Monday, December 31, 2012


It’s been more than two weeks since I flew back from Southeast Asia to Toronto, and that same amount of time since I posted a blogpost. Disgraceful, you might well say. I enjoy writing here, thinking on the page, so to speak. So what is it that’s caused this lacuna? I ask myself.

There are the obvious reasons: jetlag and disorientation after the flights from Rangoon via Bangkok etc, and the busy-ness of seeing friends after a travel gap, with the added intensity and expectations that come during the Christmas season.

But it felt like there was more to it. I think I was more wrecked by the whirlwind of book tour than I was prepared to acknowledge. I’m not complaining, especially not after having had the chance to recharge in Chiang Mai, but somehow the deep tiredness, more emotional than physical, continued long after and left me empty of initiative for ideas. I displaced my energies into baking and cooking and seeing friends, but could never quite feel the deep juiciness that I love to feel when I sit down to write here.

And now at last that richer energy is back, as of two or three days ago. I rejoice.

On this last day of the year that marks a dozen years since 2000, that’s been a leap-year/election year and a year that for me was all about the BURMA book, I’m feeling mighty grateful to be alive and in good health, with projects to look forward to and friends to rejoice with.

The holidays have been multi-layered. In our house we don’t have any particular holiday ritual. The only rule is that no-one gets imposed upon, in fact basically the only rule is that there are no rules. It makes things very relaxed, somewhat shapeless, and very pleasurable. 

This year we ate a huge meal with friends, family-style, on Chrstmas evening, beginning with PEI oysters and some extraordinary shrimp, moving on to a Berkshire pork rib roast with brilliant crackling, as well as several Burmese salads (the grapefruit salad was especially delish with the pork), and then following up with a choice of sweets that included mince tarts and pumpkin pie, as well as home-made chestnut ice cream. Are you having indigestion reading this list? I am.  

And all week we’ve been snacking on various biscotti, made from my recipes in HomeBaking. Cooking was part of my way of dealing with patchy tiredness from jetlag. I made jars of mincemeat a week ago, using homemade candied peel, suet, currants, sultanas, chopped apple, lemon and orange zest and juice, and a good splash of brandy. Some went into the mince tarts, some has gone as presents, but I have to confess that there’s one open jar in the fridge that I dip into every once in a while - with a clean spoon, I swear - to take a lovely rich and intense mouthful. It’s like an over-the-top version of the classic scoop-a-finger-into-the-peanut butter jar, and to me way more tempting and delicious.

So it is that most of us emerge into 2013 having to loosen our belts and opt for those less-fitted garments that allow us to breath easily. The wonderful sereendipitous ski that I had in the city a few days ago, up ravines etc, after our huge snowfall last Wednesday-Thursday, was not enough to work off all this indulgence, nor was the fabulous dancing we all did last night. 

But so what? It’s not worth worrying about weight and tight clothing. Life is too short to focus on such trivial “first world problems”. I prefer to turn my imagination to wider less me-centred horizons, those which beckon endlessly, and remind me that the world is an infinitely fascinating place, where people of all kinds face intractable problems and conflicts and try to do so with courage and dignity. 

So I’ll close with a wish. Sorry if it seems preachy or pretentious, for it’s heartfelt: May this coming year bring more justice and more peace: more negotiation and less conflict, more respect and less arrogance, to us all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


I was up just before dawn in Yaungshwe this morning, dressed quickly in the chilly damp air, breakfasted wrapped in my shawl, looking out at foggy streets dotted with the occasional monk on his morning round, then climbed into a car to go to Heho airport, an hour’s drive to the north.

After about half an hour, as we started climbing up the curves of the steep road that leads to the upland where the airport sits, we emerged from mist. Looking back I could see, framed by the long lines of morning-light-etched hills to the east and west, a soft billowing white cloud, lit by early sun, that hid the lowlands. Underneath it, I knew, lay fields of rice stubble and dried stalks of harvested corn; children heading to school in their white shirts and green lungyis; men and women on small motorcycles heading to market or to work, others walking out into their fields, carrying a machete or knife or mattock; the occasional oxcart with high wooden frame, pulled with slow deliberation by a pair of white oxen; villages of wooden houses set on stilts, and a few houses made of cement and built on the ground; small teashops already busy with morning customers, the steam rising from their handle-less cups of tea. And a little farther away, the river leading to the lake was already alive with long powerful boats, headed out to pick up loads of tomatoes from the Intha villages on the lake, or loads of tourists from the hotels out there. On the lake itself, early fishermen would be out in their small narrow wooden boats, paddling them out to their nets, or already out there and paddling standing up, one leg wrapped around the paddle, leaving their hands free to work with the nets.  Farther out still, people would be streaming in boats and on foot or oxcart toward whichever lake-side village has its market today. 

The markets operate on a five-day cycle, moving from village to village in sequence. Pa-O people, who mostly live up in the hills, travel down to buy meat and fish; and to bring vegetables to sell. The Intha are there with strings of small eels, as well as larger fish and dried  fish. men gamble in one corner, and at the edge of the market a blacksmith hammers at a red-hot implement, dipping it back into water to cool it, perhaps, then checking the trueness of the edge and hammering some more. Standing nearby, his helper (often a grown son or daughter) will be working the bellows. It’s an ingenious design, those bellows:. Two fat lengths (four feet or so) of bamboo are set on end. From the bottom small hoses lead to under the coals of the fire. The helper has a pole with a wad of cloth at the end, and slides them alternately up and down the bamboo shafts, driving air down under the fire. The alternation means the fire gets a regular even supply of air and stays steady. And the bellows work is relatively effortless, as well as being nicely far from the heat of the fire. 

I’ve now got a sample of the rice liquor made by a Shan guy south of Inle Lake; it comes as 20, forty, and sixty proof. I have a bottle each of the twenty and forty, smooth-tasting and delicious. His still arrangement is another ingenious design, made of cermaic and bamboo, simple and effective.  I’d like to take the Burma food tour people to visit him, as well as to a village market or two.

All this is such a lesson in ingenuity and creativity, as well as in the food basics that our manufactured world can hide from our sight.

I’m sorry to be leaving, and happy to think that I’m due to be back here in February. Then, too, I’m sure I’ll come on more local technologies that are new to me. There is so much to learn here in Burma.

Next step, after Rangoon, is the trip home, via a night with good friends in Bangkok. Toronto with its chilly air and festive lights feels far away still, but it’s approaching fast in my mind’s eye... I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Dom and Tashi and with friends, all of whom I’ve seen little of in this busy fall of book tour travel plus Southeast Asia time.  

The warmth and conversation of my extended family of friends is so precious. And it’s while heading home that I most often take the time to reflect on its wonderfulness. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


The western sky is an extraordinary pale green shading lower to warm yellow and further down into almost orange, with dark purple trailings of cloud here and there to give it contour. Here in Chiang Mai it’s just past six oclock and time for night to fall.

Many people here have already closed the shutters or sliding metal doors on their shops and businesses and headed home for a well-deserved rest. Others, especially bars and restaurants, are just opening for business. 

It’s “well-deserved rest” that I want to talk about here, “down time”, to use another term. Several days ago I read a posting by a meditation guy about our brain’s need for down time or repose. His argument is that our brains are designed for long pauses where nothing much happens, a time to reflect and be centred, rather than engaged in active “seeking”. He’s starting from the premise that the way humans lived in the time before cities developed involved long periods when nothing much happened, and where there was no stimulus for the brain. He says if we time-machined back to that time, we’d be bored silly.

And he argues that meditation techniques were developed by the great religions precisely when humans developed cities and started living in  stimulating environments. He says we are born with the urge to seek stimulus. And in the modern era we can go on doing that 24/7. Just as the modern easy availability of sugar (another thing we are genetically programmed to want and seek out) leads many to over-indulge, so the easy availability of distraction, of things to want and seek for and obtain, leads to over-indulgence and is damaging to our health.  The article is here:

I’m not sure of his science or his reasoning from the Paleolithic, but I do agree that taking a pause from the hamster wheel of running in endless circles checking Facebook and links and then Twitter then circling back around to Facebook with perhaps a stop in to check personal mail, and so on, can dull the mind and lead to a kind of self-loathing. And of course it also cuts deeply into the capacity to get any original thinking or work done. At least that’s the case for me.

A long while ago I wrote about the need to allow ourselves “buffer days”, days when we don’t work and don’t put pressure on ourselves to produce. I’d argue now that there’s an urgent need to give ourselves a holiday from the button-pushing stimulus seeking that our laptops or smart phones entice us into. There are days when I have lots to get done, and so I am not tempted into the round-robin described above. But on days when I’m at a loose end, or procrastinating about getting started on a project, I’m vulnerable to getting sucked into the whirlpool. And then an hour or two later I realise how much time has passed, and I feel a little nauseated. 

