Thursday, September 29, 2011


I'm sitting in a nice corner hotel room in Glens Falls New York. It's been a long good day, following a beautiful day yesterday driving from Toronto to Charlotte, Vermont. I woke this morning at Susan Stuck's house, its beautiful old farmhouse proportions so welcoming, and felt rested and at ease. That's partly the effect of Susan's company, and the welcome embrace of her house, but also because I feel clear for now of the complications of the Burma manuscript, Rivers of Flavor. I've now reviewed the edited manuscript, made my own changes and rewrites etc, and just before I left home I got it all photocopied (in case the original gets lost along the way). Once I'm home, tomorrow night, I can package it up and FedEx it back to NYC.

Getting to this stage before I left Toronto yesterday was a huge boon. My head feels clearer and my step lighter.

I enjoy working hard at things. So why this pleasure at having finished this intensive stage of work? I think it's because I get anxious when I owe something to someone else. When I work hard at something for me, it's not so fraught. But when I owe the ms back within a certain time, it feels like a load. At the same time I think deadlines are desirable and useful things, constraints to keep me in line. But why this over-reacton to them? Why do they weigh so heavily? I suppose it is doubt, an undermining doubt that I will get done what I have undertaken, so I get impatient to be finished, impatient to be reassured that in fact I can and will come through in the way I need and want to.

And then I turn on the TV here and who is on? Aung San Suu Kyi talking to Charlie Rose, live on Skype. Amazing. Now there's a person who has come through. I'm sure she's had doubts, and fears. And yet she has delivered. She's talking now about democracy, clear-thinking, human rights...and the need to go step by step. An amazing world, this, in which a very closed-off place Burma can be linked to the rest of the world. This cross-linking feels like a powerful weapon against totalitarianism. She's talking about the need for awareness, the need for the rest of the world to follow what is going on in Burma, and to really pay attention. "We need change in the right direction that is steady and sustained." Listen to hear what the people of Burma want, and then help us get what we want: that's her request to the people of the rest of the world. "We need a better education sytem, better health care, a more open society...[in Burma]". "I had to learn not to let fear control me." "You have to get over the fear in order to get committed to your ideals."

It's a good reminder. Let go the anxiety, admit the fear and then try to shed it, in order to be free to take action, move forward, commit... Some people need a lot of courage, people like the demonstrators in Yemen and Syria, who are being shot at and tortured by their governments. But we all need some measure of courage every day, and that takes admitting that we all feel fear and anxiety from time to time. It's not shameful, just reality.

Thanks to everyone who came out this evening in Glens Falls to hear me talk about RIce and taste some rices, and ask questions. It was a lot of fun. I love engaging with people, especially about basic foods. So, as I say, many thanks, and to the Crandall Public Library too. I'm looking forward to my drive back across New York State tomorrow. The landscapes are so beautiful, the greens intense with all the recent rain, and the leaves just starting to turn. The Adirondacks frame the horizon here...and will keep me company for the first part of the drive. What a treat.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


It has been a full more-than-week since I last wrote here, not just because of the Toronto film festival (TIFF), though the five films I saw did take chunks out of my week, but more centrally because I am now working my way through the edits on my Burma book Rivers of Flavor. I should be spending my days and nighst at it. But of course there are only so many hours of high quality concentration time available in the day. The mind and body are very limited I find, when it comes to this stuff.

Anyway, as the person doing the line editing and generally overseeing this process said to me in a note: remember to take breaks and breathe and enjoy the spaces in between (or something like that). This evening the "break" was a meeting up north of the city of the Women's Culinary Network. There was a panel on social media and new media and I was one of three speakers. Those of you who know what a luddite I am will be surprised, I'm sure. I know nothing about using the internet for self-promotion, or about marketing generally. The two speakers who went after me talked about all that.

I wanted to remind all of us there that Twitter and Facebook and all the other connecting tools are a wonderful way of getting access to new ideas and fresh information about creative people, unheard of projects, etc as well as to hard news. I rely on a number of curatorial people, like @brainpicker on Twitter for example, who find and put up links to interesting sites or articles or videos. I am constantly astonished by what she has links to. I reminded the meeting that lots of links are not related to food, but are still important, and they can enlighten us and be relevant in unexpected ways. One such link I came across just today; it's about our sense of smell . Pretty interesting, and a surprise because it's not the way we've assumed smell works in humans. [NOTE: I put the link in, but somehow this time blogspot doesn't recognise it. If you want to have a look cut and paste the link in. The URL is" - more tech incompetence here, sorry!]

And then at the other end of the spectrum is, which gives access to in-depth articles of various kinds, real reading! Those of us who dash from item to item can soon lose the capacity to hang in for a long concentrated exposition of ideas. Longreads helps keep us tuned-up, as well as furnishing us with new ideas and concepts.

All this I mentioned, along with a list of my favorite tools and sites and Tweeters. Hope it was useful.

I also reminded myself as I was preparing for the panel, that I enjoy taking a day away from all this follwing and connecting stuff. Often it's the day I write here... A day off enables me to imagine and think about things in a longer-arc more reflective and introspective way. That's valuable, as valuable as any particular insight or piece of information that I might come upon as I explore new links online.

