Communal eating

Camp Food, Laos

Dakcheung Sunrise

Earlier this spring, we followed a bomb clearance team working high in the mountains near the Lao/Vietnam border. We all camped in tents

Schoolhouse camp

pitched inside a village schoolhouse that offered shelter from the wind, rain, cold, and critters outside. One rudimentary room with a stellar view served as the camp kitchen. Cooking took place over a fire on the floor in the corner,

Cooking over fire

and on chilly nights we gathered around the flames to keep warm. Bathing took place at a communal spigot across the schoolyard. On many misty evenings, the mere the thought of a shower brought shivers of dread.

Bathroom run

But the days always turned sunny as the team set to work, back and forth with detectors across fields

Clearance worker in field

with flowering coffee plants

Coffee flowers

and crimson pineapples. This work happens every day across Laos: teams searching for old US bombs rusting in the earth, 40 years after the airplanes dropped them. This particular team was hired by American Jim Harris, founder of the nonprofit We Help War Victims, commissioned by the NGO CARE to clear agricultural fields in this remote area so that villagers can finally—finally—work the land safely and maybe—just maybe—plant cash crops for the first time in decades.

Pineapple

The team worked all day, then headed back to camp for a wash, a rest, and dinner.

Kitchen prep

We all ate Lao-style, communally, dipping little balls of sticky rice into the day’s offerings of soups, stews, salads, and

Communal eating

chile pastes that lit the mouth with heat, filled the nostrils with fragrance, and warmed the insides with all the freshness that makes a Lao meal. I took note of everything we ate the entire time we camped with the bomb clearance team. Today, that food diary is posted on my blog, The Human Palate, over at SAPIENS. Have a look if you want to know more.

(And stay tuned for Part 2 on eating forest meat….)

(And check out the rest of SAPIENS, if you haven’t already, for a look into the world of anthropology today.)

Jaeow

FishPano

Dinner by Chance

FishPano

So it happens like this: you’re wandering the street in a country you just entered in a town where you’ve just arrived, marveling at how this place has grown in the years since you’ve last seen it. You barely recognize a thing. You come to a corner café, and you see the hair, familiar hair. But you can’t see the face. Eyes in a book or a magazine. Something in print. Your husband spots the bike. It’s not the same bike, but it’s something he’d drive.

Is that him? I ask.

Your husband steps inside, into the aisle of tables. The man looks up, split second of a blank stare, then shock and smiles.

This is a guy you met in another country umpteen years ago, you and he and everyone working together in the same small circle of journalists in a tiny universe of expats helping locals through the news cycle in a country after war (that was theory; reality was, locals knew way more than you did). You have never seen this man in your home country, or his. You have never seen him since in the country where you met. But every few years, by chance, you see him like this. Somewhere on Earth. Somewhere on the street. Alone. Drinking a beer, reading a book, eating good food.

The three of you plan to meet for dinner the next night. You suggest Indian, arrive a few minutes early, order a masala papad. It’s smothered in onion and ketchup. Ketchup is so not right. You suggest an alternative for dinner when he arrives. You head back to the restaurant where you and your husband ate the night before, because it was so good, because it had no ketchup where ketchup doesn’t belong. It’s the blue-light restaurant on the river, Christmas lights strung through bamboo.

You order a repeat, plus extra beer. It comes: the whole grilled fish, skin peeled back, white meaty flesh. Sticky rice in tiny baskets. Papaya salad with just the right balance of spice and tang, fish and juice and crunch. It comes with baby long bean pods, cabbage and greens. It’s mixed with peanuts, tender red tomatoes, little green eggplants and bright yellow bulbs thick in skin but plump and sweet inside with miniscule seeds—a local fruit, something in the Solanaceae family, something of a mix between eggplant and tomato, if you can imagine. There are thin rice paper wrappers and a bowl of water for soaking. There is lettuce and cabbage, mint and local leaves. There is a plate of rice noodles, chiles, shallots, lime slices, lemongrass, little stalks of tart mango, shreds of garlic. Sweet tamarind dips for dunking. Rich, roasted, smokey, spicy chile jaeow for lovers of heat.

All of this. You sit for hours. You finish half the fish. He carves out the bones. You all eat more. You talk about countries you’ve seen grow and change. Development, corruption, coups, enigmas. Logging, despite the laws. Forests razed, plantations grown. Education lacking. Armies still in control. Futures the same as they ever were. He tells you about places he’s found, little towns perfect for doing nothing. Nothing but watching the river flow by.

A wind whips hard through the frangipani trees, still the season of chills. You pay ($12 for all!), you go. Maybe you’ll see him tomorrow for another beer, or the next day in a town farther south. Maybe you’ll see him another year, in another country, on another river sipping another beer, watching another sunset, somewhere on this wild random Earth.

 

And the Happy New Year Winner Is…

HealthDrinkForrest C. of New Mexico! We did a blind drawing the other day. Thanks to all who participated in the blog giveaway, and especially for sharing your stories of food & family, friends & memories. You can read some of those here – recollections of canning tomatoes and picking olives, Christmas dinner and Vietnamese hot sauce, and the connections we make between cooking, family, friends and love.

