View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.

Happy Anniversary, King Sihamoni

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.This week, the Cambodian people celebrate King Sihamoni’s 10th year on the throne. Ten years! I can’t believe so much time has passed. Here, I share a story I wrote (included in This Way More Better) about Sihamoni’s coronation. It’s not really about food. It’s about the character of a country.

 *****

It’s the tail end of October 2004, and much of the world is tuned to the election drama of George Bush and John Kerry. But politics elsewhere take no inter-mission, and Cambodia enthrones a dancer. Norodom Sihamoni is named the country’s first new king in half a century, thus beginning a fresh chapter in the country’s saga of trouble.

A coronation is on tap, and we’re invited. Or, more accurately: we’re allowed to attend.

The 51-year-old bald-headed, ballet-dancing bachelor, the son of former king Norodom Sihanouk, returns home to Phnom Penh aer years in Paris, where he held a permanent slot as ambassador to UNESCO.

Though friends and relatives say this man lived a modest lifestyle in the French capital, his ohe Sixteenth Arrondissement lies an eternity from the squalor that engulfs his homeland. He may have chosen to ride the Metro to work like ordinary Parisians, but his new posting returns him to a palace set among millions of the world’s poorest people. It’s the same palace where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned him and his family, killinve of his siblings during their brutal regimeat was the horror from which hd, eventually alighting in Paris.

Sihamoni’s father, Sihanouk, abdicates the throne on the eve of his eighty-second birthday, citing ill healtone Council is hastily assembled and Sihamoni is quickly chosen as successor. Many describe the whole air as a Sihanouk dance to secure an heir while he still can. Rumor says that Prime Minister Hun Sen would like nothing better than to end the monarchy, a group with whom he has never gotten along.

Sihamoni, the faithful son, comes home as requested, accepting his new role with trembling hands but perfect poise. He vows to “never live apart from the beloved people.”

But the new king inherits a country in shambles. Cambodia’s millions are among Asia’s poorest, averaging less than a dollar a day in income. They have the region’s highest HIV-infection rate, and almost none of the basics of a democratic society—law and order, education, infrastructure. Street mobs punish alleged criminals when the cops and courts do not. Corruption is notorious and bribes are expected. Government slots are bought in cash and traded for power. Millions of dollars in international aid have disappeared through the years. And the United Nations calls the country a potential terrorism breeding ground. Beyond all that, the Khmer Rouge left a nation scarred, both physically and mentally. Cambodia has about twenty psychiatrists, but millions in need.

Indeed, presiding over the Kingdom of Cambodia may very well prove to be Sihamoni’s toughest dance. Perhaps that’s why the new monarch’s hands shake ever so slightly and the vein above his right temple bulges visibly as he makes his vows. “As from this happy and solemn day I shall devote my body and soul to the service of the people and the nation, pursuing the exceptional work accomplished by my august father.” at man was one of the twentieth century’s longest-lasting political players, outliving most all his friends and foes—among them, Charles de Gaulle, Kim Il Sung, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Lon Nol, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Deng Xiaoping. Though the Cambodian Constitution stipulates the king “shall reign but shall not govern,” few would deny the monarchy’s hand in political affairs.

The French enthroned Sihanouk in 1941, thinking him a malleable player. No such luck. The young king wrested independence from France, then abdicated for a life of politics. He somersaulted through years of turmoil and political alliances. Sihanouk named, outlawed, and eventually sided with the Khmer Rouge, when the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia. That alliance ended aer the Khmer Rouge took control, imprisoned the royal family, killed several of Sihanouk’s children, and instigated a genocide than estimated 1.7 million Cambodians dead.

When the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, Sihanouk created a government in exile and again allied with the Khmer Rouge to fight against the Vietnamese-backed government and its star, current Prime Minister Hun Sen. Peace accords were signed in 1991, though the Khmer Rouge civil war continued. Enter thawed election, Sihanouk’s rethroning in 1993, the eventual collapse of the Khmer Rouge from within, and a decade of brilliantly corrupt politics.

Cambodians often call Sihanouk their beloved ruler, a father whose beatific portrait still adorns homes and offices. Yet others are not so enamored of the man. The most outspoken will say they blame the former king for Cambodia’s long-term troubles. In the past decade, Sihanouk has spent more time in Beijing and Pyongyang than in Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace: people know he’s gone because the palace lights are snuffed when the king is away. He has departed for medical care, political protest, and “self-imposed exile,” frequently criticizing his country’s government, still run by Hun Sen. To some, the king’s absence is abandonment. They would rather he stayed and fought the bully government for his people. Instead, he left the people to wrestle their demons alone.

This is a country that accords its king divine status. While Cambodians hate to insult their heritage, the most vocal ask: Would a godking allow such excruciating poverty and institutional corruption? Would he permit the continued rule of a prime minister largely viewed as an ogre, one who cares more for his Vietnamese friends than for his own people? Would not a godking intervene?

