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?

Friday, September 7, 2012


After complaining last week that I was not at all ready for summer to end, I feel very grateful for the continuing beautiful warm weather we've had. Tuesday as children headed back to school we had torrential rain (no other word starts to describe the downpours that arrived off and on all day) and I felt my limbs heavy from the wet, and a queasy feeling in my gut, the shadow or echo of years of nervous anticipations of the first day of classes.

Now that's done, and the first difficult week of adjusting to the new school rhythm is over.

Meantime at the university campus just up the street the frosh have been cavorting and following orders...It's always a little disturbing to see large groups of young people obediently trooping after a person with a bull-horn, and doing as they're bid. Last weekend it was the engineers, painted purple and wearing yellow hard hats. This week it's been Arts students in T-shirts singing silly songs and shouting things.

I see the young ones in the bank too, without the protection of the crowd. Then they look like their true selves, unsure, very young, and finding their way, opening a first bank account for example. Soon enough they'll settle into jaded cool, studying, knowing their way around, able to read the urban signals about clothing and caste and group at a single glance.

But for now I'm loving the naivete of the frosh, all wet behind the ears and trying not to show it, even if it comes with group behaviour.

Some good news this week, in no particular order: more lovely pods on the okra plants, and more ripe tomatoes; yesterday a lovely guy named Tyler, widely travelled all over, but whom I know from Burma, dropped by and gave me useful advice about the Burma tour I'm taking in this coming February (details soon on; news that the copies of BURMA: Rivers of Flavor have now reached the warehouse; confirmed venue for a book launch party at Supermarket in Kensington Market on October 15; nice anticipatory reviews of the book in various blogs (there are links to them on my Facebook fan page; and a very interesting film today at the Toronto Film festival, called Ship of Thesus, or something like that, set in India and beautifully shot.

Also today had a visit from Lejen, who lives in Toronto and Beijing. She brought over some treats and  took away with her a huge melon to try, one from my neighbour's vine. Every year the vine comes vigorously over the fence and spreads all over my garden. And every year there are large rounded stripey green fruits hanging from it. This year I donated one to Lejen. She made inquiries in Chinatown and reports that it's a Shark's fin Melon, cucurbita ficifolia is the Latin name. The seeds are especially prized, according to Wikipedia. If I learn more I'll pass it on.

Next Tuesday I head out to Seattle to go to the Kneading Conference West, at Mt Vernon. I can't wait. I'm carrying out a load of Evelyn's Crackers for my friend Dawn. And that means I need to abandon my usual goal of no checked luggage (the crackers have to be hand-carried). Ah well...