Friday, July 29, 2011


The birds are tweeting and twittering in the forest that surrounds the clearing here where I sit. I'm in Maine, staying at a beautiful charming house outside Skowhegan. Barbara, the artist who is putting me up, along with some other visitors, makes engaging art, three dimensional painted hang-on-the-wall sculptures as well as paintings. Everywhere I look in the house there is beauty and engagement. And here outside, the woodpile is aromatic and the birds subdued but continously making themselves heard.

I'm here because of the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. It's the fifth annual, a two day event at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds (site of the oldest coninuously operating ag fair in the USA, quite incredible). On Saturday there's a Bread Fair, when ovens are fired and bread and cheese etc etc is sold.

Yesterday, the first day, I went to a clay oven workshop. We worked all morning mixing clay and sand, making forms (working in loose teams of four or so; altogether the course made six ovens) of wet sand, packed domes. Then we built up clay-sand-mix walls around the sand form, finally enclosing it under a dome. I know I'm not being very clear, but if you find the book by the guy who taught the course, Stu Silverstein, you can learn all about it. The last steps were to cut a front hole, pull out all the sand of the form, then light a fire on the fire brick base. In a couple of hours the colour of the oven changes from damp grey to pale, dried out grey clay and hey presto! there's a working oven.

It always feels magical and empowering to build a tool, and what more amazing tool than an oven built of earth? Lovely to work with unprocessed material (as opposed to manufactured bricks etc), which I've done only once before, when I made a large tandoor oven over nine days in Udaipur about eight years ago, and learned so much. There, in Udaipur, Sangana Bai's material was clay mixed with plenty of dried horse manure and then wetted with water. It was a coarser lumpy blend. For this oven we had sand and clay, so it was smooth rather than lumpy. But I imagine that the horse manure and straw with clay would also work for these domes. hmm A woman from Arizona who was a wonderfully engaged member of the team said that adobe there is made with straw or hay and clay, and I guess some sand too.

By the way the proportions are 1 part clay to 3 parts fine sand, or two parts sand if it's coarser. The trick is to add a minimal amount of water so that the mixture is stiff rather than soft. If it feels good in your hand it's too wet, is a good way of thinking about it.

This Skowhegan junket (eleven hours in the car from Toronto, sharing the driving and conversation with the wonderful Danwthebaker) is my second trip in a week. Here I'm almost at the east coast; the Atlantic is just an hour's drive or so away. And last week I was almost at the Pacific, well, close enough...

I flew to Kelowna (or as non-townies call it Kelownifornia) and drove north past cherry orchards dripping with fruit. At Vernon I turned east and came eventually to my cousins's gorgeous piece of land high on a green hillside. His house, newly built and still needing finishing touches, is beautiful, light and airy, and off-grid. And that's where my aunt, my long-dead mother's identical twin, is now living. Her ninetieth birthday is coming up, and what better place to see out her days than a green fastness, with horses (Icelandic ponies in fact) and dogs and hummingbirds etc all around?

I was so pleased to see her happy, mobile (after a broken hip and cracked pelvis in the last year) and now able to be on horseback, her preferred mode of travel.

There's a connection between the people in these two far-apart places. They tend to be self-sufficient, physically capable, and creative problem-solvers. They live far from the large population centres and from monied communities, and prefer it that way. But here in Skowhegan they are VERY far from prosperity. And that's why this Kneading Conference got started, as a way to try to revitalise farming here. It hasn't died out, but people are struggling. Now there's a grist mill about to reopen in town and a sense of bustle and purpose. There's also some very good baking happening. So as Skowhegan and northern Maine generally bootstraps its way into new patterns and increased viability and confidence, it makes those of us at the conference aware that food issues at the producing level: the farm and the small producer and processor, whether it's a baker, a cheese-maker, or whatever, are a good solid way to generate new life.

I'm hoping to come back here next year... and if you have a chance, do try to come. I've learned a lot, about bread and farming, and I've met some remarkable people. It's a rich opportunity to connect with a culture of self-sufficiency.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


It's such a hot night that eveything is sticking: my forarms to the table as I type, my legs to the chair, and my brain to...I'm not sure what, but it's not an enhancer of clear thinking, for sure!

