Thursday, November 7, 2013


A week ago today I was on a flight from Istanbul to Toronto, having flown out of Tabriz (in northwestern Iran) two days earlier. In my checked bags I had a kilo of honey, some dried apricots, halvah, a selection of sweets from Yazd, sour pomegranate fruit leather (called robb in Iran), fresh pistachios, a second-hand Farsi-language cookbook, and a bundle of small kilims, as well as my well-worn clothing. My other luggage weighed next to nothing physically, but was a rich load: memories, emotions, early understandings, jam-packed notebooks, and digital photos.

I’ve been thinking about this process of travel, memory, and story. People have different ways of remembering. Mine tend to be visual: I have pictures in my mind after a trip. They’re not so much of actual events. Instead they are images generated by my thoughts about events or people or places. I would call them secondary images of events. At the same time I also have hundreds of photos, moments preserved, you could call them.

Because my memory works with past experiences, digesting and processing them in sometimes surprising ways, in the weeks right after a trip I like to keep that set of mental pictures uninfluenced by the “reality” of the photos I have taken. Once that digesting and processing is well underway, many memories have reshaped themselves as stories or vignettes that are informative or tell a small story in themselves.

When I then look at the photos I often notice the gaps between my (processed) “memories” and what I see in the details of the shots. The differences between them interest me. Sometimes they are due to the fact that I failed to notice certain elements of a scene, perhaps because I was caught up with other details, or with an emotional context that kept my focus elsewhere. Sometimes the differences are because I have subconsciously “forgotten” inconvenient, or ugly or uncomfortable details…

At the moment I am still early on in the digesting process. Stories and cross-connections, ideas about place and people, food and attitudes, are still taking shape, and will be for the next month or two. I’ll try to help that process along by doing recipe work. I find that as I draft recipes and shop and prep and cook, I often become more sure about the importance of particular details, or I get a flash of memory or insight.

This is why I am such a believer in developing and testing my recipes on my own to start with. It leaves me with a free head and imagination…so that unbidden thoughts can surface freely.

All of this probably sounds rather abstract and perhaps unreliable or fabulist to you. After all, am I not, in writing cookbooks, supposed to be transmitting information rather than invention?

Well, yes and no. I am not a journalist, digging out “the truth” in a factual literal sense. Yes I want to get the recipes right and to give them full honour and respect. But there are other truths that story-telling and imaginative reconstruction and reflection can elucidate. The aha! as I realise what anxiety or concern lay behind a comment someone made to me, may take me weeks to arrive at. But when I am able to understand the human, emotional, and social dimensions of a situation, then I think both the story-telling and the recipes gain strength and reliabilty of a deeper kind.

I hope that those of you who have had the stamina to read this far can make sense of what I am trying to say. I’ve been thinking about the connections between the “facts” on the ground, be they in Burma or Georgia or Iran, and the emotional reactions I feel or sense in a place. I admit that they are complicated.

It’s here, in the human complexities of place and perception, that I find the juiciest excitement and the largest potential for creative understanding. The trick is to not worry and to not force the pace. Sometimes at this stage right after a trip I begin to get impatient. I want to be further along in synthesizing my understanding. But things take the time they take.

And so, in the meantime, I plan to try making Tabrizi kofta, and sangak (bread baked on a bed of pebbles) and dizi, and more. I’m trusting that the same process of subconscious story-shaping that has happened before, most recently with the Burma book, will take over and allow me to create a rich and reliable set of stories and recipes in this new book of mine.

All I need is some tolerance and understanding from friends and family as I look or act a little dazed or distracted…


kainah said...

Your process is one that all of us would do well to consider and, probably, follow. Especially in these "documentary days" where it seems so many people are more obsessed about documenting their lives than living them. Did it really happen if it didn't get posted to your Facebook, twitter, instagram, etc.? Part of why I refuse to engage in this new social media world is because, for so many, I think it is creating a false world rather than opening up access to a wider world - which is the promise but too rarely the reality.

So your process is lovely as it actually honors all aspects of your experience - real, imagined and shared - rather than rushing to synthesize and document it so we can hurry along to another chance to experience and exploit.

And clearly, it works well not only for you but also for your audience. This whole message started as nothing more than a note to congratulate you on the recent Taste Canada award but, as usual, you drew me into thinking more deeply about some things that are so important. Congratulations, then, and thanks as always for being your interesting and provocative self!

naomi said...

Thanks Kainah, for your note and your thoughtfulness...
But I must also pass on to you what I have come to think of Twitter and FaceBook: I use Twitter as a kind of noticeboard, a way of getting access to interesting news or events. i follow very few people, those who are interested in science, sustainable agriculture, geo-political events in Asia, etc. And i retweet, or pass along, items i think others will find useful or interesting.
A friend, Robyn Eckhardt of Eating Asia was the one who pushed me hard four years ago to engage with Twitter. And i am pleased with the result.
BTW I use Tweedeck to help it stay clear and organised.