Tuesday, October 27, 2009


There's a golden glow everywhere here. The trees continue in briliant leaf, our reward or compensation for a cold wet summer, whose weather was ideal for trees but hard on farmers and local markets and any sense of optimism, and...

The enormous two hundred or whatever it is year-old elm that towers over the house is in the most glowing yellow colour it has ever worn. Beneath it the crabapple tree (sorry, don't know the variety) that fills our small front yard spreads its arms like a golden embrace. The branches are dark, especially after a rain of course, and the leaves just glow in contrast. SOme have fallen so the ground, too, is aglow. The front of the house faces east, so mornings are radiant with the trees in leaf, even when the sun doesn't shine, and even more so in the office, on the second floor, which is a golden yellow too (at least the bits of wall that show at the edges of bookshelves!).

The heart lifts with all this beauty. And perhaps even more so because it is ephemeral? Hard to say.

The was a foretaste of the next months yesterday as I heard the sound of a plough scraping and bumping down the street. Wha..a..a..t? And what was it? Yes, it was indeed a city truck with a plough, scraping its way down the street, at the edge of the sidewalk... yes, you guessed, it, ploughing up the fallen leaves! How strange. And a bit of a chilling reminder of real ploughing and the white stuff that will soon fall.

But today is again soft and hazy, so colours glow. The ivy on the coachhouse is gradually turning, so there remain touches of green and hot yellow as the advanced leaves are tinted with orange and red, a wall of nature's colour. It's been a green wall all summer, filling the view out the back door and radiating a sense of life back into the house. Now it radiates light, magically and beautifully, changing light.

Yesterday I was out there in the back yard (a small enclosed space, framed by the ivied back wall and the house), digging up part of the garden, some of the vegetable part of the garden. i hate to dig things under or pull them out unless they are truly gone, so that means that there are still some straggly tomato plants, (dotted with a few green fruits) and chile pepper plants as well as parsely and garlic chives, but the shiso has gone, the epazote, and a lot of the tomatoes (the ones that got hit with mildew). The earth was dark and rich and full of worms. Once I've dug under the rest, I'll add manure (bought, not found, unfortunately) and maybe dig it in a little, but basicaly leave it until spring.

All this digging up is the way to do things. My granddad would be appallled at my hesitancy, but I do hesitate. I hate to discourage or disturb the volunteers and the survivors - the shiso seeds, the tomatoes, the parsley, that come back on their own. It's a silly attitude, for survivors survive better if the soil is fed and turned and aerated. Just letting it sit there is not doing things a favour, and certainly doesn't lead to vigorous growth of the tomatoes next year. It's with exhortations like that that I get myself out there with the shovel!

Digging was a nice sequal to hearing a talk by the charismatic Dr. Vananda Shiva the other day. The theatre was packed, the audience rapt, as she talked about saving seeds, the attack on the planet by agribusiness, the wisdom of local farmers, the insanity of seed patents... Do go to hear her if you get a chance. And by the way, there was a question put to her about vegetariansim: she said, yes, "I am a vegetarian because to me dal and vegetables are much more tasty." She went on to say that eating a little meat is fine, "if you like it". (We eat meat, and have signed on for seven pounds of meat a month, a small meat share at a meat CSA (Twin Creeks Farm). But we rely on dal and vegetables. The kids cook most of the meals, and dal is such an easy option that it's usually on the menu at least twice a week. Usually some vegetable or other gets added with the seasonings, and there might be another veg dish or two on the side, all served with rice usually. I could happily eat dal every day; it's always so comforting and inviting.)

On another topic, I've been on foot - can you say "unbiked" as you can say "unhorsed"? - for the last two weeks. On my way back from holding the fabulous baby (see the October 19th post) my rear bike tire was suddenly flat with that horrible squelch-squelch sound. I had a pump with me, but it could do nothing; clearly there was a huge hole. So I started walking, quite resigned. The tires after all have been on the bike since 1986, when we cycled over the Karakoram Highway from Kashgar to Hunza, so I can't complain if something has given out!

And then in one of those serendipity-can-come-out-of-downers moments, as I was plodding past a restaurant on Harbord I spotted two friends sitting by the window dining with a few other people. I leaned the bike against the window and went in for some conversation and laughter and a glass of wine. The gift of the flat tire, that's what the evening became.

Since then, though, I have failed to get the tire fixed: bought an inner tube but it was the wrong size... etc etc. Finally today I carried tire and wheel to Urbane Cyclist, bought a new tube and a new wheeel (the rubber WAS a little tired after all these years!) and now I have two wheels, two working wheels, again. Hurrah!

