Monday, July 14, 2014

FULL MOON BIRTHDAY REFLECTIONS

The huge moon that hung in the sky this evening, impossibly luminous and lovely, was a tad off full, for it was last night, in scattered dramatic trailing clouds that the moon was fullest. I had a lot of time to marvel at her then, for I was driving late at night, on almost empty roads, the two plus-hours from Grey County back to Toronto.

The dryness of my tired late-night eyes, painful and a little scary, drove me to close them at red lights (after putting the car in Park), and ask my travelling companion to tell me when the light turned green. That short respite, repeated several times, was enough to extend my stamina and get us back into the city safely. But the struggle to stay focussed and able made me think about all the times I have taken chances, and all the times all of us are pushed to take chances or choose to do it for a thrill. We get away with it most of the time. And then sometimes we don’t…and we and others suffer.

Yet still we push the limits. What is it in us that pushes us to take chances? Evolutionarily these tendencies must have been rewarded…but what purpose have they served? Well I guess they help us extend out boundaries and discover new possibilities. That kind of positive result in previous generations could have been advantageous in many ways to our ancestors.

But when we take chances and risks we’re not thinking about our forebears, we’re instead in the moment, either willing ourselves to come through despite discomfort or exhaustion (think of the soccer players, yikes) or choosing to take a risk for the thrill of it. And in the latter situation, is the thrill in the danger/risk itself? or is it also in the idea that we can get away with things we ought not to do?

Probably some of both…

I wrote those earlier paragraphs last night. Now it’s a bright grey Monday morning, getting more and humid, waiting to start into the promised rainshowers of late afternoon. Meantime the birds are tweeting and the garden is glowing green, the arugula sharp-tasting and inviting, the cucumbers twining and setting fruit. The eggplants are NOT flourishing though. It’s been too chilly at night, so they have not set fruit. The cayenne chiles on the other hand are already loaded and I have been picking their green shiny heat-gifts for two weeks now.

But back to Grey County… A lovely guy named Steve, a chef who has now turned to farming found himself entangled in a conversation with me about cardoons. He’s growing them, and globe artichokes too, even in Ontario’s tough climate. He’s promised me some in August, and I’m delighted, for I have a delicious Kurdish recipe to try.

The meal was anchored by a lot of food from our hosts (who were celebrating having lived on their land for thirty years) but it was also a potluck. Steve had brought over a big load of zucchini blossoms. He made a batter of egg and water and all-purpose flour, quite loose and liquid, dipped each blossom (with its handy and delicious stem) through the batter and deep-fried them in batches in peanut oil in a wok set over the wood fire. We’d used that fire earlier to grill loads of local beef (marinated round steaks) and a lovely lot of shiitakes that our hosts grow outside on maple logs. The beef we sliced across the grain and then dressed to transform it into Thai grilled beef salad, always a crowd-pleaser, flavoured mostly with mint rather than basil, and garlic scapes, as well as lime and fish sauce and a little chile heat. The shiitakes are so meaty that after a quick pre-grill dip in a mixture of oil and fish sauce (with some minced sage and garlic green tossed in for good measure), time on the grill, and slicing into strips with a squeeze of lemon juice, they were perfection and vanished very quickly.

There’s nothing like a potluck meal with people who grow their own food. (And this was even more wonderful because we had a fire and we were outdoors in a forest clearing.) The potato salads (ours with just a pounded pesto dressing of pistachios, mint and chervil, garlic scapes etc plus local vinegar; others with garden peas etc), rhubarb cakes, leaf lettuce greens…were all lively and vital on the tongue with freshness and familiarity too. Perhaps all that good food and good company were why I had the energy to drive back into the city (and I had been sesible about alcohol: I drank only water for the five hours before I set out home).

And so here we are already in mid-July, loving the summer and already noticing that the days have started to get shorter. It’s my birthday tomorrow, and that of a close friend today. We chatted yesterday evening, sitting outside sipping a delicious Chablis, about the stock-taking that July means for us because of our birthdays. What a pleasure to have time and ease to catch up with friends.

