Farming with Trees in Belize

Eladio on forest farm

This is Eladio Pop, shielding his head from the rain on his farm in southern Belize.

His farm? This looks more like a forest, right?

It is. It is both. It’s a few dozen acres of dense and diverse tropical growth in the hills along the San Pedro Columbia River, where the early Maya made their home. Here, among the ancient stones that formed the city of Lubaantun, Eladio grows food for his wife and 15 kids.

But he doesn’t mimic the many industrial farms in Belize—acre upon acre upon acre of oranges or other single crops. Instead, Eladio says, he sees himself as a caretaker of the land (not an owner), and he works to maintain it in its natural state: lots and lots and lots of plants, edible species, with insects and animals that share this ecosystem with him.

Modern monocrop farming—which puts all resources into a single yield—leaves a lasting environmental footprint. It is typically harsh on the ground, requiring more and more fertilizers and pesticides as the soil depletes and pests abound. There is pollution, runoff and erosion….

SlashBurnCInsects are treated as problems, not helpers. And in places like Belize, the indigenous rainforest is destroyed—slashed and burned, razed and graded—to make room for single crops. This happens in industrial agriculture. It happens in subsistence agriculture, too.

SlashBurnAGone is the lush forest canopy—and so is the panoply of species it inspires.

It’s not just Belize; this happens across the globe. As populations grow, more land is cleared. When there is no more land to clear, fallow periods diminish, putting more pressure on the soil. Yields fall. Insects invade. Farmers use more fertilizers and pesticides—and the cycle continues. In the past year of reporting, I have heard this story time and again in interviews with farmers in Belize, Rwanda and Myanmar. It is a widespread predicament.

But monocrop agriculture is not only a threat to the environment. It’s a threat to farmers and food security. Especially family farmers. When a flood or drought or infestation strikes, monocrop farmers have just one chance—just one egg in their baskets, so to speak. But farmers like Eladio have an abundance of opportunity. If one species fails, he has dozens of others that might not. Diversified farming is, in essence, insurance.

It’s also good for the belly. The typical diet in southern Belize is corn and beans—and sometimes little else. Or sometimes just corn and chile. In other parts of the world where one crop dominates, many of the poorest farmers rely on that one crop for the bulk of their food. Often, they don’t have access to other foods—it’s too expensive or there is no market. Or they simply don’t know the nutritional requirements of a balanced diet. Today, in rich countries and in poor, malnutrition is not just the result of too little food. It’s often the result of too much, with too little variety.

Belize cacao and beansNot so for the farmers in southern Belize who practice agroforestry—growing dozens, even hundreds, of foods in and among the forests.Belize corn is forestOur latest video for SciDev.Net tells the story of Eladio and others who practice agroforestry in this one, small pocket of the world.

More than 1,000 years ago when the city of Lubaantun flourished, it supported far more people than live in these hills today. The early Maya gardeners took plants from the jungle and grew them in their own gardens. They worked within the forest—not against it. And the forest fed them.

Nim Li Punit


An International Women’s Day Tribute to Farmers

PeaceThis is Peace. She lives in a packed-earth home in Kashunika Village, Nyagatare District, in the far northeastern corner of Rwanda*….

Peace's bananas… and these are some of Peace’s bananas. They’re important. These bananas have given her new hope. A while back, Peace was ill with a condition that cost her both time and money. She used to have a goat, but she had to sell it to pay her bills. Peace has recovered now—she has the strength to work again, which is a good thing. Her neighbor gave her a banana tree, which she planted in the small yard surrounding her home. And then she planted more. And more—until her whole yard filled with bananas, which she eats every day.

Peace says life is improving; she can care for herself. But she could still use another goat.

JacklineThis is Jackline. She lives in eastern Rwanda in a village called Ubwiza. She and her husband, Gakoza, belong to a local farmers co-op, growing maize and beans for their family and for sale.

Jackline also has a project of her own. That’s her, below, with her cow.

Jackline w:her cowJackline is part of a community health program that allows neighbors to keep tabs on villagers’ health (and refer ailing neighbors to a clinic if necessary). The program also helps the needy—often widows—feed themselves and their families. Jackline received this cow from a neighbor. The cow had a calf, and now it’s Jackline’s turn to pass it on to another neighbor. Each adult cow produces milk for the family, and sometimes a surplus for sale. One by one, these women are helping each other secure a future free of worry about food.

