Thursday, December 31, 2009
Last night we kicked up our heels and our hearts and danced with friends until the early hours of the morning. It was a very happy evening here with conversation and food, as well as dancing and laughter, with people of all ages and stages (we had every decade covered, from under ten-year olds to over seventy-year olds, a lovely mix).
This morning I woke up feeling a little stiffness in my shoulders and couldn't figure out what dancing effort might have caused it. And then I remembered the start of the day; dancing had nothing to do with it! I'd gone to Kensington Market to food shop and by the time I was walking back I was seriously overloaded with pounds of root vegetables of all kinds from Potz, a pound of Ethiopian coffee, two beautiful chickens from a new local butcher, and other oddments too, like pressed tofu, ginger, green onions, etc.
By seven-thirty in the evening the chickens were roasted and carved (and the carcasses immersed in water for today's soup); there was a large Le Creuset pot of mung dal (tart with tamarind and aromatic with Bengali seasonings and a secret shot of red wine) hot on the stove; the sticky rice was steaming and perfuming the house; two trays of mixed coarsely chopped root vegetables (beets, blue potatoes, black radish, parsnips, parsely root, rutabaga) had roasted in the oven to tender intense flavour (dressed only with olive oil and salt before hand) and were out in a large bowl (though the beets were in a bowl on their own, tossed with a little cider vinegar); two boxfuls of mandarins were heaped on a huge wooden bowl-platter; and friends were starting to arrive with various extra food and drink treats. Of course the party started all jammed up in the kitchen, but eventually, seduced by artfully spun music, some of us moved out into the cleared-of-furniture living room and the dancing began.
It's like a happiness treatment and celebration, dancing. And last night there was a lot to celebrate, apart from the wonderfulness of our extended family of friends old and new coming together. The best was the triumphant survival of a good friend KCC who this time last year had just been diagnosed with inoperable throat cancer. Things looked hopeless for him. Twelve months and experimental chemo and other chemo etc etc later, he is cancer free and looking and sounding like himself again. I like this kind of miracle.
Several of us were talking together late last night about his harsh year, and how hard it had been for his family too, of course. David said that for him the painful and scary passages of life are like a run of very bad luck in a poker game: "It's easy to play a good hand; the hard thing is to play a bad hand well," he said. "You just have to survive and stay solid until your luck changes." Great advice.
So as the numbers turn on the decade clock, and the moon glows full for the second time this month, I wish for all of you an interesting open-horizoned new year, with lots of stamina for enduring the rough passages and plenty of glad-heartedness and generosity for revelling in the smiling times.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Winter. Tomorrow we turn the corner as we hit the shortest day and welcome the idea that the sun will return and the days will get longer. We have some months of winter cold and snow and ice, but at least we'll have longer days and eventually we'll start to feel warmer temperatures and see leaf buds forming on the trees.
This annual cycle in the northern climes is a lesson in patience and hope. The subtropical version, say in Thailand, is a three season cycle, where hot season is the killing time, when plants become dormant and the leaves have gone from many of the trees. There it is the monsoon rain that brings the world back to life; here it is the return of the sun, giving light and warmth too.
People from higher latitudes annually wait for the sun's return, and celebrate it with food and festivities, from Saturnalia to Christmas to Hanukkah. Tomorrow night in Kensington Market, a few blocks from the house, is the annual (it's been going for over 20 years now) Festival of Lights, with stilt people wearing mythic creatures' heads that sway above the crowd, children and adults carrying lanterns: light in the dark and excitement in the air.
Many of our foods of celebration at this time of year connect with the hope for a renewal of warmth and fertility, a new harvest, new life. At Ukrainian and Russian Christmas, there's kulcha, the wheat berry and poppyseed (often) and honey "soup", delicious ritual food that opens the Christmas eve feast. And there's also an egg-rich (yellow like the sun) Christmas bread, just as there is in Sweden.
I confess I've made none of the above this year. But I have been celebrating my return to Toronto and to friends and family with some winter cooking. I began, two nights ago, as a way of fighting jetlag-tiredness at eight in the evening, by making candied peel. I'd bought organic lemons and oranges and grapefruit, so it was easy, even in my dazed state, to peel them (cut off the peel at the stem end, then peel off tidy wedges) and then boil the peels in plenty of water for about an hour to remove bitterness. (I store the peeled fruit in a sealed plastic bag, ready to be eaten; all but the lemons have already gone.) I drained the peels then boiled them in more water for another twenty minutes or so. In another pot (non-reactive) I stirred three cups of sugar into one and a half cups of water and brought it to a boil, then let it simmer. Once I'd drained the peels again I added them to the syrup and simmered it for about an hour, pushing on the peels with a wooden spoon to immerse them.
The peels looked so gorgeous when I lifted them out onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets, all gleaming and rich-coloured, like stained glass. it's been two days, so they've dried out nicely and now I have most of them coated in extra sugar (put sugar in a paper bag and toss in the peels in batches so they get coated). The extra sugar stops them sticking to one another.
Freinds and visitors now have treats to snack on, and I have small beautiful presents to take to others. The leftover syrup, now beautifully citrussy, is delicious drizzled on ice cream for example, or just snuck, as a quickie spoonful, when the jar in the frig catches my eye. Of course it also makes a good glaze for fruit tarts. Hmmm - maybe I should move on to something like that next week?
The peels are also a reminder of earlier times, when precious oranges and lemons and citrons would arrive in northern Europe from the Mediterranean, just at the cold and dark time of year. What better way to make use of the whole fruit than by preserving the peel, with all its intense flavour? The English traditionally make mincemeat with the peel, and use it to flavour Christmas cakes and fruits cakes generally, and of course there's peel in many stollen, the German advent cake. Any other winter baking that you can tell me about that uses candied peel?
Perhaps made bold by the peel, and finding my Toronto kitchen reflexes again, I had slightly ambitious supper plans tonight that included a leekie pie. There's another welcome winter taste, those luscious leeks. After supper I used the leftover eggwhite to make lemon-zest macaroons then caught that cookbook bug (you turn the page and get inspired by the next recipe, and the next...). I was in HomeBaking, in the cookies section. So as I write there is the first stage (the loaf) of mandel melbas (four large eggs, a cup of toasted almonds, 3/4 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 cups all-purpose, all stirred together, then spooned into a loaf pan and baked at 350 F) chilled and waiting to be thinly sliced and rebaked (for fifteen minutes at 300 F) , and there are sweet Cretan paximadia, made with olive oil and wine and cinnamon and cloves, slowly crisping up in the oven.
I know they'll all get eaten, and quickly. And each bite of citrus peel or aromatic paximadia will connect us to warmth, and to the hope and promise of the solstice, that life will indeed be renewed again this year...
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Like every departure, this one makes me reflect and notice a little more than usual. I find myself reflecting back on the last five weeks, beginning with the intensity and whirlwind excitement of the Worlds of Flavor conference at Greystone in November, moving on to my first ten days here in Chiang Mai, and then from there to the extraordinarily interesting two weeks I spent in Moulmein and Hpa’an in Burma, and finallly to these last days back in Chiang Mai. A friend said to me this evening, “Do you actually LIKE this rushing around?” “Well, I said, I’d rather be slower paced, but there are some pushes and pulls involved. First, I really want to see my kids, so that’s why I am heading back to Toronto for the holidays. And I am still engaged in trying to make a living, so obligations related to that also play in. But I have no complaints. How could I? given all the freedom I have to choose my own projects.”
This life of travel is not a vacation, to do with exactly as I please or to be “lazy” in, but instead is a way of engaging with the world and trying to understand how people live in other cultures, other places. It’s a pretty privileged way of going about things, with no boss, and no schedule, but then that lack of structure demands that I structure myself, and set my own limits. Hence, I guess, the travel schedule, so at odds with the free-form life that many expats here in Thailand lead in their early retirement. Many soon get fed up and take on commitments of one kind or another. And then of course they get to complain about being over-committed...
