About Me

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Resiliency: A Single Word That Has Come To Mean A Lot

It’s just so easy to fall off the wagon, isn’t it?

Honestly, if I had a dollar for every time I decided to develop a healthy habit and stick to it, I would probably have a savings account, or a tidy little IRA.

But I don’t.

Like most people, I tend to make resolutions around new year’s…most of them revolving around my eating, drinking and physical fitness habits…

After a long and replete Thanksgiving and Christmas season, I always promise myself to eat healthier, not drink and spend hours researching crazy diets, all of which I try, fail and fall back into my usual habits.

I am also one of those who always falls prey to trainers in gyms who all play upon the New Year, New Me idea. I have spent thousands of dollars on gym memberships, personal trainers at the beginning of January, sticking resolutely to the routine until something happens and bam…just like that, I fall off the wagon…

Of course, working in a restaurant is not exactly conducive to forming healthy habits: long hours, eating late at night, after-work drinks with colleagues after a particularly trying service…you get the picture.

Interestingly, I am a very disciplined person. When I commit to something, I usually take it all the way.

For example:

In my 30’s, I decided to take up flamenco dancing. And I loved it…to the point that I took what began as a hobby all the way to becoming a pro, buying a house in Sevilla, living there and touring Europe with a couple of different companies based in Sevilla.

Around the same time, I decided I needed a solution for my lack of closet space in my New York City apartment. I turned the solution into a business and launched “Garde-Robe,” a luxury clothing storage company that still exists.

About a decade ago, I decided to write and learn more about wine. Today, I am a wine sommelier and a published author of 6 books.

So clearly, I don’t have commitment issues.

Perhaps a good habit for me isn’t necessarily all about self-image related to food, drink and exercise?

When life as we knew it ended in March and I found myself out of a job overnight when the city went into lockdown, I, like everyone in New York, sat in my apartment and took stock…of life and health, which had all of a sudden, become so important in light of the pandemic that has held the world captive for five months and counting.

As I stared at unemployment and instability straight in the face, I wondered what to do with all this free time.

I could have started baking sourdough bread to pass the time, but no.

I could have dug out my running tights and sports bra, but the thought of squeezing myself into them made me gag.

Besides, I couldn’t give up wine in the middle of a pandemic? Now that would be truly insane.

In any case, wine is an occupational hazard for any sommelier, especially, if you’re like me, studying for my diploma exam that I hope to take when the world normalizes a bit.

Over the weeks of solitary confinement on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and countless FaceTime drinks and dinners with friends, I noticed how different people were dealing with the instability that has come to define this year.

Almost everyone I know told me how they now had all this free time to eat healthier, work out, blah, blah, blah. But they were all still so stressed…understandably so.

So why was I so calm?

I took a long hard look in the mirror and realized that over the years, I thrive during times of adversity and uncertainty.

Golly!

As I looked at decades past and what befell me in those years, somehow, I had managed to pivot and move into something else, creating a new avatar for myself if it was needed or simply slipping into the one that was presented.

How had I done that?

By refusing to give in to anxiety and by being able to change misfortune into something good…for me.

Magic? No.

Amidst all my bad habits and broken resolutions, I realized I had this one ability or habit I could rely on and that was resiliency. Every time something went wrong, I would just get back up and deal with it. And that is what I have needed to process and live through all this uncertainty.

Go with the flow and deal with the cards you’ve been dealt to the best of your ability. Get up in the morning, make your bed, have a coffee, put on your favourite music and smile when you face the day.

Believe me, it works.

 

 

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To Err Is Human: But Can We Bounce Back? Absolutely!

Mistakes…I’ve made plenty.

But even after making so many, it annoys me to no end when I do.

Annoyance forces me into rumination which in turn leads to anger and anger turns into self-flagellation.

Now, it is a given that not everyone reacts as vehemently as I probably do, but by and large, people really hate making mistakes.

“You learn from your mistakes,” they say.

But who are ‘they?’ The ubiquitous ‘they’ to whom we tend to assign these beatific, angelic phrases that frankly make no sense to me.

No one ever told me that when I was growing up.

But then, I come from a background in which mistakes were not permitted. Every time I made one, it was cause for severe and instant harsh admonishment, reprimands that went on, and a running history of my mistakes that was brought up the next time something happened.

In my innocence, I dealt with mistakes with elaborate coverups: lies that I told, excuses I invented, pointing that awful rigid finger at anyone else, just away from me.

But then when I was found out, and the coverup exposed, the punishment was worse.

Sadly, it was all I knew. And so I stuck to it and lies became part of my self-defense and self-protection mechanism. And it became so ingrained that I didn’t think twice about lying. It became ‘normal.’

Of course, what that did was allow me to shed the responsibility of mistakes and stunt my growth, something I didn’t realize until I was handed an opportunity that I got because I talked a good game, not because I was necessarily the most qualified.

I was in my very early twenties and I became the Director of Publicity for EMI Records in New York after having spent a few years after college in Los Angeles.

There were five people on my team and I really had no idea how to run the department. I wanted perfection and I was demanding and brash. I did not lead…I trod on people. Everyone else was wrong and I was the only one who was right. I was perfect. Why couldn’t people see that? And because I was arrogant and foolish enough not to admit it and ask for help, I got fired.

I was devastated.

That was my wakeup call. That mistake was humiliating enough to begin to force me into rethinking how I dealt with mistakes, with people and with life.

But it did not happen overnight. It took a while. And by a while, I mean a couple of decades.

