He and I were talking, and he was putting me at my ease. Throughout the trip, I had sort of felt like an older person. I had had a chip on my shoulder because I am Indian and I wasn't particularly pleased at the way that a bunch of college-age kids were handling their first trip outside the country. I also felt like a prude because I didn't approve of smoking or of women drinking in India in public, unless it was some place like a bar. Afroz treated me like an equal. We talked about research, scholarship, and he encouraged me to keep on exploring my roots. He was Muslim so I talked to him a little about how he perceived the place of Muslims in India.

Then, we hit a point on the trail where a rock slide had occurred. What had been a fairly safe and wide mountain trail had become reduced to a narrow treacherous path that could only be crossed single file. Afroz panicked and said we had to go back. I knew, however, that darkness was coming and that we couldn't make it back. I felt that if we were careful we could get across safely. My knowledge of the Ten Essentials from hiking in the Cascade Mountains kicked in. I asked Afroz if I could walk in front of him, and I held his hand so he could cross after we made it. He was shaking like a leaf and worrying about his partner. I told him that if we kept our own thoughts focused on safety, everyone would arrive safely. My prognosis proved to be correct. Everyone arrived safely.

That was one of the most empowering and strengthening moments of my life. Earlier, on our bus ride up to Gangotri, we had passed through the town of Tehri, which was controversial because a dam had been built there in the 1980s, displacing villages of people. Unlike the lively gurgling sparkling Ganga that characterized most of the ten-hour drive between Rishikesh and Gangotri, the river was dead in Tehri. The water was thick and mosquitoes swarmed the air. The air felt hot and humid, and there seemed to be a fetid smell. I realized that this was the impact of the dam. It had killed a civilization. I remember that I thought as we drove out of Tehri and up toward Gangotri that this was a good reason to be religious. One could link the religious values of Hinduism to the environmental activism that would restore land and life. I could get excited about this kind of a politics, a politics of justice, rooted in the land.

There's a lot more to the story of Gangotri. It's amazing that I have never told it. I have thought it over and over since 1999. That was a difficult period of my life, and I was a difficult person to be around. I had a huge chip on my shoulder then. But maybe when the rocks slid on the mountain that is part of the range from which my name is derived that chip began to loosen. The next day, upon reaching Gaumukh and getting to the glacier's current source, I did a little puja for my parents. That was my mother's request. I bought some incense and flowers from a shepherd, and I placed them in the snow. As I spoke to God, the mountains around me seemed to hover around me, offering me a protective quilt. I felt as if I were them and they were me. As the incense flared with a match light, (and the lighter was provided by one of the smokers in the group, which is ironic that yet someone else whom I had looked down upon came to my aid), I heard a noise. Snow was tumbling down a cliff, the result perhaps of an avalanche. Some people shuddered. I knew somehow that we would be safe.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Joyful Clutter of Abundance

I live these days in chaos. Six cats tromp up and down the stairs of my house, chasing each other and their tails. Two young goats graze in my backyard, and one of the seventeen hens that lives in our chicken coop just gave birth to twins. Five roosters herald the sunrise in a harmonic chorus, and it's not unusual to see wild turkeys tromping across the yard.

With the cavalcade of animals also has come abundance in other forms: our garden is overflowing with fresh produce. Our kitchen is full of vegetables that need to be picked or preserved soon, and tiny jars of seeds I'm saving from this year's harvest to start next year's crops are scattered hither thither. Beyond the garden, our house is also filled with gifts of books, furniture, pots and pans, and kitchen appliances from our parents, and my office now boasts a stunning collection of feminist literature -- thanks to the generous donation of a retiring professor.

I feel blessed with all these gifts, and I know I want them in my life. I'm just not sure how and when and where I'm going to make space for all of them.

Themes of scarcity and abundance run through my life -- and often surface in my writing. I first encountered the pairing of these concepts in 2001 during a seminar at the Esalen retreat center in Big Sur, California, while attending a weeklong Anti-Career Workshop: Creating the Life You Love. In 2001, life felt perhaps as Thomas Hobbes described it: solitary, nasty, brutish, and short. I felt as if there were so much to do, and as if I had no choice but to do it all alone. During the workshop, I began to gain an appreciation for the fact that I had lived -- and was currently living -- in beautiful places, always had been able to do work that I enjoyed, and even when lonely never was entirely alone. Looking back, I see that during that time I was living with the glass half-empty and that the years -- post Esalen -- were about making a shift toward seeing life and its opportunities as, always, the glass half-full.

One story about abundance from Esalen comes back to my mind. The workshop facilitator was describing abundance as always being able to create more, of not running short, of always rejuvenating one's self, of always finding ways to accumulate. I don't think he meant accumulate in a material sense but more in a sense of gaining more joy, more creativity, more fulfillment. Still, I asked the question, "What do you do with all of this abundance? What do you do when you have too much?"

The facilitator's answer was simple: You start giving it away.

That credo also makes enormous sense, and over the years I have given away quite a bit: full wardrobes, box loads of books, enough furniture cumulatively over the decades to furnish a mansion, cars, appliances, and artwork, among other things. Not to mention monetary donations.

These days, I give other things away: food, time, knowledge. I earn a salary as a member of a college faculty, but I have no trouble doing a lot of additional work for free. One 'ism built into the credo of giving is that what one gives comes back ten times greater.

And so I wonder is the wealth of knowledge (from the books), functionality (from the household items), food (from the garden), life (in the form of all the animals and, of course, the garden, too) and future growth (in the form of seeds) the "return" ten times over. It feels like more than ten times. But the new question surfaces: What does one do with it all?

I thought about this point in my office as I looked at the three tall piles of women's studies books collected from the boxes left behind by the retiring professor. I was so grateful to see these books because they included many classic titles that I have yet to read as well as provocative collections of works on activism, social movement theory, black feminists, multiculturalism and gender, and numerous other topics. I began to look forward to the time when I could go through them one-by-one, soaking in their wisdom.

And I realized, well, fact of the matter is this: I probably will not get through even a quarter of them. I read fast but not as much as I would like. The academic life is one of solitude, reading and contemplative writing in theory. In reality, it is a long, busy day of sound bite style activities: prepping classes that one teaches, responding to e-mails, attending meetings, applying for conferences, grants, papers, and other projects; household tasks, financial responsibilities, and, oh yes, your scholarship sandwiched in there somewhere. The great boon and bane of this frantic life is that it is largely one that one creates one's self. It is full, it is rich, it abounds with clutter.