Lao Sabai

I remember the very first trip. It was August, which meant sticky days and a heat that swelled until the skies opened with a gush of rain. The rice paddies sparkled in a light I still can’t adequately describe. Radiant. Brilliant. Electric. Cliché. They were the very definition of green.

It was our first anniversary. We’d been working in Phnom Penh, and Jerry surprised me with tickets to Laos. We had just a few short days. We stayed first in Vientiane, visiting Buddhist temples trimmed in gold. We drank wild fruit smoothies at a mom-and-pop shop with a blender out front and a concrete picnic table where we could sit and watch the life walk by. Breakfast was homemade noodle soup on the Mekong with thick Lao coffee and sweet, condensed milk. The pace was slow, and there were no smartphones or Facebook or Twitter to detract from the moment.

Mid-trip, we flew to Phonsavanh on a tiny plane. When we landed, the airline staff informed us our return flight would be canceled because government officials had fully booked the next plane out. So even before we made it to town, we were forced to stay an extra day—and I called the office in Phnom Penh to say I’d be back late.

We trekked through mud at the Plain of Jars, and stayed at a little guesthouse with an en suite bathroom and a broken pipe. Our shower was a bucket. An old mosquito net covered the bed. And I’m pretty sure we had rats in the room at night. There was no 24-hour electricity at that time, so we spent the evening on the guesthouse porch, drinking lao lao by candlelight with another guest. We ate at a little restaurant that served a heap of fried noodles on a giant plate with a military spoon marked “U.S.” I bought that spoon. I still have it today. I had no idea then how much of my later life I’d dedicate to the investigation of the US military role in Laos.

There is a limitation in the work we do as journalists: our audience sees the end report, but it doesn’t see the everyday in between. It doesn’t see sunset on the river, and it doesn’t taste fresh mango with sticky rice at the end of a spicy meal. Our readers don’t see all the little things that feed us with the intrigue that propels our story, makes us want to go back again and again. And again.

As many of you know, we’ve been working on a documentary film, the extension of our book. But even films and books have these same limitations. The story centers on problems; the dramatic question never rests on “a day in the life.”

So Jerry created this: a day in the life of Laos as we have seen. From sunrise to sunset, with rivers and monks and children at school; markets and temples, motos and boats.

It’s Lao Sabai: happy, healthy, relaxed. It’s the underlying story we experience every day that makes us love a place.

 

Last Suppers

The summer before my last semester of Journalism School (a long, long time ago), I had a fellowship at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. My roommates and I lived in a sprawling apartment complex with a pool and hibiscus bushes in a tropical neighborhood surrounded by damp forests and dark lagoons. I kept my eyes peeled for alligators when I ran those roads.

Half a mile from Poynter was (is) the Dali Museum. I came home from that summer with a framed print of Dali’s surreal Sacrament of the Last Supper as a gift for my mother, a lifelong Catholic. That picture now hangs on the wall behind the dining table where my dad eats most every breakfast and lunch (but not dinner, because dinner he eats downstairs in the dining hall with other residents of his retirement community).

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Last Suppers—appropriate, this Easter week. But the Last Suppers I’m thinking most about are those we cannot predict, and those that ultimately rest in memory as the final meals connecting us to people and places that shape who are are.

My Last Supper with Aunt Helen was a picnic celebration of my mom’s 80th birthday. I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the last meal Helen and I shared, with plates on patio tables and dozens of others enjoying the warm sun of a summer afternoon in 2016.

Aunt Helen’s heart failed a few days ago. I was lucky to have talked with her last week, while she was still alert. And I was lucky to have seen her asleep, peaceful, just a couple of days before her death. But the outdoor party in 2016 will be my last memory of us eating and talking together.

A few months before that, Jerry and I emptied out my parents’ house of 35 years—the house where I’d grown up—as they transitioned to a smaller, manageable apartment with no stairs. Their house grew barren as, piece by piece, every table and chair and couch and bed disappeared.

It was just the two of us after a long day of lifting, lugging, and scrubbing. Dinnertime came, along with a big hunger. We still had a couple of old lawn chair cushions, so we spread one across the concrete floor of the screen porch my mother had loved for its sun and warmth and proximity to the trees and birds. We bought a few curries (unlikely to have ever been served in that house before) from an Indian market up the road, and we ate on the floor as spring’s cold, crisp light started to fall.