And today as I am thinking about all this, I sift through my birthday-time images in my mind’s eye, from childhood homemade birthday cakes heaped with blueberries and raspberries, to making the three day parikrama  round Mount Kailash in western Tibet, to swimming in the soft waters of the Gatineau River north of Ottawa, to last Saturday’s delicious swims in the clean waters of Grey County.


It’s a big stack of images… a lovely chance for me to appreciate being alive in this world.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

CANADA DAY BOUNTY & GENEROUS RAIN

It’s Canada Day here in Toronto, the anniversary of the day in 1867 when Canada became a Confederation with a Parliament etc.

The city is quiet, with very  little traffic (many people being up north at cottages, or away on holiday). Around noon there will be the twenty-one gun salute and other ceremonies in Queen’s Park, the gracefully old-tree-rich park behind the Provincial Parliament buildings. It’s  just a few blocks from my house. I headed out that way this morning for a quick pedal, hoping to get my blood moving and get home before the rain and thunder storms that had been promised for 10.30.

But I was waylaid as I entered the park by the sight of a woman in white cotton pants and top picking from a huge old cherry tree at the corner. Its blooms were stunning six weeks ago and now the cherries were hanging ripe and inviting, almost black, and mostly too high up to reach. I put my bike down on the grass, said hi, and the woman called out “there’s plenty right here; the other branches are too high”. And so we held down a the trailing leafy and berried end of a mighty branch with one hand each and with the other picked and ate cherries one by one. They were small (“smaller than last year” she told me, a touch of the Caribbean in her voice) and intensely flavoured, at once tart and sweet. It felt like the best kind of luxury, and a wonderful way to celebrate Canada Day, to be picking cherries right from the tree, chance-met strangers sharing bounty.

Tall people with strong ladders may well pick the rest, all too far from the ground for us to reach…and so a few minutes later I headed off. The breeze freshened, the sky was greyer, and colours glowed in the eerie pre-rain light. A friend called me on my cel as I headed up a leafy side-street. I stopped and stood over my bike to chat with her. But then I tried riding one-handed (getting on and off are the hardest things of course) as we chatted, and all was well until the first rain started pelting down. We agreed to talk later and I tucked my phone away, hoping it wouldn’t get soaked.

That ride home was almost as pleaurable as eating the cherries. The rain was warm, a gentle lukewarm shower, that sometimes turned into more emphatic pellets but was never chilling, more like a water massage. One guy was running down the street in a big hurry but everyone else I saw just kept walking unconcernedly under an umbrella, or else paused under a tree to take shelter.

The whole ride was a reminder, one way and another, of how precious trees are, a shelter, a food source, and a reassurance that life goes on.

Now I’m back home, changed into dry clothes, and sitting by an open door typing this (how freeing a laptop is!). As I think about trees and their place in our world, I’m reminded of the wonderful books by John Vaillant: The Golden Spruce (a story from Haida Gwai aka the Queen Charlotte Islands) and The Tiger. I heard him speak a few weeks ago at a PEN event and now am deep in his tale from far eastern Siberia, about the tiger who hunted men. The writing is wonderful, with generous-to-the-reader limpid sentences and images of great beauty. Somehow there’s no self-consciousness in his writing, no ‘see how lovely this sentence is!’ feeling. Highly recommended.

Speaking of books, I have to get back to work. Now that I’ve hit my stride and am immersed in my Persian World book project, the days feel too short, and my head is full of lists of what needs to be done next. That includes getting more recipes drafted and tested once or twice before I can send them to friends for more test-driving. (I like the idea of recipes being taken out for a spin, like a new car.) And it’s summer, the season of cherries and other fruits, so important in the cuisines of the region. I mustn’t waste the moment!


Happy Canada Day, and an early happy Fourth of July, to all.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

DEEP-DIVING INTO THE PLEASURES OF WORK

It's a humid morning here, the ground breathing dampness and fertility after last night’s torrential rain. I headed out early today for a quick intensive bike ride up a nearby hill. The route takes me through neighbourhoods lush and green, past morning joggers with their earbuds in, and labouring people whose work day starts at seven: garbage pick-up workers, construction crews, nannies.

