Friday, June 25, 2010


It's cool and clear out, on this morning of Friday June 25. The birds are singing. But these are not normal days, whatever the birdsong sounds like! We had an earthquake a few days ago, surprising shaking in the middle of the day. Was it the washing machine shaking the house? I wondered...since we tend to look for normal explanations first I gather. Others thought of explosions or bombs as an explanation and listened for the police to respond. That's because of the heightened atmosphere of fear and suspicion here these days. Pretty wild. Here's why.

The city is very empty, emptied out is what it feels like, because of the "guys with guns" thing (AKA the G-20 meeting and the attendant security) going on downtown. The police are walking around in posses and asking people what they are doing downtown, or asking for ID. I feel like the city has been stolen. The university is closed, with cement barriers blocking the access roads. It's pretty creepy, as if this "lockdown" means we're not allowed to think and not supposed to act either. There are still protests planned and 'counter G-20' talks and conferences around environmental, economic, health, etc etc issues, but the public life of the city has been chilled, and each of us who lives here is feeling the cold blast.

What to do? Most people's instinct when we see uniformed police is to feel anxious. And when we feel anxious we hesitate to hold our heads high and to think freely. We shrink and reduce ourselves. What's the corrective?

I have one good friend who takes a clear line, forcefully, to counteract those instinctive flinchings. She says, the police are my employees, I pay their salary. So I greet them cheerily and chat to them and get them to engage with me. And she does. I do too, but never remember that they are employees. I just do it to remind them that we are all citizens together and to get them to not feel afreaid. If the police get into an "us and them" feeling or dynamic with citizens, then we are all in danger. The danger is physical sometimes, given the noise canons and bullets and other weapons the security forces have, and it's political and social and cultural. I do not want this police-state vibe to become a pattern that recurs or that sticks around after the G-20 is over. Our job is to prevent anyone being damaged or alienated or radicalized by it.

Hard not to be alienated when the police are given last-minute special powers of search and arrest; when foreign security forces here to guard foreign heads of state etc are being permitted to arm themselves as they please; when schools are closed at short notice with no provision made for children; when public institutions are closed and the city's civic and civil life brought to a standstill with no consultation or compensation for the people on the ground.

Yes, I know I'm ranting. Sorry! But it's hard to remember what normal feels like right now. We expect eighty (!!!) motorcades to come into the city today. No wonder people are staying off the roads, those who can!

This state of lockdown is nothing compared to the daily seige in Gaza or the lockdown in many totalitarian states, where individual rights count for nothing. We are just getting a tiny taste. It should be sobering. It's a life lesson of sorts. So we need to hold our heads high, remember how lucky we are to be able to complain and feel entitled to complain and protest, and we need to remember those who don't have our freedom, remember them as individuals struggling each day to live with dignity. If it's hard for us here to not feel intimidated by the police presence etc, imagine what it's like where the police have absolute power always. And then pause to admire the people living with that, who still manage to speak out against injustices or assert rights.

Anyone reading this in the Toronto area, do please come into the city centre, use public transport or a bicycle, and walk the streets and eat at the eateries and shop in the markets and talk to your fellow citizens. It takes a village to make a village!

While you're in the middle of town, you'll notice that many of the trees in the Annex and the university and downtown have splotchy sidewalks around them: It's mulberry season, and this year the mulberry trees are dripping with fruit. What a treat. Occasionally you'll also see ripe cherries, but those are usually on someone's property, not fair game. The mulberries on the other hand are most often streetside. And now that there's no spraying, all they need is a quick rinse-off (though I'm often too impatient even for that). The best time to pick and eat is right after a rain, of course...

