Thursday, June 26, 2014


It's a humid morning here, the ground breathing dampness and fertility after last night’s torrential rain. I headed out early today for a quick intensive bike ride up a nearby hill. The route takes me through neighbourhoods lush and green, past morning joggers with their earbuds in, and labouring people whose work day starts at seven: garbage pick-up workers, construction crews, nannies.

Now I'm back, having had my airing. My blood is flowing and brain kicking into gear.

It's about time. I see from the date of my last post that it's been almost two weeks since I wrote here. Then we had just passed the full moon. Now we are waning and will soon be into the next lunar month. It's a big one, for this year the June new moon marks the start of Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting (no food or drink of any kind) and nighttime feasting, prayer, and celebration for observant Muslims. Going without food and drink for the long days here, when sunrise is early and sunset late, is an exercise in mindfulness I imagine, as well as a difficult physical feat in the heat.

How do people get work or any other chores accomplished? I wonder. It's hard enough to settle to a task in normal times, let alone with a grumbling stomach and low blood sugar. To fast well you have to be disciplined, and that means getting up early enough to eat well before dawn so that you are fortified for the long day ahead.

It's interesting to compare the different approaches to fasting in different religious traditions. For Christians fasting has usually meant doing without a particular kind of food: meat, or instead all animal products (no dairy or eggs and no meat). But somehow fish doesn't rank as animal, and so fish is permitted on fasting days. (Hence the classic tradition of European restaurants featuring fish on Friday menus, for Friday was the fasting day for Catholics, still is for some). 

I was in Georgia last spring during Lent, the forty-day fasting period before Easter when all meat and dairy are forbidden to observant Orthodox Christians. The rule has pushed cooks to invent fasting versions of favorite foods, such as khachapuri. On fasting days these flatbreads – normally filled with fresh cheese - are instead stuffed with delicious cooked beans. Home cooks and bakeries were also making cakes and other treats during Lent, using alternative non-dairy ingredients such as margarine and alternative recipes that didn’t call for eggs. That strategy seemed to me to go against the spirit of fasting. I mean, the cook might have had to be mindful, but the greedy eaters still were able to have their luscious cant-tell-it’s-any-different cake even in the middle of Lent.

In Islam, and in Judaism too, fasting means not eating at all between sunrise and sunset, then breaking the fast with a feast in the evening. This sounds much more convivial than obeying rules and trying to work around them for forty days!

I’ve been led astray by these explorations of different approaches to fasting. Sorry!

What I want to explore here is the difficulty of getting down to work, into work, focussed on work, immersed in work… You get my drift.

I find that when I have a clear succinct to-do list, a series of tasks, a set of must-do’s, then it’s not too hard to just work my way through them. But when the first job of the day is to decide what the day’s goals or tasks are, then things can get a little messy. Distractions abound, there’s no clear necessity to get a particular task done, and procrastination takes advantage of every opening.

I’m thinking about all this because of my Persian World book project. (The deadline for delivery of the manuscript is exactly a year from now: end of June 2015.) Since getting back from Kurdistan and then the Beard awards in NYC in early May, I have had six weeks of home time. I had imagined, when I was thinking about the shape of the year, that I’d use these weeks for work on the book. I have done, but only piecemeal, testing recipes, writing the occasional story, and researching history (while also watching history being made in Iraq).

But it was not until this week that I was finally able to make myself deep-dive back into extended long-stamina workdays focussed on the book. Suddenly I am deep inside it, reviewing my notes, writing, and “wearing” it in a full 360-degree way.

What stopped me from doing this earlier? I think that while there are outside obligations to others (in my case teaching a food history course once a week for six weeks, and a few other small bits of writing work) as a partial excuse, there’s something else going on.

It’s too easy to stay on the surface of a project, to skate around on it, rather than committing to being inside it. And that is because it takes serious effort to immerse and commit. And somehow I failed to put that work in, or perhaps I knew that it would be wasted, since I’d be pulled back out and into other necessities, so what was the point?

