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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I had thought, last Thursday, that I would write about the intense day and a half of Indian food cooking that I did last week with Anne MacKenzie, making food to be shot for publicity photos for Cooking with Stella, a film that is being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.  The film opens in Canada in March 2010; not sure about the US plans.  And yes, it involves lots of food, is set in Delhi, and is a social and cross-cultural comedy.

Well here's a little about that food:  We made Masala Dosa, Sambhar, a Kerala Shrimp Curry, a Mango Salad, some fresh chutneys, and that weird western favorite, Butter Chicken.  Friends stopped by to eat the props, of course, and still there was plenty to feed Dom and Tashi that evening.  I'd made a double batch of dosa batter, so there was some left over.  I put it in the frig and miraculously the fermentation was slowed enough that it made good dosas the following evening.

It was all a reminder that once you embark on it, Indian home-cooking is not difficult, and is in fact very forgiving, as well as delicious.  I expect homestyle dosas will now re-enter our weekly routine.  The kids have already made another batch of the potato masala (boil potatoes, peel off skins, chop; heat oil and drop in mustard seeds, some curry leaves, onions, whatever, then add the potatoes and cook to heat and flavour them; top with coriander leaves).

But food-thoughts were pushed aside a day later.  On Thursday a huge storm came through here, dumping gallons and lakes'-worth of rain (over two inches in an hour) and leaving the sky an emerald green.  Farther north, in Grey County, the storm action was catastrophic, for there a huge tornado came ripping through the town of Durham and up Glenelg Concession Two, tearing roofs off houses and barns, destroying barns and other buildings completely, and killing one eleven year old boy.  We have dear friends whose places are a mess of broken glass, uprooted trees, and wrecked buildings.

This is Kaos, in the Greek sense, out-of-control nature or life, or whatever you want to call it.  There are photos on Facebook, and outpourings of love and concern, and offers of fundraisers, etc.  That's one form of social reknitting, a kind of action at a distance that is warming and important.  The other help and support is the tangible one that has been happening since the tornado:  friends and strangers have come to clear away trees that lie like broken spillikins all over lanes and barnyards, to help pick up debris (pieces of torn metal and splintered beams that lie everywhere) from fields and yards and laneways, to provide food for those who are working at the clean-up....

The help doesn't make the damage disappear, but it does bring some sense of order, and an assertion of order.  It's practical help, in a physical sense, but it's also social and emotional help, for it's community working to try to knit together the social confidence and the fabric of everyday life that the chaos and violence of the tornado tore open.

I am reminded of when I was in Phnom Penh right after the coup that chased Ranariddh out of the country (leaving Hun Sen in control) in the summer of 1997.   There was broken glass in the streets, and most of the foreigner community had fled, but locals were asserting everyday normalcy:  going to the market, carrying on, resisting the impulse to panic or to admit that the fragile society of the country was once more close to unravelling.   

So I guess what I'm saying is that when the tornado hits, or the earthquake, or the political revolution, we are taken to a place where chaos/Kaos rules.  But we are social beings, so we use our best weapon, our sociability, to fight chaos and the panic it makes us feel.  We restore order.

And yet in all this is also the lesson that we are NOT in control.  There are larger forces out there, and we don't know when the chasm will open, so we must live well in the moment, eyes alert to help our neighbours, and hearts grateful for whatever we have of health and happiness.

I'm not trying to preach.  And apologies if it sounds as if I am.  I'm just trying to stay mindful, that everyday obligation!

Two days after the tornado there was a shape-note singing at the Dettweiler Meeting House, south of Kitchener-Waterloo.  People came from Illinois and Pennsylvania, from Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as from Toronto and Durham and London Ontario.  The meeting house is a gorgeous elegant Mennonite stone church built in 1855 and restored now, with lovely acoustics and a peaceful cemetary out back, set outside the hamlet of Roseville.  We sang and sang, and those of us who are not believers in God or Christ or any of the usual gang, sang with just as much feeling and pleasure as those that do call themselves Christians.  