As my career took me from the music business to food and wine, journalism, entrepreneurship and flamenco dancing, of course I made mistakes, and with each mistake, I believe I subconsciously knew that my default mechanism was wrong…but I had a tendency to ignore that little voice that kept showing up.

And then one day, I could no longer ignore it.

Shortly after I decided to be a full time writer, I also realized I could not afford to live in New York City, so I came up with a plan that would help me pay my bills and keep writing.

My strategy was to get a job that didn’t make me think too much, one that was more mechanical, something that was 9 – 5 with weekends off, benefits, and the requisite 2 weeks holiday a year.

A PA, a personal assistant, ticked all those boxes. In my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t the right position/job for me, I didn’t relish the idea of being a PA, but…I did have bills to pay and I convinced myself that it would be fine.

I went out and interviewed and got a job immediately. And was fired 6 weeks later.

But I stuck at it…And over the course of the next seven years, I kept getting jobs and getting fired. I worked for real estate magnates, billionaires, sporting team owners, bored Park Avenue matrons, even a film director…but I kept hitting that brick wall. Nothing seemed to stick and the stress of not being able to hold one of these jobs was starting to get to me. I was unhappy, my confidence plummeted and I put on weight.

I actually calculated that over the course of 5 years, I’d had 10 different jobs. What the hell?

That’s when it came me: I’d made a mistake and I’d been lying…to myself. I couldn’t be a PA. I wasn’t cut out for that kind of service. But I couldn’t admit to myself that I was wrong.

The only person I was really hurting here was myself.

And the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the last person I worked for called me on a Sunday night at 11pm,

“Can you come in tomorrow and iron my yellow Prada first thing,” she said. “I want to wear it at lunch.”

The next day, I went in and quit. It was the first time I’d actually quit. And when I walked away, I was beaming with happiness. I’d finally admitted I wasn’t perfect. It had taken me some time, but I’d done it. But the main thing is I was happy.

Of course, I still had bills to pay…so I pivoted and went back into the world of wine: I worked my way up into becoming the wine director for a top New York City restaurant, which of course, closed in March.

But I’m no longer worried. I’m going to be fine.

I know now that I no longer have to hide behind stories and excuses. I am who I am, flaws and all and people can either like me or not. And the most important lesson is that I have to be truthful…to myself in order to move on.

Through all this, happiness with oneself is the best form of resilience.

My story is not uncommon. If you feel like you’re hitting a brick wall, take a step back. Don’t beat yourself up. Appreciate what and who you are. And that, my friends, is the first step towards acceptance of oneself and happiness. It’ll make living with yourself a delight.

And the added bonus is people will see it.

Follow your heart or your gut: it will never lead you astray.

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How The Pandemic Taught Me About Happiness

Confined indoors over the past few months, I realized, like so many others, that I had all this extra time.

Besides binging on Netflix, cooking new dishes and drinking copious amount of wine I had the time to catch up with old friends…some of whom I hadn’t spoken to for a few months, some a few years and many college friends whom I hadn’t spoken to for thirty plus years.

Kind of scandalous, wouldn’t you agree?

So, I went on a binge of another kind: getting back in touch with old friends, all of whom had been an integral part of my life in some way, and now, since we are all roughly halfway through our lives, I was curious to know where they’d landed.

One phone call in particular with a friend who I had been particularly close to but lost touch with got me thinking. She’d married her college sweetheart; he was now a professor; they’d traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast, adopted a child along the way and were now settled in North Carolina where she managed a tony law firm. Her mother, now quite aged, lived with them and it had been a difficult time during the pandemic looking after her.

“She’s really milking this, you know” my friend said. “One more thing and I swear, I will commit matricide.”

“You sound happy,” I said to her.

“I am,” she replied. “I have my house with a white picket fence, my husband and my son…and of course, my mother,” she sighed.

And then,

“Are you happy?” she asked me.

Her question was so, so simple, but I didn’t know what to say.

When I didn’t, she answered for me: “Kim…you’d never have been happy with my kind of life. It would have been too boring, too mundane for you.”

Really? But I’ve always craved stability…or was she right?

After I hung up, her question and answer stayed with and I got to thinking: am I? Truly happy?

As I examined my life, as I look back, everything I’ve done has been an idea or a dream I’ve chased, a challenge I’ve set for myself. And I’ve done it with great gusto, no matter how great or how small. And that, unto itself, has given me a sense of satisfaction and…yes, happiness.

After college, despite my parents’ objections, I went into the world of rock ‘n roll as the assistant to a group called The Cure. That somehow led to a foray into the world of food and wine when I worked for Tim and Nina Zagat when they launched their restaurant guide. After that it was journalism and I became Dan Rather’s right hand and earned a front seat to the historical events of the end of the 20th century.

As if that was not enough, I became an entrepreneur and turned the idea of a luxury cyber closet into a business called Garde Robe that still exists and is a “must-have” for all those longing for more closet space. I was a professional flamenco dancer and toured Europe with some of the best companies from Seville; I went on to become a writer and indulged my passion for wine with studies in Burgundy and Bordeaux and am now in the WSET diploma program, and a wine director with award winning wine lists.

And there you have it:

Realizing your dreams is a huge achievement and actually not as hard as you think.

Let me share the following pointers that have helped me over the past half century to do just that.

