Friday, March 25, 2011


Last week I wrote about the full moon and an expectation of spring. By then I had grilled outside over wood and charcoal (beef, mushrooms, smoked pork chops), a sure sign of milder weather and rising hopes. But now six days later we're back in the deep-freeze, truly. It began with heaps of wet snow that cooled into lighter drier snow and blanketed the city, every telephone wire, fence-top, sidewalk, tree branch. The cat wouldn't set foot outsdie, and nor, it seemed would the city crews, who were NOT ploughing streets at all.

(We have a new and horrible mayor, anti-bicycle, anti-public transit etc; my theory is that he's going to point with pride to the money he's saved. Meantime we've had three days of clogged, then icy-with-sun-melt-and-refreeze sidewalks. I've seen several falls and lots more near-misses.)

SInce I was away for a chunk of the snow-season, it was kind of lovely to find myself yesterday afternoon walking across the great white snowy circle at the University of Toronto, the sun reflecting glaringly into my eyes off the pristine white. I was hurrying to meet a friend for coffee, and thinking, as I rushed across the circle on the student-created packed snow path, that the glare on my skin reminded me of long ago when people would sit outside in the spring with reflectors, tanning, in breaks from spring skiing. That feels so long ago. DO people still tan like that?

I had made an appointment last week in the warm weather to take my bicycle in for its spring tune-up, and cold and snowy yesterday was the day. The street was so icy I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Feeling rather pathetic! I walked my bike to Urbane Cycle rather than risking a fall. And today I was able to ride it home, whizzing along on almost-dry roads (the sun, even with freezing air temperatures, is evaporating the snow and ice off the streets beautifully). The air was cold on my ears (no room for a hat under my helmet) but with a new rear derailer, new fromt tire, newly regreased front end, everything felt so smooth and easy; what a difference good maintenance makes!

That's a truth worth remembering in lots of contexts, not just bicycles.

On the night of the big snow day, Wednesday, I made a huge pot of beef stew, flavoured at the start, just before I put in the shallots/onions, with mustard seed, nigella seed, and some turmeric (into olive oil). (I find I use mustard seed and turmeric, a light dash, almost every time I use hot oil, except when stir-frying distinctly Thai or Chinese dishes.) I had potatoes from Marcus, brought to the house last week by Dawn and Ed of Evelyn's Crackers and still remarkably good, and some carrots from Quebec, as well as stewing beef from Grey County, bought at Sanagan's in Kensington Market.

A satisfyingly hungry crowd of young people (five in all) made short work of it. For greens there were very non-local wing beans ("tua plu" in Thai), bought at the Viet Grocery store on Spadina. They're long with frilled edges, and are best cooked in a little water quickly, like asparagus. I do them in a cast-iron skillet in an inch of water. When they're just cooked (about 5 minutes), I drain them and cut them into 1-inch lengths, then dress them in a light vinaigrette. Delish, and also beautiful.

This morning, with the temperature still freezing (wind chill of minus 15 at eight), I went for an early run. WInd pants, long underwear, three layers on top as well as hat and mittens: not my idea of springtime running gear! I needed it all, though was able to take off my mittens to cool down on the second half of the run. It felt so good to be out in the sun, breathing and moving freely. What a great thing that morning run is, a tonic that lasts all day.

Tomorrow I'm heading north for an afternoon of cross-country skiing and supper with a group of friends. I'd thought my one ski in December was all I'd get this year. So I suppose I'm ending this part of the post with the reflection that I've a lot to be grateful for, including this late snow...

Meanwhile in the wider world, there was an earthquake late Thursday, followed by many aftershocks, in the far eastern part of Burma's Shan State, just along the road from Mae Sai/Tachilek to Kengtung. I travelled that road last month, going up in a car and back south in a crowded bus. It passes through steep hills, and when it's in valleys, the hills on either side are beautiful and sweepingly massive, rather like the Jura or mountains in Tuscany. People in that region who live in villages have wooden houses, mostly, on stilts. In towns there are some brick and stone houses, often covered with plaster. The early reports talk of landslide danger, because of the steepness of the terrain and also, I imagine, because there has been a fair amount of rain in the region this March, very unusual.

Now we wonder whether the Burmese government will accept any help with this disaster, or not. The region is very cut off from central Burma, almost a different country, it seems. There are huge army camps (for the Chinese border, southern Yunnan, is not far away), and maybe that's who will end up doing the work of rescue and rebuilding.

And in Japan, two weeks since the earthquakes and tsunami, there is no relief from unfolding pain and fear, or so it seems. We can only hope that those who were stranded in the north have mostly been reached and given some form of shelter and support, so at least they are warm and fed. But who can tell what the end result of this kind of trauma is, for individuals who lost so much, and for the country as a whole? It seems reasonable to anticipate that emotionally and politically there will be aftershocks and tsunamis, in the public sphere as well as in the private.