POSTSCRIPT: My sliced fingertips are healing, thanks, though still fragile. I heard of two other finger/hand injuries from friends, so I'm hoping it stops at the traditional three: Lillian sliced her pinky-finger tendon right through when it caught in the laundry line pulley. A moment of inattention in a rush to grab laundry when it started to rain and there she was. Horrible! It took general anaesthetic and a surgeon to stitch it back together. And another friend sliced herself deeply, on what? she doesn't know, broken glass perhaps? as she was washing dishes. Three domestic situations: veg prep, laundry, washing up; and three hurting injuries. Time out please!!

Sunday, June 20, 2010


It’s been an eventful thirty-six hours, starting with stupid kitchen accidents and ending with serendipity. First the stupid accidents: I was trying to make myself useful to Dawn, who was preparing for a big catering job. She suggested I could shave fennel for her, for a salad, using a mandolin. Hers is a good one, and sharp. And believe it or not, but I had never used a mandolin before. You can guess the rest: I sliced my middle fingertip. Ouch! Yikes! Gauze and bandaid firmly on, I went back to my task, resolved to be careful. But I was still, in retrospect I now realise, using the wrong technique. You have to hold your hand flat, not grasp the vegetable you are slicing but instead just press it against the blade with your flattened palm. And so of course I managed to slice another fingertip, even more bloodily than the first (no, no blood on the food, don’t worry!!). More "ouch!" more "yikes!".

Since then, almost as if I had paid ahead for it, life has been wonderful in many ways. Dom and I drove to the airport and picked up Tashi and Duncan, hot off their charter flight from Rome, still bright-eyed, and very awake. Such a treat to see them and to hear them talk about their trip as we made and ate supper and hung around together.

And today, after a morning run and a long coffee with a friend, I did a market shop and then managed to get a recipe figured out on my first try, a yummy dish of chicken livers, cut into bite-size, and bathed in a thick rich “curry sauce”. I was trying to reproduce something I’d eaten in Hsipaw, in the Shan State, at a Burmese (rather than a Shan) restaurant. The chicken livers are tender and just cooked, the sauce has a depth of flavor that is surprising and inviting.

I hurried a little with the recipe because I’d promised to go help a chef here with a find-raising event tonight. When you’re feeding 300 people, you need a lot of hands just for plating/serving. And so, along with a crowd of others I carved beef and drizzled on sauce and put out slices of cheese etc, as the courses went out one after the other. The late afternoon and evening were clear and beautiful, the light sharp, so that everything glowed in a solstice celebratory kind of way. And the guests were happy and felt celebratory too, the food was so good, so beautiful.

My bicycle ride back, along paths in the forest, was peaceful, yes, but also a bit iffy, with only a flickering bike light in the dark. I was grateful that the moon, coming full, made small occasional patches of light through the forest canopy, so that I was able to pedal along tracks and finally up a steep path in the forest without incident and at last out into quiet residential streets.

But then the big city part of the trip was a huge contrast, Saturday night uptown, with lights and cars and revellers in summer frocks. From that scene in a few minutes I was in quiet again, as I pedalled through the University of Toronto, nearly home now. But then, and this is the serendipity, as I got to Queen’s Park, by the provincial legislature, at about ten o’clock, there was a big crowd, and live music. YES! Salif Keita and his band were playing in the warm summer night in the park. I propped my bike against a fence and started dancing, and they played and played...

So as I write, my feet are a little bruised from dancing barefoot for over an hour on rough ground, and I still have the music echoing in my ears, Salif Keita’s distinctive enticing voice and the drumming! How lovely.

Two sliced fingertips are nothing balanced against this fabulous twenty-four hours. And even without the serendipitous end to this day, the fact that I am free to ride my bicycle, to say yes to helping a friend, to poke around trying to figure out a recipe, to love my grown up kids and tell them so, these are the important things to celebrate. Today Aung San Suu Kyi turns sixty-five. There was a vigil in her honour, but also to remember all those who are not free, held a couple of evenings ago downtown. It was a sobering reminder of how precious daily freedoms are. We need to celebrate them and exercise them.

