Saturday, June 30, 2012


It’s a balmy Saturday evening here in Toronto. But more notably, it’s the last day of June. What a turning point: moving day for some; the start of summer holidays for teachers all over the country; the heart of Pride Week; and the night before the start of a new year for doctors beginning a residency.

I said as much to a friend today, for I’d noticed the small rented moving trucks and U-Hauls all over town this morning as I pedalled around the otherwise empty streets on errands, and those made me think of the other June 30 markers. And we agreed that, no disrespect intended, it’s best to try to avoid needing a hospital in these first four to six weeks of summer, until the new residents find their feet. 

“Surely not!” said D who overheard this. “After all they’ve already had a lot of training!”  Sure probably, but not the same kind of specific on-the-job-training that they now face. Just as the smartest most capable first-year lawyer is still all at sea for awhile, floundering and trying to find her/his feet, so too with new residents.  We’re glad they get to learn on the job, real skills. And we know they’re supervised etc. It’s just that everything can take longer, and also there’s sometimes a certain confidence lacking.

That’s as it should be.

We don’t want people pretending a fake confidence, do we? We all want to be able to acknowledge that there’s a lot to learn and that it’s no shame to say, “I am not sure; I will ask my ..(supervising person)..”  Perhaps in fact we’re in safer surer hands when doctors are just starting out, and lawyers too, for that is when they know they don’t know. And that is also when there’s no shame in asking for advice.

The real risk comes when people are senior enough that they are embarrassed to ask for help or advice.

Maybe I have it all wrong in what I wrote above. Maybe we should feel more confident in the weeks just after July 1, as we see the fresh young residents start on the next stage of their journey by learning on us!

Heard some intense Cuban music last night at Lula Lounge, with Jane Bennett. The music was great, but most amazing to me (and this just shows my ignorance of the scene) was the incredible salsa dancing on the dance floor. It was packed. And the fabulous intricate, rhythmical, and completely attuned pairs dancing were a sight to behold. Lovely.

The bicycle ride back along Dundas, catching all the lights, as happens so rarely, in the warm night air, with not much traffic (it felt like everyone except the salsa dancers had left town for the long Canada Day weekend), was exhilarating.

And so is the prospect of two more months of summer.

Happy July everyone.

PS Thanks to everyone who posted comments about and likes of the cover of the Burma book on my Facebook pages.  I'll post the book tour schedule when I know it in more detail... I'll be out and about with the book from late September until mid-November, which is to say that Artisan in the US and RAndom House in Canada are both doing a great job of supporting and promoting the book.

Monday, June 25, 2012


As I sit in a chilly breeze, by an open door and looking out at the green and growing garden under a clear blue sky, I realise that I often start these posts with the weather. Is it cultural? Some Anglo streak that insists on making itself felt? Perhaps in part, but it's also a reflection of just how much the sky and light and weather generally affect moods and plans and the feel of the city.

Speaking of moods, the break in the heat last Thursday night came just in time, so that Friday night a passle of friends could dance and chat and eat and drink in comfort well into the warm breezy night.  The mood was relaxed, happy, engaged...truly a first summer party feel.

Though dancing was the main event, with talking a close second, there was also what to eat: Fresh strawberries picked that morning in Grey County were a highlight, along with sugar snap peas organically grown there too. We ate the peas raw, almost like green candy, and whoosh! they vanished. On the cooked food front, there were two brilliant cakes, large generous cakes, by dawnthebaker assisted by Evelyn, of Evelyn's Crackers; and some chocolate brownies that disappeared before I even saw them; as well as grilled beef salad, the meat alluringly smoky tasting, I have to say, because of the way the charcoal fire burned, made from flatiron steaks from Sanagan's. I grilled mushrooms of various kinds and they were really the hit for me, because of the (always reliable) olive oil and fish sauce coating of flavour they got just before I put them on the grill. All they needed was a squeeze of lime juice to finish them.

There was some sticky rice left over, and not much else.  Clean-up was easy easy, with help, and done before 3 am. Ahhh

The late nights I used to keep in university and afterward are not as easy now. I mean, they're easy enough at the time, and fun, but the lingering afterward of sleepiness and dopiness at odd hours of the day is a little long - at least three days. It's like jetlag I guess: pleasures that are paid for later.  The easy answer is to make sure to get to bed in good time. But these long limpid-light evenings are irresistible, and so I find myself up and outside in the soft air until way past midnight, way past one, .... you get the idea.