I wrote all the above two evenings ago.

Since then I have taken several breaks from the hamster wheel, and it has felt so good. The most outstanding brain rest was the long bicycle ride I went on yesterday with three guys who pedal a lot here in Chiang Mai and know good countryside routes. We ended up covering about 110 km (over 65 miles), on what was a beautiful but very hot-in-the-early-afternoon day. Whew!

I was immersed in conversations occasionally, but was mostly in a nice undemanding zone of pedalling and looking at the places I was passing by: fields of rice stubble with lean lop-eared white cattle grazing, often with an egret perched on their shoulders; hamlets and villages with shady trees and wooden houses and small village markets; clumps of tall graceful bamboo; and in the distance beautiful hills/mountains, cleanly etched on the near horizon. A perfect day, except when the heat bouncing back up off the tarmac at around 1 pm started to make me feel a little queasy.

(Perhaps I wasn’t coping as well with the heat because of our lunch. We stopped at “the pig place” as they called it, on a small road off the road to Pai. There the poeple roast/grill whole pig, one at a time, then cut it in portions and charcoal grill it a little more. Unbelievably delicious, as was the nam jiim sauce they served in it (a touch of coriander seed in it) and the som tam. Meat at midday is not recommended when there are over 50 kilometres to cover in the hot afternoon! But it was so special that it was worth the discomfort of a little queasiness an hour later.)

I cannot imagine sitting still for long periods and meditating. But moving meditation, being out in my body and centred there rather than in restless thoughts, sure seems like a good way of having brain “down time”. 

Other options, pleasurable ones, are a little less kinetic, and also wonderful: singing, drawing or making some other creation, walking, swimming... Even getting lost in a good book can still your brain’s searching.

While I was on book tour this fall I failed to take the pauses I needed, I got swept up in the buzzing to-and-fro of schedules and other people’s expectations. The one exception was when I was in St Helena for the CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference. The conference itself was intense and charged, but each morning while I was there I was able to swim lengths in a lap pool, getting up at 5.30 to swim in the calm California-scented darkness. It was healing in ways I didn’t realise at the time.

Now as I pack up for a short trip into Burma and then a flight back to Toronto for a month there (I’ll be back in Chiang Mai in mid-January), I’m imagining forward as I try to decide what to pack and what to leave, and at the same time in a small way mourning the fact that I am leaving just as I’ve found ease and restedness. 

AFTERTHOUGHT: It’s the King of Thailand’s 85th birthday today. When I went out for coffee near Chiang Mai Gate this morning, almost everyone was wearing yellow in his honour. I read on Twitter and elsewhere that many people are lined up in Bangkok to see him, or planning to watch the ceremonies on TV this morning. And on the King’s birthday the rule is that no alcohol is served, so though restaurants are open, straight bars will not be.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I’m sitting on the floor up here in my airy ninth floor corner apartment in Chiang Mai. I have sound in three-D here, and what is it? First there’s the rhythmic beating of a gong at the Pa-O wat (buddhist temple) across the street, sometimes with cymbals too, as a clashing under-over note. Then there’s the bang bang, at irregular intervals, of fireworks. Smetimes it’s a “pop” loud and sudden, sometimes there’s a whistle and then a bang. There’s very lttle traffic noise though, for many streets around here have been closed off, for tonight’s big parade. Last year I was down by the parade watching and photographing; this year I’m keeping my distance

All this is Loy Kratong in Chiang Mai. Twenty-three years ago at my first Loy Kratong here, things were smaller...there were some big exploding whooshes of fireworks in the sky, bright bursts of colour, and there were the little scary firework “bomblets”, firecrackers in a string, that people would toss out into the road. But there weren’t many cars and crowds were manageable.  Like so much else in Chiang Mai and Thailand, Loy Kratong  has gotten bigger and more modern in many ways recently.

But up here I’m low-tech: I just have two little ceramic candles, out on the ledge of my little balcony. 

And last night, after making kratongs in the afternoon with two neighbours, using rounds of banana stem as base, then wrapping each round with banana leaf, anchored with pins, and decorating the top with flowers and folded banana leaf and candles, I carried my two to the river. I went with a friend early. We sat at a little restaurant on the far bank, at a table near the water, and watched the sun set and the lights of floating kratongs make their flickering way down the river. Finally it was our turn. I lit the little candles on my kratongs, then launched them, one by one. As I watched them totter away on the dark water, heading downstream, they seemed like little freshly hatched baby turtles, or any fledgling, precariously setting out.

They were like the embodiment of our hopes and fears, fragile, vulnerable, optimistic nonetheless, in fact rather valiant.

That was last night. After watching the scene for a good long while, we made out way through incredibly thick traffic and crowds, oh so grateful to be on foot, over the bridge, past arade, and thence into the relative peace of the lane I live on. 

All this evening the moon has been coy, draping herself in gauzy cloud one minute, then peering out in a silvery gleam, then completely veiling herself in thick cloud the next moment. But now she’s out, the sky is clearing, and the moving golden yellow lights of fire-paper lanterns are sliding upward across the sky. Oh now there are some bursts of red and then sparkling white-silver from fireworks to the east, and here’s a zinging whine of something... But the backdrop is the floating moving constellations of fire-in-the-sky paper lanterns. And if I look closely I can see their ghosts, the blackened husks of expired paper lanterns as they drift slowly, like tired phantoms, back to earth. 

Suddenly, a pair of very loud bangs make me jump. I can’t imagine how people who have been in war of any kind ever tolerate this festival; there are so many explosions large and small, unexpected bangs and pops. 

In the distance I can hear the music that accompanies the various floats in today’s enormous elaborate parade. They pass down Thapae Road, then north along the river. The sound is carrying up to me from the river, born by the breeze in irregular gusts. 

How peaceful I feel up here, not distant, but just at a calm remove, looking out at and listening to the panorama of light and action. Meantime the two ceramic candles are bright on the ledge before me, flickering with a strong golden yellow light. 

Above the moon seems cool and very silvery in comparison to all this man-made yellow flame. She’s got an aureole now, pinkish, the haze caused by the fireworks’ smoke perhaps...or just the remnant of damp air from the quickly disappearing clouds.

The breeze has freshened. I think the wind has changed. Perhaps finally dry season with its clear skies and crisper temperatures and dry air is finally ready to start. Hallelujah! 

And there’s another reason to feel grateful: tomorrow, November 30, my older kid will be twenty-five. To think, speaking of vulnerable fledglings, that he has grown up to be such a strong and capable wonderful person - it seems miraculous to me, another cause for optimism as we light our candles in the dark and admire the glow of the moon above.

Monday, November 26, 2012


This day twenty-two years ago was momentous: my second boy child was born the morning of November 27 in Toronto. His older brother was three days short of his third birthday at the time. 

I remember their birthdays of course, without even having to think about it; what parents don’t keep a connection to their kids’ beginnings? 

But memory about other events is fickle and uneven, “unreliable” may be a better description. We’re told that each time we remember something, it’s not like we’re going into a cupboard and reading a file folder, then putting it away again. Instead, neurologists tell us that each time we retrieve a memory, we reinscribe it, which shifts and changes it. I always thought the changes in my memories were just the result of slippage, intentional and subconscious deletion of less interesting or perhaps more troubling bits of the past. But this new description of memory makes everything seem much more fluid, and memory like a log-rolling contest, with slippery surfaces and shifting “facts”.

Why do I care about memory? And why am I thinking about it now? The answer to the second lies in the fact that I’ve just been reading the Tony Judt book The Memory Chalet, as I mentioned in my last post. The book is the device he uses to distract himself from an intolerable present: in his case his long nights imprisoned by ALS and unable to move. All he can do is think. And so he thinks about the past, uses it as a springboard to shape thoughts and story. Then in a second use of memory - a second application of memory skill as it were - he uses a mnemonic device adapted from the “memory palace” technique of the Middle Ages to pin down in his mind the “writing” he has done in his head, so that he can remember it in the morning and dictate it. 

That act of actually transcibing/writing is the way we pin down the moment. If we take notes, in the moment or soon afterward, we are already sifting and selecting, but less so, and we are more likely to be “accurate” about what took place. The longer we leave our note-taking or writing, the more we’re apt to weed out bits, and also to alter our recollections, shape them, consciously and unconsciously.

But I’m not so interested in the issues of “accuracy” here. That’s a huge issue though for people assesssing the worth or weight of eye-witness testimary for example. (And indeed it does seem to me that eye-witness evidence must have been inherently more accurate in the days before universal literacy enabled people to be distracted on their own by written stories and images. How much more inaccurate have memories become recently, with the distraction and fragmentation of attention caused by electronic media of various kinds?)