It was only 7 months later when I bought a carton of red lentil soup one night at the grocery store near the hospice where my mom slept through her last days. I spent the night on a pull-out bed in her room, and I ate the soup at the table beside her. And that was our last shared meal—I with my hot bowl of soup and she breathing steadily, asleep beside me. I don’t remember the taste of that soup, but I will never forget that meal.

That’s the thing about Last Suppers: they are ever more poignant in retrospect. Some of life’s most important meals have nothing to do with the food we eat. It’s all about the context in which we eat it.

The thing is, we often have no idea when those Last Suppers will be.

Still Living in Action

Mekong River, Vientiane, Laos, the evening we met Lee

I haven’t posted here in a long time. Quite a long time—but I’m back to the blog. In the weeks to come, I’ll talk about where I’ve been and why you haven’t seen me, but right now I want to tell you about Lee.

I met Lee on the Mekong River in Vientiane one muggy night a while back, as we drank through the sunset at outdoor tables with pretty little blue-and-white checkered cloths. The sun dropped like a firebomb, flashing across the water that divides Thailand, the place where Lee was posted 50 years ago as a young aviator, from Laos, the land he helped bomb to smithereens. Except, back then, Lee didn’t know where his bombs fell or what they hit. He told me he thought he was bombing Vietnam.

Guys like Lee never really left the war; they never got all the way home. They’re casualties not counted among the injured or dead. They’re not missing in action—they’re living with it, still, half a century on.

I’ve met veterans before who can’t quite reconcile what their country did to them, and what they did to another country on behalf of their own. Some have married and settled along this river, which forms a sort of demarcation line between their coming-of-age as warriors, and the older age when the consequences of past actions roost in the mind. Others, like Lee—a North Dakota cattle rancher—split their time between the two countries that have shaped them into the people they are today.

I didn’t formally interview Lee. I don’t have his full name, or address, or phone number. I have only the happy-hour stories he brought when he sat at our table. He knew I was a journalist, and he said that’s why he wanted to talk. He said it’s hard to find Americans who understand his story. His narrative adds to an archive of evidence on the US war in Laos, which began with attacks on anti-aircraft positions in the north on June 9, 1964. It escalated with the start of Operation Barrel Roll on Dec. 14 of the same year. Over the following nine years, it became history’s largest bombing campaign, executed mostly in secret. Between 1964 and 1973, US forces and their allies flew more than 580,000 raids over Laos, the equivalent of one bombing run every eight minutes for nine years. It was guys like Lee who ended up dropping, all told, more than 4 billion pounds of bombs—more than all bombs dropped during World War II. That made Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country on earth.

No one knows how many people died during those raids, but 20,000 Laotians have been killed and injured by US bombs in the decades since. That’s because an estimated 30 percent of all ordnance dropped didn’t detonate when it fell. Even after decades of clearance, millions of bombs remain in the soil today, a hazard to all. Sometimes farmers hit bombs with their hoes. Sometimes a mother lights a cooking fire and it explodes. In the far north, I interviewed a woman named Mai who told me her family was plotting a new garden when her teen-aged daughter hit something in the ground that went “clink.” She dug to see what it was, and a length of steel appeared—more and more of it, the farther she dug. That’s when Mai started to worry, thinking, “It’s not just metal, it’s a bomb—and it’s unexploded.” When a clearance team detonated that 750-pound bomb the following year, I ducked for cover a mile away, listening to the pat-pat-pat-pat-pat of shrapnel, as dust and debris fell around me.

Lee told me he never knew he was killing civilians in Laos when he dropped his bombs. He never knew little Lao kids would continue to die decades later.

Lee had been stationed at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, a key launch pad for US planes during the war. He said his job was to follow instructions: aim the plane at the coordinates he’d been given, drop the bombs, then loop back to base in Thailand. In an era before Google Earth and GPS, Lee assumed his targets were all in Vietnam. But today we know better: search the National Archives, and you’ll find records for hundreds of thousands of bombing raids with dates, times, weather conditions, airplane models, target coordinates, and types of bombs dropped—in Laos.

That was the “Secret War,” unknown to the American public at the time, and not fully understood by those fighting it.

But there were days when Lee did realize he was hitting Laos. If, for some reason, he couldn’t drop his payload on his official target, he said he dumped his load somewhere—anywhere—over Laos before landing in Thailand. He said that’s what everyone did. He remembered the way the guys on base all thought: We’re bombers. We drop loads and come home empty. That’s our mission. Nobody fails.

