Welcome to my Garden

Welcome to my garden and my musings.

My name is Lesley Stern, I’m a writer and have been gardening most of my life, for the last twenty years in San Diego where we are lucky enough to garden all year. I share the garden with Jeffrey and Roxy the cat and three chickens, as well as numerous butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, lizards and pests galore. 

I am starting this diary during a global pandemic and a climate crisis such as never before experienced. If gardening is addictive and frequently bucolic it is also sometimes a battleground. I feel immensely lucky to have my garden, but miss talking with other gardeners, and also visiting other gardens and nurseries. I do, however, talk with passersby (wearing our masks and at a suitable distance), and it gives me great pleasure in this time to give pleasure to many who do not have a garden of their own. Especially the little boy who calls it the Butterfly Jungle. I would like to welcome to this blog new gardeners, old gardeners, and those who simply enjoy the sensations, and the ideas, that gardens make possible. 

Mine is a small suburban garden, less than a quarter acre, but every inch is jam-packed with plants. Come in, off the street, take a look.

And now down the side of the house and through the back gate

Turn and enter the back yard through a small path edged with pineapple guava trees

Now you see our offices and garage (aka garden shed) on the right, the so-called “white” garden on the left, slightly hidden, and behind that the chicken run.

slight detour to meet Gigi, Isadora (aka Izzy) and Lorelei

At last we reach the vegetable garden

We cook a lot from the garden, but also range beyond its confines and the confines of this country. I grew up in Zimbabwe and have lived in Britain and Australia as well, and in both gardening and cooking am interested in ideas from elsewhere, as well as stories and histories. 

Sometimes the posts to this blog will occur daily, sometimes they will be spaced out over weeks. Sometimes the writing and images will stay close to home, other times they will digress and meander. I’m interested in hearing from other gardeners particularly from other parts of this country and from other parts of the world, and in including your images.

If you would like to receive an alert when a new blog is posted just click on the comments button at the end of this post, or any other, and you can fill in your email. You do have to leave something in the comment box I’m afraid (though you can just enter one word, your name say; I’d love it, however, if you would say something).

We practice like this. Monday 31st August.

we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.

“Every act of living is an act of learning to die, of apprenticing ourselves to the loss of this moment, of this collarbone being touched, of this hand doing the touching.” So Maria Popova introduces Ross Gay reading his ODE TO BUTTONING AND UNBUTTONING MY SHIRT. He seems to be becoming the resident poet on my blog, as I slowly wend my way in and out of his The Book of Delights.

Gardening, cooking – they keep me going, slowly, moment by moment, gesture by gesture. What you bring into being passes away, gets gobbled up by hungry humans or rats, or simply lives as long as it’s meant to. You start again. Or not.

Writing is more complicated…

Things I can eat: green beans (but no dried beans), cabbage, most berries, butter, eggs, cheese, bread, flour, rice, eggplant, lettuce, watermelon, grapes, celery

In the high potassium – stay away from – category I’ve figured out a little bit is fine as long as you stay with low potassium for the other meals.

green beans steamed lightly and tossed with a mix of red miso and mirin, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Actually you are meant to grind a larger quantity of the sesame seeds and then mix the powder into the dressing. But sesame seeds are on the bad list, so an adaptation. When I returned from living in Japan in the early 80s I desperately craved Japanese tastes, and used to make this salad a lot. Try it, its very addictive. It’s from a Japanese recipe book, in English, I got in Tokyo


I came across this lamb and green beans stir fry recipe on line quite by chance and thought, well why not give it a whirl? as i had all the ingredients on hand. I used a lot less lamb but otherwise more or less followed the recipe. I liked the balance of flavors in the recipe. That Szechuan slow burn!

