Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Writing here feels like playing hookey! I should be editing the Burma book, since I'm in the last ten days before I submit the manuscript. Well I've been doing a lot of that book-work, so it's time for a break.

Procrastination and avoidance are such interesting phenomena. How we justify them, or just fail to admit what we're doing, is a whole study in human behaviour! I have managed several great breaks in the last few days, each time telling myself that I need to clear my head. That may well be true, but I'm not sure that taking a whole day off was necessary!

I'm talking about Sunday, when Dawn-the-baker and I drove out of town at 7.30 in the morning under a grey and overcast sky, headed for Grey County, but not directly. First we had to go to Listowel to pick up some maple syrup; Dawn uses it in the granola that she makes as part of the Evelyn's Crackers line of locally made crackers and shortbread etc. And just south of Listowel are the Hoovers, who make organic syrup.

What??!? you say, how could maple syrup NOT be organic? The answer is that it depends on how the equipment is cleaned. The Hoovers use no chemical agents, just the sap itself, to clean the pans and pipes. It's an amazing operation, using sap from the trees in their bush, and wood from that bush to cook the sap. Talk about sustainable and local!

Because it was Sunday, on our way between Waterloo and Listowel on small country roads we passed Mennonites, old order Mennonites in their black horse carts, driving to Sunday service. In one yard there were over forty carts, drawn by one horse or a matched pair. The fields were such an intense green under the overcast sky, and the carts shone black against the green, the men clean-shaven in black hats, the married women all in black with a bonnet, and only the girls wearing a little colour, perhaps some purple or intense blue. We felt lucky to be out and about in Mennonite Country with eyes to see its loveliness, and time to admire it.

From Listowel we headed north to Grey County, via Ayton and Neustadt, and eventually to the small town of Elmwood. The STC, Saugeen Trading Community, which I've written about before, was having its spring Market Day. It's a chance for members to buy and sell, for trading community credit or federal dollars, or a mixture, and to catch up on news. I came away filled with news and warmed by friendship. More tangible loot included a ceramic bowl, a pair of gently worn yellow pants, some rhubarb, and a load of plants/starts: tomato and basil and chile peppers.

It really is time to plant now that the warm weather has come (as of yesterday). All the starts I bought (including some cumin plants from a small nursery) are now in the ground except the tomatoes. I came across lots of fat worms as I dug today, very encouraging. The tomato plants will go in bags of soil (to avoid the blight in my garden), perhaps tomorrow, when I take yet another break from the Burma bookwork!

And in the neighbourhood as I go for my morning run the chestnut trees are in full magnificent bloom, the irises are coming out, and the city's cyclists have now all got their bicycles on the road it seems. What a great sight, people in business clothing pedalling to work instead of driving in a car. The university of Toronto is now in full Convocation/Graduation swing, with lawns all mowed and a huge tent set up opposite Convocation Hall. Today there was a lovely crowd of happy parents and graduates out on the green grass looking delighted, and a straggle of academics in red and black and all kinds of coloured robes and hoods making thier way back to their offices from the ceremony.

I was on my bicycle threading my way through them, for I was headed to a Women's Culinary Network event late this afternoon. It was a potluck. I took some incredible wide flat crackers made by Dawn-the-baker, beautiful eight by eleven inch flats, and to go with them, a big block of old cheddar, and a jar of freshly-invented "chutney". The crackers were a hit, and the chutney and cheese too. Here's the chutney story: I had some stewed rhubarb, slightly sweet, made from the fruit I'd bought in Grey County. So I heated olive oil, added mustard seed and fennel and a little turmeric, and some dried red chiles, then tossed in chopped dandelion greens and garlic chives from the back garden. Once they'd wilted with a little salt, I added the rhubarb and cooked it all down a little. The combination of bitter and sweet and tart with some chile heat too was great, essence of springtime in one easy mouthful!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


More pouring and dripping rain this evening...May 2011 has now posted a record amount of rain, and there's nearly a week more of May to go (with three days of rain in the forecast).

The flowering plums and apples have come and gone, lovely for a moment, but soon faded by water and wind, leaving a confetti of pale and dark pink all over... The lilies of the valley are drunkenly aromatic in the front of the house. I half expect visitors and the mailman too to lurch as they approach the house, from the headiness of their perfume. And in the last couple of days that effect has been doubled by the blooming Japanese lilac by the front window, all soft purple and fragrance. The final piece of this talk of blooming in the rain is the wisteria, always a touchy subject for me. The vine, a Chinese (white) wisteria, has bloomed precisely twice in eighteen years, and not very generously. But last year I kept trimming it intermittently all summer and early fall. And lo and behold this spring there's a whole section of the plant that is trailing long white strands of dripping blossom. Now if I could just be sure which part of my trimming technique caused this to happen. Maybe none of it. Perhaps it's chance, or mother nature taking pity...

