Saturday, April 28, 2012


Apologies for starting with a complaint, but blogger has a new look, and I'm finding it very off-putting. Or maybe any new look, like the recent revision of Facebook, is disturbing. We like our tools to stay comfortable. Any change forces us to think anew about things and be uncomfortable until we are accustomed to it. But I'm not here to complain about online stuff. It all feels so small-beer compared to the vast and glorious diversity of the natural world. Yes, I'm burbling on, once more, about the wonders of mother nature.

I've just returned from a quick car trip to Ottawa to see various friends and go to a public session about Burma. As I whizzed along up the highway the leaves of Toronto gave way to a pre-leaf blur of green on the trees by the road and along the fence-lines in farm country. And by the time I was driving back two days later, despite unseasonably cold weather, the sunshine had worked its magic and the trees were yellow-green, definitely more in leaf, and brighter altogether.

 As always when I go to Ottawa I am aware that life IS time-travel. I grew up in Ottawa and any trip back reminds me of places and events and people from times past, like flipping through a photo album, but with a more impressionistic and less linear feel. And seeing my aged aunt, in full-blown dementia, but still polite and nice to people helping her, and saying "I don't know what to do" (quite true) or "I don't know where I'm going" (also true) is time-travel of another kind.  Exchanges with her have a super-real quality or super-true, kind of drug-trippish. I choose to read them as reflecting some larger truth. For her, who knows? They may be just fragments without deeper meaning, or they may be deeply intended, things she didn't dare say when she was concerned with decorum and privacy and in control.

 And that's the other thing: old age potentially robs us of dignity, and of privacy, as does illness. We're all heading there sooner or later. How do we cope? How should we prepare? Or should we just dance and sing while the going is good, and then leave it to others to worry about our care when we decline? I am sure that we shouldn't worry. Worry is a waste of time. But it's worth thinking about these things.

I feel so fortunate to be able to time travel in my mind's eye, visualising people and events from earlier days. I like reconnecting with old friends and reflecting on where we find ourselves now, how little we imagined the world that we now find ourselves in. It's fun, and diverting, like watching reruns of films and getting a deeper or different understanding of them second or third time round.

 Today as I sat in the bright sun at my cousin's place watching finches and wrens, a hairy woodpecker, and other birds I can't name, at a bird feeder, my cousin said something to the effect that we spend all our lives trying to understand how things work and how to do things, and just as we get some clarity and wisdom, it's the end. hmm But that insight doesn't have to be a sad or depressing picture. We can just accept that life is about exploration, and to be enjoyed while we're able.

 I'm loving life these days, happily focussed on the now: the BURMA book is at third galleys stage, headed to the printer later this week; my two grown kids are flourishing at their university studies (yes, some people do flourish in the hothouse of Ancient Greek, or philosophy); the garden is freshly dug up and waiting for seeds; and summer is coming, with trips to the Kneading Conference West in September and to the Oxford Symposium in early July, and visits from friends promised here and there.

And before that travelling I have some teaching to do: a course called Foods that Changed the World, at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. I love preparing for the six weeks of lectures, two hours every Tuesday. It's made me do time travel of a different kind, as I reflect on the movement of foods and food ideas around the world. The first session is about Salt and about Sugar, essentials and seductions you could say. There's trade and preserving and slavery too, as well as photos I've taken over the years: salt in Ethiopia, Burma, Thailand, and Senegal...

 Happy end of April to you all.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


It’s still spring, and that means it’s still time for spring cleaning. There’s the ongoing need to retune the brain and the expectations (a kind of psychological spring cleaning), and there’s the practical very physical problem of the office that needs a clean. That second one is what I was engaged with today.

Finally, after what seems like a month of drought, we had rain today, just an ongoing drizzle, but enough to discourage thoughts of a long bike ride or other outdoor ambitions. And so, to the office.

Unrushed, because in denial that I was doing it, I actually managed to make decisions, throw things out rather than stacking them for later, sort piles of keepers, reshelve books… It didn’t seem like a lot of result for four hours work, but the fact is, what I did get done was going to take four hours sometime, if not today then perhaps on a beautiful sunny day, so better get it over with. So went my internal dialogue.

