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For decades in Mumbai, famously efficient deliverymen called dabba wallahs or dabbawala (one who carries a box) have delivered as many as 200,000 hot meals a day, usually made in home kitchens, to doorsteps and businesses across the city.
The intricacies of this extraordinary colonial-era tradition are revealed in director Ritesh Batra’s new film, “The Lunchbox.”
The practice can be traced to 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bacche launched an operation with about 100 men. The system depends on teamwork, organization, color-coding and timing, using “tiffins” as the tin lunchboxes are called.
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The meals are collected by the dabbawalas from homes between 7 and 9 am. The hot food is kept warm by each cook wrapping the tiered lunchbox in a quilted carrier. Dozens of tiffins are slung over the back of a dabbawala, who takes them to the nearest railway station where they are placed on the platform and sorted by color codes that designate the area to which each tiffin is to be delivered.
The “Dabbawala Special” is a train that arrives between 10 and 11:30 a.m. and takes the tins to the various areas of the city where they are to be delivered. At each destination a dabbawala will then pick up 35 to 40 tiffins. It usually takes about 15 minutes for each carrier to locate all of his tiffins and arrange them on his wooden crate, which he then hauls either by hand or behind a bicycle and delivers at around noon. The dabbawala will then be responsible for returning the tiffins at the end of the day.
An intricate system
A single tiffin can change hands three or four times before it is finally delivered to its eater. Once lunch hour is over, the whole process reverses, returning the tiffins to the railway platforms, then to the dabbawala and finally to the suburban homes by 6 p.m.
The original dabbawalas are believed to have been descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji who arrived in Mumbai from places like Junnar and Maashi. Now many are former farmers who couldn’t earn enough from the land or in their communities and hope that relatives in Mumbai already working as dabbawalas will find a vacancy for them. Each new dabbawala’s minimum requirement for work is some capital, two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, and at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama.
In 1970 the organization was restructured, and the dabbawalas were divided into sub-groups of 15 to 25, each supervised by four mukadams, which are the experienced old-timers who are familiar with the colors and codings of the lunchboxes. Growth in each of the sub-groups depends on what the market will support. New customers are acquired through referrals. But if a lunchbox is misplaced, stolen or lost, an investigation is initiated immediately and customers are allowed to deduct any costs from the responsible dabbawala. A 1998 study of the operation showed there was only one error in 6 million transactions.
A misplaced lunchbox
And this is where “The Lunchbox” begins. It is the story of a widowed office worker, Mr. Fernandes, who is nearing retirement, and a young neglected housewife, Ilya, who thinks her husband might be having an affair. After some advice from an unseen Auntie, Ilya decides that she can win her husband back by improving on the daily noon meal she cooks for him and has delivered by a dabbawala. We are witness over time to the most delicious concoctions: meals such a chicken xacuti, fish puttu, vegetable biryani, aadi perukku and an array of naans and chutneys that Ilya lovingly prepares.
On the first day of her husband’s new and improved lunch, the dabbawala misplaces her tiffin and instead, delivers it to Mr. Fernandes. When he opens his lunchbox to this new delightful meal he is astounded and confused. His enjoyment of that first meal is wonderful to watch.
As these wonderful lunches continue, the mistaken delivery is not reported by either Mr. Fernandes or Ilya. It is the kind of good luck that both of them appreciate. Good food can change a heart. Day by day the lunches continue to improve, and the two begin a simple exchange of letters.
I won’t tell you what happens, but just that the movie is full of delightful moments that made me whip out all of my Indian cookbooks. The serendipitous meeting of two people that occurs because of a mistaken delivery by a dabbawala in a city the size of Mumbai bringing about the end of loneliness is one in 6 million. Don’t miss “The LunchBox.” It will satisfy all your senses.
Top photo: Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes in “The Lunchbox.” Credit: Michael Simmonds, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Why let gingkos jar this glorious New York City scene? It’s late November. Central Park is at its peak in fall color. The Conservatory Garden up on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street is all decked out with its fall array of chrysanthemums.