On this New Year’s Day, I wish everyone happiness, good health, zest for life and living, unending inspiration and the means to enjoy it all. May we always have enough to eat, of the foods we love, but not so much that we forget gratitude. Happy 2016! And thank you for coming here.

By the way, the drink above is not a New Year’s cocktail. It’s an energizing juice we drink regularly in this house, inspired by our many travels through countries where food is inherently recognized for its healing powers. This is the drink that frequently starts our day, and it’s the drink we take in extra quantities if ever we feel the slightest bit off-kilter (or when we know we’ve been exposed to coughing, sneezing, shivering human beings). Maybe it’s just the drink you want on this New Year’s Day? (Feeling a little hung over?) Fresh lemon, ginger, turmeric, pepper and a touch of honey—that’s it. Cultures across the globe have long consumed ginger and turmeric not only for their color and flavor, but their antioxidant and illness-fighting properties too. Western researchers are only just beginning to study the science of eating practices that date back thousands of years. Studies show that it’s actually rather difficult for the body to take advantage of turmeric’s health benefits when eaten alone because it is quickly metabolized in the liver and intestinal wall. BUT combining turmeric with piperine (peppercorns) enhances our ability to absorb the medicinal benefits of curcumin (the key component of turmeric).

So this is what we do for the juice: peel then dice or smash a little ginger and turmeric (an inch or so of each, enough for two 8-ounce glasses). If you don’t have fresh turmeric, powdered is fine. Divide the ginger and turmeric between two glasses, squeeze a quarter lemon into each glass, then add several good cranks of the pepper grinder to each. (This morning we used Kampot red pepper, a fairly rare variety that results when berries are left to turn red on the vine before they are picked and sun-dried). Add hot boiling water to fill the glass. Drizzle with honey and drink.

HealthDrinkIngredients

‘Tis the Season for a Giveaway

Vanilla Horiz“It begins in the wild, in the tangled rainforests of Central America, where leopards roam and parrots screech. The world is wet, the air is thick and the ground is mud. My boots sink into the sucking, slurping bog, and all around it’s green. Everywhere, everything: a chaotic maze of vegetation in every shade of emerald, jade and lime. It’s a beautiful visual monotony, broken by a single, distinctive smell.

That smell, it sings through the jungle, yet it hides. Where? I look high, I look low. I sniff it, breathe it—a little bit cinnamon, little bit cedar, but intensely sweet. I follow my nose, focus my eyes.

“See here?” asks Jorge, my guide.

I don’t.

His fingers aim and his head nods the way, but still: all I see is a cacophony of green.

“It’s hard when you don’t know,” he says, and I don’t. I am not native to the jungles of southern Belize, as he is. “But when you know, then you come straight here.” He whacks his machete through dense reeds and vines. Then he reaches high and grabs. “That’s the vanilla!”

And now I see: vines with thick, stout stems clinging to trunks, branches, logs and leaves. They twist and circle and loop through the air, creeping upward, spreading between trees.

“You see? It’s wild!”

The vines hold tiny camouflaged blooms, just beginning to emerge, no bigger than the tip of my pinky. We are early; but in another month, Jorge says, the buds will pop with flowers—orchids—which, in turn, produce the world’s most coveted beans….

Vanilla Vert__________________________

So begins our journey into the ancient Maya forests, on the hunt for wild vanilla. The whole story appears in the newly released Sabor Journal. Do you know about it? It’s more than a magazine, it’s 186 pages of keepsake culinary lit. It’s glossy, sleek and stylish. But you should take a look for yourself. I’ve been working with founding editor Fermin Albert for a few years now as he makes his dream publication real (it started in print, then went digital, and now it’s back to print in a totally new way).

It’s the season of giving, so I’ve decided to host

MY FIRST BLOG GIVEAWAY!

The winner will get three things: a copy of Sabor Journal (courtesy of Fermin), a copy of Best Food Writing 2015 (courtesy of Da Capo Press) and a jar of home-grown cornmeal (courtesy of my mother-in-law, Jenny Redfern).

Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Message me your interest in participating (send an email, leave a comment here, use the contact page, or get in touch through Facebook).
  2. Tell me one quick story, just a sentence or two (think: tweet length). Since it’s the season of peace, and our world hasn’t had enough of it lately, I’d like to hear how food brings peace and love to your life. It can be a memory or a tradition, a dish or an anecdote. I’ll include some of those stories in an upcoming post.
  3. Deadline: Thursday, Dec. 24. I’ll do a random drawing and announce the winner around the 1st of the year.