So like eveything else in life, this matter of freedom versus constraint is a balancing act. With luck, each of us gets to figure out our own balance. Many of us have the luxury of complaining when the balance doesn’t suit us, or, even better, of doing something to tweak it so it works more comfortably.
As for the noticing, it’s more acute just pre-departure. For example, I walked across the footbridge to Wat Ket Karam this morning. It’s a temple with beautifully maintained grounds and a small school, and was the neighbouring property to the little wooden house we stayed in for some months the winter Dom turned two, so it’s wonderfully familiar. I try to get there several times each season I am in Chiang Mai. This morning the way the light hit the temple figures at Wat Ket felt magical, a serial spotlighting of details. Would I have felt so struck by it had I not been on the brink of departing? Hard to say. And then, on the way back across the footbridge, would I have been so ready to put money into the begging bowl of the old indigent guy who hangs out there?
...... I wrote the above twelve hours ago. Now it’s already past noon on the day I go. I had a long walk this morning to Chiang Mai GAte, where there’s a lively daily market and also a woman who makes traditional Thai tea and coffee. I think of Ed Rek when I’m there, for he’s a big fan of Thai tea, orange-coloured and then sweetened with condensed milk. I had two glasses of coffee today, each tasting as great, earthy and rounded, as the other. It comes always with a glass of clear “Chinese” tea, that gets refilled endlessly. The tea is to quench thirst and clear the mouth after the rich intensity of traditional tea or coffee (especially when served the classic way with sweetened condensed milk).
On the way back I cut through back lanes and then came out on Thapae Road near Wat Bupparam where a woman had set up selling sticky rice and a couple of options to go with, “sai tung”, that is, to take away in a bag and eat elsewhere. I chose the makeua tam (literally “eggplant pounded”), roasted eggplant pounded to a smooth texture, with fish sauce and grilled shallots and garlic, topped with a piece of hard-boiled egg and generous amounts of fresh herbs, in this case mint. It was the breakfast I needed, smoky tasting eggplant and always welcome sticky rice. And it made a lovely pause in a day of errands, sitting in the sun by the door of the apartment, the fountain trickling gently nearby, and a world to travel around just waiting.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Right now I'm still in "just landed" mode, with a jumble of impressions that will in time I hope get a little more sorted out. The photos will help, as I sort through them, and now that I have a few words of Burmese in my head (and more noted down phonetically in my notebook but not yet pounded into my brain!), I can somehow "replay" the texture of encounters and the feel of the street much better than after my last trip.
It's such a slow (and interesting) process, getting a little familiar with another food culture. And in Burma, with its diversity of peoples, from Rakhine and Karen to Bhama and Mon, to Kachin and Shan of many kinds, the picture is wonderfully complex. That's so even before you get to the foods that originate in the Indian subcontinent and are now staples in Burma, subtly transformed in many cases, from their original model. I'm talking about biryani and dosa and porota and paratha and more. Fun!
It was a treat this morning, a Friday, to be at the Haw market here in Chiang Mai, a place where Burmese refugees of various cultures, as well as hill people and Yunnanese, come to sell and buy food. So here, back in Thailand, I had a breakfast that was Burmese, a bowl of mohinga. It varies from place to place, but is most often fine rice noodles (that are known in Thailand as kanom Jiin) with a fish-based broth and then toppings sprinkled over it to add flavour and texture. Here the only choice was a crisp fried cracker as well as coriander leaves, but in Rangoon at the small street stalls there's a wide array of toppings and flavorings ro choose from, including a kind of fried shrimp cracker, and slices of banana flower heart, and, and... The other treat for breakfast at the Haw market is various kinds of khao foon, firm smooth tofu-like squares made of mung beans or chickpeas that have been cooked and pureed and jelled, that are sliced into noodles and then topped with flavourings (shallot oil, lime juice, soy or fish sauce, chile oil, etc). I had some khao foon strips on top of my mohinga today, just for the pleasure of their texture.
The Haw market made me feel welcomed back and also somehow reassured that the cultural and historical cross-connections here in the region are alive and real. And as I try to figure out some of the dishes and techniques I came across in Burma, there should be some help and insights to be found here in Chiang Mai... What a wonderfully lucky thing it is, to be able to be here and trying to learn.
POST SCRIPT ON IMMERSETHROUGH: We have a small group this year for the tour (January 24 to 30, 2010), so we can be portable and flexible. I'm really looking forward to it.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
On the last post I included a postscript saying that I might not be able to get access to blogspot in Burma, and so it proved to be. But apart from no access to blogspot or yahoo (and frankly, it's kind of wonderful to have email taken mostly out of play, a return to a version of earlier days of travel when leaving meant being out of touch!) this was a smooth and wonderfully interesting and generous trip. I am so grateful.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
For example, Dom turns 22 on Monday. The last time he was divisible by 11 he was in Grade 6, just finding his confidence in school; this time he is in the first year of a PhD. No wonder as we get older life seems less eventful and time seems to fly by. When I think of all that a child or young adult packs into a year, all the growth of new understanding, the learning, the whole-hearted engagement, it is truly astonishing. When we’re inside it, as young people, it’s all we know. That’s what life is. Then as we age into adulthood we’re busy, but we’re mostly managing time rather than living inside it.
Yesterday I sat in the grounds of a wat (temple) and tried to draw a naga, a dragon/snake that makes the railing and frame for one of the temple staircases. My friend Lillian, who is an artist, did some wonderful line drawings of temple details when she was here last year, and I wanted to try. The result of my efforts was a reminder of the place, but not particularly lovely. What was lovely was the experience of engaging, of losing myself in the effort. Every time I sit down to draw something this amazing thing happens. (And similarly, the focussed concentration on getting a word right in a piece of writing, or on shaping a poem, brings the same wonderful loss of self-consciousneess, this headlong plunge into the now.) It’s a gift, available almost any time, and I think it’s available to all. We need only choose to embark.
Focussed concentration, to the exclusion of almost all else, is the pleasure scholars feel as they wrestle with a text or a problem, and musicians, or artists, or anyone engaging single-mindedly or wholeheartedly with a task know it well. Children have a capacity for intently settling to one thing, playing or jumping or whatever. It’s one of the fundamental pleasures of childhood, that we mostly lose as we get distracted with meeting the social expectations of the adult world (“Come along now; we can’t stay here all day!”).
Just DOING without second thoughts or distraction is a great drug and a balm to the spirit too, for it reconnects us with ourselves, it grounds us.
I sat down in the dawn chill to write about being up north of here on a farm near Fang, the cascading bougainvillea, the glowing green wing-beans, the scent of the lychee trees, the complicated wonderfulness of the Fang weekly market, the village house where I finally learned how to make tua nao (the fermented bean paste that underpins northern and Shan cooking), the coming-into-paradise luminousness of the mountain-rimmed landscape to the north. So much for plans. I do love the way that threads of thought, ideas that have occurred to me during the week and that perhaps I have been mulling over subconsciously, surface and insist on expression as I settle to write each week.
I guess I have come full circle here, for it seems clear, as I reflect on the question of getting grounded by committing wholeheartedly to a task, that the process of teasing out these thoughts on the virtual page each week is one of the ways I find that pleasure for myself. I enjoy it so much, and today, in writing this, I’ve come to understand a little more where the pleasure lies.
We’re in highly self-referential territory here! My apologies if it’s irritating!
And for those of you who want something concrete to taste, in your mind’s eye or in fact, here’s a quick descriptive recipe for an issaan dish called moo nam toke (pork in a waterfall, meaning with a wet dressing). The issaan one uses dried chiles. There’s a northern version: just substitute fresh prik ee noo, Thai bird chiles, to taste.
