Sunday, November 30, 2008


It's cool here in Chiang Mai in late November.  "Cool" means long sleeves in the evening and early morning, bright sun in the day, and a refreshing breeze all the time.  Perfect weather for gardening.

Two days ago I went to the plant market in a song tiew, a kind of truck taxi, with our friend Fern, who knows about plants as if she was born to garden.  The plant market is dazzling.  And it's vast, about eight wide alleys with plants on either side, some out in the sun, others sheltered by an awning, all beautifully organized by the different plant store owners.  There are recognizable plants like roses, pointsettas, marigolds.  But then my eye is distracted and amazed by huge tall trees, thirty foor tall trees, and thickets of bamboo, and tropical vines with enormous hanging leaves, and ferns of all kinds, in a lush bewildering variety.

Fern and I were looking for plants for the apartments and for the open-air hall that connects them.   We wanted decorative plants, yes, but even more we were looking for edible plants to make a kind of kitchen garden.

The difficulty was making decisions of course, but in the end that morning we came home with: two bai makrut trees, wild limes (more commonly known by the ugly name "kaffir lime") whose leaves are used to flavour curries and more, and whose knobby fruit is intensely perfuned; one prik thai plant (pepper, which grows as a vine with draping branches from which hang trailing lengths of green peppercorns); three clumps of lemongrass; several kaa plants (galangal, that resin-scented cousin to ginger and turmeric); a cute little papaya tree that we know will shoot up quickly; several Vietnamese coriander plants; and several Indian borage plants.  We also had to buy pots and huge bags of soil.  We found another song thiew to take us back to the apartment building, and by the time we'd hauled everything to the elevator and then down the hall, we were pooped.

But, said Fern, "We should finish everything today, don't you think?"  Had to agree.  One by one we potted the plants, first pouring out some soil (already mixed with a little vegetable matter in the form of rice husks), then adding more humus (chopped coconut husks, all rusty brown) and mixing it all together well, and filling each pot with some soil, then a plant or two, then more soil, and tamping it all down.  Yes!  Suddenly the hallway felt alive and full of promise.

"Shouldn't we go back and get the rest of what we wanted?" asked Fern.  This time Jeff came too.  By the time we'd done acquiring more plants, and pots etc, we had: four banana plants (two different kinds), to plant two to a pot; a chiang tree, which has umbrella shaped delicate leaves,; and three or four more tree-ish plants, including one with scented small white flowers.  We also bought a small fountain, simple and lovely.  The plants are now all potted and look happy.  And the fountain?  We've assembled it and filled it with water, and now, beside me here in the open air of the hall, water is plashing gently out into a tall urn-shaped terra cotta pot and overflowing down its sides into a wide basin, making quiet music.

Now we feel ready for anything, including being "stuck" here because of the PAD political action, which has closed the airports in Bangkok, and with which we sympathise.  Jeff was supposed to leave today and be home for Dom's 21st birthday, but he's still here and won't get out for at least another few days, or maybe a week.  It's a little like being in a bell-jar, out of time, with no control over events.  We're happy NOT to have deadlines and anxieties about time.  Our concern is that the situation resolve itself peacefully in a way that strengthens democracy here, through negotiation and strong leadership.  Fingers crossed.

And meantime we work on our Thai language, fine-tune our plans for the cooking classes in February, and start sketching out a book proposal.  It's a lovely combination of things to think about, in between watching the hard news from Mumbai, Bangkok, and yikes!!! Canada, where at last the opposition seems to be taking effective action to stop the ghastly right-wing ideologue Harper from ruining the country.  More fingers crossed in hope!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Just back, on Saturday night in gusts of wind and rain, from a trip to New York.  The excuse was a conference jointly sponsored by NYU and the James Beard Foundation that focussed on food and China.  The title? Dumplings and Dynasties. 

I gave a talk with slides about the regions Beyond the Great Wall, with intro and questions from Jim Oseland, the well-travelled and engaged-with-the-world editor of Saveur, who is a good friend.  But the stars of the show for me were two academics: Joana Whaley-Cohen who gave the opening talk, setting Chinese food in an historical and cultural context that was fresh and wonderfully clear; and the always-wonderful Sidney Mintz, anthropologist and clear-thinker about food and culture and the politics of both, who gave the closing address.  (In Japan artists who are very very special may be named national treasures; I think Sid Mintz should get that designation.) 

