Every now and then you meet a character who stands out against the landscape. The landscape, in this case, is the sweep of terrain between the Arabian Sea and the Khyber Pass.
The character is a stocky man, wearing a baseball hat, dark glasses, a quirky grin, and an air of stubborn optimism. His name is Mohsin Ikram.
The reason Mohsin stands out against this landscape is because he's motoring across it in a sports car that was made in Britain when Winston Churchill was still alive.
Traveling across Pakistan in a museum piece, with no roof, is not for the fainthearted.
But Mohsin is a man in love. He is, he explains, in the grips of what he calls "this car thing" — a burning, lifelong passion for vintage cars.
Pakistan was founded in 1947. There are still a few cars around that were shipped in here before that, under British rule.
Mohsin, who is 50, started collecting them when he was 16. His fleet currently includes a 1947 Lincoln Continental convertible that once belonged to the king of Afghanistan.
"I would go out of my way to have fun in classic cars, go anywhere in the world, take any challenges," Mohsin says. "I love being around cars."
Restoring classic cars is clearly Mohsin's life, but he does have a proper job — as a travel agent and events manager.
"I hate doing all that," he says. "I wish I didn't have to work for money and spent all my time on cars."
A Cross-Country Journey
Mohsin is the founder of Pakistan's Vintage and Classic Car Club. A few weeks ago, with a group of fellow enthusiasts, Mohsin set off from his home in the southern port city of Karachi and headed for Peshawar, close to Afghanistan. That's a journey of about 1,000 miles; Mohsin's wife, Saira, travels in the car with him.
Pakistan has some fine freeways, and many new cars. But driving here is often also a battle with dust and potholes, rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, cycles of all sorts, gaudily decorated trucks — and herds of goats.
Mohsin and Saira are traveling in a dark green 1954 Austin-Healey. When visibility is bad — at night, for example — Mohsin switches his dark glasses for a pair of glass and leather World War II flying goggles.
Mohsin and his friends started these road trips a few years back. They're partly just about enjoying their cars. They stop along the way to hold car shows and gatherings of fellow enthusiasts.
But for Mohsin, this journey is also a statement of defiance against those creating havoc in his country.
"I am from that school of thought that this is our country, and we have to show them that we are living a normal life," he says. "We want to have fun. We will have fun, come what may."
He continues: "I want to be free. I want to be free enough to go anywhere in Pakistan, wherever I want to go to. Why should a terrorist keep us off the streets?"
Pakistan isn't the kind of place that generally comes to mind if you're contemplating a leisurely cross-country drive. It's rare for a day to pass without a suicide bombing, a gunbattle or an assassination somewhere on the map.
But the violence is patchy. In most trouble spots, there are very large areas where life carries on as normal. This is true here, too.
Avoiding A Trouble Spot
During the journey, Mohsin's convoy has to make a big detour because of a rumored riot. He loses a fog lamp and breaks a spring after going off-road for hours to avoid a 60-mile traffic jam.
But they eventually reach Islamabad, the capital, unscathed. Saira climbs out and allows this correspondent to squeeze into their car for a while.
"We are only 5 inches from the ground. It is a funny feeling. It's like a go-kart," says Mohsin, as the Austin-Healey growls its way through the city's wide avenues.
"We get all kinds of reactions, but mostly people like what they see. They have smiles. They give me a thumbs-up; they appreciate the car," he says. "Some people laugh — I don't know why."
At this point in his journey, all that remains is the final leg, a three-hour drive to Peshawar.
More than 1,000 people have been killed or injured by bombings and shootings in that city this year. Mohsin is accustomed to this. In Karachi, there is bloodshed every day. But some of his group have told him they won't be going any farther because of security fears.
"Some people have dropped out because there's a warning that there might be some terrorist attack in Peshawar," Mohsin says. "I told them if you're not going, I am going alone. And my wife said, if you're going, I am also going with you."
I watch as Mohsin and Saira, and a handful of others, set off down the road to Peshawar on a dazzling blue autumn morning. Later I phone them; they'd made it, unharmed. Everything was — says Mohsin — "fantastic."
For the stubbornly optimistic Mohsin, these trips are making a fundamental point, about the impact that people can make by standing up to the men with guns.
"People don't realize the people power," he says. "If we unite, if we get together, we can do anything."
Cookies are a sometime food, and with the holidays around the corner, that sometime is now.
Here at NPR, the holiday baking season is never complete without a story from the always-charming Brass Sisters, Marilynn and Sheila.
They've been collecting recipes for more than 50 years. When it comes to holiday cookies, they immediately turn to Dorothy Sullivan's shortbread. The cookies were a treat they enjoyed when they were girls, just 10 and 15 years old, growing up in Winthrop, Mass.
"Every Christmas, this nice Jewish family, the Brasses, would go over to the Sullivans'," says Marilynn. They'd enjoy each other's company and share baked goods, which included Mrs. Brass' fruited tea bread and Mrs. Sullivan's cookies.
