Friday, August 29, 2014


It’s warm and kind in the sun, but sitting here in the shade, in my small back garden, the cool of autumn is tickling my skin and reminding me that Labour Day is around the corner. I’m not ready for this! Perhaps no-one is, including teachers and kids heading back to school. And here in Toronto, where we’ve had an unusually cool summer after a long harsh record-setting winter, we’re feeling a little robbed of warmth and renewal.

You can’t tell that though from looking at gardens and farmers’ markets. Somehow the tough winter helped many plants and crops thrive, in a kind of “if you weren’t killed by the cold, then you are stronger and more vigorous” kind of scenario. Thus the stone fruits are full of flavour, the arugula and sorrel in my garden are still luxuriant, and the cool weather has kept the lettuce lively too. The bees are humming, working hard, sucking at the chive flowers and the remains of the phlox and lilies, the flowering arugula gone wild, and the odd daisy.

Meantime next door the neighbours’ little kids are playing in water, splashing and squabbling and then laughing again…a last hurrah before the older child heads to kindergarten next Tuesday.

I think of school as a process of socialisation: we learn about the diversity of characters and interactions from spending time with people we did not choose, in a relatively orderly environment, and with distractions, such as learning, to help us stay on track and focussed. If school helps us maintain respect for ourselves and others, and learn to discern and work with the differences between us, then that’s a huge accomplishment. The marks and “benchmarks” are so much less important!

Up the street, speaking of school and turning points in the year, the campus of the University of Toronto has been mown and tidied and repaired and touched up, in preparation for the arrival of students. Awkward first year students and their worldly possessions are being unloaded in front of residences by their parents this weekend; the cooler at-ease-in-the-city upper year students will be around in a week’s time. So now is the last day to get to the University bookstore for supplies before the huge long line-ups start. The next time for easy access will be in four weeks.

And so the world turns in this safe-feeling Toronto of no war and predictable seasonal cycles.

But across the water people are suffering in fragmented and war-torn landscapes. Syria is a catastrophe, and parts of Iraq too, and in Ukraine Putin is flexing the muscles he first used to wrest Abkhazia and North Ossetia from Georgia. The era of the cold war, so static and buttoned down, and full of bluster, with two clear “sides” must feel desirable to some people in retrospect, just as many in the ex-Soviet Union after 1990 spoke fondly of the certainties of life under the Soviet dictatorship. But now we’re in a new era and have to feel our way and figure out how to stay open to the wider world.

It’s too easy to turn our backs on the pain of others. Their pain and suffering make us uncomfortable; perhaps we feel guilty for being so well off in our peaceful place while other suffer. But I do think it’s important to keep thinking about the individual human beings on the ground, anywhere and everywhere in the world. They deserve our attention, our respect, and our help.

Food is a thread that we can use to help understand others, in fact to help visualise ourselves in their place. Even as there are rocket launchers attacking, in Gaza or Syria, there are home cooks figuring out how to feed their families, and bakers heating their ovens to get the day’s bread baked.

And that visualising of the daily food preparation, and family meals of others, in turn helps us remember that we are all on this planet together. It helps us have respect for the people we share the planet with, just as, when we were in primary school, we were all in the classroom together, with our differences and our difficulties, embarked on trying to understand what was going on and to learn.

Monday, August 25, 2014


I’m writing this in the plane as it wings its way east to Toronto. Air Canada upgraded me, a rare and lovely treat, and so I gave the food I had bought for my flight home to a friend who was on the same flight and NOT upgraded.

I’m thinking about the last week doing prep for and then being at the Grain Gathering, in the Skagit Valley and I'm trying to sift and sort my way through memories, impressions, and thoughts about the future of grain and farming and food production, as well as access to food. (I'll post this tomorrow when I've got internet and have had a night's sleep.)

As I was embarking on this last week’s trip to the Grain Gathering with Dawn Woodward aka Dawn the Baker of Evelyn’s Crackers, sitting in the airport in Toronto waiting for our flight west to be called, she talked to me about the farmers’ markets in Toronto and about the issue of access to food. Her thoughts pushed me to write a letter about the issue…which I plan to send tomorrow to Nick Saul of Community Food Centres Canada who is also the innovator behind much that has happened at the STOP in Toronto.

In the letter I argue against the practice of charging rent to the farmers who come to the markets in the city every week. They already have gas costs and time costs. And we want those markets. So why try to squeeze money out of the farmers? It’s a crazy dysfunctional idea. Let the markets make money another way, from donors if need be, but even better from city and provincial governments. And let the farmers not be burdened with even more costs.

So this is one piece of the enormous puzzle that is food and access to food and the difficulties of producing food. People at the Grain Gathering this weeks talked about and engaged with other pieces of the puzzle. Farmer-millers talked about what they do; small artisanal bakers also, and scientists from the University of Washington’s remarkable research centre in the Skagit Valley also gave presentations. I met an urban miller named Nan from Los Angeles, a small-town baker from Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast came too, and another from Whidbey Island, and master bakers from San Francisco, North Carolina, Vermont, Toronto… They have all left me with a lot to think about.