Pedalling around with an old friend on Saturday evening for example, listening in for a half hour here and there to various offerings of the Toronto jazz festival, was a perfect way to linger through the summer evening and make every moment a pleasure. Then yesterday I took my bicycle to Ward's Island for an afternoon singing (shape-note singing) at the small beautiful church, over a hundred years old, made of wood, with generous clear acoustics. We sang with the doors open to the green outdoors. Every once in awhile one of the long trailing tour bus cart things would come by and pause for a moment in front of the church, the guide's amplified voice telling stories of the past to bemused? bored? sleepy? tourists.

At singing we sometimes sight-read a new-to-us song, most often sight-read with the benefit of having sung it before a few times, or often in some cases. We sing a capella and the harmonies are delicious, the syncopations of rhythm occasionally startling. Yesterday was a long packed sing; we tried all sorts of less familiar tunes. And by the time I was sitting at the dock gazing at the mirage-like view of acqua railings framing the city's skyline across the water, I realised I was pooped. Yes, my voice was a little tired, but more it was because of the concentration. Reading music and words and trying to stay focussed seem like easy pleasures, and they are, but/and at the same time they do take effort.

And so although yesterday was not a heavy day of work, last night I was ready to catch up on sleep and dream a long night away.

One more thing, to do with food: I have leggy broccoli raab in my garden, grown from seed. I snap off pieces and then watch them regrow. The same goes for the kale that lasted through the winter.  I chop stir-fry the greens, or float pieces in soup. But I also chop the kale and include it in tender greens salad. Delicious. Last night I did that, and also used it in a simple soup made with masur (red) dal. I tempered the soup with chopped spring onions and some ginger cooked in olive oil, along with a blend of freshly ground cumin and coriander seed, and a couple of dried red chiles. A dash of white wine left over from the party finished it nicely.

Last week I gave the last class of my six-week Foods that Changed the World course at U of T's School of Continuing Studies. I miss it already. There was a pattern of intense reading and thinking and organising for weeks beforehand and also every week all through the course, as I tried to sort out what to cover, and how.  I'll be giving it again next year, and hopefully will be able to do a second food-and-culture-related course too.  More when I know.  And my student feed-back was very good, which always feels great. The thing I learned from it that I will try to do better with next year is that I should have had everyone introduce themselves and give a little of their background. We had some amazing resources in there, and it was only by "accident" that we learned of the expertise and food-related history of the class members.

It's always good to have a clear idea of how to improve and do better next time. And it's a luxury to have a "next time" to work with. Happy summer everyone.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


This run of fabulous summer weather is continuing, giving us soft nights where the air is skin temperature and everyone is out in the streets walking, chatting, hanging out at a bar or cafe.  I love pedalling in the dark through the soft air, whooshing along on my bicycle. It's so freeing.

These weeks in the daytime, along College and also on Bloor, the bars fill around lunchtime and are open to the street, so we can all see the action and hear the cheers and the groans: people are glued to large screens as they watch the next round of European Cup soccer.

Yesterday afternoon I walked past a small bar and got waved in. "Who are you supporting?" asked several guys sitting along the bar. I looked at the screen: Netherlands 1; Portugal 0. "Portugal" I said.  Huge smiles.  "Come, sit down! What will you have?" I demurred, needing to get home because guests were coming for an early father's day supper. "Next time!" they said cheerfully, and went back to the game. Later Portugal rallied to beat the Dutch and advance to the next round.  

I really must get out to watch a match or two this week.  Every two years we have this pleasure, either the World Cup or the European Cup, as fans settle in to watch the matches and cheer, and put flags on their cars and honk their way down the street when their team wins. Even-numbered Junes in Toronto are enriched by all this.

Meantime the annual pleasures continue to unfold: the peonies are done, but the tall red rose bush (more a skinny tree than a bush in fact) is loaded with rich-red heads, and the day lilies are starting to bloom. The tomato and pepper plants that went in four weeks ago are looking healthy; I've mulched the tomatoes in an effort to discourage blight. I've been eating scads of sweet and tender broccoli raab grown from seed this spring. And there's a tall kale plant that came through the winter and has tender grey-green leaves, great for quick stir-frying.  The red okra seeds that were planted at the same time as the rapini have not produced much growth. They may have needed more warmth to get started. And they also seem to attract slugs, so they're always hitting setbacks.Win a few, lose a few, is the theme of the garden and needs to be the motto of the gardener, or else s/he goes crazy.

