Sunday, May 31, 2009

Winter veg & spring dinners

I enjoyed Saturday's whistle through the topic of winter vegetable gardening with local permaculturalist Geoff Johnson. He began by pointing out that we West Coasters follow, wrongly, the veg growing guidance from over yon Rockies, where the season is short but hot and the winter too cold to grow a thing; whereas we are blessed with the climate-mitigating force of the ocean, which means we can grow food all winter.

Some other things I learned include...
  • an easy way to sew salad greens: mix your seed with compost and spread it on the beds
  • make more use of growing space by planting quick crops like radishes among slower-growing things like parsnips
  • purple sprouting broccoli actually takes two seasons to produce florets
  • parsnips and leeks are easier to grow than carrots and onions
  • to grow leeks, seed them in pots and let them grow long and leggy; when the size of a pencil, trim their roots and their tops (to the first leaf joint) and drop them in a pencil-sized hole; this will give you lots of nice fat white root
  • higher sugar content veg like beets are particularly resistant to freezing (though they might lose their tops, so make sure you mark the rows)
After that it was time to go to supper. My birthday had gone a bit adrift, like some of the script on this lovely cake I had in Calgary, so I decided to go on celebrating.

Supper was in Shawnigan Lake, at Amuse Bistro, a little house set back and below the street, so a bit tricky to get to, but worth the navigational effort.

Amuse's amuse-bouche: savoury bread pudding with quail egg.

Salt cod fritters...

Oysters with lots of stuff....

Pan-seared halibut on a bed of heritage grains...

Half of a spot prawn extravaganza, complete with poached egg, and more savoury bread pudding.

Local scallops.

Friday, May 29, 2009

After the meeting but still in Calgary

Last Sunday I got what will probably be my first and last tour of the Calgary Farmers Market.

The place is Alberta-sized, and housed - for the moment - in a former airplane hangar

at the Currie Barracks, which is being razed

to make way for new development. The search is on for a new, permanent home. Such is the public support for the market that it received a temporary reprieve until this can be found. Meanwhile, you can get your tomato sauce

and your ostrich soap

and your fruit tarts there.

Having found enough bits and pieces, Susan primed us with cherry wine and, after I admired her lettuce lamp,

produced an excellent meal, including pear and pine-nut salad with chili dressing

which went well with Dee's pumpernickel bread

followed by some Hutterite-reared lamb.

Throughout proceedings, the ginger cat brigade

kept a careful eye on us.

Back in Victoria, I'm looking ahead to this weekend where I can't be everywhere at once. If I could, I would be at the Spot Prawn Festival in Cowichan Bay, as well as the Island Chefs Collaborative festival: Defending Our Backyard.

Monday, May 25, 2009

TWUC Calgary: Business & pleasure

This weekend's Writers Union of Canada AGM, held jointly with the Writers Guild of Alberta, took place in the comfort of Calgary's Hotel Arts - quite a step up from days of yore when we used to hunker down in the end-of-term halls of residence in universities across the country. We are, as was often discussed, an older group of writers nowadays, and well up to the delicacies that fell in our paths through the weekend.

The annual Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture was this year delivered by literary biographer Elspeth Cameron,

whose revelations on the scale of the persecution she and her family, friends and network suffered after she published Irving Layton's biography (in the form of around 500 hate letters Layton sent them) sent us running for the wine jellies.

Our appetites were tempered by the discovery that the spoons provided didn't actually fit into the charming little glasses..

Workshop sessions included an enlightening discussion about new technologies, in which Ross Laird walked us through some of the new electronic demands on our time and energies

and began addressing the question that has been asked throughout the 20+ years that I've been a member of the union: how do we attract the next generation of writers to keep this going? It is obvious, I guess, that our roots are showing: we began as a print-oriented union, obsessing over copyright payments and fairness in book contracts. This year's debate and discussion about the Google Book Settlement and electronic rights indicates where things are leading. How and how much is the union to change to incorporate the writing life in largely electronic environments;

and how to attract a generation that hasn't yet learned yet to fight together to improve its collective lot in this most individualist age... The questions will be asked for some time to come.