I'm still on deadline, and feel like I must have a raw patch on my nose where I've had it pressed to the grindstone. No, really, the Burma book is emerging from the fog of its creation and feels solid now. It just needs more editing time. Most books do!

In the last weeks, apart from the lovely blossoming of spring, there have been some wonderfully good intervals. One was the visit overnight of a young woman whom I haven't seen since she was not quite seven. At the time she was travelling in Thailand with her parents. We spent a lot of time together and had memorable days over the Lisu New Year at a Lisu village a day's walk from Pai... I've seen her mother a few times in the past five years, coming into town briefly from BC, but this is a first with the daughter. And she was a wonderful and present person as an adult, a grown version of how she had been when a child. What a privilege to be back in touch with someone I've always thought of as family. Yes, that was a special trip, twenty-four years ago, and now there's a chance to reconnect with it in a new way.

This coming weekend there's a Market Day up in Grey County, when the members of the Saugeen Trading Community come together to buy and sell; outsiders are also welcome of course. I'm going to head north for the day. It should be a good break from the manuscript and also a chance to pick up some heritage tomato plants and to reconnect with friends from Grey County whom I haven't seen enough of this spring.

The tomatoes will need to be planted once I get back to the city. I have three bags of soil, but need three more I figure, so that I can plant them in the bags (make slits in the plastic, stir the soil to loosen it, and insert the plant. Make a slit right beside the plant and put a small plastic cup in there with holes at the bottom. Water the plant regularly by pouring water in the cup, so it goes directly to the plant). Those are the almost verbatim instructions set out online for growing tomatoes or other plants in a plastic bag of soil. (I'm doing it because there is blight in the soil in my garden, argh!).

I'm sleepy this evening, not able to work on Burma. That'show I've managed to post this small blogpost. I took the evening off to go to listen to Monia Mazigh, Maher Arar's spouse, speak about current events in Tunisia (her home country), Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc. I am so glad to have heard her and seen her. She's a strong intelligent woman, deliberately provocative in her hijab, speaking fluently in English, her third language. Very dazzling.

meantime my only contact with all those shattering and amazing and awful events is to follow them on Twitter and read the links that are posted. And to hope that they have a positive and productive and peaceful outcome, sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I apologise for not posting for nine days. I'm in the sprint-to-the-finish-line stage of my Burma book. Writing here feels like an easy pleasure, a welcome and unpermitted distraction you might say, so I haven't dared even think about it for more than a week. I have so much work to do! On the other hand, there's a lot done; it really feels like a book. What a great thing to be able to say that. Now I'm just obsessing about details, as always!

And with spring springing so beautifully, and slowly this year, there's lots to celebrate, even as I complain about how deep in my deadline trench I am!

Just an update about this and that: My lilies of the valley are still not quite out, so that makes them a full two weeks late. My trilliums, valiant survivors in the harsh city envirnment, have just finished. On the other hand the crab apple tree that spreads the full width of the front yard is in glorious show-offy bloom, delicately scented, like a dreamy miracle. And as I run in the mornings, these last damp and rainy days, the humidity carries the scent of blooming fruit trees, and the overcast light makes the colours pop. It's pretty psychedelic out there! The best I think is the fall of brilliant citron-yellow-green little tree-flowers from the maple trees. They carpet the dark-with-rain sidewalks in an incredible glowing blanket of colour. Yesterday at the end of the street someone had dropped a couple of pink flowers, almost magenta, onto the brilliant green. It was intense, a jolt for the eyeballs!

In the back garden my first lettuce greens are up, little green spots of hope, planted ten days ago as seeds and rained on since. It's an exciting time as I visualise the shape of the garden this year. I've been eating dandelion greens from the back, and garlic chives, stir-fried with a little turmeric and mustard seed, a great start to the day, ingesting greenness and life!

Speaking of life, this week I tried to see if I could get cooked soybeans to ferment the way it's done by the Shan and northern Thais...and it worked! It's a recipe for Shan (Tai Yai) tua nao, dried disks of fermented soybean paste. I cooked the soybeans on Saturday and by this morning they were fermented and sweet-smelling, so I added salt and ground them to a paste in the processor. The paste is delish, on its own and also when fried a little; now I have a stash in a jar in my fridge, there to play with.

