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.