And now, this evening, I can see surfaces; there are no dread mysteries lurking and awaiting discovery, and I feel lighter.

Truly spring is wonderful.

Also, the crabapple tree out front, tall and generous, as wide as the yard, is in white beautiful bloom; the wisteria out back is coming into leaf and has some fat flower buds on it, hurrah! And today’s rain was enough to make the garden soil dark and moist, so that I finally felt it was OK to dig with the shovel and turn the soil. I had planted rye and clover as a cover crop; they’re now turned under. In the areas where I had done no watering last week, the soil six inches down was still bone dry; the rain had only penetrated a short way. But where I had watered, somehow the rain percolated through better.

The earthworms looked happy and energetic.

Now we need more rain, regularly every other day for about two weeks, to try to catch up a little. I’m told by farmers near Toronto that the rhubarb and spinach and asparagus is all looking sad because of lack of water.

Earth Day is now, just two days after the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view and politics) 4-20, the day for promoting the legalisation of marijuana (or should I say the decriminalisation?). No arrests reported, and a good time had by all, I gather. Let’s celebrate by doing a rain dance or two, and starting to plant lettuce greens and other early seeds (some of you are way ahead of me, I know, but for those who aren’t…)

My new springing to life happened today, not in the garden but at the computer: I was putzing around with Lightbox, and started to use it to tidy up a skanned image (it started as a slide and is now skanned to be a digital image). Instead of being afraid, for the first time I just ploughed on, removing spots and dirt marks, altering the contrast etc. And when I’d done the image looked much healthier, and in fact much more like the original slide.

Slides, being material things, are always at risk of damage or tarnishing by dust or other dirt. And so enter the magic of digital processing. Presto-Chango, as a kids’ book has it, the damage and dirt are erased and the image is like new, better than new.

But the biggest wonder of all for me was to discover that I could do it and become fluent at it, lose my fear of messing up and just engage.

Why do these lessons take learning and re-learning? Every new thing is cause for anxiety of some kind. And then when, because of drink or tiredness (neither helped me this time) or just because the passage of time makes fed-upness (the thing that drove me), I just get on with trying it or doing it, whatever it is, from the new video camera, to tidying photos with Lightbox, to you name it, there’s a break-through. There’s no disaster; things go just fine.

In fact there’s a liberation, the discovery of a new skill is cause for jubikation and a feeling of freedom.

Maybe people who are afraid of cooking or baking feel this way once they try it. Or those who are afraid of driving, or bicycling in the city… We’re all prisoners to some degree of our anxieties large and small.

And so I am reporting here my liberation from the bondage of Lightroom anxiety and into the freedom to tidy up and edit my own photos, rather than having to cry “help!” to Nicole or some other young person with quick hands and confident expertise.

The transition from fearful pre-beginner to engaged learner is a magical one. I want to go on remembering that it’s always worth the pain of the anxiety, for that’s what in the end pushes me into new tasks, new challenges. It’s the not-knowing that’s an exciting (and irritating and painful) stimulus. There’s nothing special about knowing; it’s not-knowing that’s a source of richness, progress,, and insight.


AND A POSTSCRIPT: The BURMA book is getting ever-closer to being shipped off to the printer. There's a new cover design, great news, still being finalised but already a lovely leap ahead; and the photo picks are almost final. I am so grateful to be consulted through all this process; many publishers aren't nearly so considerate of their authors. Thanks, Artisan!

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Where to start? There’s so much to write about at this full and optimistic time of year. The honour guard of cherry trees by the University of Toronto main library was in fullest glorious white bloom last weekend and this week. “It looks like popcorn” said E, who is six. Well yes, sort of. And also like impossible snow. The other day I rode my bicycle down the path between the trees, reaching up to touch the tender blossoms as I glided by, as if in some kind of hallucination. Quite fantastic.

Meantime the other trees are in flower, the kind of unobtrusive not-cherry-blossom flowers that many deciduous trees have, noticeable for the bright green life in them, with maybe a touch of dark red, rather than for their profusion or dreaminess. The chestnuts (horse chestnuts) on my street and in various places in the university have fat blobs on their branches that are slowly cracking open to show the green leaves inside, all sticky and ready to unfurl. What a process. And every year it’s the same, and yet at the same time every year it’s different, this gradual arrival of new life and greenness.