No complaints though. This house has a good cross-breeze, and anyway I like the feeling of sweating out all that's inside from time to time. It's like an ongoing sauna. The trick with the hot weather of course is the traditional wise technique of having a quick shower anytime you are feeling hot or sticky or fed-up or on edge because of the heat. Instantly you get a lovely little shiver as the wet clings to your skin when you step out of the shower. That momentary cooling from evaporation sends the heavy loggy feeling away and refreshes you. And somehow it makes everything manageable, creates an optimism, I find, so that the heat stops being oppressive and becomes just a bath of sensation to move through.

Bicycling helps too. The breeze from pedalling along is surprisingly cooling, so a bicycle rather than walking is the way to get around in the heat.

Had a question today from a friend who'd been told by a Vietnamese friend about a bitter leaf and flower that is around in the fall in Khmer parts of Vietnam, or maybe in Cambodia. I hadn't heard of it, but her question reminded me of the great spice (not herbs, not yet anyway) page by Gernot Katzer. He's exhaustive and quite meticulous. It's a great resource. Bookmark it so you can go to it any time you have a question. This link is to the SE Asia part, but you can move on from there:

I went to Shape Note singing this evening (it's once a month in Toronto). What a treat. There's a southern Ontario sing in late August not far from Waterloo in an old Mennonite meeting house, a fab stone building. Before that there's a huge sing in Maine on July 30. These calendars of events that different people keep track of are like different maps laid over the months with their own linkages and contour lines and internal necessities. My map right now involves catching a plane to Kelowna tomorrow so I can visit my aunt Wendy, who is my mother's identical twin. It's always a struggle to decide to go see her, for though my mother has been dead for over thirty years, there's stil a wrench when I see my aunt, a pang and thoughts of how things might be different. And then I am pulled into her present and can let the pangs go, mostly.

The other event, now the fifth annual, but this will be my first time, is the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, in northern Maine. There are two days of conference, designed to help those who want to to learn new skills, and it's followed by the Bread Fair, on Saturday. Dawnthebaker and I are going to drive down, a lovely trip through the Eastern Townships, ten or eleven hours from Toronto in total, at least that's what Google Maps tells me. I would have guessed nine hours or so.

I posted a couple of notes on Facebook about managing the heat. One of them is to get up early, cook something in the early morning, then put it in the frig. That makes supper an easy pleasure, cooked veg dressed as a salad, over cold rice for example. That was supper today (I had new beets, fresh from my CSA delivery and spectacular. The other is the smoothie made of fruit and not much else. Tashi made a raspberry one, adding in some mango that was around. He added just ice and a little honey, no milk product at all. It was a beautiful red. But then I got home and found the red currants, needing to be eaten. SO I cleaned them of stems and blended them to a gorgeous thick puree. I mixed it fity-fifty with the end of Tashi's smoothie, then added some gin.

Now THERE'S a summer drink! wow. Summer pudding is slices of bread that line a bowl, which is then filled iwth raspberries and red currents, covered with bread slices and a weight pressed down on top overnight. It's fab. SO I figure my drink is Summer Pudding Gin. But surely there's a more elegant name waiting to be discovered?

Happy showering and slowing down, everyone!

AND A FOOTNOTE: ANn Bramson had some good ideas about ways to strenthen the Burma book. I have now done those edits and reshapings and I sent the anuscript off yesterday. I've altered the title a little. Now it's:

Friday, July 15, 2011


Here it is my birthday, marked on some calendars in England as St Swithin's Day (or Swithun's). He was a bishop of Winchester in the tenth century. Traditionally in England it's a day for predicting the weather, the idea being that whatever the weather on July 15 there will be 40 more days like it. hmmm We need warmth still, I mean, we want to have the rest of summer wonderful summer, but we sure could do with some rain.

