Olives & Everything.

Azeri Olives-1

It’s the little stuff, life’s petty displeasures—muddy floors, email glitches, lost time, lack of sleep, bikes with flat tires just when I want to ride—that ruffle me and make me that person I don’t want to be. The person who lacks perspective.

But it’s also the little stuff that does just the opposite: makes me see the universe through the tiniest of actions in the smallest of moments. The things that make us human. The phenomena that make the world a glorious place to be.

A few weeks back, I traveled again to Azerbaijan. And I met a young man who told me the story of his mother’s olives. We were talking about writing with all of our senses; of putting an audience in a scene through sights and sounds, tastes and smells, textures and associations. So much of what we interpret of the world depends on the memories we form through the experience of a particular sense: The way bad tequila puts me back in college, on nights I’d rather forget. The way a televised football game sends me to my parents’ couch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The way the thump thump thump of a mortar and pestle reminds me of our condo in Chiang Mai, where our neighbor pounded her curry during the early morning hours in an outdoor kitchen.

The young man—a human rights lawyer by training but a poet in his words—told me how the scent of olives reunites him with the memory of his mother. Not salty olives as we might instinctively think, but the sweet, spicy olives of her unforgettable jam. In Azerbaijan, mothers turn a savory treat into a candied delight. Pits and all, the olives soak in syrup with an array of spices, nuts and citrus peel. Two types of olives are used, one firm, the other not so. Regardless, the end result, after much time and attention, is an aroma that puts this young man straight into his mother’s arms, in her house, in the place he knew as a child. Every time he goes away, it’s the olives he craves on his return. I cannot convey the full sense of his message; I cannot do his story justice. I didn’t memorize his poem. But when he spoke of olives and scent, his mother and memory, it was the essence of gratitude. An olive, such a small thing. But everything, to this man who loves his mother so.

On my last day in Baku, the young man brought me an overflowing jar of his mother’s olive jam—a giant container. She’d asked him where the jam was going, and when he told her, she said, “Well, if it’s traveling all the way to America, we have to give her a REALLY BIG jar!”

The jam survived the trip; the jar emerged a bit sticky but intact. And now our refrigerator is honored with this gift of the senses.

This week, I heard from a colleague who just learned he has cancer. But his message was not bleak; it was full of hope. This man has spent much of his career reporting in one of the world’s poorest countries, a place routinely in the news for the worst of natural and human disasters. But there, my colleague says, he has learned perspective from people who face “higher mountains” than he.

Azerbaijan is one of those places, too, where the mountains are high—seemingly insurmountable at times. But the olives are plentiful, and so is the jam. I want to remember that as long and as often as I can.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, wherever you are.

Azeri Olives-2

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A Borneo Food Diary

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Lunch, Day 10

I should never write a blog post while hungry!

If you’ve been coming ’round here for a while, you might recall a post I did several years ago, A Rural Lao Food Diary. We’d just come off a nine-day trip to the hinterlands in Phongsali, way up near the Lao/China border, where we camped with a bomb-clearance group working in a small village. I posted a record of everything we ate—fresh, local, homemade, repetitive.

Now I’ll treat you to a rundown of our meals in Borneo—more variety, equally fresh, much of it plucked from the fields and forests surrounding the Kelabit villagers we visited (thanks to ICFJ!). I thought it appropriate to post this today, just as our multimedia piece, Supermarket Jungle, is now live on SciDev.net. Please check it out if you’re interested in more on the sustainable Kelabit diet and the twin threats of logging and cultural change.

Here’s what we ate:

-wild spinach soup
-fried rice with scallions and wild boar, a few cherry tomatoes, onion and tiny black beans
NOTES: The soup reminds me of others I’ve had in Myanmar’s Shan State and rural Laos, coming from kitchens so smoky that smoke IS a flavor. It makes the soup. The pineapple is a burst of sweet, then tart. Low acid. The boar is like pulled pork but very tiny pieces.

-wild boar fried with onion
-stewed tomatoes with a bit of sugar, like soup
-softened sautéed leeks
-thinly sliced green beans
NOTES: The boar has a rich, gamey flavor

-crispy twisted pastries
-thick rice porridge with green beans and spinach
NOTES: The spinach has a very earthy taste

-Rice vermicelli with boar & vegetables (eaten in the forest)

-deer (for sale from the back of the pickup that morning) with thinly sliced ginger
-the smallest and tenderest species of young bamboo
-a mess of curled ferns
NOTES: Hosts Stephen & Tine chop the flat-leaf greens into one-inch slices. “We call it grass because we don’t know what it is,” Tine says. Indeed, it has a grassy flavor. The bamboo, she says, is the youngest variety. It ranges in color from pale yellow to pink to mint ice cream green. It squeaks on the outside but it’s firm and sweet to bite into. The ferns taste rich with their funky furled texture.