These are the questions Cambodians quietly ask about their new King Sihamoni. In reality, they know little about this man who has spent so much time abroad—attending high school in Prague, studying cinematography in North Korea, and practicing choreography in Paris. Some think Sihamoni more foreign than Khmer. Local chatter wonders why the new monarch has neither wife at his side nor hair on his head (this fashion of Paris is a sign of mourning among Buddhists). Some hope he’s a good Buddhist, “married to the people.” His vows to stick to home are a grand and welcome divergence from his father’s style. But most Cambodians, a patient lot, will wait and see whether Sihamoni is up to the task of dancing through the Cambodian mud. It’s hard to dance in the mud.

“It has only been a few days. It is too early,” says a Phnom Penh moto-taxi driver named Thierry. Cambodia’s current government resembles Communism, he says, “but I am a democrat.” He wants to know whether the new king will uphold his political ideals.

“If he is good, he muss country’s problems,” says a restaurateur on the Phnom Penh riverfront, who believes the true kings were Suryavarman, Jayavarman, and their fellow architects of the Angkor empire a thousand years ago. Everyone else has let him down. The restaurateur thinks Sihanouk should have stopped the political impasse that left Cambodia without a functional government for nearly a year after the July 2003 election. In the end, a coalition was formed between Hun Sen’s party and the opposition. Hun Sen secured five more years at the helm, and the people’s outlook reached another low. “Cambodian democracy is not real,” the restaurateur tells me, explaining that loudmouthed Cambodians who oppose the status quo ultimately face three options: exile, arrest, or death. “I do not like to speak against my king,” he says, but he wonders whether Sihamoni can—or will—stand against such systematic wrongs.

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.*****

Yet none of that skepticism is apparent when Sihamoni visits Kompong Speu province, the first of his promised meetings in the countryside, just four days after his coronation. There, he navigates a dusty courtyard, greeting thousands of Cambodians who left home and school and farm to see him. It takes the king more than half an hour to reach his podium, so many hands does he shake and babies does he cuddle. He wears a simple gray suit, bowing and smiling, blessing the aged and disabled.

It’s a journey up the aisle, followed by a short speech, strikingly similar to hundreds Sihanouk made before him. Sihamoni acts as expected—which is precisely why many Cambodians wonder whether he will, in years to comet across the royal stage and into the wings of another country, a mere shadow of his father.

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.*****

In those last days of October, Phnom Penh prepares for an event that hasn’t happened in fifty years. Red carpets are unfurled, the palace is painted, and a royal crown and sword are ordered, to replace those lost during Pol Pot’s time. The Cambodian flag flutters through a typically tropical breeze. And Sihamoni’s portrait is raised—in some cases, alone; in others, right beside his aged father’s.

The three-day gala begins with official and religious rites—lots of candles and incense and prayers by the country’s top monks. Sihamoni’s parents bathe him with holy water from the mountains near Angkor, in a ceremony invoking the divine spirits of ancient kings for their latest incarnation. He ascends the throne to the sounds of traditional Khmer music and the blowing of conch shells, following a parade of Brahmin priests carrying all manner of traditional, ceremonial offerings—a horsetail whip, a house cat, fresh vegetables, and Buddha statues. After accepting his duties before an audience of dignitaries, monks, and journalists, Sihamoni signs the pardons of eighty-eight prisoners. Then he carefully removes his spectacles and bows to a bevy of cameramen, mouthing: “Merci beaucoup. Thank you.”

That night, as on every night of the coronation ceremonies, masses of people swarm the Phnom Penh riverfront, picnicking and gathering to see the palace aglow. Fireworks crackle in the night sky, causing several Cambodians to jump from the memory of ear-cracking booms that, in recent times, meant disturbance and death.

On the last day of coronation festivities, Sihamoni appears solemn while praying in the palace’s Silver Pagoda, so named for its floor of five thousand silver tiles. It’s a small, austere ceremony. The king wears loafers and his guards dress in silk suits with fraying gold threads. A couple of bodyguards tsk-tsk a neglected flowerbed, and the scent of a leaky sewer hose tinges the air. But the new monarch smiles a lot and leaves the impression of a very nice and gentle man.

After prayers, the king pays homage to his ancestors’ stupas on the palace grounds, carefully laying jasmine wreaths on each tastefully carved memorial. Then he kneels and prays some more, clasping a matchbox, lighting candles to the monarchs who came before him and stuffing incense sticks into silver chalices. Palm trees rustle in the background and swarms of pigeons flap overhead.

Sihamoni exits the palace gate to a waiting convertible and thousands of soldiers, police officers, and schoolchildren who dutifully wave flags and posters in his honor. After a short public ride in the Mercedes, he gives hist speech to the nation while standing beneath a golden parasol.

When he finishes, the throngs quickly clear and dozens of scavengers comb the littered square between the Royal Palace and Tonle Sap River. One boy stuffs a squashed loaf of bread into his mouth. Others collect the sticks tacked to the backs of Sihamoni posters; they will use the wood for cooking fires.