I’ve been eating dandelion greens and garlic chive shoots and garlic shoots for weeks now. And yet it seems a little backward this spring, for we’re having a lot of clear sharp days with a nip in the air, March days, while in March we had soft warm April-May weather. The gardens are confused and so are the gardeners. Do we plant now and risk hard frost? Do we plant later and find ourselves late? hmm

Late is what I didn’t want to be this week, and I managed it. I’m talking about the second galleys (designed pages) for the BURMA book. I was due to send at least half of them back to New York on Monday, and the rest today and hurrah! I did. Now there will be small tweaks and adjustments, but things are almost there. So exciting.

To mark that feeling of donenness, I had planned to make a Kachin beef recipe from the book for supper. But before I got started a friend and neighbour dropped by with a bottle of red wine. It’s a treat to have people drop by, an unscheduled treat of the best kind. I felt like I’d re-emerged from a rabbit hole or a deep sea voyage or something as we chatted and sipped, and I got started cooking supper.

The Kachin beef is delicious and unusual: cubes of beef are simmered in very little water until cooked through and tender, then put in a large mortar with a pounded flavour paste of toasted Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, garlic, dried red chiles, and salt, oh, and lots of Vietnamese coriander leaves, and pounded until imbued with the paste and broken down into tender fragments. It sounds odd, perhaps, but it’s delicious, like an almost-pemmican I suppose, and even more so the next day. I’m glad we have some leftovers.

The other supper pleasure was black sticky rice cooked plain in water until tender. Its chewiness and gleaming blackness were a treat, a nice complement to tender cooked beans, “bird egg” lima beans from the Amish at Hope Farms, with chunks of sweet potato added to them, a little red wine, and a touch of olive oil and soy sauce. And we had salad, with skillet cake to follow. Not bad for a weeknight! With the real cold in the air this evening, a warming wintery meal was just what we needed.

What’s next? Well taxes of course. They’re not due until the end of April in Canada, but I have an appointment with the accountant on Monday, and so by then I need to have everything organised and totalled and sorted. I figure I’ve got another five hours work to do.

It does seem unfair and silly that each of us goes through this each year. Most of us are very unqualified to sort and sift financial stuff, receipts and vouchers and T-whatever slips. We’re not experts at this, just fumbling amateurs who every year have to go through the process. It’s kind of like, as a kid when you had to do certain chores every day or every week. I thought I’d get to grow out of those trapping situations. Instead they morphed into tests and term papers (my kid Tashi just pulled an all-nighter for one) and eventually into the adult version that’s called “doing your taxes”.

It’s a rigged game and I’m the patsy, that’s how it feels!

If this is all there is to complain about though, we’re lucky. And the sun is shining (perhaps too much – we could do with some rain, lots of it) the birds active.

Easter and Passover happened last weekend for everyone, except those in the Orthodox tradition, whose Easter is this weekend. I made a short visit to Grey County a week ago. The post-equinox full moon, the moon that sets Easter clocks in motion, lit the forest like floodlights, making sharp tree-shadow stripes. The “Moon Shadow” song wouldn’t leave my head as I walked along an undulating path to my sleeping quarters, keeping my knees loose to help with balance, all depth perception lost in the stripiness of white white light and black black shadows. Wild and lovely and haunting.

In Burma and Thailand the seasons turn right now too. It’s time for the big new year celebrations: Thingyan in Burmese, Song Kran in Thai. They fall in mid-April as the hot season is pressing down and they are an anticipation of the renewing monsoon rains that are going to come (and usually there’s a scattered shower here and there in early April). People throw water, just as they do at the similar festival in India called Holi. It’s a wet unpredictable somewhat crazy time to be out and about. And it marks the start of the new agricultural year, the time to till and plant.

And so far away around the globe we are on parallel tracks, we’re at equivalent points in our yearly cycle. Renewal here is marked by the return of warmth and sun; renewal in Southeast Asia comes with the monsoon rains that bring new life and fertility to the fields.

Bring it on!

Monday, April 2, 2012


Here it is April 1, and I’ve fooled no-one, at least not yet.