-fresh pineapple, papaya, passionfruit
-cassava cakes – oval-shaped patties, sticky inside, crispy outside, fried in oil

-canned chicken curry
-Lara bar
(On hike in the jungle)

-fried chunks of boar
-clear soup with winter melon
-ginger and boar
-water greens fried with small dried anchovies

-rice fried with beans and boar
-greens with shallots, small dried anchovies & garlic
-more boar
-sticky rice packets

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Leaves used for wrapping rice  

-more boar
-melon soup
-leftover fried rice
-boiled wild spinach
-leaf-wrapped rice pounded to a paste

-sliced red mushrooms sautéed with garlic and salt
-wild asparagus with pineapple shoot slices
-boar fried with mild melon
-wild spinach soup with water and salt
NOTES: The asparagus is young, tender and small. The mushroom is meaty and rich, and it gives and incredible red burgundy sauce. The pineapple shoots are slightly bitter yet with a faint hint of fruitiness.

-sticky rice packets in laves
-tapioca fried and shredded like a hash brown pizza
-packaged rice crackers
NOTES: The tapioca tastes like thick, gluey, sweet, potato-y hashbrowns.

-pineapple curry
-tengayen (wild green) leaves
-pounded tapioca leaves
-pounded rice in leaf packet
NOTES: The tengayen is cooked soupy with rice and salt, sometimes with ginger flower. It’s mucilaginous, almost like okra. Leaves are chopped but not crushed. Salty, earthy like collards but not bitter. The tapioca leaf is pounded to a pesto consistency with added oil.

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Tapioca leaves

-fragrant ginger paste
-boar soup
-BBQ boar ribs
NOTES: I have no idea what the ginger is when I first taste it. It’s white and pounded to the consistency of rough curry paste. Turns out it’s just young ginger cooked with oil and salt. The ferns are thin, vine-like strips, red and green, giving the juice a vibrant cherry color.

-ferns (fried with garlic and small dried fish from the coast)
-wheat pancakes (made for tourists)
-red mushroom soup with onion

-fried rice (eaten in Bario town)

-pineapple shoots
-chicken curry
-onion leaves
-bamboo shoots

-pineapple, banana
-rice flour cakes

(Eaten in Bario town)
-pounded rice in leaf packets
-“ayam kicap”
-melon with eggs

-wild asparagus with corn and carrots
-pineapple curry
-pulled boar (the local pulled pork)
NOTES: The boar is deliciously tender and smoky.

-steamed rice packets
-passionfruit, pineapple

-rice vermicelli
-tomato/potato/onion soup

-deer meat with ginger and wild spice berries
-cherry tomato soup
-young bamboo
-green beans

-rice packets from food market in town
-tomato soup

-fried mouse deer
-fried pork
-bamboo shoots
-tapioca wedges
-long beans fried with cabbage
-fried fish
-ferns with onion
-canned fish in tomato sauce

DAY 10
-pounded rice packets
-wild mushroom soup
-wing beans fried with long beans, tomato, onion
-chicken and lemongrass soup

-Leftovers from breakfast & dinner

-leftover bamboo
-leftover beans with bamboo
-leftover pork fat
-mouse deer soup
NOTES: The mouse deer: thick wads of unidentifiable meat and bones, but with incredibly rich flavor. Like lean venison steak, slightly smoky, tender. Very dark meat.

DAY 11
-cinnamon tea
-popcorn! (bought)
-mushroom porridge

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Cinnamon leaves used for tea. The trees grow wild in the jungle, and villagers move them to their gardens.

-rice packets w/boar (eaten in the forest)

-pounded rice
-deep fried little fish
-creek fish soup
-pounded tapioca leaf with chile
-spicy chile/onion paste

DAY 12
-mouse deer soup
-chile paste
-fried small fish
NOTES: The deer tastes fresh, sweet, muscular like it had an active life. Chewy. Our hosts’ son hunted it late the night before.

(On the road to the coast)
-coffee candies
-pounded rice in leaves
-durian snack balls, they taste like fruity Cap’n Crunch

And that’s it. On the evening of Day 12, we ate at a Muslim food stall in Miri, blinded by lights, shaken by noise. I hadn’t expected our departure from the jungle to be so jarring, but it was, even after 12 days. For a few days more, I felt an odd sense of mourning—the same sort of loss we feel when departing a loved one.

It’s a special place, the Kelabit Highlands.

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Supang Galih cutting wild asparagus.

What is Rain?

Bario Rain A

A woman gazes through a window at the Bario Asal Longhouse as rain pummels the area.

I started this post a few days ago, before this and this and this. Before nature smacked Colorado with a torrent of “biblical” proportions, a storm of the century, possibly the millennium. Here in New Mexico, too, we are seeing unprecedented rains, bulging rivers, and reservoirs filling fast (this, however, does not necessarily mean an end to our multi-year drought). Parts of Colorado had 12 inches or more of rain in 24 hours – half or more the area’s average annual rainfall in just one day.