I love Lucinda Williams. I love Bill Buford. So what a gift to find “Delta Nights,” a long profile of LW by BB – first published in The New Yorker in 2000. It probes and reviews intricately but with a mostly light touch, though sometimes not so light, you can feel the sabre’s piercing twist. It’s far from  hagiography though Buford’s fascination with his subject can be felt throughout, a pulsing vein. He is great on the language and music of the songs, on family history, the South, romance and melancholia. My only hesitation is that his take on romance and melancholia leans a little towards a grown-up-boys-own version. A woman might have written this differently, might bask differently in the music, feel slightly different reverberations. 

It happens that I recently read Buford’s Dirt, which I enjoyed as much for the writing as the stories of Lyon and foodthough it didn’t grab my attention in the same way as his earlier Heat. What made me sit up though is when he got onto sauces, and I wondered: when did I stop making the classic (read French) sauces? When and why did they slip out of the repertoire? Not just mine, more a generational thing. I suspect it was part of the turn against haute cuisine, against butter, against flour, and particularly against their combination in sauce-making; and then also a turn towards Asia. I do, however, remember some of the occasions which provoked their making: sub-Proustian moments in that they lack the melancholic longeur of memory, but similarly somatic, insistently sensuous. When I visited London in the early 1980s a film maker I’d met in ’79  at the epoch-making Women’s Film Event at the Edinburgh Film Festival invited me to lunch and cooked asparagus for which she whipped up a hollandaise sauce. Those colors – the emerald greenness of the asparagus, still crunchy, and the pale but glistening yellow sauce, and the way they merged in the mouth. Back in Australia I made it all the time – for a while. A velouté sauce with fish – that I had at a simple pavement café near the Gare du Nord  – tormented me for years, I could never get it right. Then one day I did. I made it for a friend in Sydney, and for some mysterious reason all the elements cohered, magic transpired. The taste, the texture, it was perfect. And unrepeatable as it turned out. Though it occurs to me I’ve been making a variation for my fish pies. Maybe, after all, there is no mystery.

The sauce that’s got me currently in its thrall is mayonnaise. Whipping it up is such a pleasure, and so it’s mayo with this and mayo with that. Most surprising and ingenious is the mayonnaise marinade for barbecuing.

We tried it first with chicken thighs and peaches. Immediate conversion!

a week later – pork tenderloin with blackberry-habanero jam mixed into the mayo marinade

This idea has been around for a while but it creeped me out, the idea of all that oozing sticky richness. In fact it works brilliantly, both to adhere to its object and to prevent sticking. And it doesn’t taste of mayonnaise once cooked (though it easily accepts the mix-in of other flavors). I first read about it, about the scientific basis for its success, in a very clear explanation by J. Kenji López-Alt , but if you can’t access the New York Times there are lots of other good sites.

To continue the saga of help and friendship in the garden I have to tell you now the serendipitous story of how it is that Steve Ilott and I met and became friends and garden collaborators.

There is a better photo of Steve’s potting shed in “Turning something sweet into a savory delight. Friday, May 1” but it’s minus Steve

I had been here in San Diego just over a year when I landed up in hospital and out of action for 6 weeks. My large film history class was saved by Vickie and Stephen O’Rearden who stepped up and took on the daunting task, relieving me of worry about the stranded and abandoned students. It turned out that Vickie and Stephen are wonderful gardeners and Vickie is a voracious novel reader and Italian cook; we became friends and over the years they have helped me out on more than one occasion with caring for the garden, attending particularly to pruning, when I have been incapacitated.

Throughout 2001, when the front yard remained a yard but also a space of potential and fantasy, I became obsessed by roses. I had never grown a rose in all my life, but now the time had come. Eventually as the year came to an end I had whittled my list of hundreds of desired roses down to twenty five. The list included some old roses (Madam Plantier, Madam Alfred Carriere, Souvenir de Malmaison, Reine des Violettes, La Reine Victoria, Rosa Banksia, , Quatre Saisons, sometimes called Autumn Damask, Sombreuil, Cecile Brunner), four David Austen (including Graham Thomas), climbers (New Dawn, Altissimo, Sombreuil, Mme Alfred Carriere, Mme Plantier), Hybrid Teas (Barbra Streisand, Secret) Floribundas (Intrigue, French Lace, Sunsprite), miniatures (Gourmet popcorn, Jean Kenneally). 