For again it was community, in this case the community of music, the lovely close harmonies, and the feeling of shared harmony, that brought us there and gave us joy.  We paused before the lunch break (an incredible pot-luck spread of summer bounty) to sing for those who were suffering, from illness or tornado loss or other trauma, and also for those who were dead and gone.   It was healing, and uplifting, in all its imperfection and heartfelt intention.  Wonderful.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Here we are suddenly in mid-August, with the first corn at the farmers' markets and the crabapples on the big tree in the front yard now pink-red and glowing like decorations on a Christmas tree.  I'm not ready for summer to be over, but already the re-entry to university classes is less than a month away.  And there's a little sad news: The tomato plants in the back yard are suffering from a blight that I'm told is related to potato blight.  It's carried by spores, they say, that float up from the ground.  The result is that although there's fruit, the leaves and branches are gradually turning brown and dead, so the plants are weaker and also very pathetic looking.   There's none of the lush green curtain of growing plants that is the usual mid-August view out the back door.  And by September I expect there will be no more tomatoes, for the plants have stopped growing and flowering.  Such a shame, for those late season tomatoes are always such a treat. 

How do farmers cope with this kind of unpredictability, with disease and drought and loss? How not to be anxious all the time if your livelihood depends on fickle weather and the interplay of bugs and disease?  Those of us who are not completely dependent on our gardens for our food and our survival, and who have a more urban-style expectation that we can control outcomes, are so remote from the realities of nature's cruel edge.  Maybe that's why we flinch at paying full price for the fruits of farmers' labours: because we're deluded and ignorant.  And let's face it, we don't really want to know how hard life is for other people.  Their health is our health, but we don't usually think of things that way.  We want to think of ourselves only, and to assume everyone else is fine...

Today I went to the weekly Saturday market at the Brickworks, here in Toronto.  It's an attractive place, with lots of farmer vendors and beautiful produce, especially at this time of year. As always there were people there with their dogs, many of them large, and an overwhelming number of them not well behaved.  There's something a little sick about dogs sticking their noses into food that's on display, drooling over it or sniffing it or whatever they do, and exploring the samples of elk, for example, set out on a table for customers.  Maybe I'm being too picky?  It's not the dogs that are the problem, it's the owners who don't take responsibility.  Now I'm sounding really grouchy!

My friend Dina tells me that at the large organic market in the Laurentians there's a big sign "interdit aux chiens".  What a good idea!

On another topic, a more inviting one, I was at Potz's store yesterday, "4-Life" in Kensington Market.  He carries local produce, labelled with the name of the farmer who grows it, as well as eggs and butter etc, and some frozen organic meat too, and is a great guy, always open to new ideas and people.  He had some long flat beans for sale that looked like sword beans, but weren't.  They were locally grown by a guy named Trevor, I think, who is also a chef.  Potz gave me a few and told me to grill them or cook them in a hot skillet.  

Later in the day some friends dropped by for a drink, so I heated a little olive oil in the cast-iron skillet and put the beans in, whole, pressing on them to scorch them a little on each side, a matter of several minutes.  A little fresh garlic from the garden, coarsely chopped, then went into the oil briefly.  I cut the beans crosswise into 1/2-inch slices, added the garlic, then sprinkled Malden salt on top.  They were great little tender green mouthfuls, ideal with the cold Kronenberg or white wine people were sipping.  If I find out the name of the beans, I'll add it into this post.  Meantime, keep an eye out for them.  Oiled and grilled they'd be great too.

While I was in Umbria I picked a large hatful (having brought no bag with me) of wild blackberries.  The last time I picked blackberries was ages ago, on Vancouver Island and on SaltSpring, when the kids were very small and I'd taken them to visit my then 103-year-old grandmother.  Blackberries are always a treat that you have to fight for a little, for the brambles scratch and leave you marked for a week or so.  (My ankles are still scarred from last week.)  

It's all worth it when you eat them fresh, popping them into your mouth one by one, or bake with them, for example as I did in Umbria:  I rolled out a rather butter-rich pastry (made with 00 Italian flour and one egg), put it on a baking sheet and sprinkled on chopped walnuts, then piled on a mound of blackberries.  The pastry was very soft.  I folded it up over the mounded berries leaving only a smallish opening at the top of the pile.  It baked for about half an hour at 400 and then needed another half hour to cool and settle into firmness.  