Since our trip to Borneo, I’ve been thinking a lot about the definition of rain. Or, rather, our perception of it—how our ideas of rain depend on place; how context determines the language we use to describe precipitation. And how that precipitation, of course, defines what we eat and grow, how we spend our time outdoors. How we see our corner of the world.

We traveled through the Borneo highlands in the dry season, a season of no “rain.” Yet, locals told us, droplets of water typically fall from the sky an hour or so each day. Every day, this dry time of year. We drove 15 hours through the mountains on a slick logging road that turns to a river of muck when precipitation falls. But that wasn’t rain, our driver told us. All the while his truck—with three bald tires and 4-wheel drive he preferred not to use because he didn’t like the sound of it (!)—slipped and skidded sideways down the road, he said, that wasn’t rain. That wasn’t rain hitting the windshield and obscuring his view. When it rains, he said, the road turns dangerous. When it rains, he said, the logging trucks stop in their tracks and wait out the hours before it’s safe to move.

I started this post on Sunday night. We’d spent the afternoon cycling along the Rio Grande, a beautiful late-summer day with a crisp sky and still air. We crossed a bridge, then turned to gaze east toward the Sandias. There were pockets of rain in the distance, isolated sheets of gray, and a small rainbow arcing over the mountains. A beautiful sight.

When we returned home, I went to the garden, stooping to pull up tangles of bindweed and the long, seedy arms of arugula gone wild. I felt a splatter on my back—cold, welcome. The drops kept coming, plopping on broad eggplant leaves until finally there we so many, the ground began to puddle.

I kept working, drenched, harvesting the day’s yield—itself a rainbow of colors. I filled a giant tray, the sort used in Southeast Asia for winnowing rice. The rain continued to fall, but the sky grew luminous with a yellow slant of day’s-end light. Pearls of water collected on the vegetable skins.

Wet Veggies II

And I thought about rain, its shifting definitions from place to place. The skies indeed opened most every day we trekked through the Kelabit Highlands. But life went on unobstructed. Real rain, when it comes, will turn the trails impassable. The Kelabit world will flood. There will be rain and more rain and more rain for days on end—not the showers we saw, interspersed with long hours of drying sun.

Here in New Mexico, we get roughly 8.5-9.5 inches of rain in a year. In Borneo, the hilly slopes of the inland highlands get significantly more: in excess of 5,000 mm. That’s 196.85 inches.

All that rain feeds life. It fosters an incredible biodiversity in the Highlands we saw—the intact primary Borneo forest contains some 1,200 species of trees, 220 species of birds and, in just one village area we traveled called Pa Dalih, a documented 650 species of plants collected for food, medicine and materials.

One afternoon, we were caught in a non-rainy season rain in the Bario Asal Longhouse with its metal roof. I tried to interview some of the elders, but no human voice effectively could be heard amid that din. For more than an hour, water gushed and ears rang from the incessant noise. No one spoke. We just nibbled on taro cookies, drank sweet tea, and waited.

Bario Rain B

Rain falling off the roof of Bario Asal Longhouse.

Rain. Here at home, we are intimately in tune with its presence or absence. Like the Kelabits, we monitor our land and sky. Extreme environments, wet or dry, demand notice. In this house, we are a bit obsessive, checking daily forecasts and regular reports on the river’s ups and downs. When it disappears entirely, when the Rio Grande runs dry, a dismal fog veils our mood, if ever so slightly. But when it rains, we celebrate. Precipitation means hope.

I remember June, when there was no rain in this yard. That month, we’d watch clouds converge; they blossomed and grew, dense and dark. But then the winds would start, whipping in from the west. The sky went taupe in a sickly hue that meant neither rain nor reprieve. Instead, the earth became sky and air became grit. Fifty miles an hour, that noxious mess of sand and wind whipped across our yard and into our home. We rushed to shut the windows, but still it blew in. I felt it in my teeth and tasted its earthy, chalky flavor on my tongue.

There is no comfort in such extremes. This week, especially, as nature cascades through so many lives, it is hard to fathom, harder yet to accept. Still, as a lover of the outdoors, a gardener with too many weeds, a hiker with the remnants of leech bites on her heels and scrapes across her shins—there is something so potent in all that rain (or lack of it), so alarming in its enormity. Despite everything, we, as people, are tiny in its face.

What is rain to me? It is a power I will never control.