Here are ten rules:

  • Stay focused. You are the architect of your life.
  • Work hard. Nothing happens overnight. There’s no instant gratification here.
  • Remain flexible . Don’t struggle so much. Go with the flow. Silly things, sometimes serious things can happen to make you switch gears . And that is fine.
  • Try and stay positive even when it looks as though it’s all going to hell.
  • Don’t force things , sometimes it’s not meant to be.
  • Don’t chase rainbows. If it’s not working, keep moving. Keep challenging yourself.
  • Follow your heart. It will not lead you astray.
  • Don’t forget to be humble. No one is beneath you.
  • Be grateful.
  • No regrets. Don’t beat yourself up over the choices you make. They were yours and you can’t blame anyone for making them. And no matter how bad the choice, learn from it.

Nothing I have ever done has paid me a ton of money. But the psychic income from a sense of achievement has been huge.  And that translates to happiness.

Follow your dream and your heart. Life is too short not to.

 

 

 

 

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Is 2020 the new Unlucky 13? Or, the uncanny value of improvisation and the ability to adapt

Does luck really exist?

And if it does, is it necessarily good or bad?

Isn’t life more about what you make of it? Improvising, adapting to circumstances, knowing how to dance around misfortune, rising to the occasion or sitting still? After all, isn’t good or bad luck something viewed through a personal prism?

The number 13 has always been considered an unlucky number: some people say it began with the Code of Hammurabi, the world’s oldest legal document that omitted a 13th rule; others say the Sumerians believed that 12 was such a perfect number that 13 could be nothing other than completely imperfect.

In western lore, superstition around the number started in biblical times with Judas who was the 13th apostle to sit down at the Last Supper.

And then of course, there’s Friday, which, for hundreds of years has been considered an unlucky day, at least according to Chaucer, who, in his ‘Canterbury Tales,’ says “and on a Friday fell all this mischance.”

So, when you put Friday and the 13th together…well that’s a serious bout of bad luck, such as befell the Knights Templar who were burned at the stake on Friday the 13th in the year 1307.

Needless to say, even today, 13 is looked upon with narrowed eye. Some buildings don’t have a 13th floor; airlines don’t have a 13th row…etc etc.

Then of course, there’s 666…the number associated with the Beast of Revelation in Chapter 13, Verse 18 of the Book of Revelation, commonly known as the number of the Devil.

This whole preamble brings us to another number.

2020.

Frankly, I would like to propose that 2020 will always be remembered as one of the strangest years in living memory. But is it unlucky? It depends on how you view it.

The optimist in me says it marks the beginning of a new decade that will make ultimately prove to be the greatest in the 21st century and that what we are going through are teething pains before the emergence of a brand new world and a brand new order.

But after the recent, massive explosions in Beirut, I cannot help but think that it really is just an unlucky year…for everyone, all 6 billion of us.

The year began with the onset of a pandemic that no one could figure out, despite all the scientific advances and technologies we have at our fingertips; and whilst for us here in New York, the pandemic seems to have receded, it rages madly, roaring through other parts of the United States and the world.

But the pandemic is more than just a health crisis: the fallout from it in political, social and economic terms is incomprehensible.

It has brought America, the most powerful country in the world, to its knees in more ways than one: at the beginning of this crisis, we all watched as the Italians started burying people in unfathomable numbers…that would never happen in the US, we all said, very cockily. And then it came to New York and people dropped like flies. And all the world watched our response, hoping for some sense of leadership that never came.

Now…months later, America lies stripped of its prominence, harshly criticized worldwide for its’ laughable response, and Americans have been banned…yes, banned from Europe.

So, what does this all teach us?

Everyone will of course have their own take away…but here is mine:

As a wine director / sommelier in a prominent New York City restaurant, I suddenly found myself out of work from one day to the next when the city shut down on March 15th. Actually, the decision to do so was made on Friday the 13th. Hmmm.

Well, that was just great. Now what? I had no savings to speak of. Whilst on paper, I have a list of impressive accomplishments: Journalist, flamenco dancer, entrepreneur, a writer with six books under my belt, and an intimate knowledge of Burgundy, it doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars in the bank.

First things first, was to get myself on the unemployment line so as to at least pay some bills, and at least put food on the table. Well, that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Overnight, as millions lost their jobs, the system crashed.

It was weeks of investigating how to get on, calling incessantly…until finally one day, I got up at the crack of down and was at my laptop at 7:30, when the site opened and I slipped into the system.

Next, of course, what to do? I’ve always been a worker, a doer, not a sit-arounder waiting for things to happen.

What could I possibly do with my writing and / or my wine knowledge?

The best I could have done was to literally “go with the flow.”

And when I stopped trying to control the uncontrollable, things started to change.

A book of mine, a caper/whodunnit that I had let lie because I’d been too busy to pay it much thought, was published. And my wine knowledge could be put to use at a wine shop,  considered an essential business and therefore allowed to stay open.

My life is no longer what it was, but there is a new one . Who knows where the new one will take me, but I can use the tools I have to try and make it work.

All this to say that life ebbs and flows and takes us down all kinds of meandering paths. Often, if you’re stuck, you’ve got to improvise instead of just standing there looking around you. But always keep going, moving, forward, sometimes backward to go forward again.

It really is like the waves on a beach. The water rolls in and rolls back and comes back renewed, refreshed.

Improvisation and the ability to adapt are probably the two best qualities one can have to navigate life’s crises, no matter how big or small.

As a final example: I was in Madrid, promoting a book and a friend of mine really wanted to eat Lebanese food, myLebanese food! It was a Sunday and most gourmet shops were closed and none of the ingredients were available. Well, never mind, I thought…I’ll replace this with this and that with that and we ended up with one of the most memorable meals we have ever had together…and that is what it’s all about.

