Friday, April 30, 2010


Such a momentous date April 30, the day Saigon fell. And this year it marks thirty-five years since that sad and tumultuous and disturbing day.

At the time I was in Paris, staying with a friend's aunt and uncle. The uncle, Tanh, was from Vietnam, a wonderfully civilized and interesting eye doctor, who had studied medicine in France before the second war and then served as a doctor in the French Army. After the war, in about 1948, he moved to Vietnam with his young son and his spouse, my friend's aunt, and set up a clinic in Cholon, the Chinese quarter of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

But some time later that year he was called in by the French authorities. They told him they knew he was treating VietCong.
He replied that he treated whoever came to the clinic needing medical attention.

The authorities informed him that as of a year from that day they would not be able to answer for his safety, nor that of his family. It was a clear threat. He sent his spouse and child out as soon as possible, then finally left himself.

The strange thing about a colonial situation like that is that of course, though France and the French were the oppressor, so to speak, France was what he knew, so they went back to Paris and made a life for themselves there.

As we watched the events unfold on television that last week in April 1975, Tanh predicted that with the victory of the North, many people in the South would be sent to the countryside for re-education, and that there would be an embargo so that Vietnamese products, especially Vietnamese fish sauce, a staple in their Paris kitchen, would be impossible to find. He sent us out to buy as many bottles of it as we could. Others had had the same idea of course, so on our excursion to the few Vietnamese groceries in the city we were only able to acucmulate a few bottles.

He also predicted that his extended family, his brother's widow and a lot of grown neices and nephews and their children, would eventually be allowed or even encouraged to leave.

Of course his predictions came true. Many people were sent to re-education camps, and a few years later in the "orderly departures program" Tanh's extended family, all seventeen or eighteen of them, flew to Paris in the middle of winter, with less than twenty-four hours notice, bringing only the clothes on their backs. Like the "boat people" who made their way to Canada and the US and Australia, they settled, figured out how to make a new life, and now the second generation of locally-born hyphenated Vietnamese is growing up in confidence, far from their grandparents' birthplace.

It takes courage and resilience, and some luck too, to survive that kind of uprooting and dislocation.

So let's celebrate survival in the face of pain and unpredictability, on this anniversary day!

POSTSCRIPT: And the countries and people of the industrialised world have benefitted from the influx of Vietnamese. The refugees from Vietnam have enriched other societies enormously in these thirty-five years. And attitudes have changed, with the passage of time. People in the west, who first learned about Vietnam as a place of war (called the Vietnam War in the west, but the American War in Vietnam), now travel there as tourists, or enjoy the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine in restaurants in all the major cities of North America and Australia.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


It's full moon day and I feel the impulse to post a little something... I realised after posting my last contribution that I had forgotten to talk about exam-time cooking.

In early April, when the three young men who share this house with me were heading into exams and final papers etc, I made them the same offer I made last year, to do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning until they were done with school heaviness. Like last year, their reaction was very gratifying, "You really mean it? We can help with the washing up..."

They are so great. All year we have shared kitchen chores, with me getting one night a week's duty and each of them taking two nights a week. We share shopping in a loose collaborative way, and it's easy anyway, since we live right near Kensington Market with all its choice and plentifulness. And so they really appreciate what is involved in my doing all the food-providing this month. How lovely is that!?!

Of course I also feel the challenge, because after several years of NOT being responsible, it's an interesting change for me to know that I am on every night, that they are relying on me. In turn that means that when I've had evening plans, I have had to make sure that supper is made ahead. Many people in many households do this every night, and let's give them a huge tip of the hat for that effort, but it hasn't been my situation at all.

We eat rice most nights, and on it we put Thai curry of some kind, or dal of various kinds (mung or masur or urad) with vegetables in it, or stir-fried vegetables or meat or a combo, or beef stew or South Asian-falored burgers, fried or grilled. It's a homely array of easy-to-make and easy-to-eat food, supplemented by various salads and stir-fried vegetables, and roasted root vegetables.

There's not much in the way of sweets or desserts, except that this month I have felt they needed the extra treat of an easy and accessible piece of skillet cake. That's meant that I've made some version of the skillet cake, topped with chopped apple or frozen berries or a mixture, pretty regularly. It's always a success, and takes no effort, no thinking, jsut the wets in one bowl, the dries in another, and a fifty minute bake.

