Thursday, November 1, 2012


We're in Day of the Dead season: Today is November 1, All Saints Day to Christians, with All Souls tomorrow. And last night was Hallowe'en. It's a huge holiday in France and other parts of Europe, and also of course in Mexico, where the Aztec period of honouring the dead (which apparently fell sometime in early August) was moved to fall into the Christian calendar. But I'm far from most of that, here in St Helena in the Napa Valley, carved no pumpkins, gave out no treats....

It’s still dark here at nearly 6.30 in the morning, as I start writing this. Once daylight saving ends (this coming Saturday night) that will change, I guess, but by then I’ll be gone. I’ll be back home in Toronto, with only a memory of the golden-leafed vines in the valley that stand in rows like soldiers on parade. Their uniformity really struck me as I was driving up two days ago, via the Golden Gate Bridge (once again mist-wreathed) and Corte Madera (for a stop in to graze in the used book section of Book Passage), and past the edge of the Sonoma Valley. 

In Sonoma, as the lines of vine curve up the hills, emphasizing the contours of the ladscape, the human control they represent is strikingly apparent. The contrast is with soft green pastures where black beef cattle graze in random-looking patterns, and barns are weathered and aged. The vines and the wineries, on the other hand, are tidy, exact, clean-edged, and almost unreal in their orderliness, like a stage-set laid over Mother Nature.

Not sure why I was so struck this time. Perhaps it’s because the vines looked to me like children holding their hands up in the air, arms outstretched, which can be one form of schoolroom punishment. Once I saw them in this way, I couldn’t get my head to switch back to appreciating their colour and the overall vineyard landscape. The sense of coercion dominated.

Orderliness has its beauty, for sure. Perhaps it’s the scale of the orderliness here in wine country that becomes overwhelming. 

The road northbound out of St Helena, right by the Beringer winery, is flanked by a long honour guard of mature beautiful trees whose branches make a canopy overhead. Their orderliness doesn’t trouble me at all. In fact I always find passing through them almost heart-stoppingly beautiful, no matter how many times I drive that stretch of road. 

Just after the tree passage is the entrance to Greystone, the huge ex-winery that is the home of the Culinary Institute of America’s west coast campus. This week there are no classes though, for it’s time for the annual (this is the 15th annual) Worlds of Flavor conference. The place is humming with complex rhythms and patterns as staff and volunteers do prep, and visitors like me, who are presenting talks or doing demonstrations of some kind, hover around, trying to be useful, and trying to make sure that everything is ready.

In my experience, we needn’t worry, for by now people at Greystone have Worlds of Flavor down to a fine art. There are always last minute glitches, such as foreign speakers whose visas don’t come through in time, or this year the Frankenstorm Sandy, which has kept some speakers from coming, because they have flooded restaurants to deal with or no flight available that will get them here in time. We’ll be thinking of them dealing with their losses and doing the awful grunt work that is needed to clean up after a flood.

Meantime though there is work to do and there are people to meet, always the biggest treat at these conferences. This year there’s a large contingent from Turkey. I sat with some of them at lunch yesterday, and we talked again yesterday evening. It made me want to head straight to Turkey, where I haven’t been for decades. Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman have a Turkey project on the go. I’ve been wanting to spend a little time with them there. This may just be the push I need. 

One of the things that’s going on in Turkey and elsewhere is the retrieval of traditional cooking wisdom, the home cooking and country cooking that tends to get swept away and undervalued as a country modernises. It happens everywhere, from the US to Europe to Thailand, that period of disregarding and tossing out the old, the traditional, the unmodern.

And then with luck one or more people try to reverse the process. They begin to gather knowledge from grandmothers and country people. They work to preserve and honour food traditions. With any luck they are able to shift attention back to long-held knowledge before it vanishes. It’s happened in Italy (think of the Slow Food movement, as well as all the cookbooks documenting traditional country foodways), in France (think of Poilane’s championing of bread traditions for example), and in many other places, including Mexico.  

This Sunday I’ll have the pleasure of talking with a long-time fierce champion of traditional Mexican foodways, Diana Kennedy. She’s a delver into the plant wisdom and kitchen knowledge of cooks from all over that huge country. She’s been writing and teaching about these things for over forty years. And she’ll be in Toronto, at Harbourfront, as part of a Day of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos in Mexico) celebrations. We’re lucky to have this chance to hear her.

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