A ten-year-old boy named Peak Kaday collects recyclable plastic water bottles, filling a rice sack as tall as his body. He could earn 1,000 riel, about 25 cents, for that sack. But it costs that same amount for a motorbike-taxi home, so he begs for more money. When I ask what he thinks of his new king, Peak Kaday gazes across the lawn to a giant portrait of Sihamoni’s bald head, hanging from the palace. “He’s French,” the boy says, before hoisting his bag and trundling on.

That night, the square fills again with Phnom Penh residents who were not allowed to attend the king’s speech and accompanying ceremonies, but find his coronation an excuse to party anyway. In front of the palace, where each corner and every angle is lit with a hundred lightbulbs, women and kids clutch baskets atop their heads and bushels in their laps, filled with snacks for sale—banana fritters, fried spiders, steamed taro, roasted peanuts, handmade spring rolls, pickled mango. A swarm of humanity jams the riverfront for hours. For the next two nights, just north of the Royal Palace, music warbles through loudspeakers and floodlights illuminate a small stage in the park. And there, Cambodians dance a ballet for the love of their king.

But on the third night, everything changes. For quite some time, the street lights fail to turn on. The park is dark. And the palace returns to its familiar murk.

View from the coronation ceremony for Cambodian King Sihamoni in 2004.

Back Story: Chicken

Issue5Shortly before we left for Asia in spring, I got a call from Denise Landis, founding editor of The Cook’s Cook. She asked me to write a story—on anything I wanted, any length, any style, but reflecting my food experiences. A story written with an anthropological eye (as we both share a background in anthropology).

“A Story of Chicken” is published in the October-November 2014 issue. I’d like to share the piece with you—the article itself (p. 43-48), as well as a bit of the back story. As a writer, I’m always eager to hear the deets behind other writers’ stories: how their pieces came about, why they structured their writing the way they did and what thoughts went into the production part of the story.

Why did I decide to write about chicken? Chicken didn’t immediately come to mind. I had to think a while—a couple of months, it turns out. I had to calculate the best fit. As a freelance writer, I perform a balancing act every time I write for publication. I suspect it’s the same for most writers who work for themselves. When an editor says write anything you like, it’s a gift to the ears. But we still must weigh our options. We consider the material we’ve already gathered, the time involved in putting together the pieces. We consider the salability of our work. If I have two stories on hand, one likely to sell to a particular publication, the other potentially more esoteric (thus, a tougher sell though no less interesting), I’m more likely to give the tougher sell to the editor willing to take anything. It’s pragmatism: I spend less time pitching that way. When Denise called, I had a few food stories on the brain—none of them chicken.

I eventually chose chicken because the idea struck me in a serendipitous way that often happens while traveling. We were in Bangkok. We’d spent the previous afternoon, a lovely Sunday, riding the ferry boat to Nonthaburi. We got out, walked around, and spent a good lot of time in the market. We bought chicken and sticky rice and an assortment of spicy things, and we sat on the water digging into our little packages of goodies. The next night, I sat on our Bangkok balcony with a drink in one hand, a pen in the other, and I wrote in my journal about chicken. It occurred to me, I had oodles of material on chicken—eaten so many different ways in so many different places all through the years. The words flowed easily that night in my journal—which is often where my essays and features originate. I have two methods of writing in the field: the little notebooks where I keep interview notes, quotes and practical stuff; and my journal, where I write whatever comes to mind. It’s old-school, low-tech writing by hand, and it’s often just what I need to get going. When I actually write the story, I begin with my journal, I add tidbits from my other notebooks, I compile additional research and I organize it all. But the journal is the impetus.

So I had all these bits and bobs of chicken experiences, but I also had research on the history of the bird and the environmental and health effects of modern chicken production. My aim was to weave all of those pieces together. I had the story in my head, but it wouldn’t have been easy to summarize before it was finished. It was a story I basically had to write before I could submit it anywhere (more on that in a minute).

Why did I write 2,000 words when I could have written something shorter? It’s easier to write long than short. But here’s another thing: if I’m going to put any effort into  a story, I’m going to write it for the most potential benefits—to readers, to the publication, to myself. After all, writing is a business. It’s also publicity. Sometimes “most” means writing the least—in the punchiest, most effective way (such as in a point-by-point op-ed). But other times (such as in a personal essay), it’s better to let the words do their own work, without counting them. Just write. Let it flow. Then edit. Then count. If we pay too much attention to word count from the start, we threaten to sacrifice the language.

OK, so I chose an essay on chicken. Why was this story on this topic right for The Cook’s Cook? Because the magazine could handle it and Denise would get it. I’d written this piece essentially free-form, without constraints, and that rarely happens in this business. Denise had said “write anything,” so I did. I also knew it would be a touch pitch to other publications. I mean, what would I say in the pitch? I’d like to write a story about chicken? Well, what about chicken? The story is kind of everything about chicken. Tough to summarize successfully in a one- or two-paragraph proposal.