Yes, I know, the next step is to get them comfortable with making the cake itself. Maybe next fall, when school starts again?

For now, they are done, and so am I. I mean, I'm off the full-time kitchen duty, the young men are off doing their summer things, mostly gone and sometimes back here, and life moves forward. I'm planning to spend a lot of time figuring out food from Burma this summer. It's going to be great!

Monday, April 26, 2010


At this time of year it feels like every day is filled to bursting with life and events, and takes up more space than a normal day, making the weeks huge too.

Full moon comes the day after tomorrow, so we have another day of waxing moon to do some early planting of lettuce and brassicas etc. (They say the waning moon is less good for planting, less encouraging for growth.) Perhaps it's the full moon, or maybe it's just the arrival of May, a breakpoint in the calendar, but whatever the reason, it feels as if these coming days are full of departures and arrivals and more departures. It's as if the planets are shifting in their orbits, or life is moving to its summer schedule.

We're ready for this change, after the early bursting forth of trees and blossom, tulips a rich red or yellow, daffodils nearly over, and trees in new sparkling leaf. The dark pink, nearly purple, blooms on the large ornamental plum trees at the university are just coming out, almost pompous in their statement of "look-at-me" glory. They're spectacular, but not heartwarming in the way that more delicate unfoldings can be.

When I've been out for my small morning jogs in the last few weeks I've noticed the sharp shadows of the tree skeletons on the road and sidewalks and greening grass. Now that clarity and structure have gone, blurred by leaves and blossoms, not to return until the last leaves have fallen in late November. These markers feel significant every year. Maybe that's why churches and religions of all kinds have such an attachment to the calendar of festivals, the ritual passing of each day of the year, each season of the underlying story. It's a way of marking time and committing to each day.

Our early ancestors must have marked the seasons and subseasons carefully, for sure. It's essential to survival in a pre-industrial situation, and it may yet be essential even to those of us living in modern post-industrial environments. But even if we don't NEED to tune in for our immediate practical survival, surely, in my attachment to these seasonal markers, to knowing the phases of the moon and being attentive to natural cycles, I'm connecting to some atavistic need for a sense of order, trying to find coherence in a chaotic world.

But back to the departures and arrivals schedule for a moment. We have friends leaving tonight for a wedding in Isanbul; another arriving tomorrow from Budapest after a vocanic ash delay. In the next week friends are heading variously to Merlefest (bluegrass etc music in North Carolina); Paris; Berlin; Shanghai; and Minnesota. Finally, looming large and happily, is Tashi's departure on Sunday for seven weeks away in Greece and Italy.

I am thrilled that he gets to have that out-on-the-road feeling of exhilaration mixed with a little anxiety. Yes it's a tired metaphor for life, but still a useful one. These days there may be email access in most places, and ATM's are where money comes from (rather than a tattered roll of AmEx travellers' cheques), and phoning internationally is easy, but still, an open-ended trip to places far away is a huge adventure. Tashi has had his head in the ancient world for a number of years now, though this year has been the most intensive, with courses in Ancient Greek and in Latin. So he has a long list of places he'd like to see and places he can already imagine.

When I went to Greece long long ago I was pretty ignorant of Greek mythology and history. (I still am, rather disgracefully so.) Instead I was curious about daily life, loved the olives and the fresh tomato and feta salads. The first salad I ate, near the Corinth Canal the evening of the day we got off the ferry at Patras, was stunning. There was souvlaki too, tender little pieces of lamb grilled over a simple open fire. No later salad or souvlaki on the trip could match the heart-stopping deliciousness of that first Greek meal eaten on Greek soil.

For Tashi, lamb and tomatoes and olives are foods to be avoided or navigated around, rather than relished. So I guess he'll be eating a lot of yogurt and bread... as he walks a lot of miles in antique shoes.

By the time he's back in eight weeks we'll be almost at the solstice and yet another full moon. Time enough to think of summer. For now it's the green of spring, the promise of tender asparagus and ramps (I stir-fried chopped ramps with some crisp local black kale the other day, a real spring-on-a-plate kind of dish that went beautifully with grilled pork sausage and grilled local lamb), that fills my imaginative horizon and puts a lightness in my step and a smile on my face.

Oh, and do remember to have a look at the moon, a long oval this evening, and soon to be roundly full, marking our time in our place.