Now I'm back, having had my airing. My blood is flowing and brain kicking into gear.

It's about time. I see from the date of my last post that it's been almost two weeks since I wrote here. Then we had just passed the full moon. Now we are waning and will soon be into the next lunar month. It's a big one, for this year the June new moon marks the start of Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting (no food or drink of any kind) and nighttime feasting, prayer, and celebration for observant Muslims. Going without food and drink for the long days here, when sunrise is early and sunset late, is an exercise in mindfulness I imagine, as well as a difficult physical feat in the heat.

How do people get work or any other chores accomplished? I wonder. It's hard enough to settle to a task in normal times, let alone with a grumbling stomach and low blood sugar. To fast well you have to be disciplined, and that means getting up early enough to eat well before dawn so that you are fortified for the long day ahead.

It's interesting to compare the different approaches to fasting in different religious traditions. For Christians fasting has usually meant doing without a particular kind of food: meat, or instead all animal products (no dairy or eggs and no meat). But somehow fish doesn't rank as animal, and so fish is permitted on fasting days. (Hence the classic tradition of European restaurants featuring fish on Friday menus, for Friday was the fasting day for Catholics, still is for some). 

I was in Georgia last spring during Lent, the forty-day fasting period before Easter when all meat and dairy are forbidden to observant Orthodox Christians. The rule has pushed cooks to invent fasting versions of favorite foods, such as khachapuri. On fasting days these flatbreads – normally filled with fresh cheese - are instead stuffed with delicious cooked beans. Home cooks and bakeries were also making cakes and other treats during Lent, using alternative non-dairy ingredients such as margarine and alternative recipes that didn’t call for eggs. That strategy seemed to me to go against the spirit of fasting. I mean, the cook might have had to be mindful, but the greedy eaters still were able to have their luscious cant-tell-it’s-any-different cake even in the middle of Lent.

In Islam, and in Judaism too, fasting means not eating at all between sunrise and sunset, then breaking the fast with a feast in the evening. This sounds much more convivial than obeying rules and trying to work around them for forty days!

I’ve been led astray by these explorations of different approaches to fasting. Sorry!

What I want to explore here is the difficulty of getting down to work, into work, focussed on work, immersed in work… You get my drift.

I find that when I have a clear succinct to-do list, a series of tasks, a set of must-do’s, then it’s not too hard to just work my way through them. But when the first job of the day is to decide what the day’s goals or tasks are, then things can get a little messy. Distractions abound, there’s no clear necessity to get a particular task done, and procrastination takes advantage of every opening.

I’m thinking about all this because of my Persian World book project. (The deadline for delivery of the manuscript is exactly a year from now: end of June 2015.) Since getting back from Kurdistan and then the Beard awards in NYC in early May, I have had six weeks of home time. I had imagined, when I was thinking about the shape of the year, that I’d use these weeks for work on the book. I have done, but only piecemeal, testing recipes, writing the occasional story, and researching history (while also watching history being made in Iraq).

But it was not until this week that I was finally able to make myself deep-dive back into extended long-stamina workdays focussed on the book. Suddenly I am deep inside it, reviewing my notes, writing, and “wearing” it in a full 360-degree way.

What stopped me from doing this earlier? I think that while there are outside obligations to others (in my case teaching a food history course once a week for six weeks, and a few other small bits of writing work) as a partial excuse, there’s something else going on.

It’s too easy to stay on the surface of a project, to skate around on it, rather than committing to being inside it. And that is because it takes serious effort to immerse and commit. And somehow I failed to put that work in, or perhaps I knew that it would be wasted, since I’d be pulled back out and into other necessities, so what was the point?

All of this may seem like pointless meandering to you. You may be very successful at setting tasks and then completing them. But for those of you who struggle to shape your work days effectively, I assume you too have had these experiences I am describing.