Last night we had a mixed greens salad of leaves from all over the garden, from slightly mature romaine to oak leaf lettuce to some sorrel and tender spinach...Nothing better than fresh lettuce. But as it gets tough in the heat, I am starting to look forward to the first cherry tomatoes, still three to four weeks away probably. sigh.

Tomorrow I teach the last of my six classes on Foods that Changed the World. It has been such a pleasure, as well as lots of work. It makes me want to teach a second food-related course. I've been thinking about something that could explore fermentation and preservation "Putting Food By" kinds of things, from soy processing to cheese to wine and dried fruit to pickles in Japan and Korea, etc. You get the idea.

The question is, how to make it enticing for students? The whole subject of butter and milk products, not just cheese but also yogurt and its cousins, is a huge one. If you have any thoughts on this, on what a good course title and focus might be, please write to me. I find swimming in the large layered ocean that is humankind's relation to and inventiveness with food and food production to be infinitely fascinating. There is so much to wonder at and be amazed by.

And on a non-food topic, speaking of amazement: I went to see the latest Robert Lepage, Playing Cards (part 1 -  Spades) on Friday night. What a brilliant spectacle, linked stories and scenes miraculously stitched together on a round flexible stage. Unbelievable.  Yes he is a genius.

And back to food: I want to make boxty for the class tomorrow: potato flatbreads from Ireland.  there are many versions. The ones I'll make (from my recipe in HomeBaking) are delicious. They include cooked potato and grated raw potato, with wheat flour and some butter or bacon drippings. I'll make a batch of each so people can compare. And then we'll talk about coffee and wine and liquor and beer... Human beings have been brewing and fermenting and distilling beers and wines and spirits from grains and sugar since the beginning of time it seems.  What better way to sum up the history of basic foods over time?

Friday, June 15, 2012


I headed out this evening on my bicycle to go hear Lewis Lapham speak. I've been a huge fan forever - what would life have been like these last thirty years without Harpers magazine and Lapham's clear-eyed editorial writing about politics and life?  He was as interesting and clear and fruitful in person as he is on the page.

But I have to say that the guy interviewing him on stage did a terrible job. It was so frustrating! .The guy's an editor at Walrus magazine. He may be OK at his job, but he sure should stay away from doing interviews.  His deafness to Lapham's answers and thinkings-out-loud was shocking. And enraging too, he wasted all kinds of opportunities to take the conversation to interesting places.

Why am I going on and on about this?  Well perhaps because it was a reminder of how often people screw up for similar reasons: because they are so busy wanting to seem clever or hard-working or otherwise impressive that they are blind and deaf to the situation or to the person they are talking to or whatever.  And so it was here.  The interviewer had his little prep sheet with facts and figures and preset questions and he worked his way through it, oblivious of all the lovely pathways that Lapham's answers opened up.

You get the same obtuseness in very different circumstances - I'm thinking about how people act around the subject of death or when someone is dying. When death is around, often people say to themselves or others,"I don't know what to say" or even "I'm so embarrassed, I don't know how to behave". Talk about self-centred and hopeless.

If we stop worrying about how we look to others, if we stop being so ridiculously self-conscious about our own status and appearance, then we can start to tune in. And otherwise, we can't and don't tune in. We get in the way. We parade our "knowledge" (as the guy Kyle did tonight) rather than being attentive to the situation or to the other people involved. We stay hung up on our own appearance, on how we might appear to others.  What a waste.

Lewis Lapham said many things this evening. I wish I'd taken notes. But one area I do remember: he talked about the fearfulness that is in the US; he said that the war on terror has been lost, for everyone in the US is fearful. They're afraid of death, he said. And that's because they go through life as if the government was a luxury resort. "We lack the sense of the tragic in everyday life" he said.

And if daily life is about accumulating treasures and wealth, and about pretending that death can be prevented, that it's something that happens to other people, then life is one big playground and people have no context, no sense of the tragic, and no sense of history.

Afterward the friend I went with this evening said, but surely every culture worth the name has a sense of the tragic in everyday life. Art, music, literature: all of them create worlds where the tragic is waiting every day.

The evening ended with some very good questions from the audience. Lapham's final comment was about capitalism: I feel happy he said, and relieved, by my study of history. Everything is born, peaks, and then tails off and dies.  This includes capitalism, which arose in Holland in the fifteenth century, peaked in the Industrial revolution in the UK and US, and will come to an end sometimes this century.   hmmm

Lapham's an optimist after all. He's clear that right now the world is going to hell in a handbasket made of lies. (He says for example that the US is not a democracy but an oligarchy:"Government by the rich, of the rich, for the rich").  But he can also take the long term view: eventually things will change, and he sees renewal not as a loss of the old but a needed growth of the new.