I’m more interested in the process of remembering, in how we do it. For example, I remember mostly in images, pictures in my mind’s eye you might say. If you tell me about a transaction or incident, if I’m asked later to repeat what you told me, I’m most likely, rather than repeating exactly what you said, to give my own version, based on the picture that your story made in my head. It will be fairly accurate in feel and in the details, but the words won’t be a quotation of yours. And each time I tell it, I assume from what the neurologists are saying, I am unconsciously shifting the story, giving varying emphasis to its elements.

Tony Judt’s pieces in The Memory Chalet begin with a remembered incident or setting, most often. The factual accuracy of his starting point isn’t particularly important to us  as readers. Instead its importance lies in its role as a trigger for Judt’s analysis, or, put another way, as a springboard for his thinking.

And that brings me back to my first question, why is memory important? Of course we’re oriented by our memories, and often reassured by them. They can keep us company. For example, for me my memories of people and places and events are like a huge undulating tapestry, an entertainment that I can turn to when nothing else is going on, or escape to when I’m stuck in a tedious situation. I can look at them from a variety of perspectives: I can situate myself inside them in a form of present tense, or look retrospectively at them with after-knowledge. It’s rather like the variety of choices of point-of-view that a novelist has when telling a story.

I’m not sure if other people do this too, and if so, how frequently.

But in all that, how important is it that I get the facts or details “right”? Surely it’s not vital. What’s more important it seems to me is the meaning I draw from my memories. Occasionally I find myself re-analysing a moment or a transaction or even an era in my life, seeing it from new perspectives. That can be very exciting (and equally, can be disturbing, when I realise something that I had failed to understand at the time for example). 

By now I’ve got a lot of life-lived material to “work” with.  And that fact, of having a rich store to reflect on and puzzle over, is for me one of the important aspects of memory. 

In the shorter term, in everyday life, I also rely on memory for a different kind of context. Many people are good at remembering people’s names, but I am not one of them. Instead my signposts are dates and times. My year is in some ways structured by birthdays and other anniversaries. They colour the months and give meaning to particular dates. For example, November starts with the week in which my mother died, now thirty-five years ago (unbelievable...both long ago and fresh), and ends with the birthdays of my two now-grown kids. In between come birthdays of friends far and near, of various ages and connection. Each of them sets off a nice “ping” in my head, a reverberation of images and feelings associated with that person. These reminders colour my days and thoughts, mostly pleasurably.

It’s the same with years: I look back and calculate how many years it is since I was in a particular place (for example I was thinking about Hanoi last evening - 23 years ago is when I was last there, yikes!), or what age I was when a particular public or private event happened, from the election of Reagan to the birth of a friend’s child.

It seems to me that all these ways of thinking about the past are a form of contextualising, a way to give meaning to and gain understanding of both the past and the present. In that sense, in doing this memory-merging and memory-analysing, I’m a working historian of my particular individual passage through life. And from that personal historical analysis, hopefully I gain some insight into other people’s situations and attitudes. 

Is everyone else doing this kind of thing in their spare moments? It’s fun to think so. I like to imagine each of us working on our particular life-tapestry, examining stitches, holding different bits up to the light, making the odd repair now and then.

It’s all a particular kind of seeking of wisdom and understanding, I think. We each have our views of what life is about, what we want to contribute or achieve. And those views and ambitions evolve over time for most people. In any case making the effort, engaging with our memories and trying to tease out meaning and connection, for me this is an always-fascinating and -fruitful pursuit.

Perhaps that’s why I am so drawn to the Judt book. There’s consolation in thinking that in my dotage, assuming I still have a brain to think and remember with (and of course this is why all we Boomers are so obsessed with a fear of dementia), I will have the resources to entertain myself with my own thoughts and memories. I hope I have the chance to gain greater insight into world events, and at the more intimate scale, into other peoples’ actions and interactions...

Meanwhile, here in Chiang Mai, as these layers of thoughts have been rolling around in my head, I’ve been enjoying each day in the soft air of an unseasonably warm November. I’ve been pedalling around on a rackety rented one-speed bicycle, have had a rather intense evening at the Writers’ Bar - and expect to have more - talking about Burma and other emotionally intense international issues, and have been hanging around chatting to friends on the soi and getting caught up on everyone’s news.

Yesterday I drove north with generous friends to Chiang Dao for a meal at a secluded peaceful restaurant called Chiang Dao Nest, a favorite of theirs. It’s an unlikely setting for a cordon bleu menu: there are stands of tall graceful bamboo, birds singing and twittering in the trees, and no traffic or other urban sounds. My prejudice against eating “western food” while in Southeast Asia melted away as soon as I tasted the house-made pate, lush and greed-inducing. And then there was a memorable salad nicoise, and a coconut milk creme brulee. Astonishing. 

I was glad to have been pushed out of my rigid attitude toward eating “foreign food” here. It's a reminder that I do need a push from time to time, no question, to oblige me to stay open to new ideas and possibilities. After all, the unexpected makes life so interesting...

Friday, November 23, 2012


As I sit here thinking about where to begin this post, I’m a little paralysed by several issues: first, there’s a lot to tell, because the couple of days since my arrival here in Chiang Mai have been full of incident and interest; and second, perhaps more problematic, I’m in the middle of a book of short pieces, segments that are story-telling and reflective memoir, by the brilliant Tony Judt, whose thinking and writing are both so clear that I feel my writing and thinking to be muddled, predictable, and inelegant in comparison.

If you haven’t come across Tony Judt - he’s most famous for his writing on twentieth century European history, in his book Postwar, and for his reflections on contemporary society, in his book Ill Fares the Land - then you have a lot of wonderful reading and thinking to look forward to. And if you have, then I imagine you’re as big a fan as I am. The tragedy is that he died in August 2010, of the horrible ALS (aka Lou Gehrig disease), in his early sixties. The book I’m reading, The Memory Chalet, was written when he was incapacitated physically, partly as a way of staying sane. In short vignettes and reflections we travel through rooms in his life, from his early childhood memories of postwar London onward.

As I read I can’t help visualising his situation at the time he was “writing” (by dictation, since of course ALS had robbed him of the use of his fingers), and marvelling at his clarity.

It’s  form of solitary confinement and torture, ALS, but of course it makes me aware of all the different incapacities that lie ahead for most of us as we move from full health into older age. Some of us will drop dead, but many will have to figure out how to live well with diminished faculties and capacities. And it’s that goal of living well, with positive energy and a feeling of accomplishment and forward momentum, that is so important for our mental health, and so difficult to achieve.

The Tony Judt book, and the underlying circumstances, are thus a good solid reminder to make each day count, and to figure out how to maintain my equilibrium even when circumstances don’t go my way. I’m not being namby-pamby here. I really do believe that the hardest thing is maintaining grace under fire, or positive equanimity, or whatever other way you wish to phrase it, in situations that are harsh, hurtful, “unfair” or just plain horrible. They come to us all, at one time or another. And we want that for everyone, don’t we? that we all keep our dignity and self-respect even when things are dire or painful.

How to manage it? is the question. Nothing worthwhile is easy, it seems, and this surely isn’t easy. But we have the chance as we pass through various rough patches in our lives, to practice and become more skilled at managing how we cope with adversity. It’s a life-skill we need to develop, in the same way as a child’s learning to fall asleep on her own is, or learning how to calm ourselves when we’re feeling anxious or fearful...

Meantime, when I’m not reading and being amazed by Tony Judt, I’m out and about in Chiang Mai. I’ve seen friends, had time with a New York friend who left this morning for Burma, and eaten some of my favorite treats. 

On Friday morning we went early to the weekly Haw Market, in the parking lot opposite the mosque. It was a reminder that even as things stay constant (the market is always on Friday morning) they also evolve: the market has changed its geography, because part of the area it was in is now slated for a building. The two soup places I usually go to in the corner were somewhere else entirely, for example, and so was the Chinese pickles stand. The market is spreading south along a lane now. I wonder whether development pressures will eventually force it to move elsewhere entirely. That would be a pity, for it exists because of the mosque: Haw (Chinese muslim) traders set up there when they were in town for Friday services at the mosque. The market is much more than Haw people now of course. There are Burmese of various cultures (Shan, Burman, Karen, etc) and also hill people of many kinds, selling their oh-so-fresh and healthy-looking fruits and vegetables (huge avocados yesterday, pink radishes, and lots more), and a wonderful array of rices.

I took my friend to eat what I call (in the BURMA book) Silky Shan Soup, unctuous and comforting, and then after awhile we shared a bowl of mohinga too. In between we bought samosas, beautifully fried, and also black rice donuts, chewy, darkly almost-sweet with palm sugar syrup, and oozing deliciousness. It’s a filling morning, Friday morning, always.

