Sunday, June 30, 2013


Suddenly Toronto has become subtropical, with moist air, intermittent rain, and high temperatures. “At last” the garden smiles, as it bursts into action. In one week it’s gone from torpor (except the leafy greens) to full riotous growth. And as the lettuce leaves toughen in the heat and the rhubarb season ends (sigh!), the chiles and tomatillos, the zucchinis, cucumbers, and eggplants are in bloom and setting fruit. At last.

On Friday I drove north out of the city, leaving at noon just as the long-weekend (Canada Day) traffic was starting to thicken. Once I was in the country, it looked as if the rain we’ve been having so generously had drowned many crops: there were fields of wheat turning yellow with excess water, and low-lying spots covered with several inches of standing water. But farther north, past Shelburne and into Grey county, I was in a different climate zone, where the rainfall had been just right, for there the crops in the fields were standing tall and healthy.

I was on a mission: to do a little visiting with my 87 year old aunt and with friends, yes, but mainly to go and sing with a group of shape-note singers in Durham whom I haven’t seen for over a year. The occasion was a birthday, an excuse for people to make the effort to get together for a potluck as well as the sing.

We sat in a big-windowed living room surrounded by leafy hardwood forest as the evening sky grew pale, and after eating very well we sang and sang, renewing ourselves and connecting. There was a pause for cake with strawberries, and sparklers and champagne toasts outside on the deck, the we came inside and sang some more.

The sky had darkened past midnight blue by the time I left just before 11. I walked out into the damp-scented air of the forest, got in my little red car, and drove down the concession roads that led to the highway and thence to the city two hours away.

That sudden quiet when the car is turned off at the end of a journey, the lovely silence of arrival, is such a balm. As I walked through the garden from the garage I felt relieved to be home safely, but also refreshed and transformed as if I’d been away a week. That’s the power of music and of getting out of town. A change of scene, however brief, lets me see with fresh eyes.

And that’s always a good thing.

Now I have only two days to get my head in gear for my short trip to England and parts south. I’m headed to the Oxford Symposium next week, a three day conference of food and food history. This year the theme is Food and Material Culture. There’s to be a little sale of kitchen tools that people want to off-load. I have one strange spatula that I am prepared to part with, but I am bringing a couple of other tools for show and tell: a bread stamp from Kashgar that is made of bird feathers and a Tibetan butter box made of wood, the aroma of which transports me straight back to nomad tents. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else brings.

And I’m packing several wool sweaters, just to be sure, because I remember how wet and cold it was last year… Surely it will be better this time?

In the meantime I’m expecting friends for supper tonight. We’ll grill over charcoal – lamb leg steaks and some chicken too, as well as shallots and onions and perhaps some late asparagus if I can find any – and talk into the night. Summer is such a luxurious time.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Bright blue sky, new beginnings, and also the lovely regretted end of a pleasurable interlude: that’s how things look today.

Yesterday my younger kid Tashi graduated from the University of Toronto. His college, Victoria, had its Convocation in the afternoon, preceded by lunch sandwiches and things in the quad, a walk away across Queen’s Park. Four years ago Tashi and I and Fatema were there for Dom’s grad. Now it was Tashi’s turn to be gowned and standing tall, while Dom, Fatema and I looked on.

At Convocation the Dean of Arts and Science told us that about half the graduates had reported, as they enrolled for the first time four or five years earlier, that they would be the first in their family to get a university degree. We knew some of the other graduates too, and cheered and clapped for them as well as for Tashi. For all of us in Convocation Hall there was a lot to appreciate and applaud, as two by two the grads walked up steps to the stage to shake hands with dignitaries and receive their congratulations and good wishes for whatever they might do next.

And in the evening, as had happened four years ago, our dear friend Dina took us all out to supper, this time to an odd and comfortable place called Strada 241 on Spadina south of Dundas, for Italian eats.

But in between I had my last Foods that Changed the World class to teach at the university. So back I walked across the grassed  expanse of King’s College Circle, that two hours earlier had been peopled with black-gowned grads, colourfully dressed parents and friends, and the splashy medieval gowns of the senior professors, University President, et al. There were a couple of group frisbee sessions happening in the late afternoon light, all intentness and fluidity, and no hint of the formalities and solemnities of Convocation.

