Friday, February 22, 2008

Reading for writing and weather for leaving

What a farewell gift from the weather gods.

Although I got lots of writing done at the writers and artists' colony this year, I also enjoyed the reading time. I spent my evenings with Edward Hirsch, browsing his Poet's Choice, which led me down interesting paths -- including one that led to Yusuf Komunyakaa, whose name I'm sure had not crossed my radar (though Brenda tells me she also came across him recently and was impressed).

I brought a chapbook called When Now Is Not Now, produced by The Poetry Trust for Alastair Reid's 2006 appearance at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where he was one of my clear favourites, and after re-reading those poems still is.

For criticism and theory, I brought Annie Finch, The Body of Poetry, which had a fabulous piece in it about how the DWM canon came to be and what to do if you don't like it. And some welcome introduction to the work of Sara Teasdale, which delighted me.

Other books I've read over the past couple of weeks include Jane Hirschfield's After; Vona Groarke's Shale, Paul Farley's Tramp In Flames, the 2007 Forward Prize Anthology, Helena McEwan's Ghost Girl, Medbh McGuckian's The Currach Requires No Harbours, Mimi Khalvati's The Meanest Flower, and Naomi Guttman's Wet Apples, White Blood.

So here we are, having had a fabulous if freezing view of the lunar eclipse; last night having seen some absolutely gorgeous layered photographic slides from Regina's own Cherie Westmoreland, and had our farewell reading. It's time to pack up.

So long to Benedict...

And to these newcomers, who were born out in a -25c field and luckily spotted and brought inside for a little time under the heatlamp...

And today, all the colonists fly away home.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More sheep, and a bit of dip

I went round to the sheep barn again yesterday, braving the face-freezing weather for a glimpse of the two latest arrivals, born on Sunday.

I had apparently timed my visit to nap time. Tipsy was there with her colourful offspring.

And this pair were watching the door.

In other news... Last night I made a batch of Fanny Bay smoked oyster pate (my changes: I used 2 tins of Fanny Bay smoked oysters instead of 1; green onion instead of white; and added a tablespoon of plain yogurt and a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a pinch of minced lemon rind) which swiftly vanished into the colony's creativity machine.

A last swing round the freezing streets of Humboldt yielded an "Italian-inspired" yogurt maker, currently in experimental use (though Carla tells us she makes her yogurt in a much simpler way: using a mason jar, wrapped in a towel and set on the hot water tank overnight). After a crippling second night of badminton I am moving slowly but making what I can of my final two days and looking forward to our finale reading and studio tour tomorrow night.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Nuthatches and nutty lambs

What's behind the blue door?

The chickadees have long been friendly,

but this is the first year I've had nuthatches in hand.

This little white lamb is a charmer - always curious and full of beans...

..who's mama's favourite little mountain goat?

And I hate to say it, but the alpaca babe (Benedict, of course) has a funny face.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Institutional food, and the flight of the peanut-laden chickadee

As we engage in our annual reflections about food and menu in the monastery's dining room, it happens that the Food Programme's latest show was on nursery school food and what toddlers eat: the roots of institutional dining, and part of the programming that shapes a child's food tastes for life.

There was an observation that parents ought to be looking at the food offered to children with the same care they pay to checking out the qualifications of the staff and the rest of the facilities.

An interesting point made: don't expect children to take to something you demonstrably don't eat and enjoy yourself: "It's no good expecting a child to eat something if you make a face when you feed it to them" remarked Dr Gillian Harris, a child psychologist (interviewed to much the same ends in this interesting piece on 'supertasters').

And the French were again held up as a model of good practice; this time for school meals - where attention is paid to the quality of the food as well as the food culture around it. Which is nice to hear, but not what we witnessed being fed to students of business school age, if what we experienced at the Dijon Business School is anything to go by.

I was even happier to have been born liking broccoli and cauliflower when I read this article.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Eggs and effigies

What a social whirl this week. Cake after cake, treat after treat, chocolates every which way. On Tuesday we had some fun at the Muenster Family Restaurant:

Awesome pork chops. Lemon potatoes. Mmmm, be it ever so humble....

Then we marched back through the frosty night air to have cake with Fr Demetrius, to celebrate his birthday, with musical stylings by Reg.

Thursday was the colony's weekly reading and we did a mini-tour of two of our artists' studios as well. Shelley showed us the beginnings of another of her awesome photographic projects, this one documenting a buffalo effigy in Saskatchewan. Apparently such effigies are not unusual in Saskatchewan; they're made of boulders and often featuring turtles or human figures, but this seems to be the only one of a buffalo. She's taken 1500 photos which she's merging for a life-sized reproduction which will measure about 15 by 35 feet. I have yet to walk all over the project she showed us last time I was here, which was stunningly beautiful photography of tipi rings, now installed on the floor of the Regina Airport.

We then had a look at Honor's charcoal portraits. If all life begins from carbon, she reasoned, what could she create with a simple stick of burnt willow? Some kind of beautiful, it was. Portraits of many of the writers who are here again this year, and she's going to add some other life forms too including Tipsy the sheep who just gave birth to lovely little lambs (clocking in at 12 lbs each).

