Thursday, May 29, 2014


Spring-cleaning is a word that I've been reflecting on recently. 

The “spring” in spring-cleaning starts out as a reference to the season that follows winter with its fusty enclosedness (at least in these cold latitudes). But of course it also says liveliness, springing-up-ness, movement in general: “a spring in her step”, “he springs up”. Then there’s the cleaning part of spring-cleaning. It comes with the image of clearing and airing out of cupboards and the putting-away of winter clothes and retrieving of warmer-weather garb.

But the most interesting aspect of the word spring-cleaning is the way it is loaded with metaphorical possibilities. That’s where my thoughts have been tending this week. I’ve been strongly reminded that a spring-cleaning of our attitudes or thought-patterns can give new energy and move us out of the sterile winter of old patterns and into new life.

It’s suddenly the end of May and at last, just in the last few days, I feel truly lighter. Superficial reasons include the fact that only this week did the weather in Toronto warm to an intensity that felt like a foretaste of summer, inviting us to wear shorts or light skirts and tank tops, with no protective overlayers. It’s been wonderful to feel the soft air on my skin, and to be able to sit out in the evening lightly dressed. And pedalling past trees loaded with airy fragrant blossoms – lilac, apple, chestnut, and more – is one of the best pleasures of spring, along with the sounds of the birds and the brilliant green of new life in the garden and on the trees.

But the bigger springing forward has come because I’ve now done my taxes: I’ve sorted through last year’s paperwork, assembled, typed in, and added up the incoming and out-going money flows, and handed the whole listing to wonderful Ian, who prepares my return (and yes I am still in time, for people who are self-employed have a filing deadline of June 15 here in Canada, whew!). The process of looking at everything, being methodical about it, and just steadily working my way through the stacks of receipts, bank statements, etc. has been remarkably calming. In previous years I’ve felt anxious, worried that I’d mess up. I now realise that those feelings of edginess also made me very inefficient, for they led me to take irregular stabs at organising, in between periods of avoiding the job. This year, by committing to being steady, I made the job tidier in every sense of the term.

That methodical, just-plod-through-it-until-it’s-done style seems to have carried over into other aspects of daily and yearly maintenance: It’s the season for getting the garden in order, and this year, instead of being very approximate and inattentive, I have dug in manure and tidied up lost corners (no it’s not a big garden, just a small enclosed back yard, but even so junky nooks and crannies had managed to create themselves). The result is a cleaner lovelier space, yes, and a happier me. 

I think this is more than the pleasure or relief of crossing off something on a to-do list. It is a changed perspective, a new attitude to how to take on chores and obligations. It’s put a spring in my step, this “cleaning” of my attitude.

I do wonder what has helped lead me to this new place. Perhaps just time and growing wisdom? I’m persuaded that it’s something more.

I think that often when we change some small-seeming pattern of behaviour it can shift things more deeply, change our perspective, and free us to move into a new “season”. One new and different thing I’ve done recently is to take an art class (my first ever), three hours of drawing class every Wednesday afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario for five weeks in all. In four short weeks (only one class left to go, alas) the instructor, Kelley Aitken, has led us to “see” in ways we hadn’t before. She has insisted that rather than drawing lines, we work with lights and darks. She’s taught us to see tone as the way in which we see contour. We’ve learned to use tone (degrees of shading) as the best way to communicate three-dimensional contour on a flat sheet of paper, using only pencils of various degrees of softness.

Yesterday at the coffee break I found myself looking at another of the students and seeing his face in terms of lights and dark, areas of brightness and shadow, so that it broke down into pieces or patches of different shades. It was as if Kelly had gradually helped me grow another pair of eyes.

Because of making photographs all this time, I have a fairly strong sense of geometry and line, and an eye for light, but this way of seeing is entirely new, a matter of close attentive observation, rather than preconception. The world around me has become much more three-dimensional, in subtle as well as more obvious ways.

It is thrilling to discover a new faculty and to see with different eyes. Travel often gives me a fresh perspective. Often when I return home I am moved to shift things around, reorganise the kitchen or whatever. But this fresh sight feels like a stronger and more lasting change of perspective. And I feel that it’s leading to all kinds of new patterns.