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Yet it happened on my afternoon doggie walk, as I passed under a ginkgo tree, and the pungent smell about bowled me over. I am familiar with what is often called “nature’s stink bomb” and have developed a kind of acceptance and regard for the ginkgo, knowing its benefits, but simply, it smells like vomit. The stench is supposed to keep animals from eating the fallen fruit from this ancient Asian tree.
Ginkgo’s famous healthful qualities
But as a baby boomer who is keen to stave off memory loss, I know ginkgo biloba made from this tree species is one of the best-selling herbal medications. It is used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and improve memory. It also is an antioxidant, so I welcome the stench.
This time of year in Central Park, one will find many older Asian people on their knees, some wearing rubber gloves, picking through the fruit that has fallen on the ground. And each year, I ask myself, why don’t I collect a bag and try them out? So this year I did just that.
Ginkgo leaves are fan-shaped and green until the fall, when they turn a bright yellow. The leaves contain two types of chemicals, flavonoids and terpenoids, which are antioxidants. Studies show that ginkgo is good for promoting blood flow and treating anxiety, glaucoma, premenstrual syndrome and Reynaud’s disease.
It is important not to use ginkgo for at least 36 hours before surgery or dental procedures because of the risk of bleeding. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also not take ginkgo. Ginkgo may also interact with some medications and antidepressants. As with any supplement, it’s good for users to read up on ginkgo before ingesting it. Also keep in mind, the nut can be toxic to eat raw, and even picking it up can cause a rash like poison ivy.
Recipes from around the world
Asian women to whom I’ve spoken say it is no mistake that the nuts fall at this time of year because when they are cooked, they helps fight flu and colds.
The best way to use them is to remove the fleshy insides and skin from the nut. The flesh is discarded, and then the nut is boiled in salt water, fried, roasted or broiled. The nuts are used in Asian rice porridge and other desserts. Another chef used the nuts to make dried scallop and ginkgo nut congee, but instead of hassling with fresh ginkgo he uses tinned nuts because they are easier.
In a piece called “Gathering Ginkgo Nuts in New York,” a couple wrote about collecting the ginkgo nuts and trying various ways of cooking them. They finally hit on something when they separated the smelly pulp from the nut, washed the nuts, coated them in egg, salt, pepper and flour and dropped them in hot oil. Delicious was their assessment of this cooking method for a local, sustainable nut.
I have now collected about two pints of ginkgos, and today is the day I intend to try them. A friend gave me this recipe, which seems easy enough.
Roasted Ginkgo Nuts
2 pints of ginkgo nuts
Oil for frying, such as coconut or olive oil
Salt to taste
1. Using rubber gloves, collect the yellow squishy nuts from the ground. You know they’re ripe because they have fallen from the tree and they stink to high heaven. Still using rubber gloves, separate the pulp from the nut. (I did this outside on Park Avenue.)
2. Wash the nuts thoroughly and let them dry.
3. Pour a half-inch of your favorite oil into a pan. Salt the nuts. When the oil is hot enough to sputter, place the nuts in the pan. The nuts should pop like popcorn, except much louder. When they have split open and you can see the green of the nut.
4. Drain, and let cool. Eat like popcorn.
Top photo: Roasted ginkgo nuts. Credit: Katherine Leiner
Linley Dixon has always been a farmer at heart.
She studied agriculture in high school and college before becoming a graduate student researching tomato diseases on organic farms at West Virginia University. After graduate school she followed her retired parents from Maryland to Colorado, where she and her husband, Peter, launched a farm they called Adobe House Farm, named after the passive solar home that was on the land.
The Soul of the Soil
Third in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
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The first February they were in Colorado, Linley and Peter used aged horse manure, known as black gold to organic farmers, to get their tomato seedlings started. But only a few seeds germinated and those that did curled and stopped growing. Linley switched to bagged potting mix and started again.