Now, for more details on those prizes:

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry Redfern

PRIZE #1: The all-new Sabor Journal, Arbiter of All Things Gastronomic, proof “the world really does need another food mag” (according to AIGA); full of “solid stories, great photographs of food, vibrant illustrations…” (as noted in Eye Magazine); the sum of “what magazines and the art of storytelling and design are all about: the fervor of one’s dream,” (so says Samir Husni, Mr. Magazine). From cover to cover, you’ll get:

Priscilla Hoback on New Mexico’s micaceous pots
Josh Evans on bee bread
Leonard Shek on lumpia
Aaron Ayscough on Marco Pompili’s Ramerino spritz, and contemporary French chefs
David Diaz on the art of cigars
David Bruce Fonseca Guimaraens and Filip Verheyden on Port
Alexander Lobrano on Paris pastries
Nicholas Coldicott on Akishika Sake
Nicholas Griffin on Ping-Pong
Tom Parker Bowles on pottage
Johnny Drain on Smen, and the sense of taste
Hector Abad Faciolince on ron, platano y arepa
Jon Fasman on eating pigeons
Chris Neill on tripe and love
Christopher Webb on baklava
David Jaggard on Napoleon
Tom Ridgway on bushmeat
Elizabeth Andoh on natto
Heidi Nestler on DIY natto
Paul Freedman on the history of French food
Philip Hyman on bistros
Maggie Kim on Korean food in Paris
David Hepworth on Mourad Mazouz
Wilfredo Sanchez on arepas
Robyn Eckhardt on a Hanoi staff meal
Seb Emina on brunch
Yours truly on vanilla, and jungle food

Plus a wide array of photography by:

Dale Grant
Julien Grignon
David Hagerman
Florian Hetz
Julia Marcello
Jerry Redfern (you know that guy, right?)
Carol Sachs
Jeremie Souteyrat
Jamie Stoker
Judy Tuwaletstiwa
Dan Wilton

And spectacular original art by:

Aaron Apsley
Nigel Buchanan
Philip Burke
Michael Byers
Alec Doherty
Pieter van Eenoge
Tim McDonagh
Molly Mendoza
Javier Medellin Puyou
Ping Zhu

Sabor-1__________________________

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PRIZE #2: Holly Hughes’s annual installment, selected from publications all over the globe: Best Food Writing 2015. You’ll get:

Rowan Jacobsen, “The Perfect Beast
Emily Kaiser Thelin, “Growing a $30 Million Egg”
Allecia Vermillion, “OMFG! It’s the PSL!”
Chris Macias, “Maverick Wine Guru Tim Hanni Rethinks the Pour”
Sara Deseran, “Kids These Days”
Tamar Haspel, “How to Get People to Cook More? Get Eaters to Complain Less”
Molly Watson, “Cooking’s Not for Everyone”
Besha Rodell, “Dinner Lab Hopes to Build the World’s First Data-Driven Restaurant. But Is That a Good Thing?”
Oliver Strand, “At Your Service?”
Todd Kliman, “Coding and Decoding Dinner”
Pete Wells, “Waste Not, Want Not (and Pass the Fish Skin)”
Tom Junod, “The Last Supper”
Ryan Sutton, “No Chef in America Cooks Dinner Quite Like Philip Foss”
Nicholas Gill, “The Meat Prophet of Peru”
Jeff Gordinier, “In Search of the Perfect Taco”
Allison Alsup, “Table Lessons”
Nic Brown, “Kitchen Diplomacy”
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, “The Truth About Cast Iron Pans”
Russ Parsons, “Roasting a Chicken, One Sense at a Time”
Daniel Duane, “The Secret Ingredient in the Perfect Burger Is…”
Cal Peternell, “Ragu Finto”
Kim Foster, “Serial Killer”
Megan Kimble, “It’s Not About the Bread”
John T. Edge, “The Lunch Counter”
Jane and Michael Stern, “Hot Country”
Bethany Jean Clement, “Oyster Heaven”
Yours truly, “The Story of Chicken”
Keith Pandolfi, “Gumbo Paradise”
Matt Goulding, “In Search of Ragu”
Nicolas Medina Mora, “How to Make Carnitas That Will Fix Everything That’s Wrong in Your Sad, Horrible Life”
Debbie Koenig, “The Imperfect Family Kitchen”
Sarah Grey, “Friday Night Meatballs”
Kim Severson, “A Mother’s Cookbook Shares More Than Recipes”
Steve Hoffman, “Of Links and Legacy”
Carolyn Phillips, “Money Eve
Zainab Shah, “Loving Spoonful”
Phyllis Grant, “I’m Just Trying to Keep Everyone Alive”
Sarah Henry, “Leaning in Toward the Last Supper”
Elissa Altman, “Infrequent Potatoes”
John DeVore, “Finding Home at Taco Bell”
Jim Shahin, “The One Ingredient That Has Sustained Me During Bouts of Leukemia”
David Leite, “Yeast Are Never Depressed”
John Birdsall, “Mexico in Three Regrets”
Anthony Bourdain, “Beach Town”

__________________________

corn

PRIZE #3: Ma Redfern’s home-grown cornmeal. Here’s what Jenny says about it:

“A pint jar of organically raised, hand-picked, small-batch earth-toned dent corn cornmeal, grown in my Master Gardener 3-sisters garden and ground by yours truly in her 45-year-old Osterizer, as well as a recipe for gluten-free corn bread.”

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So, bring it on! Let’s hear your stories and I’ll get your name into the hat. Happy holidays.

 

 

 

#GivingTuesday – A Few Suggestions

People want to help. Always. This is the message we get every time we return from a trip overseas: people sincerely care, they want to help, they want to make a difference, but they don’t know where to begin.

