Sunday, August 26, 2012


It's exactly a week after my last post, in which I rhapsodised bit about the Haruki Murakami book I was reading 1Q84. At the time I was still on volume one. I have now, just a couple of hours ago, come to the end of the book. Sigh. It's in three volumes, drew me onward and onward, and delivered fully on its promise by the time I'd reached the end, over 1100 pages later. I am so sad to have finished it. And now the story, and the intricate puzzle pieces from which it is assembled will go on reverberating and cross-connecting in my head.

But there's no time for all this! I must get on with immediate tasks! Book tour starts soon, and lists of recipes to teach, photos to show, talks to give, are scribbled in various notebooks, actual and electronic, in various places. Yikes. Time to take hold!

No, no, let's cool it down a little: over-anticipation and over-readiness is not useful. It just means that I spend too much time on a project or an obligation. So I'm working on keeping my equilibrium, getting things done as necessary, but NOT trying to get ahead of the list, or in other words, making a real effort not to over-anticipate.

Tomorrow there's a journalist coming to shop with me and then cook all day from the BURMA book. We'll have fun, I expect. And I'm also looking forward to it as an opportunity to get a better idea of which recipes I should pick for book tour. There's a nice end to the day too, because I'm expecting a bunch of people to drop by in the late afternoon and evening, ready to eat and drink and chat. There will be loads of food waiting for them, if the day goes as planned.

Everyone is coming by because the following day Dom, my older kid, (a young man of twenty-four in fact) is heading to London for three and a half months to philosophise with various professors and students at the University of London. What does that mean? I gather it means spending time reading, writing papers, and talking with people once he gets there. And what it means for tomorrow is that we will come together to celebrate his departure and tell him how much we'll miss him while he's gone.

Good thing there will be lots of food to console ourselves with.

This hot sunny weather that is giving us sweet ripe peaches and tomatoes is almost successful at disguising the fact that we've reached late August. But it can't really keep the news from us, for the angle of the sun, the place it reaches in the western sky as it sets, has already shifted a number of degrees southward.

I'm not ready for this lovely summer to be over. No-one is, are they? It's been a delight, full of enriching travel and experiences, and new beginnings of various kinds.

August is also bringing us a blue moon this coming week. A beautiful card came today from a friend reminding me of that fact. Let's be sure to celebrate its specialness. The clear limpid skies of the last six days have let us see the moon grow from slender elegant sickle standing tall on its pointed end to fattening-into-fullness glow. She seems so rich and rounded at this time of year, already full of the promise of autumn fruitfulness. No wonder the ancients worshipped her.

And in my garden the tall anenomes are coming into bloom. Their luminous white glow is another signal that August is coming to an end. They'll stay in bloom until the first frost, bright against the dark wood of the building out back, glowing in the dusk of the last days of summer.

We'll see them out there as the evenings grow shorter, as we retreat inside to eat our evening meal. And they'll be small consolation for losing the pleasure of eating out under the summer sky, as we've done for the past three months and more.

Now I'm whining. Sorry!

It's time to think of the positive: the surge of energy that comes with cooler weather, the chance to bake, and to roast meat and vegetables, the opportunity to rediscover our sweaters and other interesting layers, and our boots. Tomorrow we'll be making several Kachin meat dishes, and a Shan spiced jerky, as well as a grilled eggplant dish, heartier fare generally than most people would associate with the subtropics. It's a good start on autumn cooking. And to acknowledge summer there will be lighter dishes too: a Burmese ginger salad and an easy vegetable stir-fry, as well as Shan tofu and silky Shan soup.

Can't wait!

Sunday, August 19, 2012


It’s early Sunday evening, beautiful outside, with patches of blue sky left from a perfect day, and drifts of grey cloud that let the occasional spatter of rain fall. Perhaps it was a change in air pressure as the clouds arrived, or possibly it's the novel I’ve been reading, but about an hour ago I started to feel an unaccountable anxiety. It grew and grew, until I was moved to say something about it to T.

Always wise, he told me I should go out on my bike, up a steep hill or something... 

[A digression about bicycling: I had my rear tire replaced two days ago. The guy at Urbane Cycle told me my tires had been under-inflated. He pumped them to 80 psi. What a difference! The ride now is really bumpy but a lot faster and less effortful, a totally transformed experience. And it’s a lot more exciting, especially in traffic, because I can be quicker and more flexible in tight situtations.]