 

 

 

 

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Inspiration Required

As a writer, I am often asked about inspiration, especially upon the publication of a book.

What inspires me? Where do I find it? How does it manifest?

I always try and give an honest answer, and one, that as Doctor Henry Kissinger said of a selling argument, has the added advantage of being true.

The fact is I don’t know what inspires me. There is no formula, no secret fount, no Holy Grail hidden away in a cave across the canyons and mountains of the Levantine desert, one that requires an Indiana Jones-style quest.

Inspiration is elusive, ephemeral and quite naughty, a menace almost when it teases you and suddenly disappears. Sadly, it can’t be bottled or bought. It comes and goes as it pleases and takes many different forms. It could show up in a painting, a phrase, a face, an expression, a person, an image, a word, it can be anything that means something to you, allowing your imagination to soar.

And when it does show up, it can be magical. For a writer, there is nothing quite like letting your creative juices flow, your fingers playing a beautiful melody on the screen in front of you filling it with words that make perfect sense.

With inspiration driving it, carrying it along on a tidal wave, the creative process is exhilarating.

I have just published a new book, a caper, a whodunnit titled, “A Suitable Necklace,” based in Delhi. Why a whodunnit? I don’t actually know. I didn’t decide to write a whodunnit, it just happened.

What inspired it? One was jewels…the great big, blingy jewels worn by the Indian Maharajahs that take the art of self-adornment to a stratospheric level. And the second was Mrs. Emma Peel.

Who?

Mrs. Emma Peel was part pussycat and part tigress. She was beautiful, smart, chic, fashionable and everything in between. She had big innocent, cat eyes, a mischievious smile and a mane of thick dark hair that billowed around her like a curtain of silk and she wore leather, a combination of shiny patent and soft matte, from top to bottom that made her one helluva hot cat-burglar. And her karate and fighting skills were beyond impressive.

She was strong, tough, independent, spoke her mind and didn’t play second fiddle to anyone. She and her partner, Mr. John Steed, were just that: partners. She smoked, she drank, did as she pleased and lived life on her terms, answering to no one, justifying her actions to no one.

So? Who was this woman? Well…she was an ideal, a character in a television show in the 60’s called The Avengers, and she was played by none other than the great Diana Rigg.

And as I looked at all these jewels, I wondered if any of them had ever been stolen…and of course they had. In fact, the great ceremonial necklace of the Maharajah of Patiala disappeared in 1947, never to be seen again for 50 years when part of the necklace was found in a second-hand jewelry shop in London by a Cartier sleuth named Eric Nussbaum, who had made it his life’s work to find the necklace.

As I began to imagine the theft of the necklace, I saw a woman much like Mrs. Emma Peel and I saw her in Delhi.

And that is how the character of Sabine Kumar came about.

Sabine is all woman: she is beautiful, exotic, sexy, intelligent and knows who she is. There is a vulnerable side to her though and that comes from having been hurt by love, betrayed by a man, something I think everyone can relate to.

I thought about whether a woman like Sabine would exist in modern-day India and the answer is a resounding yes. India today strives to strike a balance between the modern and the traditional and Indian women have come a very long way from their perceived subservience.

And there you have it.

Don’t give up on inspiration…it always shows up.

 

 

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A Virtual Dinner: Viva Cuba!

I have always wanted to go to Cuba: the music, the food, the art, not to mention the very mysterious tradition of Santeria that involves spirits and gods that were brought to the island by the Africans on their way to being slaves on the grand plantations of the American south.

I always thought it would have been very interesting to go when Fidel Castro was still alive. But unfortunately, I couldn’t.

Although, I met Fidel once: it was at CBS News in the early 2000’s. It was September and he was in town to give a speech at the UN General Assembly. So, he popped in, as one does, to say hello to Dan Rather who had interviewed him on many an occasion.

The whole building was on tenterhooks.

Dan went down to the lobby to meet him and took him for a little tour around the building at 524 West 57th Street that used to be a dairy a very long time ago.

I stood in a corner at the Evening News Desk and waited for him to appear: a man who had been such a major player in the history of the 20th century.

And then he came through the doors. Fidel Castro, who I had imagined would come in his camouflage guerilla fatigues, his combat boots and cap, chewing a cigar, walked onto the anchor desk, dressed in a grey, bespoke double-breasted suit, white shirt and a dark red tie. His beard was perfectly combed and his grey hair slicked back. I later found out the suit, shirt and tie were all Valentino.

I smiled politely when I was introduced, and it was a moment I won’t soon forget. Think what you may of Fidel and his history in Cuba, the man was charming and charismatic, one felt his presence even when he had left.

My other favourite Cuban is a musician: not Tito Puente or Celia Cruz or even Gloria Estefan. It’s Bebo Valdés, a superb pianist who was a major influence on the Cuban music scene all the way until 2013 when he died at the age of 94. A founder of Latin jazz and one who pioneered the incorporation of Afro-Cuban rhythms into dance music, Bebo was a genius.

Living in New York, I’ve always kept an eye out for real Cuban food. Victor’s on 52nd Street came close, but it wasn’t like some of the dishes I sampled during a brief stint in Miami in 2010.

I recently talked to a colleague of mine in the wine world, a Cuban, and we began talking about Cuban food and what wines would be interesting to pair with it.

