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.


iliana said...

For a moment I thought: Naomi was here in my wonderfully obsession-filled kitchen watching me process tomatoes?! Oh, no, it's aNOTHer of her lovely obsessive friends ;-)

This is part of what I love about preserving food, and all the myriad ways people put food up: regardless of whether folks are pickling herbs in Japan or drying grain in the Mahgreb, or roasting tomatoes in Vermont, it's such good and basic thing that we humans have in common. It's hopeful and practical and yummy, all at once.

Viva la larder! Three cheers for cold cellars!

Lynne said...

Looking forward to our winter here and all the warming foods associated with the season. I have several of your cookbooks, but have not seen a recipe for Damascus bread. I have found nothing while searching the Internet, so wonder if there's another name for the bread or if you would happen to have a recipe? Hope you don't mind my posting this on your blog.
Cheers, Lynne

naomi said...

Not sure what you mean by Damascus bread. Presumably it refers to a leavened flatbread...are there sesame seeds on it? is it like pita or a longer shape with dimples? or?