And lambs there are a-plenty just now.

Buddy's a trainee sheepdog.

Maureen tells me that the farmer told her a great story about Buddy's training. He was taken out to a field to meet the sheep, and when he got out there in the middle of them, they all gathered in a circle around them. He looked them all over for a minute and then went and licked each sheep's nose in turn. I think he's gonna work out just fine.

I whirled up a batch of Uova Tonnato for aperitivo hour, and was fortunate to find that Cupid had decorated the table before I got there.

I have earlier given a link to Delia's version of this magical sauce, but as many seemed to want an actual recipe, here's my modified version of a nice simple one, from my treasured Good Cook series. When choosing your tuna, remember that Bluefin and Yellowfin are endangered (overfishing) and even Albacore, which I'd heard was the one sustainable species, is also being dramatically overfished. Alas...
Uova Tonnato (Eggs in Tuna Sauce)

Based on a recipe for Vitello Tonnato/Veal in Tuna Sauce, from The Home Book of Italian Cookery, Beryl Gould-Marks (Good Cook: Beef & Veal)

3.5 oz (125g) can tuna, preferably packed in olive oil, drained
3-4 anchovy fillets, soaked in cold water for 10 minutes and patted dry
1 cup (250 ml) (approx) olive or other good quality oil
1-2 tsp (5-10 ml) fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp capers, rinsed & drained well
salt & pepper
1 dozen organic free range eggs, hard-boiled, shelled and sliced
  • Puree tuna, anchovy and capers to a paste; add enough oil by drops to make a thin mayonnaise. Add lemon juice and seasonings to taste. Best if left a few hours or overnight so flavours can meld.
  • Drizzle over the egg slices and garnish with a scattering of capers. Use bread, cauliflower or cucumber or celery sticks to mop up the sauce.
  • For shockingly good not-devilled eggs, try stuffing them with a mixture of hard-cooked yolks plus Tonnato sauce.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cold and hot

It has been a bit warmer, if that is the word, but even my hardy Edmonton companions found a few minutes of yesterday's walk a journey through the most biting cold imaginable. The day before, we'd had an invigorating march out to the barn to see the animals... barely warmer than outside, said my frozen fingers. Maybe better pics another day, but here's how it looked: mums and babes, and away in the distant background a cackle of chickens and a dabble of doves - who are being trained for work at weddings and funerals apparently.

Last night's entertainment was a reading by visiting poetic dignitaries Bert Almon

and Olga Costopoulos who warmed us all up by reading from their latest collections.

And finally, a happy electronic acquaintance: my Crete entries from last April have connected me with an expat cook on Crete, who has a blog of her own featuring some very promising looking recipes.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


It's all about the weather here. Today started sunny and clear and is now grey and cold, cold, cold. The forecast is for a wind chill temp of -41c (or a not entirely desirable -25 out of the wind). I think the chickadees will have to wait for their hand feeding a few days longer.

Before leaving for the monastery, I indulged in a good but not ethereal meal at Saskatoon's own Nouveau Brit restaurant, Simon's British Flavours. I was intrigued by the sound of the cheese and butternut squash souffle, but it was a shrunken little muffin

when it reached the table; clearly either the cook or the souffle had not read Delia's opinion that souffles with vegetable puree can never fall flat on you. It was tasty enough, but I think I'd do some home experiments before trying this again in a restaurant.

Then after valiant work on her part, the last morsels of Mary's itty-bitty lamb shank

defeated her, while I managed most of my nicely cooked (humanely reared) chicken, although I could have done without cream in the veggies.

We couldn't manage dessert, or popcorn when we reached our next destination, a screening of Juno, which we agreed was appealing enough as a movie, but not what either of us would call Oscar material.

Then it was off to the east, and although there was a bit of blowing snow we managed to reach Muenster without incident, just in time to witness the start of a good snowfall, which fell a bit short of the blizzard I had been hoping for.

There has been some discussion of snow since I've been here. One term I learned was "finger drifts" which are the long, finger-like drifts that creep across roads. A less descriptive one was "ground drifting" which refers inadequately to the sweeping, snaking rivers of dry flakes that blow across the highway, causing a kind of hypnosis if you're not careful. I liked Cherie's suggestion to change it slightly to "snake drifting" (although this term seems to be already taken by car idiots who like to fishtail around parking lots) -- which would work for this kind:

but we need a straighter term for this kind:

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Food and culture and deliberate misinterpretation

I am something of a broken record on this subject, but it's not my fault, it's everywhere! The latest Food Programme (Feb 3) broadcast an interview with Michael Pollan about In Defence of Food, with discussion about nutritionism, with input from the term's founder, Gyorgy Scrinis; Danish sociologist Soren Askegaard - who argued 11 years ago that focus on nutitional elements of food bypasses the equally important cultural aspects; and British physician Dennis Burkett (the father of fibre).