There’s a vendor set up near the huge plant market (see my entry about the place in November-December last year) about a mile north of my apartment here. She sells grilled pork, som tam, sticky rice... Fern and I dropped by there one afternoon early this week after running some errands and asked for moo nam toke: Start with about half a pound of grilled pork, preferably several small pieces that are not too lean (brush it with a little oil and fish sauce, or rub it with fish sauce and ground black pepper if you wish, before grilling) and chop it into large bite-size. Place in a wide shallow bowl. Add a scant half cup of sliced red (Asian) shallot or chopped onion, some coriander leaf, some dried red chiles ground to flakes or powder, (to taste, say a tablespoon to start with), and about two tablespoons of roasted rice powder (dry roast some raw rice in a skillet, then grind to a powder in a coffee grinder or whatever). To make the dressing, combine fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind liquid (soak tamarind pulp briefly in hot water, then press through a sieve to get the liquid), to taste (about 2 tablespoons each should do it, if anything going more lightly on the tamarind and heavier on the fish sauce), then pour over. Toss to blend well, then serve and eat with pleasure...
A POSTSCRIPT: My Burmese visa has come through, hurrah! This trip I'm headed to Moulmein (now in post-colonial times written Mawlamyine), on the coast southeast of Rangoon (now Yangon). That requires a flight on Saturday to Bangkok, then another to Rangoon, then bus or train along the coast. (The land border between Thailand and Burma that is closest to Moulmein, is at Mae Sot, and is still closed to foreigners.) I am due back here late on December 10. Since internet access is unpredictable in Burma, I may not be able to post until I'm back, though last March I was able to, amazingly, from Myitkyina, so we'll see.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Some days here there are a lot of these being launched, other days there's the occasional one or two drifting in the night sky.
Gary and Trish had bought the lantern, shaped like a monkey's face, to honour the baby daughter than Boom and Jayan had four months ago. We were all there, lighting the lantern or watching, The baby was happy and oblivious of the fuss. Once the paraffin was lit, we stood there holding the paper away from the flame and waiting for the hot air to inflate it. In that slightly anxioous moment the moneky's face seemed to leer at our hopefulness. (Of course there's the idea that if it inflates and floats well up into the sky, it's a harbinger of good luck; a failure to rise up is the reverse, so there is a little tension around these lightings.)
Finally we let the lantern go, and up it floated, brilliantly light against the dark sky, the growing crescent moon the only decor. It floated over toward the apartment building and seemed to hover, hesitantly. Argh! Would it get caught on a balcony? Surely not! Would it rise up over and beyond the building? Perhaps? And yet? Eventually, after some heart in mouth moments, it drifted up onto the rroof and then on up into the midnight blue sky from there.
So she's well launched, this lovely baby!
All this light and fire in the dark comes just three weeks after another time of light in the dark in Chiang Mai, this one Loy Kratong. Chiang Mai is a big place for Loy Kratong, a festival of lights at the full moon in November. A kratong is traditionally a small leaf raft with a candle on it. Now you can buy elaborate kratongs of course, but at its origin it's a simple candle on a leaf Each person launches a kratong, sets it floating down a stream or river. Bad deeds and bad luck float down the river on the little raft, freeing each of us. It's a lovely concept, and a relief too.
Now what are we going to do with this freedom?
Talking today with Tiger, a man in his eighties who settled here in Chiang Mai about twenty years ago, I was reminded of how differently each of us engage with the world and with the future. Tiger set off from the UK, after retiring in his fifties, to travel and engage with the world. He didn't have a plan. Eventually, a good ten years later, he settled here in Chiang Mai. But he started out with the confidence that he'd find his way, and also with the urge to be surprised, to not-know and to find out and trust to luck that what was coming next would be interesting.
Another approach at retirement or even any time in life, is to try to make sure, to tie things down and aim for certainty. I sort of understand that urge for security, the wish to have a sure outcome. But how uninteresting, too. If the future consists only of what I have planned for it, then it's llimited to what I can imagine, and that's so puny compared to all the possibilities the world has to offer (possibilties good and bad, yes, I agree, but wonderfully unknown and infinite).
So when we launch a little raft with a candle on it, or send a fire-powered paper lantern up into the dark sky, we're gambling and hoping, launching ourselves metaphorically into the future, eyes open, hope surging, fingers crossed, that the light will float on upward and that we will have good luck and find our way.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
I stayed at a small hotel near the new airport. It's in a kind of small village still surrounded by rice fields (I say "still" because probably development will come soon and cement them all over, but for now...), with temples and small street vendors, like a slice of Thailand in the eighties. I strolled out at 7 this morning looking for my first meal of the trip. There were school kids in uniform walking along the village lanes, and women doing early shoppig, and men and women walking out to the main road to catch the bus to work.
I stopped at a street stall where a woman was grilling pork on bamboo skewers to ask if she also had sticky rice and som tam (pounded green papaya salad). With a yes answer, I went and sat down at a table in the back. Soon the pork came, succulent, with a little fat here and there to give it flavour and moisture, and so did the sticky rice.
Meanwhile another woman got the som tam ready. She asked me whether I eat chile heat: "gin pet mai?", and then showed me the three chiles she proposed to add when I answered "gin pet dai" (="I can eat chile-hot"). Other ingredients at the start include peanuts, dried shrimp, garlic, and tomato (they can include small crabs, but I don't like them so asked her to leave them out). Because it was early, she hadn't yet prepared the usual pile of shredded papaya, so she had to start by peeling the fruit, then chopping it with long paralllel cuts, then slicing off the thinly chopped flesh. The result, a handful of long julienne-like shreds, then got added to the large ceramic mortar and pounded with a pestle to soften it and blend flavours.
The salad came mounded on a plate, sweet with palm sugar, hot with chiles, acidic with slices of tomato and the green papaya and lime juice, and salty and pungent with fish sauce and small dried shrimp. What a wonderful opening to a trip to Thailand: sticky rice, moo yang (grilled pork) and som tam!
And it was a great reminder, after my three days of immersion at the Worlds of Flavor conference, which was focussed on world streetfoods, that there is indeed something magical and special about food made on the spot with skill and care, to order.
I want to say one more thing too, about the conference (there are so many things I could be adding here, about great conversations, new poeple met, old friends, new ideas, great energy and creativity...). There was so much going on: sessions about streetfoods and comfort foods from many places, from Peru and Brazil and Mexico (and John T Edge on streetfoods in the USA) to those from the Mediterranean and southeast Asia. But as Jessica Harris emphasised in her talk on Saturday, we are all very ignorant of African food traditions, even though they are the original underpinning of many foodways in the Americas. She's right of course. But as she was talking about acaraje (from Brazil) and other foods of South America, and linking them to west African foods, I realised again how long and slow the process is of getting familiar with new foods new vocabulary.
We take it for granted that most people will know penne from rigatoni from fettucine, but in the sixties all pasta was spaghetti, or maybe lasagna. It took a good while for the new vocabulary and new dishes to penetrate. How much longer and more difficult will it be then to get a handle on the African and Latin American ingredients and dishes? And that means we had better get started!!
It's good to be a beginner, to not-know, to experience the disorientation of not-knowing and the pleasure of slowly coming to new understandings about things that others know well. Outsider status, or beginner status is what keeps us reminded that we are not all-powerful. It keeps us tuned and humble, and hopefully respectful of others too.
So let's make a commitment to start engaging with the unfamiliar, whoever we are, wherever we are, in at least one part of our lives. In the food world, there's a lot to learn everywhere, but Jessica is right to push us to engage with African traditions. We'll be so much more appreciative, and we'll be enormously enriched too, by what we learn...
Now I'm here in Chiang Mai, the sky clear, the hills that rim the valley visible despite a little haze, the light turning golden in the late afternoon. I've already seen a few friends, and hope to catch up on more of the news this evening at supper. But I do want to remember to just be here, breathing it in, looking out for bigger horizons. It's too easy to get caught up in setting targets, in rushing to get the next thing done, the next appointment made and kept, the next plane trip booked. Those things are important. And I agree that ambition and plans are what get us doing things and completing them.
