Monday, September 29, 2014

GENEROSITY OF STRANGERS - SHARING FOOD & DRINK

I've now been in the village of Lahic (pronounced lahitch) for two days. It's in a steep sided valley, in the foothills of the Caucasus, about 180 kilometers west north west of Baku. I'm in a homestay here, the house of a delightful Lahici couple whose two children are grown and have left home. Jairan is a brilliant and attentive cook, so I am learning a lot. And Dadash is a teacher with enormous curiosity who speaks English as well as Russian, Azeri, and, like most of the villagers and others in this small region, Lahici. It's a close cousin of the Tat or Tati language, and they are Iranic, in the same family as Farsi.

Yes, it's complicated, and just think of the different language families involved: slavic, Turkic (for Azeri, (though it also has a lot of words with Farsi roots I am told), Iranic, and then English too. When we talk about plants, hawthorn, rose hips, sea buckthorn, for example, all of which grow here and are well used, Dadash goes to his computer to find the equivalent words in other languages. and so I get to learn them too.

I just posted on FB a long little thing about the Garden of Eden that lies a pleasant walk away in the hills behind the village. There are wild barberry bushes, and sea buckthorn, and white thorn or hawthorn (we couldn't be sure on the computer) and wild plum...and then there are about a hundred, maybe more, apple trees, mature, loaded with fruit, and of many different varieties. I tasted until my mouth was a little raw...

And I photographed the apples, the light, the shadows. A horseman had come by as I was walking, loving the openness, the air, the view. There was a quick exchanged "Salaam" as he went by, then he cantered off along the track. Apart from him, and several shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats, I saw no one. And then suddenly I heard a labouring car engine. Round the corner came an old Lada with three guys in it. They turned around and then parked the car under a tree. One headed up the hillside through the trees carrying two buckets, clearly on an apple gathering mission.

Another, lean and bony, in his seventies, with a tanned high-cheekboned face and a smile, came over and shook my hand as he said Salaam. And then he spoke to me in Russian. I said my few words, which say that I don't know Russian. But he went on and I gathered he was inviting me to join them in drinking vodka. "No thank-you" I said. He continued, to say something like but we'e making a fire and cooking shashlik... "Thankyou, yes, I said with a few more of my Russian words, accepting with pleasure.

What a treat. We gathered dried bits of twigs and wood, Ajdar, for that was the thin guy's name, made a fire, and as Vali made several trips up with empty buckets and back down with loads of apples, Ajdar threaded lamb onto three wide skewers, arranged two rocks on either side of the fire, and then placed the skewers across the embers. He also buried three potatoes farther over, not under the meat, to cook in the coals.

I learned that apart from wood and a rock or something for balancing skewers on, you also need water. As he felt the embers get too hot, Ajdar would sprinkle water on them, and sometimes onto the meat, to cool things down a little.

Meantime the others set out cardboard from a folded out box as a table, placed glasses and napkins on it, opened the vodka bottle, opened a jar of whole pickled tomatoes and a jar of homemade yogurt, and sliced one of the two flat loaves of bread they'd brought.

Soon Ajdar brought over the first skewer and slid it onto a plate. Then came the other two, making a heap of beautifully grilled lamb that had been flavoured only with salt.

As we started eating a guy appeared walking down the hillside. He'd ridden past us earlier, on a horse that also carried box-shaped panniers, on an apple gathering trip, clearly. Here he was, having tied the horse somewhere uphill, and so he too was included in the feast.

The open hospitality, the preparedness to share food and drink with a stranger or a neighbour (for the horseman was also from the region, though not specially known to any of them), is part of the culture here it seems, as it is in Georgia. I wondered what would have happened in the equivalent situation in Canada, the US or Europe. We are shy about sharing. I don't think it's always greed. I think it is a kind of social hesitation. But here, in what we outsiders might consider a more traditional culture, and in a place where people have suffered a lot from war and change, there's this hospitable generosity.

It's something to think about...