On Thursday evening we went to Huen Pen, the North Thai restaurant in the old city that has been consistently good for a long time. My friend is pescatarian, and even though Northern Thai food uses meat as a flavouring in many dishes, we found lots of choices to order, from a great som-o (pomelo) salad, a joung jackfruit salad, a fish curry, nam prik num, and more. Yum. 

This morning as I pedalled up Thapae Road, I found myself behind one of the old Chiang Mai cycle rickshaws. It was early and still cool, so the driver’s hat was still tied onto the back of the rickshaw. His passenger was an older Thai woman being pedalled home from her trip to the market to buy meat and vegetables for the day. I caught a quick whiff of her scented powder in the breeze and was reminded of my grandmother. The woman turned her head, caught sight of me pedalling behind, and gave me a nod and a smile as we glided along. 

All this is a lovely welcoming landing-pad, from the food and the markets, to old friends and cycling through the streets, to the look of Doi Sutep, looming northwest of the city, its mountain bulk sometimes blue-green, sometimes purplish (especially in the evening), and always a reassuring reminder of where I am, right here, right now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Here it is the third week in November (my apologies for being dilatory; it's twelve days since I last wrote here) and we’re still in the season of mists and sunshine, a slippage of weather that makes it feel like late October. But the days are short: here in Toronto we have less than nine and a half hours of daylight right now.

And so I am leaving, for a few short weeks, to Southeast Asia, where it’s starting to be winter, but of a different kind. Daytime temperatures are around 30 Centigrade (about 84 F) and can be higher - Chiang Mai’s forecast is in the mid-thirties for some reason, highly unusual for this time of year - and in the night it drops to the low twenties or so. As I was packing, a rather approximate activity compared to my careful abstemious packing for my book tour trips, I was reminded of summer, for light-weight cotton skirts, pants, tops, all folded down into nothing. I am checking one bag, a lumpy backpack, so there’s lots of leeway for the “why not this too?” kind of packing. I added a couple of sweaters, then took one back out. No need for overkill! I’ve got a shawl for layering and emergency shelter, socks for the plane, and books. Nothing more needed.

Except perhaps the key card that lets me into the lobby of the apartment building in Chiang Mai. hmm... Somehow it’s gone missing. I’ve got the keys to my apartment, but not the card. I’m hoping that someone is around when I get to Chiang Mai, late on Wednesday evening (with the time change and date line, I’m losing most of November 21), to let me in. And then I hope to veg out for a few days. 

Jetlag is like the flu: it’s important to get naps in, drink fluids, have books to read, and to remember that any thinking I think I’m doing is in fact unreliable and muddied.

So don’t expect much from me here, or on Facebook etc, for the next few days. I’ll try to get restored quickly, by eating fresh fruit, going for khao tom (pork rice soup) at my favorite street stall (I wrote about it in Lucky Peach in their third issue), and walking a lot. A friend said to me recently that what I need after the sometimes exhilarating intensities of book tour with the BURMA book is days to be bored...That “boredom” is a kind of fruitful emptiness that leaves space for new thoughts and ideas. Right now it feels like an enticing prospect.

I’ve loved being out and about with the BURMA book. I’ve met so many interesting people, been asked intelligent unusual questions, had great conversations. But now it’s time to retrench, consolidate, pull in my horns and recharge.

I can’t think of a better place to do that than Chiang Mai. I’m so grateful to have it as a “bolt hole”. And to have friends there who will keep me on track, call me on things, engage in discussions, challenge me....

Bring it on!

And happy thanksgiving to all who celebrate it this week. I hope you are in good company, eating interesting things, kicking back from your regular routines and responsibilities, and feeling grateful for all that you have.

POSTSCRIPT: How amazing to read about Obama’s trip to Burma this week. His speech at the University in Rangoon was terrific, cautioning about all that there is still do to, but also congratulating the government and people for the recent changes in the country. Here’s the link: Who would have thought a year ago that he’d be coming to Burma for a visit and then going on to Cambodia to give Hun Sen a piece of his mind, holding up Burma as an example of progressive movement toward democracy? Astonishing! 

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Dawn is just breaking in a clear sky, beautiful colour and light emerging to the east. I’m feeling especially lucky that the sky is clear, for I’m in Vancouver, where November is often overcast, rainy, and generally a gloomy time outdoors. Yes, there is the ocean, there are mountains, the grass is green, but usually the clouds hide all sight of mountain spectacle and the dim light and short days tend to lower people’s spirits.

And so instead I’m heading into two full days of good weather, and specatacular Vancouver views. It’s a great last stop for this intense and busy book tour I’ve been on since September 21. I’ll be doing some media each day and then in the evening I’ll be at Barbara Jo’s Books for Cooks, always a pleasure.

It’s been a long time, perhaps five years? maybe even six? since I was last in Vancouver. I’m staying with my good friend Cassandra, whom I met in law school many years ago. She’s thriving, and has, with her partner Doug, so transformed her house in Kitsilano that I wasn’t sure I’d come to the right place. Apart from all the other changes of colour and arrangement, the most striking thing is the lighting. It’s wonderful, beautifully judged, and each room feels just right. I’ve been lying in bed (early waking because of jet lag) thinking about how very unsatisfactory the lighting in my Toronto house is, and wondering how to set about improving it.

For one thing, I need to move into the new fluorescent bulbs, which means finding those with a good colour balance, one that feels comfortable to me. And I also need to figure out fixtures and light placement. My house has lots of gloomy patches somehow, or at least it feels that way in retrospect now that I’m in this very pleasingly lit environment.

Of course I’ve known for a long while that my lighting needed seeing to. But I’ve been avoiding taking it on. This house in Vancouver is like a wake-up call.  I’ve learned from Doug and Cassandra that inexpensive attractive light fixtures and fluorescent bulbs do exist; that’s what they have. It all means much better lighting with less eletricity use.

I feel like I’ve been living in the dark ages, clinging to my antiquated big old halogens and old-style light bulbs too, guzzlers of energy. I’ve been wary of fluorescent lighting, mostly because I think of fluorescent lighting as harsh and cold, very unappealing and glaring.  

Frankly though, it’s just another example of my fear of change and my somewhat mindless clinging onto what I am familiar with. I was reminded of this pattern of behaviour when Doug and I were talking last night about digital photography. (He’s a very fine photographer, who worked in the fashion industry for years.) He reminded me of how frightened I was of digital photography, before I switched from film (slides) to digital four years ago. His question was “can you even remember what it feels like to shoot film?” And the answer is “not really, no”.

There I was for a number of years digging my toes in, resisting digital and clinging to slide film, thinking nothing could match its fineness and clarity. I was wrong, for digital images have now surpassed film in all kinds of ways. Beyond that of course there’s the ability to tweak them, to transform them, and there’s also the wonderful ease when I’m travelling of not having to lug around bundles of film, and of being able to check exposure etc as I go along, rather than getting home with fears about what disasters I’ll discover once the slides are processed. And disasters there were, from scratches (a small piece of grit can get in the back of the camera) to light metre malfunctions, to problems with film processing (I lost a whole trip’s worth of Vietnam slides because of processing errors, for example).

And so here I am now after four years of digital, finally comfortable with it, and luxuriating in its flexibility. The photos in the Burma book were all shot with my digital camera in the last four years, and they’re a testament to the new technology.

I need to remind myself of this, or have a good friend remind me. For this tendency to avoid moving into the new, to instead cling to the known and familiar, isn’t very useful. I see friends with smart phones, and am still resisting; and of course, there’s that ill-lit house of mine... Time to shed more light on things!

POSTSCRIPT: The latest news is that President Obama will be visiting Burma sometime this month, as part of his trip to Southeast Asia. Great news. Here's hoping he can press for resolution of constitutional and ethnic conflict issues, for example those in Kachin State, the simmering and volatile Rohingya/Rakhine problem, and more. He's not superman, but he does have considerable authority...

Thursday, November 1, 2012


We're in Day of the Dead season: Today is November 1, All Saints Day to Christians, with All Souls tomorrow. And last night was Hallowe'en. It's a huge holiday in France and other parts of Europe, and also of course in Mexico, where the Aztec period of honouring the dead (which apparently fell sometime in early August) was moved to fall into the Christian calendar. But I'm far from most of that, here in St Helena in the Napa Valley, carved no pumpkins, gave out no treats....

It’s still dark here at nearly 6.30 in the morning, as I start writing this. Once daylight saving ends (this coming Saturday night) that will change, I guess, but by then I’ll be gone. I’ll be back home in Toronto, with only a memory of the golden-leafed vines in the valley that stand in rows like soldiers on parade. Their uniformity really struck me as I was driving up two days ago, via the Golden Gate Bridge (once again mist-wreathed) and Corte Madera (for a stop in to graze in the used book section of Book Passage), and past the edge of the Sonoma Valley. 