Here as we head into the solstice week, it's a good time to think about renewal. I've been bitten by some renewing bug, I must confess. I've done a purge of cookbooks, organised those that remain, cleaned and painted and rearranged much of the ground floor...oh and started a new invigorating and demanding regimen of exercises from the great Rafi.  Perhaps the exercises have led me to this energised take on chores? Who can tell? But whatever the explanation I am loving the results. The walls are clean and bright and smooth downstairs; everything looks refreshed.

Another marker of change and renewal happened earlier this week with Ian's graduation. He lived in this house for three of his five years of undergrad at U of T. Now it's hard, seeing his confidence, to remember the shy first year student he was so long ago. His family came down from Grey County for the graduation and they came bearing gifts: paper bags of freshly picked shiitake mushrooms, grown on maple logs in their forest.

I've had two big feasts of them, each time sliced, sauteed in the cast-iron pan with some garlic, a dash of wine, then with whisked eggs added to make a mushroom-loaded omelet. Tonight before going out to hear Lapham, I included some chopped tender broccoli raab and garlic scapes in the frying. Nothing better. And there were tender mixed leafy greens to have alongside, also grown in Grey County, dressed with the lightest dash of olive oil, local cider vinegar, and salt.

Solstice, new life in the garden, a transformed cleaned-up house, good friends and good health, clear skies and sharp breezes, and engaging thinking from a visiting public intellectual: it doesn't get better than this...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Well at least we've had some rain, I thought as I drove up to Grey County early last Sunday, through our third day's dark skies and drizzling rain.  I was headed to Elmwood, where the Saugeen Trading Community was having one of its three annual Market Days at the community centre.  When I got there, slightly early, the place was already packed and lively.

I shared a table with friends.  My offerings were some cookbooks, while they, longtime residents of Grey-Bruce and farmers, had dried shiitake mushrooms, hand-made cards, some young garlic (pungent and potent), hand-carved wooden spatulas (smooth and beautiful, made of maple)...You get the idea.  The spring Market Day is a shopper's paradise if you're wanting vigorous healthy starts (I bought several blue tomato plants and some sorrel), home-made baking of various kinds, interesting vintage clothing, books of all kinds, and a lot more that I'm forgetting now.  And there's always freshly made food to strengthen you if you flag.

Market Days are also a time to catch up with people, especially precious for me since I am no longer up in Grey County very often. Because it was rainy, we had a big turnout.  That may seem counter-intuitive, but in fact after several days of rain, people feel housebound. An outing to see friends is just what they need.

Afterward I went to friends for some great hanging-around time, and supper, and then a sauna.  It's wonderful, an instant piece of time-travel for me, to walk into the heated wooden box that is the sauna.  There's the smell of hot and slightly wetted pine and cedar, sharp and lingeringly soft too, and smooth textures of wood planks under foot and under the bum as you sit up on a bench.  Then there's the sharp intense sensation of hot steam travelling up your nose and hitting your skin, whenever anyone tosses water onto the hot stove.  And a hiss and sizzle too.

The cool damp air outside, the trees new-leafed and tall in the forest, the fading light of a long late-spring evening: these too were part of the sauna pleasure.

After a rinse off in cool rainwater, whose chill was refreshing on my heated-to-the-bone body, and a pause to evaporate dry, it was time to get dressed, have a hot tea for the road, and set out for the city.  Two and a half hours driving alone late at night can feel lonely I suppose.  But I usually have good things to think about, and music to transport me (Haydn's Creation, and Ndjava Vetse, and an international compilation of women singing).

This time there was other company too: the full moon was like a giant headlamp in the sky, silver and radiant, knocking out all possible sightings of stars, making sharp shadows everywhere.  Who could drowse off at the wheel under such magnificent stage lighting?

And once back, sometime after midnight, walking up the street from parking the car, I felt I'd been away for several days.  Is it really true that I left only this morning? was my thought.

Time, like perception and friendship, and knowledge too, can be so elastic.  How wonderful to have it stretched out and extended by a good rich day.  And to think that early Sunday morning I might have groaned at the sight of the rain and decided to lie in sluggishly.  I'd have missed so much.