Friday, September 26, 2014

MUSINGS FROM BAKU & A PLEA TO DISCARD "EXOTIC"

I've been thinking about the difference between anticipation and arrival, these last couple of days, my first days in Baku, Azerbaijan. Before a trip to a place unknown to me, I read history and geography, look at maps, read about culture too, and politics, but I avoid making a list of sights to visit or any other kind of "want list". I like to think that somehow I will manage to find my way, by stumbling into unexpected places or people or learning once I'm there. If I go with a list I feel that I'm setting the trip up as a "these are my expectations, now the place has to meet them".

But this formless version of trip planning also leaves me with vague anxieties in the weeks before I leave. What if the place and people are, for reasons known or unknown to me, ungenerous and impenetrable? What if I am going to feel closed out?

That edginess pre-trip is part of why I haven't written here for about two weeks. I don't like the way the edginess takes over, becomes like a pretrip queasiness, and I think each time: "surely by now I should have learned to NOT feel like this!"

Once I'm on the plane, it goes. In this case the first flight took me to Istanbul and a six hour wait for the flight to Baku. In the end there was confusion and delay on that flight, so that we arrived (given hour changes too) at about 3 in the morning. AFter changing money I shared a taxi into town with a guy I'd met during our inteminable waiting around for the flight. The taxi ripped us both off in the end, the hotel I had booked through bookings.com had no room for me, and altogether it was a bumpy hour or two before I was in a bed in a room, as daylight started lightening the sky.

None of those messinesses were a worry, and indeed I am never fussed ahead of time about that kind of thing. Dealing with it all also gave me my first glimpse of the working people of Baku, those who are stuck with the overnight front desk responsibilities at small hotels, with sweeping the streets, with opening a small corneer store early, and other poorly paid work. And all those people were delightfully nice, generous-minded, tolerant of my feeble attempts at Russian.

That emotional ease and welcome on arrival has continued. The guy up the way from my hotel in the Old City (no traffic here, so wonderful) runs a fruit and veg store, a small one. Outside it is a large tree that creates a hanging out zone for passers-by and people in the neighbourhood. There is conversation, banter, shared pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, and other undemanding exchanges, from early morning until well after dark. The proprietor sits outside too, then gets up each time someone walks up the slope from the tree into his shop.

Two nights ago when I went in to buy something, I'd already spent some time hanging around, answering the odd qustion and watching the ongoing scene. And so the shopkeeper already knew I was from Canada, that I am travelling alone, that I have two grown male children, and that I plan to leave Baku tomorrow, heading northwest towards Sheki and area. I bought a couple of pears and a cucumber, for a total of about 50 cents. Today as I came by after a long morning out photographing at Yalish Bazaar and other doings, he greeted me with a raised hand and a hearty "salaam" then turned to the guy he was with and explained I was a tourist from Canada.

I feel as if in this short time I've become a temporary part of the lane. I'm greeted by women, waved at shyly by little kids, and given a nod of acknowledgement by the men.

All of this is to tell you that there is an unimaginable gulf between the anticipations bred of anxiety on the one hand and the reality of arrival on the other. And in my experience it is always this way. Wherever we are, human beings are just that, human. We are all social animals, curious about each other, and curious about the stranger. As a visible stranger (my clothing and the way I walk give me away) I get the benefit of that curiosity. And I welcome it of course, even when, as can happen, it feels intrusive, or it would if I were subject to it in my home town.

This brings me to another word I would like us to toss on the trash pile, at least in the food context, but really in every context, and that is "exotic".

I saw something on FB the other day referring to spices and a talk that would help people make "exotic" foods. What are we doing here with this idea? Everyone's home food is a solid reality. And the foods we don't know about are not exotic, they are just foods we don't know. I feel that the word "exotic" is part of the kind of "Orientalising" that Edward Said wrote and talked about.

If and when a food or cuisine is unfamiliar to us, it seems valid to me that we are curious, just as the people here in Baku have been curious about me. And that curiosity is a kind of welcome too, as in, "I would like to know more". It's a respectful interested kind of curiosity that seeks to get closer, not to create distance.

But if something or someone is described as "exotic" the word and idea create a distance. It's not the distance of respect. It's the distance of that other kind of attitude to a stranger, which is a compound of mistrust, fear, and a kind of self-protective mocking. I find it ugly and not something that we ever want in the world of food and culture that I engage with.