Sunday is International Women’s Day, which is why I’m telling you these things. This year’s theme is “Make it Happen.” To me, Peace and Jackline represent so many of the women I have met around the world: strong women who grow their own food. Diligent women who feed their own families. Courageous women who help each other survive. And unwavering women who struggle through the hard times to do what must be done. To make it happen.

Women produce more than half the world’s food. They are “the backbone of rural societies,” according to Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Women are also critical to solving the problems that impoverished families face.

Yet, compared with men, women have far less access to everything they need in order to grow and thrive—education, health care, business skills and benefits, technologies, land rights, equality. This reality has a profound effect on global hunger. According to the World Food Programme, if women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry people in the world could drop by 150 million.

I could say much more. Instead, I will leave those who are interested in the plight of women farmers in the developing world with a few resources:

2015 Hunger Report, “When Women Flourish…We Can End Hunger.” (Bread for the World Institute)

“Women, Agriculture and Food Security.” (FAO)

“Invest in Women Farmers to End World Hunger.” (Heifer/

“Women and World Hunger.” (Women Thrive Worldwide)

“Reduce Hunger, Nurture Women Farmers.” (IRIN)

“Hunger Statistics.” (WFP)

Potato farmer

A woman hoes her potato field along the highway leading to Musanze and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

*And speaking of women, huge kudos and thanks to the International Women’s Media Foundation for making this reporting trip to Rwanda possible.

Tree Tomato Mornings in Rwanda

tree tomato 01I’m already missing my morning tree tomato. As some of you know, I spent much of February in Uganda and Rwanda as part of an international reporting fellowship through IWMF, the fabulous group heading up this ambitious initiative. I’ll have much more to share about what we did and where we went and the people we met, so stay tuned. But right now, let’s start with breakfast.

In Kigali, the Hotel Chez Lando offered an ample morning buffet with typical Western staples (toast, jam, cereal, eggs), plus a vast spread of plate-filling potatoes, hot vegetables, beans, stewed meat, ham and cheese, fresh fruits, juices, coffee and tea (both black and African—milky, with spices).

The one thing I reached for each morning was the tamarillo.

tree tomato 02This luscious fruit can look like a mango, perhaps a tomato, maybe even an apricot. Sometimes it’s red, sometimes it’s yellow. It has the tang of passionfruit and the deep, dark juice of a runny beet (with a bit of that earthiness too). Slice it open, scoop out the seeds and eat them in a syrupy clump. Or blend the whole fruit with banana and make a ruby-red shake.

tree tomato 03The tamarillo is also known as the tree tomato and is, in fact, a cousin to that other beloved fruit. It comes from the same family that gives us eggplants, potatoes and peppers. Unlike those crops, low to the ground, the tamarillo grows on trees that can reach 15 feet or more.

I first encountered the tamarillo in Nagaland, in the far northeastern reaches of India, several years ago on my journey to find the world’s hottest peppers. High in the Naga mountains, tamarillo is cooked in ash and eaten as a savory vegetable in curries, chutneys and “pickles.” The fruit is eaten when it’s tart, more akin to a slightly green tomato than a pomegranate bursting with juice. You can find a recipe here (if you don’t have tamarillo, substitute tart tomato). And—throwback—if you’re interested in the story of my Nagaland journey, visit this page and scroll down to a PDF of “The red hot chile peppers.”

More from Rwanda soon….

tree tomato 04

Big Tamale on Market Day, Belize

PG Mkt A

We spent the weeks before the holidays in the far southern tip of Belize. The little town of Punta Gorda sits on the water, and every day travelers and migrants arrive by boat from Honduras and Guatemala. PG, as it is called, is the capital of the country’s wettest region, known as Toledo. It’s also the poorest and the most rural, sometimes called “the forgotten district.” But it’s full of life.

As in most places, the local market is a good spot for flavor. The town’s permanent market is under renovation, so vendors are temporarily settting up shop next door, along a one-lane road right on the Gulf of Honduras. This market has few rivals in backdrop – lapping waters and sea birds swooping behind makeshift wooden stalls.

PG Mkt CThe clientele reflects the ethnic mix that is Belize: Mopan and Kekchi Maya, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, Mestizo, Rastafarian and more. Mennonites with suspender-clad pants and long red beards are the area’s primary suppliers of dairy, chicken and produce. They often roam village to village, selling melons from horse-drawn carriages. But they’re here at the market, too.