Lee remembered leaving Ubon in planes packed with bombs weighing 500 pounds, 2,000 pounds—it depended on the mission. They flew high enough that people on the ground never knew the bombs were coming. But Lee saw the explosions from more than 30,000 feet when planes beside him dropped their loads. He still had vivid recollections: giant mushrooms of fire rising from the rolling forests. He called the blasts “impressive,” but not in a positive way.

Lee said some veterans still don’t fully understand what was happening at the time. They’ve always known the names of their air bases, but they’ve never understood where their bombs landed. “They didn’t know where they were at,” Lee repeated, like a song stuck on a single line. “They didn’t know where they were at. They didn’t know where they were at.”

Lee learned where he “was at” when he returned to Southeast Asia several years ago and recognized his own history in the stories that Laotians told about the war. He nodded toward the wife of the bar owner who had brought us olives and pickles to nibble as we talked. Lee said she was a child when the bombs started falling on her home in southern Laos. Vientiane, this French colonial capital on the Mekong, was safe. It was refuge. “She had to come here,” Lee said.

But the rest of the country was pummeled like no other in human history. We’ve seen the scars: plains of craters that stretch for miles in a landscape so altered that geographers are studying such bombscapes as a mark of the anthropocene.

When war strikes that hard, half a century isn’t enough time to recover—not for the land, not for Lee. Not for many of the people who live here.

Lee told me he returns to Laos regularly, to think. That’s what brought him to the Mekong the night we met. I asked him what he had in mind for the future, and he said he really didn’t know. He had a wife back home. He had a ranch full of cattle. But he also had these long, hard memories in Laos.

Lee’s head was stuck between two worlds—one that knew almost nothing about the long-ago secret war; the other with lives still shaped and defined by the bombs he dropped when he was a kid flying high in the sky.

Lee couldn’t see his targets 50 years ago. But he saw them in the aftermath.

_______

This, all of this, is why Jerry and I have decided to turn our book into a documentary film. It’s taken a few years to gather footage, and we’re now in the final stages of production. We launched the website and trailer last week.

Mekong River, southern Laos

The divisions that unite us

fullsizerender

I woke up Wednesday feeling disoriented. I woke up today realizing exactly where I am: facing a vast crevasse that affects us all. This is our common ground. This is the turf we share. No matter which side we are on, this rupture unites us now, as Americans. And we must fight to fix it.

It does little good for any one of us to tell another, “Come join me on this side of the divide.” In 20-some years of journalism, I know that preaching one’s politics changes nothing. But listening, and finding the words to help others do the same, is the only possible path toward change. The only way to eliminate our divisions.

A few years back, I made three separate trips to Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, which is now an independent, oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea. I’ve been thinking of that place all week. I went there to teach local journalists how to craft narrative stories, and how to write proposals for grants.

The capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, sits on the sea. The city is an island of prosperity in a nation of need. I remember my first glimpse of The Wall—or, more accurately, The Walls—long, serpentine barriers, cleaving the city into disparate parts. The government built these walls to separate views of sightly and unsightly things. I was told that people call it “The Wall of Happiness.” It’s what you see when you travel from the airport to the city center. It’s what you see when you travel along the shore. On the sightly side are skyscrapers and beautiful new walking malls, parks and outdoor cafés, and the construction site of a giant tower that bears the familiar name of Trump. On the unwanted side are slums and old neighborhoods, and the people who inhabit these crumbling homes, amid wrecking crews prepared for massive demolitions.

Every day, I went to class and learned the stories of my students. They were all working journalists in a country whose government despises them. I learned of women smacked down in the streets. I learned of men beaten to a pulp, imprisoned, tortured. I learned of husbands whose wives were threatened with violence just because these men go to work and write. And I learned of curfews and whispers, and climates of anxiety in which everyone—journalists and all citizens alike—feared speaking to friends in public because someone was always listening, watching, waiting for missteps against the regime. I had one student who slept in the building where our classes took place because he could not walk the streets freely. He sought refuge in my workshop. That building was the only place in Baku where he said he felt safe.

Azerbaijan’s leader is a businessman who is notorious for his riches. His country is notorious for its oppression. When a prominent journalist investigated the grand wealth of the country’s powers that be, she was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison (after years of suffering repeated threats, harassment and public humilitation). She was set free earlier this year. Her case sparked an international outcry that only furthered the investigations she had started. As for me, I have likely seen my last of Azerbaijan. A few months after my final workshop in Baku, the government raided the offices of the organization that had hired me, and the group halted its work inside the country (a scene of events the US State Department called harmful for Azerbaijan’s democracy).