The classroom our continuing ed course was assigned to was in University College, an old grand building with nineteenth century tiling on the main floor and carved griffons of dark wood as newel posts at the foot of the stairs. I noticed afresh the age and imposingness of the building as I tried to imagine seeing it through the eyes of new students or of parents who had come from afar to watch the graduation and had no familiarity with the University of Toronto. These old institutions can be intimidating. And that can keep people away, which is not what we want for our society and community.

But I think it’s good that the ceremonies around Convocation are solemn and grand (with organ music ushering the graduates in, welcomes in Latin, etc). It is a big event, to graduate from university. A Bachelor’s degree is four years of your life or more, and often marks enormous changes in thinking and maturity. So it’s only right and fair that this passage through a significant portal be trumpeted and acknowledged. Hurrah to all!!

And now I’m getting to the regret. I have had such an engaging interesting time with this class over the last six weeks that I am sad to have the course over. This week I talked about coffee and then intoxicants: wine, beer, liquors, with the class. Then it was time to taste the various treats that people had brought. We agreed we’d all miss the class, that we wanted to continue our conversations and explorations. And so we discussed what a “second level” course could consist of.  There was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. Now it’s up to me to figure out whether the School for Continuing Studies might be interested in a second food history course, and also when in the year I might be able to commit to being here for six or seven weeks running. Hmm

The treats I brought to our tasting were very simple. I promised the class I’d post a shorthand version of the what and how, so here it is:

sticky rice: white Thai-grown sticky rice mixed with a little black sticky rice to colour it and give it texture: soak together in cold water for 6 hours or as long as 18 hours, then place rice in a steamer over boiling water and steam until tender, about half an hour; turn out and cover with a damp cloth to prevent it from drying out. Eat with the hands.

“salsa,” called nam prik in Thai: an improvised version that riffed off the northern Thai nam prik num. Ingredients: whole garlic cloves, about 8; about 5 unpeeled shallots or instead substitute red onion cut into two halves if you have to; chiles, several fresh whole banana chiles or three or more dried red ones if you lack fresh (I had only one fresh, so used a combo); about a pound or more large cherry tomatoes or romas or whatever you have. All the ingredients except dried red chiles need to be grilled, or else dry scorched in a heavy cast-iron pan over medium high heat. Turn them frequently to scorch all sides (I use a separate pan for the tomatoes). Turn out shallots and garlic etc when well softened and let cool a little, then lift peels off and discard, along with any tough bits. Destem the fresh chiles. 
Then coarsely chop everything before food-processoring it or pounding it in a mortar. You want a coarse texture, not a puree. Add the tomatoes last. Season with salt, or a mixture of salt with a dash of fish sauce. I also included about a tablespoon of very coarsely ground black pepper.

Others brought delish homemade sweets: salted (Camargue salt) caramels; and raw cacao powder truffles with pureed goji berries, flax seed, coconut oil etc. There was also an offering of an interesting dark green and red new-to-me kind of tomato, komato, served with Guerande salt and slices of baguette. And I have left out a few things, I know…which others will remember.

I’m pleased that these endings – graduation, last class of the course, etc – lead us to think forward to what we want to do next. Life moves on, and so do our ideas and aspirations. It’s good to be pushed and stretched by the reminder that life is constantly changing. Challenges and difficulties and joys all lie just around the next corner.

Monday, June 17, 2013


I had imagined that I’d be in the car driving out to the airport right now. My younger kid Tashi, now a tall 22-year old, is due back from Southeast Asia today. But his flight is delayed an hour and a half. And so as a kind of test of my ability to settle in to writing when I have some adrenalin expectancy flowing, I’ve decided to write a short blogpost in the time I have before leaving for the airport.

I’ve just had a piece in Lucky Peach, the seventh issue, the Travel issue. My article is  about travelling with kids, about why? to do it (many reasons, including that it leads to remarkably rich travel learning for you, and also for your kids) and when? (as soon as possible and often). And now here I am waiting to greet my kid at the airport.

Adults raise kids, yes, but kids also teach adults, and raise them, stretch them, help them grow. I am very grateful, even when sometimes the process hurts a little.

Almost all parents feel those pangs when their kid goes away, whether it’s to some kind of summer camp, or to university, or on a long trip, in fact even on a short one. I try to imagine a time when both my kids will be living elsewhere, in a town or city or country far away…I try to picture appreciating contact with them without pangs or neediness. I think it’s something I will need to work on for the rest of my life.