A POSTSCRIPT: There's an article in ZesterDaily (do you know it? if not, have a look, a weekly online newspaper of good solid and interesting food journalism) by Robyn Eckhardt, with photos by Dave Hagerman, about the threat to Chiang Mai's Gat Luang, the amazing market, alive at all hours, in Chiang Mai. Anyone who has spent time living in Chiang Mai knows it and loves it; many people rely on it for their livelihood. On the first night of immersethrough, we head there to eat Kanom jiin, and then later we shop there in the daytime, always a knockout experience for people. Here's the link to Robyn's article:

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Just thinking about time and space/distance... points in time and the passage of time because this is the week of Rick Smith's birthday, and also of the birthday of my lovely father-in-law Jack Alford, who died in the fall of 2003 and is so missed.

Jack comes up in conversation with the kids quite often, "Grandpa Jack would have loved to see that"..(or" know about that" or...) and always with a fond and regretful smile. And so as we think of him and talk about him we find ways of knitting together the gaps in time between then and now, between here and not-here. With Rick there's a space/distance issue too, for he now lives in southern Spain. He's far away (dare I say, especially this week with access to Europe cut off by plumes of volcanic ash?), but still present in our thoughts, still a subject of conversation from time to time.

In earlier times we could write letters and wait for a reply brought by mail boat from across the seas, or by train across the continent. There was no immediacy to those communications, and telegrams were only for crises, life-and-death events. Now we can be in immediate touch via the internet. But the physical person is still far away, and we still go through that process of imagining absent people, having them in our heads, their image without their actual physical presence. As we use new media to make and strengthen our large farflung networks of friends, and spend hours each day online writing emails or checking Facebook, we're constantly engaging in that act of imagining.

In earlier times we didn't have these daily internet prompts, but we still did the imagining, the conjuring up of people far away in space. And that ability to imagine the absent friend who is far away gives us the muscle to imagine and live with our feelings for and memories of people who are far away in time. We can sift through mental images, slices of life that lie stacked in our memories (haphazardly in mine; some people I am sure have much more organised mental filing cabinets!). It's a gift, and a huge pleasure.

The markers of time include various anniversaries, personal ones like birthdays, and national ones, like new years days, etc. Thai, Burmese, and Cambodian new year was this last week, on April 13-14. Last night I made a feasting supper with a bunch of people who know each other well and are very good company. It was a slightly late Song Kran (Thai new year) feast in spirit, a lot of fun.

We relied on Sanagan's for bavette (flank steak) that ended up grilled and sliced and dressed with sliced shallots and lightly fried winged beans and cucumber and plenty of mint and basil to make a yam neua, or Thai grilled beef salad; for free range chickens that yielded a chicken broth for later and succulent chicken meat for a Vietnamese chicken salad; and for the pork that was part of a green coconut milk curry, with round Thai eggplants and plenty of Thai basil and lime leaves. Akhawenzie's smoked fish was the star of a Cambodian-style green mango and smoked fish salad that helped sustain us as we prepared the main dishes. The other starter was that fabulous Thai-Lao invention, miang, this time a basic miang kham: a pinch each, to taste, of toasted grated coconut, chopped toasted peanut, lime, shallot, dried shrimp, ginger, and hot chile, go onto a lettuce leaf, get drizzled with a salt-sweet-pungent sauce, then folded up and popped into your mouth. It's a very "what could be bad?" combo. All it takes is a little chopping to make the small bowlsful of the ingredients...

I haven't mentioned yet the nam prik num, banana peppers, shallots, tomatoes, garlic, all grilled whole, processed to a coarse paste, and salted with fish sauce, nor the delish extras in the form of sips and tastes of drinks of various kinds: scotch from India and from Scotland, mescal from Oaxaca, Mekong whiskey from Thailand, Singha beer ditto, wine, coffee with sweetened condensed milk, and delicious Toronto tap water to wash it all down.

It was a little hard to imagine the heat of Thailand in April though, with the chilly cold that has been around for a couple of days here. The buds and flowers have all put themselves on hold; "please tell me when it's safe to come out further" you can imagine them murmuring to each other. But we're promised sunshine and slowly rising temperatures this week.

Which leads me back to places and people farther away, space/distance and time again: Catastrophes can be exciting, but let's all hope for an easing of that Icelandic ash plume, so that the painful disruptions of thousands of people's lives can wind down and get sorted out. It must be driving some people crazy, that they are unable to travel to a dying parent's bedside or to get home for the birth of a child or... let alone all the economic and personal plans that have been shattered.