The other marker today is that it's full moon. In another half-cycle, two more weeks, it will be the new moon and the start of Ramadan. Markers, markers... They're useful points, like hilltops, from which we can look back over things and ahead prospectively. I have rather selective vision at such times: I tend to want to see and notice the positive and brush away or minimise the importance of the negative. I'm sure it irritates people sometimes. But on the other hand I am grateful to be this way by temperament. It makes rolling with things, accepting the rough with the smooth, much easier. I don't have to do much battle with myself.

While I'm on the positive, a couple of stories: Last week I pedalled up to the northern part of the city, near Bayview and York Mills. It was up and down but mostly gently uphill, an easier ride than I had expected and less than fifteen kilometres each way. I visited a friend in her lush garden and then went to a potluck lunch nearby. I'd cooked some portabello mushrooms with scapes and dandelion greens from the garden, to an intensely flavoured almost-black mass. Our host had not made a plan but relied on serendipity and the dishes people brought all worked beautifully together, as most often happens.

But the story is about an encounter I had on the way up. I saw a woman walking to a bus stop and thought I recognised her, so I stopped and called her name out. Yes in fact, she was EB, the mother of the guy I went out with in my last years of undergrad, in the seventies. I hadn't seen her since then. Amazing! She is such an intelligent and interesting person and here she is, still thriving, turning 90 (ninety!!!) next spring, and alert and engaged. She now runs a summer lecture program at the University of Toronto; they're lucky to have her. She said, "I'm older of course". And I replied "So am I!"

It feels like a miracle when there can be such reconnection, over decades. And it's also reassuring. There's so much change and shifting of landscapes as we go through life, that when we run into a continuity like that it can feel like a lifeline and an affirmation.

The other story is just to tell you that last night, with the day-before-full-moon moon rising in the bright evening sky, I was sitting with a couple of friends having a cocktail on the roof of the Park Plaza. It's a place that's seen many stories unfold, and anyone who has spent time in Toronto has a story or two connected to it. And there we were, with a front row seat as the city lights and skyline sparkled, framing the fat moon. Lovely luxury, to have summer evenings with bare arms and beautiful light, and good friends to share it all with.

Tonight there's a small feast at this house with friends, but I'm just a bystander. Dawnthebaker, is doing the planning and cooking. So generous. There's a bit of a time constraint, so we're starting early, because she and I and Tashi have tickets (booked by Tashi) for a screening of the last/ latest Harry Potter movie later this evening. (I've read all the books of course, because my kids were the perfect age for them, read them aloud aloud and to myself, but I've only seen a couple of the other films, maybe three.) I'm told we should line up an hour or more ahead, so we'll send some younger people down early and then Dawn and I can stroll over a little later. I don't think I've ever gone to the movies on my birthday, let alone to a blockbuster. Ha!

I'm getting down to the wire on book edits, which feels good. It's always difficult to do what's needed, which is: cut out the excesses, delete the extra recipes, trim in various places, so that the manuscript can be tamed into a book. I save the cuts of course. The cut recipes are fine, often really good, they're just too close to duplicates or unnecessarily complicated or whatever, to fit into THIS book. But they'll come in handy sometime, somewhere, I'm sure. So RIVERS OF FLAVOR is taking shape, in its own time in its own way. Books do that. And in New York my editor Ann Bramson is mulling what size and look the book should have, chatting to wonderful Richard Jung who wants to take the photos, though the budget is horribly tight, and generally visualising the next steps. Yikes! It's starting to feel real, already.

What a nice place to be, contemplating a new book on my birthday. This time next year, with luck, the first copies will be coming off a printing press somewhere.... lovely thought!

Sunday, July 10, 2011


There's a distant intermittent roar in the air: yes, you guessed it, the Formula One race or Indy something-or-other is here in Toronto. Yucko! An article in the paper the other day quoted one driver talking about the unpleasant smell and taste of the guck on his face as he drives. But he has chosen to put himself there. We, on the other hand, who live in the city, on this humid day get to breathe in the awful smell of exhaust and burning tires etc, and hear the noise, and we did NOT choose this, nor get any balancing benefit.