At the end of the chat, he had handed over his mother’s receipe for pork chops, rice and beans and the girls and I made it for our virtual dinner party on Friday.

Mint, lime, cumin and garlic were the predominant flavours: a perfect mix of all the cultures that have come through the island in the past 500 years: Spanish, French, English, Asian, African…

Wine-wise, I decided on an all-natural cabernet franc from the Loire, K had a rose from the Provence and L a sauvignon blanc from South Africa.

Here’s the recipe:

Serves 2:

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 thinly sliced pork chops

4 limes

2 teaspoons ginger powder

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

2 teaspoons cumin powder

Salt & pepper to taste

1 cup flour

14 cloves chopped garlic

1 cup rice (Basmati is a good option)

2 cups cupped red onion

2 red or green Serrano chillies

2 cans Goya red or black beans

0.5 cup chopped fresh mint or cilantro

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

Method:

  • Pork chops:

Marinate chops in marinade of lime juice, salt and spices and set aside.

  • Beans:
    Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil, enough to coat the pot. When hot, 1 cup of the red onion. Stir. When soft, add about 8 cloves of garlic. Stir. When soft, add chopped chilies. Stir. Add beans. Cover and cook on a slow fire
  • Rice:

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Brown 6 cloves of garlic. Add 1 cup of rice, stirring frequently, coating the rice with the oil and garlic. When the grains start to look toasty, add salt to taste. Cover, lower the fire and let cook. When the rice is al dente, drain the excess water in a colander. (You’ll be getting rid of the excess carbs this way). Return to the pot. Cover and let the rice finish cooking in its own steam
Whilst the rice is cooking, put the cup of flour in a shallow bowl. Season with salt and half a teaspoon of cumin.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. Whilst oil is heating, take chops out of marinade and coat in flour. When oil is hot, add chops. Cook 3 – 4 minutes per side. Drizzle with honey and keep aside.

In the same pan, add remaining chopped red onion and 2 cloves garlic. When soft, add 2 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar and some fresh mint. If too dry, add water. Let cook a few minutes. Top off the chops with the mixture.

Serve with rice and beans.

 

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This is NOT America…

Not unlike many others, all I do these days is eat, drink, read, write, sleep, repeat. Oh…and worry, I do a lot of that, the existential angst of what I will do when the world reopens and what sort of a world it will be?

I read an article in the Washington Post this morning about a video that had ‘gone viral,’ and I admit, the phrase made me squirm…

In everything I do, shopping for groceries or just walking the dog, I cannot stop imagining those invisible globs covered with thorn-like tubes lurking at every corner like some post-apocalyptic zombies, waiting to attach themselves to our lungs.

Paranoid? Yes.

But then, how can one not be?

To date, over half a million people in the United States are infected and over 22,000 people have died. New York alone has over 100,000 infected and we are closing in on 10,000 dead.

New York City has completely shut down, stores, restaurants boarded up.

People talk about the return to normalcy, but what does that really mean?

Will normalcy in the post-Corona world be the same? Will we be able to shake hands with people, hug or kiss friends, jump on the subway without feeling a twinge of fear about infection?

People are finding solace in all kinds of quack theories: the virus disintegrates in warm weather; heavy rainfall washes it away… then perhaps we should all move to India, hot summers and the monsoon.

These days, just taking the dog for a walk is a blinking palaver: not only do I have to remember jacket, scarf and hat, but now there’s gloves and a mask to add.

Often the poor dog, who is standing at the door, desperate for his morning constitutional, has to cross his legs to hold it.

And of course, when we come back, it’s a complicated feat of coordination between taking off my shoes at the door, getting into the apartment, washing my hands for the requisite 20 seconds, wiping down the dogs’ paws with dog-wipes, and my own shoes with anti-bacterial wipes…you get the picture.

It is frightening how this virus proliferated. As we began to catch wind of it back in late February, it was clear that it was coming. It was no longer a question of “if it was coming,” but “when it would be here.”

And when it arrived in New York City, it was a tsunami.

And yes, we were woefully unprepared…

Had this been a war, literally, who would have been better prepared than America?

Soldiers on the frontline would have had every state-of-the-art weapon imaginable at their disposal to show off the might of this, the most powerful nation in the world.

Except, in this case, the soldiers on the frontline didn’t need guns or bombs, they needed masks, gloves and we couldn’t even give them that.

As the virus devoured New York, turning it almost overnight into ground zero, the world watched Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desperation as he bid against other governors for ventilators, hounding the White House for help; we saw the news reports of hospitals being overwhelmed with the sick and dying, saw pictures of nurses making their own masks, using garbage bags to help protect them from the enemy, read accounts of doctors who had to choose which patient was going to live and which one was going to die.

Wait…wait just one floofing moment!

THIS is AMERICA?

“This sort of stuff doesn’t happen here.”

But it does.

“How can it be that in 2020, in the richest country in the world, people are dropping like flies? How did we not see this coming?”

The healthcare system in this country was a runaway train heading at breakneck speed to edge of a cliff and this pandemic pushed it over the edge.

Health insurance was the first thing you were asked when you walked into the emergency room of a hospital. How many people died because they didn’t have a card to show the admissions desk?

No one cared.

Until now.

Because this virus has affected the health of this wealthy society, a true equalizer if there ever was one in the recent past.

Our ill-preparedness has its roots in the astounding stupidity and thoroughly incompetent behaviour of Mr. Trump who has in effect turned the Oval Office into a family office.

