Thursday, November 22, 2012

It's Miller Time - In Isaan

The Tahsang Village Miller Loads The Shaker Table
"It's Miller Time" was the slogan for a beer that is brewed in the United States.  Personally I would never drink the stuff again.  Besides not tasting good and being gentle on my digestive system I totally disagreed with their marketing strategy which blatantly targeted specific groups of the population. Such a strategy might work for electing public officials but i do not have to participate in it for purchasing beer.

It's Miller Time in Isaan is not even about drinking beer.  If this blog were to be about beer drinking here in Northeast Thailand, it would be about It's Leo Time or It's Chang Time.  Most of the people that I know out in the villages drink Leo which is also my preferred brand.  More affluent villagers may drink Chang.  No matter their choice, the locals will drink their beer out of a glass filled with ice cubes.  It may sound a little strange but I can attest to how refreshing it is on hot and humid Isaan days or nights.

It's Miller Time for this blog deals with the final processing of this year's rice harvest.  The rice has been cut, dried in the field, threshed to remove the grain from the straw, the rice grain dried at the Wat or in the yard, and stored in the family granary.  The stored rice has a husk covering the kernel.  Some bags of rice which will be used next year for seed will remain this way.  Some bags that will used to make "puffed rice", sort of like popcorn, which is used in making the Isaan treat (I call it Thai Cracker Jacks) "Kao Tawtek".  The remainder of the rice which will be eaten during the year must have the husk mechanically removed, milled, so that the rice can be steamed.

Gathering Freshly Milled Rice
On the morning that I recently wrote about when we visited our grandson's school, I had visited the home in Tahsang Village where the local rice is milled.  Well today, we had to go back out to the village so I headed directly back to visit the miller.

Like many businesses here in Isaan, the man mills the rice on his home property.  In the USA there was a time when industry was also conducted at home.  The term "cottage industry" refereed to the practise.  Well here in Isaan cottage industry is thriving.

Tahsang Village Rice Milling Equipment
The milling machine is located in a shed at the back of the miller's home.  I had first visited and photographed the operation back in October 2008.  I have written several times about the Thai expression of "Same, Same; but different".  During my visit on Monday after a hiatus of four years I realized that the milling operation was "same same but different".  At first I thought that the miller had gotten rid of two of his machines but upon closer inspection, I realized that the miller had reorientated the equipment 90 degrees.  I pointed the difference out to him and he confirmed that it had been reorientated.  Later when Duang joined us, I had her tell the man that he had done a very good job relocating the equipment because it looked like the very same spider webs from four years ago were still there seemingly undisturbed.  We had a  good laugh.  But seriously, the equipment was just as heavily covered with dust laden spider webs as it was previously.  I guess if you know what you  are doing you don't have to clean equipment to relocate it!

Visiting the rice miller was a smorgasbord for most of the senses.  The first sense that is stimulated is sound.  Even from the street, you can hear the rice being milled.  Once inside the shed you hear a symphony.  There is the sound of belts driving the numerous pulleys, wheels and shafts that power the various sections of the machinery.  There is the sound of dried kernels of rice rustling along the vibrating shaker tables that separate the rice from straw and other debris that was carried over from the threshing or drying operations.  You can hear the rice traveling through various chutes that connect different sections of the machine.  There is a rhythmic slapping of the power transmitting belts.  Occasionally a chicken will shuffle along the compacted earth floor of the shed clucking in satisfaction upon finding some rice that has spilled.

The sense of sight is tantalized by all kinds of oddities and peculiarities of the operation.  The work area is rather dark and the air is dusty.  But the most stunning sight is the actual milling equipment.  The equipment is old; very old.  I suspect that it very well could be 100 years old.  The milling equipment comes from the age when machines were still constructed of wood, rivets, cast iron, steel, fabric, and leather.

Wood?  Yes, the elevated work platform was wood which is not all that unique or surprising.  The support columns were also made of wood - a little less common but again not surprising.  What was unique and definitely surprising was that the housings for the vertical elevators and many of the chutes that transported the rice were made of wood, wood that had a nice patina due to many years of use.

Leather?  Yes, the many belts that transmitted power from the single floor mounted electric motor located about 2 meters from the equipment.  A long leather belt was attached to a large diameter wheel mounted on a long horizontal shaft close to the equipment.  Other wheels of various diameters were also mounted on the horizontal shaft.  Leather belts of various lengths and widths transmitted power to the various specific locations on the machine.  The machine hearkened back to the time before machine guards were used or required.  Care had to be taken to ensure that your clothing or fingers did not get caught up in the belts.  The miller had no need to be around those sections while milling the grain but an excited foreign photographer definitely had to take care!  Besides being used for power transmitting belts, leather was used to suspend the various vibrating trays and tables that separated the grain.

Chute and Fabric Connector Tie Vibrating Table to Vertical Elevator
Fabric? Yes, fabric was used to make the flexible connections between the moving parts of the equipment.  In more modern machines these connectors would be constructed of rubber, neoprene, or Nitrile. In some places coated Fiberglas or nylon fabric would be used.  For this machine I do not know what was originally used.  Perhaps it was canvas.  Whatever was originally used is long gone and replaced by the miller with whatever fabric the family did not need for other purposes.  In some sections of the equipment it appeared that sections were being held together by strips of cloth; cloth that was coated by spider webs and dust.  The dust coated spider webs hung from all sections and pieces of the milling equipment as well as all exposed surfaces in the work shed.  The overall ambiance was of a haunted house or some laboratory where Frankenstein would be created - a great place to explore and photograph.

Milled Rice Spills From Milling Machine Into Recycled Plastic Bucket
The colors in the work shed were rather subdued because of the equipment's age and the uniformity due to heavy accumulation of dust.  The subtlety of the color palette was broken in places where the golden grain had spilled or could be seen traveling through the process.  Richly colored recycled fertilizer or sugar bags also provided a punch of color in isolated locations of the shed.  A small but steady trickle of pearl white milled rice provided .some contrast

Making Some Equipment Adjustments
There was a very pleasant faint smell of grain wafting throughout the work shed.  It was somewhat reminiscent of baked bread but without the alcohol accents of real baking bread.

Checking Out The Milling Process
Just as you should not touch items in a museum, I was reticent to touch the equipment lest I disturb the rich patina of spider webs and dust.  However I was not shy to plunge my hand into the bucket of freshly milled rice.  The texture of thousands of grains of rice pressing against my skin was just as you would expect.  But for me there was a surprise, the rice was warm; warm from the friction of travelling through and being milled in the machine.

Bagging the Finished Product
Miller time in Isaan had proved to be a most pleasant way to pass the morning.  Besides being pleasant it was also extremely informative.  As happens throughout Southeast Asia when you take the time to get closer to the people and their life, you learn that there are so many ways to live and to live happily.  The people are very adept at making do with what they have and prove that you do not have to have a great deal to get by.  they are also very good at solving their own problems either through their ingenuity or cooperation with each other.

As a Westerner, you realize that you do not need all that you would like to have or even think that you need.  Sure the equipment is old, very old but it does the job.  Newer equipment would look better but at what cost to the people who use the miller's service?  Currently his fee is 20% of the finished product.  If he milled 50 bags of finished rice for you, he would keep 10 bags and return 40 to you.  He currently has 500 bags of his own in storage and will some to a broker in Udonthani to obtain some cash.

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