But speaking of feet, it seems to be a day for shoes... not just the running shoes (now getting a little worn) that I wear each morning for my run (today a ramble through Queens Park searching out the biggest and most gloriously coloured trees). I put a bag of running shoe discards out this morning to go with the garbage or be picked over by passers-by. Others had the same idea I guess, for down the street today I came on two odd-looking pairs of shoes, platforms, yikes! And a hundred feet beyond them, parked neatly side by side on the sidewalk stood two glamorous red satin shoes with high slender wooden heels, a pair. Were they waiting for a wearer? an anonymous art piece? abandoned by some Cinderella when her bicycle appeared?

Monday, October 19, 2009


I've been warmed all week by the memory, strongly physical as well as emotional, of holding a fabulously fresh baby for a long time the other evening. I was and am so grateful to her tolerant parents, who smiled indulgently as we all hung around their kitchen getting supper ready, admiring the baby, eating and drinking, admiring the baby... you get the idea.

She was awake and almost wide-eyed when I got to their house. Her father handed her over to me, and a few minutes of walking and swaying and music later, she'd sacked out. Those little puffy breaths, her tummy going pop-pop gently against me, were such a time-travel-like reminder of when my kids were infants. And it was also of course a reconnection with the miracle of babies.

These days we assume that a healthy baby will survive infancy; I can't imagine having children in an era of no birth control and high infant mortality. I know that I tried not to get too attached to my in utero children because there was a real risk that I wouldn't be able to carry them to viability. I was completely unsuccessful at trying to stay distanced! I can't imagine what it would be like to have a baby, tender and helpless and lovely, and to have to brace against the likelihood that she or he would not survive to the age of five.

Why, you may ask, can I not just rejoice in this lovely baby who has come into the lives of a network of friends here, without going to dire other scenarios? I don't know, except that it always feels important to look at both sides of life, the dire in the midst of happiness, the joyful or optimistic in the midst of pain.

This week life has been full of positives, not just the baby, but also the seven nice young people we billetted, all of them from Cornell, who were in Toronto to participate in a huge debating tournament hosted by Hart House at U of T. I like the idea of a full house and also of improvising day to day. So when Tashi said about a week ago, "Oh, I said we could billet seven or eight debaters; I hope that's OK" I was really pleased. "Don't worry about a thing," he said. "I have it under control." And in fact he did. It was entertaining to come down on tiptoe on Saturday and Sunday morning to a ground floor well furnished with recumbent sleeping guys, slip on running shoes and a jacket and head out for my small morning run. By the time I got back each day they were up and getting slowly into gear. They left the place looking remarkably orderly, with bedding stacked and folded. Now there's just a little laundry to see to!

And while they were here the weather started to warm and brighten, thank heavens. Even so, the nights are cold, so today I turned the oven to 450 and roasted a batch of beautiful red bell peppers we got from the farmers' market a week ago. Ed told me to oil them and salt them (he said pepper too, but I didn't) and so that's what I did, standing them on their heads on a rack over a roasting pan. Now they're cut into wide strips and some are in a jar in olive oil in the frig. The rest? Well I should have made a second jar, but instead they're here in a shallow bowl on the counter, out to be eaten at whim. I had a few strips with my bean soup tonight, along with some crumbled unpasteurised extra-old cheddar from Quebec. Yum.

The bean soup is a harbinger of winter menus in this house: lima beans and some navy's too if you have them (I didn't today) cooked in lots of water with a minced onion and some bay leaves, until completely tender. it takes a long time, but the creamy texture is worth the wait. I added some cubed potato and carrot fried in olive oil in a hot skillet , once the beans were close to done. They cooked to tender in the soup. A dash of red wine is a good idea, or cider vinegar, and also a generous dollop of soy sauce, then salt to finish. The last of the fresh herbs are a welcome addition, but you can do without. And bean soup is one of those great dishes that tastes even better the next day...

And finally, another autumn food note: Ten days ago Lillian and Jon gave us a basket of Courtlands from their apple tree out back. They were small, crisp, and intensely flavoured. I cut up the ones that we hadn't eaten a week later, leaving on the peel but cutting out the core and any spots, then cooked them with a little sugar and a dash of water. I suppose I started with about a quart and a half of chopped apple. It cooked down to a dense pink mass, splashed with the intenser red of peel. Then what to do? Why not use it as a tart filling?

The crust was improvised from a scant quarter pound of butter worked into a generous cup or more of whole wheat pastry flour, a pinch of salt, and about a quarter cup of sugar, then moistened with one egg and nothing more. I pressed the pastry into a nine-inch square pan, pressing the sides more than half an inch up the pan walls, and had a little pastry left over. I prebaked the shell under a piece of parchment weighted with lima beans (beans have so many uses! I use and re-use the same ones, and the parchment paper too) at 450 for about 8 minutes, then added the thick apple mass (not all of it fit) and topped it with a drizzle of honey, some turbinado sugar, and the crumbs of pastry dough that were left over. I baked it at 400 for perhaps 10 minutes then 350 for another five or so.