That’s it. That’s how “A Story of Chicken” came to fruition. I’ll be doing this periodically here—in “Back Story”—discussing the behind-the-scenes of published work. I’d love for this to become a discussion among writers (and readers) about the process of publishing, so feel free to chime in!

 

Garden Herb Vinegar

RS Herb Vinegar G

In the past seven years, I’ve watched a patch of hard earth turn to rich, fertile soil. It started with just a few plants—parsley, sage, oregano and rosemary. Mint and Egyptian walking onions, too. The rosemary grew, then died. I replaced it. I replaced it again. I added thyme and basil (each year), then a few more varieties of thyme. I tried cilantro but it never worked. I tried arugula, and it came back three years in a row. This year, tomatillos crept across the ground and quinoa grew 6 feet high.

Every season, my herb garden changes. Every summer, I add compost and organic fertilizer teas. All that cyclical growth has turned a frustrating plot of clay into a haven for butterflies, birds, insects and worms. They are not pests; they are all part of the lifecycle that produces this:

RS Herb Vinegar A

RS Herb Vinegar B

RS Herb Vinegar CThis year, we received more rain than any other time since we’ve lived here. Welcome rain. Our reservoirs and river are still low, but the inordinate precipitation gave our trees and plants a nutritional boost. Local farmers talked of mold! Vegetables didn’t do as well as some years, but…

RS Herb Vinegar H

…flowers and herbs prospered. Everything in my little garden grew this year—lemongrass, lovage, savory, salad burnet, tarragon, epazote, flat-leaf chives and a tiny new blackberry.

Time to make herb vinegar. I don’t know why, but I’d never done it before. So I consulted a few online sources, and realized it is as easy as it seems. It’s important to use fresh, clean leaves. As recommended, I cut the herbs early in the morning before the sun hit from above. I rinsed them carefully in the kitchen sink, removing any brown or spotty leaves and stems, then set them on paper towels to dry. Meanwhile, I sterilized several large canning jars in a stock pot of boiling water.

RS Herb Vinegar DTo make the vinegar, I stuffed each jar with different herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme; and garlic chives in four separate combinations with winter savory, lovage, salad burnet and tarragon. I used a variety of organic white and apple cider vinegars. To avoid contact with metal, I placed wax paper between the glass and lids.

RS Herb Vinegar IInto the closet they went, occupying a cool, dark corner for at least four weeks. Stay tuned. This is all fairly experimental, so I’ll be back with updates….

New Dish!

PPenh Chili

Chile in bowl, Phnom Penh

Things are looking different around here. If you’re new to Rambling Spoon, welcome! If you’re a repeat visitor, you’ll notice the shift in design. Perhaps you’ve also noticed the recent lack of activity here. That will change, starting now.

Greetings from a revamped Rambling Spoon. The new design should make this a friendlier reading experience no matter your device—desktop, laptop, tablet or phone. And the new pages, I hope, will offer something enticing.

Here’s what’s happened: in the past year or so, as my workloads piled ever higher and my outside life traveled in new directions, I found less and less room for Rambling Spoon. But that was odd. Because I wasn’t writing or thinking any less about food. I hadn’t stopped traveling. I hadn’t quit researching agriculture, cooking, climate, food safety, food policy, politics and all the other ingredients that combine to tell the human story of food.

I just didn’t have the right venue. I found the old design to be limiting, and I found my old system (using Facebook for posting tidbits on food news) ineffective. For one thing, Facebook controls who among subscribers will see any particular post (and who will not). Plus, the format isn’t always what I would choose, and it’s not the place to post copyrighted photos whose outcome I care about.

What I needed was a new tool, a new design that gives me freedom to post what I want in the way I want—with the aim of helping as many interested readers find what they want. This is just the start; I have lots of plans in mind. But for now, let’s get you started in navigating the new design:

VTE Food 26

Mekong riverside stalls, Vientiane

• Check out the new NEWS BITES link at the top. This is where I will post regular blurbs related to all things food (and environment, and people, and the intersections of all three). I’m doing this every day anyway, aggregating news and research from around the world. I’d posted some of these links to Facebook before, but that wasn’t doing the job. Think of the NEWS BITES page as your regular Rambling Spoon news service.

• Check out the new TRAVEL link at the top. This is where I will post travel stories, news, blurbs, bits & bobs, big and small, all about travel, all over the map, near and far. And of course, we always have to eat when we travel, so you’ll find plenty of food here, too.

• Do continue to check the Rambling Spoon FACEBOOK page. Like us if you haven’t already; spread the word to your friends. I will continue to post there—different items you won’t always find here.

