Friday, March 29, 2013


I feel full to bursting with ideas and thoughts. That’s partly due to my once again having left a large number of days between posts and writing here. But it’s also perhaps because it’s springtime, with sharp light and new energy, and fresh thoughts, all of them seeking expression.

I’m caught with a lot of possible entry-points. One of them is my aunt’s birthday a couple of days ago, that took her to 91. She’s not in a place where she can appreciate it, having slipped into some verison of dementia a few years ago. And yet she lives on, walking and eating and responding a little to smiles and simple stimuli. Another is the distracted place I find myself in, with projects that take my thoughts in opposite and complicated directions. 

I am giving a talk on Burma at Cornell, another quite different demo-talk at the IACP in ten days, also on Burma, and yet another in Toronto on April 11. In between there is a story to write that takes me back to a butchered moose. And as a backdrop, I am waiting around until Nou-Roz (Persian new year) is over, so that I can hear whether or not I have a visa to Iran. If I do, I then need to sort out travel arrangements, including the finding of an appropriate “manteau” or light overcoat, the basic decorum required of women along with a head scarf.

This is not a complaint, quite the reverse. I am just trying to describe the kind of time travel and geographic and idea disorientation that sometimes grips me. It’s like a kind of drug trip or stoner experience. And that would be fine – “just enjoy it by letting go” – except that I also need to be solid, straight, focussed, in order to meet some deadlines and not mess up.

Still, it’s all fun too, that life can throw up all these sometimes contradictory messages and rhythms. It’s a learning and adapting process.

This evening I went to see a film. And it, the fact of it, was a huge reminder that it’s valuable if we can push ourselves beyond the boundaries of what we know and into taking chances and risking ourselves. The film is by my friend Kathy Wazana, and called THEY WERE PROMISED THE SEA. It’s a documentary that looks at the exodus of the Jewish population from Morocco after 1956, and especially in the early 1960’s despite their reluctance to leave, and the deep unhappiness of their Muslim neighbours to see them go. The picture of Muslim-Jewish neighbourliness and collaboration in daily life, including music, is powerful.

Kathy took on the film project even though she had never made a film before. Yes she had help and advice from friends and professionals. But the fact is, she embarked bravely to make what is a wonderful powerful and persuasive film, just because she felt it should be made. She has unearthed an important and unacknowledged part of Arab-Jewish history, and has made everyone the richer.

I wrote the above last Sunday, and now here it is already Friday. I’m back from Cornell, about five hours each way with the border wait-time (under half an hour), and stimulated by the conversations and interactions I had there. It is a treat to be with people who engage seriously with ideas. There were religious studies people, rice scientists, a government studies person, Southeast Asian specialists of other kinds…there at my talk, and a dinner the previous night, because they have an interest in Burma. I felt very welcomed, very lucky to be there.

Still no news on the Iran visa. And that means that I will probably end up using my April travel window to go to Georgia instead. Each starts with a direct flight to Istanbul (Turkish Airlines flies out of Toronto, so lucky). And Georgia gives visas on arrival, thank heavens, so that last minute planning should be OK.

In this mishmash post of the fragments on my to-do list, I should mention too that the BURMA book is headed into a second reprinting. I'm thrilled that people are finding it accessible and engaging. This time I’ve been able to make some some corrections and tweaks, which feels good. They come from new understandings I’ve gleaned about beans and peas, the dried ones that are cooked and eaten for breakfast in Burma.

And finally, last, but not least, I owe a recipe for my simple skillet cake to a reader who wrote to me several weeks ago, because I had referred to it in my “Global Pantry” column in the April issue of Cooking Light magazine. Here then are instructions, in a shorthand version of the recipe:

The cake is shallow, and not hugely sweet, so it gets eaten at all hours of the day and night as food rather than sugary treat. I usually put chopped apples on top; you can leave it without, or top with cooked rhubarb, leaving out most of the wettest juice, or with berries... It's a very forgiving cake. That's the point.

 Preheat the oven to 400 fahrenheit. Oil a wide cast-iron skillet (9 inch or 10).

In one bowl beat ¼ pound softened butter with 1 cup sugar (I like to use brown) until smooth, add 1 cup plain yogurt and beat a little (you can instead use canned coconut milk - my Global Pantry suggestion - with the juice of 1 lemon, an acid for the baking powder to work with), then whisk 4 eggs in a separate bowl and add them. Add a dash of vanilla if you want. Set aside.

In another bowl combine 2 cups flour (I use a mixture, usually 1 cup whole wheat pastry floour and 1 cup some blend, or else all-purpose or whatever you want), ½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder, generous cinnamon, a dash or more of powdered cloves, and stir.

Whisk the wet again and then add to the dries and stir just until everything is wet.
Pour into the greased skillet, and if not topping with fruit, sprinkle on some brown sugar for crunch.
Put into the top third of the oven.
If topping with fruit, put in the oven and let cook while you core and slice four or five apples (I leave peel on, or partly peel them) or pears, or either with a few frozen berries… and mix in a bowl with a little brown sugar or maple syrup, and perhaps a squeeze of lime or lemon juice if you want.

After 15 minutes lower the heat to 385.
If topping with fruit, add it now: take the skillet out, gently strew the fruit on top, staying clear of the edges, and put back in to finish baking.

The cake will take 50 minutes, not quite an hour. Check it at 45 minutes…the edges will be starting to pull away from the sides. Do the skewer test, to make sure the centre is cooked.

Take out and let stand for ten minutes. Run and dull knife around the edge to make sure there are no sticking places, then place a large plate over and turn over, so it sits out on the plate. Use a second plate to turn it over, so it is fruit side up.
(If you didn’t use fruit, you might want to leave it upside down; you have a smooth surface if you want to ice it…; that said I usually prefer to have it right side up).

Happy spring, Easter, Passover, Holi, and Nou-Roz to all…


Mardi Michels said...

Where are you speaking in Toronto on April 11th Naomi? I'd love to come and hear you.

naomi said...

I'm at First Canadian Place, at the Galleria, at 12.15 and the second one is at 1.15. I put a note about it on my FB fan page. There's no charge, and seating is limited. It's kind of a lunchtime talk series.
You can register, to be sure you get a seat, by going to - I am just passing on to you what was told to me. Haven't actually tried going there.
May see you there. DO come up and introduce yourself please.

Mardi Michels said...

Aw Naomi, that's too bad. I'm a full time elementary school teacher - hard to get out during the day. ONE of these days I'll get to hear you speak :)