The Saturday night banquet was marred somewhat by the lack of chairs, in a meal designed for schmoozing and grazing, but attended by diners more inclined to sit down with enough room to wield their cutlery. The fare included some darling little pickled golden beets with chevre

Dungeness crab maki rolls

beef (this was Alberta after all)

and precious little for vegetarians, who seem to have been designated friends of the deep fryers: risotto balls were not very big or very interesting (neither the saffron aioli which was really just yellow mayo)

and the vegetable spring rolls, while they lasted, were nothing to write home about.

After a few more wine jellies and other small delectables, we hunkered down to listen as Writers Guild of Alberta president Blaine Newton

did an admirably witty job of orchestrating the WGA awards and the Danuta Gleed prize for short fiction.

There was a door prize (which I did not win) containing many desirable items, thanks to the generosity of the Calgary Slow Food convivium and its fearless and well-published leader, Dee Hobsbawn-Smith.

Otherwise, there was much to eat in Calgary. We found a good harvest in The Catch, an unlikely thing, a seafood restaurant on the prairies (the fare flown in daily, so it's all fresh). Interesting and beautiful food:

And I enjoyed Hotel Arts' soups, which are not described as soups on the menu, but rather Chef's Epiphanies. I had celery & apple soup with blue cheese, and this tomato & fennel soup, both excellent:

Monday, May 18, 2009

John Harvey's 100th

Catch it while you can (till Friday): John Harvey on Front Row (about 19 minutes in), talking (with Michael Morpurgo and Nora Roberts) about being prolific. This is in part to mark his 100th book, Far Cry, which has just been released. The interview offers a lesson on how to cut your teeth writing pulp fiction, and some interesting comments about how to keep those ideas coming for pages and pages and pages and pages and pages...

Compost, Nettie Wiebe, Handmaid's Tale and bird pests

Weirdness on the Gorge. Who leaves a tethered cat on a walkway frequented by dog-walkers?

Operating as I do from a position of smug complacency atop my composter, I was comforted by this article about composting, and its assertion that "every time you're not finished until you compost."

Nettie Wiebe was speaking at the conference where I read in February, and a wonderful speaker she was. Bernadette passed along a great article about her by Penney Kome; a terrific opening sentence:
"If it is true that we are what we eat," said Nettie Wiebe, "then most of us are like those stuffed animals that you get from vending machines with labels that say, '100 percent unknown fiber'."
Meanwhile, this morning's junk mail folder held a personal message from Awotwi Alden who promised that Women Will Be my Resigned Slaves. Alas, I did not find out how this could be before kissing the message goodbye, but it reminded me to catch the last episode (aired Friday) of The Handmaid's Tale, broadcast on BBC Radio 7 every day this past week. A book I loved and it made me think of Natasha Richardson in the film version, which I wasn't overwhelmed by. If you're quick you can catch the last four episodes here.

Our urban farming group talked about the plague of birds that is upon us. Many in our neighbourhood have had seedlings uprooted or bitten off

by birds - Peg and Tom watched a pair of robins work their seedlings, while I witnessed sparrows eating my chard leaves - and there was talk about why this should be so. We wondered if there is a bigger problem for them; that they seem to be eating things they didn't eat before: apples and chard for example. A hard winter, ongoing urbanisation and destruction of habitat and natural food sources and - maybe? - people cutting back on bird seed, or who knows what other factors - are making them hungry.

Perhaps all that bird seed in the past helped to boost their numbers beyond sustainable limits? So instead of cleaning up on the pests in our gardens they are searching harder for food and making a royal mess of things.