But targets and goals, specific ones, are also limiting. I want to leave room for the serendipitous things, the events and people that I can't anticipate ahead of time. For those, the lovely unplanned in life, are the things that enlarge horizons, extend the possibilties beyond the boundaries that I can imagine right now...
Thursday, November 12, 2009
And from this moving perch in the sky, I feel as if I’m taking in a bird’s-eye view of events and time, rather than of landscape (the one below me right now, probably somewhere in Nebraska, is lightly wrapped in cloud, in any case). Part of my mind’s-eye/bird’s-eye is in November 11 mode: Remembrance Day as it’s now called, Armistice Day as it was called when I was growing up. In those days it was quite focussed on the First and Second wars, with images of Europe and poppies, and set in a time past.
My grandfather was in the artillery in the first war, and went on to write history books about the army in that war. I remember as a child asking him something about the trenches or a battle, and he said, “I have the memory of that horror in my head; there is no need for you to have it in yours.” That war experience gave him an appreciation for each day, for he hadn’t expected to survive it. So many did not.
And my father was in the second war, starting as a nineteen-year-old in 1939, becoming a major at a too-young age, and leaving the army only after it was all over. Only a couple of years ago I discovered that he’d been in the landings on D-Day, on Juno Beach, and then in the fighting as they advanced inland.
But when I was growing up, the Canadian Army was not engaged in active warfare, just in various peacekeeping efforts. Those had their complicatios and their horrors, but still were not “war”.
These days the Canadian Army is in southern Afghanistan, the Americans in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the toll of dead mounting, and the toll on families and on the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan immeasurable. Remembrance Day has come very alive for many Canadians and Americans, as we see the horror of war in the statistics and in some of the reports that filter out.
At Dom and Tashi’s high school on Remembrance Day, instead of speeches about long-ago wars, kids who had come from various war zones around the world and were now settled in Toronto would talk about where they were from. Perhaps they still do. It seemed to me to be the best kind of Remembrance Day, far from “true patriot love” (for non-Canadians reading this, those are words in our national anthem, O Canada) and the sometimes mindless militarism that that inspires. Instead the school was reminded each year about the pain and loss, and the disruption of ordinary people’s lives, that war and conflict inevitably entail.
Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, there are plenty of smaller wars and conflicts around, and plenty of related suffering. When effort goes to building civil society, rather than supporting dictatorships; when villagers are given a hope that tomorrow can be more peaceful than today; when kids everywhere can hope to pursue education and engage in the free exchange of ideas, then we can talk of celebrating Remembrance Day and of meaningful peace. But for now we are in a quagmire of war, with no real end in sight and a lot of posturing going on, from Jerusalem, Tehran, and Kabul to DC, London, and Ottawa... I want Mr Harper gone (such a tight-minded ungenerous right wing guy, aiming to wreck our social fabric if ever the electorate is foolish enough to give him a majority), and I want us out of the war. ASAP.
Meantime, we still must eat and love and exchange ideas, so, on a more domestic topic, Tashi’s dal last Friday was spectacular, worth trumpeting about. There was some pork sausage from our meat CSA in the freezer and I had assumed he’d cook it separately. Instead, once the dal was cooked, he cut the sausages into short lengths, heated oil and panch phoran, then cooked the sausage, adding chopped cauliflower and the remaining purple carrots to the mixture, before adding the whole pan’s worth into the dal. Another few minutes simmering until the vegetables were tender and we had the best deeply flavoured one-dish meal. Wonderful! All of it went over fresh rice of course.
On the weekend I finally dug up the back garden, added manure, and dug it in a little. In the course of doing that I came across some unharvested garlic, tender late-planted little pale treasures, and I discovered that the greens I’ve been culling to cook with my morning egg are beet greens; I’d forgotten that the seeds I planted in that row were for yellow beets. So we ate them on Monday evening, as one accompaniment to dal, along with some beef burgers prepared roughly as they appear in Mangoes and Curry Leaves (tender with a little yogurt in the mix, and aromatic with ground coriander and cumin as well as ginger and garlic). The beets were small, and so were perfect thinly sliced and cooked with the garlic and with their greens, tasting of both freshness and freshly dug earth!
The weather was the imperative that got me out finally on the weekend, for we have had balmy soft days, tender light and air in which the whole city seems to bask. Each day has felt like a gift, and for once we all know it (last year’s snow and cold are recent enough to make us grateful!), so the happiness level on the street and in people’s faces is tangible.
But I am not staying for the rest of the sunshine. Instead I’m headed to Greystone for the Worlds of Flavor conference and then on to Chiang Mai next week. I talked to Fern last night on the phone, Fern who is the anchor-person in Chiang Mai for immersethrough. We plan to get a lot of prep done for the late January session. I’m also hoping to get a short trip to Burma, before I fly back to Toronto in mid-December. And then in mid-January I’ll head back to Chiang Mai...
It feels like the best kind of luck, to be able to move between worlds and to cross-connect, learning from each, and hopefully giving back, too.
And a footnote: I went to the Royal Winter Fair on Friday and again on Saturday. It’s huge, and still feels real despite the new soulless display halls. The cattle barns, the pigs and sheep, etc, are as before, and I’m glad. Lovely to have something stay wonderfully itself over time!
On Friday there were the Cuisine Canada book awards, and luckily Beyond the Great Wall won gold in the category Books about food and cooking. It’s always a privilege to win an award, and I’m grateful.
On Saturday I was back, as part of a series of demos from this year’s nominated books, giving a demo at a small stage. We made Kazakh hand-stretched noodles from Beyond the Great Wall. The people watching all got involved, stretching noodles and hanging them on a clothes rack, then six of them (by answering some questions correctly) “earned” a sit-down bowl of the noodles freshly cooked in chicken broth. I like it when kids and adults can take real pleasure in physical tasks, together, without hierarchy. Noodle-making is one of those easy kitchen skills that is not age-related and is genuinely fun to do with friends and family, a chore that becomes a pleasure. We want more of life to be that way, don’t we?
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Long ago I spent the Toussaint weekend in Paris. I was seventeen, a time when everything feels clear and memories get sharply etched. My memory of that time is of older women dressed in black walking to church, a dull grey sky with occasional drizzle, Notre Dame and other churches grey with chill and stone and centuries of prayer and incense, and a feeling of claustrophobia (all that belief, all that black-garbed sorrow) together with exhilaration (I'm here, in Paris, and isn't the stained glass amazing, and the gothic stone and the sense of timelessness!?!). So the Toussaint always resonates for me, forward and back, and becomes a time to remember the dead and treasure the living and all the possibilities in life.
Yesterday afternoon, just as the moon came full (at 2 in the afternoon here in Toronto, I was told), a friend was telling me that this was a particularly powerful full moon, given that it falls at Pagan New Year. Aha! It can be no accident that northern European christians celebrate the saints and the souls at the same time of year as their pagan ancestors (and modern pagan descendents too of course) celebrate the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and of the dead is at its most transparent... WIth the full moon overseeing it all this time, let's hope we're well launched into a productive fruitful year.
(And this same full moon marks the Thai festival of Loi Kratong, when everyone makes a small raft of banana leaves, places a flower or other beautiful thing on it, and a lit candle, and floats it down the river in the evening; the idea is that all one's bad thoughts and bad deeds and bad luck get carried away, a lovely idea... almost as lovely as the sight of all those little barks and their flickering fragile candles bobbing their way downstream and out of sight.)
Last night at Robert Lepage's Stravinsky production (of the Nightingale and other stories), there was another huge full moon hanging in the sky, with the members of the orchestra on stage below, and then in place of the pit, a huge volume of water, a giant pool, sent little reflecting ripples of light across the ceiling. It was fabulous, the music, the staging, but still nothing human-made can compete with that magic of a fat autumn moon in the sky, the scuttering sound of dry leaves blown by the wind, and the sharp clarity of chilly autumn air.
