Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Last week at the Kneading Conference West was a huge treat. I like being physical, and the bread- and cracker-making that I did for various workshops – along with wonderful Dawn Woodward of Evelyn’s Crackers, with whom I co-presented – was satisfying, and tiring too of course. We did a lot of baking for a tasting of (freshly milled whole grain) single varietal wheats, so interesting. I can't wait for next year's tastings. 

Meantime there were lots of other pleasures: exploring the amazing orchards at the Agricultural Research Center in Mount Vernon; talking, eating, and drinking with friends old and new; and cooking too. Best flavours? Hard to say, but the Alchemy apple that Dawn and I shared, forbidden fruit from a survivor tree at the Center, ranks very high. (It has Cox Pippin in its ancestry, so a firm-crisp bite, but it also has a sweetness and complex flavour. Just a dream.) High ranking too for the freshly shucked kumamoto oysters at Taylor's, that we ate sitting by the water last Saturday afternoon….

Now I’m back in Toronto, the moon is about to be full, and my trip to Iran via Istanbul is less than two weeks away. Can’t wait. But meantime, as the moon shone straight into my room through a crack in the curtains at 4 this morning, I started to run through the to-do lists that whirl in my head but that I still have difficulty remembering to write down. They include small things like shopping for black socks and a manteau or two for Iran; larger issues like learning a little Farsi, and preparing some language pages on the (old laptop) computer I am planning to take with me; urgent tasks like preparing for the talks and presentations I am giving this weekend at Savour Stratford, some of them Burma-related, some wider; and travel detail issues like what bag will I take, how much money to bring (there being no access to cash once I am in Iran, just like Burma until recently, so at least I have an idea of what’s involved), what shoes? and the trivial fusses that go along with packing decisions.

Hmmm…no wonder I sometimes feel scattered.

Yesterday morning though I had a wonderfully focussing experience. I went for a heart ultrasound to give my doctor a baseline (and yes, I have an active-person’s slow pulse and good blood pressure, and all looks very healthy I gather). Have you ever seen images of your heart beating? Or listened to the wonderful syncopations? It was thrilling and awe-inspiring to watch the regular pumping, see the “flapping” of the valve (can’t tell you which one), look at the heart’s structure from different angles. And there was a bonus: The very nice and experienced cardiology tech was teaching a student as she did the tests, so I learned a little about what they see and what they watch out for. As I walked out of the hospital and down the sunny street I was exhilarated, as high as I was when, years ago, I walked home from having a pregnancy ultrasound.

Life is mysterious, and the heart in each of us keeps us going. Best to have respect for it, treat it well, and keep it healthy, for it’s working without a break…

Now, as I round the corner on this blogpost, I look up and realise that there’s bright sunshine outside, and blue sky. The cat is asleep in the corner, in a patch of sun. It’s time for me to get moving. The writing and other sedentary “activities” of home, after the lovely physicality of the Kneading Conference, leave me feeling flat. The obvious answer is to remember to get my blood moving. And so I’m heading out now, heeding the call of the lovely September sun and the always interesting life on the streets of Toronto.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


I have an image that keeps popping back, of an honour guard of tall blooming hostas, marching down either side of a front walk in the village of Middleburgh. I passed them Friday as I was nearing the end of the long drive from Toronto to a farm near Rensellaarville, at the edge of the Catskills. By then I was tired and impatient to be out in the air rather than driving. But somehow, as happens occasionally, I noticed them clearly and then the snapshot memory of them stuck in my head. They made me smile in their vigour.

All it takes is some upbeat or light-hearted nudge sometimes, to take us from flatness or tiredness and remind us to stay alert and engaged. And on Friday the hostas did the trick.

Soon, after a stop at a rural junction to ask directions of two guys in a truck, and another directions-seeking chat with some guys outside a bar five miles further, I reached the red-barned farm where Molly O’Neil’s Longhouse Food Revival was about to start. What a pleasure to step out of the car onto green grass, see the wood-fired oven burning and young people working hard making last minute preparations for the weekend, and catch sight of other early arrivals and dive into conversations.

