Monday, October 29, 2012


The geometries of fields in browns and golds, taupes and the occasional dark green, unspool below the plane and extend to the hazy southern horizon, farther than the eye can see. I ‘m on a flight from Austin Texas to Denver, sitting on the left side of the plane. Sometime soon I guess there will be mountains down below or on the horizon, but for now it’s the wide flatlands of Texas. The only break in the pattern is the occasional scar-like large cleft, a wrinkled river’s path etched down into the earth, and then it recedes behind.  Now an hour into the trip, the land below is getting more consistently brown. We must be nearly out of Texas.

I’ve been at the Texas Book Fair in Austin, a well-run and busy event, with live music, a Cooking Tent (where I did a Burma demo, the brilliant Shan Soup and related “tofu” simply made of chickpea flour and water), and lots of book displays, all in large white canopies set up on the streets around the Capitol. The setting gives the whole event shape and a certain grandeur too, by association. Some of the reading sessions and panels take place in the legislative rooms, high ceilinged and grand; the only disadvantage of those is that there are long lines to get through security before people can get into the building.

The people who took care of me at the Book festival, and also at Central Market, where I taught a cooking class (and in Houston Central Market where I gave a BURMA talk at a cooking class), were all generous, tuned in, and very very nice to work with. Thank-you all. I’ll be happy to come back any time...

I met a writer at the authors’ party Saturday night in Austin who said he was performing in the morning, then hoping to get back to DC ahead of the storm. I’d been so removed from larger news, because of wandering around in Austin and trying to get hold of the where and what of the place (yes, barbecue was part of my explorations, and basic Mexican too) that I hadn’t taken in the timing, nor the scale and terrifyingness of Hurricane Sandy. Perhaps also the name, unthreatening and mild, had somewhat blinded me to the extent of the emergency on the east coast?

Now thirty-six hours later, with all the flights to NYC on the board marked “cancelled” I feel very fortunate to be headed west, via Denver to San Francisco. 

One of the things about being out on book tour is the issue of basic logistics: how to pack lightly, yet have the clothes I need, and enough books to read. So far so good on the clothing, but I’m running out of book. I lay the blame partly at the door of two authors, whose books are so good that I couldn’t pace myself but instead read them far into the night, unwilling to put them down. 

The first is a novel by Rachel Joyce, published in the US and in Canada by Random House, and long-listed for the Booker. I don’t have it to hand, so I won’t get the title exactly right, but it’s something like this: The Unusual Pigrimage of Ronald Fry. Her ear for language is wonderful, and the story unsentimental, but full of feeling and discovery. The second is by Gary Nabhan, non-fiction, and is an exploration of the cultural and culinary landscape of the desert regions along the US-Mexico border. Again the title escapes me, but it is recently published by the Univerity of Texas press and has a pomegranate on the cover. Nabhan writes thoughtfully and elegantly about the plants and humans who have eked out a living in the difficult, yet enticing and beautiful deserts along the border. And he opens with the story of an early shipwrecked group of foreigners, three Spaniards and a man from Morocco, that is intriguing and also sets many preconceptions about history and food knowledge on their ear. 

As I’ve been writing this the ground below has turned to desert brown, the fields still geometrical, but tired and resting for winter. Far to the south there are no fields, just patterns of rock and below me the tentacles of etched eroded gulleys, and then dry blackish rock bumping up out of the sand. It doesn’t look inviting, not at all, but I imagine there’s a beauty to it.

The reminder is everywhere that point of view changes our understanding and judgement. And this airplane, floating in an unreal time and space above the realities on the ground, is a luxurious place to contemplate this and other questions. My head has been full of the novelties of each day, from the clear air and fat moon above Austin, and the pleasures of a generous evening of conversation with a thoughtful friend named Rachel and a late morning of the same with another remarkable food-history-interested friend named Ammini, to the young crowd on Sixth Street on Saturday night, dressed as superheroes, strippers, aliens, and many unidentifiable-by-me characters, the young women often wearing a little headpiece of fuzzy ears (like a parody of the little royalty-watchers’ hats), while bands rocked and rolled and bluesed and cowboyed in a series of cheap-drinks-and-lots-of-action bars. 

Here in the sky I can let my mind drift and shape and hope and plan, and then drift some more, until the realities of life on the ground once more take hold of me.  And it’s on the ground, in Denver I hope, that I’ll be able to post this.

Aha, as we start approaching the ground, the western horizon is framed with a wall of blue-ish mountains, topped with the odd dab of snow-white. Arrival! 

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