Saturday, April 2, 2011


We're now past that big signpost April 1. Thirty years ago I started working as a lawyer in Toronto, for a firm now called Sack Goldblatt Mitchell, doing union side labour law. April 1 seemed like a good start day. Loved the people I worked with. That first year was hugely stressful; I doubted myself a lot and didn't dare tell anyone. Of course I discovered near the end of my first year, from a friend I finally confided in, that almost every lawyer in her or his first year of practice has these doubts and fears. it's not easy, doing things for the first time and feeling like huge errors lie in wait to ambush you!

Maybe all that stress is a good lesson for the rest of life, as in, nothing ever feels impossible again...or, "if I could do that and survive more or less mentally healthy, then I can figure out how to survive other things that life will throw at me..." You get my drift.

Warm weather has reappeared, though still with chilly temperatures at night. My friends up north say the sap has started running again (for awhile it got too cold and the flow stopped). I last wrote here on Friday, the day before I headed north for a cross country ski and lively supper with friends.

The ski was magic, with warm sun, melting snow but enough to cover the forest floor as I slithered along a stretch of the Bruce Trail. Shadows were sharp-etched on the snow, rabbit tracks and the odd fox or coyote track too showed that the still of the forest hid life of all kinds. By the time I turned and retraced my steps/glides/tracks the air had chilled a little, so the tracks, slightly melted in the sun on the way out, had re-iced. My trip back was much faster! - zippy and thrilling at times. I had one small fall and one near catastrophe as I slipped and nearly fell into a small rivulet I was trying to cross. No harm done, and that shot of adrenalin warmed me in the cool and gave a fun little edge to the end of the ski.

What is it about the pleasures of adrenalin? Of course I don't want that edge all the time, but the odd shot is a treat and a trip. I suppose it's like any other drug: harmful in overdose or over an extended period, but a real pleasure, sometimes a guilty pleasure.

I have written a little about this before, mostly because of bicycling. Now that the season has started for me (I am NOT hardy or agile enough to cycle in heavy snow) I'm reminded of the pleasurable edge I get from bicycling in the city. It's a rush to be so alert, so pushing myself. And I find it really satisfying too. A friend tells me it's the guy in me. Not sure if that's a full explanation! But there's certainly a competitive edge to it, me against the world? It's fun, completely fun, and leaves me speedy and exhilarated.

I just finished reading a remarkable wonderful history of Burma, written by U Thant's grandson and called the River of Lost Footsteps. He's a historian, raised Burmese but mostly in the US, so he tells the story from a Burmese perspective, but also set in a wider world context, and starting from the region's the earliest history, rather than just with the colonial wars. It's too easy to explain things in terms of just the last hundred or hundred and fifty years; doing that puts the analysis on the wrong track. I had had inklings of this truth, but reading the book gave me such a good perspective.

Burma has been a crossroads, and is certainly a geographical crossroads, but at the same time there have been periods of isolation and closed-offness. Now, with the full panorama to contemplate and digest, I have a better idea of the whys and wherefores.

I think I want to do some recipe retesting this week, to reground myself in the concrete, and to give myself time to take a distance from the history book. Only then will I be able to figure out what to say as background for the cookbook. Why do any of it? you ask. After all, for example, what italian cookbook deals with the history of Italy? So why do I feel compelled to engage with historical and geographical and cultural details??

Well because I think there's an interplay between history and politics and culture. And to understand the food culture of a place and a people, it helps to have a context, a wider and deeper context. We assume that people have a context for or knowledge of Italy or France (maybe we're wrong! Who was Cavour anyway? I can imagine someone asking, and why should I care?) and that therefore we don't need to be explicit about the historical and cultural background.

Southeast Asia is far away from North America and the western world. To the extent there's knowledge of Burma, it's mostly of the colonial and post-colonial kind, falsified by a focus on the immediate, perhaps, seen through a post-colonial lens, and usually filtered by non-local interpreters. I guess in a small way this Burma book will make me part of that cavalcade of outsiders writing about Burma. That's why it feels important that I anchor it in the specifics of food and then give it a framework that goes beyond the culinary and into the human landscape past and present.

One of the dishes I'm looking forward to working with this week is from the Kachin. It's unusual and hauntingly good, made of cooked small chunks of beef that are then pounded with spices and dry-fried. It's hard to describe, but not difficult to make. The end result is a deeply flavoured tender semi-pemmican, not a powder but in aromatic pieces. The Kachin, who are based in the north of Burma, Myitkyina being the capital of Kachin State, use herbs such as Vietnamese coriander and sawtooth herb in their cooking, and have many dishes that rely on steaming.

By the way, if you are heading to Rangoon, go have supper at Myit Sone, a Kachin and Shan restuarant near the Children's Hospital. (Myit Sone means confluence, for Myitkyina lies on the irrawaddy River just south of the confluence where its two source rivers emerge from their mountain trenches and join to form Burma's most important river.)

This post has somehow strayed from adrenalin and skiing and cycling to a restaurant recommendation in Burma. Oh well! Better than my dwelling on taxes, which is the other task that needs finishing. I've got a good start. I figure another day's work and then an evening to type things up, and I'll be ready to see the wonderful accountant who actually does my taxes.

Such a pity that the arrival of spring coincides with coercion, isn't it? There are exams when we're younger, and now there are taxes! But then I think to myself, what other time would be better? And there's no answer!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see your book. I understand about history and food culture. I think it is an important part of the development. Thanks for sharing.