The stars were bright and the moon up as we cut into the crostata, another summer pleasure to savour in the moment, and to look back on with gratitude.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


The full moon has risen, orange-gold and lovely, preceded by a brightly shining Jupiter.  They are themselves, as ever, timeless and yet each time wonderful, while I am seeing them in a new place with fresh eyes.  I'm in Umbria, with friends, staying in an airy hilltop house with a wonderful view east to a line of purple hills.
The landscape here is so different and so transporting.  There is forest, woodland on hilltops and in valleys, that punctuates the rounded sweeping contours of the earth.  The golden wheat stubble is now being ploughed under, the plough leaving rich dark lines in the gold.  The farmers began ploughing yesterday.  They plough very early, at dawn, or very late in the evening, to avoid the intense sun and heat of the day.  Other large fields in this valley, always sloping and rounded, are planted in sunflowers, ripening now, their heads all aligned together to face the sun.

Now, in the night, with the newly risen moon (full two nights ago, but still only barely off full), there are stars in the clear sky, including one of the few constellations that I can identify, that childhood familiar the Big Dipper.  The frogs are singing in a constant high-pitched staccato, and apart from that there's stillness and silence.

In a couple more nights there will be shooting stars.  I can think of nowhere I'd rather watch them than up here on this hillside in the clear air.  I just wish Dom and Tashi were here too, to enjoy the place and the good company.

This being transported to another place is a wonderful thing, and such a privilege.  I am reading books (just finished Redmond O'Hanlon's No Mercy, about his trip in the Congo, published in 1997, fantastic and engrossing and disturbing) and talking to friends and new acquaintances, without a sense of rush or schedule.  Out behind the house two days ago I picked almonds (almonds!!) and hazelnuts, three kinds of plums, and two varieties of pear, from the trees planted there.  The lavender and rosemary grow in huge bushes, inviting and aromatic, and the tomatoes are sweet with the hot sun.

But more than those pleasures, I am taking a space from my normal pattern of thought to let my mind drift.  What a luxury!  And I find myself shaping stories in my head, stories and descriptions for my next project.  I should perhaps, well, no perhaps about it in fact!, be editing and polishing the entry on "Fermentation" for the Oxford Companion to Southeast Asian Food.  It's nearly done, but somehow, here in the newfound light and landscape of Umbria, I'm having trouble being diligent about finishing it off.  hmmm!!!

Soon, soon.  And meantime good wine, good oil, good bread, and excellent company, are reminding me of the pleasures of enjoying the present wholeheartedly...

Monday, August 3, 2009


Aha!  We had to be firmly into August this year before the weather was hot enough to get the "heat bugs" buzzing.  So it was only yesterday, August 2, Ian's birthday, and Philly's too, that there was a hot afternoon and in the middle of that heat rising intensely off the ground and pouring down from the sky, suddenly, a buzz.  (cicadas, I suppose they are)

I'm not complaining at the time it's taken for summer to truly come.  I'd rather this than drought or pestilence.  And now we can be grateful, right?  Our garbage is due to be collected tomorrow (the municipal emplyees went back at a minute after midnight Friday morning), the sun is shining, and the tomatoes, even my lovely green zebras, are at last ripening into sweet tenderness.  yum!

My timing seems a little off then, for tomorrow evening I am booked to fly to Rome for nine days.  Wow!  I have never made a short trip to Europe in the summer, and the last time I was in Italy was for researching Seductions of Rice, as well as attending an Oldways conference in Puglia.  

Nancy Jenkins (such a great travelling companion, and a good driver too) and I drove up the east coast from Lecce and then stopped in to see a guy who was experimenting with growing upland rice in the Marche, and also old varieties of wheat (there's a story about him in Seductions of Rice).  We also headed into the Abruzzo where we had a terrific Sunday lunch at a small family restaurant in a stony hilltop village, then made it to Tuscany for a couple of days near Cortona.  From there it was a straight shot to the Po Valley, and the lovely green of the rice-growing area around Vercelli.  Along the way I remember seeing signs to Rome occasionally and pining at the idea that I wasn't going to get there on that trip.

This time I'm headed to Umbria to stay with friends, what a treat! but expect to have a couple of days in Rome at the end.  Yes, it's August, and lots of places are closed, and the population is all tourists, and, and...  But if I can get to the Villa Julia to see Etruscan wonders (somehow I've never been) and can wander a little, and maybe seek out again some of the wonderful mosaics I saw when I was last in Rome (in May 1977, yikes!) it will feel like an extra gift.  I remember loving the mosaics, and the feel, at Santa Agnese and Santa Sabina, so perhaps that's where I'll try to head.

And maybe there's no need for any ambition at all.  Just being and breathing in a place with layers of life is a way of connecting imaginatively, no?