Which is forcing us to cover our plantings, which might give the wireworms and cutworms and other crawlies free reign on our vegetables. The ongoing battle between gardener and nature continues.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

E-rights, Slow Food Youth, Farmers' Markets and a poetry reading in a book fair

One of those cases that has dragged on for years is an interesting study in evolving technologies. When freelance writer Heather Robertson launched her case against the then Thomson news corporation in 1996, it was early days in data management. Newspapers were racing to put their wares online but left the agreements with writers behind; they reproduced articles without permission or payment and sold them through online databases for a fee that they did not share with the writers of those articles. It was the forerunner of Google's "disregard copyright now pay later" approach to electronic publishing.

And it marked, in Canada, the beginning of the long slide downward for writers' earnings. In a world where consumers of words are as guilty as consumers of food in making our decisions on the basis of price alone, we are all implicated in wanting something for nothing. But food, like words and music, is not created from air by air; the living beings who make these things also need to eat, and read.

Hence, in the wake of the Google Book Settlement (with its newly postponed opt-out date moved to September) a recent warning to Canadian writers from the Writers Union of Canada against accepting paltry payment clauses for electronic rights in book contracts:
It has come to the attention of the Contracts Committee that a number of publishers have been launching electronic book and print-on-demand initiatives. These publishers are encouraging writers to participate in their projects and are offering royalties for e-book sales at rates from as low as 10% of net sale price.

The Contracts Committee thinks that 15% or 25% of net or even of retail is unacceptable.

The Committee’s additional concern is that these initiatives may lock up both your electronic and print rights for your book with the publisher more or less forever.
The Robertson vs Thomson case has ended well for writers, and is heading for a settlement hearing on the 16th of June, in Toronto, to ask for court approval of the $11 million tentative settlement. The results could affect a great many writers, not just those in Canada.

The Slow Food Youth Movement has just launched an online newsletter. The first edition includes coverage of Pangea (Ark of Knowledge apprenticeships), Slow Food on Campus, Eat-Ins and more.

There's a new place to shop: Farmers' Market Online has links to Canadian producers who are selling food and other products online. Here's a little pep talk on why people like to shop at non-virtual farmers' markets in Britain. Here in BC, we have a healthy looking list of farmers' markets; in Victoria, we have a good selection of mini-farmers' markets, which we call Pocket Markets, available thanks to the work of a group called FoodRoots. Here's a Pocket Market toolkit for setting up your own.

And if you want it to be right in your own garden, perhaps you were one of those seen mobbing the Compost Education Centre's annual organic plant sale,

where seedlings of many stripes were finding new homes on a perfect day for planting. Not so perfect for attending a book festival; in a scenario wearily familiar to all published writers, Dvora Levin,

Walter Hildebrandt

and I read to two audience members (both of whom I believe were related to Walter). So we simply broadcast our poems a bit more forcefully out into the roomful of booksellers and publishers who were chatting amongst themselves or with visitors. A couple of them gave in and listened appreciatively. Better a captive audience than none at all - though that might not be the captives' perspective.

Though I'm always happy to give readings, in this case I'd only been invited on Wednesday, and the program was being changed on the fly (the readings lineup was different on the day's printed program than what had been up on the festival's website the night before). Poetry readings are always a difficult sell, and some are undoubtedly promoted better than others. Having more than two days' lead time to publicize this event might have helped. But a sunny Saturday afternoon was always going to be a tough one.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Toxic produce and the Pacific Festival of the Book

The Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides is available in wallet-sized pdf and iphone versions. Kind of a helpful thing to keep in mind as you plan your summer garden!

To save you the click, the "Dirty Dozen" (avoid non-organic versions) are:
  1. Peach
  2. Apple
  3. Bell Pepper
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarine
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Kale
  9. Lettuce
  10. Grapes (Imported)
  11. Carrot
  12. Pear
while the "Clean 15" (lowest in pesticides) are:
  1. Onion
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet Corn
  4. Pineapple
  5. Mango
  6. Asparagus
  7. Sweet Peas
  8. Kiwi
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Papaya
  12. Watermelon
  13. Broccoli
  14. Tomato
  15. Sweet Potato
Meanwhile, back in the poetry world, this Saturday at 11am, I'll be appearing in a panel called The Writer and Responsibility at the Pacific Festival of the Book, and then reading my poetry between 2-3pm together with Janet Rogers and Walter Hildebrandt (who are also on the panel, as is Gary Geddes, Stephen Henighan and Trevor Carolan). This takes place at the Church of St John the Divine, on Quadra/Balmoral; where long ago in another lifetime my mother sang in the choir.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The swine, the swine