"Going into her kitchen was like going into a winter wonderland of Christmas cookies," says Marilynn. "There were wonderful snowman cookies with powdered sugar and Tom Thumb cookies that have a thumbprint, with jam in the middle."
But the cookies they really loved were the shortbread.
"We ate every piece of shortbread," remembers older sister Sheila. "We ate every crumb; we almost licked the plate!"
Mrs. Sullivan did share her recipe with the Brass Sisters, but they misplaced it. "We had to live on the memory and the taste memory of that shortbread for almost 60 years," says Marilynn.
But that came to an end in the early 2000s, when they were researching their first cookbook, Heirloom Baking. They were trying to recall Mrs. Sullivan's shortbread when friends of theirs chimed in with a story about their great aunt, Liz O'Neill. She'd emigrated as a teenager from Scotland, and she also made shortbread. The Brass Sisters got that recipe and immediately tried it out.
"When it cooled, we cut it up into crisp, crumbly delicious fingers, and we each took one," says Sheila, "Our eyes went up to heaven, and we just looked at each other and said, 'That's it!' "
Liz O'Neill's shortbread is an amalgam of butter and sugar. And for the perfect shortbread, Sheila has this rule: "Always use butter — don't use shortening, don't use margarine. It has to be butter."
But, being the Brass Sisters, they decided to put their own touch on Liz O'Neill's recipe.
"We made it as an orange shortbread, because there's nothing like a little bit of citrus in the middle of cold New England weather," says Maryilnn.
The Brass Sisters' Favorite Holiday Shortbread
Makes 32 1-inch by 2-inch pieces
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon orange extract or 1/2 teaspoon orange oil
Set oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch pan with foil. Grease the foil with butter or coat with vegetable spray.
Add flour and salt to a mixing bowl, whisk to combine, and set aside.
Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add orange zest. Add orange extract or orange oil and combine. Add dry ingredients, 1/2 cup at a time, beating until completely absorbed and dough comes together. Do not overbeat or shortbread will be tough.
Gently pat dough into prepared pan. (Press down the edges with tines of fork.) Prick top of dough evenly about 20 to 25 times.
Bake shortbread 35 minutes. Cool on rack for about 20-25 minutes, or until slightly warm. Score shortbread with a knife into 1-inch by 2-inch pieces, but do not cut through entirely. When completely cool, cut into pieces along scored lines. The texture should be sandy and crumbly. Store orange shortbread in a covered tin between sheets of wax paper, at room temperature.
Shortbread will firm up as it cools. Placing shortbread in the refrigerator will help it firm up. If the shortbread is pale, continue baking another 5 minutes, watching carefully to be sure it is not browning too quickly.
When big food corporations try to horn in on Twitter conversations about TV shows and other pop culture fare, it usually doesn't work.
Remember when McDonald's tried to engage customers with the hashtag #mcdstories, only to have it turn into a way to share horror-story experiences at the fast food chain? Or when Snickers got busted for paying celebrities to tweet about its brand?
Except sometimes, big food actually pulls it off. Take last night's Sound of Music Live broadcast on NBC. From a social media perspective, one of the highlights of the performance was the tweets coming from frozen supermarket pizza giant @DiGiornoPizza.
Bad puns, silly lyric changes and just plain clever comments earned the company more than 2,000 new followers last night, says the marketer behind the tweets, who wishes to remain anonymous.
Why choose a musical about a country and an era in which pizza very likely was unheard of?
"Just trying to make the most out of what everyone was already talking about," the @DiGiornoPizza tweeter tells us in — what else — a direct message on Twitter.
And many of our anonymous tweeter's observations suggested familiarity with the songs and made a whole lot of people hungry, or at least interested in retweeting the comments. (Anonymous says it's a favorite musical.) To wit:
I don't think those mountains are real you guys #TheSoundOfMusicLive
BOOOOOOO ROLFE THE DELIVERY GUY BOOOOOO #TheSoundOfMusicLive
show that the tweeter was actually watching the show as it unfolded.
And lyric perversions like:
DOUGH a crust an unbaked crust RAY, a guy that likes pizza ME a pizza liked by a guy named ray FAH no idea what fah is SO so LA a city T tee
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN, FORD EVERY STREAM, FOLLOW EVERY RAINBOW, UNTIL YOU FIND A SUPREME (PIZZA FROM DIGIORNOOOOOO) #TheSoundOfMusicLive
"I will say that this was unplanned. The Sound of Music was on, the brand trusts me and I ran w/ it," the marketer says.
Of course, as the bump in Twitter followers shows, it's not just fun and games for DiGiorno or other big food manufacturers increasingly turning to social media to prove that their brand has got a personality.
As Stephanie Moritz, head of PR and social media at ConAgra Foods, told Food Navigator-USA in an interview last October, "Social listening is a critical factor in doing business in the 21st century."