Because the truth is that I enjoy my kids enormously. They are very nice people, great to talk to, full of good sense, humour, open-eyed appreciativeness, and insightful ideas and judgements. And I’m lucky: they are very tolerant of me, of my tendency to impatience with technical glitches or other impediments. They can laugh at my quirks without meanness or needing to score points of some kind.

I am grateful for all of it. But it leads me back to the need to let them go and to be clear with them that I am happy to see them making their own way in the world, wherever it might lead them.

I was given that freedom and encouragement by my parents early on. It was a lucky thing too, that they encouraged my autonomy and confidence, for they died young, leaving me strong enough to keep moving forward, rather than a puddle of tears and anxieties.

Now here, at another place on the arc of life, it’s my job to be as clear-minded and un-self-indulgent as I can be with my kids and with myself too. I need to take pleasure in their company and also be happy when life takes them to other places and people and ideas. 

And so this process of welcoming Tashi back from his travels is just another way-station on this road I am travelling with them, a life journey of arrivals and departures - theirs and mine, long and short - a mix of wonderful and worrisome and everyday. Many other people are on the journey with us, members of our extended family of friends and relatives, a web of cross-connections that sustains us all.

What a privilege, to have the freedom and the confidence to follow our curiosity while knowing that there are welcoming harbours to return to….

Monday, June 10, 2013


Yesterday at lunch, a group of friends and I raised a glass to the day’s clear skies and sunshine, greeting summer weather and basking in its warmth. We were eating sticky rice, marinated chicken hot from the charcoal grill, asparagus ditto, lightly dressed local salad greens, and a trio of made-by-my friends Thai dipping sauces as side-condiments. And we were eating with our hands, most of us, sensually and happily.

But alas we were prematurely optimistic, for today we’re back to drizzle and chill. The garden is happy, I suppose, in its greeness, but the cool temperatures are holding back the basil and chiles and eggplants, which still look a little shell-shocked even two full weeks after being transplanted. We tend, here in eastern Canada, to bemoan the fact that we have a very short spring season and leap straight from chilly into summer heat. This year is the great corrective, more like English spring than our usual, and lasting several months for a change. Perhaps this means that asparagus season will be extended, and salad greens will going on being tender for longer, rather than being heated into tough and bitter leaves by intense heat. The trick is to look for the side-benefits, right?

I wrote last week that old friends of mine were going to throw an engagement party at my house last Saturday and that I hoped for cool weather so the peonies could stay fresh until the party. Well I perhaps wished too hard, for we had very cold weather all week. But one happy consequence was what I’d hoped for: the two ancient peony bushes in my back garden are still in full aromatic white and pink bloom, spalshy against the bright green of ferns.

The engagement party was huge, and a huge success, for the weather gods smiled, the catering, by Dawn and Ed of Evelyn’s Crackers, was spectacular (all Thai, a lot of it vegan-friendly; the beef and chicken were locally sourced), the DJ’ing (two turntables, the works) by Ben Rothberg was astonishing and wonderful, and everyone was feeling celebratory, and happy to reconnect with the huge network of friends and family of the bride-to-be. Whew! The dancing went on until three… I owe my neighbours big-time for their patience.

A side-bonus to all the work of party prep is that my house is wonderfully clean and organised. There’s nothing like a deadline (and an obligation owed to someone else, rather than just to oneself) for getting chores done well and thoroughly. I feel spring-cleaned to the max.

And I’m also feeling a little wiped out today, as I try to gather my thoughts after the intensities of the week and the weekend. Time seems to be flying by suddenly. I have only two more classes to teach of Foods that Changed the World (I’ll miss the class; it’s been great); right after the last class comes the summer solstice; soon after that I leave to go to the Oxford Symposium, a huge treat; and by the time it’s over we’ll be well into July…  I find that when I’m tired my thoughts tend to rush ahead to anticipate, and when they do, time telescopes so that I feel the days rushing past beneath my feet dizzyingly. It’s not a useful way to feel.

The solution I’ve discovered is to retreat to the age-old technique of making lists, by hand, with a pen or pencil, on a piece of paper. It slows down that rushing forward, anchors me in the present, and generally makes me more realistic and calm. I think I’m due for another session of list-making!