But I do feel as if things are a little unbelievable. I’m sitting writing on my laptop in a light airy room on the top floor of the steep narrow house on 12th Street West that James Beard lived in for so many years. It’s now James Beard House, a headquarters for the eponymous foundation and a place chefs come to prepare feasts from time to time. There’s no food feasting here today, just presentation, consumption, discussion - of ideas. I’m about to talk to some IACP conference-goers about “how to find real food when you go somewhere, and how to bring it home”. I had another session yesterday that filled, so this is a second one. It’s all about immersion, and being prepared to be open to the moment, the place, the people; and that means no rigid plans and a certain necessary change in attitude/appraoch. Ah, here they come now....

… I wrote all that yesterday morning, in New York, and now it’s Monday April 2 and I’m back in Toronto. I am so grateful to have been asked to give that talk (and to have been able to do it twice in two very different venues). It forced me, in preparing, to name to myself some of the elements that make travel and food exploration special, to me, and what the basics are.

It does all come down to respect, I think, repect for others and for their food in the broadest sense; appreciativeness is another slice of the idea. The question is, how to get there? And that’s where I began the sessions, with the idea of immersion, letting go of your personal plans and expectations and tuning in to the place where you are.

As always with these things, the preparation, the process of thinking and reflecting on what I want to say, is very valuable. So too is the feedback, in the form of questions during the session and then conversations afterward. I especially love hearing from young people, those starting out, already with experience, and still hungry for more, with their eyes wonderfully wide open and inquiring. So if any of you IACP-ers are reading this, just know that I appreciate all your attentiveness and your participation.

Yesterday was a big day too because in Burma the bye-elections, while not perfectly run, did lead to victory for the opposition NLD in most ridings, including for Aung San Suu Kyi. Now we’ll all watch and hope, fingers crossed that the country continues to move forward toward national reconciliation and more open government and human and civil rights. All in all a great April 1.

I have to mention three meals I had in New York.

The first was breakfast with a friend at a place neither of us had been to, plucked from a Google list. It was delicious, tasted like we were in someone’s kitchen: perfectly boiled eggs with toast fingers; roasted potatoes that came with some skeins of fried onion; and roast peeled whole tomatoes, all so satisfying on a chilly grey windy Saturday morning. Where? you ask. At the odd-looking (both inside and out) Maritime Hotel on Ninth Avenue at 17th; the resto name is Bottega.

The second, on Saturday night, was truly home-cooked, by my friend Jane. Simple, but not simple. Great dried pasta, fettuccine, dressed with clams cooked in a guanciali-rich sauce. Unbelievably satisfying and delicious. (If you don’t have guanciale, cured pork-cheek “bacon”, that’s not smoked, and is best used chopped into small cubes, you can substitute pancetta, but it’s not quite the same.) There was a green salad (uncluttered with stuff like tomatoes, so much the best way) to refresh our mouths and brighten them. And then dessert was good ice cream made extraordinary with a blueberry sauce: simmered blueberries with plenty of lemon zest, some preserved ginger, a little vanilla, and some sugar. What could be bad? you say. Exactly!

Others at the IACP of course went out dining and checking out the NYC scene. Good for them. But I was happy, so happy, to feel home and dry. Food made with love in a home kitchen: there’s nothing better. A restaurant gives a wonderful sense of occasion and society that’s stimulating and exciting. But after a long day, intimacy is what I craved.

On Sunday after my Beard House time, there was another excellent breakfast – well, closer to brunch I guess, but I had poached eggs (on a bed of chunked tender squash and some greens and potato) so it was breakfast-feeling to me. The resto is Morandi, at Seventh and Waverley Place. What an appealing menu. And we were a family-ish group, comfy on a Sunday morning and happy to chat about two docs, the Pina Bausch and the Gerhardt Richter, as well as about the pleasures of Provence, where all but one of the six other people at the table had been together recently. It set me imagining, seeing pictures in my head - of St Remy, Mont Ventoux, the clear light - and conjuring up smells and tastes.

And that brings me back to travel, and the pleasure (and necessity, I’d argue) of whole-hearted immersion. If you can manage to immerse, then you are immeasurably enriched, not just in the moment (already a special privilege) but also in times to come, for the imprinting you get from immersion stays with you, enables you to remember and to dream…