The Edible Jungle

©2013 Jerry Redfern

There is a place in the hills where domestic meets wild, where humans meet jungle. Where the fertile valleys between forested mountains shelter villagers who plant fruit trees and rice and kitchen gardens across the acres they tame. But the wild – the jungle – also harbors a biodiversity that has long supplied the people’s needs: meat and fish, insects and vegetables, rattan for baskets, leaves for plates, sturdy wood for the community longhouse. Daily life is a balance between home and forest, here and there – so much so, the lines are blurred.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Scientists are just beginning to understand more of this interdependence between people and land, which has sustainably existed for thousands of years. Here in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, villagers are not just farmers, not just hunter-gatherers. It’s not an either/or. The people do it all. They hunt, fish and forage for their food. They grow rice by hand, in verdant plots fed by mountain waters. They transplant wild spices and herbs from the jungle to the village. They toss pineapples onto the ground, and the fruits grow abundantly – without any additional help, so rich is the soil.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

The daily search for food entails a trek from home to paddy with pack on back and parang on hip.

JungelPreview 27

The trail inevitably passes through a variety of forests and fields – some young, some old. Some dense with edible gingers and wild greens; others open to the sun, where brilliant berries grow near at hand.

Pa Lungan Raspberry

In this way, the Kelabit people have lived and eaten from the land for ages.

But life changes; it always does. Borneo’s forests – particularly those across the border in neighboring Kalimantan, Indonesia – are losing out to loggers. In lower elevations, miles upon miles of palm-oil plantations replace that old-growth forest. (See here for the Schuster Institute’s recent investigation of human-rights abuses and environmental destruction related to palm oil.) In the Highlands, where oil palms won’t produce so well, lands are often logged and left; gouges dug into the heart of intact terrain.

We first visited the Highlands in 2006. If you’ve been reading here long enough, you might recall our Archaeology story of burial urns scattered throughout the jungle. Or our encounter with a wild boar on a trek that quickly turned into a hunt. Or my descriptions of edible ferns and water-filled bamboo.

That summer seven years ago, villagers told us they worried about the encroaching loggers. They wondered how long their forests and food supplies would last. Ever since that trip, I wondered what became of the people we met. This summer, thanks to the International Center for Journalists and the Ford Foundation, I received a generous International Reporting Fellowship to strap on my pack, lace my boots and head back to the Highlands to find out. (Fellows traveled far and wide this summer to cover all manner of issues all over the globe – check out the group Tumblr.)

We found families we met seven years ago…

Pa Lungan Rice Packets

such as Moriaty Udan (here, preparing pounded rice in a forest leaf) and

©2013 Jerry Redfern

her husband, Walter Paran, with daughter Mujan (who was just about three years old when we last met). They served us feasts of wild boar, pounded greens, sweet young bamboo and rice. And they told us how their village, Pa’ Lungan, is continuing to change as the younger generations leave for school and jobs far away. Mujan, home for holiday break, spends most her days and nights with other kids in boarding school, a five-hour hike from home.

In the past four weeks, we found many complex stories in this region in flux – stories of food and environment, aging and cultural change. Those reports will emerge in the coming months – we will let you know when and where and how to find them.

For now, I’m beginning the long-haul work of weeding through piles of notebooks, too-big files of recordings and video. My desk is cluttered with old-fashioned books and maps in print and PDFs on the iPad. But a part of my head remains in the jungle. It was hard to leave – harder than I’d expected. Despite leech bites, bee stings and bucket showers (cold water, of course), there was comfort in that land. Maybe it was the pitch-black nights of deep, restful sleep. Or the vast distance from cell phones and Internet, and all the frustrations big and small that go with those technologies. Maybe it was the sound of a thousand forest creatures singing through the day. Maybe it was all that fresh food (yes – it was local and organic and wholesome and sustainable, the epitome of modern-day food-movement buzzwords, but way out there in the Borneo boonies, far from the hubbubs that divide other food-minded folk.). But when we reached city again (after a terrifying all-day drive down a mud-slick mountain logging road) I literally stumbled on the sidewalk. Pavement, lights, honking horns – so quickly, it felt so foreign.

So quickly, it reminded us how lives and cultures can change.

Stay tuned. More to come.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Ginger: both flower and food.


Introducing: A Farm, a Website, a Recipe for Grilled Padróns

 RS RoastyPadron


Confession: every time I look at this site lately, I’m socked with guilt. Guilt, because I see the expansive gaps between my posts. Guilt, because I miss my time with food and words, words and food. We’ve been busy. We’ve had a gazillion things going on in life – as everyone does – and my moments here have been squeezed to bits. But no more guilt. Let’s focus on the positives.

The positives are above: can you smell them? Can you taste that sweet-spicy allure of the Spanish padrón? What’s a padrón, you ask? It is, I think, the perkiest little pepper I ever did taste, and it harbors something mysterious inside. Something addictive. Toss a handful of freshly picked padróns into a hot wok of coconut oil, mix and stir, sprinkle with salt, then pop them into your mouth, one by one. Eat with drinks. Eat them all. You will drink more because of this pepper.