In the new year my rose list was complete (in so far as a garden list is ever complete; the concept of a final garden list of any sort—things to do, plants to buy, tools to save for—is oxymoronic, garden lists are never final or complete).

At the time this is what I wrote:

“Even though it is finalized, and even though it is fantastical in so far as there is nowhere in my garden for any roses to go, I have been carrying my list around with me just in case …. in case of what I do not exactly know, but it is precisely what you never know that sometimes produces rabbits out of hats. And last week something truly magical happened: a rabbit out of a hat, a rose out of thin air. 

Steve’s garden, so different from mine

Vickie and Stephen invited us over while Jeffrey was here and to meet Milane and Steve Ilott. Their house is very close to the street, and the narrow front yard is bordered by a chain link fence through which are threaded brown twiggy canes. They tell me it is Zepherine Drouhin. I hope I can see this in bloom in the spring as it made it onto my list primarily on the strength of a disparaging but engaging description of its color as a “a Pepto-Bismal shade of pink.” You pass through the house and onto a patio perched on the edge of a canyon. It is a garden which speaks of years of devotion and gradual development as they have terraced and planted and nurtured. Everything is there, but spaced out, breathing – fruit trees, roses, orchids, natives, a small grassy patch, a thicket of four o’clocks. We wander and talk and drink and eat and at last get to coffee and somehow I confess my rose list. Ok, they say, read it out loud.

I begin, and as I read it suddenly feels to me as though I am reading an obscure cross word puzzle or some writing in a foreign language, it lacks both logic and rhythm, it seems to be a muddle of floating signifiers, all bobbing aimlessly in the air, unattached to anything of any real significance.  I am about halfway through when I reach Madame Alfred Carriere. “Stop a moment” says Steve Ilott. He gets up and leaves the house. I stop, everyone stops talking, and we are all a little embarrassed, bemused. In a few minutes he returns from the cold, carrying something in each hand, a six inch pot with a stubby rather dead-looking plant in each. “Here,” he says, “is Madame Alfred, and here is Quatre Saisons.”

Steve has rooted a number of these plants from cuttings (it is much easier, he says, to root these old roses, and also legal as they are not patented), and he has a number of them in his car to give away as New Year presents. Not to me, or at least they were not destined for me, since when he set out he did not know me. “Well,” he says, “this is serendipity and serendipity is destiny.” I am speechless. This is sympathetic magic, my list has magicked into being desire, at least a few of my floating signifiers have landed. 

I sometimes tell Steve that I am like the proverbial drowning sailor he saved and so is responsible for forevermore. Those roses were only the beginning, plants have kept coming ever since, plants nurtured in his potting shed. Also advice and inspiration, and garden gifts, like the frog that sits in the bird bath, and the extension pruners – to reach Madame AC’s exquisite blooms, waving around near the roof line, but also to keep her in check.

Over almost twenty years his plants have come and gone and the changes owe so much to him. When he retired last year, at a time when again i was somewhat incapacitated, he would come early in the morning once a week, and after weeding, Jeffrey would poach us eggs. I so miss this ritual since CoVid. I miss all the feasts, the pleasure of feeding Steve and other friends. Though he usually has to put in a bit of work for his dinner, as in the photo where he is shelling beans with Jeffrey.

Of the two roses Madame Alfred Carriere remains, a sprawling climber festooned with blooms, but Quatre Saisons is gone. She is the most divinely smelly of all roses (Rose of Attar is made from QS) and also excessively thorny. I loved her, loved walking by and breathing the air around her. But when I installed the grey water system and moved towards an urban orchard at the front most of the roses were shovel pruned, and given away. Jason Chen took QS but he had to dig her out. This proved to be a bigger job than expected. She had truly taken root at Herman Ave and was not happy about leaving. But she adapted well to Jason’s garden. This is the way with gardens, they change; and this is the way with friends: they exchange – plants and seeds and ideas.