That first year they grew enough to sell at the farmers market and for a small community supported agriculture operation. But as the tomatoes came in, a few plants growing where the compost had been dumped were misshapen and had leaves curled as if they had tomato curly top virus. Linley asked around, and many farmers in the area had been experiencing the same thing.
Because Linley had studied tomato diseases, she understood that viruses don’t appear in seedlings on a windowsill in the middle of February without a vector. Plus it was unusual that only the tomatoes grown over the composted manure pile showed those same symptoms. Linley suspected that something in the compost was the problem. With help from the extension service she tested for the virus and one of many persistent herbicides. Both tests came up negative, but often they do because they cannot detect every issue.
Meanwhile, the thistles in the farm’s region were being sprayed with a relatively new herbicide called Milestone, which is a version of aminopyralid, made by Dow to be used for invasive broadleaf weeds.
It does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. Manure may contain enough aminopyralid to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals.
This means forage growers should warn people who use hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid. Aminopyralid may not be used on hay intended for export outside the United States.
After checking with the farmer who had given her the manure, Linley discovered it came from horses that had ingested grass sprayed with Milestone.
Farmers in nearby Montrose, Colo., told Linley that Milestone sprayed on a windy day drifted, killing the farm’s solanaceous crops and the legumes. This forced them to cancel a CSA and lose income. She also heard that Milestone has gotten into composting systems in other states, including Vermont. But still, the spraying continues.
The Pesticide Action Network shows that in the United Kingdom those gardens and allotments contaminated by manure originating from farms where aminopyralid was sprayed have grossly deformed broadleaf vegetables. Linley also has observed about 20 home gardens and farms all over the Southwest with curly tomato leaves. The common denominator among them is that they all used organic manure from fields sprayed with Milestone. “Most of our important food crops are broadleaf plants, so it makes sense that an herbicide designed to kill broad leaf plants could harm crops,” she said. “The symptoms of herbicide carryover damage the most sensitive crops. Some farmers even report that their crops have failed.”
Even though she is an organic farmer, Linley understands some sustainable farms use an integrated pest management system that includes the use of chemicals in some circumstances. They must be used responsibly, though, which includes spraying them on non-windy mornings and not using them on crops, she said.
“But the aminopyralids are like DDT, their half life is extremely long. These herbicides simply stick around,” she said.
Dow said aminopyralid is safe to use and poses little threat, pointing out that the EPA has given the product its green chemistry award because of its ability to control weeds with just small applications.
“It can, however, pass through the systems of grazing animals unchanged and pose unintended problems for sensitive plants if manure from animals grazing treated material is composted,” the company said in a written response to Zester Daily’s inquiries.
Dow said it warns users on aminopyralid labels about these potential problems. The company advises any gardener or farmer who experiences problems with aminopyralid damage to not eat contaminated produce, even though the chemical residue from the herbicide should be so low that it wouldn’t be harmful to people or animals.
“As a general rule, if the produce is damaged, I’d disc it under as a soil amendment; and if it isn’t, I’d eat it,” a company representative wrote. “Best thing to do though may be to ask questions right at the start before accepting compost, manure (plant material, etc.), of uncertain origin and if you don’t get straight answers, test the material by using it as intended on a few of the plants you plan to grow and wait and see what happens.”
An indefinite legacy
Adobe House Farm was lucky. Linley quickly identified and diagnosed her problem and stopped using composted manure. Her garden is now growing beautifully. She is studying the area where the compost was dumped to test how long the herbicide will stick around. Right now, that’s three years and counting
Linley has switched to coffee grounds, leaves and other organic matter such as her farm’s own pasture grass clippings. She never harvests from the spot where the contaminated horse manure pile was located. But she thinks the use of aminopyralid and chemicals like it will could force farmers and gardeners to stop the age-old practice of trusting manure as a good source of fertilizer.
