Christ­mas cheer from The Econ­o­mist

Some are con­tem­pla­tive, oth­ers whim­si­cal, but they all make the reader think, and very of­ten, smile.

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Ir­fan Hu­sain

AS I sur­vey the de­tri­tus of Christ­mas and Boxing Day in our house in De­vizes where too many peo­ple ate and im­bibed far too much, I find some­thing to cheer me up in the hol­i­day is­sue of The Econ­o­mist. A con­sis­tently ex­cel­lent pub­li­ca­tion, the Econ­o­mist has been in­dis­pens­able read­ing for me over the years. But it saves the best for the last is­sue of the year when, apart from its usual crisp re­port­ing and anal­y­sis of a wide range of sub­jects, the editors in­clude sev­eral ar­ti­cles that have noth­ing to do with cur­rent af­fairs, but that touch on more last­ing mat­ters. Some are con­tem­pla­tive, oth­ers whim­si­cal, but they all make the reader think, and very of­ten, smile.

In this is­sue we learn, for ex­am­ple, that on av­er­age, peo­ple get hap­pier as they age. An ar­ti­cle called "The u-bend of life" mea­sures the cor­re­la­tion be­tween age and hap­pi­ness, and con­cludes, on the ba­sis of sta­tis­ti­cal ev­i­dence, that we grow in­creas­ingly un­happy un­til our late for­ties, and then start en­joy­ing life un­til the end.

The author cites ex­per­i­ments in which hap­pier peo­ple were in­fected with cold and flu viruses, and were found to be more re­sis­tant to the ill­nesses; and even when they did catch them, they tended to shrug them off quicker than un­happy sub­jects. All the more rea­son, then, to whis­tle a happy tune…

As an an­ti­dote to this op­ti­mistic piece is an ar­ti­cle, aptly writ­ten by the obit­u­ar­ies edi­tor, about the demise of the Bri­tish pub. Ti­tled "Time, gentle­men", the ar­ti­cle de­tails the steady de­cline of the pub, and the im­pli­ca­tions of the im­mi­nent end of this purely Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tion. I learned, much to my sor­row, that over the last five years, some 6,000 pubs have closed. Many are derelict, while oth­ers have been con­verted into houses or restau­rants. The rea­sons for this de­cline range from the high taxes on beer sold in pubs to the ban on smok­ing in pub­lic places. In ad­di­tion, Brits are now drink­ing less: al­co­hol con­sump­tion fell by 6 per cent, the fourth drop in five years.

Many pub own­ers have broad­ened their menus be­yond the bangers and mash and steak and kid­ney pies that were once the main­stay of pub food. An en­tirely new genre of eat­ing es­tab­lish­ment known as gas­trop­ubs has swept across Bri­tain, with vary­ing suc­cess and qual­ity. Many have in­tro­duced Wi-Fi in a bid to en­tice the younger gen­er­a­tion. Our lo­cal favourite just out­side De­vizes is the Ge­orge and Dragon, and it serves ex­cel­lent seafood sourced from Corn­wall. But given the pow­er­ful eco­nomic and so­cial fac­tors that are work­ing against this beloved in­sti­tu­tion, I fear the end is nigh. "Time, gentle­men" con­cludes with these evoca­tive words: " No sin­gle magic for­mula will save pubs. At present, the strong­est cur­rent in their favour is the pas­sion they still pro­voke. Bri­tons are not sim­i­larly pas­sion­ate about restau­rants, cafes or shops. But by favourite pubs, they mea­sure their own lives, and Bri­tain's con­di­tion.

They see re­flected there, as in a glass, the present blights of so­cial iso­la­tion, for­get­ful­ness of his­tory, cul­tural con­fu­sion; but they also see the forces of change some­how made to pause. Time slows; com­pany gath­ers; speech is freed; beer flows, like the very lifeblood of the land. Pubs are needed, even when ev­ery so­cial and eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor is run­ning hard against them."

For a foodie like me, "Fire in the hole" has a spe­cial res­o­nance. This ar­ti­cle cel­e­brates the bar­be­cue style of south­ern Amer­ica, and likens its ap­peal to that of jazz in pulling to­gether African and Euro­pean in­flu­ences. The open­ing is ad­mirably elo­quent: "It is a noun, not a verb. You do not bar­be­cue meat; you smoke it un­til it be­comes bar­be­cue. And it is not a meal so much as a med­i­ta­tive process, perched some­where be­tween sci­ence and art, de­pen­dent on re­serves of judg­ment."

The author in­forms us of a process in which a fire is built "that will smoul­der steadily with­out flar­ing", and ob­tain­ing a ves­sel that will "bathe the meat in smoke with­out sub­ject­ing it to too much heat", where it can take up to 24 hours to cook the meat. Pak­istani read­ers are aware, of course, that our style of bar­be­cu­ing meat re­lies on high heat lightly scorch­ing the out­side of the meat. The idea of smok­ing meat over hours flies in the face of ev­ery­thing I have learned about bar­be­cu­ing over the years. I sus­pect one rea­son for our fast-food ap­proach is the real risk of meat go­ing off in our high tem­per­a­tures. So for us, bar­be­cu­ing is very much a verb.

While we usu­ally use char­coal in our bar­be­cues, Amer­i­cans use hard woods that, apart from burn­ing slowly, im­part a woody scent to the meat. Sauces, mari­nades and the com­bi­na­tion of the woods that fuel the fire are of­ten kept se­cret as lo­cal com­pe­ti­tions are pop­u­lar events. A Euro­pean par­al­lel for this Amer­i­can tra­di­tion is the Slow Food Move­ment that be­gan in Italy and now spans the con­ti­nent. The phi­los­o­phy driv­ing this move­ment is that food is too im­por­tant a part of our lives to rush, ei­ther in its prepa­ra­tion or its con­sump­tion. Food fairs are held reg­u­larly, and lo­cal grow­ers and restau­ra­teurs hon­oured for their com­mit­ment to au­then­tic­ity.

By sheer serendip­ity, this is­sue of The Econ­o­mist also car­ries an ar­ti­cle on the cur­rent art ex­hi­bi­tion at Karachi's Mo­hatta Palace. I wrote about "The Ris­ing Tide: New Di­rec­tions in the art from Pak­istan 1990-2010" a cou­ple of months ago when it opened, and was de­lighted to see such a pos­i­tive re­view in the Econ­o­mist.

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