The setting sun from Oecussi, East Timor.
The setting sun in Oecusse, East Timor.

Today, on the international day of giving, we’d like to offer a few friendly suggestions based on the people we met and the projects we saw last month in East Timor/Timor Leste. No matter your interests (public health? women’s health? education? sports? environment?) there is room to give to the Timorese people. There are good people doing great work, and never a shortage of need. (Quick history: East Timor was a Portuguese colony for 450 years before Indonesian forces invaded in 1975, with a nod from the United States. The occupation lasted 24 years and more than 200,000 Timorese people died. It was one of the most brutal histories of the 20th century. In 1999 the people voted for freedom, and East Timor became the independent country of Timor Leste in 2002. It remains one of the world’s least developed countries. But it is free.)

Offerings at a home altar in Aileu.
Offerings at a home altar in Aileu.

If you find yourself with a few extra dollars to spend, have a look at the list below. Even if you don’t have a few extra dollars, many of these groups would greatly appreciate your help in another form: volunteer, spread the word, share your knowledge. Timor Leste is such a small country, it craves a little attention. I guarantee, there is ample gratitude on the other side of giving:

Bairo Pite Clinic (public healthcare, women’s health). Dr. Daniel Murphy, an Iowa native, has dedicated his services—for free—to the Timorese people since 1999. In that time, the clinic has grown to include daily consultations for hundreds of patients (“Dr. Dan,” as he is known to thousands around the country, sees about 200 a day; nearly 1.1 million people in the past 16 years), 55 in-patient beds, a malnutrition program, tuberculosis ward, grassroots training programs for rural birth assistants, TB outreach services, and much more. The toughest part about budgeting, Dr. Dan says, is covering the costs of daily survival—electricity, supplies, staff salaries and all the little expenses that add up to the full cost of keeping a health clinic afloat. Every dollar helps. Give here.

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Plan International (education, women’s leadership, early child development). We’ve seen Plan at work in other countries. This is a group that’s all about boosting a child’s opportunities in life… and that covers a lot of ground. We visited a Plan project that focuses on early education through playgroups in rural schools. We also interviewed several women involved in a program to put more Timorese women into elected positions—at the local level (just 2 percent of local leaders right now are women). Give here.

Kids from a PLAN school program line up to see the Prime Minister in Aileu.
Kids from a PLAN school program line up to see the Prime Minister in Aileu.

WithOneSeed (environment, sustainability, agriculture, education). This is just one piece of a multi-faceted program based on a simple idea: planting trees and planting ideas. WithOneSeed helps subsistence farmers plant new trees on deforested land, paying each farmer a carbon offset price per living tree. More than 40,000 trees have been planted so far. Meanwhile, partner organization WithOneBean creates a stable, fair-trade market for local subsistence coffee growers. WithOnePlanet is the education arm of the whole shebang, teaching communities across Timor Leste and Australia about climate change and the environmental challenges of the future. Give here.

HIAM Health (malnutrition, food security, child and maternal health). This much-needed local NGO tackles hunger and malnutrition in the garden. It aims to educate families about nutrition, giving them the tools to grow their own food for a balanced diet. Today, many Timorese families do not lack food—but they do lack the knowledge or cultural resources for families to eat healthy, nutritious meals. Rice is often widely available, and many families fill up on this one starchy grain. Missing are the diversity of key nutrients needed for long-term health. Give here.

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Mercy Corps (food security, sustainable agriculture, environment, economic development). This is another group that wears many hats, working in rural communities (where 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture). MercyCorps not only helps farmers with improved techniques and storage, for example, but also works on the economic side of things—savings and loan programs, access to markets, jobs. Here’s something I really like about this group: Country Director Joanna Walshe has a background in anthropology. That means she looks carefully at the cultural reasons why a program does or does not work. Is the fish pond too far from the house? Do women have enough say in the family or village to make critical program decisions? What are the real barriers to a healthy diet? These are the complex sorts of questions Walshe is constantly asking. Give here.

SportImpact (sports, human development). This group runs athletic workshops in rural areas, encouraging Timorese people in the farthest reaches of the country to organize their own sporting events and make their own equipment using local materials (water bottles, cardboard, wood, scraps). Not only do these programs promote health through activity, but they build confidence and inspire young Timorese to create the future they want—without waiting for the government or an NGO to do it. This is a key concept that would be useful in many post-conflict countries, where the long-time presence of aid can create a dependency syndrome.

Seeds of Life (agriculture, sustainability, environment, economic development). Working within the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, this initiative helps local farmer co-ops build a national seed production system that will supply farmers across the country long into the future. These seeds are open-pollinated and naturally selected high-quality, high-yielding varieties (no GMOs) of rice, maize, peanuts, cassava and sweet potato that were bred specifically to deal with local conditions in a changing climate. And they taste good, too—that’s key to making these crops succeed. In the past, the government had to import hundreds of tons of seeds each year just to meet farmer demands. This program aims to end that, replacing imports with biologically diverse and locally grown varieties. Seeds of Life also works on improved storage techniques. The initiative’s slogan: “Food security begins with seed security.” Get in touch here.