Now it’s Sunday morning. The big day is done, with its public performances and discussions and its many smaller conversations in the interstices; and with its feasting. Whew! Thanks to all the chefs and cooks who managed to feed a cast of hundreds with such grace and imagination and deliciousness. We had slow-roasted goat (the goats came from the Berry farm up the road); an Ethiopian cabbage and carrot dish with a side of berbere, a helping of (the Indonesian) rojak, Persian jewelled rice, and much more (including Sorel, a spiced hibiscus liquor now made in Brooklyn), then saffron ice cream, and other sweets… That was just dinner.

But even if we’d had only simple bread and cheese and raw vegetables I would have been very happy, for it was the conversations I had with friends old and new that juiced the day. Thanks, everyone! I think many people caught sight of new ideas or perspectives, or were encouraged to pursue the projects they were already embarked on (there were a lot of young people, and not-so-youngs here, all involved in some way in writing about and working with food, food journalism, food research and ideas, etc, in every kind of medium). That’s the best thing about coming together with others. It’s not so much direct learning, but informal contacts and the sparking of new thoughts, in unexpected ways.

I’ll put on music on my way home, to keep me company in the car, but my real company will be the conversations that I play back to myself, and the ideas they may lead me to as I reflect on them.

On another note, I was reminded again this morning, by Ariel Dorfman's piece in today’s New York Times, that this year, on September 11, it will be forty years since the coup that ousted Salvador Allende and killed and maimed so many in Chile and beyond… 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


The school children and their teachers are back in the classroom and the weather is giving them a little help: it’s grey and cool here in Toronto today. Do you remember that little pit of anxious anticipation when you were a kid? Do you remember wondering what you were going to wear on that first day? On the second question, I remember the details of only one year: what I wore to the first day of grade six, a favourite cotton dress of fresh green and white. Hard to understand why some memories stick…

This big turning point in the year is always so freighted with anticipations of all kinds and regrets about the end of summer’s long days and ease. Last night – the eve of the change - as I have in the past, I had friends over for supper. The youngest is headed into grade two, and was a little anxious, but fundamentally happy and fine. The eldest was headed to school today as a teacher. Several more start university responsibilities in a week or two. And the rest of us just reverberated, mostly privately, with memories and echoes of Labour Days past.

All this was against a backdrop, or perhaps I should say foreground, of delectables: slices of charcoal grilled pork; small grilled Pakistani-style sliders; mizuna salad, oh so fresh; sticky rice, a mix of black and white that was chewy and satisfying (I just had the rice leftovers for breakfast); a chopped mix of grilled tomatillos, eggplant, and onions that was terrific, an improvisation; sauteed shiitakes; sliced heirloom tomato; parboiled yellow beans in vinaigrette, unchopped so we could eat them one by one in our fingers; boiled potatoes cut into large wedges and wok-fried with a little sliced fennel in turmeric-tinted olive oil. There was a pause while my prebaked pate sucree crust was topped with chopped peaches (the last of summer probably), wild blueberries, a little sugar, and a small amount of yogurt-egg mixture scented with nutmeg and dried ginger and then baked at 375 to a custard-tart loveliness.

And then there it was, a farewell taste of summer fruit to send us on our way into the school year, the travel year, the work year…

Some new things to announce: The Burma book is now available as an E Book, and so are the three regional Asian cookbooks that I wrote with Jeffrey Alford. There’s a deal on in September for each of the three that I’ve been asked to tell you about. Here’s the link: ecookbook-club

My pre-approval for my visa to Iran has come through. I’m hoping to go look and eat and taste and photograph food and markets and people etc in the month of October. It is so exciting, and yes of course also a little anxiety-making, given the tensions in the region. I can’t wait. But if I get to go I won’t be posting anything for the time I am there. I’ll leave a laptop in Istanbul, where I’ll have some days at either end. And meantime I’m trying to figure out my packing needs etc. All advice welcome, especially anyone who has been recently and at this time of year. I know about the need for a manteau and headscarf, of course…

And before that there’s the Kneading Conference West ( kneadingconferencewest) from September 12 to 14, in the Skagit Valley in northern Washington State; the Stratford Food Fair called Savour Stratford on September 21 and 22, where I’ll be doing various talkings and demos etc (culinaryfestival) ; and on this coming weekend the Longhouse Food revival in Renselaarville NY (SW of Albany 35 miles or so (longhouse).

It really does feel like the end of summer ease and flexibility and the start of a new work year!