Tua nao disks are available in markets in northern Thailand and Burma, but here if I want them I have to make them. Of course there are substitutes, such as fermented soybeans from China, and even miso paste, but I'm delighted to know that if someone wants to make them from scratch, it's easily doable. That's my big hurrah! for the day! I'll try shaping some disks and drying them out in a low oven (since the air is too damp right now to dry anything!) tomorrow.

I dropped by the AGO the other day (yes, I have been taking the odd break!) and saw the Inuit exhibition, a collection now donated to the gallery, of mostly modern (post 1970) pieces, but with some old too, to give context. There's a wonderfully expressive figure, standing, carved from whalebone, and some minimalist soapstone carvings, huge smooth blocks with just enough detail carved to make you see the bird or the musk-ox. They're weighty with seriousness and somehow heart-stopping. Whalebone is such an extraordinary medium, so alive and so varied in its textures. The Henry Moore pieces in a neighbouring gallery look like they too, some of them, are carved from whalebone, as if they are an extension of the Inuit work.

As the news out of Syria etc continues dramatic and troubling, I can't stop checking twitter (I use Tweetdeck, which at least simplifies and sorts the incoming) for news. The rhythm of that is of course directly opposed to my need to settle in to editing, writing the last bits of text, polishing, etc. But the alternative, to ignore what's happening, is not acceptable. It feels as if, even from this distance, we should at least be imagining and thinking about what is going on, don't you think?

Recipes, and food questions seem trivial next to political action and active suffering, but they are all part of life and all necessary, that's what I tell myself. After all, growing food and getting it on the table every day is what keeps people going, and allows them to find some self-respect when life is tough or oppressive. Or so it seems to me.

And the kitchen is a place we can all retreat to, in fact, and in our imaginations, when we're feeling squeezed. It's a place of comfort, a feeling of home, an emotional refuge too.

Maybe that's why in these last weeks I feel so tempted to flee the computer and retest recipes. Taking concrete action is often much easier than working away to shape a difficult paragraph or think through a complicated concept. And at the end of recipe testing there's food to eat, and to feed others, which feels a lot more valuable, often, than whatever ideas I manage to express on a page.

But now I'm whining. It's time to stop that!

Time instead to celebrate a lot of birthdays, R, and X, and E and D and lots more, I'm sure, whom I'm forgetting. They get to celebrate at this flowering lovely time of year, when all is promise and freshness and optimism. How lovely!

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Once again I’m writing here while sitting in an airport, this time JFK. I’m on my way back to Toronto from the James Beard Cookbook and Broadcasting and Journalism Awards that took place last night. It was, as always, a treat to see people I haven’t been face-to-face with for awhile. And it’s also a pleasure to have a little time in New York to get reminded of other worlds. This time I got swallowed up by the Metropolitan Museum. They have out-of-town memberships, which means that for $50 I can come and go as I please any time I’m in the city.

This trip I headed first to the Alexander MacQueen exhibit, stunning in its inventiveness and wild imagination, as well as its beauty...I hadn’t really understood what a conceptual artist he was. After that I stumbled on the Frank Stella drawings retrospective. In tall small rooms there were large black painted squares, transforming the room each time, altogether trippy and powerful., especially in combination. The impressionist modern Europe rooms I came to next were such a contrast, rich and warm, Berthe Morissette’s couple of paintings gleaming treasures, Manet Monet Sisley, all astonishing, ending with the drunkenness of Van Gogh.

It was time for an airing. Up onto the roof I went, where there are Robert Caro sculptures sharp-edged in the clear air and sun of a perfect early May day, the trees greening in the park below and the city skyline like an imagined landscape.

I wandered down then to see the Cezanne cardplayers, on its last week. It’s a small show about the cardplayer theme not just in Cezanne’s work but by others as well. The chance to compare similar paintings, usually hung in museums far from each other, and to see them side by side in temporary intimacy, is such a privilege.

Back out on the sidewalk under the leafing trees I headed up to the Guggenheim. The Art Gallery of Ontario has a complementary membership arrangement with the Guggenheim, so I was given a member’s ticket and could ramble up the spiral ramp, looking at the show of 1920 to 1918 works from the museum’s collection. I felt no pressure to see it all. When I’d reached my limit (fairly soon, because of all the time I’d spent at the Met), I strolled back down and out the door.

The next stop was at Kitchen Arts & Letters, storied cookbook store on Lexington between 93 and 94. I bought the fat and wonderful new Oaxaca book by Diana Kennedy, a book full of treasures lovingly unearthed and explained in words and photos and recipes. The book won Cookbook of the Year last night, for it is outstanding and remarkable. I can’t wait to try some of the recipes.