Dawn-the-Baker and I gave three workshops: about using old bread ("Waste Not! recipes for making puddings, kvass, a Georgian bread omelet dish, knudeln, etc); Toast (three stunning breads by Dawn, toasted, then with toppings, and how this can work for bakers and eaters too); and Multi-Grain baking (all recipes by Dawn, from buckwheat scones, airy and delish, to rye crust tarts, whole grain Red Fife tart, cookies made with whole grain Kamut, etc). I also helped with a presentation she did with Jonathan, the baker at the centre's Bread Lab. It was a comparative tasting of four different single varietal wheats, just harvested and milled without sifting out any bran, and used to bake both artisanal loaves and madeleines. Fascinating. (The varieties we tasted were Renan, Pachtol, Ludwig, and Colonia.)

I was very happy to have been asked to give the opening keynote. It gave me the chance to take people out, through photographs, to the whole wide world of grain. Almost all humans eat grain in some form every day: bread, noodles, porridge, polenta, whole rice, couscous... And that grain might be corn or barley or millet or sorghum, or rice or rye or oats or teff, or wheat...or a blend. So we went traveling through my photos from a Homng/Miao man ploughing a flooded paddy field in Guizhou China to women in Lalibela Ethiopia grinding barley to make the beer called thalla, to a baker joking with his customers in Iran. All of this is the grain community, the labour of hands and minds, passed along in a chain.

The second keynote was given by Jeffrey Hamelman, a grounded, tuned-in master-baker and altogether lovely man who now works for King Arthur Flour in Vermont. He spoke about teachers and teaching, and students and learning, and the face time and emotional connection time that need to go into the teacher-learner relationship if it’s to be fruitful. It was a moving and inspiring talk I thought, and many agreed.

And the people who participated in our workshops engaged fully, asking questions, suggesting options, participating in the ideal collaborative way Jeffrey was talking about.

But there were also bumps in the road at the conference, or perhaps I should say, things proposed that I took issue with. Those too were enlightening and give me pause.

For example Dan Barber, author of the recent thoughtful and terrific book “The Third Plate” spoke at the plenary that closed the conference. It was a public conversation with Steve Jones, the director of the Washington State Agricultural Research Center at Mt Vernon, where the conference was held. Steve is one of the principal people energising the current renaissance of local single-varietal wheats and has had a big impact on Dan's thinking.

As they chatted I was struck by Dan’s emphasis on what chefs could do to shift the current food systems, and the culture of meat at the centre of the plate. His “second plate” is the current farm-to-table movement which emphasises organic local food, but is still centred around an unsustainable North American assumption, that meat (or fish) is at the centre of the plate, with greens and grains on the periphery.

So here’s a chef, a thoughtful guy, who has two restaurants, one in New York City, the other at a remarkable centre, Stone Barns, that is underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation, talking about the need to bring non-meat/non-fish, to the centre of the plate. That's great. But he’s seeing chefs as the people to get that started.

I can’t.

I see it happening through home cooks. It's already happening in many households. I know some that are vegetarian, not in a hardline way, but truly meat-free (with a dab of fish sauce on the side perhaps). Others eat lightly of meat and fish. Food on their table is appreciated and enjoyed for its deliciousness and flavour.

But when a NYC chef is talking about cooking and serving the full range of local produce, with no heavy protein on the plate it’s a big problem: he or she is in business, with rent to pay and staff to pay, and investors to reward. People who go out to eat at a famed restaurant expect the “treat” of a protein at the centre of the plate, be it grilled fish or steak or lamb. The meal is expensive. And so the economic interests of the chef and the diner are at odds with the expectations of the chef and the diner.

In fact perhaps the chef-restaurant is the LAST place that things can change. The fine-dining venue is one for people who feel entitled to have a treat or to be spoiled. They don’t want to be reminded of their social responsibility to eat lightly and to save the planet by their food choices.

In contrast, in the home cooking situation the economic and gastronomic interests coincide. The household eats well in every sense of the word, and can feel good about what they’re cooking and eating, from its provenance and philosophy to its flavour and its lower cost.

The people who deal with these issues of what gets eaten, what goes on the plate, every day are the people who are responsible for feeding a family or a household or community. Mothers, spouses, partners, colleagues, students in their first apartments - home cooks in other words - are the people on the front line of shopping and cooking. And in many cases they can and are also on the front lines of leading by example - showing the way - household by household, meal by meal.

A participant at the Grain Gathering, a woman baker from Toronto named Carol, told me that as she read Dan’s book she experimented with substituting “home cook” for “chef” in all his sentences. And when she did so, she reported, it all made more sense. Exactly.

Yes, this still leaves us with the issue of how to get people engaged in metaphorical “nose-to-tail” eating, that is, eating all the products of a farmer’s fields, from pulses and legumes to wild and tame greens, etc, as well as lesser known grains. How do we make this happen for home cooks and eaters everywhere? 

Chefs can help by figuring out new combinations and ways of cooking. On the other hand the food traditions of other cuisines. for example those of India, Mexico, China, etc, are a richer more deeply layered source. Cooks in those traditions work with very little meat for these are sustainable cuisines that have developed over the centuries, cuisines loaded with diversity and deliciousness. There are plenty of cookbooks out there to explore...and to help guide home cooks in this new terrain.