PG Mkt ProduceChinese shoppers carry bags with Chinese characters. Short Maya women in pretty flowered dresses stand behind their tables of beans, cilantro, culantro, chile powder and cacao. Some sell clay necklaces, embroideries and baskets. Most the vendors are women, a few are men. The offerings are a stunning array of color on this slate-gray day: oranges, bananas, habaneros, plantains, cabbages, cantaloupes, gingers, tubers, tiny tomatoes, watermelon seeds and sapodillas.

PG Mkt BSome Maya women sell tamales from big plastic buckets. We buy two for breakfast. I’ve eaten a lot of tamales in my life, but never one quite like this.

PG Tamale AThis tamale is enormous – whole chicken legs smothered in a thick white pouch of masa, double wrapped in heliconia leaves. The chicken and the surrounding masa are a beautiful amber-red color, from recado rojo, or achiote paste made with annatto and spices. It’s peppery on the lips but not tongue-scorching hot. Whole oregano leaves are baked right into the spongy corn. The leaves smell smoky and damp. It’s a salty, spicy, filling mound of breakfast, and I feel my girth expand as the tamale settles in my belly.

PG Tamale BTypically, the rains begin to cease this time of year, but our weeks in country are wet, wet, wet. It sprinkles, then pours on many market days. But when the sun does shine, the water sparkles and the streets move. The noisy storefronts up the road blare their speakers with music and sales announcements. Shoppers come to town from villages far away. Fish traders do a lively business in a dim concrete room against the pier where fishers unload their catch. The floor inside is slippery with seafood and feet. The air outside is thick and rich, perfumed equally by rainforest and sea.
PG Mkt Fish

New Mexican Posole with Red Chile: Holiday Fare for Good Luck

Posole 2014Here in New Mexico, posole is the centerpiece of many holiday meals. This hearty hominy stew is ubiquitous on Christmas and New Year’s, shared with family and friends, eaten for good luck in the upcoming year. Key to the dish are large dried corn kernels, simmered for hours until they pop and split, imparting rich flavors with a unique texture—a little bit chewy, but firm and nutty. You can make posole from canned hominy, but that wonderful consistency will never be the same as posole made from scratch.

This dish dates to ancient Mesoamerica. The corn is soaked in slaked lime (limestone and water, or calcium hydroxide), which helps preserve the corn, makes it easier to digest and far more nutritious, as the lime reacts with the corn to make niacin available for the body to use. This process, called nixtamalization, is also used in making masa for tortillas. Untreated corn will not bind with water to form a dough. Soaking the corn in ash also has the same effect, and that is how early New Mexicans prepared their corn.

For us this year, it seemed especially fitting to make Christmas posole. We’ve just returned from a reporting trip to Belize, where we spent the bulk of our time in wet, wet, WET rainforests and Maya villages, where locals grow all their own corn and do all their own processing by hand. We ate the most wonderful thick tortillas, made daily on the family comal. And I did not tire of corn!

Infinite variations of posole exist. Every home cook has her own little twists, her own secret ingredients for that perfect bowl. Here in New Mexico, pork is common—but you don’t have to make it that way. You can use dried posole kernels (which have been treated and dried again) or, as I did this time, frozen treated posole readily available here through Albuquerque’s Bueno Foods. Please avoid canned hominy, unless it’s your only option. The flavor and texture fall far short of what posole is meant to be.

Equally important to your corn selection is chile. Many recipes call for the whole dried New Mexican chiles often found on pretty hanging ristras like these:

New Chilies BI used red chile sauce, a portion of the monstrous batch I’d made (and frozen) a few weeks before, in the prime of autumn. It’s a bit of an annual tradition here: replacing last year’s front-porch ristra with a bright new string of this year’s crop. (Read through to the end for recipe.) If you use dried chiles, you can prepare the sauce while the posole is cooking.

If you haven’t already planned your New Year’s menu, there’s still time. Try a pot of posole for good luck in 2015. Enjoy – and happy holidays to all.