• Do check out Rambling Spoon on INSTAGRAM. As you might already know, most of the photos you see here on site are taken by my talented husband, Jerry Redfern. He’s a professional. He’s been doing this photojournalism thing since the days of darkrooms and developer. But I have started my own Instagram account for fun stuff, for spur-of-the-moment shots on my phone and tasty little things I find in the field (literally, sometimes). I post these not for their technical merits (or lack thereof) but for the sake of sharing visual ideas as they strike.

• Check out the sidebar. This is where you will find the archive, blog post categories, my other Internet hangouts and journalistic work (which isn’t always related to food… but it usually is in one way or another). You’ll also find a few of my latest tweets.

• Stay tuned. I’ll be adding more features in the future – including video, audio and reviews (books, movies, foods & drinks).

• And do tell me what you think! Suggest other changes you would like to see. Tell me if you’d be interested in future offerings such as an annual calendar featuring Jerry’s food photos, or a Rambling Spoon recipe book with stories from the field. Or a podcast… the options are wide open.

Enjoy the feast!

Kulen Sticky Rice

Kids with sticky rice, Phnom Kulen, Cambodia

Navajo Art & Ai Weiwei, Fall Aspens, Tapas & Paella in Santa Fe

SFAspensA

If you’re near Santa Fe anytime soon, I highly recommend this itinerary:

Check out the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) for a documentary on the extraordinary, historic desert art installation collaboration between Navajo artist Bert Benally and Chinese activist/artist Ai Weiwei.

Afterward, take a drive up Highway 475 to see the aspens in all their color (but hurry!).

Then settle into an excellent set of tapas and paella, with sherry, at La Boca.

SFAspensC

SFAspensB

Cooking Lao Food for 40

ThaiPeppers

Fresh, hot chiles

THIS is why I love food, communal food: it has the power to turn a gathering of strangers into a collective event. It makes the foreign experience feel less so. It happens every time we travel to Laos, when villagers bring us to their kitchen fires or hand us glasses of Beerlao and insist we help them celebrate (whatever the celebration might be). That’s the spirit I’d hoped to share Friday night, here in Albuquerque. Thank you, Slow Food ABQ and the Center for Peace & Justice! Thanks to all who came and made our food tasting & presentation happen.

RoastingPeppers

Chiles on the grill, for jaeow

I admit, cooking for 40 is stressful (despite my love of mortars & pestles, sharp knives, open fires and woks). Jerry and I might have shared a few terse words in the process. But in the end, it worked.

We guessed on the number, and we guessed right. Sticky rice, purple rice, laap, tam maak hoong, three types of jaeow, and pumpkin/mushroom soup—almost nothing came home with us. The room filled, as did plates and cups. We showed photos, mostly of Lao food and scenery, but also farming amid unexploded bombs. The crowd stuck around to ask questions. Lots and lots of questions—kudos to you, Albuquerque! Thank you for the chance to answer and explain.

PoundingRice

Pounded roasted sticky rice grains for laap

LotsaStuff

Prep time: a cluttered kitchen table

Several people asked about recipes, so I’ll try to point you in the right directions. We had sticky rice (soak the rice overnight, drain the liquid, then steam in a contraption like this), purple rice (cook in water like regular rice), tomato chile dip (jaeow mak len, recipe here), green chile dip (roast a bunch of New Mexico green chiles, then simmer and puree with lots of garlic and fish sauce), eggplant dip (jaeow mak keua: cook in a similar manner to the tomato dip, using roasted eggplants, chile, salt, roasted garlic, spring onions and cilantro); green papaya salad (tam maak hoong: David Thompson’s Thai version is a close and trustworthy approximation); minced tofu salad (laap: this version, without the eggplant or sesame); and pumpkin-mushroom soup. The latter is a northern dish, based on myriad varieties we’ve tasted in the hills:

Pumpkin-Mushroom Herb Soup, from northern Laos

Ingredients:
5 cups water
1 medium pumpkin or winter squash cut into bite-sized chunks (I used kabocha)
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
3 small, hot chiles, chopped (more or less to taste)
1 head roasted garlic
3-4 fragrant lemongrass stalks, cut into 5-inch sections, outer skin removed, bruised to release flavor
2 tablespoons fish sauce (or soy sauce)
1 2-inch section of galangal, cut into chunks
fresh lime juice to taste
salt to taste
hefty bunch of basil, dill, cilantro and spring onion, roughly chopped

Method:
In a large pot or crock pot add water, pumpkin, chiles, garlic, lemongrass, galangal and fish sauce. Simmer until pumpkin begins to soften. Add mushrooms and cook until flavors are balanced and pumpkin is soft but not disintegrated (the kabocha is nice because its firm but edible skin adds texture and helps keep the shape of the squash pieces). The pumpkin/squash will make the soup sweet; you want to balance the ingredients for a good mix of sweet, salty, spicy, tangy and that aromatic freshness from the abundance of herbs. Add more fish sauce/salt if necessary. Ladle the soup over a handful of chopped herbs in a bowl. Drizzle enough lime over the soup to complete the flavor balance.