Bags of seed corn at a village outside Dili.
Bags of Seeds of Life maize at a farmers’ co-op in a village in Liquica.

Marie Stopes (women’s health, sexual and reproductive health). Statistics have improved greatly since independence, but East Timor still faces some of the world’s greatest challenges in infant and maternal mortality. Many rural residents walk hours to the nearest clinic. Women have on average six children in a lifetime, but many have no access to doctors or midwives. Contraception can be hard to find. Marie Stopes aims to fill this gap, working with the Ministry of Health to ensure all women have the reproductive services they need. Give here.

World Neighbors (water and sanitation, agriculture, food security, health and more). This Oklahoma-based organization works in the remote enclave of Oecusse, a hard-to-reach district surrounded by Indonesia and the sea. There is no regular flight service. Getting to Oecusse from the rest of East Timor requires a (fairly expensive by local standards) 4-hour fast ferry ride, a grueling overnight ferry (which locals and foreigners alike told us never ever to do) or a drive through Indonesia. And Oecusse itself is largely cut off from… everything. Aside from the main town along the coast, almost no roads exist throughout the district (or the roads are so bad that no one drives them). Locals walk hours up and down the mountains—for health care, supplies, jobs, and anything else that people need. Give here.

ETAN (human rights, democracy, news). The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network promotes human rights, justice and independence for Timorese people. It also maintains a thorough email news list, providing subscribers with information on East Timor, Australia and the region that otherwise can’t be found easily. Give here.

Our reporting from East Timor was supported by a fellowship through the International Reporting Project (IRP).

Beyond Terror

Happy Thanksgiving week. As some of you know, we recently returned to the US after a month of reporting in Timor-Leste, followed by a week of working in Singapore. A few nights ago, I awoke sleepless and jetlagged 3 a.m. I grabbed a pen and notebook, went to the living room and started writing about terrorism and this world we all share:

Sin Grub 1Just a few of the many flavors and histories of Singapore: (clockwise from top left) curried fish, Chinese bean curd, Malaysian curry plate, laksa, sour fish tom yam soup, coffee.

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When I learned of the blasts in Beirut, I was in transit from Singapore to Dallas, and I caught blips of the story at airport stops along the way. When I heard about Paris, I was home. I was driving around Albuquerque in a jetlagged fog, angling between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, aiming to restock the fridge after six weeks away. I was thinking about the remainder of my shopping list—cilantro, ginger, dish soap—as NPR aired the shocked and somber voices of those on the ground.

Just the day before, Jerry and I had left our hotel in Singapore and taxied through a neighborhood predominated by Muslims and Chinese. Next door was a popular 24-hour food court where we ate a handful of meals the previous week. Customers gathered all hours of the day and night, drinking sweet tea and chatting across bright orange tables bordering a busy street. Worlds and cultures converged on that corner, united by food. Side-by-side vendors sold Chinese fish noodle soup, laksa, mee goring and nasi campur. Women in headscarves ate among others in shorts.

That food court was a lesson in tolerance, and so was the clientele. Looking back now, just a few days later, it is eerie to recall the conversations Jerry and I shared in Singapore about the level of deference that city upholds. Singapore: a hub of capitalistic consumerism, born of ethnic mix and a history riddled with violence. Diversity isn’t a mere aspiration or meme in Singapore, it’s the core of national identity. (The people are predominantly Chinese with substantial populations of Malays, Indians and Eurasians.) Sitting strategically at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, this island has long drawn from from cultures across the globe. Through the centuries, it shifted hands among early kings, British colonizers and Japanese forces. For a short time, it was part of Malaysia before separating in 1965, following race riots and crippling political strife. Peace and stability came with high prices. Founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who governed from 1959 until 1990, aimed for economic progress combined with multicultural co-existence. But he was roundly denounced for his policies suppressing free speech and political opposition. Lee, who died earlier this year at the age of 91, was a dominant force; he saw no other way toward economic prosperity and peaceful co-habitation of the island’s disparate groups.

Day to day, on Singapore’s sidewalks, in its offices and shops, there is a palpable respect for others. Restaurant windows post notices: “No pork, no lard.” Street signs are written in English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. These accommodations reflect an understanding of diverse needs and views. More importantly, they reflect a willingness to accept the differences that make Singapore what it is. Many argue the country’s policies don’t go far enough. Some debate whether the city is “truly multicultural” or simply tolerant of multiple races and ethnicities. Regardless, it’s a start. In an age when the twin fears of terrorism and immigration trigger intolerance worldwide, we could all use a little more acceptance, a lot less condemnation. We could all strive for peaceful co-habitation.

Sin PeepsSingapore faces, Singapore cultures

The day after leaving Singapore, I sat in a Whole Foods parking lot checking my phone. I read the first message from a Facebook friend in France. “What happened today in Paris is a horror, but we are safe….” As I drove south toward home, the horizon turned a brilliant scarlet as the mountains painted deep, dark silhouettes against a starry sky. I listened to more NPR. It was, of course, the biggest story of the day, and again the next.

And then a backlash began with social media critiques on personal grief. Let us not forget other victims in under-covered places, many implored; let us not diminish the agony of Paris, others insisted.