Another piece of the explanation, something that I console myself with, is that I am mulling things in my subconscious, putting pieces together, trying to make coherent sense of the massiveness of my project, and that I shouldn’t feel that nothing is being accomplished in these weeks of bits-and-pieces work. Hmm

We’ll see. All I can say now that I am embarked again (the last time was in November-December after I returned from Iran) is that I am loving the project. It feels rich and promising, the food is delicious, the issues and geography and history are fascinating. And above all the human layers with their warmth and distinctive cultural necessities are so engaging. I just want to roll around in all this and luxuriate in it, for a good uninterrupted stretch.

If I manage to do that kind of sustained immersion in the project, I will probably be writing here less often in the next two months. My first plane ticket in over three months will be a flight to the west coast in August for the wonderful Grain Gathering (formerly Kneading Conference West) north of Seattle on August 22 to 24. And after that…well I will need to try to re-immerse for a bit, before heading out for more travel research.

Friday, June 13, 2014

OPTIMISITC FULL MOON FRIDAY AS IRAQ MELTS INTO A NEW ERA

It’s a full moon day today, and is also a Friday the thirteenth. I read in the internet that the next time Friday the thirteenth will land on a full moon day is in 2045. I doubt I’ll be around by then…And so let’s enjoy this odd combination.

The sun is low in the sky, with puffy humid clouds hanging around filtering its heat and light. The leaves on the trees are still a brilliant optimistic green, and optimism is in full bloom in my neighbourhood, for it’s the season of graduations/convocation at the University of Toronto.

The other day I was pedalling around King’s College Circle in the late afternoon. The large white tent that the university sets up on the lawn for convocation season was alive with slowly moving figures: grads in their black gowns, and profs too, the latter often with wonderfully medieval-looking caps and colour; and proud family members clutching bouquets of flowers and busy with cameras and cel phones. I stopped and asked one grad which group was graduating that afternoon. “Masters and Phd students” she replied. What a select and hard-working group. No wonder the families were looking so proud and the grads as well.

Other reasons for optimism in my household and among my friends include the election in Ontario yesterday. The province elected a woman as premier, a first for Ontario. Her name is Kathleen Wynne and she is also notable because she’s in a long-term domestic partnership with a woman. Her partner was invited up on the platform last night as they all celebrated the results. Bravo to Ontario for not worrying about the sex or sexual orientation of the premier, and also for defeating the hard-right conservative party.

Now we need to push determinedly  for a clean-up of corruption and money-waste. Will it happen? For once I feel a little optimistic that it might. We’ll see.

And another positive: I spent lunch with a friend from Kurdistan named Ayub who is working here in Canada running the English language arm of a Kurdish news organisation called Rudaw. He confirmed that the startling-to-ousiders success of ISIS fighters in capturing the northern part of Iraq this week is a happy thing to the Kurds of the region. They view it as “about-time”, this realignment of borders with the distribution of the very distinctive populations in the region.

“At last” he said, the Kurds control all the areas inhabited by the Kurdish population, in both Iraq and Syria. Until this week they controlled only Kurdistan, but that didn’t include all Kurds. Now that’s changed. And the Kurds are jubilant. And he said, that’s all they want; they aren’t trying to invade or take over any other territory.

Northern Iraq’s Sunni population and southern Iraq’s Shia population are now divided into two zones of control.

This marks the end of the old borders that the European powers agreed to in 1919, following the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire (read Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 for a wonderful review of the whole Peace Conference, and the legacy that we are still living with).  So here we are, almost a century later, and after the spilling of blood by thousands of locals as well as far too many foreign soldiers and civilians, back to a map that corresponds to the cultural/ethnic/religion situation on the ground.

Let’s hope the US government doesn’t try to bomb people insensate, and instead leaves them to sort things out for themselves.

And on the food front, this evening I picked my first batch of garden greens: arugula and various other leaf lettuces, plus basil, and used it to make a coarse pesto with pine nuts and freshly grated pecorino, that went onto some penne. So that’s the first taste of late spring, beyond the dandelions that I stir-fry, and the rhubarb, and into tender fresh greens. Lovely. Another lift of the heart.