In Sonoma, as the lines of vine curve up the hills, emphasizing the contours of the ladscape, the human control they represent is strikingly apparent. The contrast is with soft green pastures where black beef cattle graze in random-looking patterns, and barns are weathered and aged. The vines and the wineries, on the other hand, are tidy, exact, clean-edged, and almost unreal in their orderliness, like a stage-set laid over Mother Nature.

Not sure why I was so struck this time. Perhaps it’s because the vines looked to me like children holding their hands up in the air, arms outstretched, which can be one form of schoolroom punishment. Once I saw them in this way, I couldn’t get my head to switch back to appreciating their colour and the overall vineyard landscape. The sense of coercion dominated.

Orderliness has its beauty, for sure. Perhaps it’s the scale of the orderliness here in wine country that becomes overwhelming. 

The road northbound out of St Helena, right by the Beringer winery, is flanked by a long honour guard of mature beautiful trees whose branches make a canopy overhead. Their orderliness doesn’t trouble me at all. In fact I always find passing through them almost heart-stoppingly beautiful, no matter how many times I drive that stretch of road. 

Just after the tree passage is the entrance to Greystone, the huge ex-winery that is the home of the Culinary Institute of America’s west coast campus. This week there are no classes though, for it’s time for the annual (this is the 15th annual) Worlds of Flavor conference. The place is humming with complex rhythms and patterns as staff and volunteers do prep, and visitors like me, who are presenting talks or doing demonstrations of some kind, hover around, trying to be useful, and trying to make sure that everything is ready.

In my experience, we needn’t worry, for by now people at Greystone have Worlds of Flavor down to a fine art. There are always last minute glitches, such as foreign speakers whose visas don’t come through in time, or this year the Frankenstorm Sandy, which has kept some speakers from coming, because they have flooded restaurants to deal with or no flight available that will get them here in time. We’ll be thinking of them dealing with their losses and doing the awful grunt work that is needed to clean up after a flood.

Meantime though there is work to do and there are people to meet, always the biggest treat at these conferences. This year there’s a large contingent from Turkey. I sat with some of them at lunch yesterday, and we talked again yesterday evening. It made me want to head straight to Turkey, where I haven’t been for decades. Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman have a Turkey project on the go. I’ve been wanting to spend a little time with them there. This may just be the push I need. 

One of the things that’s going on in Turkey and elsewhere is the retrieval of traditional cooking wisdom, the home cooking and country cooking that tends to get swept away and undervalued as a country modernises. It happens everywhere, from the US to Europe to Thailand, that period of disregarding and tossing out the old, the traditional, the unmodern.

And then with luck one or more people try to reverse the process. They begin to gather knowledge from grandmothers and country people. They work to preserve and honour food traditions. With any luck they are able to shift attention back to long-held knowledge before it vanishes. It’s happened in Italy (think of the Slow Food movement, as well as all the cookbooks documenting traditional country foodways), in France (think of Poilane’s championing of bread traditions for example), and in many other places, including Mexico.  

This Sunday I’ll have the pleasure of talking with a long-time fierce champion of traditional Mexican foodways, Diana Kennedy. She’s a delver into the plant wisdom and kitchen knowledge of cooks from all over that huge country. She’s been writing and teaching about these things for over forty years. And she’ll be in Toronto, at Harbourfront, as part of a Day of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos in Mexico) celebrations. We’re lucky to have this chance to hear her.

Monday, October 29, 2012


The geometries of fields in browns and golds, taupes and the occasional dark green, unspool below the plane and extend to the hazy southern horizon, farther than the eye can see. I ‘m on a flight from Austin Texas to Denver, sitting on the left side of the plane. Sometime soon I guess there will be mountains down below or on the horizon, but for now it’s the wide flatlands of Texas. The only break in the pattern is the occasional scar-like large cleft, a wrinkled river’s path etched down into the earth, and then it recedes behind.  Now an hour into the trip, the land below is getting more consistently brown. We must be nearly out of Texas.

I’ve been at the Texas Book Fair in Austin, a well-run and busy event, with live music, a Cooking Tent (where I did a Burma demo, the brilliant Shan Soup and related “tofu” simply made of chickpea flour and water), and lots of book displays, all in large white canopies set up on the streets around the Capitol. The setting gives the whole event shape and a certain grandeur too, by association. Some of the reading sessions and panels take place in the legislative rooms, high ceilinged and grand; the only disadvantage of those is that there are long lines to get through security before people can get into the building.

The people who took care of me at the Book festival, and also at Central Market, where I taught a cooking class (and in Houston Central Market where I gave a BURMA talk at a cooking class), were all generous, tuned in, and very very nice to work with. Thank-you all. I’ll be happy to come back any time...

I met a writer at the authors’ party Saturday night in Austin who said he was performing in the morning, then hoping to get back to DC ahead of the storm. I’d been so removed from larger news, because of wandering around in Austin and trying to get hold of the where and what of the place (yes, barbecue was part of my explorations, and basic Mexican too) that I hadn’t taken in the timing, nor the scale and terrifyingness of Hurricane Sandy. Perhaps also the name, unthreatening and mild, had somewhat blinded me to the extent of the emergency on the east coast?

Now thirty-six hours later, with all the flights to NYC on the board marked “cancelled” I feel very fortunate to be headed west, via Denver to San Francisco. 

One of the things about being out on book tour is the issue of basic logistics: how to pack lightly, yet have the clothes I need, and enough books to read. So far so good on the clothing, but I’m running out of book. I lay the blame partly at the door of two authors, whose books are so good that I couldn’t pace myself but instead read them far into the night, unwilling to put them down. 

The first is a novel by Rachel Joyce, published in the US and in Canada by Random House, and long-listed for the Booker. I don’t have it to hand, so I won’t get the title exactly right, but it’s something like this: The Unusual Pigrimage of Ronald Fry. Her ear for language is wonderful, and the story unsentimental, but full of feeling and discovery. The second is by Gary Nabhan, non-fiction, and is an exploration of the cultural and culinary landscape of the desert regions along the US-Mexico border. Again the title escapes me, but it is recently published by the Univerity of Texas press and has a pomegranate on the cover. Nabhan writes thoughtfully and elegantly about the plants and humans who have eked out a living in the difficult, yet enticing and beautiful deserts along the border. And he opens with the story of an early shipwrecked group of foreigners, three Spaniards and a man from Morocco, that is intriguing and also sets many preconceptions about history and food knowledge on their ear. 

As I’ve been writing this the ground below has turned to desert brown, the fields still geometrical, but tired and resting for winter. Far to the south there are no fields, just patterns of rock and below me the tentacles of etched eroded gulleys, and then dry blackish rock bumping up out of the sand. It doesn’t look inviting, not at all, but I imagine there’s a beauty to it.

The reminder is everywhere that point of view changes our understanding and judgement. And this airplane, floating in an unreal time and space above the realities on the ground, is a luxurious place to contemplate this and other questions. My head has been full of the novelties of each day, from the clear air and fat moon above Austin, and the pleasures of a generous evening of conversation with a thoughtful friend named Rachel and a late morning of the same with another remarkable food-history-interested friend named Ammini, to the young crowd on Sixth Street on Saturday night, dressed as superheroes, strippers, aliens, and many unidentifiable-by-me characters, the young women often wearing a little headpiece of fuzzy ears (like a parody of the little royalty-watchers’ hats), while bands rocked and rolled and bluesed and cowboyed in a series of cheap-drinks-and-lots-of-action bars. 

Here in the sky I can let my mind drift and shape and hope and plan, and then drift some more, until the realities of life on the ground once more take hold of me.  And it’s on the ground, in Denver I hope, that I’ll be able to post this.

Aha, as we start approaching the ground, the western horizon is framed with a wall of blue-ish mountains, topped with the odd dab of snow-white. Arrival! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Even the airport runways look beautiful right now, here in Montreal, as the late afternoon sun gilds them against a backdrop of dark clouds, and a fat solid-looking vibrant rainbow stands anchored in the richly green grass on the far side of the tarmac.  Mother Nature sure can surprise us, especially in places where she feels quite absent. Suddenly there it is - remarkable light, or startling thunder or ethereal mist - and we’re reminded that we are not in an entirely manufactured landscape and that beauty is always possible.

Sometimes we need reminding, so that we have eyes to see it. Other times we’re hit over the head with it, as I was a few minutes ago with that incredible rainbow pillar.