This is what our friends at Thunderhead Farms are growing. You can read all about them and their story at the all-new, in-progress Thunderhead Farms website. It’s an all-new, in-progress design by Jerry himself, the man behind Redcoates Studios web design and development (plus photography). Soon enough, the site will include recipes for all Thunderhead Farms produce. Farmer Jon walked into our kitchen one night, handed me a bag of peppers and said: “Here! Make a recipe!” It was the best darn excuse I’ve had  in a long time to get back into the kitchen with my thinking cap on.

I just kept thinking peppers, pine nuts, cotija. Then: peppers, pine nuts, cotija, lemon, anchovies. And sundried tomatoes, right? You need the sweetness of sundried tomatoes to balance the tart lemon, salty anchovies, and hot peppers. Right?

And so it went from there.

This is what the kitchen looked like, in mid-stream recipe development:

RS PadronPrep

And this is the recipe in its final form:

Grilled Padróns with Pine Nuts, Anchovies, Sundried Tomatoes & Cheese

6 cups medium-sized padróns
3 cloves minced garlic
1/2 lemon, juiced with flesh
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
1 small tin anchovies, minced
3/4 cups minced sundried tomatoes
cotija cheese
sea salt

Wash peppers and grill high off the coals, careful not to scorch them. Padrons have thin, delicate skins that can easily burn. You want them toasty, not blackened.

Meanwhile, whisk together garlic, lemon, salt, olive oil and anchovies. Set aside.

After peppers have cooled slightly, trim off stems and chop into bite-sized pieces (if desired). Drizzle with dressing. Toss with sundried tomatoes and top with crumbled cotija. Serve warm.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Rhubarb and strawberry sauce on yogurt with fresh mint leaves.

Rhubarb & Rain

Rhubarb and strawberry sauce on yogurt with fresh mint leaves.

A summertime strawberry double whammy: berries topped with yogurt, mint and rhubarb-strawberry sauce.

Here in New Mexico, we are living in exceptional times – “exceptional” being the word weather monitors use to describe some of the nation’s worst drought conditions: rivers gone dry, ditches of dust. We’ve seen some relief this past week with afternoon and evening showers, and the apparent start of the monsoons. But it’s not enough.

There is, in fact, debate as to whether this is drought. A drought, by some definitions, is a “deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time.” It’s described as “an insidious hazard of nature” with characteristics that vary from place to place (drought in the rain forest is different from drought in the desert). Its beginning and end are determined by detailed analysis of weather data and the degree to which precipitation veers from local averages. But what if low rainfall is the norm? What if, here in New Mexico, we’re not experiencing an aberration – but the way things typically were and will be?

It’s hard on people, plants and animals. Our gardens shrivel in the sun. They need careful attention, or they will not survive. The Rio Grande, less than a mile away, dwindles to a trickle, then nothing at all.

What a switch to the soggy, muggy summertime Midwest, when we visited family in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago. It rained almost every day. We stopped at a store one morning, parking beneath heavy, leaden clouds. By the time we’d finished our errands, the sky crackled and growled as an opaque cascade pummeled the ground. Water pooled and puddled everywhere. It hung around for days. Plants grew lush and green…

©2013 Jerry Redfern

©2013 Jerry Redfern

…fragrant and tall. I’d almost forgotten what the Midwest could be, in summertime. I’d forgotten what it was like to know the rain would come without all the hoping and fussing.

I found a turtle crossing the road, then helped it back to the woods…

©2013 Jerry Redfern

©2013 Jerry Redfern

…while the resident red-bellied woodpecker regularly showed its colors (curiously: a red cap but no red belly). Day in and day out, Jerry sneezed, in fits of five or 10 or more, thanks to this burst of verdant growth.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

©2013 Jerry Redfern

And he picked rhubarb in the garden for my Mom to make sauce. Rhubarb: we don’t get much of that here in the desert Southwest, where it wilts in the heat. It’s a cool-weather plant that needs a good winter to stimulate later growth. The tangy sweetness of that simple sauce (rhubarb and strawberries mixed) was something I hadn’t tasted in a very long time. We brought it back to the desert and ate it on cornbread. And somehow, breakfast that morning felt a little more humid, a little more Midwest.

Here’s the recipe, adapted from the old tattered green-covered cookbook my Mom has had since her early days of marriage: Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, published in 1952.

Rhubarb-strawberry sauce:

2 pounds chopped rhubarb stalks and strawberries (about 8 cups)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon water

Boil ingredients gently for about five minutes. Cool and serve.

Rhubarb and strawberry sauce

Garden rhubarb with strawberries

Portobello Summer Soup

Mushroom soup 1

Let’s say you have a couple of leftover portobellos and you really don’t feel like grilling them. You could, instead, make summer soup with garden herbs.