RoastedGarlic

Garlic hot off the grill. Notice the G on the cutting board? Many years ago, we grew tired of our morning fruit tasting like garlic, so we started labeling our boards: G on one side, F on the other.

A Look at Land Rights on World Food Day

Heading to fields in Shan State

Danu tribal family farmers heading to their fields in Shan State, Myanmar

It’s World Food Day, an annual celebration marking the establishment of the Food and Agriculture Organization, which was founded  in 1945. This year, the day honors family farmers with the theme of “feeding the world, caring for the earth.” The United Nations named 2014 “The International Year of the Family Farmer” to emphasize the key role that small-scale growers play in global food security.

We’ve been taking a hard look at hunger in recent months, trying to get at the root causes of under- and malnutrition. The picture is not always as it appears. The world is not short of food. The reasons people go hungry are complicated, often political, and frequently misrepresented in the news.

For example: land titles. Not the most common subject of news reports on “how to feed the world” or “the future of food.” We hear about the need for new technologies, more efficient farming methods, increased production capable of feeding a planet of 9 billion people—all meaningful points. But in some parts of the developing world, land rights must come first. If a family loses its farmland to an industrial agricultural operation, it might not matter how much food that corporation produces; that family may very well go hungry. Or be forced to move and find new work. Or be incapable of paying for the food grown on the land the family previously farmed. Or all of the above, while the corporation’s food goes to someone else with more money.

Here, in honor of small-scale farmers worldwide and their struggles to keep and maintain their own land, I am posting a few images and snippets of stories we have encountered this year:

Chhek Sambo Cambodia

Cambodian Chhek Sambo stands on the land she is fighting to secure. Her village is embroiled in a longstanding dispute over land titles, ever since a local official sold their fields out from under them. It’s a complicated story. Sambo and her neighbors settled this property years ago, at the end of the Khmer Rouge war. There were no legal titles then, just the permission of a local official. But now, wealthier investors want the land—as the villagers struggle to feed themselves while simultaneously fighting the legal battles necessary to get an official title. More to the story here, in Slate.

Riths former farm

But even a proper title doesn’t necessarily mean the land is secure—not in Cambodia. Here, our good friend, Rith, a journalist, stands with his son, Soseth, on the land that grew their family’s rice for 30 years—until a Taiwanese company built a factory on the edge of his fields. Rith says he doesn’t know who really owns the factory or what it will produce, but a powerful company broker has successfully persuaded several nearby farmers to sell their fields at a cut rate. Rith, like a few others, refused. The company built walls around the surrounding fields—nothing but dirt now—and dug giant holes that caused several fields to collapse. Other plots, like this, are smothered in runoff. Rice will no longer grow here, Rith says. Local officials want him to take a substitute parcel of land in another area. But Rith says that is not a proper solution. He has a legal title to this land, which he worked and farmed for decades. No more.

Beans in Shan State

Picking Beans Shan State

In Shan State, Myanmar, Danu farmers grow green beans for their own families. What they don’t eat, they pack into sacks and transport (by foot or motorbike) to the nearest small town or village with a train stop. It’s not a lucrative job, but this type of small-scale farming has long sustained rural life. Villagers say most people don’t accumulate much money; many don’t have bank accounts. They often trade the foods they grow for the supplies they need. They and their ancestors have occupied this part of Shan State for generations, and here the people are not afraid of losing their land (in other regions, the story is very different). But there is another problem. “The land is tired,” villagers say. As the population grows and families expand, farm fields are divided among more and more people. Farming becomes more intensive. It requires more chemicals (in decades past, none were used). Insects are constant threats, and village elders wonder what will happen in the future. They have land—but it’s not enough for the people or their livestock. What will the people farm next? Where can they turn, when “the land is tired”?

Worker lunch Kampot

Garment wroker lunch PNH

The people pictured above are on lunch break from their day jobs. They are obviously not farming—but chances are, they once did. Many still do. They plant their fields in the countryside, then work in garment factories or construction jobs in the city until it’s time to harvest. This is Cambodia. This is the story of many countries in which family farming is a constant struggle for survival. In previous years, people say, they needed very little money to survive. It’s different now. Yes, some of today’s money goes toward cell phones and motorbikes and new clothes. But it also goes toward bribes, and the fees that teachers charge in order for their kids to pass from one grade to the next, and the exorbitant interest paid on loans taken out when a family member gets sick and the doctor requires payment before offering treatment. If debt becomes overwhelming, many are forced to sell their land. And then they end up here, in the city, with nothing to plant or harvest. For many of the world’s poorest family farmers, a simple problem can lead to years of struggle. The above two photos indeed depict an image of modern-day family farmers: working off the farm, away from the land they once maintained.

Phonsavanh Food 11

A Celebration of Lao Food & Farming

 

Phonsavanh Food 11

Farming in Laos

Khao niaw, sticky rice. It’s the lifeblood of lowland Laos. The Lao phrase “to eat” specifically implies eating glutinous rice. To some, sticky rice is an integral part of national and ethnic identity.