I find myself wanting to swallow it all so I can hold it in my mind's eye and not lose it. One way to do that is to keep an eye open for landscapes or sights that are especially wonderful, like the glimpse as I drove to Grey County last Friday of a line of trees on a green grassy slope casting a golden "shadow" on the grass, made of the golden leaves that had fallen from the trees in the last couple of days.
Another is to cook and eat the treasures of the season. The best this week has been a pumpkin soup made of organic small pumpkins bought from Potz, a version of the Silky Coconut Pumpkin Soup in Hot Sour Salty Sweet, with chicken stock and coconut milk as a base. It was great the first day, but predictably my favorite has been as leftovers, the soup used to poach a farm-fresh egg. The soup is golden anyway, but then the colours get richer as the egg yolk adds another deeper golden note to the mix...
And up there in Grey County, apart from general loveliness, there was a really good visit with my Aunt Libby; an intense sauna in the forest, including a walk through the trees just in my bathing suit, so warmed from the bones outward was I; then a feast with Jon and Lillian; then a truly wonderful session of shape-note singing; followed by a long easy drive home through the dark to Toronto and a welcoming house.
On another topic, but so connected to my feelings of happiness about my time in Grey County, I read a short essay this week by Todd May, at http://happydays.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/02/happy-ending/?th&emc=th about the way in which limits give things value. He's saying specifically that the fact that we die, all of us eventually, gives life more meaning and makes it more seriously treasured. I think that's right. Each sensation, each relationship, each good moment (and a lot of bad ones too) are precious because life is finite, time is short, and it's up to us to give shape and meaning to the time we have.
And if indeed we've just passed through Pagan New Year, it seems a fine thing to head into the dark of winter with a sense that it's up to us to light our own way in the world.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
The enormous two hundred or whatever it is year-old elm that towers over the house is in the most glowing yellow colour it has ever worn. Beneath it the crabapple tree (sorry, don't know the variety) that fills our small front yard spreads its arms like a golden embrace. The branches are dark, especially after a rain of course, and the leaves just glow in contrast. SOme have fallen so the ground, too, is aglow. The front of the house faces east, so mornings are radiant with the trees in leaf, even when the sun doesn't shine, and even more so in the office, on the second floor, which is a golden yellow too (at least the bits of wall that show at the edges of bookshelves!).
The heart lifts with all this beauty. And perhaps even more so because it is ephemeral? Hard to say.
The was a foretaste of the next months yesterday as I heard the sound of a plough scraping and bumping down the street. Wha..a..a..t? And what was it? Yes, it was indeed a city truck with a plough, scraping its way down the street, at the edge of the sidewalk... yes, you guessed, it, ploughing up the fallen leaves! How strange. And a bit of a chilling reminder of real ploughing and the white stuff that will soon fall.
But today is again soft and hazy, so colours glow. The ivy on the coachhouse is gradually turning, so there remain touches of green and hot yellow as the advanced leaves are tinted with orange and red, a wall of nature's colour. It's been a green wall all summer, filling the view out the back door and radiating a sense of life back into the house. Now it radiates light, magically and beautifully, changing light.
Yesterday I was out there in the back yard (a small enclosed space, framed by the ivied back wall and the house), digging up part of the garden, some of the vegetable part of the garden. i hate to dig things under or pull them out unless they are truly gone, so that means that there are still some straggly tomato plants, (dotted with a few green fruits) and chile pepper plants as well as parsely and garlic chives, but the shiso has gone, the epazote, and a lot of the tomatoes (the ones that got hit with mildew). The earth was dark and rich and full of worms. Once I've dug under the rest, I'll add manure (bought, not found, unfortunately) and maybe dig it in a little, but basicaly leave it until spring.
All this digging up is the way to do things. My granddad would be appallled at my hesitancy, but I do hesitate. I hate to discourage or disturb the volunteers and the survivors - the shiso seeds, the tomatoes, the parsley, that come back on their own. It's a silly attitude, for survivors survive better if the soil is fed and turned and aerated. Just letting it sit there is not doing things a favour, and certainly doesn't lead to vigorous growth of the tomatoes next year. It's with exhortations like that that I get myself out there with the shovel!
Digging was a nice sequal to hearing a talk by the charismatic Dr. Vananda Shiva the other day. The theatre was packed, the audience rapt, as she talked about saving seeds, the attack on the planet by agribusiness, the wisdom of local farmers, the insanity of seed patents... Do go to hear her if you get a chance. And by the way, there was a question put to her about vegetariansim: she said, yes, "I am a vegetarian because to me dal and vegetables are much more tasty." She went on to say that eating a little meat is fine, "if you like it". (We eat meat, and have signed on for seven pounds of meat a month, a small meat share at a meat CSA (Twin Creeks Farm). But we rely on dal and vegetables. The kids cook most of the meals, and dal is such an easy option that it's usually on the menu at least twice a week. Usually some vegetable or other gets added with the seasonings, and there might be another veg dish or two on the side, all served with rice usually. I could happily eat dal every day; it's always so comforting and inviting.)
On another topic, I've been on foot - can you say "unbiked" as you can say "unhorsed"? - for the last two weeks. On my way back from holding the fabulous baby (see the October 19th post) my rear bike tire was suddenly flat with that horrible squelch-squelch sound. I had a pump with me, but it could do nothing; clearly there was a huge hole. So I started walking, quite resigned. The tires after all have been on the bike since 1986, when we cycled over the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar to Hunza, so I can't complain if something has given out!
And then in one of those serendipity-can-come-out-of-downers moments, as I was plodding past a restaurant on Harbord I spotted two friends sitting by the window dining with a few other people. I leaned the bike against the window and went in for some conversation and laughter and a glass of wine. The gift of the flat tire, that's what the evening became.
Since then, though, I have failed to get the tire fixed: bought an inner tube but it was the wrong size... etc etc. Finally today I carried tire and wheel to Urbane Cyclist, bought a new tube and a new wheeel (the rubber WAS a little tired after all these years!) and now I have two wheels, two working wheels, again. Hurrah!
But speaking of feet, it seems to be a day for shoes... not just the running shoes (now getting a little worn) that I wear each morning for my run (today a ramble through Queens Park searching out the biggest and most gloriously coloured trees). I put a bag of running shoe discards out this morning to go with the garbage or be picked over by passers-by. Others had the same idea I guess, for down the street today I came on two odd-looking pairs of shoes, platforms, yikes! And a hundred feet beyond them, parked neatly side by side on the sidewalk stood two glamorous red satin shoes with high slender wooden heels, a pair. Were they waiting for a wearer? an anonymous art piece? abandoned by some Cinderella when her bicycle appeared?
Monday, October 19, 2009
She was awake and almost wide-eyed when I got to their house. Her father handed her over to me, and a few minutes of walking and swaying and music later, she'd sacked out. Those little puffy breaths, her tummy going pop-pop gently against me, were such a time-travel-like reminder of when my kids were infants. And it was also of course a reconnection with the miracle of babies.
These days we assume that a healthy baby will survive infancy; I can't imagine having children in an era of no birth control and high infant mortality. I know that I tried not to get too attached to my in utero children because there was a real risk that I wouldn't be able to carry them to viability. I was completely unsuccessful at trying to stay distanced! I can't imagine what it would be like to have a baby, tender and helpless and lovely, and to have to brace against the likelihood that she or he would not survive to the age of five.
Why, you may ask, can I not just rejoice in this lovely baby who has come into the lives of a network of friends here, without going to dire other scenarios? I don't know, except that it always feels important to look at both sides of life, the dire in the midst of happiness, the joyful or optimistic in the midst of pain.