You could slice one shallot, a couple of garlic cloves, two carrots, three celery stalks and sauté them with butter in a stock pot. Then—because you open the fridge and find you’re out of white cooking wine—you could drizzle sake into the pot with a sprinkle of salt and one portobello, roughly chopped. The other portobello, you could slice neatly and set aside.

When the veggies are nicely satuéed, you could add five cubed potatoes and a hefty pinch of turmeric (because it adds color, because it’s good for you), cover with water and boil until the taters are tender; then let the mixture cool. Meanwhile, you could sauté the sliced portobello in a little more butter and a little more sake with another little sprinkle of salt; then, just before finishing, a drizzle of white balsamic, just a touch.

Then you could take your handheld immersion blender, that wizard tool, and puree the soup before bringing it back to a simmer. You could go to your garden and pluck several sprigs of rosemary and thyme, rinse and chop them real fine. After the soup has simmered a bit, you could add the sliced portobello and rosemary, perhaps a drizzle of that white balsamic or a glug of sake or another pinch of salt—taste and decide. Right before finishing, you could add that fresh thyme for just a taste of the heat, just a moment on the stove.

And then, if all the flavors align (let your tastebuds guide), you could let the soup cool to a temperature appropriate to the heat (hot summer day? serve it chilled); then take your pot to the backyard patio, beneath the big tree, in the flicker of candlelight, and eat your soup with grilled chicken and garlicky green beans.

Mushroom soup 2

20 Years of Democracy in Cambodia

©2013 Jerry Redfern

1998. A man hangs an English-language banner from poles at the Democracy Square protest in Phnom Penh. Thousands of people gathered in front of the National Assembly Building for weeks to protest the outcome of the 1998 national election. The banners were for international observers and news crews, as most Cambodians could not read English.

I’m veering away from food again, to note a quiet anniversary that is slipping past the world, largely unnoticed. Twenty years ago, the international community brought democratic elections to Cambodia under the biggest, boldest peacebuiding mission ever attempted: the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).

As the country braces for its fifth round of national polls in July, what’s become of the UNTAC agenda? Where does democracy stand in Cambodia today? I tried to shed a little light on the issue in my latest story for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.

In a way, this is a story about food. It’s about land and human rights; the struggle for survival. As the article notes, land disputes are among the country’s most pressing problems and the people’s greatest worry. Land is sustenance, security and hope. It’s access to food and livelihood. “Land is life,” opposition politician Mu Sochua wrote earlier this year.

But I’ll stop there and let you take contemplate these photos, stretching across the years we’ve been watching the country’s democracy. Then, if you want to know more, follow the link to the article and take a look at Jerry’s photo gallery documenting democracy in Cambodia.

All photos by Jerry Redfern.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

2012. Police carry a protester to a waiting police van following her arrest. Buddhist monk Loun Sovath videotapes the proceedings. He was arrested two days later. The woman was one of the “Boeung Kak 13″ women arrested for protesting the loss of their homes to a commercial development by Shukaku Corporation, which has since filled in the lake with sand. Many of the protesters were forced out of their homes along the lakefront by the land developer and the municipal government.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

2003. Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy speaks to a crowd of several thousand supporters from atop a truck at a rally, on the first day of the campaign season preceding the 2003 national election. Sam Rainsy showed up two hours late for the event.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

2013. A young boy eats a snack in a shanty town in what used to be the Borei Keila apartment complex in central Phnom Penh. The government sold the land beneath the apartments to a developer who demolished the buildings with little notice. The company had agreed to build 10 new apartments for the displaced, but it built only eight. Many of the homeless now live in squats on the cleared land.

On Boston and the Eternal Tragedy of Bombs


SCARS OF BOMBARDMENT: an aerial view of the countryside around Phonsavanh, Laos, showing the ubiquitous bomb craters that remain throughout the province, 40 years after US bombs fell across the country.

This week, our nation grieves for lives lost, bodies broken, futures ripped to bits. We mourn the blood splattered on sidewalks of innocents. It is unconscionable, what happened in Boston. As human beings, we struggle to understand. But there are no answers to our repeat questions: Why? Why then and there, to him and her, in that particular city, at that particular event? How long can we expect this pain to last?

As a country, we will move on, because life does. Time does. But grief never expires, it merely moves to the backdrop of daily routine. The memory remains, and many victims will carry both physical and mental reminders through every passing day.

It’s like war: how do we really know the end of war? How do we know when to stop grieving?

It is sadly ironic that the Boston Marathon bombings occurred this week, of all weeks, as we note another key date in a long line of human tragedies with bombs. By some accounts (no one knows for absolute sure, and I’ll explain), April 17, 2013, marks 40 years since the last American bombs fell on Laos. Forty years since the end of that violent deluge—yet nowhere near the end of grief. For nine years straight, US forces flew, on average, one raid over Laos every 8 minutes. They dropped 2 million tons of bombs. An estimated 30 percent of those bombs didn’t detonate, and they remain in the soil today. Since that time we classify as “the end of war,” more than 20,000 Laotians have been killed or maimed by bombs. For many Laotians, the pain runs as deep right now as in any previous year.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that Jerry and I have a book due for publication this June. Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (ThingsAsian Press, June 13) is the result of our seven-year investigation of Lao life among bombs. We trekked across the countryside, interviewed hundreds of villagers, and recorded their thoughts and hopes and losses.