This coming week, as the men with guns descend even more intensely on this city (the G-20 are meeting here next weekend, so there are cement and metal security fences downtown and closures of institutions such as the university and galleries and banks etc, for four days to a week, and a general flight out of the city by all who can), is the time to assert our freedoms. For me that means NOT fleeing but staying, asserting normalcy in the face of the security hysteria and wild overspending that our conservative government is visiting upon us. I say NO to all that. I plan to bicycle around, to see friends, to refuse the powerful messages of fear.

Fear is the enemy of freedom, freedom of movement, of thought, of action, of creativity and imagination. In other words it’s the enemy of all that makes us human. So it’s a big NO to fear. That’s MY solstice resolution! Let the sun shine in!

As the buddhist monk who led us in a prayer at the vigil said, and we repeated after: “may we be free” - “may we be free”... “of enmity” - “of enmity”.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Here it is, Bloomsday... I remember the year CBC-radio ran a continuous broadcast of a reading of the whole of Ulysses. It took twelve hours? more? and ran all night. I didn't stay up, but remember waking early and turning on the radio just in time luckily to hear the whole of the Molly Bloom soliloquay chapter. Fabulous.

I'm thinking of Bloomsday partly because it's been a week of performances here, still ongoing. I managed to get to a remarkable theatre event last, night, the first performance of the Africa Trilogy, part of the Luminato Festival (art, drama, books, cross-artform events, music... an amazing festival). Theatre sure has changed, from the literal and true-to-life-at-all-costs model, to another level of allegory and nuance. Amazing. I felt lucky to be there.

Life presented itself in new ways earlier in the day too. I'd planned a day of work: figuring out more recipes for more dishes from Burma, that was my goal. But instead, because a friend was visiting from Halifax in pursuit of World Cup tales and experiences for an intense week in Toronto, I ended up watching half the Portugal- Cote d'Ivoire match (a draw) at a churrasquerria on College, on the outside terrace; and then from there moving to Lula Lounge for the Brazil-North Korea game. It was fun. And now I think I understand more about the game, so I watch it with fresh eyes.

Across the street from Lula is a Brazilian bakery, so that's where a couple of us headed for a bite of lunch before the game. A hot pork sandwich with onions was my choice; my companion had the veal sandwich. And of course we bought a load of custard tarts to take back for game-watching. They went well with coffee, with sangria, with the game and the vibe, for sure.
They reminded me to get back into making them at home from time to time. They're easy. And there's a terrific recipe in HomeBaking, that grew out of time I spent with a baker named Teresa in Portugal's Minho. Give it a try...

Back to soccer: The World Cup has many people watching soccer who otherwise aren't fans. They are caught up in the now-ness of it all. it's also true that many people here in Toronto are happy to have soccer as a way of getting to know the cafes and bars and hang-outs of many of the cultural communities here, from Chilenos to Brasilians to Ghanaians and Koreans. Most of us like the feeling of belonging or participating, and the World Cup is a chance to feel that way while you're in a roomful of fans cheering on a team.

Looked at as a democratizing process, a chance for people to be included rather than excluded from each other's cultures, this whole month of World Cup action in Toronto is very attractive. But there's another more disturbing aspect to it too. All this joining in, this enthusiastic cheering for a national team, this identifying with a group, taking a side, echoes all the us-and- them of jingoism or Dr Seuss's "better-butter" wars or any other version of mass hysteria. And we know where that has lead and can lead. There's a fine line between genuine enthusiasm and learned copycat joining-in behaviour that can soon turn strident and ugly. The rah-rah of partisans always has a disturbing element.

I was happy happy to be out in a crowd of people watching soccer and learning about the game and coming to appreciate the amazing grace and skill of some of the players (the camera-work is so much better now, and the ability to play slow-mo replays enhances it all so much, especially for beginners like me). I didn't and don't feel like a blind or mindless joiner-in. I felt lucky to be able to participate in a small way.