This week life has been full of positives, not just the baby, but also the seven nice young people we billetted, all of them from Cornell, who were in Toronto to participate in a huge debating tournament hosted by Hart House at U of T. I like the idea of a full house and also of improvising day to day. So when Tashi said about a week ago, "Oh, I said we could billet seven or eight debaters; I hope that's OK" I was really pleased. "Don't worry about a thing," he said. "I have it under control." And in fact he did. It was entertaining to come down on tiptoe on Saturday and Sunday morning to a ground floor well furnished with recumbent sleeping guys, slip on running shoes and a jacket and head out for my small morning run. By the time I got back each day they were up and getting slowly into gear. They left the place looking remarkably orderly, with bedding stacked and folded. Now there's just a little laundry to see to!
And while they were here the weather started to warm and brighten, thank heavens. Even so, the nights are cold, so today I turned the oven to 450 and roasted a batch of beautiful red bell peppers we got from the farmers' market a week ago. Ed told me to oil them and salt them (he said pepper too, but I didn't) and so that's what I did, standing them on their heads on a rack over a roasting pan. Now they're cut into wide strips and some are in a jar in olive oil in the frig. The rest? Well I should have made a second jar, but instead they're here in a shallow bowl on the counter, out to be eaten at whim. I had a few strips with my bean soup tonight, along with some crumbled unpasteurised extra-old cheddar from Quebec. Yum.
The bean soup is a harbinger of winter menus in this house: lima beans and some navy's too if you have them (I didn't today) cooked in lots of water with a minced onion and some bay leaves, until completely tender. it takes a long time, but the creamy texture is worth the wait. I added some cubed potato and carrot fried in olive oil in a hot skillet , once the beans were close to done. They cooked to tender in the soup. A dash of red wine is a good idea, or cider vinegar, and also a generous dollop of soy sauce, then salt to finish. The last of the fresh herbs are a welcome addition, but you can do without. And bean soup is one of those great dishes that tastes even better the next day...
And finally, another autumn food note: Ten days ago Lillian and Jon gave us a basket of Courtlands from their apple tree out back. They were small, crisp, and intensely flavoured. I cut up the ones that we hadn't eaten a week later, leaving on the peel but cutting out the core and any spots, then cooked them with a little sugar and a dash of water. I suppose I started with about a quart and a half of chopped apple. It cooked down to a dense pink mass, splashed with the intenser red of peel. Then what to do? Why not use it as a tart filling?
The crust was improvised from a scant quarter pound of butter worked into a generous cup or more of whole wheat pastry flour, a pinch of salt, and about a quarter cup of sugar, then moistened with one egg and nothing more. I pressed the pastry into a nine-inch square pan, pressing the sides more than half an inch up the pan walls, and had a little pastry left over. I prebaked the shell under a piece of parchment weighted with lima beans (beans have so many uses! I use and re-use the same ones, and the parchment paper too) at 450 for about 8 minutes, then added the thick apple mass (not all of it fit) and topped it with a drizzle of honey, some turbinado sugar, and the crumbs of pastry dough that were left over. I baked it at 400 for perhaps 10 minutes then 350 for another five or so.
Those Courtland apples are so wonderful. It tastes as if I'd added a little lemon, there's such a complexity of flavour. But there's nothing extra, no cinnmon or lemon or other tricks, just mother nature's fall bounty. Hard not to wish that this season went on for longer!
But time moves on and soon I'll be heading off to the Worlds of Flavor conference at Greystone, in the Napa valley. It's a huge affair, each year dealing with the foods of other places and cultures under a different umbrella or theme. This year it's streetfoods and comfort foods. There will be cooks and chefs from India and Southeast Asia and Tunisia and other Mediterranean culinary cultures, as well as the Americas. And as always the conference will be a chance to catch up with people I haven't seen for awhile and to meet others I have heard of but never met. One such is Christine Manfield, from Australia, a very creative and admired chef, traveller, and cookbook author. We're scheduled to be on two different panels together. I'm looking forward to it all.
I've been sorting through images of streetfoods in various places, preparing to show them at the conference. They're mostly in slides, so once I pick them out, I'll scan them and pull together a show in digital format. This is still new technology to me, so I'm slow at it. And the decision-making is always painful: "this one or that one? How to get a balance? etc" At the same time I love the immersion in the images, a chance to travel in my imagination to places and times far away.
And from California I AM going to travel far away: I'm headed straight to Chiang Mai to catch up with friends and to do some early preparations for this January's immersethrough food session. For more information about the tour, please go to www.immersethrough.com. I'm also hoping to get a couple of weeks in Burma before I fly back home in mid-December.
All of this means that between now and November 11, when I leave here, the days seem very full, and the to-do list in my notebook is growing, not shrinking. But I had a kind of "aha!" today as I was jogging slowly down Philosopher's Walk: it's time I stopped thinking of obligations as urgent, as if dreadful things will happen if I don't get them done. Instead I need to just enjoy working through the to-do list, rather than feeling anxious or pressured by it.
Is this change of attitude possible? We'll see! I can just say that as I thought about all this I had a glimpse of how relaxing and productive a less amped-up approach could be, and it looked wonderful.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Today is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, and the whole weekend has been one for giving thanks, filled with the treat and privilege of spending time with friends and family.
The "dead bird" meal today was fun, the turkey from Gerald, free-range and healthy at 13 pounds, cooked at 450 degrees F. (down to 425 F for the last hour) so it was done and beautiful in just over 2 hours. I didn't stuff it, just shoved some wedges of onion inside, and a handful of chives and garlic chives from the garden. The outside i rubbed with olive oil, some coarse sea salt, and some tarragon, also from the garden. I tied the legs together with string, and also flipped the end of the wings, so that they were braced against the body; that way I could use the wings to hold the flap of skin closed at the neck end, sealing in moisture. High temperature roasting (see Barbara Kafka's classic book Roasting, edited by wonderful Ann Bramson) keeps the bird moist and makes great crisp skin, especially if you start with a healthy bird, not one of those faked grocery-store over-breasted pre-basted aberrations.
We put small sort-of-peeled spuds around the bird, and the neck went into the pan too, so our friend Dina who is a bones person, had her neck to gnaw on. There were other potatoes, boiled to firmly done, then stripped and chopped, then cooked in flavoured oil, Indian style, with mustard seed, fennel, nigella, a little turmeric, onion, garlic, minced ginger,,, delish. And I stir-fried a rainbow of peppers, cut into strips, and seasoned with Sichuan pepper and not much else. Beautiful. Sides included a tart cranberry sauce flavored like Georgian tkemali. Desserts were from Dina: a cranberry studded cake, perfect, a new creation by her; and an open-faced flat pastry topped with sliced Courtland apple. What could be better?
Saturday when I went up to Grey County for an overnight airing, I stopped in to give my aunt a hug, and lots of her family, my cousins, too. They were in the middle of cooking a gigantic bird - twenty-seven pounds! yikes! which had been in the oven for hours by then. I didn't stay for supper, for I was headed on farther, to see Lillian and Jon. At their house in the forest there was a mostly vegetarian feast , with borek (the Serbian version, layers of phyllo with egg and cottage cheese between, lush! made by Jon's mother) and potato and mushroom pie by Lillian, and salad, some sausage made by neighbours and grilled over an open fire by Jon, and then an apple tart and some chocolate cake too, for dessert. Lots of warming foods for a very chilly night.
But I ate so much that I was awake in the night, digesting I think, or maybe it was the excellent coffee? I went out in the brilliant light of the half-moon, and walked on forest paths near the house, in the magical light-and-shadow. Bed was welcoming when I returned to it, creeping into the silent house. Suddenly sleep returned and I drifted happily through until morning sunshine on brightly yellowing leaves.
And it's lovely to think that the brilliant leaves at this time of year are kind of a farewell wave, but also a promise of the new life and warmth that will come, in due course, and after we've become truly impatient, yes yes, I know! but will come. Nature's promise to us all. We need glorious memories of all that warm colour to cling to as we head into the cold and dark!