So now I’m just back from that short intense excursion. The light across the open grass of U of T’s King’s College Circle was like a dream, focussed by the clouds, and lighting stone buildings against the dark sky. I whizzed around the circle a couple of times (whizz is a relative term on a mountain bike, but still, speedy travel for me on my newly pumped tires) and then headed out on an extended loop of roads. There was little traffic, so I could go for the lights and not worry about much else. 

What a great curative drug adrenaline can be! I feel cleaned out and clear-headed.

I do think the anxious feeling was partly caused by the novel I’ve been reading for the last couple of days: Haruki Marukami’s riveting, un-put-downable 1Q84. I’m now well into the second volume. Sometimes I can hardly breathe from the tension. Sometimes I have to put the book down and do something else for awhile, until I’ve caught my breath.

How does he do it? The story-telling is concise, but there’s also lots of precise detail, sometimes externals, sometimes details of thoughts and reactions of characters, seen from inside their heads.

The story is fantastical and yet somehow pure and true and completely engaging. Though it’s three volumes long, I know by the end I’ll regret that 1Q84 isn’t longer. I’m already regretting the coming end in advance, as one does with a wonderful read.

This is not the first writing Marukami has done about cults, people trapped in their circumstances, men and women, usually young, pushed by their special character to take action, to break out of the narrow and the expected. But in this book almost every character is exceptional by birth and by attributes, larger than life in some way. The story unfolds in episodes. It’s like watching a play in very slow motion or an entrancing ritual dance. I think I know where he’s going, but I can’t stop reading.

Now it’s time to temper the dal I’ve cooked and to make rice, and generally take hold of ordinary things for awhile. That way perhaps I’ll build stamina for the next round of Marukami-induced tension!

AND A FOOD NOTE OR TWO: I was given some arborio rice to try last week by Maria. Last night, cooking at a friend's place, with no broth on hand and wanting to make a risotto, I parboiled some pea tendrils as a vegetable (to go under some grilled sliced Berkshire pork from Grey County, delish), and used the cooking liquid as my broth. Before that though, I cooked some garlic and onion and some of those "King Oyster" (can we not come up with a better name?) mushrooms, sliced, in olive oil, then set them aside while I started the rice in oil. Once I'd added about half the broth, in batches, I added the cooked mushrooms etc back into the rice, along with a little chopped tomato. Once done the risotto, free of cheese and butter, and loaded with flavour, was delicious. And the arborio held up beautifully.  

All this just confirms Nancy Harmon Jenkins' instruction to me, long ago, when I was working on Seductions of Rice and asking her about risotto: "Don't worry, just use your judgement." It's very like bread that way. So if you've had risotto anxieties in the past, let them go.

Ah, here I am back mentioning anxiety. How circular!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


When I went out on a brisk walk (my replacement for jogging now that my left-foot-ligaments are not up to the job) yesterday morning, I started with a short sleeved sweater on over my T-shirt. No, it wasn’t cold, strictly speaking, but twenty degrees Celsius and overcast IS chilly after the weeks of heat and drought we’ve had this spring-summer. The sweater soon came off, of course.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a morning jog-walk here. I’ve been away a lot, that’s part of it, but also, for the past eight weeks or so getting on my bicycle and pedalling up a steep hill on an early morning loop has been much more enticing than walking. Even in the heat a bicycle is cooling because of the breeze of movement, and it feels so rewarding to cover a lot of ground quickly.

Later on yesterday I cycled to have lunch with a friend, a pleasurable speedy adrenalined trip to College Street West, but when we got there the restaurant (a Portuguese churrasquerria with a leafy terrace) was closed. So we ended up at Golden Turtle on Ossington, a Vietnamese place of some renown that I had never been to. Lovely to sit outside in the shade, warm and comfortable - good second-best to being in Southeast Asia - eating crispy-edged banh xeo, beef pho with tendon and lung etc, and pork kho tu (spiced deep-flavored slow-cooked pork),
Back to the bicycle vs foot thing though: The disadvantage of being on my bicycle moving quickly rather than walking is that I see way less, especially since I’m often focussed on traffic and road details rather than on my surroundings. On the other hand, even on foot it's possible to miss a lot.

Today I headed out on foot early, this time to the passport office downtown to renew my passport (in Canada it’s every five years, so it comes up inconveniently often). There’s an energy and purpose to most of the pedestrians at that hour, primarily office workers by the look of them. They are all headed somewhere, and often hurrying to get there on time. 

Of course others had already been at work for an hour or more: the policemen, the road workers, the guys doing construction (tearing out and rebuilding the skating rink) in front of City Hall, the staff at the coffee shops, the streetcar drivers, the doctor coming off shift in scrubs. 