And now, though there is more yard to table news and more comments I really want to respond to, I’m out of oomph. Since beginning this blog, well earlier today actually, I got some bad, though not entirely unexpected, news on the health front. At last got to see the vocal folds/cords guy and the speech therapist. Seems both my vocal cords are paralyzed. The official diagnosis is: Bilateral Voice Fold Paralysis. This means that they don’t either open or close properly. You need them to open in order to breathe, and close for speaking and swallowing. If it were just one (either opening or closing) and if it were only one vocal fold, it wouldn’t be so bad, but what i got is a double whammy. The damage is irreversible, he says, I will never get my old voice back, but will work with the therapist on breathing exercises etc to help with speech. He says he could do something to help with breathing but this would diminish speech even further. It’s to do with nerves and could have been caused by a number of things such as surgery, radiation, a lymph node pressing on a nerve, cancer treatment …

If there is one thing I’ve learnt through this long engagement with cancers it’s that what the West considers medicine is not the only way to stay alive. In addition to the garden I take inspiration from both my Tai Chi and Feldenkrais engagements, and my friend Elana, a recent convert to Feldenkrais, has urged me on along this path of alternative therapy, thank you for the reminder Elana, when i was feeling so bereft of hope. I know that my friend and Feldenkrais teacher, Liz Sisco, well be a guide.

we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth

Becoming Julia. Friday, August 21, 2020

Fires fires fires – all over California. The footage is terrifying, the way these fires move, the speed of devastation. The campus at U.C. Santa Cruz has been evacuated, and I fear for friends in the area. The air quality in San Francisco is bad, I imagine this is the case almost everywhere in Northern California. We are so far lucky, but no call for complacency, the winds could change at any moment. Maybe next time my blog will be written in a different register, but for today it’s a rumination on gardens and the food given to us from gardens, and other things …

Some Gardeners are greedy. Our eyes are bigger than our capacity, we tend to over reach, to bite off more than we can chew. Or we take on projects that we do not have the knowledge or expertise or tools to complete. Or we just get overwhelmed by weeds. So we need help. And perhaps we also seek out companionship in the garden. So friends and family are dragooned into collaboration or servitude, and sometimes we pay others to help. Few gardens are stand-alone works of art. 

Other Gardeners – those who work in gardens other than their own, usually for pay, sometimes out of friendship and love – are traditionally fairly invisible. Most of the great gardens of the world are sustained by armies of lowly paid gardeners who seldom figure in the literature. You might be forgiven for thinking that these gardens sprout out of the head of some genius and are maintained by beneficent genii let out of the bottle at night.

John Vass was head gardener at Sissinghurst from 1939-1957 but seldom rates a mention by Vita Sackville West in her copious writings. When she sacked him after a disagreement she said, “Well, I never loved Vass, you know.” Charles Darwin developed many of his theories in his garden, aided for 30 years by his gardener ‘Old Lakeman,’ who began work at the age of 14 and who scarcely rates a mention in Darwin’s writings. 

I grew up on a farm in the colonies, in what was then Rhodesia, and both the farm and the garden benefited from cheap African labor. To my shame I can remember scarcely any of the names of the “garden boys” from those years, though I do tell the story of one man, Jeremiah Mudimu, and his long relationship of servitude and friendship and collaboration with my father, in the book I’m working on now, Gardening in a Strange Land.  Naming is a way of preserving the presence of individuals and classes and ethnicities that otherwise disappear from history. It’s not enough, but it is a reminder of those who did the work and who otherwise only appear as ghosts, haunting histories told from the perspective of mastery. There is a very touching passage in The Gardens of Hampton Court (1950), in which Mollie Sands provides a list of the names of those who weeded the orchard of Hampton Court in 1516. “It seems worth recording their names,” she writes, “as a tribute to this whole class of essential but little-regarded workers.” Most of them were women.