According to the New York Times, in January, top White House aides, experts in his cabinet and top muckety-mucks in the intelligence apparatus identified the threat of this epidemic, sounded the alarm and repeatedly told Trump to aggressively get out in front of it. American lives were at stake.

But, there was no personal gain involved for Mr. Trump. There was no money involved to line his coffers…so a few people would die…so what?

Where are you taking all this money, Mr. Trump? It’s not going to be of any help to you when you’re six-feet under and rotting.

Had it not been for the governors taking matters into their own hands on a state level, this pandemic would have been much, much worse.

This is not America….so sang David Bowie in 1985. The song was recorded with Pat Metheny for a movie called “The Falcon & the Snowman,” a spy drama starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn about two young, privileged American men who sold CIA secrets to the Soviets, destroying their lives and ruining their families.

The song got its’ title from a scene in the movie in which Sean Penn’s character is arrested and beaten by the police in Mexico City. “I am an American citizen,” Penn shouts, implying his entitled rights, to which the policeman replies, “but this is not America.”

At no other time in all the years I have lived in New York, has this phrase had a such a shocking ring of truth.

I came here as a young woman to go to college and never left, bewitched by what this country promised, giving me the opportunity to something of myself without the shackles of class, society or name.

Why has this happened to us is a question so many are asking themselves?

It’s a virus. It does not come with a moral playbook. It’s not part of a bigger Chinese plan to rule the world, nor is it God punishing us in the biblical sense.

All we know is that it has brought the mighty to their knees and shut down the world, creating a discombobulating chasm between our past and our future. As human beings, we want to cross the chasm, close that gap, heal the wound and keep going. But no matter what, the scar will remain.

The global shut down, hunkering-down of whole populaces has gone a long way in helping close that gap. But is it personal fear or a real sense of a shared purpose and destiny?

As we navigate these un-chartered waters, and cross over, perhaps we need to take stock of what doesn’t work, let go of our baggage and move lithely into a bright new world?

 

 

768 1024 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

Life’s Simple Pleasures

Until a few short weeks ago, I was involved in the opening of a new restaurant in New York City.

I was the wine director responsible for a 45-page wine list that boasted 750 references and over 3500 bottles in the cellar, plus a team of sommeliers.

It was the toughest reservation in town, people clamouring to get in, begging for a reservation to dine and be seen at such a hot spot.

Work on the restaurant began months before, but once it actually opened, my life was no longer my own: I was working seven days a week, often putting in fifteen-hour days. I was so busy that I barely saw my own dog: on one of my rare days off, I actually had to call his walker to find out what he ate because I had run out of his food. Needless to say, friends fell by the wayside, collateral damage for an over-achiever that I seem to have been all my life. Clawing one’s way up a ladder, no matter which industry you’re in, does not leave much room for balance that includes friendship, compassion or empathy.

But now, here I am: unemployed and with no idea of what role I’ll play when life goes back to normal. What will the restaurant world look like when the world at large reopens? Will I have a role in that world? And more importantly, do I even want to stay in it?

Nowadays, hours merge, days and nights flow into each other, thoughts ramble along with no compass…because there is none.

The only thing I know is that we have to navigate forward, because there is no other way.

I sat at the foot of a tree today in Central Park with Baxter, my faithful wheaten terrier, rolling around on the green grass a few feet away, I laughed…really laughed, perhaps the first time in months. Seeing him so happy, made me happy. I turned my face up to the sun and breathed deeply, taking in the Vitamin D and…enjoying the pleasure of being outdoors with my dog: no timetable, no schedule, no appointments…nothing, just the whole afternoon ahead of me. It was bliss.

Such a simple pleasure. I had forgotten what they were like.

As we continued our walk around the bridle path, with me masked and gloved and judiciously walking from one side to the other keeping myself within a 6 foot bubble, I began to think about simple pleasures. What are they?

Simple pleasures are experiences that are exactly as described: simple. They are everyday experiences that don’t take forever to plan or schedule, but mainly, they balance our life, allow the prism to shift from our mad, daily schedules to certain things that fill our souls and make us whole again.

Simple pleasures are highly personal: what is a simple pleasure for me may not be one for you.

Many years ago, I worked as a personal assistant to a very rich Park Avenue matron. She claimed that going shopping every day, buying the same dress in three sizes, two pairs of the same shoes and spending on average $30,000 a day on such things was a ‘simple pleasure.’

Mine, on the other hand, include: waking up to a beautiful day and knowing I don’t have a schedule to follow; staring at the ocean listening to its ebb and flow; lying on the grass staring up at the sky; a glass of wine at sunset; catching up with a friend on a lazy summer afternoon over a lunch of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and avocado; cooking Sunday lunch for friends…my list is not one that costs a lot of money, all it requires is time…which in my case has been in very short supply, until now.

I’ve been reading a lot of accounts of people who lived through the Spanish flu pandemic just over a hundred years ago. It reads like history repeating itself, except in one, very important way. Technology.

In our enforced solitude, technology has allowed us to still be with one another. We have the luxury of virtual cocktails, virtual dinner parties, virtual gyms…not to mention Netflix and Amazon Prime. And we can get food and groceries delivered.

So whilst we all think we are alone, and a lot of us are, I can Facetime with friends, text them, call them and I know they’re there.

One of the things I hope drifts into the post-corona world is that we remember our friends and those we love and make time every day for the simple pleasures of life, no matter what they are for you.

Onward.