I’ve been in Montreal for two days now, courtesy Random Hosue Canada, on book tour. I’ve spoked to radio hosts, mostly in studio, and most of them were well prepared and interesting to talk to. I’ve done a TV interview too, with an impeccably prepared interviewer. And I’ve made some recipes from the Burma book and had lovely animated long conversations with print media people of various kinds. Today I was at Appetite for Books, a cookbook store in Westmount, talking about BURMA, answering questions, and signing books.  

Now as I get on the plane, I am trying to look forward, and get my head clear, for tomorrow I am scheduled to speak at the International Festival of Authors, a great honour.  I am on with two writers, all of us writing about travel but in very different ways. A clear head is needed between now and then, for I still haven’t decied what I will read tomorrow. My friend Robin wrote to tell me which story she thought I should include. And others have come up as candidates. But it’s still an open questions... and perhaps only when I get there tomorrow will I finally decide.

It feels like a rather more serious version of that restaurant situation, when I’m eating with a friend or more and can’t bring myself to decide what to order. When that happens I ask to go last ordering. Then I grab a decision out of the air at the last minute. What is this kind of indecisiveness? And what makes a decision crystallise? I’m not talking about life decisions here, so much as relatively simple either-or decisions.

I find the food-order-decision-in-a-restaurant situation the easiest to explore, probably because of it’s familiarity, but also I suppose because it is so essentially trivial or at least without deep or difficult consequences. So why not pick arbitrarily? Why wait for inspiration or decisiveness to strike when it surely would be just as easy to opt for one of the menu choices arbitrarily?

I think it’s because a decision is a chance to exercise power, in a small way. We hate to waste those moments, for we don’t always have that pleasureable sense that it’s up to us, that we are in charge; when we have that decision-point feeling there’s a surge of energy, a sense that we have an opportunity to get it right, and that if and when we do we’ll feel extra satisfaction.  

Once I’ve opted for my food order, I settle calmly, and then when it comes I look again, at the options, the dishes my companions ordered, and I can’t stop myself assessing whether I optimised, whether I am delighted by the result of my choice.

Is this all about intuition? Is it really about trying to match our inner needs? 

Perhaps each decision point is a place for small anxiety, as we have the chance to make the perfect choice but also the possibility that our choice will be merely OK and not ideal. 

I’ve had several times of high stress when I’ve been indecisive about what to wear, I mean seriously indecisive, so that I found the process of getting dressed very stressful. I guess it was anxiety. And that small decision, that one-day commitment, was the closest easiest thing for the anxiety to attach to.

But now, when I think about a food order in a restaurant, am I talking about the same kind of thing? Or is it that anticipation of unformed or inchoate or multi-possibility pleasure is more satisfying than anticipation of a defined or limited one? Is it just that I want to prolong the sense of possibility, the richness of choice? 

All right, so I don’t have an answer. But does this discussion help at all with understanding why I haven’t yet been able to decide what story or text I will read at the International festival of Authors tomorrow?

Well I did decide in the end which stories to read, but only a few minutes before it was time to go out and speak and read. Suddenly I felt clear and was able to eliminate a number of my “possibles”. I didn;t ask Rachel Joyce or Arno Kopecki, the two wonderful authors who read in the travel section with me, if they had experienced the same difficulty deciding. That’s a question you can ask, the next time you go to a reading...

Sunday, October 14, 2012


After the whirl and distraction of three weeks of book tour (if it’s Tuesday it must be Boston, is my version), I’ve come home to find a lovely groundedness with friends. This week will be busy, yes, as I do publicity things in Toronto and Montreal, but somehow I’m feeling less scattered.

Some of that may be just simply because I have literally done some gathering-up of pieces of paper. I’m talking of course about receipts. On tour, while hotels might be prepaid, everything else pretty much is paid for by me as I go. Then the challenge is to keep track of all the recipets and submit them to the publisher for reimbursement. I’m happy to be able to tell you that I’ve got them all sorted and stapled onto sheets, will photocopy them on Tuesday, so I can have a copy, and then off they go to New York for processing. Hurrah.

But the other reason I’m feeling great is a note that came in this morning as a comment on my facebook fan page:  A very nice man named Simon Khin commented under a photo of the BURMA book as follows:  “I got this book as a gift from Kyi Kyi (Aung San Suu Kyi) during her brief family visit to Pacific Northwest a couple of weeks ago. I’m still reading it and thoroughly enjoying it. A big thumbs up from Kyi Kyi, Alex and me.”

How amazing to hear this. What a gift! After all, Aung San Suu Kyi, this icon of Burmese democracy, is one of the symbols of all that we hope goes well in Burma. She’s working for conciliation between the central government and various important groups in the border states such as the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, the Chin. And she’s the symbol of the Burmese people’s tenacity in the face of years of political oppression and mismanagement by their rulers.  So for me to hear that she has given a copy of my Burma book to friends and family, and that she and her son Alex and others give it “a big thumbs up”... well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

I meant to write more here tonight, about various wonderful encounters in New York and Boston and Charlotte and Seattle, but suddenly it’s late and I have a whole day of media tomorrow, followed by a real treat, a book launch party at a bar in kensington Market. Being on home ground is always a pleasure. But it takes being away to make me realise how much I value life here in downtown Toronto.

Please wish me luck and clarity with all the interviews and conversations and presentations that lie ahead...

Saturday, October 6, 2012


There were spectacular tall cumulus clouds, pink-tinted, in the big sky outside my window at dawn this morning in Miami. My first time in Florida has been short and sweet: I arrived yesterday in the early afternoon and here I am in Miami airport less than twenty-four hours later waiting for my Toronto flight.

Those tall beautiful clouds in a blue blue sky were a reminder that I was near the ocean, but that’s one thing I didn’t get to do: swim in or even glimpse the sea. Everything else has been picture-postcard, from the aplm trees and warm humid Bangkok-like air, to the incredible avenues of banyan trees, each more eccentric and individual looking than its neighbour, sometimes at the centre of a boulevard, in other places arching from either side of the road to make a full enticing canopy.

I had a small tour around Coral Gables and Little Havana yesterday afternoon. A generous guy named Tom Swick, who is a travel writer and the former travel editor of the Fort Lauderdale paper, was due to have a public chat with me last night. And so he wrote last week  to ask if I’d like a look around, an introduction to the place.

He took me to the incredible Biltmore Hotel with its enormous pool, high painted ceilings, huge scale altogether. It’s like a Florida castle in its ambition. What a vision and confidence the guy had, a man named Merrick, who imagined the community in the nineteen-twenties and built the hotel, the church, the Venetian grotto pool, and the housing development. All quite fantastic. I love the look of the coral rock that was used in many of the old buildings. Some of it is plastered or stuccoed over, but a lot shows, textured and a reminder of the living creatures who formed it.

Tom drove to Little Havana, Eighth Street, and we walked past small cafe/diners, cigar shops, and more. There’s an eternal flame-topped monument to the Bay of Pigs invasion, and also an inviting canopy-roofed area where men (and the occasional woman) sit under whirring fans playing dominoes or chess. We stopped in at a fruit stand piled with avocadoes, papayas, tomatoes... They also do sandwiches and juice.  My fresh tall papaya-sugar cane-ginger juice ranks as one of the best juices I’ve ever come across. And hungry from not having eaten since before eight in the morning in New York, I devoured a generous assembled-in-front-of-me tuna sandwich with fat slices of tomato.  

To top off our excursion, just before getting back in the car to drive back to Coral Gables we stopped at a lunch counter for a Cuban coffee, a sweet strong hit of black energy in a small styrofoam cup. Yes!

The flat-roofs and low-rise look of things here, the sound of Spanish everywhere and huge signs in Spanish, the soft tropical air last night, splashes of bougainvillea and other bright colours in people’s clothing and shoes: all these thing proclaim the place a new country to me. It’s a treat. 

Perhaps the biggest treat of all was Books and Books, where I talked about BURMA with Tom Swick in front of a very appreciative group of people. Like other independent bookstores I’ve been to on this book tour, it has a large loyal following and is a pleasurable place to spend time. But not many stores of any kind, let alone bookstores, have a beautiful enclosed courtyard cafe-bar and also a series of tall airy bookshelf-lined rooms to hang out in! Still, I get the sense that it’s not the pleasing physical space alone so much as the energy and imagination with which the store is run, as it is with other independents, from Greenwich to San Francisco, that keep them alive and well.

And of course all we who write and love books and bookstores are grateful.

AFTER-THOUGHT: I did get to see the ocean after all, from the airplane, as we headed into the air over Miami, the line of white sand along the coast stretching as far as the eye could see. Amazing the housing too, stretching in all directions where once there was swamp and everglades. The remnants of that are visible from the air: waterways large and small are everywhere, gleaming in the morning sunshine. The whole landscape feels precariously close to sea level when viewed from the air, a place to enjoy now, before global warming brings invading waters...