On balance the surges of enthusiasm for the game, and the chance this month to switch allegiances, rather than clinging like grim death to one allegiance or one strictly defined "us", is a hopeful positive thing, a dissolving of differences, if only for a moment, in favour of shared excitement and enthusiasm.

But where in all this, you say, did work go? What abut those Burma recipes?

Well, I had a good day today, to make up for my delinquency yesterday. There's a wonderfully simple dosa-like rice flour crepe that's a streetfood in some markets. I came across it first in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, in the far north of Burma. The batter makes a lacy fine pancake that's topped with a little chopped tomato, chile, coriander leaf, and more... After some tossed efforts I finally figured out the skillet temperature and batter texture and then there they were... beautiful lacy rice crepes with crispy edges. The other big leap forward today was in a pork dish, pork slices simmered in a little broth and flavoured with star anise and other oddments, with a smoky depth of flavour that I can taste still in my mind's eye, or wherever tasting resides in our imaginations! Today's effort came very close. I'm thrilled.

The skies opened off and on all day, leaving the tall blue-tinged-with-mauve delphiniums in the back garden over-burdened. I shook a lot of the rainwater off them and then looped string around the tallest spires to tie them to some ivy and hopefully hold them upright. This precious flowering season in June is so short; I want these glorious blooms to last and last. And after them, in fact starting already, come the lilies, in their rich yellows and golds and oranges and dark reds. Can't wait!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


On a mid-June evening the last thing I expect in Toronto is to find myself wearing two layers of wool with a wool shawl wrapped on top for extra warmth. But that's how it is here right now: damp and chilly.

The gardens are all happy, lush green and growing, the flowers slowed right down after their race through the heat of late May, so that they are now lasting weeks rather than a few days. I am delighted to have time to enjoy the old-variety rose out front for example, that blooms and is over usually within a week. This year it's lingering. (Someone gave me the plant long ago, and now I don't remember its name and am left to just enjoy it for whatever time it deigns to bloom, once only, in June).

A number of friends seem to be heading out in the next couple of weeks, travelling on various errands, to places far away, from China to northern Scotland. I'll miss them, as I suppose they miss me when it's my turn to leave the city and go elsewhere. The shifting patterns we are privileged to live with, as we move around, and our friends and family too, mean that each day is very different and the circumstances we find ourselves in shift every day or week...

This morning I read (in the NYTimes online) an excerpt from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's forthcoming book about women and development, and the urgent need to further women's lot by investing in education and health for those in the poorest parts of the world. It is impossible to imagine those women's lives. Kristoff mentions enslavement and poor health and hard work as the essential truths about their lives, and all those are almost impossible for the privileged educated women in the first world to imagine. But even more remote is those women's powerlessness, the fact that they don't have any sense of having choices or hope for any different lot in life.

Once our imaginations are bounded or constrained, whether by totalitarian government or by the restrictions of poverty or by social or cultural or familial barriers to freedom of thought, we are not only unfree, we are actually stunted and deformed. All of us lose when one of us is thus restricted. We lose that person's potential for creative action and full social participation.

And so as I think about the fact that each day brings news of friends or family travelling here or there, or starting up creative or business projects, or changing jobs or ambitions, I know that my world is light years from the life of a woman without education or choices who just tries to get through each day with dignity.

What can I do for her apart from trying to empathise? Pity is useless, and demeaning besides. Sending money to a large organisation is a lottery. Learning about and discussing issues of women's health and education, as Kristoff does, seems useful. And discovering which local grassroots women-run organisations are working to enhnce women's autonomy in the least-advantaged parts of the world, and sending donations there, is a positive constructive avenue.

Why not just appreciate what we have and not worry about women elsewhere? Well it goes back to the fact that we are all diminished by the suffering and loss of any of us. None of this is about condescension, "see how much better I am than you"-style, but instead is an acknowledgement that some women are, by an accident of birth, living with freedom of choice and access to education, while others are deprived of those rights.