The exception to all the movement and purpose was the guy sitting on the sidewalk not far from City Hall with a tidy sign that said, “I don’t smoke or drink; I need money for food.” He was middle-aged looking, pale and tired. I am not proud of the fact that I was so entrenched in my goal of getting to the passport office ASAP that I passed him by. And then his sign reverberated with me for several blocks. I wish I had stopped and made a contribution to his day.

The failed encounter with the street guy makes me think that it’s not so much the speed of one’s passage that matters in many cases, as the quality of attention we give to the world we are moving through.  Though I took in the content of the guy’s sign as I hurried past, I was being more attentive to my need to get to the passport office than to what I was seeing before me. I failed to reflect on it, to really pay attention.

In contrast, on my previous day’s brisk walk I had had time and attention for the passing scene. I looked and looked and noticed changes and people and had time for thinking too: I wondered about a mismatched couple, she young-looking, and he, older, frowning and lumpy, walking down the street holding hands; I was shocked to see the big apricot tree on Robert Street gone, a tree that used to bear loads of golden fruit, but then sickened, and has now been cleaned out; walking past the flower-garden-framed house of a friend I caught sight of her through the window and had time to knock on her door and then go in for a coffee and a chat...and so on.

It’s a tricky balance, having ambitions for the day, future goals, and at the same time trying to be present to the present. One way is to take hold of each day with a slightly firmer grip. Am I saying I should be more responsible about my time management? Perhaps. Certainly more disciplined with myself.

After seeing a friend’s disciplined way of working (when I was staying in Cape Breton), I’m realising that I should try to manage my days a little more effectively. First thing in the day he gets up and writes (sits at his computer and works steadily) for about three hours, starting very early in the morning. And then the rest of  the day can happen in any way, for his hard work is done. 

A clear unambiguous early-in-the-day-before-interruptions kind of goal is the only sane way to be reliably productive, it seems.  And it should work for people like me, whose clearest highest mental energy time is the morning.

In general I am too apt to get distracted by email and small bits of tasks whenever I sit at my computer. Those are fine, and necessary (especially as I get ready for book tour) but I should leave them until after I have done my more difficult thinking. Instead, perhaps to avoid hard work, or road blocks in my writing or thinking, I let myself slip too soon into email multi-tasking and dealing with the bits and pieces debris that gets generated by e-media of various kinds.

But to take a step back, getting down to work on hard stuff first thing in the morning requires an ahead-of-time plan. What work? In what order? I need to make a list at night, then stick to it. So easy to write or to say; so challenging to follow through on.

I like the idea of embarking on new patterns and resolutions in this still green and growing time of year, rather than waiting for the classic New Year’s resolution time of year with its dreary dark days. 

I have no excuse for not following through. And yet I know I’ll need a kick-in-the-pants reminder of this resolution from time to time!

Meanwhile, to end on a more sensual note, I had a wonderful breakfast this morning after my passport excursion: some mixed grain bread I’d made a few days ago, toasted, then eaten with whey butter topped with slices of ripe tomatoes from the back garden and sprinkled with salt mixed with kelp and dulse flakes (a treat from Cape Breton). All the best kind of eating: home-made and fresh and rich with flavour.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Here it is already a full week into August. I am very happy to be eating fab ripe tomatoes from the garden, heritage varieties with black or dark green shoulders and distinctive flavour; it’s my consolation for time having flown by so quickly. But I’m not ready to be done with July. It’s my fault really, that time has flown this summer. That’s what happens when the weeks get broken up into short chunks by travel and other intense obligations.

I’ve landed back in Toronto after various gallivantings, the most recent a long car drive to and from Vermont. I was there, near Putney in southern Vermont, to speak at a rice conference held at a rice farm there. Yes, that’s not a typo; people are growing rice in the Northeastern US, in Vermont, New York, New Jersey. The fields are small, some flooded paddy, some not, and the rice is Japanese-style rice, generally varieties bred to withstand the short growing season in Hokkaido in northern Japan.

And it’s delicious, at least the rice I ate last Friday night in Vermont was wonderful. 

How could it not be? It was locally grown, organically and with care, and recently husked, and I was eating it with the grower, the cook, and a bunch of people who are committed to rice, including some very interesting scientists from Cornell. Talk about rice-geek heaven.

It was a treat to be talking about dryland rice, paddy rice, different varieties, with people who really cared, and who were way more rice-knowledgeable than I am. I learned a lot about rice breeding (not GMO rice, just breeding the good old way, crossing varieties). The only difference is that in the greenhouses the scientists can grow rice in the winter and speed up the generations, so they get true seed sooner than a farmer could who was selecting seed from a single crop each year.