And so please add "exotic" to the pile of words to discard, along with those others I wrote about earlier this month.

Thank-you!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

AND LET'S DITCH THE TERM "ORGANIC" TOO

Last time I posted I was chasing after the use and abuse of the words artisanal and rustic. I proposed that we ditch them, at least for awhile, until we can give them meaning and substance again…

The next word on my hit list, even more abused and distressing, is of course “organic”. Do we really want to keep on with this hopeless label? I remember when the first mindful grocery opened in my hometown of Ottawa, an “organic” shop in the Market area, selling bulk this and that and vegetables and fruit fresh and dried and frozen, grown without pesticides or other chemicals. It was entirely new as an idea for a food shop. I’d been lucky: most of what I’d eaten growing up had come from my mother’s vegetable garden, or from local farmers, and bore little resemblance to the offerings in the grocery stores, for sure.

But why is it called “organic?” I remember asking the woman who owned the store. Well we want to convey that it’s “naturally grown or naturally produced food” she said. You know, like the magazine “Organic Gardening”.

Yes, I knew the mag, for my mother had a subscription. Sometime later she also took out a subscription to Harrowsmith, then a small Canadian-published magazine.

I don’t think the words “sustainable agriculture” were in the air at all then. We knew about pesticides because of Rachel Carson’s work… but still, they weren’t scary to most people. Soon after the opening of the store I had a chance to work with farmers and people in small rural communities in the Ottawa area. I met a woman who was very engaged in local political issues. She and her husband farmed, and she also had a huge vegetable garden. It’s so great she told me, I have no weeds in my garden. The pesticides my husband puts on the fields also go into the garden before I transplant my starts in the spring. It’s so clean and weed-free.

Yikes! I thought, but tried not to show any appalled reaction to her. I did ask her if she wasn’t concerned at all about the pesticides, and no, she wasn’t. It’s such a small amount, she said. And the food is washed and cooked…


There are probably still many farm gardens which produce huge amounts of food for families thanks to chemical fertilizers and the application of herbicides to keep weeds down. For sure people need to be fed.

But it occurs to me that perhaps we’d have less wasted food if it tasted better and if we paid a little more for it. Wouldn’t we be more mindful as we shopped? And more mindful about figuring out how to use leftovers?

So if when you see the word ‘organic” you try substituting the word “sustainable”…see how it feels. Of course we all have different views about what sustainable means. But it’s less about “purity” (not achievable and frankly an elitist idea don’t you think?) and more about process and an acknowledgemnt that we’re all in this together.


We need to figure out food systems that give us all access to food that tastes good and has nutritional value, and in a way that enables us to go on farming and feeding humanity. That means paying more for food, paying attention to food and how it’s grown and produced, and most of all, that means having respect for the people who do all the work of directly feeding people every day, all over the world: the farmers, the people who transport and process agricultural production, and those who sell it, as well as the cooks who get it onto the table. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

LET'S DITCH THE WORDS ARTISANAL & RUSTIC

It’s a unfamiliar feeling, the heat of today, as in Toronto we have our first scorcher of the summer…in early September. The kids are back in school, the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and I’m dopey with the unaccustomed heat.

Since I last wrote, I’ve had the good news that my visa application for Azerbaijan has been approved. That means that I can fly to Baku, as planned, in late September, and from there explore a little of Azerbaijan before taking a bus into Georgia. I’m delighted. Autumn is such a lovely food time to travel. I’m especially looking forward to learning more about Georgian and Armenian “kompot”, thick fruit syrups, and also about Armenian technique for making vodka from fruit.

All these things when made by a home-cook or small crafts-person might be called “artisanal” foods. But that word, and a similar one, “rustic” have become so debased and mis-applied, it seems to me, that we should give them a rest for awhile. My friend Dawn the Baker (Dawn Woodward) and her husband Ed Rek of Evelyn’s Crackers make whole grain crackers by hand, with care. Those are “artisanally” made crackers. But the label is now applied to so many small-production foods and other products that it’s lost its value. Let’s just say hand-crafted? Or, when it’s appropriate “home-made”.