Meantime Japanese fortitude and focussed attention to helping neighbours and getting life moving again are an example to us all. I don't mean just because of the astonishing stamina and "suck-it-up" determination involved, but also because it's an ongoing reminder not to take for granted our good fortune at being alive, whatever immediate pain or unhappiness we may be feeling from time to time.

I haven't even mentioned the other hot places, all painful and complicated, that feel my mind's eye: Cote d'Ivoire, where there's civil war and ethnic cleansing happening; Libya, say no more; Yemen and Syria and Bahrein and Morocco and... where change and hope and repression and fear are all blooming and struggling with each other. It's a humbling world out there.

All I can say is, bring on some peaceful resolutions, please, to these struggles.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


It's full-moon day today, with a big fat moon promised for this evening, the largest and brightest for some years they say. It was already huge last night. I have no idea why it would sometimes be brighter and others not... Whatever the wattage, the full moon has a magic, not measurable, just there. Wonderful.

Last night I was out with some old friends for supper at the Niagara Street Cafe. Such a pleasure to be with people with whom I don't have to edit or filter or in any way watch what I say. So often we make conversation with others, trying to reach out or to not offend or to put the other person at ease. All these goals are laudable, some more than others, but best of all is the luxury of full human to human communication without political or social worries. It's so much fun to just let go.

We ate slow-cooked Ontario lamb, and also some deep-fried frogs'-legs (from Ontario too? not sure) and duck confit and special Japanese-bred pork. There was a delicious parsnip soup too. It was a treat to have tastes from others' plates...

And after watching several old episodes of West Wing on the computer with Tashi, I headed for bed to read some more of my current book: The Man from Saigon. It's extraordinary, a vivid novel set in 1967 in Vietnam at the height of the war. The book is by Marti Leimbach; it's a Nan Talese/Doubleday book published in 2009. This copy is a bound galley lent to me by a friend. I can't remember reading about the book or seeing it in stores. Did it get noticed? Did it have any success? I hope so. Do go and look for it in a library or bookstore.

This week is new year (Nouroz) in Iran, a time just before the equinox when people eat green and growing things (sprouted wheat berries for example, and fresh herbs) and celebrate the return of the sun and new growth everywhere. New year in springtime makes a lot of sense to me. The Thais and Burmese and Lao have their new year in mid-April to mark the end of the death that is hot season and the arrival of the first rains that will bring the ground back to life...

Speaking of spring, I celebrated the arrival of warm weather this week by flinging open the doors of the house and spring cleaning. No, it's not glamorous, and it certainly didn't advance my word count on the Burma cookbook. But it did feel great. All rugs got aired and shaken and vacuumed, the floors washed, and some non-essentials purged. The house now feels relatively dust-free and refreshed. And a feeling of light airiness as light and warmth return is visible on people's faces as they walk down the street. Despite the harshness of news from the wider world there's a lovely optimism in the air here.

What a pleasure.

Who knows if this no-fly zone will help the democratic forces in Libya; let's hope it doesn't just lead to endless fighting and bloodshed. And let's hope that the beleaguered people in north-eastern Japan get more warmth and shelter and a measure of healing this week. We've all been so concentrated on the nuclear crisis that the living victims of the earthquake and tsunami have rather faded out of our consciousness. SImilarly, the democratic forces in Bahrain and in Libya continued to struggle and suffer this week without the encouragement of the eyes of the world upon them. It's heartbreaking and overwhelming.

Let's hope that there is dialogue rather than bloodshed that results in the end of autocratic rule in the Mahgreb... and let's rejoice as the sap continues to run, the birds return, the snow melt, the green return... There's such a sense of expectancy as all the signs of new life appear. They're like a fanfare announcing that the death that is winter is finally leaving for another year!

And don't forget to take a long pause to wonder at the full moon's radiance today.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I fnd myself, like many others I imagine, unable to tear myself away from checking twitter etc for breaking news about Japan. And so it was wonderful to hear a familiar voice addressing me directly from there, Elizabeth Andoh.

Elizabeth Andoh is a scholar of Japanese food and culture, a remarkable woman in many ways. She publishes an online newletter called A Taste of Culture. She just sent out an extra one, which is a gift to us all, for it grounds those of us far away in the human reality there in Japan. Here is some of what she says:

When the first huge, terrifying quake hit on Friday afternoon, March 11, I was in Tokyo preparing for a class the following day. Having lived through several large quakes before (including one in which I was trapped in an elevator for hours before being rescued), I knew what to do. Trembling (me, and the earth together), I went into automatic mode, shutting off anything that could cause a fire, propping open the front door and one other escape route in the kitchen (door frames can shift causing them to jam shut), donned my emergency kit-knapsack (containing flashlight, extra batteries, water, essential medications, money, identification papers, gloves, face mask, first aid supplies, extra sweater with hood). The initial quake lasted for several minutes -- it seemed as though it would never stop.