One of the things I learned is how well plant scientists can deliver new rices tailored to specific conditions. This is going to become increasingly important as the threat of climate change becomes a reality and changes the crops that are appropriate in particular locations. 

Rice does well in wet areas. Low-lying wet patches that can’t be used for wheat or most other crops can be ideal for rice. And so the scientists at Cornell are helping the northeast US rice farmers develop varieties that can thrive there, and may do even better if there’s a warming. 

I also got more of a sense of the destrucive impact of the current legal situation around plant material: Since 1980 companies and individuals have been able to patent which rice seed and other seed (for example all the Monsanto GMO seed etc). The result is that corporations develop seed and patent it to make profit from it. Farmers can’t save those seeds from the harvest for planting the following year, but instead must buy each year. 

And critically, it also means that plant genetic material is no longer generously shared between countries, but instead is held back. This could be tragic if food sustainability becomes threatened in the face of climate change or other catastrophic changes... It’s a huge subject; I only caught a glimpse of a small part of the issue.

Out at the Akaogi farm I saw rice growing tall and green, heading with rice grains, some of them just beginning to ripen. When you look at plants up close, as you do when the area planted is small, you notice distinctive characteristics, you see the varieties as individuals rather than staring with a generalised gaze over a field of green.

That process of looking closely applies not just to crops of course, but to many other situations. We can generalise about people or countries or cultures, or we can see them as individuals. Sometimes it’s necessary or convenient shorthand to generalise, but mostly it’s dangerous, for it allows us to forget the individual strengths and the humanity of each person. And that in turn allows us to make war against or feel belligerent or paranoid about whole groups of people.

This is all pretty obvious stuff. We see it in action when there are hate crimes. We also see it in the political process, when specific groups or populations, Muslims for example, are demonised by those who capitalise on fear.

And so I conclude that the more we can know each other, the more understanding we have that all over the world there are people like us trying to live their lives and do their best for their families and their community.

And that leads me to my latest book, BURMA: Rivers of Flavor. I now have my first copy, one of a small batch that was air-shipped over late last week to New York from Hong Kong. In fact it was then Fed-Exed to the Akaogi Farm, where I found it when I arrived last Friday evening.  So thrilling to open the package.

And WOW is all I could say when I first saw it. 

The long and interesting process of editing the manuscript into a book, and working with designers and editors to get it to where everyone thinks it should be, takes time and patience, and a preparedness to feel your way sometimes. This time all that effort and thoughtfulness has produced a lovely book, very inviting, very beautiful in all kinds of ways.

I hope that it succeeds in transporting readers into the specifics of people and places and food in Burma. I want them to be able to visualise life there, to gain a taste for the food - so delicious and inventive and accessible. I want them to gain a respect for the people of Burma, who have been through so much and now look forward to a brighter future.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


(I'm just back from a week in Cape Breton, staying with friends. I had no internet access there, but wrote two blogposts. The first one went up on July 31; this is the second)

The day after that mist and magic swim I had a quite different morning that started with pink dawn and became leaden-skied grey with soft mild air. My river swim was as invigorating as the previous day’s but not nearly as beautiful, with one exception: there were wild rose petals drifting along in the water, bright patches of pink on the silvery-grey-brown surface, little travelling companions as I stroked along slowly.

And on every subsequent morning my swim was distinctive - always a mix of soft mild water and chilly cold - and always a pleasure, but each day different. Now, this afternooon, as I sit in Halifax airpot wating for my flight to Toronto, I can picture each of them, like a small short film of body sensations and moving images. 

And the same goes for the other hours in my days.

On my first trip out in the boat, we left Judique port in mid-afternoon. There were some substantial swells and a wind as we headed out, but the wind gradually died down. We anchored in the lee of Port Hood Island, where the water was millpond smooth and inviting. But it sure felt cold when I dipped a foot in. I slowly inched my way into the water (as unbrave non-dive-right-in-people like me tend to do) from a ladder on the side of the boat; once I was immersed the water immediately lost its power to chill.

I tend to think of sea water and ocean swimming as very second-best compared to the lovely light slipperiness of fresh water swimming. In all that attitude I forget about the fabulous bouyancy of salt water. On that first ocean immersion, swimming around the anchored boat and drifting along on my back, and chatting and hanging, the effortlessness was a delight. And so was being able to get straight into the water from the boat rather than having to wade in from a sandy or stony shore.