We are all just trying to relate. As human beings, that is what we do. That is how we form our understanding of the world. For the millions of us lucky to have escaped terrorism in our homes and in our own little circles, we empathize through the experience of others. We feel through the small connections we can make with people and places we know. This is how we grasp for comprehension. This is where the inspiration to make a better world begins.

***

As I listened to reports from Paris, I thought of the people I’d met in Timor-Leste in the month before I traveled to Singapore. Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, is a tiny half-island nation still reeling from its own years of terror, working hard now to build an independent identity. I was there when the bombings in Turkey occurred last month. (How many bombings can the world take in a month?)

Now, this month of November marks 500 years since the Portuguese landed on Timor Island and established a colony on the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, a region rich with oil and timber. The Portuguese kept their hold on Timor until 1975 following a coup in Lisbon. Nine days after Timorese revolutionary leaders declared independence from Portugal, Indonesia invaded with an OK from US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This was right after the Vietnam War. It was a time when the fear of communism dictated geopolitical maneuvers, and the prospects of natural resources shaped international policy—as they do today.

For 24 years, the Timorese people lived under a brutal occupation, which led to the deaths of some 200,000 people—a third of the population back then. In the early years, Indonesian forces bombed the interior of the island from land, sea and air. Thousands of civilians fled their villages to the mountains, where they camped in caves.

Leo and PaulMana Leo atop the mountain where she and her family hid during the Indonesian years. She is hugging Paul, a local village kid who admires her greatly. Mana Leo, a principal, encourages Paul to stay in school.

Just a couple of weeks ago, just a couple of weeks before Beirut and Paris and Nigeria and Mali, I hiked through with a lovely woman named Leopoldina Guterres, known as “Mana Leo.” We climbed a steep mountain where she and her family hid during the raids. She was 7 years old when the terror began. She carried her newborn sister at her hip while her mother searched for food.

For years, Mana Leo and her family, like many, ate whatever they could find: wild beans, dried potatoes, roots and tubers. Indonesians shot thousands of Timorese. Many more died of starvation and thirst. Small graveyards are scattered across the mountain today—red crosses mark those who died fighting; white crosses denote many more who died of disease and hunger. “Sometimes seven, eight people in one family died,” Mana Leo told me. Sometimes children and parents died on the same day. There wasn’t time or means to bury them all.

These are the memories that shaped Mana Leo’s childhood, and these are the memories she still carries today. From Timor to Paris, Beirut to Kenya, Syria to Iraq and far beyond, millions of memories are imprinted in bloodstained shirts and the blistered feet of treacherous marches toward freedom and peace.

Jerry and I spent four weeks crisscrossing Timor-Leste to report on health and development. We heard stories like Mana Leo’s again and again. In 1999, the Timorese people were granted the right to vote in a referendum, and they overwhelmingly chose independence. Indonesian-backed militias retaliated in a rampage of rapes, massacres and fires that destroyed much of the country. The UN intervened, and Timor-Leste became fully independent in 2002. Thirteen years later, we find a hospitable, tolerant, forgiving, energetic population set on a better future despite the scars of its past.

I thought of Mana Leo last week in Singapore, as I threaded my way through a society evolved from its own historical scars. And I have thought of Mana Leo every day since the Beirut and Paris attacks. Forty years later, the memory of terror still brings tears to Mana Leo’s eyes, but she is alive.

In fact, she is more alive than ever. She is a grade school principal, the manager of a reforestation project and the mother of a house that feeds and shelters 20 neighbors and relatives entrusted to her care. Mana Leo can never bring back the dead. But she can make her world a better place than the departed ever had a chance to see.

Surviving the past has given Mana Leo an unbridled will to live in peace. And that will for peace may well be the final triumph over terror.

 

Reporting from Timor-Leste was supported by a fellowship through the International Reporting Project (IRP).

A Recipe for Roseburg Peace

Umpqua1The North Umpqua River near Roseburg

Jerry and I lived for several years in Roseburg. He worked at the local paper, The News-Review, while I went to graduate school up the road in Eugene. It’s sickening to hear what happened yesterday. That is not the Roseburg I knew.

Some of the best friends in life we found in Roseburg. Most of us have since gone our various ways, but the town remains in memory the spot where these friendships began, and grew. (And Roseburg is not nearly as tiny or detached as many national news reports, I think, are making it to be.)

We spent our weekends outdoors, as often as possible. We hiked the 79-mile North Umpqua Trail, through old-growth forests and alongside waters where steelhead spawn. We reported and photographed that trek for a five-part series that ran in The News-Review.

I grew my first herb garden on a tiny patch of dirt along the side of our rental house on a steep hill. We used to walk down that hill all the time, toward McMenamin’s Roseburg Station, meeting good friends for beers. On sunny days, we’d sit outside on the patio, grateful for clear skies.

I trained for two marathons in Roseburg, running long miles into the countryside, often in a drizzle. But the air smelled so fresh, so green, in way that happens only in forests. Then I’d get home and jump in the hot shower and relieve myself from the chill.