The goal is to turn people on to the pleasures - the flavour, health, and environmental benefits - as well as the lower costs, of cooking and eating this way. And we’ll get there. People aren’t stupid. And the adventures that lie ahead for cooks and all of us eaters as we explore this new Third Plate frontier will surprise us all.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I haven’t managed to settle down to write here since the end of July and I’m feeling a little guilty about the long gap between posts.

My explanation/excuse is that I have been making real headway on my Persian World book work, both recipe testing and writing. It's been engrossing and satisfying. Once in the groove I don’t like to interrupt it and strain away from it. On top of the book work there’s also been the prep leading up to the Grain Gathering this month.

The conference (the renamed Kneading Conference West) is August 21 to 23 this year, at the agricultural research station in Mt Vernon, Washington. As in the last two years, I am working with Dawn-the-baker (aka Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers) to give three different workshops. But this year I am also giving one of the keynotes, the opening one.

Each time I have the honour and pleasure of giving a thematic talk, I find myself turning around and around, as I try to figure out what path to take: What do I REALLY want to communicate? What useful ideas can I contribute? How best to do that? Should I show images? and so on.

It seems to me that other people must be more efficient about all this than I am. I the process of feeling my way into a talk seems to take a long time, always. Some of the problem comes because l try to express fresh ideas each time I give a talk. It’s a little like cooking: my favourite thing is to improvise with what I have on hand, rather than following a recipe or repeating a previously successful dish or meal exactly. Variety and unpredictability, and the little adrenalin that kicks in as I struggle to find a new path, a new idea, a different way of expressing a familiar idea: these are pleasures.

I’m happy to report that I’ve come out the other end of this particular labyrinth of decision-intersections. I have images picked and I know where I want to head in my talk and what I’m hoping to communicate. It feels great. And now I get to go out to that lovely part of the west coast (the Skagit Valley in northern Washington), see people who have become dear friends, learn and work and eat, and do some baking too.

In the meantime though I want to try to write here about tools and keeping things, whether it’s my bicycle or my body or my head, in good repair. Thoughts and reminders about the subject have been accumulating recently. Some people stay on top of maintenance, but I am a bit of an avoider: When something in the house breaks, a small thing like a lightbulb burning out or the caulking round the sink shredding etc, I work around it for awhile until finally it drives me a little crazy - or perhaps it’s embarrassment that pushes me - and I tend to it. The same goes for clothing that needs repair or attention of some kind.

And my bicycle? I am ashamed to say that recently I was pedalling, for a good three weeks I think, on a back tire that was very soft, stupidly soft. Of course it takes way more energy to pedal on a tire that’s not fully pumped. There’s so much more friction. I started to wonder if I was getting way out of shape, for my usual quick pedal up the hill was feeling more onerous.

Yes, what I’m saying is that I entirely failed to notice that my tire was low.

It took a good friend telling me to make me realise. On the one hand it was a relief: oh good, bike riding has been feeling like hard work because my tire is almost flat, and not because I am terribly out of shape. But on the other hand, especially once I’d stopped at a gas station and filled the tire, I was appalled. Suddenly riding was an easy dream. And how could I have been so inattentive to it? Why had I wasted the chance to have smooth pleasurable rides?

Maintenance of our tools, whether it’s keeping knives sharp (I am NOT good on this front either, I confess) or maintaining a bicycle or a car or a laptop, is a responsibility we should enjoy. After all, not only did we pay good money for them, but, more importantly I think, we owe it to ourselves to not disable ourselves through inattentiveness.

I’ve come to think that not keeping out tools and toys and environment at their best is like walking around wearing heavy dark glasses or hobbled with leg-irons. It keeps us from tuning in to our environment and from making the most of our days.

Another form of maintenance is care of our bodies. And here too I have learned that I’ve been negligent recently, stupidly ignoring good practice. I’ve had strange aches and pains in my heels (plantar-fasciitis-like but not exactly) and aching knees for a couple of weeks, a very unusual thing for me. I went to see Xiaolan, my friend who is a remarkable TCM practitioner. She and her staff tut-tutted and basically told me it was all my fault for letting my feet get cold. You should wear shoes or slippers in the house, they said. The cold (it’s the tile floor in my kitchen, where I stand in bare feet cooking, sometimes for hours in this period of recipe testing etc) is making your muscles tight and that’s why you have pain.

I then remembered that once before, about 25 years ago when my first kid was a baby, I’d had pain in my heels and another TCM practitioner had told me to keep my feet warm (again it was summertime, and the problem was cold tiles on unprotected feet). Duh!

A lot of acupuncture needles later, and with warm slippers on my feet, and presto! I have no aches, no pain. But how much better it would have been to have tuned in earlier!

So, attentiveness is vital, and then…maintenance. It sure is an uninteresting-sounding concept, maintenance/repair. But I’ve come to see that it’s part of having respect for ourselves and for what we’re lucky to have in the way of health and ability.

Waste not, want not, as they say.