There was time, too to see Ann Bramson, our wonderful editor (at Artisan).  Got her out of the office to MOMA, a treat for us both (the Miro exhibit, and also the Van Gogh by night).

Now, this week, comes the annual Food issue of the New Yorker, with Jane Kramer's profile of us.  We're of course very curious to read it and to see what photos there are etc...  (Our copy hasn't come yet, and I can't wait, but we've heard nice things from people all over.)  The best part about all this was that we got to spend a lot of time with Jane last May, a real pleasure for everyone in the family and for our friends, too.

I'm headed to Thailand tomorrow, and will try to post from there.  We've got some getting ready to do, for the cooking immersion courses we're doing in February in Chiang Mai (see the Chiang Mai page in for details).  I'm looking forward to warm air on my skin, fresh papaya, and hot sour salty sweet everything!

chowk dee!

Monday, November 10, 2008


Last week was so momentous that it's hard to write about.  After all that anxiety that things would go wrong in some terrible way, I watched and cried, with millions of others, as Obama won and gave his fabulous speach on November 4 in Chicago.

The next day I flew to Charleston South Carolina for an East-West conference on the Asia-Africa connection that was put on by Trident Tech out on Seabrook Island.  Some time perhaps I will write about the details of the conference and other good things that happened on land while I was there, but for now I want to talk about rebirth. 

At dawn last Friday morning, 6 in the morning, I walked with Nancy, both of us in swimsuits and wrapped in layers of warmer clothing, out to the beach on Seabrook Island.  It was low tide, the sea a gleaming smooth silver sheet, the beach firm under our feet.  We walked west along the shore, but walked backwards a lot so we could face the glowing pearly eastern sky that slowly turned into a persimmon glow, intensely orange, gilding the silver sea.  We were looking for dolphins, and suddenly there was one, and then another, sending little breathy percussive grunts into the air as they surfaced.

I unwrapped my wool shawl and left it on the beach with my towel, then waded in, the water cold but not impossible.  I took some quick strokes, thinking I'd soon just leap back out of the water.  But then, surprise, the cold was tolerable, and so Nancy and I floated, and paddled and floated some more, carried by the current east toward the glowing sky, the dolphins' breaths and small triangular fins not far away.  

And then the birds started coming, flying westward toward us out of that glowing dawn sky, right over our heads, and low.  They were black silhouettes against the brightness, the sound of the air in their feathers, and the creak of their wings, loud and clear in the quiet dawn air.  The ducks flew in V-shaped wedges, twenty to fifty at a time.  The pelicans, large slow-beating frigates in the sky, flew in an offset line four or five at a time.  They kept coming, the birds, another wedge, a small line of pelicans, two more V's of ducks, and more still.

It was like the dawn of time, the world freshly minted, the dolphins swimming, the birds winging their way past, the light intensifying.  And two very happy women immersed in it all, unable to believe their good fortune at being a part of it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


We headed out on a flight to San Francisco earlier this week, destination San Mateo, an attractive small town not far south of the airport.  That unbelievable blend of eucalyptus air and clear blue skies and slanting shadows that is California in the fall, was like a tonic.

We were in San Mateo to talk at a cooking class/supper at Draeger's.  The people who came were engaged and interesting, and the people doing the cooking were a delight.  We felt very taken care of.  The menu included Napa and Red Onion Salad; Uighur Lamb Kebabs; Tajik Flatbreads, beautiful, and full of flavor because the dough had been made the day before and had done a long slow rise; Tomato Salsa, with its hint of sesame oil; and Black Rice congee, topped with chopped persommin and ginger, a great idea from Terri, who was in charge of the kitchen.  We did no work, just chatted to people.

In the course of the evening, May, who was in the class but in fact runs the restaurant kitchen at Draegers (the restaurant is called Viognier), talked about the homeless and their food culture.  She contrasted their relatonship to food with that of all of us in the room that evening.  The homeless need to spend a large part of their days figuring out how they can feed themselves, while we work to earn money which we can then go and spend on food.  So there's a huge cultural difference that doesn't get talked about.  We told her that she should consider writing a book...

Now I'm back in Toronto, while Jeff, who flew west from San Fran, is happily in Chiang Mai, in the warmth and last rains of early November.  Lucky guy!