Jerry and I married on a ranch on a river in the hills nearby. Guests stayed in cabins, and we danced until late at night. We had kegs of Red Hook and local wine. We roasted a pig and told the caterers what we wanted them to make: corn, beans, olive salsa and so much more. We ordered nine different cakes from a local bakery called Tomaselli’s.

Umpqua Community College gave me my first teaching jobs. I spent part of a summer helping kids create their own newspaper, and later in the year, I taught Southeast Asian cooking classes to adults. I remember spending hours in the area’s Asian groceries, searching for the obscure ingredients I needed; then more hours in the kitchen prepping dishes. I wasn’t paid for all those hours, but I did it because I wanted to share what I knew—and the class greeted me each week with so much enthusiasm. I miss those days. I miss having all those hours to cook for people who were so interested.

One of the recipes I taught was tapioca. Many people don’t like tapioca, or they think they don’t like tapioca. But this one has coconut milk and mint, and sometimes fruit. It’s mild and gentle, calm and cool. Several months back, here in New Mexico, I took it to a Sunday brunch—a regular get-together started by an exceptionally generous host who opens his doors once a month to crowds of people. We eat salmon, drink coffee and talk. The tapioca was a hit, shared with strangers, and it was the impetus for new conversation. And it makes me think: what a way to symbolize peace.

I posted the recipe a few years ago, and I’m going to offer it again today. It’s simple but rich, a little bit sweet and full of comfort. And sometimes that’s just the thing we all need.

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Coconut Tapioca

Ingredients:
1/2 cup tapioca pearls
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup palm or white sugar (more if you want a sweeter dish)
pinch of salt
1 cup chopped fruit
handful of chopped mint leaves
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

Method:
Rinse the tapioca pearls under cold water and drain well. Pour into a saucepan with water, sugar and salt, and bring to a boil. Stir constantly (the tapioca burns easily on the bottom of the pan) and cook until tapioca pearls turn translucent. I have found the cooking time varies dramatically depending on the type and size of tapioca as well as altitude. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid is absorbed and the tapioca has become gelatinous while still maintaining some of the pearls’ shape. Taste, remove from heat and stir in coconut milk. Let cool until the mixture is firm. Top with fruit, mint and sesame seeds. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

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Time to Harvest — Part 3: Simple Tomato Sauce

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Welcome! If you’re just coming aboard now, I’ve been doing a three-part series on end-of-summer harvest recipes. This is the third installment, and perhaps the easiest. But it’s my annual staple. It’s the one item I aim to make every late summer because, come January, nothing rivals the summery freshness locked into a simple garden harvest sauce.

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We planted six or seven varieties of tomatoes this summer in all shapes, colors and sizes. They’re still coming. Some are super-sweet, others are prettier than they are flavorful. I took a big bowl of them all (my bad: I didn’t measure; probably, roughly, 16 cups?). The point is: you want as many summer sweet tomatoes as you can find. More will never hurt you, in this recipe.

Now, before we begin, remember two things about this sauce: 1) It’s quick and easy to make, and that’s the key. This isn’t your simmer-for-hours sauce that eats into your entire weekend. This is your get-those-tomatoes-processed-now sauce, which still tastes great whenever you open the jar. 2) This is not meant to be a thick, hearty spaghetti-style sauce. This is a BASE sauce aimed at bringing summer flavor to your winter meals. Use it in tomato-based soups, stews, pasta dishes or whatever you want. It will be thin in consistency, but big in flavor.

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Take all your cleaned tomatoes and put them in a food processor. Purée. Set aside.

Heat a little olive oil in a saucepan and sauté a thinly sliced red onion (or 2 or 3, depending on size and the number of tomatoes you have and your liking of onion). When the onion is nicely browned but not burnt or bitter, add a few minced garlic cloves. Stir and remove soon from the heat. Do not burn the garlic or it will turn bitter. You want no bitterness in this sauce.

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Mix together the tomatoes, garlic and onion. Add salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Heat on the stovetop until the sauce just begins to simmer for a minute or two at most. Control the heat. Remove. That’s it. Use immediately, freeze or can. If you choose the latter, try this in winter when all thoughts of summer are far away. As I said, the sauce will be thin; mix with whatever other ingredients you prefer. But the tomato-ey flavor should take you right back to the garden in September.

Time to Harvest — Part 2: Sweet Pepper-Pine Nut Spread

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I LOVE sweet peppers. We have a variety of hot things growing in our garden right now, and a few small sweet items as well. But I wanted more—enough to make a healthy batch of this rich pepper spread. So I visited Old Town Farm in Albuquerque where customers pick their own. Rows and rows of peppers—and grasshoppers eager to beat you to the goods. Get in there soon!

I came home with a big bowlful of the radiant red beauties pictured above. Key to this recipe is the mingling of sweet and smokey flavors… with garlic. When the in-laws visited several weeks ago, they left us a giant garlic ristra straight from the origins: Gilroy, California. (They live just a few miles away in Morgan Hill. Some days, when the wind blows, garlic scents permeate the home, inside and out.)