There, now I've ranted, we can move on to more interesting and pleasant topics.

Early this morning I bicycled over to a friend's house, via a stop at Woodlot to pick up fresh wood-fired-oven-baked bread. My friend has just closed on her house, and doesn't move in for a few days. Until then it's like a freshly born baby: its structure is visible, not covered over by furniture (or baby softness) so that it's easy for this couple of days to imagine what it will develop into. We talked about wall colours and furniture and the garden possibilities. It was such a pleasure, and I was happy to have arrived with fresh bread and a few other things as house-warming markers of welcome.

Yesterday Dom and Tashi and I drove to Niagara, just upstream of the falls, to a family reunion party. What a huge day it was. There were about forty Duguid cousins and family members, aged six months to eighty-three. We had ten hours to talk to one another, share stories, get caught up on news. We swam in the Niagara River, ate fabulously, and just breathed in the feeling of connection. Some cousins are committed christians, others of us are not, but that doesn't stop us feeling connected and familiar to one another. The whole event, with the nearly two hour drive at each end left us feeling exhilarated and exhausted all at once. I can only imagine how tired my cousin and her family were who had done all the organising and work of planning and setting up. Thank-you everyone!

And now it's time to bear down on the Burma book editing. I've done a little re-organising, and have written a few explanatory pieces that need to go in. Now I have to sit down with the printed pages and read through, cleaning out any deadwood and keeping an eye open for inelegant phrases, unnecessary longueurs, all of which need to be pruned or firmly beaten into shape. Once I've marked up the pages, I can transfer the edits onto the computer and then, hopefully have a cleaned up ms that can be printed out and sent off to Ann Bramson. I give myself a week for this, well maybe eight days. I'll report back.

Meantime on the photo front it looks as if Richard Jung will be doing some studio shooting for the book. I am thrilled and grateful. He is so good at what he does, all with natural light. And I love the process of figuring out which dishes to put on the shot-list. But first to the edits!

Last week we did a little more retesting: a simple chicken curry that's a classic in central Burma, and then deletable Shan meatballs, both beef ones and pork ones. They're killingly good. I want to suggest that people can also make them as sliders, small patties, on the grill or in the pan.

The great thing about having salad greens and garlic and chiles and herbs in the garden is that every meal, from breakfast on, has a fresh edge and bright flavour. Soon we'll have tomatoes too. I can't wait.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


A quick note on a soft summer evening... I'm just back in the city from a visit north to Grey County. All is green and growing there after the wet spring we've had, and pretty late too. The lettuce greens, the mizuna, the garlic scapes are all fresh and lush still.

Last night, after a sauna and swim in a swift cool river, we had food cooked over a fire (local sausage, scapes, chiles...) and several fresh green salads, and then we hung out eating mangoes and tasting Fifthtown Cheese, a hard aged cheese that was fabulous. But then the sky shifted from clear evening to a bank of grey and threatening clouds to the south. We worried about rain, but In the end the storm, and it was a deluge, stayed away from us. We heard the thunder and saw lightning, but the dense grey shafts that told us about pouring rain were safely south of us. Overhead the sky was a strange pale colour that gave off an eerie greenish-yellow light, but created no shadows. It made everything oddly flat, as if we were all figures standing in front of a painted backdrop. Nothing had any depth. It was disorienting and a little unsettling too. And meanwhile the backdrop to our strange light was the dramatic dark sky to the south.

Later still, after night had fallen, we walked down the hill and watched the fireflies, in a damp little valley, hundreds of them, thousands? It was hard to think of them as insects. They became magic points of light, fairies perhaps, or signals to extra-terrestrials. If a firefly is still, then its moment of brightness looks like a "dot". But if it's flying at speed while it's bright, then it looks like a momentary "dash" in the blackness. And so the dots and dashes flickered their messages to us in the magical dark. Far away to the northwest the sky had a last suggestion of brightness, the day's final adieu.

Early July magic.