I was not in Boston this week, and I cannot say what it was like to be there. But I can share a few things I’ve learned in Laos.

Every victim is different, and every case unique. But the psychological damage left in the wake of a bombing sometimes lasts years, even decades. Trauma from the blast, fear of more to come, feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, worry about future work and well-being, and the invisible but real pain of a limb no longer there—these are the scars that far outlast the incident itself.

©2010/Jerry Redfern

Phou Vieng lost his left arm and leg when digging holes for a new house for himself and his new bride in 1998. “I hit something left from the war.” Now he lives in a house on the edge of Phonsavanh and his wife is the family breadwinner.

In the aftermath of bombings, I find the mechanics most difficult to fathom—the mechanics of a device so deliberate in its design, so efficient in its methods, for such monstrous outcomes.

All bombs are ruthless. They obey the laws of science. And bombs like those used in Boston—reportedly packed with bits of metal—are strategically designed to shred human flesh. Whether stuffed into a casing and dropped from an airplane high in the sky, or built with a pressure cooker and planted amid swarms of spectators, that bomb behaves in a predetermined way when it blows.

Tiny bits of metal are shot in all directions, with the straight-forward mission to annihilate. We’re told this type of bomb is a killer device “favored by terrorists from New York to Afghanistan.” But this method of jamming an explosive with bits of metal is also a favorite of militaries throughout many recent wars.

Embedded in that bomb is the same concept used in cluster submunitions, the baseball-sized bomblets that are loaded into casings and dropped from mid-air, little weapons to be scattered across the land. That’s the type of bomb most likely to kill Laotians today—when farmers find them in their fields, or children toss them like toys, or the devices burst into flames as families light their nightly cooking fires on land contaminated with ordnance.

The physical effects of a fragmentation device are gruesome. This Landmine Action report explains the impacts on a human body (taken from a Third World Network emergency medical manual, Save Lives Save Limbs):

“Although the inlet wound looks small, the damage inside can be massive. A stone hitting water makes waves. Our body is 70 per cent water. A fragment sends pressure waves into the tissues. The waves are very fast and hit the tissues like a blow. How the tissues are damaged depends on how elastic they are (how easily they stretch).

The skin is very elastic. It stretches when the fragment passes through then springs back without much damage.

But muscle is not very elastic. The pressure waves tear a wide and ragged wound track through the muscle. Because muscles have a rich blood supply muscle wounds bleed a lot.”

Bone, the report continues, is not at all elastic. It will stop a fragment in its tracks. A pressure wave forms, “like the splash from a flat stone hitting water.” Human tissue suffers the damage of that force, the report states. Imagine trying to heal from that pain, those wounds. And then, imagine the psychology.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Bo Ya, 35, begs for money at the bus stop in the tiny town of Kiukacham. He lost his hands and most of his vision when he picked up some UXO ten years before.

In Boston this week, there were moments of uncertainty and long minutes when no one knew whether more blasts would come. I know a smidgen of that fear, having covered shootings and riots, not knowing for sure when the firestorm would end.

And I have tried to comprehend the weight of such fear when I interview bombing victims in Laos. In decades past, during the height of war, people naturally feared the next day—when more planes would come with more bombs. Today, the fear is underground. It’s in the knowledge that a calm day on the farm could suddenly, abruptly, turn life inside out.

According to the Center for Air Force History’s unclassified report, The War in Northern Laos 1954-1973, the last US bombings occurred this month 40 years ago. And according to Spencer C. Tucker’s authoritative Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (2012 edition), it was on April 17, 1973, that the last Operation Barrel Roll sorties were flown over Laos.

The history is hazy because much of the documentation is. Some sources point to March 29 as the last day of bombings, but the National Archives database contains records of raids and bombings well into April. Not all entries are complete—all of these records, from all the years of warfare throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, were originally filed with punch cards, recorded to tape and subsequently re-recorded to new media. It’s easy to see how clarity was lost. There were years between transcriptions, during which various media degraded. And in some spots, entire months are missing from the records—for unknown reasons. But these archives offer the most of what we can hope to know right now.

