Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"How Sweet It Is"

The four words, "How Sweet It Is", was a trademark phrase used by the legendary American actor and comedian, Jackie Gleason.
Promotional photo of a young Jackie Gleason

Through my childhood, I remember Gleason most as Ralph Kramden, the main character in television show called "The Honeymooners". Many of you may remember him also........however, if you are just hearing about him for the first time, please do some research. He had a very illustrious career.

He popularized this phrase so well during his lifetime, that it is still used today as a "Welcome to Brooklyn, New York", the city that Gleason was born in.

Street Signage welcoming drivers into Brooklyn New York

"How Sweet It Is", is also the title to a popular song by James Taylor (1979), that he had done as a cover song to the original version performed by Marvin Gaye, whose version  sold 900,000 copies in 1964.

"How Sweet It Is" - James Taylor

Sorry to disappoint you, but this blog entry is about neither of the above.........this blog is about my recent experience with freshly squeezed sugar cane juice on a roadside near Shirdi, India, the town most noted for the Sai Baba Temple..........oh yes......how sweet it is!

Here's the story..........................

My colleagues and I got an early start Sunday a week ago, and began our day by visiting the Sai Baba Temple......followed by a brief return to the hotel for me to grab my camera (as they are not allowed within the Sai Baba grounds), before heading out to visit the other famous temple in the Shirdi area, the Shani Temple at Shignapur.

The journey from Shirdi  to Shignapur is approximately 50 kilometers or so, and as we made the turn off of the busy main highway, it was hard not to notice all of the sugar cane juice "dhabba's" lining both sides of the road.

Sugar cane juice is a very popular beverage throughout India.......vendors can be found year round in just about all parts of the country selling this simple drink....... occasionally in our neighborhood,  one can find vendors squeezing this sweet liquid from the cane using a "hand cranking device" mounted to their mobile cart.

At more established roadside spots in the city, the sugar juice is squeezed into glasses using a motorized version of the hand cranking machine.........an over sized mechanical device made of of pulley's, gears, belts and a noisy motor, huffing, puffing and chugging along to produce the sweet liquid drop by drop......glass by glass.

But the juice makers (all farmers I am told) along this stretch of road in rural India had a unique method for producing the sweet beverage.....and one after the other, side by side.....they were competing against each other to sell their product to the thousands of visitors making their way to and from the temple.

Most were located under the shade of massive trees........with scattered plastic chairs for their patrons to relax in and enjoy and swings made of rope and tires for children to entertain themselves.
For those without natural shade, tarps were strung in various ways from tree tops and bamboo stakes........while others had created more formal establishments made of brick, mortar and concrete. But all had one thing in common.......the unusual method used to squeeze the juice from the cane.

Anxious to reach the temple, I did not suggest we stop, but I knew that on the way back, there was not only the promise of a refreshing beverage waiting for me, but also a great opportunity to take some photographs of this unique way of creating the juice and share the experience with all of you!

So what is this unique method I have been not been revealing until now?

Meet Sony..........the bullock who was the key participant in creating sugar cane juice in this part of India. Throughout the day, Sony remains strapped to a hand carved wooden crank that turns two hand carved logs with gears, that squeeze the juice from the cane fed by the "juice man"!

Sony.......up close and personal.......don't pay attention to the drooling.......it didn't make it into the container!

If there is one common thread that connects all of India, it is "ingenuity". I see it everywhere throughout the country, and this is a perfect example that highlights what I see during my travels. This juice cart is a prime example of  my newly coined phrase, "Indiagenuity"!

Sony and his juice making machine

On Sunday......when the farmers are not working their fields along with their bullocks, they have a leisurely day at the roadside, sitting and waiting for passersby to stop, have conversation and perhaps renew an old acquaintance or make new friends...one sweet glass of juice at a time.

Raw Cane waiting to be crushed and made into a delicious beverage
 As we drove down the road, I was looking for one of the establishments to make the bold claim  that they were the "original", but I couldn't find one! Undoubtedly, if this discovery was made in the U.S., someone would have surely made such a claim!

Second pass
 While I did not count, I would not be exaggerating if there were at least 50 such places to stop and get juice......I will be making an upcoming trip and I will take a detour to not only count, but to have another glass of this wonderful drink.
The cane gets fed through the machine about 4 times!
With such stiff competition, vendors used creative methods to catch the eyes of passers by......there were the boring traditional methods such as signage and flags that would flutter with the wind, but those more creative decorated their main attraction, the bullock, in some unique way.
The fresh juice being collected in a not so clean container! Who cares about hygienic conditions?
While Sony is surely a handsome specimen, some of the bullocks were decorated with garlands, some had hats,and like Sony, their horns were painted in bright colors; red, blue yellow orange, etc.

Even after a very tiring week in the fields, most bullocks were standing at attention waiting to make their rounds and squeeze some cane, yet others used their time at the juice dhabba to take rest......obviously, who would want to stop at a juice dhabba that had a resting bullock????????


Lazy bullock across the street! No business!


Are you curious about what a glass/cup of this freshly squeezed, marvelous beverage costs? Take a guess....go ahead......now close your eyes!......oops, that doesn't work because you have to read.

Did you guess 15 rupees? Perhaps not if you were from a big city like Delhi or Mumbai............yes, I know......it was a bargain........and so very yummy!.......and for my readers in the US, it is the equivalent of about $0.30........thirty cents! Actually less at today's conversion rate. So fly on over for a glass!

The "Juice Man"
 I wish I had more time to research.......who started this trend, who designed these juice machines, how long has this tradition been in practice........
I grew up in Louisiana........one state which produces 20% of the sugarcane grown in the United States. Louisiana has more that 420,000 acres of land under cultivation that produces 13 million tons of cane with an economic impact to the state of 2.2 billion US dollars. I have driven past miles of sugarcane fields, but back home, freshly squeezed sugarcane juice is not popular.......I'm not sure why because it sure is good!

Doesn't that look yummy? All fresh, no preservatives or artificial coloring!
 However impressive, Louisiana's sugarcane production pales in comparison to India, the worlds second largest producer of sugarcane and recovered sugar!
Notice how the cart is partially buried and weighted with rocks to keep the bullock from overturning it!
I would not mind introducing my fellow Louisiana brethren to this delicious beverage if I could find a way to have one of these juice carts dismantled and shipped back to the US. It sure would be fun and I am sure I could get more than $0.30 cents per glass!

Cheers!

"How Sweet It Is".............

6 comments:

Suneet Nigale said...

Hi,

I have been following you blog for a while now. A hotelier like yourself I am from Mumbai. I find this post particularly interesting cause although I am a Maharashtrian I have never been to Shirdi, nor had the chance to view these incredible mechanisms. Although My mother keeps telling me stories of her childhood when these things could be found just about anywhere in and around Maharashtra.

I thoroughly enjoyed the post. Sometimes I think it takes an outside perspective to help us realize of the wonderful things that we are almost oblivious to.

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