All of this may seem like pointless meandering to you. You may be very successful at setting tasks and then completing them. But for those of you who struggle to shape your work days effectively, I assume you too have had these experiences I am describing.

Another piece of the explanation, something that I console myself with, is that I am mulling things in my subconscious, putting pieces together, trying to make coherent sense of the massiveness of my project, and that I shouldn’t feel that nothing is being accomplished in these weeks of bits-and-pieces work. Hmm

We’ll see. All I can say now that I am embarked again (the last time was in November-December after I returned from Iran) is that I am loving the project. It feels rich and promising, the food is delicious, the issues and geography and history are fascinating. And above all the human layers with their warmth and distinctive cultural necessities are so engaging. I just want to roll around in all this and luxuriate in it, for a good uninterrupted stretch.

If I manage to do that kind of sustained immersion in the project, I will probably be writing here less often in the next two months. My first plane ticket in over three months will be a flight to the west coast in August for the wonderful Grain Gathering (formerly Kneading Conference West) north of Seattle on August 22 to 24. And after that…well I will need to try to re-immerse for a bit, before heading out for more travel research.

Friday, June 13, 2014


It’s a full moon day today, and is also a Friday the thirteenth. I read in the internet that the next time Friday the thirteenth will land on a full moon day is in 2045. I doubt I’ll be around by then…And so let’s enjoy this odd combination.

The sun is low in the sky, with puffy humid clouds hanging around filtering its heat and light. The leaves on the trees are still a brilliant optimistic green, and optimism is in full bloom in my neighbourhood, for it’s the season of graduations/convocation at the University of Toronto.

The other day I was pedalling around King’s College Circle in the late afternoon. The large white tent that the university sets up on the lawn for convocation season was alive with slowly moving figures: grads in their black gowns, and profs too, the latter often with wonderfully medieval-looking caps and colour; and proud family members clutching bouquets of flowers and busy with cameras and cel phones. I stopped and asked one grad which group was graduating that afternoon. “Masters and Phd students” she replied. What a select and hard-working group. No wonder the families were looking so proud and the grads as well.

Other reasons for optimism in my household and among my friends include the election in Ontario yesterday. The province elected a woman as premier, a first for Ontario. Her name is Kathleen Wynne and she is also notable because she’s in a long-term domestic partnership with a woman. Her partner was invited up on the platform last night as they all celebrated the results. Bravo to Ontario for not worrying about the sex or sexual orientation of the premier, and also for defeating the hard-right conservative party.

Now we need to push determinedly  for a clean-up of corruption and money-waste. Will it happen? For once I feel a little optimistic that it might. We’ll see.

And another positive: I spent lunch with a friend from Kurdistan named Ayub who is working here in Canada running the English language arm of a Kurdish news organisation called Rudaw. He confirmed that the startling-to-ousiders success of ISIS fighters in capturing the northern part of Iraq this week is a happy thing to the Kurds of the region. They view it as “about-time”, this realignment of borders with the distribution of the very distinctive populations in the region.

“At last” he said, the Kurds control all the areas inhabited by the Kurdish population, in both Iraq and Syria. Until this week they controlled only Kurdistan, but that didn’t include all Kurds. Now that’s changed. And the Kurds are jubilant. And he said, that’s all they want; they aren’t trying to invade or take over any other territory.

Northern Iraq’s Sunni population and southern Iraq’s Shia population are now divided into two zones of control.

This marks the end of the old borders that the European powers agreed to in 1919, following the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire (read Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 for a wonderful review of the whole Peace Conference, and the legacy that we are still living with).  So here we are, almost a century later, and after the spilling of blood by thousands of locals as well as far too many foreign soldiers and civilians, back to a map that corresponds to the cultural/ethnic/religion situation on the ground.

Let’s hope the US government doesn’t try to bomb people insensate, and instead leaves them to sort things out for themselves.