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
But once again I'm starting a post with harsh news, this time of the harshest: David Dewees, a fabulous man, and wonderful teacher, a good and reliable and remarkable friend to many, died on Saturday, in the prime of life. My kids' old high school, Jarvis is grieving, and so are many who passed through there in the last six years. The change in the landscape of emotion and expectation is shocking and the prospect ahead bleak-looking. This is the kind of life-lesson and life experience we hate to see our kids and loved ones suffer through. There are no short-cuts to getting through this, no "quick and easy".
I guess for people who are deeply religious, there's a way to invest suffering with "meaning" and thus explain it or rationalise it. I find that approach completely unacceptable, though I admit it gives some people comfort. As those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile know already, I take a different route through this question: pain and suffering and death all remind us that we are alive and that our job is to engage with life as fully as we can. For me that means trying to tune in to others and to connect with them, be in the present with them. It also means treasuring friends and staying alert to them.
I'm not saying to ignore pain, not at all. Live it and feel it and breathe into it, get familiar with it: that's our task. Our power to reflect on it and to empathise with others who suffer or have suffered, or will suffer, is what makes us fully human. All of us experience pain and sorrow at some time, and when we do we are linked to the rest of humanity and become more fully human, somehow. It's humbling, to find how hard it is to live through the pain of loss, humbling when we realise that everyone has faced a similar burden, or is bound to at some time.
I feel very fumbling and inelegant writing this, when I think of the extraordinary clarity and elegant ease with which Karen Connelly writes, and especially when she talks about the imperative she feels (and acts on!) to live fully, in the moment. I went to a book launch at the Gladstone for her new book BURMESE LESSONS two evenings ago. It was a great event, packed, and with a short video showing striking images by Anne Bayin. Yesterday I opened the book and whoosh, I fell down the rabbit hole, headlong, as happens with some wonderful books, a rare treat. I'm now more than halfway through it, not wanting it to end. Her clarity of vision when looking out at individual people or looking in at her own motivations and reactions, is remarkable, as is her language. Stunning. And it's a good story, as well as a valuable introduction to the beauty and pain that is life in Burma.
The gusting winds today, the trees already swept bare of leaves in some places, and the increasingly slanting light, announce October and Thanksgiving (here in Canada) and the slide down to the winter solstice. I'm not ready. Are we ever?? The garden still needs to be pulled up (I hold out hope for a few more tomatoes from my beleagered plants, and the mint is still green, but the shiso leaves are gone and the seeds eaten by little families of sparrows) and winter clothes need finding and airing. Yikes!
And on the good news front, a follow-up: Last week I wrote about our dear friend with mysterious and acute abdominal pain. Well he ended up responding to antibiotics, so he didn't have surgery, and it now looks likely that it was appendicitis after all (though the GI people could never find his appendix on the CT scan or the ultrasound!). These days, they say that good medical practice is to not operate if an inflamed appendix responds to antibiotics. I wonder though, does this mean it could flare up at any time? They say not, but...
In any case, what a relief to have him back, starving of course, because he'd been kept on an IV drip and not allowed to have even a drink of water down his throat for four days. In the last week we've had consciously fuller meals, trying to fatten him up a little: roast chicken one night, with roasted sliced potatoes all round; grilled pork and beef with friends over on the weekend; mountains of salad and stir-fried green beans (we need another name since they are yellow and purple-black, as well as green); more Simplest Apple Pie; another skillet cake; a massive chocolate cake with a sheeny-shiny chocolate ganache icing, the cake made as an experiment by the sufferer himself, and eaten by all. I can't say he looks any less bare-bones, but he has colour in his cheeks and best of all, good energy!
Monday, September 28, 2009
It's funny now to think of how much I used to love bright sharp-light days. I still like them, but now the light-box-in-the-sky that is an overcast day feels like a gift to the eyes and the imagination, with colours rich and softened edges that leave a sense of possibility, like an impressionist's water colour of the natural world.
We're upside down here, waiting for news. A young friend, a much-loved member of our extended family, is in hospital with a serious gut-ache that is not a clear case of appendicitis. So what IS it? Well the doctors at Mount Sinai are trying to puzzle that out. They're nice and communicate clearly, the nursing care has been fabulous, but meanwhile he is stuck in hospital, not allowed to eat or drink (it's now been nearly 72 hours) because they are keeping him waiting while they decide what to do. Argh!!
I went over with him to Emerg before dawn on Saturday, and as soon as we stepped through the doors we entered that other parallel world that is "hospital." It's too easy to forget about the world that all those people, from nurses to orderlies to cleaning staff to doctors, work in and make work. And it's easy to forget in our daily round how much we rely on that world functioning well. But every time we need it we can walk through those doors and re-enter it. Each time some event or illness takes me into the system I think how lucky we are to have publicly funded health care, and in our case, it's not only superb, but it's also just a block away.
As our loved one has been forcibly fasting (nutrients into an intravenous tube is all that's happening on the nutrition front for him), we have been gleaning the fresh herbs and chives from the garden, and eating them at every opportunity, and gorging on fresh fruit. I bought some peaches and pears and shallots, as well as some fabulous Cortland apples, in Stratford on the weeked. On Sunday Dawn added to the abundance when she brought over some organic Mackintoshes.
When we're rich with apples, my favorite thing to do (apart from just biting into them, that first hit so juicy and wonderful!) is make "SImplest Apple Pie" a recipe Dina passed on from her mother. It became the opening recipe in HomeBaking, an announcement about the lasting pleasures of simple home-style practical baking. The apples are grated (and the Macks were so thin skinned I didn't bother peeling them), and mounded on a crust of pastry dough that is pressed into a cake tin (I use a nine-inch square tin). The pastry dough is supposed to be 1/3 pound butter in chunks, and 1/2 cup sugar to 2 cups all-purpose flour, all rubbed to crumb-texture between the fingers and wetted with two egg yolks and about 2 tablespoons sour cream.
BUT, as always, some improvisation was needed: I had no sour cream and was a little short of butter, so I used several tablespoons of cream cheese and about 3 tablespoons full-fat plain yogurt instead. I had a lemon so added its zest to the pastry, an option in the original recipe. The pastry dough is best barely wet enough to hold together, pulled together in a plastic bag and chilled for half an hour or more while the oven heats (to 350 F) and you grate the apples (to make about 8 cups; nine Macks is what I used).
Press roughly half the pastry into the bottom of the pan; it makes a thickish crust, but is tender with all the butter, egg yolks etc so don't worry. Sprinkle on fine bread crumbs if you have them (I didn't yesterday). Mound on the grated apple, with a little extra sugar if you wish and also the juice from the lemon if it suits you. Crumble the other half of the pastry over top.
It takes about an hour to bake slowly through. The grated Mackintoshes melt into a luscious dense mass. The top is touched with brown and coalesces into a lovely broken-textured top crust. It's best to let it all cool and set firm, I find. A big square of it makes a good sustaining late night snack or happy-anchor-for-the-day breakfast. By the way, no-one complained about the fact the apples hadn't been peeled. I don't think anyone noticed!
From talk about traditional eastern European baking from the Ashkenaz tradition to thoughts of further afield culinary traditions and, I confess, a small bit of promotion:
First, I'll be doing another immersethrough tour in Chiang Mai in late January. Have a look on the Chiang Mai page of the website: www.immersethrough.com It's fun, as well as intense of course, and I'm really looking forward to it.
And second, Cookstr.com (pronounced cookster, of course, but I sometimes read it as "cookstrasse"...!?!) is going to feature me on September 30, that is, this Wednesday, as Author of the Day. Thanks to Katie Workman and the team. I'm interested to see which recipes they choose to feature...
So do go have a look at cookstr.com. And check out immersethrough.com too, if you have any dreams of spending eating and cooking time in northern Thailand...