I write these things today because this is what happens in a country that divides its people and shutters its press. And it’s not just Azerbaijan; it is everywhere journalists work in fear. Donald Trump campaigned on pledges to abolish press freedom. He has already blocked reporters’ access to his first political meetings as president-elect. Watchdog organizations call our new leader an enemy “unlike any we have seen in modern presidential history.” This is a grave danger to our future as a democratic society, no matter where we stand on our country’s divide today.

Last week, we saw Americans—our fellow Americans—selling and buying and wearing T-shirts condoning the lynching of journalists. “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” We live in a world where reporting is disdained, where writers and photographers are killed for what they do. More than 1,200 journalists worldwide have died on the job in the past 25 years. Politics is the deadliest of all beats. Is this really the country we want? Have we really thought this through?

I have lived among many Americans who gripe about “the media.” I grew up with relatives who did (and do) the same—and often for rightful reasons. But the silencing of people and the press is a threat to all citizens, no matter which political side a person is on. There can be no flow of ideas, no informed citizenry, no right to democratic choice in a country that muzzles its own. This is why the freedoms to speak and write and assemble are so critical, our founders enshrined them in our Constitution.

There is a lot of talk this week about the many ways in which journalists failed in this campaign. I say we failed long before Trump and Clinton took to the stage, and we must do better. But we must maintain the right to continue our work without fear. We failed for years to cover the growing gaps between Americans, and the deepening resentments of families forgotten amid the rise of an extraordinarily minute elite. We relied on numbers and polls, but failed to put human experience and emotion into context. We offered data, when people needed explanations and stories to which they could relate.

America’s divisions have not surprised me, because I have seen them all my life. I grew up in sheltered suburbia, in a neighborhood of posh homes on the edge of one of America’s most violent and segregated cities. I have lived in a boom-and-bust coal mining town to which masses of jobseekers flock whenever the market offers a scintilla of hope. I have lived in a Northwest logging town, where families speak of the dead and dying mills that sustained their grandparents and parents—but not themselves or their children.

I live now just a few paces from a reservation line. The people who first dug this soil and watched this sky lived on this land centuries before others concocted absurd definitions of “native” and “immigrant.” My grandfather was an “illegal” all his American life. He was a European-born sailor who lived under the radar, in the American Midwest, for decades. But he was white, and so am I, and now, by biological luck alone, I have fewer worries than millions who fear the sociological consequences of skin color and human emotion.

As a journalist, I have spent most my career in places defined by division. And this is my greatest fear: that our American divisions will never heal. That our Walls of Happiness and Walls of Despair will grow higher with time. I have seen how a spark of malice can burn into an inferno of lasting destruction. That’s what happens in societies that hate and divide.

I’ve racked my brain this week wondering if we, as Americans, can repair the ruptures already in place. We are so different, it often seems. And yet, when I write stories about people, their lives and loves, their joys and fears, I find allies across my Facebook feed—among the left and right, liberal and conservative, foreign and domestic. It is human emotion that unites. It is connection to human commonalities.

So that is what I will try to do, from here forth. I will try to get up each morning and write not about the ways Trump can and will affect the climate—but how his policies affect people. Not about the Trump approach to international aid—but how that approach shapes the refugee dinner table. Not about gender equality in Trump’s new world—but about individual women as they live their lives, feeling the same human emotions each and every one of us experiences in one context or another.

Joyce’s Peanuts

joyce-peanuts-rsJuru Joyce is a South Sudanese vendor who sells beans and peanuts at the market in Adjumani town, in northern Uganda. I’ve come to talk with her specifically about those peanuts. As some of you know, I have spent the past couple of weeks in Uganda, on an IWMF fellowship to report on the South Sudanese refugee crisis. The situation has overwhelmed Uganda’s refugee settlements since fighting flared in July. And during my time reporting here, I have learned that a common food is central to this cross-border story: peanut paste, a.k.a. peanut butter. Everyone eats it, if they can. If they are lucky enough to have it (many recent refugees don’t have money to buy it, and it’s not part of the rations they receive in the settlements). Peanut paste is a key ingredient in so many dishes eaten by Ugandans and Sudanese alike. It’s a symbol of unity, and also of the losses suffered in war. So I go to Joyce with questions in mind. When I step up to her stall, I don’t expect the story she reveals—though I am not surprised. I’ve heard a lot in the past two weeks.