Those Courtland apples are so wonderful. It tastes as if I'd added a little lemon, there's such a complexity of flavour. But there's nothing extra, no cinnmon or lemon or other tricks, just mother nature's fall bounty. Hard not to wish that this season went on for longer!

But time moves on and soon I'll be heading off to the Worlds of Flavor conference at Greystone, in the Napa valley. It's a huge affair, each year dealing with the foods of other places and cultures under a different umbrella or theme. This year it's streetfoods and comfort foods. There will be cooks and chefs from India and Southeast Asia and Tunisia and other Mediterranean culinary cultures, as well as the Americas. And as always the conference will be a chance to catch up with people I haven't seen for awhile and to meet others I have heard of but never met. One such is Christine Manfield, from Australia, a very creative and admired chef, traveller, and cookbook author. We're scheduled to be on two different panels together. I'm looking forward to it all.

I've been sorting through images of streetfoods in various places, preparing to show them at the conference. They're mostly in slides, so once I pick them out, I'll scan them and pull together a show in digital format. This is still new technology to me, so I'm slow at it. And the decision-making is always painful: "this one or that one? How to get a balance? etc" At the same time I love the immersion in the images, a chance to travel in my imagination to places and times far away.

And from California I AM going to travel far away: I'm headed straight to Chiang Mai to catch up with friends and to do some early preparations for this January's immersethrough food session. For more information about the tour, please go to www.immersethrough.com. I'm also hoping to get a couple of weeks in Burma before I fly back home in mid-December.

All of this means that between now and November 11, when I leave here, the days seem very full, and the to-do list in my notebook is growing, not shrinking. But I had a kind of "aha!" today as I was jogging slowly down Philosopher's Walk: it's time I stopped thinking of obligations as urgent, as if dreadful things will happen if I don't get them done. Instead I need to just enjoy working through the to-do list, rather than feeling anxious or pressured by it.

Is this change of attitude possible? We'll see! I can just say that as I thought about all this I had a glimpse of how relaxing and productive a less amped-up approach could be, and it looked wonderful.

Monday, October 12, 2009


On with the heavy wool socks, or at least some kind of socks! The chill in the air this last week has been, well, chilling! I've brought in the curry leaf plants, at last, though have yet to bring in the ficus or the hibiscus. They're toughening even as I write!

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, and the whole weekend has been one for giving thanks, filled with the treat and privilege of spending time with friends and family.

The "dead bird" meal today was fun, the turkey from Gerald, free-range and healthy at 13 pounds, cooked at 450 degrees F. (down to 425 F for the last hour) so it was done and beautiful in just over 2 hours. I didn't stuff it, just shoved some wedges of onion inside, and a handful of chives and garlic chives from the garden. The outside i rubbed with olive oil, some coarse sea salt, and some tarragon, also from the garden. I tied the legs together with string, and also flipped the end of the wings, so that they were braced against the body; that way I could use the wings to hold the flap of skin closed at the neck end, sealing in moisture. High temperature roasting (see Barbara Kafka's classic book Roasting, edited by wonderful Ann Bramson) keeps the bird moist and makes great crisp skin, especially if you start with a healthy bird, not one of those faked grocery-store over-breasted pre-basted aberrations.

We put small sort-of-peeled spuds around the bird, and the neck went into the pan too, so our friend Dina who is a bones person, had her neck to gnaw on. There were other potatoes, boiled to firmly done, then stripped and chopped, then cooked in flavoured oil, Indian style, with mustard seed, fennel, nigella, a little turmeric, onion, garlic, minced ginger,,, delish. And I stir-fried a rainbow of peppers, cut into strips, and seasoned with Sichuan pepper and not much else. Beautiful. Sides included a tart cranberry sauce flavored like Georgian tkemali. Desserts were from Dina: a cranberry studded cake, perfect, a new creation by her; and an open-faced flat pastry topped with sliced Courtland apple. What could be better?

Saturday when I went up to Grey County for an overnight airing, I stopped in to give my aunt a hug, and lots of her family, my cousins, too. They were in the middle of cooking a gigantic bird - twenty-seven pounds! yikes! which had been in the oven for hours by then. I didn't stay for supper, for I was headed on farther, to see Lillian and Jon. At their house in the forest there was a mostly vegetarian feast , with borek (the Serbian version, layers of phyllo with egg and cottage cheese between, lush! made by Jon's mother) and potato and mushroom pie by Lillian, and salad, some sausage made by neighbours and grilled over an open fire by Jon, and then an apple tart and some chocolate cake too, for dessert. Lots of warming foods for a very chilly night.