Sunday, September 30, 2012


I’m sitting in San Francisco Airport waiting for my flight to Seattle, a good place to contemplate this wonderful first six days of book tour. The Bay area is so conscious of Asia, and people are very open to new ideas. And so there was a huge turnout at Omnivore Books for my talk, and at the Asia Society dinner cooked by Alex Ong, and great reception generally at all events and in conversations.

But what struck me this trip, apart from the lovely early autumn light in San Francisco and the beauty of the drive over the Golden Gate, was how many conversations I’ve had with strangers. I’m not talking of interactions at events. I mean those chats at a lunch counter or a sushi bar, or wherever. I chatted with a woman from Brazil the other night at Sakara a simple and good sushi bar; and last night at the same place with a young guy from Melbourne. Everyone’s story is interesting at some level, and my head is filled!

On Tuesday late morning I went to the SFMOMA, a spectacular building, and after time with their permanent collection on the second floor (the vast black and white tile floor by an artist whose name I forget was mesmerising, and lots more), and with the Cindy Sherman show, I headed up to the roof garden. 

It was bright and sunny up there; a cold Italian lemonade from the bar hit the spot. There were sculptures in the glassed area and out (a colourful Calder, a Louise Bourgeois that looks like a nest of gigantic metal spiders, etc), but the most astonishing “sculpture" was the kinetic one above our heads. The tall building next door was being retrofitted, with a tall crane, and elevators sliding up and down outside, everything in severe geometries, except the sway of the crane wire. It was mesmerising, all of it.

Several other people were gazing up, an attractive stylish tall guy with a camera taking shots occasionally, and a woman sitting on a bench near me. And so we fell into conversation. It turned out that both were artists: he teaches drawing and photography in Oakland, and she is a sculptor based in London. I felt very pedestrian in comparison! And the conversation was warming and engaged, a lovely moment between strangers.

And what a place this is: 

Earlier in the week I made a trip to Santa Rosa to tape an hour long radio interview with Steve Garner and John Ash, a real pleasure.  And then on the drive back down 101 into the City I had one of those magical times: retro vinyl on Sirius radio (by happenstance) and airy white fog drifting in from the ocean. The combo made the roller coaster ride down to the Golden Gate and onto the bridge both hallucinatory and breath-taking. Who needs drugs? I found myself musing, think of the California scene in the late sixties that I missed entirely. The bay was blue, filmed over with faint mist, the bridge was like a giant's sculpture, mysterious and powerful, and oh so graceful looking from afar.

Once on the bridge I could see the huge curves of red-panted suspension steel arcing upward until they disappeared into the white mist, like some engineer's idea of heaven or rapture. Truly awe-inspiring.

I wrote the preceding paragraphs a few days ago. Since then I’ve had a remarkable visit to Book Larder in Seattle, and to the kitchen of the Modernist Cuisine people (astonishing and strange, and very hospitable explaining everything to me); a flight to Toronto; a lightning train trip to Kingston to speak at the Authors’ Festival (and have a really pleasurable lunch with friends); an over five hours marathon Nuit Blanche last night in Toronto; and now here it is Sunday evening and I’m packing to head out tomorrow morning on tour: this week to NYC and Miami.

Wild schedule, and fun, as long as I remember to draw breath and pause occasionally. I tend to want to forge ahead and engage with every interesting person I meet. There are a lot of fascinating people out there. But sometimes this greed for new stories and connections is foolish and needs to be reined in. I need to pace myself. That’s what I say to myself when I remember.

Tomorrow night Sara Jenkins is cooking from the BURMA book at her restaurant Porsena, celebrated for its Tuscan and other rural Italian food. She’s looking forward to it, and so am I. A lot of friends are planning to come, people whom I haven’t seen for awhile. And there is a dinner with Les Dames d’Escoffier on Tuesday; a small talk at the Rubin Museum at Himalayan Happy Hour (where food from BURMA will be served) on Wednesday night; and an appearance at the library in Greenwich CT on Thursday night to give a photo talk.

This is a blogpost full of lists. Sorry! But somehow the tour feels like a succession of things/events/dates. The only thing to do is separate them with semi-colons!

Next day I fly to Miami to speak at a bookstore in Coral Gables. I’m excited, never having been to Florida before. I’m packing October clothes for NYC and a few light cottons for Miami. And I’m hoping to eat Cuban food there and see some of the Art deco buildings.

Yes, book tour turns me into a tourist, when I get a moment, gawking at the new, trying to make sense of it.

Next weekend it’s already Canadian Thanksgiving (first Monday in October). But the days are still warm, the leaves barely started turning, the eggplants in my garden sweet and ready and still making more babies. (I made a pasta sauce with them today, so delicious.)  

But the light is slanting and the wind cool, and we all know what comes next...

Sunday, September 23, 2012


There’s clear air outside my window, and morning sunshine too. The city beckons. I have writing to do, but the pull of San Francisco on a sunny September Sunday is too much for me to resist. And so I’ll come back later to my hotel room and, with a clearer head perhaps, get down to writing and thinking on the page.

For now, it’s flight into movement and muscling my way up and down the steep hills of this city.  I’ll continue later...

I wrote that six hours ago. Now I’m back after rambles around, and feeling more aired out and ready to concentrate a little.

What a day out there! I headed up Post from my hotel and into the Tenderloin. It’s such a contrast, from one street to the next, suddenly you go from affluent shops and the fancy-shmancy Hermes exhibition in Union Square to very down and out scenes in all kinds of ways: hookers in fantastic outfits at 8 in the morning negotiating for business with guys in cars, and mentally ill guys at street corners talking but not to anyone visibly there, and small corner stores with bars in the windows.

Just up the hill are high-rent beautiful buildings, well-maintained.  It’s a crude contrast in well-being.

On Hyde Street, heading south and downhill from Post, I came across a crowd of men hanging around outside a banh mi shop and cafe, Sing Sing Sandwich Shop. In I went and ordered a sandwich to go. There was a screen showing scenes from Saigon, and the mirrors on three walls reflected the film and made the small space feel larger and exotic too. Men of various ages sat at small tables talking to each other, happy, as I imagined, to be surrounded by the sound of Vietnamese and the aromas of Vietnamese food.  The sandwich came wrapped in paper. I ate it much later, pork and pate and lots of pickles and veg too; it ranks as the best banh mi I’ve had in North America, generous, beautifully done. 

I can’t be as complimentary about Burma Superstar, the very popular Burmese restaurant on Clement near 4th that I ate at last night. The vibe inside is great, the waitstaff courteous and very competent, the guy manning the door and the waiting list (over an hour long) meticulous and organised and calm. The crowd was good-humoured too. I was with Brian, who had been stuck with driving me to my two book tour obligations yesterday, about which more later. 

We ordered the ginger salad, the pork with pickled mustard greens, the cabbage salad with mint, the fried tofu squares, and the tofu and okra, as well as rice of course (jasmine), and ginger-lemonade. The drink was very good and cabbage salad too; the rice was fine. And after that? Not wonderful. It’s really too bad, on the one hand, given all the easy-to-make glories of Burmese culinary tradition; I’d love people to be getting a real taste. On the other hand it’s great that the owners have made such a success of their business that they now have four other locations of the restaurant, I’m told.

Earlier, on Friday, I walked in Chinatown, uphill from where I’m staying, and then uphill some more, a great pleasure after hours on the plane. And I came on the wok shop that Grace Young talks about in her books. It’s a treasure house. There are spun steel woks and hand-hammered woks of all sizes, as well as other kitchenware, spiders for example, and ladles. I ended up buying two spatulas for wok frying, one for me and one for a friend. The shovels are of hand-shaped steel, not stainless, and the handles wood and comfortable. I hope I can take them in hand-carry with no problem. They don’t look like they could inflict damage on anyone, do they? I ask myself hopefully.

After the Viet sandwich shop this morning I reached the farmers market on Market Street, a huge affair, open air and spectacular (Wed and Sunday, and a smaller version on Fridays, until 1 pm). The produce here is extraordinary, from walnuts and peaches and berries and pomegranates (from the hot valleys in the interior) to mushrooms (coastal, including some funky lovely brain-shaped ones whose name I don’t remember) and six or more kinds of eggplants, and two kinds of bitter melon, and even “bac ha” the stem of giant taro that goes into Vietnamese sour soup. All grown here (the bac ha in a greenhouse, the others outdoors). And I mustn’t forget to mention the tomatoes, lots of heritage varieties like, but not the same as, the heritage tomatoes in Ontario farmers’ markets.

There was a fish monger with healthy looking catfish, salmon farmed and wild, loads of shrimp, and more. And then there were stacks of greens, orchids, honey, berries; about a quarter of the vendors were labelled organic it seemed to me.