Top photo: Linley and Peter Dixon at Adobe House Farm. Credit: Katherine Leiner
In late summer, it’s common for people in the Southwest to spray herbicides on their noxious weeds.
These weeds are, according to the Colorado Weed Management Association, “non-native plant species that have been introduced into an environment with few, if any, natural biological controls, thus giving them a distinct competitive advantage in dominating and crowding out native plant species. Noxious weeds are aggressive, spread rapidly, possess a unique ability to reproduce profusely, and resist control.” The Cardus family of weeds — including the musk thistle, plumeless thistle, Canada thistle and bull thistle — are those most frequently targeted.
The Soul of the Soil
Second in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
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I have an artist friend who clips the blooms, saving the seeds from spreading during high winds. She puts the bright blooms in a Navajo basket, which is beautiful. Another friend uses the thistle greens to blend with lemonade berries and apples. She then strains the liquid from the pulp into a glass for her morning juice. These plants are edible. Some say they can be used as a medicinal tea to strengthen the stomach, reduce fever, kill intestinal worms or stave off constipation.
A legacy of herbicides
For years, thistles were sprayed with Roundup. Now they have become immune to Roundup and the herbicide that is now commonly used is a strong agent called aminopyralid, one of a class of herbicides known as pyridine carboxylic acids. This group includes clopyralid, picloram, triclopyr and several less common herbicides. It is specifically used for broad-leafed plants, and it can be broadcast over pastures without harming the grass.
Aminopyralids are of real concern to vegetable growers because they enter the food chain via manure from animals that eat sprayed pasture greens or hay. When manure containing these herbicides is applied to gardens, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas and beans are deformed and the plants produce poor, often nonexistent yields. My concern is that this will have the effect of ending the 10,000-year-old process humans have used to increase soil fertility by applying the animal waste back into soils for vegetable production.
Aminopyralid is made to be applied to pastures, grain crops, residential lawns, commercial turf, certain vegetables and fruits, and roadsides. And Dow, the company that manufactures these herbicides, claims in its warning pages that the forage can be safely eaten by horses and livestock, including livestock produced for human consumption.
But Dow’s website posting concerning aminopyralid stewardship also explains the herbicide does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. My concern is that manure may contain enough of the herbicide to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals for years to come. Dow warns that forage growers should inform the recipient of hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.
Dow goes on to say the company has been trying to work with farmers and gardeners when carryover has occurred. Dow recommends farmers test manure on a few plants before spreading it across an entire garden or field, particularly if farmers don’t know the manure’s origin. The trade names of this herbicide are Chaparral, CleanWave, ForeFront, GrazonNext, Opensight, Pasturall and Milestone.
In February of 2008 Grab N’Grow, a California soil products company, petitioned the Sonoma County, Calif., agriculture commissioner to create rules limiting clopyralid’s use on plants that feed animals that produce compost.
A drifting problem
For the last 18 years I have had an herbicide/pesticide-free property. I have posted signs so that, should I be out of town, the herbicide man and/or the county that sprays the edges of all county roads will not spray my property under any conditions.
The problem is the property owners around my house spray and the “drift” from the pesticide and/or herbicide runs off in the rain, downhill into my pond and my soil. I am concerned that pesticides can damage hay, vegetables, flowers and livestock.
There are real questions about long-term health effects of chemicals in our soil. At a time when we are more aware of what goes into our bodies and more reluctant to ingest the residues from herbicides, it seems vital to question the use of anything that contaminates our soil.
Top photo: Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner
As “Symphony of the Soil,” the latest film written by Deborah Koons Garcia, points out, “One can go down thousands of years into the soil. Soil is the water and land having a dialogue. Soil is the interface of biology and geology. Soil is an ecosystem, a living thing. As long as the soil remains healthy, the planet will be healthy.”