But I ate so much that I was awake in the night, digesting I think, or maybe it was the excellent coffee? I went out in the brilliant light of the half-moon, and walked on forest paths near the house, in the magical light-and-shadow. Bed was welcoming when I returned to it, creeping into the silent house. Suddenly sleep returned and I drifted happily through until morning sunshine on brightly yellowing leaves.

And it's lovely to think that the brilliant leaves at this time of year are kind of a farewell wave, but also a promise of the new life and warmth that will come, in due course, and after we've become truly impatient, yes yes, I know! but will come. Nature's promise to us all. We need glorious memories of all that warm colour to cling to as we head into the cold and dark!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I'm a couple of days late posting this week. I have that familiar autumn feeling of days slipping by me, either because they're so beautiful that I need to be out and about in the air, or so gloomy that they feel short and dark. There's always an excuse!

But once again I'm starting a post with harsh news, this time of the harshest: David Dewees, a fabulous man, and wonderful teacher, a good and reliable and remarkable friend to many, died on Saturday, in the prime of life. My kids' old high school, Jarvis is grieving, and so are many who passed through there in the last six years. The change in the landscape of emotion and expectation is shocking and the prospect ahead bleak-looking. This is the kind of life-lesson and life experience we hate to see our kids and loved ones suffer through. There are no short-cuts to getting through this, no "quick and easy".

I guess for people who are deeply religious, there's a way to invest suffering with "meaning" and thus explain it or rationalise it. I find that approach completely unacceptable, though I admit it gives some people comfort. As those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile know already, I take a different route through this question: pain and suffering and death all remind us that we are alive and that our job is to engage with life as fully as we can. For me that means trying to tune in to others and to connect with them, be in the present with them. It also means treasuring friends and staying alert to them.

I'm not saying to ignore pain, not at all. Live it and feel it and breathe into it, get familiar with it: that's our task. Our power to reflect on it and to empathise with others who suffer or have suffered, or will suffer, is what makes us fully human. All of us experience pain and sorrow at some time, and when we do we are linked to the rest of humanity and become more fully human, somehow. It's humbling, to find how hard it is to live through the pain of loss, humbling when we realise that everyone has faced a similar burden, or is bound to at some time.

I feel very fumbling and inelegant writing this, when I think of the extraordinary clarity and elegant ease with which Karen Connelly writes, and especially when she talks about the imperative she feels (and acts on!) to live fully, in the moment. I went to a book launch at the Gladstone for her new book BURMESE LESSONS two evenings ago. It was a great event, packed, and with a short video showing striking images by Anne Bayin. Yesterday I opened the book and whoosh, I fell down the rabbit hole, headlong, as happens with some wonderful books, a rare treat. I'm now more than halfway through it, not wanting it to end. Her clarity of vision when looking out at individual people or looking in at her own motivations and reactions, is remarkable, as is her language. Stunning. And it's a good story, as well as a valuable introduction to the beauty and pain that is life in Burma.

The gusting winds today, the trees already swept bare of leaves in some places, and the increasingly slanting light, announce October and Thanksgiving (here in Canada) and the slide down to the winter solstice. I'm not ready. Are we ever?? The garden still needs to be pulled up (I hold out hope for a few more tomatoes from my beleagered plants, and the mint is still green, but the shiso leaves are gone and the seeds eaten by little families of sparrows) and winter clothes need finding and airing. Yikes!

And on the good news front, a follow-up: Last week I wrote about our dear friend with mysterious and acute abdominal pain. Well he ended up responding to antibiotics, so he didn't have surgery, and it now looks likely that it was appendicitis after all (though the GI people could never find his appendix on the CT scan or the ultrasound!). These days, they say that good medical practice is to not operate if an inflamed appendix responds to antibiotics. I wonder though, does this mean it could flare up at any time? They say not, but...

In any case, what a relief to have him back, starving of course, because he'd been kept on an IV drip and not allowed to have even a drink of water down his throat for four days. In the last week we've had consciously fuller meals, trying to fatten him up a little: roast chicken one night, with roasted sliced potatoes all round; grilled pork and beef with friends over on the weekend; mountains of salad and stir-fried green beans (we need another name since they are yellow and purple-black, as well as green); more Simplest Apple Pie; another skillet cake; a massive chocolate cake with a sheeny-shiny chocolate ganache icing, the cake made as an experiment by the sufferer himself, and eaten by all. I can't say he looks any less bare-bones, but he has colour in his cheeks and best of all, good energy!