Meantime, give a thought to all those working and all those suffering in hospitals near you. I am so grateful to be out in the air and sun or rain or anything at all, just air; thoughts of hospital just double or triple those feelings of gratitude!
Monday, September 21, 2009
With the new moon, and the momentousness of both Rosh Hashana and Eid (the end-of-Ramadan celebration) this weekend, as well as the equinox, everything feels full of meaning, a turning-point and a time to be especially attentive. Because of the new moon, on Saturday night, after a crystalline day, the sky was alive with every star possible. No wonder the ancients marvelled and studied the night sky. What could be more astonishing and miraculous? We in the modern industrialised world have other distractions and so we often miss out on the essentials. They, the ancients, lived face-to-face with the vastness of the universe every clear night. And on Saturday might it was so clear up in the lovely unlitness of rural Grey County that the Milky Way wasn't a hazy band but instead a number of distinct strands oriented south west to north east, split apart in places so that they trailed off in several ribbons toward the horizon in both directions. When have I ever seen it so clearly?
I looked and looked for the moon, the sliver of the new moon, but never found it, even though it was after 9 by then, so surely it was up?!
Perhaps, you'll say, you were hallucinating? Maybe the Milky Way wasn't so marvellous, it's just that you were in an altered state? Perhaps. But I don't think so, despite the fact that the late afternoon had been quite astonishing, with a long intense sauna at Jon and Lillian's: inside in the intense dry heat, outside into the chill of early evening air and the trees all around, back in for another even deeper and more penetrating dose of heat, the air burning up into my nostrils, and so on. Finally we all dashed for the car and drove the half mile to the river. In we went, into moving rippling water that carried us along, practically singing with exhilaration, the bottom clear, the water completely transparent, the sky equally limpid above. We waded slowly out, laughing with pleasure. My bones felt warm, my whole body too, except that my skin was sharply tingling with that "I am alive!" tingle that the best and luckiest sauna can give. Steam drifted off us as we stood in the road, the sun aimed straight down it from due west, our shadows crisp and long in the golden dust.
Later, on our way back into the city under that spangled sky, Ian and I talked about the shape of things in the house, the way Dom and Tashi and Ian share cooking and cleaning and how best to communicate about it all so everyone feels equally responsible and equally appreciated. It's about reciprocity, I think, and that seems to be a good thing to think about as we who live here at 45 degrees north hit the equilibrium point in the year and start to tilt (slide? creep?) toward winter.
Reciprocity is equal connection, balance, mutuality. When we're assured of it, we relax. When it's not there we feel resentful or angry, or we withdraw. It's not about alternating who pays for coffee each time we go out (though it can be I guess), but instead it's about loosely but clearly maintaining a sense of that balance of giving and taking in a relationship.
Sometimes there is no obvious balance. Sometimes the gift that we are given is so precious, like the gift of time in the magical post-sauna river, that there is no specific equivalent to balance it. But that's not the point. In the larger and longer arc of a long friendship, it's the sharing of wonder that becomes the precious gift, and sharing is by definition reciprocal, isn't it?
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
It’s the last day of August, bright and sparkling, as if this summer had been warm and truly summery all along, rather than the chilly dull season we’ve had. I’m on the early morning train, heading to Montreal. The dew is still on the fields and the trees, giving them gleam and gloss in the slanting morning light.
When the conductor came by just now to check tickets we had a small exchange: “How is your day going?” I asked. “Ah it’s my Friday today, so the closer I get to Montreal the happier I am. I have five days off now, and the weather’s supposed to be beautiful all week.” He beamed.
I have a return ticket on Thursday evening, and in between I’ll spend a lot of time with a friend who has cancer and is dealing with doctors and chemo and the limitations and frustrations, as well as the fears, that go along with all this. She’s thoughtful and tenacious, but also a realist, so she’s not just following doctors’ orders but also making decisions about which treatments (and side-effects) she is and is not prepared to engage with.
I’m sure many of you have had contact of some kind with cancer. Like the tornado, a cancer diagnosis in someone we know is a reminder to live the day fully. From what she’s told me it doesn’t sound as if things have changed all that much since my mother died of breast cancer more than thirty years ago. Some breast cancers now seem to respond to treatment, but many are like my friend’s cancer: they gallop through, radiation leaves exhaustion and burns, chemo is harsh but still prescribed as some kind of longer-term palliative, and there’s nothing very useful to be done except to hope that there’s little pain and that the medical powers that be manage the pain with compassion and generosity.
So I think of my friend as some kind of prow of the ship, heading out into the deep waters that await us all, one way or another, leadng the way where I will eventually follow.
At every stage of life there are those who go first, the prow of the ship, carving a way forward: the first girl in the class to get her period, or to have a “real” boyfriend; the first girl to get pregnant, the first to marry, the first to get a phD; the first to lose a parent, the first in my highschool class to die (Eleanor Holt, of cancer, in her twenties), the first to have children, the first to have grandchildren, yikes!! and so on…
It helps to have models, to visualise a little, and in some way to participate in our imaginations before it’s our turn to embark.
I've just been reading an essay by Bernard Breytenbach reprinted in the September issue of Harper’s magazine. He writes that human history is a nomadic search for meaning. This is religion, and it can take many forms over time. One is taken up, adopted for awhile, then set aside for the next code or set of beliefs.
He goes on to talk about his deep mistrust of monotheism, which he says always leads to fundamentalism (I can’t disagree!). He includes globalism as a religion, the most recent, and both monotheistic in structure and fundamentalist in application. He talks about how it is exported by the developed world to the less developed, talks about the imperialism (though it’s not a word he uses) of developed countries that for example open a cultural centre in another country, exporting their culture. He points out that the citizens there must see it as an invasion or encroachment. (And similarly of course, the international businesses that open company branches, or mining operations, in the developing world are also invaders.) He wonders why, whenever there is such a cultural centre opened, there isn’t a complementary centre of the developing country’s culture opened in the first world country. After all, if this isn’t about exchange, and mutual understanding, then it is in fact proseletizing, working to convert the third world to the first world religion of global markets and business dominance.
Why did this strike me so forcefully? Well the writing is wonderfully clear, for one thing. But also the idea that the search for meaning has led the first world to this religion that is now being force-fed to the developing world is powerful and persuasive, as well as deeply distressing.
So is self-interest all that drives everything? Is it just a matter of understanding at what level the self-interest is operating? Am I going to see my friend in Montreal purely to be of help? or at some deeper level is there self-interest operating? Am I hoping to placate the universe in some way, so that when my turn comes to head into illness there will be people around to help?
I think that part of what takes me to Montreal, apart from wanting to have time with my friend, and wanting to be able to help a little, is in fact the larger self-interest or motivation that I talked about in my last post: It’s about participating in and sustaining the human network, the safety net of sociability and connection, that lets us all know that we are in good company, even if at some level we are each of us alone with our own life and destiny. It’s as part of the human project, somehow, that we help each other, that we try to come through as much as we can…
And on a more day-to-day note (though I hope not to have these kinds of small losses "daily"!) I have to report that the batch of blue potatoes (eyes saved from Noreen's potatoes from Grey County) that I planted in the spring, though they flourished and though we had one meal from them, are now all gone. They have been stolen, dug up and stolen, by the raccoons that nightly play marauders in the garden. So aggravating and unfair to lose an in-ground vegetable!
We've been eating plenty of potatoes, cooked in their skins and then stripped clean when cool (I often keep a large cooked batch in the frig, ready to be transformed into flavour and comfort in a matter of minutes). Last night we ate chicken cooked Dina's mother's way: four whole legs cooked in olive oil with three chopped onions until touched with brown, then with a little water added, and salt, simmered until meltingly tender, in the large Le Creuset pot. The potatoes I chopped, then heated in the large wok in hot oil with mustard seed, garlic, turmeric, curry leaves, and nigella seed.
We dug in, and thoughts of thieving raccoons, and other cares, drifted away.