Friday, July 1, 2011


There's a pop-pop-popping happening, sporadically close to and then farther away, as people all over Toronto set off fireworks. The annual July 1 Canada Day celebrations are almost over...and summer is just beginning. Many friends are already out of town. Half of them seem to be in Cape Breton or PEI, eastern Canada anyway.

I'm still here though, now done with my deadline and moving in the freer air of edits. Ann Bramson has, as she always does, some good ideas about how to present the Burma book, how to get people turned on and tuned in to Burma. And as always I need to find more interesting titles for the recipes (just plain "beef curry" doesn't cut it! for example). It's a treat to have the manuscript written and the chance to re-enter it and shape it further. I am amazed, as always, with how much greater my perspective is now that I've had a few weeks away from it (and the suggestions from Ann to help me take hold of it freshly).

The other work on the immediate horizon, and I wrote about this on my facebook fan page, is that I have started to try to take hold of LightRoom, the powerful and not-always-intuitively-understandable program that helps sort images and also work with them. Thanks to N, a friend of Tashi's I am feeling more confident and have a starting-to-grow understanding of how to use the program to sort and engage with my Burma images. They're all digital, most in RAW and some in JPEG. I need to pull about four hundred, so the designer has images to choose from for the book. They'll be portraits and markets and scenes of various kinds.

The first task is to find the strongest images, and then make sure there's a balanced group of picks to send. I feel a long way from slides and the physical and damage-able fragility of slides. It's always scary to send them out. But digital images are (once I get used to the basic idea of how ephemeral they are, how dependent on electricity and modern stuff like computers) less "fragile. I can send them and keep them at the same time. It would have been a hard concept for our forbears to grasp, for sure.

Good food this week, from the growing thriving herbs in the garden, and tender leaf lettuce, to garlic scapes (those curving elegant tips of young garlic, so delish lightly fried). Grilled some bavette this evening and poached asparagus, and had our first new potatoes of the year. Hurrah!

Yesterday a friend retested two different fish curries and a chutney,as well as a fish head soup, all recipes from Rivers of Flavor, the Burma book. A squeeze of lime at the end made a huge wonderful difference to the soup, pulling it all together. And the fish curries reminded Dawn to interrogate me about whether I was putting info about sustainable fish and those others we shouldn't be eating, into the Burma book.

(By the way, Jake Tilson has a fish book just out in the UK, and in the US in September, called "In at the Deep End: Cooking Fish Venice to Tokyo." It should be a wonderful resource, and beautiful, for Jake is a designer and has really made the book, not just the words and pictures. I can't wait to see it.)

In answer to Dawn's good reminder, I will put the URL of a couple of sites in the Burma book, sites that people can now consult to know whether a particular fish species is endangered, etc etc. More later, when I get the info.

Had a crisis this week, small but distracting. I had a guy named Eric come and connect the water to the garage out back, but then it turned out there was a leak somewhere. Lots of digging later (by Eric and also by me) and the solution turned out to be to replace one stretch of pipe. But meantime, apart from the blisters on my hands, I've lost leaf lettuce and mint (as dirt got piled on them, or dug up around them, or both) and also a huge amount of ivy, for we had to cut ivy roots as we dug. Most of the dirt pile is gone, and the hole/trench filled in. And now there's water and good pressure.

The digging and then refilling of the hole reminded me of how hard hard labour can be. It's really wearing. And often very low-paying. But why do we pay so much for brain work and so little for work that uses up your body? I know, it's about value, and demand etc. But it is a harsh unfair reality that guys who labour with their bodies often get worn out. And many who work in offices could not possibly do labouring work, (though many go to the gym to stay fit). The temptation to disdain what you cannot do is powerful in our culture, maybe in every culture. hmmm

Meantime I'm pleased that even though half the ivy has been stripped off the back building (I did that once it had wilted overnight after we cut the roots), the change or loss is not devastating. Instead it gives us all a chance to look freshly at how the garden is organised and how we might change things.

Once again the only "constant" is that everything is in flux and will change, so it's up to us to handle the shiftings and gains and losses on this roller-coaster of life with equilibrium, and to enjoy the ride!