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.