And then moving on to “rustic”, there’s a lot to be said. My friend Dina, who has read and bought cookbooks of every description for decades, was talking to me about this the other day. We were talking about the way “rustic” is sometimes used to describe a sloppy or crude-looking tart or cookie, or other food. “Rustic” does NOT mean made carelessly or without skill and sophistication. At least, it shouldn’t.

Country cooks, “peasant” cooks as many cookbooks refer to them, are those most likely to know their ingredients well and to be most reluctant to waste good food. So there’s nothing casual, and everything intended, about country cooking. And there’s great sophistication, in the sense of deep skilful knowledge, about how to get the most flavour out of ingredients. The word “rustic” originally meant, in the food context, not “chef-ed”, not loaded with sauces, and not part of the classic haute cuisine canon.

Why am I bothering to talk about this? I guess because the debasing of the term and idea of artisan is disturbing, and the misuse of both artisan and rustic involves a lack of respect for the skill and intention of the original.

Perhaps I am reacting to a certain kind of condescension. It’s an attitude that assumes that just anyone can work artisanally and that a rustic food is the product of less skill and attention and sophistication, rather as if rustic meant “produced by a crude cook.”

The next word I have in my sights is “organic”. But that’s for another day!


It’s time I went out to pick the remaining tomatillos (raccoons and/or squirrels stole some of them) and thought about supper. Chopped tomatoes, green salad, and leftovers from last night seem the best way to go in this heat, perhaps with some chilled white wine, or even the luxury of a gin and tonic, made with Fever Tree or another good tonic….

Friday, August 29, 2014

LEARNING RESPECT, IN SCHOOL & OUT

It’s warm and kind in the sun, but sitting here in the shade, in my small back garden, the cool of autumn is tickling my skin and reminding me that Labour Day is around the corner. I’m not ready for this! Perhaps no-one is, including teachers and kids heading back to school. And here in Toronto, where we’ve had an unusually cool summer after a long harsh record-setting winter, we’re feeling a little robbed of warmth and renewal.

You can’t tell that though from looking at gardens and farmers’ markets. Somehow the tough winter helped many plants and crops thrive, in a kind of “if you weren’t killed by the cold, then you are stronger and more vigorous” kind of scenario. Thus the stone fruits are full of flavour, the arugula and sorrel in my garden are still luxuriant, and the cool weather has kept the lettuce lively too. The bees are humming, working hard, sucking at the chive flowers and the remains of the phlox and lilies, the flowering arugula gone wild, and the odd daisy.

Meantime next door the neighbours’ little kids are playing in water, splashing and squabbling and then laughing again…a last hurrah before the older child heads to kindergarten next Tuesday.

I think of school as a process of socialisation: we learn about the diversity of characters and interactions from spending time with people we did not choose, in a relatively orderly environment, and with distractions, such as learning, to help us stay on track and focussed. If school helps us maintain respect for ourselves and others, and learn to discern and work with the differences between us, then that’s a huge accomplishment. The marks and “benchmarks” are so much less important!

Up the street, speaking of school and turning points in the year, the campus of the University of Toronto has been mown and tidied and repaired and touched up, in preparation for the arrival of students. Awkward first year students and their worldly possessions are being unloaded in front of residences by their parents this weekend; the cooler at-ease-in-the-city upper year students will be around in a week’s time. So now is the last day to get to the University bookstore for supplies before the huge long line-ups start. The next time for easy access will be in four weeks.

And so the world turns in this safe-feeling Toronto of no war and predictable seasonal cycles.

But across the water people are suffering in fragmented and war-torn landscapes. Syria is a catastrophe, and parts of Iraq too, and in Ukraine Putin is flexing the muscles he first used to wrest Abkhazia and North Ossetia from Georgia. The era of the cold war, so static and buttoned down, and full of bluster, with two clear “sides” must feel desirable to some people in retrospect, just as many in the ex-Soviet Union after 1990 spoke fondly of the certainties of life under the Soviet dictatorship. But now we’re in a new era and have to feel our way and figure out how to stay open to the wider world.