Many Laotian meals are designed around glutinous rice, which is taken with the right hand and formed into little balls for dipping into sauces, salads, soups and stews. Most basic, most pertinent to the Lao table are jaeow—a pounded chile paste with endless varieties of herb and spice combinationsand padaek, fermented fish paste, a staple ingredient of many dishes.

In the highlands, it is mountain rice that sustains the farmers who plant steep slopes in an array of grains, ranging in color from red to brown to purple. Laos maintains one of the world’s highest per capita consumption rates of rice: somewhere between 247 pounds and 395 pounds a year, depending on the study and its methodology. More than 70 percent of Laotian families grow their own rice. In Laos, dinner depends on the land close to home.

Phonsavanh Food 17

A market vendor sells fritters in Phonsavanh, Laos.

Slow Food ABQIf you are in New Mexico, please join us Friday for a special celebration of Lao food and farming, hosted by Slow Food Albuquerque. (Click on the link to RSVP.) Festivities begin at 6:30 pm at the Center for Peace and Justice. We’ll have sticky rice, jaeow and a spread of Laotian foods for you to try (as well as a very special variety of tea).

Many people ask me how Lao food compares to Thai food, which is better known in this country. It’s similar… but not.

Phonsavanh Food 15

Most every Lao meal includes chiles—fresh or pounded, in sauces and pastes.

Lao food is typically less sweet, often spicier, sometimes bitter (bitterness can connote nutritional and health benefits), typically herbal and earthy. Traditional country food is home-grown (or hunted or foraged), hand-picked and freshly prepared. In Laos, a soup or stew will often come with a mound of fresh herbs, as we might see spinach or lettuce piled high in our own kitchens.

Phonsavanh Food 07

Fresh herbs and lime accompany many Lao dishes.

Please come—we’d love to share this food with you. Take a plate, then watch and listen for a while as we give a multimedia presentation on Lao farming and the long-term effects of war on the land. If you’ve been reading this blog or my other writings for a while, you probably already know the numbers: between 1964 and 1973, in an offshoot of the Vietnam War, US forces flew more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. Millions of pounds of bombs were dumped across the country in the equivalent of one bombing raid every eight minutes for nine years. Today, millions of unexploded bombs remain, making farming a risky endeavor.

Perhaps you have already seen one of our slideshow presentations on unexploded bombs in Laos. This will be different—more food photos, more color, more flavor.

We would love to see you on October 17.

VTE Food 22

A typical Lao assortment: pounded fragrant mushrooms with herbs and chiles, served with cabbage and boiled greens, to be eaten with sticky rice.

Hard Truths about Farming & Gardening

Spotty grape leaf 1

A few weeks ago we attended a screening of a documentary, “Growing Cities,” about the rise in urban farming across America. From rooftops to empty lots, from New York to Oregon, people are growing their own food (as humanity did for millennia until relatively recently on the evolutionary scale). The evening, hosted by Slow Food Albuquerque at the Skarsgard Farms warehouse, attracted a modest crowd of locals with coolers in hand, brats for the open grill, and cash for Skarsgard’s own hard cider. The rain came down and lightning lit the sky. It was a pleasant night in the big open room beneath the warehouse awning.

But a little something nagged me. Just a little bit.

I’ve watched hours upon hours of food documentaries through the years, and I’m always eager for the next one. Urban farming: it’s a good thing. Right? We want more of it. Right?

Yes, of course we do. But in order for that to happen, I think we need a little more truth.

Just a little bit.

Farming isn’t easy, and neither is gardening. Yet I find myself leaving so many of these documentaries feeling upbeat and energetic, ready to conquer the raised beds (or, rather, smooth talk them into abundant production). But then I start digging in the dirt and I find an endless tangle of bindweed. I start inspecting our grape leaves, and I find this:

 

Spotty grape leaf 2

I look a little further, and I find fruit that’s starting to show an ugly side…

Spotty grapes 2

…and strange little creatures huddled on the underparts of our pepper leaves (does anyone know what these are??? I haven’t been able to ID them).

Pepper bugs

Every day in the dirt is a battle with and against nature. We are rewarded with tomatoes (when they actually survive) and peppers (when they actually grow), bundles of basil (fingers crossed, two years in a row), and oodles of mint (people call it a weed but I welcome it). But day in and day out, the work grinds. There are at times more failures than successes. It’s a lot like journalism that way.

I wish more of these new-future-of-food documentaries would be a little more honest about the grueling effort it takes to grow a single head of lettuce—let alone enough to fill the family pantry. Farming isn’t all sunshine and roses, gardening isn’t all peaches and cream. Many people give up, and I don’t blame them. They’re tired. The Earth is tired. (That, in fact, is exactly what Shan farmers told us during our trek through the hills there: They love farming but the land is tired, the insects are thriving, and consequently farmers are responding with more and more pesticides.)