But in the meantime I’m heading back to the Burma book saltmine! I saw my editor Ann Bramson while I was here, and she was, as always, so encouraging and positive “I can’t wait to see the Burma book”... How lovely to have that good energy coming from her! Now it’s just up to me to do the subject justice and give her a good book to shape and edit.

I got to spend today in Brooklyn, along Atlantic Avenue and the side streets around: Court, Smith, Henry. Very beautiful and also very interesting to see the gentrification and changes in the neighbourhood. I hadn’t been to Atlantic Avenue for over ten years. Shocking how time flies... and how hard it is to get out of Manhattan!

Of course I had to eat some Yemeni food. The Yemen cafe has moved to an upstairs spot two doors away from where it was and in its place is another Yemeni restaurant called Hadramaut (after the region in southeast Yemen). I was there with Andrea Weigl, who was game to try anything and everything. The television was on, showing footage of the ongoing struggles for democracy in Yemen, and then talking heads. There were men in the cafe eating and watching the TV, but no women apart from us. We ordered Salta, a hot lamb stew with frothy fenugreek sauce in it (there’s a recipe for it in Flatbreads and Flavors, completely yummy). It came with two huge fresh tandoor breads, a clear soup and salad. We also ordered malokiah, cooked jute leaves, which came fresh-tasting and green and silky (some would say slimy), a nice complement to the lamb.

For a “dessert” we ordered a dish I’d never had, “Fatteh Date” it said on the menu (which should really have been fatteh tamar, tamar being date in Arabic). I know of fatteh as a layered savory bread dish, with chicken or legumes layaered with bread; this was described on the menu as a mixture of bread and honey and date. When it came it wasn’t torn bits of flatbread but instead a kind of semolina or coarse bulgur cooked with honey and date, not very sweet, and really delish. It had a slightly chewy texture, and looked like a semolina halwah that had crumbled a little.

Has anyone eaten this elsewhere? Highly recommended.

Usually at JFK while I wait for my Toronto flight I sit at the bar at the corner by the gate and have a draft beer. There’s often an interesting conversation or two to be had with other solitary travellers. But tonight with a bright sky outside and a load of Yemeni food in me, I don’t think I feel like a beer, or anything else to eat or drink. So I’ll just sit here and read my book. Or perhaps it’s time to do a little more editing on the Burma book, maybe on the soups chapter? All right, here I go!

PS The Conservatives and horrible Stephen Harper won a mjority; the compensation is that the NDP have over 100 seats - a first, and a wild swing. Now home and able to connect and post this... Lovely to come home to homemade chicken soup and rice, and DOm and Tashi and a friend, all cosy.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


The birds are twittering in fine spring rain, the green is greening everywhere, and tomorrow we have the election, with its wildly lively energy (for once!) to look forward to and to survive.

I'll be with friends who have a TV (this house is without TV now), with our predictions on numbers of seats each party will win all tidily written down so we can compare then to the incoming results.

I was just sent a list of swing ridings, by a friend in BC, compiled by Catch 22 Harper; a group that is guiding people in their necessarily strategic voting (necessary if the Conservatives are to be held back). It's amazing to see the list of ridings where Liberal is the strategic vote, and those where NDP is; and it speaks to the likelihood of split votes and Harper's chance of sliding up the middle. It's so frustrating to be stuck with this first-past-the-post system when we have more than two parties and also have large regional fracturing of politics.

At least we have elections, elections that are reasonably clean and fair, though with the usual empty posturing and last-minute smearing. As we are reminded by events in the last three months in North Africa and West ASia, many people are without the right to express an opinion, let alone to vote, and many have lost their lives doing battle for those rights. So, the old rule "remember to be thankful for what we have" still holds, even when I feel like whining!

Sorry to rant and ramble... especially dreary for those of you who have no stake or interest in Canadian politics.

Meantime Labour and the Labour movement and workers' rights should be on our minds on this political day of remembrance. But all I can think about is the results coming in tomorrow night.

I bicycled to Wychwood Market yesterday, a ride up a steep hill in bright sunshine. Apart from looking around at all there was for sale, including some beautiful Jerusalem artichokes, and sweet potatoes, etc, I also hung out with Ed at his Evelyn's Crackers stall. People came by to taste the amazing crackers and shortbreads, handmade from local organic grains, and to chat.

One guy told me about his addiction to the Cheese Crackers, but then was buying two other kinds instead. It was like he was rationing himself. I remonstrated with him a little, reminding him that he might need to indulge himself while watching the election results Monday night. "Oh, he said, joking, I have a bottle of gin for that!" We laughed, but it did remind me of some of those deeply disappointing election nights when my democratic impulses and reflexes were tested and all I wanted to do was smash something or weep or ...

Here's hoping tomorrow is NOT like that!