All of this preamble is by way of answering the question I posed in the last blog: Who is Craig? From now on I’ll spend a bit of time in most blogs telling you about the many people who have contributed in one way or another to this garden I call “mine.” And since Craig is recent, Craig is now, it may take some time to reach him. But in the meantime, so you know it isn’t just a rhetorical refrain – who is Craig? – here he is, caught between tasks.

I moved into Herman Avenue on the 1st January 2001.

Jeffrey was visiting but soon went back to Australia, and it would be four years before he moved over permanently. I struck gold in terms of neighbors: on the one side Mrs Tam who I have written of in earlier blogs, and on the other side Patty Bathurst and her partner Cheryl (here for my first six years). Across the road, Dutch, and in the house next to him, Mrs Tam’s friend Margaret. Patty became an accomplice, someone to chat with and envisage the transformation of space. She was also the person who I could call on for help when things were too heavy or difficult to maneuver.

In January of 2004 I planted four fruit trees in the front – two peaches and two nectarines – in a single hole, the idea being that they would grow together, almost like one tree, and we would have stone fruit throughout the season. My diary notes tell me: “I rented a post hole digger and this helped the back, but still had to do much digging and earth moving and the day wore on, and it was off to the opera in the evening. I landed up digging a lot – with the pick part of the axe, as the other part buckled. Had to dig what felt like a huge hole though in fact it probably wasn’t big enough. Amazingly gratifying however to see how the soil has improved in a year. I soaked the roots in kelp solution in the bath tub indoors as the only big enough option – another impetus to get the trees into the ground before dark, cos I needed to have a soak with mineral salts for my back before a three hour opera. In the end got it done – just, and thanks to Patty. She helped by holding the trees in place. I got enough earth back to cover the roots and anchor them in place, and then abandoned the enterprise to rush in to cleaning the bath, running myself a new one, throwing some chicken into the steamer (eaten with Jeffrey’s delicious sorrel sauce, from a week ago) and pea soup made the day before.”

I’d love to report that those trees are growing still, bountiful and luxuriant. But alas the experiment was ultimately unsuccessful, mainly because I failed to keep the monster tree, May Pride, a too-early and not-too-tasty peach, in check, and it thwarted the others, particularly the magnificent looking and tasting, Red Baron. So out they came eventually, and in their place a single nectarine, Double Delight, and on the opposite side the nectaplum, Spice Zee. Double Delight is still small, but Spice Zee has become way too high, and both trees threaten to outgrow their domestic orchard. Spice Zee’s leaves are already turning and dropping, both trees are looking shaggy and bedraggled.

Just like me. I’ve been morose and depressed, worried that my vocal cords are permanently damaged. My voice has changed, it’s very hard to speak and I’m often gasping in an asthmatic mode, for air. All this arises from lung damage done during radiation last year (for lung cancer). But it’s gotten way worse. The pulmonary specialists have been awful in dealing with the cough (it sounds like whooping cough, or like the lament of a woeful werewolf). At the infusion Center I’m given my own room so as not to upset the other patients. And to add to this malaise: the CoVid apparition that has been greeting me when I pass a mirror would be horrifying if it weren’t so pathetic.

So: for the trees and I: a hair do. And for me a bit of tarting up, a mild assault on the look of bedraggled faded shabbiness.

Good reason for the raising of eyebrows!


Relief and joy! Still have to tackle THE CUT, but achieving something closer to what feels like my natural born color, getting a bit more body into the hair, was like a tonic. Charged with energy I was up early the next day, and with newly sharpened pruners, rehearsed THE (HAIR) CUT on the trees.

oh it’s a grand feeling, shaping a tree! Here the nectaplum

and here the nectarine

Summer pruning is not about stimulating new growth, it’s about cleaning up and shortening. Particularly important if you want to keep your trees small. It makes winter pruning so much easier. And it’s so much easier if you have help. I made an almighty mess, strewing branches and leaves all over the paths, and then ran out of energy. Lucky for me, Craig cleaned up the mess. You can see the pile of debris on the right, all those gorgeous yellow daisies turned to brushwood. Soon it will be Fall, time to prepare the soil for winter.