What a pleasure, to realise that there are more windings in the path ahead, and to not know what lies around the next corner.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Full moon last night, how lovely, and everything glowed as I pedalled through Toronto’s late-night streets at about 11. Moon shadows throw different things into relief, and they do that even in the city, especially on side-streets of course. The fruit tree blossoms create a web of shadows on the street, eerie and lovely as I approach, then give a little gust of scent to confirm their friendliness and beauty.

It rained in the night. The maples, plane trees, other deciduous treasures, are all in bloom, some discreetly, others more garishly. And this morning on the rain-darkened ground many trees had a carpet of brilliant green below them, the rain having washed off the delicate bits – pollen? Anthers? Biology was never my strong point.

In the dazzle of fall colours it’s easy to forget that springtime gives us a fore-taste of the same effect: ground carpeted with tree brilliance, tree debris you might say, and what a treasure.

I am delighted to be here for this moment of spring’s unfolding. It’s later than usual yes, and perhaps even more precious as a result.

Happy May moon to you all. I hope the birds and the little frogs are singing to you and that your heart is lifting.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


A gusting breeze from the north is blowing scatterings of white blossom from a neighbour’s tree like confetti, across my small back garden. Behind, silhouetted against the clear blue of this morning’s sky, the giant maple that frames my western horizon is pregnant with leaf buds, not quite out. They look like they’ll burst forth by the end of today. I imagine them giving a great “at last!” as they emerge into the light and warmth.

All this new life is crying out to be written about, for spring here in Toronto is a good three weeks late: the magnolia blossoms have just come out downtown, the lilies of the valley in my front yard came through the dirt a week ago, only, which is the time they are usually in scented bloom, and the farmers’ markets are barely managing to meet everyone’s hunger for spring greens.

A slow spring can mean that we get the pleasure of fresh brilliant new green leaves and drooping subtly graceful maple and other tree flowers over a long stretch. But this year it feels as if we have been so delayed that we’ll leap straight into summer heat with barely a moment to enjoy the freshness. I hope not. And I am told that for those who grow grapes and make wine in Niagara and upper New York State, this late spring is probably a complete disaster: Even if there’s heat now, the fruit has not had the long time it needs to slowly grow and fill out, so the harvest will be meagre.

Mother Nature is pretty stressed right now. Even in unpolluted, more environmentally intact times she gave with one hand and took away with the other, producing feast and famine both. But now we seem to be headed for more of the catastrophic and less of the benign, depending on where we live and what we’re trying to grow or harvest.

My time in Kurdistan was a reminder of the small margins that many people live on, and of their vulnerability to food insecurity. The refugees from Syria that I met in a UNHCR camp there were relying on monthly supplies of basic staples: oil, bulgur, rice, salt, sugar from the World Food Program. The stack that was each family’s food allotment, a tall stack, was a visible measure of just how much food it takes to feed a family, and just how difficult the logistics of feeding the world can be if and when there are catastrophes of war or “natural calamity”.

As I went out to Kensington Market yesterday late afternoon to forage for supper (I had black-eyed peas cooked to tender, and a plan to test a Kurdish rice recipe, but needed some greens, a little chicken, onions, and some wine) the choices were dizzying. There is plenty of real food, in a raw, needing-to-be-prepared-and-cooked state here in North America. Our task as home cooks is to take on the challenge of shopping wisely and treating food with respect. And we need to push our families and friends to do the same.

The challenge in my household is getting people to delve for leftovers. We all cook from scratch (and yes, when I am here I do a large part of the cooking), but that’s the positive part of the food picture. Even though I have moved to clear glass containers, to make things more visible (and to avoid plastic), it hasn’t really improved things much. I am the only one who regularly turns to leftovers during the day, and there’s resistance to them even when they’re on offer for supper. Do any of you have this problem?