 

 

 

257 274 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner Party: Lamb Ragù

About a quarter of a century ago, I went to Sardegna…the one and only time I’ve visited this island in the Mediterranean, but one that I swore I wanted to go back to…and I will.

One summer, a few years after we both graduated, my best friend from college, a Roman girl told me she had rented a small cottage on the West Coast of Sardegna.

“It’s the un-chic side of Sardegna,” she said. “Not the Costa Smeralda…” which is an obligatory pit-stop for the jet set and their magnificent yachts as they cruise the Mediterranean in the summer.

“Why don’t you come visit?” she suggested. “You’ll have to fly into Caligari and take a taxi.”

Why not? I thought and booked myself on a flight to Rome and onwards.

As the taxi trundled north to the address that was not much more than the name of a farm and a general area rather than a ‘street address,’ I was amazed at the scenery. It wasn’t anything like what I’d imagined. It was wild.

Along the coasts, gigantic cliffs plunged into a sea so blue that it redefined ‘turquoise,’ and inland, when the road took us there, the hills were craggy and rugged and the valleys green and rich with local vegetation, the air redolent of the scent of herbs that was reminiscent of the Languedoc region of Southern France.

Shepherds snoozed under the heavy foliage of trees as their flocks foraged for fresh, sweet grass, whilst a strong wind swept through, cooling the effects of the hot summer sun. As we got closer to the house, a flock of flamingos rose up into the sky in a perfectly choreographed formation that took my breath away.

I honestly can’t remember exactly where the cottage was, but it was charming and the view and place made up in spades for what it didn’t have in the more modern comforts of life.

Besides the scenery, what has stayed with me from that trip were some of the meals we had: one a pasta dish made by the farmer’s wife when I arrived, mallerodus, a local pasta, in a simple sauce and lots of pecorino cheese; two, the lunch on the boat that we took to see the coast, was another simple pasta in a red sauce, made by one of the crew. Why is it that pasta in Italy just tastes better?

But the third meal was at an agriturismo, an Italian table d’hote, the dinner table of a local farmer.

At this agriturismo, the table was outside under the star-filled, inky sky of a summer night. I remember it was hot and humid and the air was quite still. Candles lit the area and the smell of wax mingled with the scent of wildflowers.

The table was laden with platters of antipasti and cheese and hot, homemade bread. There were pitchers of cold water and bottles of a homemade rose wine. The pièce de résistance was the incredibly beautiful sucking pig that everyone thought was the star of the show.

But for me, it was the pasta, the primo piatto that came before the pig that I have never been able to forget, the layered flavours of the lamb ragù creating an indelible memory of a dish that I recreated years after the trip, re-building it step by step from the flavours I remembered and the few pointers given to me by the farmer’s wife.

Three years ago, I was in East Hampton for some much-needed time off and my very close friend, K, came to visit. And as we sat drinking a Sicilian rosé by the pool enjoying the August sun, talking about places we’d visited and hoped to go back to, Sardegna was one that came to my mind and I told her about that meal at the agriturismo.

Inspired, I conjured up the dish, feeling a little bit like a witch stirring her cauldron, relying on my palate and olfactory memories from so many years ago. We had it that night, sitting outside, the table lit by candles, a couple of bottles of wine to keep us going and crickets chirping in the bushes. And…I have to say, it was pretty darned good and came very close to being exactly what I had eaten twenty-five years prior.

Last week, following the success of our first FaceTime virtual dinner party, my friends, K and L, suggested we do the lamb ragù next. Problem was that I had never written down the receipe in East Hampton, but, unbeknownst to me, K had taken notes as I cooked. So, we decided to go for it…K, L and I cooked on FaceTime, took a break to take our respective dogs out as the ragù simmered in three kitchens across Manhattan, and came back to it, served it and sat down and ate it…alone, yet together.

Wine was copiously consumed, L decided on a Marsanne from Yves Cuilleron, K a greco di tufo from Campania and I had a monica from Sardegna.

We ate too much and we drank too much and talked far too much, but this time, we didn’t have to get in cabs to go home. We were home.

Not yet sure what we will do next week, but there was some talk of Mongolian steak…

Stay tuned!

 

Meantime, the ragù receipe is below.

Ingredients:

Olive oil

4 cinnamon sticks
10 cloves
10 whole black pepper

2 bay leaves

8 cloves garlic minced
2 red onions chopped
4 pepperoncini or 3 fresh serrano chilies chopped or 4 dried
2 pounds minced lamb
2 of each sweet and hot sausage, without the casing

Salt

4 fresh tomatoes

Pinch of sugar

3 – 4 sweet potatoes, cut in chunks

A palmful of finely chopped parsley

1 box of a short pasta, rigatoni, fusilli, cavatappi or celentani
Pecorino cheese to taste

 

Method:
Heat a good glug of olive oil, enough to coat the bottom of a pot
Add whole spices to perfume the oil
Add garlic

Add red onion and chili
Add a pinch of salt to make the onion sweat
Once onion is soft, add meats and brown

Salt to taste
Peel the tomatoes, puree, and add to mixture
Add a teaspoon of sugar
Cover and cook on low fire, about an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees
Toss chunks of sweet potato in olive oil and salt and roast, about 25 to 30 minutes until soft.
About 5 minutes before ragù is ready, add roasted sweet potato to the pot.
Top with parsley.

Boil pasta in salted water until al dente.

Drain and return to the pot and add the ragù to the pasta and allow it to mix.

Top with pecorino cheese and serve.