We'll be hearing stories about this event for years. It will become a marker, like the massive electricity outages in the eastern US and Canada or the ice storm or other natural disasters that caused few deaths but managed to change people's lives in ways sometimes harsh and unpredictable.

Mother Nature reminds us from time to time that we are NOT in charge, just here on suffrance. It's up to us to figure out how well we can adapt and tune in to her vagaries and her power and her vulnerabilities.

Friday, April 16, 2010


You must have had weeks like the one I've just had. They're exhausting. Mine was filled with intensities, anticipations, anxieties, and then in the end, with relief and delight that the pressured squeezed period is coming to an end... The biggest measure of relief is that my taxes are done, hurrah! So now I can clean up the garden, plant lettuce seed etc, and engage, at last.

At the same time the young people in the house are writing papers and working their way through their final exam schedule. Argh! It brings back memories of the coerciveness of exams! Give me taxes any day, over that!

One other event this week that marked a significant passage was that I drove the van (the blue Toyota Sienna that has been in our lives for almost exactly eleven years) up to Grey County and left it there. Farewell valiant steed! is what I felt like saying. I'm not a car person and tend not to love or even notice cars or other motorised vehicles. But this van I became very attached to. The first summer we had it, in 1999, we drove it all the way from Toronto to the west coast, to Wyoming, and through Idaho to Washington, then north to British Columbia, back across the Prairies, and then through the Dakotas and Minnesota to Chicago and finally Toronto. That was its inaugural trip. We took the middle seat out and put a rug on the floor, so the kids had lots of room.

Yes, yes, I confess that in the wide open unpeopled spaces of the west the kids spent a lot of time on the floor, out of their seatbelts, playing with Lego or stuffed animals, or reading.

Later on the van became a truck and farm vehicle, handy for hauling lumber and found objects, for pulling logs and heavy objects, a real work horse, up at the farm. The kids both drove it, their first road driving and parking practice, on easy country roads. We also made trips to New York City and Ottawa, and countless trips to Grey County, northwest of here. So we're imprinted with the van, it's almost a member of the family. But now it's time to let it go, giving it a final appreciative metaphorical pat on the nose!

So now the question is, do I look for a small used car? Or do I do the car-share thing and otherwise, if I want to go out of town, rent a car? I don't like to drive in the city, for political reasons, but it sure is nice to be able to offer people rides and to feel flexible.

Perhaps as a friend said to me this week when we talked about taxes, we are facing a more frugal future, all of us. We are more aware of environmental issues, and we soon will need to slow our consumption of (mindless?) consumer items and live perhaps more like our parents did. Maybe becoming carless is my first step in this direction?

Sorry for this not-very-interesting mulling out loud!

Grey County was at the next stage of spring, with fields a rolling brilliant green but trees still bare of leaves. Peepers, little frogs, trilled loudly in streams and ponds. Everything is early this year, a good two weeks, and very dry too. Unpaved roads billowed dust as I drove along them yesterday. The stars were brilliant last night, with no sign of cloud in the midnight sky.

But just before dawn it started to rain, first a pitter-patter on the roof, later a thrumming downpour with a flash or two of lightning shortly after dawn. It soon eased back to fine gentle rain. I walked out into Lillian's forest and it was as if the earth was inhaling the moisture, sucking it in gratefully. The lovely scent of wet leaves and wet wood filled the air. I breathed it in gratefully. Spring regained its softness and promise. In a branch overhead a bird trilled confidently.

Monday, April 5, 2010


The last few days, the long elastic time that is the four-day Easter weekend, have passed in a hazy daze, or a daze-y haze, because we've been in sun and warmth. it's been like a blessing from the universe to have such an intense fore-taste of summer warmth. And here in Toronto, where we had really no summer and no warmth last year, it's even more of a welcome balm to the body and the soul.

So now the lamb is all eaten, the Russians at the Orthodox church on my street have had their Saturday midnight procession, complete with singing and icons and people walking with candles (and others talking in the soft night air on their cell-phones), the children have found their Easter eggs... What's next?