I stopped and ate a pupusa in the sunshine, with horchata to drink, and listened and watched with pleasure as two older guys played jazz guitar (one on bass for rhythm) in the brightness, a hat out for donations. They were good. A guy nearby danced as they played, unostentatiously, for his own pleasure.  People were smiling and unrushed. It was a Sunday scene from a picture book.

But I must tell you about yesterday, in many ways an exercise in surfing the unexpected glitches that can arise. Whew! Brian got me to the radio station in plenty of time in the morning, to do a show that used to be Gene Burns Dining Around (he was such a pleasure to talk to) and that has now, because of Gene’s illness, been taken on by Joel Riddell, a guy with great curiosity and good energy. Our chat was fine, but then catastrophe...the car wouldn’t start. We were due in Napa at 1 pm for a talk with photos and a demo. Time was tight. Yikes.

We raced to Enterprise car rental, and they, having been phoned ahead, were super quick and super nice. Brian hurtled us up the I-80, after heavy traffic on the Bay Bridge, and we got to Napa about 10 minutes before I was supposed to start. But then there were other malfinctions to do with computers and projectors. Unbelievable. Again, we did a work-around, no sweat. The demo (tender greens salad) happened first, and people loved it and also the sample beef jerky that the wonderful Joanna of Copperfelds had made (she’s also made loads of other recipes from the book in the last month, so nice for me to hear about her pleasure with it all).  And then the people who’d come looked at the images of Burma on a computer screen, huddling around rather than being able to stare at a big screen. Everyone was so good-tempered about it. And thus we surfed the glitches without a raised voice or other stress.

By the way, there’s no explanation for the car malfunction, execept that it was clearly something electrical (and not the battery). (Later, once we got back, Brian drove to where his car was and tried again, and it started. Go figure. These things are sent to try us, is the only conclusion I could come to. But all of that kind of thing is a publicist’s and escort’s nightmare.)

It's easy to get upset when things go wrong, but really, when I think of all that has had to go right for this Burma book to exist, I can't be upset at small stuff. 

The drive back was lovely. We went the other way, the westward loop along the edge of Sonoma, past the geometries of vineyards, then through Marin and over the Golden Gate. The city shone in the slanting golden late afternoon light like a mirage, all flat-roofed patterns climbing up and down hills. 

Once I got back the adrenaline of the day took me to the hotel bar, where I had a gin and tonic and talked to the barman. He turned out to be Burmese, serendipity. I told him I was on tour with a Burma book and we chatted awhile. It’s a huge time for Burmese expats in the US, with Aung San Suu Kyi visiting and lots of attention in the media. 

I’ll keep posting tour notes as and when I have something to tell you. For now I can say that it’s a privilege to have all this sun-filled time in San Francisco - I’m here until Thursday morning!

I'm at Omnivore Books tomorrow at 6 pm talking about BURMA and signing books. And I'm at Book Passage in Corte Madera/San Rafael, on Wednesday evenimg, showing photos and talking about BURMA. Do drop by if you're in the area.
And then this afternoon, a nice surprise: Just as I was about to sit and write this, I got a call on Skype from Dom, who is in London for three months. I've never Skyped with him (haven't done much of it with anyone). So strange to see the face of my older child in the Skype video image, looking so mature and so well, and to hear the sounds in the internet cafe place around him. Lucky to be able to do all this.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


There’s a beautiful adorable seven-month-old chlid sitting with his parents in the seats in front of me. And every other seat in the plane is full too. Welcome to the direct Seattle-Toronto Air Canada flight on Sunday September 16.

This morning in the Skagit Valley, as we started to drive south to Seattle, there was soft mist along all the contours of the landcsape, the hills and mountains that frame the valley were outlined in softly shaded blue like a Japanese watercolor, and a thick layer of pale mist obscured the wide valley, so that the hills seemed as if they were floating on a sea of mist. Lovely. 

It’s always nice to head home, but I have to admit to huge regret at leaving beautiful Skagit country, and the welcoming hospitality of the people in and around Mt Vernon who hosted and animated the Kneading Conference West these last few days. Like the original Kneading Conference in Skowhegan Maine, (the sixth annual one there took place in late July) the Kneading Conference West (this was the second annual) brings together millers, bakers, farmers, oven builders, and scientists for two full days to talk about grain and bread and milling, about sustainability, the bakery business, the farming business and more; to argue and discuss many issues around all these topics; to make and taste breads and crackers and other grain products; and to build ovens.

I’ve learned a lot. And hopefully people have learned from me too. I worked with Dawn the baker, my good friend Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers, me assisting her with her two workshops, and she helping enormously with my two. We got there a full day ahead to prep and discovered at the Washington State College Ag Research Station a sense of anticipation and a wonderful preparedness. 

The whole place is set in a remarkable garden like a Garden of Eden, especially at this time of year, with pears hanging heavily on beautiful espaliered trees, vegetable bed of greens and vines and more, and endless educational plantings of all kinds. Signs on the beautiful fruit trees ask visitors to please not pick the fruit (they need it intact for research purposes). And so in another way too it also had a garden of Eden feel, loaded as it was with temptation!

Our main job on that first prep day was to make plain crackers, flour and salt and water crackers, out of as many whole grain single varietal wheat flours as possible. Steve, the director of the Station milled some flours from small stocks of unusual varieties that he had available. Others we’d brought with us from Ontario, and others we took from the huge array of flours sitting in large sacks in the baking room.  Along with the wheats, we had several spelt flours, an emmer, several ryes, and a barley to make into crackers. Altogether we had eighteen different samples to work with.

The idea was to have a tasting, to try to identify taste characteristics of not only different varieties but also of the same wheat grown in different locations (we did this with Red Fife, comparing three different ones; and with spelt).  But to do the tasting we needed crackers to taste. That involved hand kneading and hand rolling a lot of small batches of dough. We managed to stay organised about our labelling, a good and necessary thing. And there was a four deck stack oven to bake the crackers in.

In the process of making them we discovered huge differences in the aroma of the freshly wetted flour, in the kneading and rolling out characteristics, in the taste of the fresh crackers, and then, the next day, in the taste of the day-old crackers. The session was fun, as people came up with descriptors for the tastes and aromas they discerned. It made us realise how much more we could do next time. (And it confirmed both of us about the remarkable deliciousness of Red Fife wheat.)

The tasting was perhaps equivalent to a first stab at tasting different red wines, if you had only ever drunk  blended batch wines. We searched for descriptive vocabulary, and we didn’t all agree - yes, both exciting and a little daunting!

Dawn’s other workshop was a cracker one, which took place at a wood-fired oven with a big crowd. Crackers are a new idea for many people. They’re a great way to bake with whole grains and a blend of grains. But anyone who has made crackers knows that because they are very thin, they bake unevenly and thus baking can be tricky. It’s even more so when you’re working with a wood-fired oven. But Mark, the guy whose oven it was, wasn’t fased and helped make it happen without stress. We relied on him too for both my workshops, one on leavened flatbreads, and one on sweet baking with yeasted doughs. 

The flatbreads were diverse: a version of snowshoe naan using yogurt and a partially whole wheat dough; a barley bread from Finland made with yogurt, pearl barley and barley flour and no wheat flour; pittili, the Pugliese loaf made with an extremely sloppy dough that is a little tricky to shape and delicious to eat; and finally, my first time out in public with a recipe from the BURMA book, the bread called nan-piar from Burma. Fun! We had a large crowd, people very interested in flatbreads and in the possibilities they represent for more flexible baking and for baking with whole grains and non-wheat flours. 

The sweet baking doughs we’d made well ahead. We made one kouignaman (delish Breton butter cake) the night before, so we could have samples ready at the workshop. Then I shaped a second one in front of the crowd. We also made a cake flavoured with currants, fabulous local walnuts, and some coconut; a version of sweet anise crispbreads; and about five fruit tarts, using local fruits of course.

The tarts were a wow, topped with sliced pears (Red Crimsons) or chopped apple (can’t remember the variety right now, sorry), or sliced purple plums. There’s nothing better than a yeasted dough enriched with butter, as the base of a fruit tart. And no-one seemed to disagree. The tarts vanished down hungry gullets. No leftovers to cope with. And then the conference was over.

I should mention too the stimulating talk I heard about flour and bread science. It was much too short. I wanted to hear each aspect explored in detail. The geek in me likes to understand the minutiae; that’s how I can understand best, from the basics up. Just to give you an idea: we heard about the starch structure in wheat flour (amylose and amylopectin, as in rice), and about amylase and beta amylase; (the enzymes that break down starches). We got a glimpse of the complexities in the discussion about the temperatures at which they are most active, the interaction of proteins and starches in the absorption of water; what all of it means for the baker, and on and on. It was enthralling and left me hungry for more.

See you there next year, perhaps?