One approach to avoiding food waste, one that an aunt of mine used to take, is to make smaller meals, to avoid leftovers altogether. Make sure there’s plenty of bread and cheese etc to fill the gaps, but just put out less prepared/cooked food, so that it all gets eaten. But that seems so inhospitable to me. I like the feeling of plenty, the ability to welcome unexpected guests without stinting or rationing anyone. And so the leftovers issue continues to frustrate me.

Any thoughts?

I’m resisting the urge to buy vegetable starts (eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, etc) this weekend. It’s all very well for me to imagine too much of a burst of summer heat, but if we do in fact continue to have a slow cool spring, it’s definitely way too early to put out starts. The impulse to engage with spring and new life is so exciting, so energising, almost irresistible. And that’s perhaps because it feels like a connection to our ancestors, who did indeed live with want and Nature’s fickleness, and without the assurance of the generous food supply that we enjoy…

Thursday, May 1, 2014


The last time I posted here I was just about to leave for Kurdistan. Since then I have left a long silence. It's not because life has been dull. More, perhaps, that each day has been so packed, so intense, that i have not had the distance to reflect and write about it.

I am in New York as I write this, in fact in Brooklyn staying with a friend. For the next couple f days I will be seeing friends, attending the James Beard Cookbook and Journalism awards event (I'm on the cookbook committee) and attending a committee meeting. It's a privilege and a treat to come to NYC three times a year for the committee. We're a thoughtful bunch who try to do a good job of managing the judging process, all of which is done by independent judges living all over the US and Canada. The awards ceremony is where it all comes together...

But what have I been doing for the last month? The answer is that I have been in Iraqi Kurdistan, and for most of my time there being hosted and taken care of by the lively and generous members of a large extended family from Halabja. I had very little access to the internet, but that was not what kept me from posting, not really. It was instead the fact that I was entirely immersed in where I was, unable to distance myself enough to shape a post properly, and feeling oh-so-fortunate. I made lots of notes, about events, people, the food, the language (Sorani Kurdish), and more. That raw material, plus my photographs, are what I will rely on as I digest all that I've seen and learned, write stories, figure out recipes, etc, for my Persian World book. All that lies ahead.

Apart from memories, notes, and photos, I brought back some Kurdish rice, some spices, and also a box of "gazo", made at a shop in the Sulaymaniya bazaar. It's called "gaz" in Iran and is a special kind of nougat, chewy and not overly sweet, made of a resin exuded by insects onto the leaves of a plant that grows in the Zagros Mountains, plus egg white, sugar, pistachios, and a little rose water. A friend in Toronto loves gaz, so I asked her over to help open the box and have a taste. The box was nailed shut. When we got it open, it was filled with flour, the gazo packed in there, protected and kept fresh by the flour. You wash a piece, tear/pull it in half, since they are large, and then share and eat with pleasure.

Of course since I had bought the box new at the sweet shop (Tofiq Halawchy), sealed up and wrapped in plastic, I had had no idea that it was full of flour (I've since learned that this is the traditional way of storing it).  This means that I had travelled back from Iraq via two days in Istanbul, through two sets of customs checks, with a box full of white powder...  No harm done as it turns out, but perhaps a lesson: I should have asked to see what was in the box when I bought it, don't you think? There's a spy/thriller/mystery novel plot lying in wait here perhaps!

I cried when I parted from the family because I was going to miss them, their warmth and our connection. I still have Kurdish phrases echoing in my "mind's ear" and am looking forward to leaping into recipe work and writing, starting next Monday.

Meantime it's May Day, a day for celebrating working people internationally, and, if you are in France, for giving small bouquets of lily-of-the-valley (muguet) to friends. At this time of year, La Fete Des Muguets, the streets are lightly perfumed with the scent of the small posies that are sold on street corners to passers-by.

Perhaps the weather will warm up and the sun come out in Toronto and elsewhere. This spring Toronto is at least two weeks behind, with all plant life except the bravest crocus flowers holding off until Mother Nature confirms that warmth and sun can be relied on. The lilies of the valley that are usually a carpet of green by now in my front yard, with first buds of flowers showing on spindly little stems, have barely begun to surface from the cold earth. Yikes!

Happy May Day everyone...