Is it the rain and cold that are sending me to these serious reflections? Perhaps. It's also a year since Dom graduated with his BA. That means that it's Convocation time again here at the University of Toronto.

Every morning as I jog slowly past Convocation Hall, I see people arriving, all dressed up and some carrying bouquets of flowers. They are there to cheer on their sons and daughters and siblings who have earned the right to graduate, some of them the first in their families to do so. It's a glowing crowd, joyful. The graduates, in their black gowns and dress shoes, try to look solemn and sedate, but they too are bouyant on their graduation day.

Every year there's convocation in June, and every year I get a little teary thinking about all that effort and all that pride, all that joy at the sight of young people moving into adulthood with confidence that they can make choices and take a strong hand in shaping their own lives.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I'm sitting on the the rain.... heading west, from Montreal back home to Toronto.

I never made it to Grand Manan Island. My friend’s car sprouted serious bearings problems and we got squeezed for time. Instead I had a couple of days in Ottawa, time to see my aunt and my cousin Jennifer, and to swim in the Gatineau River, hurrah! on June 2, almost a record (but not in fact very brave, given the early warmth this spring and the resulting relative kindness of the river’s temperature), as well as to spend good time with my friend Lianne. We talked a lot about our plans for an immersethrough session on Grand Manan in September. After that I had more than twenty-four hours in Montreal. Most of that was spending time with an old friend who is not well, but I also got to Fromentier for the first time, the arguably best bread bakery in Montreal, and to Kouignaman, a charming bakery-cafe.

I wanted to take care of my friend in the short time I was in Montreal, do something to help her feel better or to distract her. Food is a nice tangible offering, so that's where I headed, that and conversation. On the food front, my friend yearned for green vegetables but how best to do that? She has some swallowing issues and also can’t handle strong flavours or acids such lemon or lime juice or vinegar, and avoids most meat. She needs to put on some weight and gain strength. I wanted to make food for her that I could freeze in small batches, so she would have fall-backs on days when she had no-one around to help with cooking etc. I made a simple risotto with chunks of sweet potato and a little mushroom and some sugar peas, for supper. Alongside was a simply poached piece of organic salmon, tender and delish. But that was just one meal, not for pantry loading.

For the longer term I made a large batch of masur dal (easy to freeze and to flavour later but edible as is, with just salt and olive oil) and also a puree, a kind of thick soup, of assorted greens. I made two versions and now realise how forgiving the whole concept is. I started with olive oil in a wide cast-iron skillet, into which went minced garlic and ginger and some onion too. Then I added slices of sweet potato and portobello mushroom and when they were softened a little, in went a lot of chopped arugula, spinach, watercress, and dandelion greens, and some chopped sugar peas. Seasoning was just a little salt and a splash of fish sauce. Once the greens were well cooked (with the addition of a little water or stock), I poured them into her sturdy old osterizer and whizzed the whole thing to a thick gorgeous puree. With the second batch I added a small chopped avocado and whizzed it again.

That magic green puree was delicious, both versions were... (especially eaten over a few slices of slippery tender Shan tofu “noodles”; I made a small batch of “Shan tofu” while I was at it, experimenting a little more with the recipe and discovering how forgiving it is). So don’t worry about proportions when making spring greens puree, just go try your own version. It’s like spring in a bowl. The sweet potato isn’t necessary of course, but its sweetness was a nice little balance with the dandelion greens. You could instead use extra minced onion...

Along with cooking and conversation with friends, this short trip was also a reminder, yet another, to count my blessings. How wonderful to be able to take a train and go to visit friends and family and revisit childhood memories. How wonderful to walk through parts of Montreal that I don’t know well, discovering new places I want to return to.

And now, some hours after I started writing this, I can say, as I sit at midnight in the familiar warmth of my own kitchen, how wonderful to be able to return home...