Now it’s time to go out and look at that fat full moon.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

CHANGE & MEMORY

I started this post on Tuesday night, June3, right after I got back from a meeting of the Women's Culinary Network, our end-of-season annual potluck. This year was different, because it was also our last meeting.The organisation, begun 23 years ago by Nettie Cronish and three other women who knew that they wanted to provide a supportive networking environment for women working in food, is now winding up.

Women, and young men too, do still need support and mentoring as they try to find their way and hone a career in food. But now there is the internet, with FB and Twitter and just plain old email, all useful tools for staying in touch and cross-connecting. Women in the food world are less relatively disadvantaged than they were twenty plus years ago, so a successor organisation would not need to be "women's", it could just be The Toronto Culinary Network.

In the meantime, as we see what people need and want, it's a good moment to acknowledge the hard work and good creative intentions of the founders and early members. And we should take pride in the fact that the WCN has been brave enough to close down rather than trickling into sad reproaches about change. It's a real sign of health, this preparedness to move forward.

Most things in this world, human creations and mother nature too, have their cycles of birth and growth and change and eventual subsidence. We all know this, but I for one tend to forget it and to cling.

It's just hard to accept change sometimes, even when beautiful examples of it unfurl before our eyes in our parks and gardens and tree canopies these last weeks of spring. The harsh winter seems to have pushed the plant world into extreme responses, a sort of "flourish or die."  The tall chestnut trees, for example, that line the streets in my neighbourhood, are loaded with "candles" tall lightly fragrant blossoms, more loaded than I have ever seen them. My friends in Grey County have had record-breaking flushes of shiitake mushrooms, the asparagus in Ontario tastes sweeter this year, and so on... On the other hand, winter cold killed many plants (including an beautiful tall rose bush of mine.

Wins and losses, and always change.

I met a friend for coffee yesterday morning and we talked about Kurdistan. She had been there two years ago and passed on names of contacts to me before I went in April. We especially talked about women there, and the patterns of life in more traditional households, where women cook and clean and tend to their families. The daily patterns provide an anchor-point, a feeling of security for everyone. The code of hospitality is very strong, so that the guest, expected or not, is offered water and tea and then food, much more generously and graciously than would happen in most North American households. I was humbled by the warmth and generosity of the men and women I met and stayed with in Kurdistan. And I wonder, as the country changes, whether people will be able to hold onto their traditional values. I hope so, for their sakes.

So this is the question: How do traditional societies make the transition to the patterns of the modern world, without losing their core values? It's a troubling problem, one that exists not only in newly modernising cultures like Kurdistan, but also in families who have left their home country and moved to North America or Europe. The parents have difficulties and distress when they see their daughters and sons adopting new patterns of behaviour; change is threatening to them. On the other hand the children are stressed because they want to honour their parents but they also want to participate in a changing world with their peers; for them change is enticing and part of growth.

All this is not news. But as time races past, marked by mother nature's evolving patterns, it's sometimes valuable to stop and think about these issues. Other people's lives are a mystery to each of us. We can only guess at the struggles or pains that people are living with, or the sufferings they may have had earlier.

This first week of June is a week of major anniversaries: Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the start of the Six Day War in 1967; the D-Day Landings in 1944. As I think about these big turning-point events, I try to imagine what each was like for individual people who were there and participated. Somehow the passage of time can flatten the life out of events so that they become like stone statues on the our mental landscape. The reality is that they were complex, full of feeling and intensity, fear and pain and awe, and that individual human beings just like you and me were caught up in them.

Thus in this musing about accepting change I guess I am saying that when it comes to memories, it feels valuable to resist change, to hold onto memories and revisit them. If we can keep a vivid sense of our own history, and that of others, then the lessons and insights of the past can continue to live in us, even long afterward - or perhaps, especially long afterward, when we've had time to reflect on it all.