Sorry to go on and on about this; it's all so self-referential and suffocating after awhile, this talk of social media. I'm reminded of how often that chat sounds like people are rehearsing for life. And that's a waste, for this is it, now. We're not rehearsing for a bigger and better stage down the road once we understand things better. The whole of life is happening as we talk about it.

I think sometimes that we've been infected (or maybe just I have been infected) by the implicit and explicit message in primary school, that we'll grow and learn and improve and eventually be more able, more capable, more responsible. But in fact that message gives us less-than-useful reflexes. All of life is life. The preparation and the living out of it are all one. That's true even of our two-year-old selves. It's not a rehearsal.

And so whether it's the mundane details of social media and self-promotion, or the deeply important emotional connections we have to our nearest and dearest, it's all happening in the now, and we get the privilege of taking it on, being responsible for it, enjoying it, appreciating each breath and each moment.

Once more I'm back at this idea of balance, reasonableness, or perhaps we could call it sustainability. It's up to us to balance our screen time with our other work. And that means not being needy and greedy about tweeting and FB'ing.

Last night I had dinner at a friend's place. Her cousin was visiting from Vancouver, and that was a treat, for i met them both when I was an undergraduate at Queen's. And then a third of that band of women I knew in first year so long ago came by. I had seen her only a few times since undergrad, and the last time was nearly 25 years ago. Unbelievable! we said to each other. And yet with all those years gone by, we were each recognisable to the others, each essentially the same person, even though marked by age and scars of various kinds. How lovely, the privilege of knowing people over time, and of reconnecting with them unexpectedly at a later stage of life.

It was pouring rain last night, but I was wearing my father's wool dinner jacket, which kept me warm and dry as i walked to the subway. The chill in the air, despite today's sunshine, gave me the urge to make a skillet cake, as did the damson plums that a friend had found for me. This afternoon I made two medium-sized skillet cakes, one topped with the plums and the other with chopped apple on top. It is a sign of cold weather, this cake-baking. Another was the bread I made last week. There was some leftover white rice that was on its second day, so just starting to ferment. I added lukewarm water, covered it loosely, and left it to ferment for a couple of days. Then that water plus rice became the base for a bread dough. It included whole wheat pastry flour as well as all-purpose. NO oil. It made wonderful bread, after an overnight rise, even though there was no yeast, just the leavening of wild yeasts and the fermented rice.

We all agreed it was a treat to once again have home-made bread on hand. Now here's the question: how to make bread fairly regularly, without it becoming a chore or a burden? If I figure out the answer, I'll let you know!

Sunday, September 11, 2011


We're been returned to summer by the weather gods these last few days. I've been out in the evenings on my bicycle under huge radiant sunset skies and luminous dusks lit by the fat moon. This is mid-autumn festival time on the lunar calendar, but really so far there's no autumn feel to it at all. The axe will fall this week I think, with rain and chillier weather. So it's a very live-in-the-moment few days.

Of course this date also reminds us of the fragility of things and that living in the moment and appreciating it fully is one of our main tasks as thinking imaginative beings. Today, brilliant with morning sunshine, clear blue sky, and still-green leaves is very like in feel and weather that day ten years ago.

A wonderfully obsessive and energetic friend spent yesterday canning tomatoes, which of course involves cooking them down and then being very careful about sterilising the jars etc. She had worked her way through one whole bushel of tomatoes by the time I got there at the end of the afternoon. Bowls and pots of them in various stages were all around, brilliant gleaming redness. We had supper, then I stayed for a little while to help with the first batch of 6 one-quart jars. They got lowered into a large pot of boiling water, then had to stay there for 45 minutes. There was a lot more to do, and from a note she sent very late last night I gather she stayed up for ages putting the rest into jars.

We labour at these things, putting food by for winter, preserving in our small way the warmth and immediacy of summer by sealing tomatoes and peaches, pickled cucumber and more, and jams too, in glass jars. They're like jewels on the shelf, as richly beautiful. They are the promise of a hit of summer sunshine and optimism when we need it most, in the dark days of winter. It takes imagination to visualise that moment of need vividly enough that it prods us to engage in the long laborious work of canning and preserving. And that's why most people no longer do it. There are tin cans of crushed tomatoes we can buy...but once you taste the homemade version, and see it in a glass jar, the tins no longer seem a good substitute for home-made.

It's a question of flavour, yes, but also something about identity and meaning and connection. Food is more than a "product" or "input". If we production-line produce food, as we might a car or a computer, the end result is not comparable to food made by hand by you or someone you know well. This point is made with far more elegance and developed over several pages, in the article that opens this issue of Lapham's Quarterly, the one on Food. I often find the collections too much of a pastiche, but the food issue has some real treasures in it, such as the description by a sufragette of her experience of being force-fed. Horrific, yes, and a process that continues to this day. For example there's the woman in India, whose story appeared recently, who has been suffering force-feeding because she has been on a politically motivated hunger strike for years. Yes, years.