The Soul of the Soil
First in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
» Part 3: Menace in the manure: Pesticide creep affects fertilizer. (Will post the week of Sept. 22)
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In the 1970s, Garcia became a vegetarian. She also became a fanatic about good, clean food. She doesn’t eat white sugar, white flour or anything that isn’t organic. As she became educated about real food, she began to think about a film. What resulted were a number of films and then “The Future of Food,” a documentary that, among other things, deals head on with the issue of genetically modified organisms and the world of agriculture.
“Symphony of Soil” does not focus on the agriculture world. It deals with deeper issues that affect the soil. Although the film is an overlay of facts, time-lapse photography, animated water colors and beautiful soothing music, the details are deeply disturbing. Here are some:
In the last 25 years, the biology of soil all over the world has been interrupted by antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides. Whereas soil used to be full of lively diverse microbes, in most places this is no longer the case. In the last 50 years we have destroyed the world’s topsoil. In order to rectify this situation, synthetic fertilizers are used to enrich the degraded soil, which only puts further stress on the soil and increases its vulnerability to pests. This causes farmers to use more pesticides, stronger pesticides and stronger herbicides. One-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion.
Seventy percent of our freshwater is used for agriculture irrigation. And that resource is quickly dissipating at an unsustainable rate. Among the chemicals that causes the most concern is aminopyralid.
Taking a toll on health
The medical ramifications of pesticides and herbicides are being studied. Research reveals they may be related to everything from birth defects to cancer.
The good news is that land that has been sprayed with most herbicides that have decreased microorganisms can be improved if it is treated organic compost for two or three years.
Although climate change is affecting every one of us, one of the ways of addressing the issue is by improving our soil. Planting a cover crop after a vegetable crop creates benefits including suppressing weeds and protecting that precious soil from erosion. Long-term cover crops also improve the soil condition. Even short term, cover crops can increase yield and save nitrogen. If the soil is improved, less water is used on crops and what run off there is goes directly to feed all the needy aqua filters.
Compost also improves soil. If the soil is organic and full of microbes, crops planted there produce large yields.
It is also important to feed nature as we feed humanity. When cattle farmers stopped using antibiotics and anti-parasitic drugs on their cows, dung beetles returned to the cows’ paddies. As the beetles did their work, cleaning up after the massive cattle herds, there were fewer weeds and thistles in the field, thus less need for pesticides and herbicides. Properly managed grazing is great for the land.
Spiraling down a 1950s hole
In the 1950s, the conventional wisdom could be summed up as “better living through chemistry.” We are now trying to repair the agricultural damage we did during that decade with “better living through biology.”
With good soil we create a food web of health and good taste.
“Symphony of the Soil” shows us where we have gone wrong and gives us a plan to begin righting those wrongs. In her last film, Garcia gave us a generous and hopeful look at the possible future of our food, and now she gives us that hope with our soil.
After watching this film, we can begin to ask our elected officials important questions such as why herbicides are being used to kill noxious weeds, some of which, like thistles, can actually be used for food. When we have the information we can do our own research.
This is a movie that should be seen. The simplicity with which Garcia handles the explanation of how we can come to the aid of our own soil is wonderful. If each of us takes responsibility for a handful of dirt, we will have enormous movement. The movie gives us another chance to know our food from the ground up.
Top photo: John Reganold in a scene from “Symphony of the Soil.” Credit: Courtesy of Lily Films
One late spring morning, I stopped into the midtown Manhattan Sur la Table for an intimate food and wine pairing that uncorked the story of the Spanish wine dynasty Ferrer and its contributions to American winemaking with its California property, Gloria Ferrer Winery.
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Great wines and great food gave me a lot to write about. But what I didn’t expect that late morning in New York City was a history lesson and insight into what differentiates Gloria Ferrer from the thousands of wineries in California, not to mention the world.
I learned that Gloria Ferrer is the crown jewel of the Ferrer family of Spain, and this family owns 18 wineries in eight countries on four continents. In a world where consolidation is taking over business, and, sadly, even the rich agricultural world of wine, the Ferrer family honors a commitment to winegrowing that dates to 16th-century Spain. I began to taste their history in the superb quality of the four wines I sampled that morning.