We cooked fresh lightly olive-oiled scallops, just barely, on a grill on the boat, and feasted on them, with tender corn and chopped tomatoes too, as the sun disappeared behind the island and the sky paled into opalescence.  And then it was time to head back to the harbour on the now-calm sea, sated.


One day we were out in the boat and saw a pod of pilot whales (which people from hereabouts call “black fish”). We thought they looked like dophins, and so they do, but they are whales, small and elegant. In the pod were two very young ones, one of them a pale grey. The whales were hanging around close together in the lee of Port Hood Island, in a shallow bay. The bigger ones would surface casually with a lovely sighing exhale, then dip below the surface, leaving a dorsal fin casually trailing above the water. They were feeding, it seems, and also teaching the young ones. And so suddenly one and then the other “baby whale” did a kind of headstand in the water, so that it could slap its tail - slap-slap-slap-slap - on the surface, before finally toppling over. 

Maybe the naturalists are wrong and there was no teaching but instead just the babies goofing off. And later we were told by some experienced people that one of the whales was giving birth. Whatever the reality for the whales, it was amazing and moving to see these creatures out freely in their element, on a lovely calm day.

The next day as I slowly breast-stroked my way up the river in front of the house in the early morning I tried to imagine the feeling a whale or porpoise must have in the water. I love swimming in the river, welcome the water’s slipperiness, but I’m almost always aware that it’s an alien medium, that dry land is where I feel safest. Water is like a slightly risky treat, temporary sensual pleasure, but not home. Nor can it ever be, even when we put on mask and a tank and give ourselves the freedom to stay underwater. 

Is there an analogy in other parts of life? Do we feel safer and surer in our home environment than elsewhere? Can we ever feel as secure, as grounded, in another cultural or emotional environment? If our home environment is NOT safe and secure, how do we find that feeling elsewhere?

And speaking of baby whales, I haven’t spent time with a small human baby in the last few years, and so it was a treat when, a few days into my visit, a gorgeous three-month-old came with her parents to stay with her grandmother in the house in Cape Breton. Her strong cry is firm but not really penetrating, but her gaze, her steady blue gaze, is deeply so. She’s a reminder that the person in a small child’s body is already all there. She’s going to bloom and develop in ways that show us more clearly who she is, but in fact she’s there from the start, mostly hidden from our view, except for the occasional clue, like her penetrating gaze.

We drove with the baby and her parents to Mabou market; it’s held every Sunday in a large hall. The place was filled with small stalls selling everything from produce (kale, lettuce, potatoes, fresh garlic, etc) to local sausages and meat, to locally spun and dyed wool, soap, hand-carved wooden spoons, and more. Hard to resist those spoons!

Later that afternoon as I sat writing in my airy whitewashed cosy bedroom, the day having turned grey and a little threatening, my friend C brought me a small plate of squares of local bread, each topped with bright green pesto she’d made from the garlic scapes we’d bought, a pick-me-up that jolted me from the calm of writing and back into engagement with the here and now. wowza.

On my last evening a bunch of us headed to a weekly dance at a community hall inland from Mabou. The place was packed when we got there at ten, people sitting in chairs along the walls and also at long tables at one end of the hall. At the other end, on a raised platform, were the musicians, a fiddler (in this case an ex-premier of Nova Scotia named Rodney MacDonald) and a piano player, playing and playing, as circles and lines of dancers, people of all ages and descriptions, danced their way through the measures. (Many jokes of course about whether “Rodney” is a better fiddler than politician - the answer seems to be a sure “yes!”.)

I watched and wondered and longed to dance, but couldn’t imagine how that would happen. And then a kindly older man, distantly related to my friends, asked me to pair with him for the next set (three dances in a row). What a pleasure. He’s a very good dancer, and his footwork was lovely; I managed footwork issues by retrieving steps from the highland dancing I’d done as a child, simple jig movements. And as for the larger dance patterns, they were similar to the contra-dancing I’ve done in Grey County, so suddenly I stopped worrying at all about messing up. Fun!

The big crowd made navigating a little complex at times, and the dancing formations not as tidy as they might have been, but there was good will all round, many experienced dancers, and the sure rhythm of the fiddle, to keep us sorted out. I danced the next set too, in an even larger crowd, the fiddler that time being the wonderful Kinnon Beaton.

The tunes are still echoing in my head, days later. So are the stories I heard during my stay in Cape Breton, of the flight of people from the Hebrides to the New World, of the traditions and family connections they share, of the hardships and richness of life on Cape Breton in the last two hundred years. It’s another place of complexity, dealing with plenty of outsiders like me, while holding onto a   distinctive culture in a challenging world.

I’m looking forward to being back there - next year? perhaps...