New Mexican Posole (a personalized version)

2 pounds of frozen, treated posole (or dried equivalent)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
7 large garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots peeled and chopped into small cubes
15 allspice berries crushed
A glug of red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound pork stew meat
1 1/2 cups soup stock or water
4 1/2 cups water
Pinch of dried sage
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon safflower (optional)
2 cups ristra chile sauce (recipe below)
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
Possible toppings: sour cream or Mexican crema, chopped green onions, cilantro, fresh lime

Rinse the posole and place in a large pot. If using dried posole, soak overnight and drain first. Cover with water and boil until the kernels pop and begin to soften and split. Cooking time can vary dramatically depending on type of posole, elevation, etc., but expect this part to take at least an hour if using frozen posole (four hours or more, possibly, for dried). Do not let the kernels turn thoroughly mushy. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, brown the pork in its own fat in a well-seasoned skillet. Add to cooked posole, then use the same skillet to saute garlic, onion, carrots, allspice and glug of red wine, salt and pepper. Add to posole, then deglaze the skillet with a bit of water; add the liquid to posole.

Return posole and other ingredients to heat, add stock and/or water, and bring to a simmer. Add sage, bay leaves, cumin, oregano and safflower. Continue to simmer until posole kernels are thoroughly cooked and stew flavors are blended, at least another hour. Toward the end of cooking, add chile and mix well. Add butter if desired, for a little extra richness. Serve with toppings of your choice.

Old ChiliesJust like posole, red chile sauce has as many variations as cooks. Several New Mexican recipes call for flour, but I avoid wheat. Some use garlic, some use onion, some use an array of Southwest spices. Here’s the version I created:

New Mexican Red Ristra Chile Sauce
Adapted from the Santa Fe School of Cooking Cookbook

Pods of 1 large ristra (about 40 on mine; vary amounts of other ingredients accordingly), cleaned, sorted and broken open (instructions follow)
Rubber gloves
Boiling water to cover pods
1 small head of garlic, cloves chopped
2 yellow onions, chopped
Oil or butter for frying
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground sage
Salt and pepper
A bit of vinegar, wine or citrus if tanginess is desired

Cleaning ChiliBuggy ChiliOld RistraMethod:
The hardest part about making ristra chile sauce is the cleaning and sorting. Before you begin, put on those rubber gloves! Trust me, even if you have hands of steel, the heat in these pods will eat its way through your senses and your skin will burn after handling a whole ristra.

Every pod is tied with string or twine. You’ll need to remove each pod individually, and carefully check it over (especially if it’s been hanging outside for a while). Crack each one open, remove the seeds and discard any pods with mold, bugs or other undesirables inside. See the middle photo above? We found many pods with tiny insects burrowed inside, as well as a few cocoons. You don’t want those in your sauce. Retain all good portions of the pods. Rinse with tap water (to remove dust, dirt and cobwebs), then cover with boiling water in a heat-proof bowl. This will soften the pods.

Meanwhile, saute garlic and onions in oil until softened. Set aside.

When chiles are softened, drain and retain the liquid. Put chiles, garlic and onions in food processor along with a portion of the liquid. Blend until smooth, adding more liquid until the mixture becomes the desired consistency. Heat the sauce at a simmer for about 20 minutes, along with spices, adding more liquid if the sauce is thicker than you prefer. Taste before finishing: chile sauce is a personal thing. Add more of any ingredient you feel necessary. Sometimes I find the sauce would benefit from a bit of tanginess and I add a splash of red wine or apple cider. I’ve also used fresh orange for a sweeter variation. Remember, it’s your chile sauce and you can make it taste any which way you please! Serve with tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chips… or anything you think needs a dash of red, flavorful heat.

Chili Pot_DSC2448

Thanksgiving Appetizer Idea: Georgian Eggplant Walnut Rolls

badrijani nigvzit eggplant rollsBadrijani nigvzit

Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Americans! May the sentiment of our holiday spread far and wide across the world. We need it.

I don’t have an entire holiday menu to share, but I do want to alert you to a little something for the pre-feasting. An eggplant appetizer, rich and smokey, garlicky, nutty, tart & sweet. It’s called badrijani nigvzit, and I’m addicted.

The first thing I ate in Azerbaijan was this incredible Georgian dish. My friend and colleague, Angela, picked me up at my hotel shortly after my arrival and took me to her apartment. It was a warm summer night with long-lasting light. She poured me a glass of wine and offered a tray of badrijani nigvzit from the little underground (literally) Georgian restaurant down the street. I’d never tasted such a thing: thin strips of eggplant grilled to smokey delight, wrapped around a filling of walnut garlic paste with herbs and spices (a pinch of fenugreek is key here), topped with fresh fruity pomegranate seeds bursting with flavor. Not to tell you what to do, but this would make a delightful seasonal dish for the holiday.