There is an interesting clip with Andrew Wadge, Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency who, like other food scientists I've heard interviewed about Pollan's book, doggedly stick to a misinterpretation of Pollan's advice that "you shouldn't eat anything your great-grandmother would recognise as food" -- instead trying to assert that Pollan is proposing you only eat what your grandmother would have eaten. Happily, interviewer Sheila Dillon pressed him on the point until it was clear he either hadn't understood or was deliberately presenting a contrary position. While he continued to dodge the correction (even reasserting the misinterpretation on his blog), at least the attempt to mislead was made clear to listeners.

We need more such interviewers in Canada; after Anna Maria Tremonti's interview with Pollan, the point was allowed to slide in a rebuttal interview with a food scientist, who again deliberately misconstrued Pollan's advice, inaccurately paraphrasing it as 'not to eat any foods that your grandmother wouldn't recognise' and lamely citing such things as exotic fruits that have been developed or popularised in the past century.

Which missed the point entirely. Pollan advises going to the wisdom of our ancestors - not literally to their diet - and using that to guide your food-buying, using highly processed yogurts in a tube as his benchmark for something great-granny would definitely not recognise as food, let alone know how to ingest.

Honestly. If food scientists can't - or worse, won't - get a simple concept like that right, it rather begs the question of why we should trust other advice they give?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Dog food to damned cold

Only exciting food in recent days was a batch of dog food for the returning Anton, who is equally interested in food, walks and blue dinosaurs. His food was made of ground beef, beef hearts, oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, whole eggs (including the shells, blitzed in the blender), spinach, shredded carrots, raw chopped garlic, red lentils and mixed (cooked) dried beans. And dissolved glucosamine tablets (he turns 13 this year).

Then I jumped on a plane, leaving this:

to come to this:

And here in Saskatoon it is a balmy -3c or so at the moment, except if you stand in a vicious wind. Yesterday was around -20c with a vicious wind.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Convenience, and the interesting arguments against microwaves

It strikes me that most of the 'progress' towards which the western world has worked itself to exhaustion has been the quest for greater convenience, a word that is starting to sound like a warning rather than a goal.

And working against it, as I re-learn basic skills like making my own mayonnaise and pasta, and switch as far as possible to local, perishable raw ingredients - awkward as they are to chase down - begins to feel damned virtuous. I'm grateful to have the time to indulge my fancies in this way.

But it seems to me that convenience is a selfish value. Rarely, it seems, is anything described as convenient of universal long-term benefit: the convenience of the car has contributed to what will be catastrophic effects on us all. Disposable anything, from diapers to juice boxes to syringes, creates more burden on landfills, usually involves a lot of plastic, and pushes out of production the more durable versions of itself (those that involve tedious washing or maintenance before re-using). Those notorious standby switches on electrical devices await our whim with the remote control; round-the clock hot water tanks are ready for random 3 am baths; city planning makes it impossible to live in much of this continent without driving: all of it needlessly draining energy for the sake of making our lives easier, which has been our single-minded and undisputed collective mission.

When it comes to food, it's becoming clear that convenience can be dangerous to your health. As Michael Pollan points out, food that has a long shelf life has a long shelf life because even pests and microbes don't find it's worth eating; the perishable aspects of foods that are removed to keep a food from spoiling are usually what holds the nutritional value (wheat germ, for example, stripped out of white flour; the fragile antioxidants in fresh foods destroyed by heat processing). Long-lived food substances constructed in the lab are not comparable in any nutritional way to their traditional counterparts. As Pollan says, we co-evolved with the carrot for a reason, and it wasn't so that we could extract beta-carotene and conclude that was the only reason for eating one. Eating badly and popping vitamin supplements turns out not to be the same as eating well over a lifetime either.

One convenience issue I've been mulling over as I re-heat my home-made meals using a microwave is whether microwaves are a bad or a good thing? While I am open to the idea they are a bad thing, I have not seen proof of that. And while I may be vaguely uncomfortable with blasting my meal for 3 minutes in the microwave, I like less the idea of heating it for half an hour in an otherwise empty gas oven or feeble toaster oven.

The main arguments against microwaves, that they damage the foods they heat, appear to be based on 'scientific research' done by a Swiss agronomist (though usually described as a scientist or a food scientist), Hans-Ulrich Hertel (often misspelled as Hans-Urich Hertel).

My willingness to have faith in Hertel's findings is hampered by the fact they are only reported in blogs, alternative health sites of unknown credentials, and illiterate online ravings, all of which fail to mention they were based on a study of 8 people.

My nascent faith was further shaken by one item that named Hertel as the head of an anti-cell phone organisation called the ''World Foundation for Natural Science'' (check out the website!) and another that says he was convicted in Swiss courts of making anti-semitic statements around the same time he won the right to publish his 'research' on freedom of speech grounds.

The Skeptic published an article about microwaves in 2003 that put things into perspective, and (Australian) ABC's Dr Karl debunked Hertel's evidence again in 2006. But I'm ready to hear about more credible studies that show the dangers of this particular form of convenience.