In 1991, Joyce fled warfare in her homeland, seeking refuge across the border in northern Uganda. Like thousands of others, she lived for years in a Ugandan refugee settlement until one stormy night in 2004. That night, she suffered a blow like no other. Soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army raided her settlement, kidnapping children to be swept into their notorious war machine. Joyce fled to the bushes and survived. But the LRA captured her kids, and those of her brother and neighbor—10 in all. She has heard or seen nothing of them since. After that, Joyce says, she wanted nothing to do with a refugee settlement ever again. So she moved to Adjumani town and struggled to make a business. With the help of a charity, she was able to start selling beans and peanuts in the market. And she earns enough money now to eat three meals a day.

More than 1 million South Sudanese refugees are now living in neighboring countries; 185,000 of those have arrived since July. Every day, thousands more arrive at the border. In just two days last week, 6,715 refugees crossed from South Sudan to Uganda. 6,715 in two days! The UNHCR is drastically short of funds for this crisis, and the World Food Program has had to cut rations for anyone but the newest and most vulnerable recipients. The newest refugees receive hot meals of porridge in the morning, and posho (maize) with beans in the afternoon. Those living in settlements currently receive rations of sorghum, maize, fortified corn/soy blend (CSB), and oil and salt if it is available. Time and again, when I ask refugees about food, they tell me how much they miss, and how much they need—for flavor, for nutrition—the peanut paste they no longer have.

The stories I hear from refugees are heartbreaking. One day, during a rare break on the ground, I sit with an IWMF administrator at the entrance to Nyumanzi transit center, where thousands of new arrivals camp in tents while awaiting transfer to a settlement. My colleague (who is not a journalist) remarks how difficult it is to insert herself into someone else’s life and story, asking questions and taking pictures. She wonders how it felt as a journalist. I tell her yes, it is difficult, but I stop taking pictures when people say no, and I don’t force an interview on someone who doesn’t want it. There is also a flip side to the perceived intrusion. I tell her about the many times I have worked on stories involving people with tragic histories and NGOs trying to help them. And I tell her that often, NGOs aim to protect their “clients’” privacy by keeping journalists away (or regulating how interviews are conducted). The right to privacy is a legitimate right. But so is the right to free speech. And I tell her that I often find people really want to share their stories—even after NGOs or authorities try to prevent them. They want an audience. They want people to know what they have endured. And they want someone to listen because no one ever has. That right—that need—deserves just as much respect as the right to keep a story private.

To all the South Sudanese and Ugandans who have shared their lives with me this month, I thank you. I hope your words will reach many eyes and ears, and people who want to listen.

nyumanzi-waiting-in-liners

Will GMOs feed the world? Did anyone ask the hungry?

Thi Thi Oo-8Thi Thi Oo harvests mustard greens on her land in Shan State, Myanmar, where most villagers spend their entire lives working the farm. Consequently, locals say, “the land is tired.” As families grow, they divide their farmlands among children and grandchildren. So much intensive farming has led to pests, poor harvests and over-use of pesticides. But the nearest markets are many hours away by trail or train, and locals grow almost everything they eat. For decades under the previous military junta, villagers had little access to the outside world. Elders say they don’t know how they will grow enough to support themselves and their cattle in the future, yet villagers of all ages say they prefer a rural subsistence life and want to continue farming on their ancestral lands.

 

For the past many years, I have spent a good lot of my time as a journalist looking at hunger, malnutrition and the future of food. And for the past many years, I have consistently found a disturbing trend: For all the energy society devotes to questions about feeding our future world, rarely are hungry people part of the conversation.

We’ve heard endless debates about GMOs, their safety and the controversies over labeling. We’ve read about agricultural technologies and new hopes for greater yields that will feed the planet’s growing population. And we’ve seen these stories accompanied by images of farmers (typically brown-skinned, dirt poor and nameless) or faceless mothers or unidentified masses of people in need. Rarely are those people quoted in the stories about them. When we as a society debate how to “feed the future,” those debates are invariably framed by the scientists, analysts, experts, writers, researchers and policymakers who speak for and about all those masses of people in need.

And so, for the past several years, I’ve made a point of asking the people I interview in the field what they think about food, the future and their greatest needs. What works, what doesn’t and why. And I have learned that a lack of food alone does not cause hunger and malnutrition; it’s everything that stands between food and the people who need it. Politics, economics, environment, education, infrastructure, tradition, gender, religion, power, conflict—they all determine when, whether and how people eat. It is not enough to produce more food or devise new ways of doing so. Successful strategies must address and incorporate all of the above. And hungry people must participate in the conversation.

This is why I wrote my latest piece for SAPIENS.

 

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

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….

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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

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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”

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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.