It’s too easy to turn our backs on the pain of others. Their pain and suffering make us uncomfortable; perhaps we feel guilty for being so well off in our peaceful place while other suffer. But I do think it’s important to keep thinking about the individual human beings on the ground, anywhere and everywhere in the world. They deserve our attention, our respect, and our help.

Food is a thread that we can use to help understand others, in fact to help visualise ourselves in their place. Even as there are rocket launchers attacking, in Gaza or Syria, there are home cooks figuring out how to feed their families, and bakers heating their ovens to get the day’s bread baked.


And that visualising of the daily food preparation, and family meals of others, in turn helps us remember that we are all on this planet together. It helps us have respect for the people we share the planet with, just as, when we were in primary school, we were all in the classroom together, with our differences and our difficulties, embarked on trying to understand what was going on and to learn.

Monday, August 25, 2014

GRAIN GATHERING THOUGHTS: THE THIRD PLATE FRONTIER FOR HOME COOKS

I’m writing this in the plane as it wings its way east to Toronto. Air Canada upgraded me, a rare and lovely treat, and so I gave the food I had bought for my flight home to a friend who was on the same flight and NOT upgraded.

I’m thinking about the last week doing prep for and then being at the Grain Gathering, in the Skagit Valley and I'm trying to sift and sort my way through memories, impressions, and thoughts about the future of grain and farming and food production, as well as access to food. (I'll post this tomorrow when I've got internet and have had a night's sleep.)

As I was embarking on this last week’s trip to the Grain Gathering with Dawn Woodward aka Dawn the Baker of Evelyn’s Crackers, sitting in the airport in Toronto waiting for our flight west to be called, she talked to me about the farmers’ markets in Toronto and about the issue of access to food. Her thoughts pushed me to write a letter about the issue…which I plan to send tomorrow to Nick Saul of Community Food Centres Canada who is also the innovator behind much that has happened at the STOP in Toronto.

In the letter I argue against the practice of charging rent to the farmers who come to the markets in the city every week. They already have gas costs and time costs. And we want those markets. So why try to squeeze money out of the farmers? It’s a crazy dysfunctional idea. Let the markets make money another way, from donors if need be, but even better from city and provincial governments. And let the farmers not be burdened with even more costs.

So this is one piece of the enormous puzzle that is food and access to food and the difficulties of producing food. People at the Grain Gathering this weeks talked about and engaged with other pieces of the puzzle. Farmer-millers talked about what they do; small artisanal bakers also, and scientists from the University of Washington’s remarkable research centre in the Skagit Valley also gave presentations. I met an urban miller named Nan from Los Angeles, a small-town baker from Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast came too, and another from Whidbey Island, and master bakers from San Francisco, North Carolina, Vermont, Toronto… They have all left me with a lot to think about.

Dawn-the-Baker and I gave three workshops: about using old bread ("Waste Not! recipes for making puddings, kvass, a Georgian bread omelet dish, knudeln, etc); Toast (three stunning breads by Dawn, toasted, then with toppings, and how this can work for bakers and eaters too); and Multi-Grain baking (all recipes by Dawn, from buckwheat scones, airy and delish, to rye crust tarts, whole grain Red Fife tart, cookies made with whole grain Kamut, etc). I also helped with a presentation she did with Jonathan, the baker at the centre's Bread Lab. It was a comparative tasting of four different single varietal wheats, just harvested and milled without sifting out any bran, and used to bake both artisanal loaves and madeleines. Fascinating. (The varieties we tasted were Renan, Pachtol, Ludwig, and Colonia.)

I was very happy to have been asked to give the opening keynote. It gave me the chance to take people out, through photographs, to the whole wide world of grain. Almost all humans eat grain in some form every day: bread, noodles, porridge, polenta, whole rice, couscous... And that grain might be corn or barley or millet or sorghum, or rice or rye or oats or teff, or wheat...or a blend. So we went traveling through my photos from a Homng/Miao man ploughing a flooded paddy field in Guizhou China to women in Lalibela Ethiopia grinding barley to make the beer called thalla, to a baker joking with his customers in Iran. All of this is the grain community, the labour of hands and minds, passed along in a chain.