I’m not trying to be a downer or a whiner. I just think we all need to appreciate more the turmoil that happens behind the scenes… in the many hours between those lovely shots of planting seeds and the joyous smiles of farmers reaping great harvests.

It’s hard. If you know anyone who tries to grow food on a big or small scale, give that person a hug or a handshake today. And praise the little creatures that help them along, like this predator found on a stalk of lovage:

Praying mantis 2

(By the way, it turns out our grapes apparently were thirsty, despite abundant rain and ritual watering. Even a downpour that floods the surface of our yard won’t necessarily reach the extremely long taproots that grapes and other plants have developed.)

On Gardens Near & Far. And Summer Squash Soup.

Danu girl with tomatoesA Danu girl sorts through her family’s home-grown tomatoes in Shan State, Myanmar.

Hello there. It’s been a while. I apologize for my absence from this space—not that I’ve forgotten it, or you. It’s been on my mind a lot in the last many weeks. But you know how life takes us in multiple directions and we can’t always be everywhere, do everything, we’d like. Sometimes, the immediate needs our attention. Sometimes, we really can’t multitask. But then, if you’re like me, you eventually feel a nagging need to “catch up.”

Yet I dislike that term because it’s packed with negativity and the implication that we are somehow failing, somehow falling behind, even when we pour every ounce of ourselves and our energy into the hours and days as they pass. “Being in the moment,” as they say, attending to timely needs. Is that failure? It shouldn’t be.

So, let’s not catch up. Let’s just be, here, now.

Here, for me, is at home in New Mexico once again after a three-month journey through Asia. This trip felt longer than others. Longer—but busier, more intense. Just a few weeks ago, we trekked through Shan State and talked to farmers about their lives (thanks, in part, to SEJ’s FEJ grants). Now we’re home, digging our hands into the summer soil in a garden growing abundantly, thanks to new rain. Worlds apart, but not that different. There is a universal connection among people who work the land to grow food on a small scale. There is something unifying in that purpose. Though our histories and cultures and languages differ dramatically, every small-scale farmer, gardener and garmer understands how to watch the sky and feel the soil. We all fear pests and drought. We all cheer for good harvests.

Pa-O garlicGarlic stored in the home of a Pa-O family, Shan State, Myanmar.

I took the snapshot above on the ground floor of a Pa-O house in a village where just about everyone grows garlic. Garlic lay in mounds on the living room floor. Garlic scented the air. Garlic, everywhere. Farmers worked the fields on steep slopes across high mountaintops. Where garlic didn’t grow, ginger and turmeric and peanuts did.

Here at home everyone grows chiles, of course. Chiles along with corn, beans and squash—the three sisters (although we’re growing none of the sisters this year). We started our garden late, but already our first jalapeno has arrived….

First jalapenoOur first garden jalapeno of 2014, New Mexico.

…and the farmers markets are abundant in squash. One night shortly after we got home, I inadvertently stumbled into a new (to us) way of eating calabacita squash: grilled and puréed with complementary spices. I’d asked Jerry to grill the squash, envisioning thin slices lightly toasted. Instead, he’d sliced them in half lengthwise and charred them, akin to eggplant. So I cut away the char and scooped out the flesh. Then I mixed it and mashed it with a bit of onion, garlic, oregano, salt and olive oil. It was delicious, and we ate it with steak tacos.

Grilled mashed calabacitasGrilled & smashed calabacita squash.

Last week, we applied the concept to yellow summer squash soup with plentiful garden herbs. Here’s what happened. I recommend it for those summer weeks before other veggies come in and everywhere, it seems, there is squash to be devoured:

Grilled Summer Squash Soup

Ingredients:
2-3 large summer squash (I used yellow but any will work), split lengthwise
several cloves of garlic, minced
1 white or yellow onion, chopped roughly
1 healthy handful of fresh sage leaves, minced
1 healthy handful of fresh oregano, leaves minced
1 handful of sundried tomatoes, diced
a healthy sprinkling of dried chile powder (heat to your liking)
a dash of cumin powder
cooked sausage, chopped (optional)
butter or oil for frying
glug of white wine
water
salt & pepper
drizzle of olive oil
crème fraîche (1 dollop per serving)

Method:
Grill the squash until skin is charred but flesh is soft and smoky-sweet inside. Times will vary depending on squash size and grill temperature. When ready, remove from heat and let cool. Scrape away blackened skin and discard. Roughly chop the remaining squash and set aside.

In a deep pot or pan, heat the onion and garlic in butter or oil. Add squash and wine. Stir frequently until ingredients soften, then cover with cool water. Purée mixture with hand-held mixer or in a food processor. Return to low heat and stir in sage, oregano, tomatoes, chile, cumin, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add chopped sausage if using (I added a leftover brat from the 4th of July). Drizzle with olive oil if needed for taste, and serve with a dollop of crème fraîche.