It's a time for celebrating spring and new life here in the northern Hemisphere. In the more tropical air of Thailand and Laos and the Shan States of Burma, it's about to be new year, Song Kran as it's called in Thailand. The holiday comes in mid-April, in the hottest of hot season, and is often marked by an early pre-monsoon season rain. Soon after, with the rains proper, rice planting/transplanting begins and the earth transforms into lush and brilliant green paradise. The grey skies overhead and the indirect lighting that results (the big lightbox in the sky, as some photographers think of it gratefully) give everything a rounded three-dimensional look and bring out the richness of saturated colours everywhere...

But here we don't have such a clear demarcation... instead as the snow melts and warmth reurns, the changes are subtle at first - the buds swell on the trees - then burst out and declare themselves. Just up from me the bare branches of a neighbour's plum tree are dotted with small white flower buds; the huge maple that fills the sky to the west of my bedroom has fattened leaf buds; and out front the crabapple tree and the Japanese lilac both have greens leaves just springing out, visible only from close to.

It must have been surging spring energy that made me long to make a more ambitious run/jog/trot on Easter Sunday morning. So off I went north through the Annex and then up the steps past Casa Loma (it's on the steep hill that marks the geological location of the old edge of Lake Ontario's predecessor body of water). I walked some but mostly trit-trotted along, feeling very good. I haven't run up there since long ago, before I quite jogging about seven years ago, thinking that it was giving me aches and pains. I discovered a little later, when I started belly dance classes with the fabulous Roula Said, that those aches and pains were caused by my ignorance of how I should stretch my hamstrings and quads and all those other tight back-of-the-leg muscles, as well as my hip flexors. So in the last year or two I've begun heading out for short easy morning runs. What a pleasure they are.

Now this new woman that I've become through belly dance (VERY gradually!) knows how to stay stretched and feels no pain or stiffness from my little jogs. And that's what gave me the confidence to try a longer trot. Today I felt fine, as I took my usual unambitious little morning trip through the university to celebrate the start of the day.

I am going on and on about this, because it's time to talk seriously about age and aging and about how with luck we can stay mobile and healthy for a lot longer, by being smart about how we use ourselves, our minds and bodies, and by pushing ourselves, too.

That thought reminds me that at midweek I heard a prayer read out, a prayer written by Sir Francis Drake. I must go and find the text, for it is remarkable, and it resonated with me. It asks that we be stretched, that our horizons be set wide, that we not sit comfortably content with what we have but continue to push ourselves and extend the boundaries of our lives. At least that is the meaning I heard!

I felt I'd been reminded of an important truth, one that feels especially on target at this time of new life springing forth into the sunshine and the light... Let's spread our wings wide wide and embark!

And a footnote about food:
We're still eating root vegetables here; it will be awhile before we have a wide choice of local vegetables. Even asparagus is another month-plus away. I am looking forward to bitter greens such as dandelions. For now we are limited to sprouts (recent discoveries at Wychwood market include cabbage and dandelion sprouts), and also the first of fresh tender salad greens. (As you know, for me a fresh farm egg in some form (fried or poached, generally) always plays an important role in all this greens-eating.)

Faced with the root vegetables, the other day I made a green Thai curry (using packaged green curry paste and canned coconut milk, I admit) with slices and chunks of sweet potato, white potato, celery root, and thick-stemmed mushroom. In the usual way, I heated the curry paste in a little oil and coconut milk to cook it, then added the veggies, but not the mushrooms, and stirred so they were coated with flavour. Some water and more coconut milk gave enough liquid to simmer things for ten minutes. Then I left it all sitting on the stove off the heat while I ran errands. I like a pause, to give flavours a chance to blend. Later I tossed in the mushrooms, a crushed stick of lemongrass, and the usual lime leaves, and then near the end, some Thai basil, and I seasoned it with fish sauce. I like to extend the liquid with quite a lot of water, so there's a smoothness from the coconut milk, but it's not thick and heavy.

It was a delish combo over rice, and made great leftovers the next day, reheated. But on the day I made it, it tasted better to to me at room temperature than it did hot from the stove. Why is that? Not every dish responds that way. All ideas welcome!

This evening there was more Thai on the menu, at least improvised thai-ish food: I made a soupy combo of sliced pork and sliced fried tofu and chopped long beans, all cooked in a flavour base of minced lemongrass and ginger and pulverized garlic, and seasoned with dao jiao, smashed fermented soy beans, a great pantry staple. The combo went over guay tio, wide fresh rice noodles quickly seared in the wok, so it became a version of guay tio ladna. Thai in Toronto in the springtime... a treat for us all!