The second keynote was given by Jeffrey Hamelman, a grounded, tuned-in master-baker and altogether lovely man who now works for King Arthur Flour in Vermont. He spoke about teachers and teaching, and students and learning, and the face time and emotional connection time that need to go into the teacher-learner relationship if it’s to be fruitful. It was a moving and inspiring talk I thought, and many agreed.

And the people who participated in our workshops engaged fully, asking questions, suggesting options, participating in the ideal collaborative way Jeffrey was talking about.

But there were also bumps in the road at the conference, or perhaps I should say, things proposed that I took issue with. Those too were enlightening and give me pause.

For example Dan Barber, author of the recent thoughtful and terrific book “The Third Plate” spoke at the plenary that closed the conference. It was a public conversation with Steve Jones, the director of the Washington State Agricultural Research Center at Mt Vernon, where the conference was held. Steve is one of the principal people energising the current renaissance of local single-varietal wheats and has had a big impact on Dan's thinking.

As they chatted I was struck by Dan’s emphasis on what chefs could do to shift the current food systems, and the culture of meat at the centre of the plate. His “second plate” is the current farm-to-table movement which emphasises organic local food, but is still centred around an unsustainable North American assumption, that meat (or fish) is at the centre of the plate, with greens and grains on the periphery.

So here’s a chef, a thoughtful guy, who has two restaurants, one in New York City, the other at a remarkable centre, Stone Barns, that is underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation, talking about the need to bring non-meat/non-fish, to the centre of the plate. That's great. But he’s seeing chefs as the people to get that started.

I can’t.

I see it happening through home cooks. It's already happening in many households. I know some that are vegetarian, not in a hardline way, but truly meat-free (with a dab of fish sauce on the side perhaps). Others eat lightly of meat and fish. Food on their table is appreciated and enjoyed for its deliciousness and flavour.

But when a NYC chef is talking about cooking and serving the full range of local produce, with no heavy protein on the plate it’s a big problem: he or she is in business, with rent to pay and staff to pay, and investors to reward. People who go out to eat at a famed restaurant expect the “treat” of a protein at the centre of the plate, be it grilled fish or steak or lamb. The meal is expensive. And so the economic interests of the chef and the diner are at odds with the expectations of the chef and the diner.

In fact perhaps the chef-restaurant is the LAST place that things can change. The fine-dining venue is one for people who feel entitled to have a treat or to be spoiled. They don’t want to be reminded of their social responsibility to eat lightly and to save the planet by their food choices.

In contrast, in the home cooking situation the economic and gastronomic interests coincide. The household eats well in every sense of the word, and can feel good about what they’re cooking and eating, from its provenance and philosophy to its flavour and its lower cost.

The people who deal with these issues of what gets eaten, what goes on the plate, every day are the people who are responsible for feeding a family or a household or community. Mothers, spouses, partners, colleagues, students in their first apartments - home cooks in other words - are the people on the front line of shopping and cooking. And in many cases they can and are also on the front lines of leading by example - showing the way - household by household, meal by meal.

A participant at the Grain Gathering, a woman baker from Toronto named Carol, told me that as she read Dan’s book she experimented with substituting “home cook” for “chef” in all his sentences. And when she did so, she reported, it all made more sense. Exactly.

Yes, this still leaves us with the issue of how to get people engaged in metaphorical “nose-to-tail” eating, that is, eating all the products of a farmer’s fields, from pulses and legumes to wild and tame greens, etc, as well as lesser known grains. How do we make this happen for home cooks and eaters everywhere? 

Chefs can help by figuring out new combinations and ways of cooking. On the other hand the food traditions of other cuisines. for example those of India, Mexico, China, etc, are a richer more deeply layered source. Cooks in those traditions work with very little meat for these are sustainable cuisines that have developed over the centuries, cuisines loaded with diversity and deliciousness. There are plenty of cookbooks out there to explore...and to help guide home cooks in this new terrain.


The goal is to turn people on to the pleasures - the flavour, health, and environmental benefits - as well as the lower costs, of cooking and eating this way. And we’ll get there. People aren’t stupid. And the adventures that lie ahead for cooks and all of us eaters as we explore this new Third Plate frontier will surprise us all.