A NOTE ABOUT GLOBAL PANTRY: I've started doing a bimonthly column for Cooking Light magazine called Global Pantry.  It's about ingredients that people may buy to make a recipe from an unfamiliar cuisine, and then want to incorporate into their cooking.  So for example the first column is about fish sauce, with a recipe for using it in guacamole...and with other suggestions for incorporating it into your kitchen reflexes.  I find I use fish suace every day for seasoning this or that.  Here's the link:

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Nearly midnight on this first day of June.  As we approach the summer solstice the evening sky stays bright and lingers long, at least most days.  But not today.  It's been alternately drizzling and pouring all day, sometimes torrentially.  Gusts of wind every once in a while swept the rain almost sideways.  Umbrella corpses must be littering the sidewalks and entranceways all over the city.

I'm grateful to have had a full yesterday, including a long zippy outing on my bicycle last night, and a calm task-filled day today, with no need to brave the elements except to do small chores in the garden.

I've been sorting slides (yes, actual old-fashioned colour slides) all day, prompted by a need to find images to skan, so that I can show them to my Foods that Changed the World class this coming Tuesday and at the last class on June 19th.  Instead of showing a few each week, I've decided to show a batch to illustrate some of the things we've been talking about in the last three weeks.  That means I have shots of rice cultivation and harvest, bread ovens and flour mills (small hand-powered ones), old olive trees, oil mills (animal powered), and more.  As I sort through the sheets of slides, it's a pleasure to be reminded that I have a real depth of food shots.  I feel I'm getting reacquainted with them after a long time away.

I've been so immersed in Burma these last three years.  Now it's time to re-engage with images and thoughts of other places, and with other themes and ideas.  No, I'm not abandoning my interest in Burma, very much not.  But I need to reconnect to the wider world too.  How fortunate that I have the photographs, taken over the last decades, to remind me of the richness of the world, the extremes in which people live, and how much they can teach us.

As I look at flatbread-related images, for example, it makes me want to go and re-photograph in flatbread cultures, and also to extend my understanding.  Dreams of travel to Iran start to surface, and to Egypt, and why not Algeria? I think to myself.  It's too easy to stay comfortably inside the zone...the ideas and places that are familiar.  The familiar is endlessly enriching, for sure.

But I have a hunger to be out being vulnerable, to be in not-knowing situations, where I have no automatic responses and instead have to figure things out moment by moment.

Perhaps this yearning is connected to my having been at my university reunion last weekend, reminded by the aging faces all around me of how long ago graduation was, and of how easy it is to settle into routines and forget about new challenges.  I have to say it feels good to have the blood and imagination stirring.  I've been so caught up in Burma deadlines and the urgencies of last-minute checks and edits, that I've not had my eyes raised to the horizon.

Perhaps it's this rainy day that's freed me to reflect and ponder more abstractly about what comes next.

Perhaps it's the wonderful supper and conversation I had with two dear friends last night, challenging and lively, to celebrate one birthday, and to mark how much better each of us is feeling and doing, compared to this time last year.

The yearly markers, whether they're the annual cycles of the garden and the trees (these last ten days have been a time of elm seeds scattered like pale flimsy coins all over the street and into the house on stray breezes, and of pale fallen chestnut blossoms like left-over tossed rice after a wedding, decorating the gutters at the edges of the sidestreets), or personal anniversaries such as celebratory dinners with friends, keep us in line and allow us to keep track of our lives and loves.  And so I can say, as we head into June, and the green and fruitfulness (we hope) of summer, that life these days is looking and feeling very good and full of promise.

I hope you are feeling some of this kind of optimism and good energy.  It makes each day shine more brightly, makes a rainy day feel like a gift rather than a let-down, gives meaning to the simplest things.

POSTSCRIPT REMINDER: The transit of Venus is happening this coming Tuesday, June 5.  It's the last one for more than one hundred years...a sort of unimaginable length of time into the future.  For people in Toronto and the east half of North America, it starts in the late afternoon.  Here Venus starts to cross the sun's orb at 6.04 pm we're told.  It will take more than three hours, which means the sun will have set before the transit is finished.  In other parts of the world it will be visible finishing, at dawn (say in Southeast Asia).  Have a look on Google for more info about times, and also the safety glasses you need to protect your eyes (just as with an eclipse of the sun).  I'm going to rush up to Varsity stadium to see the first twenty minutes or so of the transit.  And I'll be thinking of the wonder and amazement that skywatchers have felt over the centuries when they have chanced on a transit of Venus.  (They happen about twice in a hundred years, we're told.)  Now to hope for clear skies!