Back to Patty:

9/11 happened during my first year at Herman Ave. As shocking as it was, as traumatic as was the devastation, I found it hard to countenance what seemed to me xenophobic responses – American flags being planted up and down the street. I wrote at the time:

All over the world people are going about their daily lives, people who are not soldiers or ideologues or zealots, and suddenly they are attacked, tortured, killed. Topographies—emotional and geographic—are reconfigured in the time it takes for smoke to settle, blood to dry. Very often, in very many places, nothing will ever be the same again. 

I do not want to be here, in America, surrounded by talk of being American:  Peace-loving, misunderstood, beleaguered, exceptional.

As I think this thought I look across the road and see something different—Dutch has hoisted a Mexican flag. Patty comes over to help me prepare the bed for the lettuce seedlings and as we crouch together in the dirt she says, with her usual disarming humility and clarity, “I have absolutely no idea what it is like to be attacked … During the Korean War we did drills at school, preparing to hide under our desks if there was an air attack. But it was all a game, virtual reality. I did not even know where Korea was …”

Recently Patty sent me a message on social media: “Be well always my neighbor in heart.” 

Dutch laid the original slow drip irrigation in the front garden. After all these years, it remains as the basis of the watering system. And here am I digging the first rose hole

Dutch eventually moved away. I was not hospitable to Margaret. She would barge her way into the house, invariably with some lovely Chinese dish, sit herself down and start chattering. She died suddenly, of a cancer I did not know she had. Dutch told me, tearful; she was a good neighbor to him. I felt bad, and sad for Mrs Tam. I have written more than once about Mrs Tam and shown some images of her garden. We chatted every day, she in Chinese, I in English, we swapped plants and recipes. She knew a great deal about the medicinal properties of plants.

A word about the food pics, above, that butted in to my garden-help-friendship meandering. The first is Ottolenghi’s Red pepper and baked eggs galettes, from Jerusalem. No, I did not make the puff pastry. But I did make sure to get a good quality all-butter one, and this makes a difference – crispy, flaky, melt-in-the-mouth pastry. The melding of flavors in this dish, is great. Second: stuffed peppers (one of the veg I can eat on this drug diet). There are a thousand ways to do this, but if you are using rice as your base make sure you cook it with delight. Here I began as you do with risotto, including a dash of white wine, but then cooked it more like a pilaf with a home made chicken stock (vegetable stock would be good too). Add herbs, olives, capers, whatever takes your fancy … top with bread crumbs, and a dab of butter before it goes into the oven. Then: Jeffrey grilled a few prawns, to go with polenta and his romesco sauce (red peppers again).

The ramen noodles in the next dish look like worms, but tasted like heaven. I braised the cabbage (another veg I can eat) with shallots, ginger and garlic, then a splash of Shao Xing wine and some dried and frozen tiny shrimp, softened and ground up. Then add the stock. When it’s simmering, add some white miso. I did it like “Master” in Midnight Diner: take a ladle of the stock/soup and add the miso and stir it in the ladle before mixing into the larger pot. I cook the noodles separately for about three minutes, share them between two bowls and pour the cabbage soup over. The mango and cabbage slaw is tossed simply with dill, lime juice and fish sauce, NOT mayo. But its absence did provoke a desire for mayo, made the old fashioned way, which is so easy and satisfying – that marvelous sensation when it begins to emulsify, you feel it thickening, see it turn luscious. And then you can make a somewhat more traditional slaw. By the way, the left-over polenta was used in a variety of dishes. Most simply: fried and topped with parmesan which merges into the crust. Here, it turns up for Sunday breakfast