On this day that marks a very public violence, it's important I think to remember that there are ongoing instances, many of them state-sanctioned, many of them occurring behind closed doors, of humankinds's cruelty to fellow human beings. ("Man's inhumanity to man" is an elegant expression, but somehow feels so incomplete; so many victims are women, and also a good number of perpetrators, let's admit.)

The Toronto International Film Festival, most often referred to as TIFF, opened this week. The downtown and uptown are abuzz not just with students returning to university, but with the news of which film is wonderful and which star or director was last spotted coming into or out of this or that bar or restaurant. I've been to one film so far, with a friend who gets pass tickets. I Have another three to look forward to. I saw the second showing (a morning screening) of the Vietnamese film Lost in Paradise. It's a love story, set in contemporary Saigon, in the milieu that is toughest: the street. The central relationship is between two young guys, one of whom is a prostitute. There are many kindnesses in the film, but also many cruelties. Beautifully shot, not as tightly edited as it needs to be, and with strong acting, it's one to look out for.

No, I have no pretensions to be a movie reviewer, I promise! But the unfreedom of the lives of many of the characters, the virtual slavery of the prostitute whose woman pimp comes round to berate her and beat her if she's not on the job, for example, was a reminder that slavery exists in many forms. It's not an institution from before, but an ongoing possibility and reality for many people, in varying degrees.

Freedom and transparency are both fragile plants. They can't just be preserved in glass jars and put on a shelf; they have to be actively defended and fought for.

Meantime, on the home front, it's time for my annual small preserving routine, time to start putting up basil in olive oil. That intensity is so welcome once the cold weather comes and the garden is fallow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


As we shift into the cooler days of September, the students are arriving at the University of Toronto (just up the street) and streaming around in flotillas, some bewildered-looking, others trying to be cool... There are cars pulled up to the curb by the various residences, harried or puzzled-looking parents and spacey-looking kids unloading crates and bundles of possessions, while frosh leaders in coloured T-shirts call out info and try to direct traffic.

This annual renewal of optimism and fresh-start enthusiasm is a wonderful sight to see. I feel so lucky to live near the university, so that I am immersed in it every time I step outside. The buzz will continue for three weeks, as the new students get their feet wet so to speak. Soon they'll become accustomed to it all, cool, maybe even jaded!

I've had a great transition this week, from working on last recipe tests and retests, to actually sending the re-dos in to Judith the copy editor. Now to fill the last holes in the Glossary. There's Buddhism for example, a large topic, you'll agree. I want to give a sense of what it's about, and make a place for it in the Burma context, all while trying not to sound trite or glib. hmm And then there are the technique questions: how much to put in about deep-frying? or cooking in a double-boiler? for example.

As this stage relinquishes its grip, I am trying to get ready for the next, which is the check-the-copy-edited ms crunch. It will start in about a week. I'll have three weeks or so to get it done. In the middle of that I'm heading to Glen's Fall's New York to give a talk (on September 29, at the Crandall Public Library, if any of you live nearish-by and are interested). I need to pull my talk together, as well as images, slides they'll be, and mostly about rice, that great staple and social organiser. To grow rice with irrigation requires, when there is little or no mechanisation, a strong social organisation. People have to maintain ditches and terraces and work co-operatively. Bali is a great example of rice landscape, both physical landscapes and the social landscapes that underpin it all.

I had supper with three remarkable women on Saturday night, a last-minute assembling of a visitor, a returning friend, and two of us who've been here the whole time. We sat out in the warm night air and ate and drank and talked and laughed...losing complete track of the time. And then, amazingly, another version of the same scenario happened the next afternoon. I was at lunch at a friend's place, four women again, all of us in food in some way, with long knowledge of each other but not necessarily close friendship. And again, in the humid warm air, we ate well and drank wine and were present to each other.

I love those sorts of meals that become ships or train compartments, worlds unto themselves. And now I go back to each of them in my mind's eye and do what I like to do with old perfume bottles: lift out the stopper and have a transporting sniff, or equivalent, that takes me right back.

Labour Day is for not-work, but I spent it retesting recipes; this time my success rate was 100%, a nice change! I am particularly pleased with the steamed savory rice crepes, and a tapioca pudding with coconut cream custard on top; both of them took many tries. Tashi was great about eating sample, but it was a little gruelling, even with a guinea pig taster! Neither of them is difficult to make. The problem for me is figuring out proportions and technique, and now it's done.

I kept the computer turned off all Labour Day, for a total of thirty-six hours, until this morning in fact. It was interesting to realise how much time I put in here at the screen, looking at messages and responding, looking at Tweets and clicking on the links they throw up, etc etc. It's all part of the environment these days that is so distracting; I wrote at length about it last week.

The result of my lovely long encounters with friends together with my thirty-six hours without email or other computer connection, is that I now know I want to take a computer and internet holiday once a week, at a minimum. It will help keep my head clear I think, able to work steadily at one idea. Today my Glossary task was Buddhism and also a scattering of new entries I am discovering I need in the Glossary. I love the feeling of productivity when I can sit and engage with a task unstintingly. But then that's what life is all about, that's when we feel at our most alive: when we're deeply engaged and committed.