Picking pomegranatePicking pomegranates

I made these rolls a few weeks ago, when our trees still had fruits — along with green leaves. No more. The winter months have arrived with cold and wind, and our yard is blanketed in leaves. (But we still have plenty of sunshine.)

This was my first attempt at making badrijani nigvzit, so I consulted several recipes to approximate the dish I remembered from Baku. The rolls turned out very garlicky, which I like, but you might want to reduce the garlic if you’re not so keen. Here goes:

Ground WalnutsGround walnuts

Georgian Eggplant Rolls with Garlic-Walnut Paste & Pomegranate (badrijani nigvzit)

2 large globe eggplants (or 6-8 medium-sized long eggplants)*
2 cups walnut pieces
4 garlic cloves
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons ground fenugreek
2 teaspoons ground coriander
pinch of ground turmeric
1/2 cup each packed cilantro and parsley leaves (optional)
dash of red chile powder to taste
seeds of 1 pomegranate
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

*I prefer the long eggplants, but I was unable to find a healthy variety on the day I shopped for eggplants, so I opted for fat globes. They worked well.

Wash the eggplants, cut off the ends and slice into thin strips with skin still on. If you’re using large globe eggplants, cut each in half lengthwise, then again. Each slice should be about 1/4 inch thick (too thick and they won’t roast properly). Sprinkle with salt and let sit for half an hour to draw out the moisture from the eggplants.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse the eggplants, brush with oil and place on a baking sheet. Roast about 15-20 minutes, flip, coat with more oil if necessary and continue roasting until the strips are nicely browned, slightly crispy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside, but not burnt. Be careful: the skins can burn easily and the eggplant can dry out. This step can also be done on a grill.

Meanwhile, grind the walnuts in a food processor. You want a coarse grind, but not mush. Then add remaining ingredients except pomegranate seeds and purée. Some recipes also call for a teaspoon of ground marigold, but I didn’t have any. Add more water if necessary. You want a thick but spreadable paste that holds together.

Let the eggplant strips cool. Then spread a hearty tablespoon of walnut mixture onto each strip and roll snugly so each strip holds together with the paste inside. Place on a platter and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.

Ground fenugreekPounded fenugreek seeds

Blender GoodsBadrijani nigvzit walnut paste ingredients in a food processor

Freezing Lemongrass for the Winter

photo 5We’re leaving. Got a 6 a.m. plane to catch. But unlike so many times before, this time we are taking a vacation—true vacation, no work, 7 days, Hawaii. Bliss. It’s been a painfully long time since we have booked time away with no obligations (that’s the trouble with a career that centers on travel… every trip presents yet another opportunity to work, at least a little bit). So. Hawaii it is. More on that to come….

What I’m sharing now is a smidgen of the prep work behind this departure (because leaving always entails a race to get ready, no?). I looked at the garden and realized I had to do something with all that lemongrass, or I risked returning to a sad, fallen clump of frostbitten leaves. We’ve been lucky so far: few nights of freezing temps, and plants still intact. But it won’t last.

So I cut them all down.

photo 4We had such a lovely crop this summer. Trust me, once you have your own homegrown lemongrass on hand, you will never willingly return to the American store-bought variety. Homegrown lemongrass is divinely fragrant, so lemony fresh with hints of summer rain. This is a plant that loves water. It rewards you with the scent of every thunderstorm that helped it grow.

But this is a plant that hates cold. It won’t survive a winter in frozen ground. Take it indoors, grow it in a pot, and you’ll be happy. Leave it in a cold winter garden, and it’s gone.

photo 3But the succulent stalks can be cut, cleaned, trimmed and stored in the freezer. And the leaves—rough and dry, yet still aromatic—can be hung to dry, then turned into tea.

photo 2

If you garden, if you love tropical foods, if you haven’t already: please try growing lemongrass. It’s such an impressive plant. I’m amazed every time I pluck a stalk—what a wondrous smell. How can a single plant smell so good? We are lucky, on this earth, to have such beautiful foods.

photo 1

And we are lucky, in this country, to have such an easy means of preservation: the freezer. How often do we ponder this appliance that offers us the a sudden burst of summer in a mid-winter meal?


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….