Chef Katie Rosenhouse paired an array of appetizers with four Sonoma Carneros sparkling wines from Gloria Ferrer with dishes:
- Blanc de Noirs paired with Gruyère with warm bacon mornay sauce.
- Sonoma Brut paired with pork and shrimp rolls.
- 2001 Carneros Cuvée paired with crab cakes with black truffle aioli.
- VA de VI paired with Alsatian apple tart with whipped crème fraiche.
My favorite of the four was the crab cakes with the 2001 Carneros Cuvée. This was pure elegance in a bottle that cut through the rich, complex flavors of the fried buttery crab and decadent black truffle aioli.
All of the wines were divine, although I was reluctant to try their newest, the VA de VI, because I normally don’t like wines with any sweetness. Yet the 3% Muscat offered just the right touch to pair perfectly with the Alsatian apple tart.
Truth be told, Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noirs, including Rust Rock Terrace, Gravel Knob and José S. Ferrer, have always been among my favorite California Pinots. My favorite is Carneros Pinot Noir, which surprisingly is priced at under $30.
The Californian outpost for Ferrer Spanish wine
Years ago, traveling through California wine country I discovered Gloria Ferrer. I sat on the winery’s Vista Terrace overlooking 335 acres of estate vineyards. It was a wine country experience with a touch of old world tradition.
Eva Bertran, the company’s longtime marketing executive, told me the commitment to sustainability is first defined by its staff, many of whom have been in place for more than the winery’s quarter-century history in California.
The vineyard manager and winemaker share 25 years of vintage memories, which means that from year to year when notes are compared they can elevate the quality of the wines from vintage to vintage. Consequently, decades of pride and hard work translate into the thumbprint of the brand and ensure a mindful stewardship of the land.
Generations of winemaking in Spain
For the Ferrers, whose sparkling winegrowing experience is generations deep in Spain, the potential of Los Carneros in Sonoma was apparent when they discovered it a generation ago. In 1982 the Ferrer Spanish wine family visited the western hills of Carneros and they recognized the ideal climate for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and thus the perfect terroir for brilliant sparkling wines. Warm days, cool nights, predictable winds, summer fog and a long growing season “coax grapes to maturity slowly and consistently with a desirable balance of sugar and acidity,” Eva said.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards is named after Jose’s wife, Gloria, as a tribute to the importance of the Ferrer women throughout their history. In 1915, Pere and Dolores Sala, both of whom came from Spanish wine families, married and decided to produce cavas exclusively. They named that new adventure Freixenet (Casa Sala). Many years later in the 1930s, Pere Ferrer traveled to America to fulfill a longtime dream of building the family’s first American winery. They were looking in the New Jersey area when the Spanish Civil War interrupted the search and they returned to Spain. Sadly, Pere Ferrer and his 18-year-old son were killed in the war and this ended the American dream for many decades.
After the war, Dolores, with the help of her three daughters, the oldest being 15, reopened Casa Sala in Spain. The youngest son, José, was the man of the house. Flash forward to 1957 when young José was grown and began to expand the winery’s export business. While José was buying existing wineries and properties in Spain and throughout the world, he was shipping wines to America. Within 10 years, the export brand grew in the U.S. to 1 million cases.
It’s clear the Ferrers are risk takers who have a gift for taking opportune risks. So in 1982, when José bought the land in Sonoma and began the next chapter in the Ferrer family history he not only took another risk, he also fulfilled his father’s dream of owning a winery in America.
One thing about wine that has always impressed me is its importance at the table since biblical times. Talking to Eva Bertran that Tuesday morning at Sur la Table in New York helped me better understand the rich history of wine. I had no idea that one family could have such a global impact and that the fruits of their labor could be so utterly delicious.
Top photo: Sur La Table’s Chef Katie Rosenhouse prepares appetizers to pair with Gloria Ferrer Winery wines. Credit: Marie Gewirtz