And on the food front, this evening I picked my first batch of garden greens: arugula and various other leaf lettuces, plus basil, and used it to make a coarse pesto with pine nuts and freshly grated pecorino, that went onto some penne. So that’s the first taste of late spring, beyond the dandelions that I stir-fry, and the rhubarb, and into tender fresh greens. Lovely. Another lift of the heart.

Now it’s time to go out and look at that fat full moon.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I started this post on Tuesday night, June3, right after I got back from a meeting of the Women's Culinary Network, our end-of-season annual potluck. This year was different, because it was also our last meeting.The organisation, begun 23 years ago by Nettie Cronish and three other women who knew that they wanted to provide a supportive networking environment for women working in food, is now winding up.

Women, and young men too, do still need support and mentoring as they try to find their way and hone a career in food. But now there is the internet, with FB and Twitter and just plain old email, all useful tools for staying in touch and cross-connecting. Women in the food world are less relatively disadvantaged than they were twenty plus years ago, so a successor organisation would not need to be "women's", it could just be The Toronto Culinary Network.

In the meantime, as we see what people need and want, it's a good moment to acknowledge the hard work and good creative intentions of the founders and early members. And we should take pride in the fact that the WCN has been brave enough to close down rather than trickling into sad reproaches about change. It's a real sign of health, this preparedness to move forward.

Most things in this world, human creations and mother nature too, have their cycles of birth and growth and change and eventual subsidence. We all know this, but I for one tend to forget it and to cling.

It's just hard to accept change sometimes, even when beautiful examples of it unfurl before our eyes in our parks and gardens and tree canopies these last weeks of spring. The harsh winter seems to have pushed the plant world into extreme responses, a sort of "flourish or die."  The tall chestnut trees, for example, that line the streets in my neighbourhood, are loaded with "candles" tall lightly fragrant blossoms, more loaded than I have ever seen them. My friends in Grey County have had record-breaking flushes of shiitake mushrooms, the asparagus in Ontario tastes sweeter this year, and so on... On the other hand, winter cold killed many plants (including an beautiful tall rose bush of mine.

Wins and losses, and always change.

I met a friend for coffee yesterday morning and we talked about Kurdistan. She had been there two years ago and passed on names of contacts to me before I went in April. We especially talked about women there, and the patterns of life in more traditional households, where women cook and clean and tend to their families. The daily patterns provide an anchor-point, a feeling of security for everyone. The code of hospitality is very strong, so that the guest, expected or not, is offered water and tea and then food, much more generously and graciously than would happen in most North American households. I was humbled by the warmth and generosity of the men and women I met and stayed with in Kurdistan. And I wonder, as the country changes, whether people will be able to hold onto their traditional values. I hope so, for their sakes.

So this is the question: How do traditional societies make the transition to the patterns of the modern world, without losing their core values? It's a troubling problem, one that exists not only in newly modernising cultures like Kurdistan, but also in families who have left their home country and moved to North America or Europe. The parents have difficulties and distress when they see their daughters and sons adopting new patterns of behaviour; change is threatening to them. On the other hand the children are stressed because they want to honour their parents but they also want to participate in a changing world with their peers; for them change is enticing and part of growth.

All this is not news. But as time races past, marked by mother nature's evolving patterns, it's sometimes valuable to stop and think about these issues. Other people's lives are a mystery to each of us. We can only guess at the struggles or pains that people are living with, or the sufferings they may have had earlier.

This first week of June is a week of major anniversaries: Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the start of the Six Day War in 1967; the D-Day Landings in 1944. As I think about these big turning-point events, I try to imagine what each was like for individual people who were there and participated. Somehow the passage of time can flatten the life out of events so that they become like stone statues on the our mental landscape. The reality is that they were complex, full of feeling and intensity, fear and pain and awe, and that individual human beings just like you and me were caught up in them.

Thus in this musing about accepting change I guess I am saying that when it comes to memories, it feels valuable to resist change, to hold onto memories and revisit them. If we can keep a vivid sense of our own history, and that of others, then the lessons and insights of the past can continue to live in us, even long afterward - or perhaps, especially long afterward, when we've had time to reflect on it all.