450 675 MAHA KIMBERLY AKHTAR

A Virtual Dinner Party: Harissa Chicken

One of the things I love to do is entertain at home.

Cooking for friends, picking the wine, setting the table, choosing the flowers, candles music…it’s all part of what I love to do. And if I’m going to cook for someone, they’d better eat! In fact, in my book of hospitality, the empty plate of a guest is a crime of etiquette.

Before I got back into the world of restaurants and had no time for my friends, I would have dinner parties at least once month, informal gatherings of friends or large Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas get-togethers that involved creating more complex menus, cooking over two days and the best part, choosing the right wines and opening a bottle as soon as I put on my apron! You can’t cook without a glass of wine!

Now, in this time of social distancing, I have, ironically, reconnected with these friends and we get together every couple of days at 6pm, via FaceTime for a drink. A few days ago, one of them reminded me about the dinners I would have for monthly column I used to write. It was a column about wine-pairing, written for people who wanted to enjoy wine without breaking the bank.

My editor would send me a receipe and it was my job to make it and pair the dish with a red, white, rose or sparkling wine, with the caveat that the bottle was under $25.

So every month, I’d invite half a dozen friends and we would all gather in my kitchen for a glass of champagne, the opening aperitif, that was my welcome drink of choice. I would cook, and we would all catch up, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and enjoying one another’s company.

When the dish in question was ready, we would sit at the dining table and I would present the wines and everyone would taste and sip and I would take notes until I had enough. After that, the diner party would take on a positively raucous edge and indubitably, much more wine was opened than the requisite ones that were to be part of the article.

So I got to thinking…why couldn’t we do the same? Virtually? The suggestion was met with definitive enthusiasm and  we agreed to Friday night to cook via FaceTime.

The opening recipe was Harissa Chicken. A simple roasted chicken with the added kick of one of my favourite North African spice paste.

Just as I was in the kitchen washing vegetables, K and L both texted me at the same time. “What are we drinking?”

Ah! The most important part of cooking is what you have in your glass, that liquid that makes the world look slightly better in the midst of all this instability. Since K and L only drink white wine, I suggested a pinot blanc or a pinot gris, something with a little more fruit that would stand up to the spice in the harissa.

And for myself, I pulled out a bottle of Cour-Cheverney, a little-known appellation in the Loire where the local varietal is the rare Romorantin, an old Burgundian varietal now only grown in Cheverney. On the nose it’s all pear and apple and white flowers and on the palate, it’s delicate, elegant and a touch honeyed, which would be perfect with the chicken.

My harissa chicken receipe is incredibly easy to make: everything goes in one dish. Essentially, the chicken is rubbed with the harissa and salt and laid on a bed of a sort of mirepoix of peppers and onions, themselves seasoned with olive oil and salt. And into the oven it goes for about an hour and a bit.

As everyone’s chicken cooked (on FaceTime), we had a drink together and chatted. When everything was ready, we all sat down at our respective tables. I had my chicken with pita bread, yoghurt with cucumber and an extra squidge of lemon; K had hers with naan and tzatziki sauce and L had hers with coucous.

It was delicious and it was a great evening, even though we couldn’t all be in the same room. So much so that next Friday, we’re doing the same, this time, the receipe that is being clamoured for is a lamb ragù that I learned from a farmer’s wife in Sardinia about 30 years ago whilst on holiday there with a college friend.

The receipe for the Harissa Chicken is below:

Makes 4 servings:

Ingredients:

1 red pepper

1 yellow pepper

1 green pepper

1 red onion

One chicken (if you do a whole chicken, cut through the backbone, so you can lay it flat) or pieces of a chicken, breasts, thighs, drumsticks on the bone

Olive oil

2 tablespoons honey

Salt and pepper

Harissa (can be store bought or see my receipe)

Fresh lemon wedges

Method:

Chop all the vegetables, season well with salt and pepper and toss in lots of good olive oil and a tablespoon of the Harissa.

Place in a baking dish.

Season chicken with salt and pepper and take a good dollop of the harissa, at least 2-3 tablespoons and rub the chicken all over before placing it on the vegetables. Drizzle honey over the chicken.

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Place the dish in the oven and let the meat sear…about 15-20 minutes, depending on the oven.

Once a crust has formed, lower the oven to 350 degrees and cook the chicken for about 55 minutes.

Take out of the oven and let rest.

Serve with naan bread, pita bread or couscous.

Squeeze the juice of the fresh lemon on the chicken and dig in.

Harissa:

Ingredients:

(about 2 cups)

8 fresh red serrano chilies

8 dried red chilies (can be chile de arbol, chipotle, ancho guajillo)

2 red peppers

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

4 cloves

4 whole black pepper

6 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

Juice of half a lemon

Salt to taste

Olive oil

Fresh mint

Method:

Rehydrate the dried chilies in hot water, about 40 minutes.

Chop the heads off the fresh chilies and keep aside.

Chop the two red peppers and roast them in the oven at 450 degrees until the skin is charred and the peppers are soft. Peel off the charred skin and keep aside.

In a skillet, dry roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves and black pepper.

Grind the dried spices in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.

Drain the dried chilies and keep the water.

Combine all chilies, roasted peppers, spices, garlic, lemon and salt in a blender or food processor.

Once coarse, slowly add the olive oil to create a paste. If still too dry, add some of the water from the rehydrated chilies.

Add a few sprigs of fresh mint.

Place in a jar and store in the fridge.

You will need to add a little olive oil each time you use the paste after refrigeration.