Still trembling (me, and the earth together), I turned on the emergency news channel and learned the center of seismic activity (the largest on record in Japan, currently revised at 9.0) was Miyagi Prefecture, on the Pacific coast, north of Tokyo. Gigantic tsunami (tidal waves) were predicted, and came... and keep coming. As do tremors of varying degrees (as I type this, my desk sways slightly in a minor aftershock).

Transportation and communication services have been widely disrupted -- frustrating and frightening. To conserve energy, limited and rotating shut-downs are being scheduled throughout the Kanto Plains area. At this time I have access to the Internet and grab the opportunity to make two requests:

Elizabeth goes on to tell those of us far away how we can best help: by donating to the Japanese Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders or CARE or International Medical Corps. And she also advises people who are in Japan that they should assemble an emergency kit for themselves, the instructions for which are to be found at href="">

This reminder of the fragility of things, of life and terra firma even, is painful, even for those of us far away. And it's a good reminder. I know I don't have any kind of emergency kit packed. I just blithely continue day to day, assuming the sun will rise in the usual way tomorrow. It's a good idea to be prepared, not anxious, but just ready, so we can be less of a burden to others if disaster does strike.

And in the meantime, let's help those in trouble each of us in our own way, as we hope they would rush to help us in similar travail.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


What a change of scene: temperature, light, people, oh and did I say temperature? It's COLD here in Toronto. I got back from Chiang Mai a week ago, then left for New York for three days until late Saturday night, so I feel like I'm only now getting settled back into Toronto. There was a thick beautiful coating of snow everywhere on Sunday morning when I woke up, making the light all pale and ghostly.

I had to leap to, rather than lying in, for the house needed tidying (Dom and Tashi did pretty well keeping things organised, but still, there was a little raggedness at the edges that needed dealing with). What was the rush? you wonder. Nothing heavy, but I was expecting a bunch of kids and adults to arrive around noon to celebrate E's fifth birthday. I made none of the food, just tried to organise the stage... no pressure, and it was fun: about ten kids and fifteen or more adults.

I wrote a blog entry in January about an ideal way of dealing with jetlag: read a great book (it was Wolf Hall that first book). Well now I have another coping strategy: be busy with fun things, like simple chores, undemanding parties, etc. The time goes by, I'm not tempted to fall asleep in the middle of the day, and it's all fun anyway.

The snow has melted a little in the bright noonday sun, but wind chill temperatures have been shockingly low: minus 22 yesterday morning for example. Once the wind died down the day turned beautiful, of course, warming and optimistic. But then again this morning, as I headed out on my first post-return jog, I found I was glad I had on windpants and long underwear, mittens, a headband, and a couple of layers on top too. Yikes! There were patches of glare ice in places, but mostly the sidewalks were dry. The cold wind made my eyes tear up, but that was the only difficulty I had.

I headed west to a new bakery-restaurant here called Woodlot. And then when I got there I realised I was echoing my Chiang Mai pattern. There in the early morning I often run through the old city to a woman who sells cafe buran, old-style Thai coffee, near the Chiang Mai Gate market. Here in Toronto I ended up like a homing pigeon, asking for coffee: a double espresso at Woodlot. The scene was different, bakers shaping loaves rather than the wacky traffic by Chiang Mai Gate, but there was the same black bite to the coffee, and the same pleasure at being out early in my running shoes.

It's odd this need for a destination. It comes and goes. Some mornings I am happy to make a loop, and to alter my route as I go, at whim. And other days, both here and in Chiang Mai, I am happiest having a destination and a purpose, a goal. I wonder what makes a particular day incline one way or the other. hmm... Food for thinking as I run next time.

That probably won't be tomorrow, for there's rain promised.

Instead I'll start in early on the next item on my to-do list: typing out my notes from my last weeks in Burma. I am feeling pumped, not sure why, about this Burma book. I think it's a relief to be at the stage where I am shaping the book, structuring it around stories and recipes, seeing where I still have gaps to fill. This is the fun part, for sure. I also have about twenty more recipes to figure out. Most of them shouldn't be a problem...or so it seems to me right now.

On this International Women's Day, the hundredth one, they tell us, I find myself wondering at the passing of time, and being grateful for all my freedoms. That I can sit here typing and know that this can be published and out in the e-world with a stroke of a key seems amazing. That I am uncensored, free to write what I wish, is a privilege many people don't have. And that I can vote, own property, raise my voice and be heard: now those are rights that my great-grandmother didn't have, not formally at least.

And so once again here I am counting my blessings...and waiting for spring to commit to arriving!