I wanted to get a sense of what life might have been like for people living in Laos on April 17, 1973, that supposed “end” of war. And on that day, according to National Archive records, the US Army and Air Force initiated some 60 missions originating at various bases—Nakhon Phanom, Korat, Takhli, Anderson, Udorn, Ubon, Utapau—aimed for Laos. There were F4s, A7s, F111s, EC130s, EB66 Cs, U21s and B52s. Many were reconnaissance missions. Some were aborted. Some were diverted to Cambodia. But three missions originating at Utapau were noted as “heavy bombard.” While there seem to be double entries for those three attacks, the records indicate each plane was loaded with 500-pound MK 82 general-purpose bombs. Their targets were precisely entered into the archive. The planes dumped their loads near a trail snaking along the Nam Ngiap River in Xieng Khouang province.

Interactive Google map

When I look at those coordinates on a satellite map today, I see pinpoints—one near a village called Thaviang, another up the road a bit, and the third in a green mess of forest.

I wonder: what was it like on the ground that day, 40 years ago? It’s unlikely villagers would have heard the B52s that dropped those bombs—they flew too high for detection from the ground. But other flights—for reconnaissance or electronic intelligence gathering—civilians might have seen and heard. And feared.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

A man named Bounkheng, who says he fears the unexploded bombs in his village, points out craters everywhere on a tour through the small town of Boualapha.

That’s another thing I’ve learned from villagers who lived through that time: people feared the planes. They never knew when or whether or where the bombs would fall, but the fear set in when the skies rumbled with engines (and later when the ground shook from unforeseen attacks). That fear, they remember clearly. It would haunt them on April 18 and April 19. It would haunt them months down the road. It would haunt them through decades of accidents that have claimed the lives and limbs of friends and family.

That fear haunts them still.

That is the human toll of terror by bomb. We can count the dead, we can tally the injured. But we can never quantify the scars that remain on land, body and mind. And in that way, a fragmentation bomb is the utmost of insidious weapons.


A local farmer returns home from washing in a stream near Sophoon. The field behind is where another villager was injured by a bombie when she was digging with her husband.

The Cambodian Worker’s Diet

©2013 Jerry Redfern

Srey Pot Mom and Ben Sarith eat a dinner of steamed rice and beef soup with gourd. The slat table on which they sit serves as dining table, kitchen counter, living room sofa, and bed. Their room, like all of their neighbors’, is just big enough for a person to squeeze between that slat bed and the wall. Most apartments this size sleep 3, 4, even 8 people. Srey Pot Mom and Ben Sarith both have factory jobs during the dry season. When the rains return, they will head home to their countryside farm.

The New York Times has a story this week on Cambodia’s economic uptick as companies—notably, factories—shift business from China to Phnom Penh. The article, I think, leaves the impression that Cambodian wage-earners benefit from that trend. But the piece neglects a key voice that might offer a more nuanced perspective: the voice of the worker.

It’s true: Phnom Penh bustles with business, and the streets clog with trucks escorting workers to and fro, and industrial centers sprout from the former rice paddies that surrounded the city not long ago. Big-name brands and international corporations increasingly claim Cambodia among their places of work. And the minimum wage for factory employees goes up and up (again next month, to $75 plus a $5 health allowance). Good, right?

©2013 Jerry Redfern

One family’s kitchen pantry hangs on the wall: a bag of market food, a small bag of oil, and a cleaver. Eight people live in this room about 12 feet by 16 feet. An ailing mother sleeps on the bed while a relative cooks dinner on the floor beneath it. All the healthy adults in the family work in factories. They came to Phnom Penh from the countryside to pay for their mother’s hospital bills.

But here’s what happens: salaries go up, and so does rent. So does the price of food. When government approves a minimum-wage increase, it’s in the news. Everyone knows. Landlords know, vendors know, drivers know. And the workers pay.

Most factory workers come from the countryside. They are farmers, but few can survive on farming alone these days. So they come to the city in the off-season, hoping for work. Or they come to the city when a kid gets sick or a storm wrecks the roof or they run out of food. And then they search for work—not with hope, but dire need.

Many workers plan to save what they make and send it to relatives back home. Or to pull themselves out of debt. Or to send their kids to school. Or to find a better life. That’s the plan.

But what they say, at home, at night, in the cramped quarters they share in a neighborhood maze with hundreds of other workers, is this: very little goes according to plan. They are happy to have work, but sick in mind and spirit to be working their fannies off all day long, every day, with no spare riel to save.

And when the money runs thin, they eat less. They grow weak, and tired, and they often get sick.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

A woman cooks dinner in the alley behind her apartment. Clothes hang on the wall—the rooms have no space for closets or dressers.

But the cycle continues—it doesn’t pause for the time they need to heal. The workers go to work. They sew buttons on shirts and zippers on pants that get packed into boxes destined for department stores and strip malls in every corner of Europe and America. We all wear the labels, we all shop at the stores. They are everywhere. And the work of these men and women hangs on all of our backs.

©2013 Jerry Redfern

A vendor sells papaya salad to factory workers outside their apartments.

Photos by Jerry Redfern.