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The recipe is really quite simple:

Sweet Red Pepper-Pine Nut Spread

Ingredients:
12 (approximately) large sweet red peppers, or a medley of your choosing
1 head of garlic
1 (or more) cup pine nuts
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
Salt, pepper and hot Hungarian paprika to taste

Method:
Rinse the peppers and place them on a hot grill along with the whole head of garlic. You want to char the peppers so the flesh inside turns tender and juicy. Grill the garlic until the skin is charred and crispy and the cloves are softened but not burnt.

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry RedfernMeanwhile, sauté the pine nuts on the stovetop, stirring constantly. You want them nicely golden, not burnt, not bitter. Quickly remove from heat as soon as they start to brown.

Next, sauté the onion in a bit of oil until it is nicely softened. Set aside.

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Remove the garlic and peppers from the grill when finished. Allow the peppers to cool, then remove the skins (which should slide off relatively easily). Remove stems (and seeds if you desire), and chop peppers roughly. Place into a bowl or food processor along with 3-4 of the roasted garlic cloves (more if the head is small) and the onion. Add the toasted pine nuts.

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Purée until creamy. Add salt, pepper and paprika to taste.

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Serve with crackers, vegetables or anything you desire.

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Time to Harvest – Part 1: Ratatouille

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry RedfernTime—it’s fleeing! And I can’t catch it.

That’s the way I feel lately. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this, about the way time expands and contracts depending on who we are, where we are and what we’re doing. Our perceptions of time depend on all the factors that define us as individuals. (There’s some great science reporting exploring the nuances of time, if you’re interested in listening.)

When we’re young, the world is new and every minute is filled with the possibility of a whole new landscape that we can map and create in our minds. We’re just beginning to sort it all out. The more we focus on the “new,” the slower we perceive time to be. Remember how summer lasted forever when we were kids? To a healthy child, every moment of every day brings yet another way to experience the world. The same happens when we travel, I think—and that’s a big part of the appeal to me.

I can spend a week at home, plodding through mundane tasks (transcribing notes?!? ever tried it?!? ugh) and time passes into obscurity. A week later, I barely recall what I did or ate or saw in the hours before. A week of nothing much new feels seven times faster than a week on the road or in the field where I’m learning new things every step of the way. Routine seems to speed up our perception of time. How to slow it down? Experts say do new things, see new sights, bring newness into your world—every day.

I think that’s what most of us want: to savor our moments. To preserve the time we have. To make it count.

It occurred to me: that’s not so different from the hopes we have for our gardens. The seasons are changing, geese are honking overhead. It is time to harvest, to put our summer yields into pots and pans, jars and bins.

This is a reward: the ability to stop time in its tracks. To capture the sweetness of a summer tomato or the freshness of bell pepper by cooking it into a sauce and preserving it for future times—colder, darker times when summer light is long gone, and so is its flavor. But then, we can pull that jar from the freezer and taste the fruits of an earlier time.

Here, I’ll offer up three garden harvest recipes in a three-part series. Today: ratatouille. Next week: sweet pepper-pine nut spread. And finally: simple tomato sauce.

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry RedfernNow, I make no claims to French authenticity in this recipe—but I’ve tested it on friends with French roots, and ooh la la, this dish pleased. And anyway, I’m not so much about authenticity as I am about whatever works.

A couple of keys, I’ve found: recipes vary tremendously on the suggested herbs. Some merely call for a bit of oregano or basil. But I’ve been using a hearty mixture based on this recipe. And I’ve been using fresh from the garden—because it’s here, it’s abundant, and why not? The herbs make this dish what it is.

Also: this is a use-what-you-have recipe, so there are no hard-and-fast rules about amounts. You might have one eggplant or you might have 3. You might have a pound of tomatoes, or six. Below are the amounts I used most recently.

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Ratatouille (a personalized version)

Ingredients:
4 medium-sized eggplants
2 yellow onions
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 large zucchini and squash (green and yellow; I also had pattypan)
6-7 medium or large tomatoes
4 bell peppers
A few glugs of red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for sautéing
1 handful fresh basil
1 handful fresh oregano
1 handful fresh rosemary
1 handful fresh summer savory
1 handful fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried fennel

Method:
Key to ratatouille is sautéing each vegetable separately before combining and cooking in the oven. First, prepare each vegetable by chopping into small cubes or slices.

Heat a bit of the olive oil and sauté the onions until slightly browned. Remove.

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry RedfernAdd more oil to the pan and repeat the above step separately for each remaining vegetable—peppers, eggplant, squash—except the tomatoes. Leave those for later.

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry RedfernHeat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, prepare the herb mixture. Place all of the herbs along with salt and fennel into a food processor (or mince with a knife) until you have a fine, aromatic mixture.

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry RedfernPour all of the cooked vegetables into an oven-safe dish (I used a cast iron Dutch oven), add a glug of oil, a few glugs of red wine. Stir well. Add the herb mixture and stir. Add the garlic, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Stir. If the vegetables are very dry, add just a tiny bit of water. Cover and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Taste. The flavors should blend well, and the juices should not be too runny. If you want a creamier texture, add a bit of butter and enjoy.

Photo for use on Ramblingspoon.com ONLY. All other uses and copying prohibited. ©2015/Jerry RedfernStay tuned for next week: sweet red pepper-pine nut sauce.