Pity the pigs who will die in vain over the misunderstandings that are propagating even faster than swine flu itself. If we had any doubt about human arrogance in putting ourselves above the interests of other species, we certainly confirm it whenever our species is at any risk. Consider the millions of turkeys, chickens, sheep, cattle, even water buffalo who have died over the past decade or so in the name of disease prevention. It was known then as it is known now that many of these animals were not diseased, but it was cheaper to kill them all, these unfortunate sentient beings in our dubious human custody.

The whole H1N1/"swine" flu business has at least, I hope, raised some flags about factory farming of animals, including but not only pigs. If we could all agree to skip a few meals of meat each week we could change the situation; but we don't. Why don't we? Instead, we are treated to messages telling us not to stop eating pork. And Egypt says it wants to improve pig farming by moving the animals away from the sources of urban garbage they're fed and onto "proper farms". Maybe the pigs being culled are better off...

While we wait for the UN to test the pigs at the centre of the outbreak, here's some reading on the virus:

(But first, some pig poetry: Margaret Atwood's Pig Song; Roald Dahl's The Pig; Donald Hall's Eating the Pig.)

April 29
Swine Flu: Don't Blame the Pig (Time)
Swine flu: The predictable pandemic? (New Scientist)

April 30
Swine flu source spawns wild theories (Reuters)
Virus’s Tangled Genes Straddle Continents, Raising a Mystery About Its Origins (New York Times)
Did factory farming cause the swine flu outbreak? (Macleans)

May 2
The pig's revenge (Guardian - Felicity Lawrence)

May 5
H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) and You (CDC-Centers for Disease Control & Prevention)
Swine Flu Shows Need for Better Animal Testing (Time)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Does food matter? And the birds and the bees.

So does food matter? If so, to whom? Why not to everyone? How do you make people care, or what should you expect them to do to prove they care? I've been asking myself many such questions in recent weeks.

I've been to two less-than-crowded gatherings lately, organised with the purpose of showing politicians in the provincial election that the voting public cares deeply about its food and about agricultural issues affecting food production. Apparently the current government correctly deduces that the public is not concerned enough to show up en masse, and so neither must they. No Liberal politicians bothered to accept the invitation to come and defend the government's record at the legislature rally or the all-candidates forum on food security last week.

It's odd, because if you ask around, you do find a lot of people out there who do seem to care, and who are acting on their concerns by buying local foods, supporting local farmers, growing their own food; vegetable seeds and starts are selling in record numbers; restaurants and shops that specialise in local foods are springing up like weeds. But then again, when I peek in the carts of my fellow shoppers in grocery stores, I see convenience foods; imported out-of-season fruits and vegetables; highly processed foods laden with hfcs, preservatives and fats; cases of pop, and generally a totally unsustainable lifestyle carrying on around me. And a miniscule percentage of the public turning up at food and agriculture rallies.

Farming Today, the straight-on BBC Radio 4 program on farming issues, talked honeybees last week. You can catch the full week's worth - which includes an interesting exchange about the part that pesticide group neonicitinoids may play in unexplained bee deaths - for another six days. This week it's on to chickens...

It's definitely turned into spring here. My new mason bee house filled up a week after I mounted it on the fence

so I've added some high-density housing

along the lines of what Haliburton uses; I think I need to cut the tubes down in mine so they're better protected from the elements.

Haliburton has also brought in some wireworm specialists to help with integrated pest management in the fields. They're young but willing.

And finally, a walk through the woods proves the arrival of spring: Trillium in bloom

and food on the hoof: salmonberry

and oregon grape both in flower.