Another thing that lifted me out of the doldrums was a televisit with the lovely Dr Millen. It’s amazing how affirming – as a patient – it is when a Dr takes you seriously, listens, and thinks about your symptoms and experience. We now have a plan of how to make daily life and breathing easier and also a scheduled visit with a vocal cord specialist. She also made me laugh by saying “Your voice has changed! You sound like Julia Child.” Well Julia Child doesn’t have the most soothing voice, its a bit hoarse and high pitched (not to mention the pluminess), but I recognized something there, and in all sorts of ways wouldn’t you love to be compared to Julia Child? Millen sent me back into a TV binge of the early Jacques Pepin and Julia Child shows. So calming and restful, they make the most affectionate and engaging pair, the twittering about butter forming a melodic leitmotif: “do you think that’s enough butter? Oh I think a little more, don’t you ….. yes, I agree, here we go [toss in another stick]”

One of the joys of this blog has been meeting new people and engaging in food and garden chat with old friends. I have many queries and comments to respond to, but they will have to wait till next time.

I feel as though summer is fizzing out, many of my plants in the vegetable garden have given up the ghost, but still, it surprisingly keeps giving. Look at those strawberry figs – all eaten by Jeffrey as figs are one of the dicy fruits for me at the moment (likewise tomatoes).

But the significant thing is I managed to save these from the RATS! Moreover, Craig and I have not only hatched but also launched a new experiment in deterrence. I started thinking about what rats can’t chew through and thought of wire mesh. Craig ran with the idea and has made these giant pockets, sealed with staples. We’ll see. In fact rats can probably chew through anything. But the battle has been reinvigorated. If we defeat those rats I won’t begrudge Jeffrey a single fig!

Piquant and Spicy. Saturday, August 8, 2020

Anybody have any idea what this is? Patience will be rewarded and all will be revealed … later

And here’s some good news: my new book, Diary of a Detour will soon be released. In the meantime you can have a sneak preview of the introduction, also read a description of the book and first reviews.


You can also pre-order from Amazon

I’ve been lured, these past weeks, by the smells and sensations of non-Western cooking. Perhaps it is the sameness of these Covid days that has provoked a taste for the less familiar, an exposure to the surprises generated by recipes with spicy and piquant ingredients. Also, immersing myself in TV cooking shows, has sometimes surprised me by igniting sharp, vivid taste memories. Intensely teasing, provocative. On The Big Family Cooking Showdown an Indian family from London cooked a fabulous array of dishes, but the one that really set me off was shrimp biryani. I went to graduate school – a long time ago – in Glasgow and after that lived for a while in London, where at that time the best affordable restaurants in the UK were Indian (and then when I lived in Soho – Italian), so was able to enjoy various biryanis, but since then it hasn’t been much on the agenda and I have never made one. But that set me off – researching and conniving and gathering ingredients. We eat little shrimp but somehow once the desire had lodged I could entertain no substitute.

There are of course many styles of biryani, from different parts of India and adjacent countries, though it originates in Persia. The word Biryani is derived from the Persian word Birian, which means ‘fried before cooking’ and Birinj, the Persian word for rice. The cooking of rice and meat, or vegetables, separately seems fundamental – then combining them in layers in a pot for a Dum form of cooking (slow steaming).  

You can just see a shrimp tail or two peeking through the rice and the skinny caramelized onions sprinkled atop. It was worth the wait and all the pedantic preparing. It combined deliciously complex flavors with a high comfort quotient. And because the pot was capacious the rice lasted

to be enjoyed for lunch

Actually I did have a fluttering acquaintance with Indian food in Zimbabwe. My dad regularly served up what he called an authentic curry that he learned to make during the war when he was in India and Burma. Later I came to recognize this as an Anglo-Indian “curry.” But despite this travesty Dad was a curious and inventive cook, and my mum too. I often wonder where these unsophisticated farmers developed their interest in food, and foreign foods particularly, certainly not from their own parents (moreover, they never ventured beyond the African continent, apart from Dad’s war experience). Perhaps it was primarily from growing things, and in my father’s case from being exposed as a very young man to cuisines other than the British. And they read books. They also followed certain “alternative” health regimes – apple cider vinegar in a glass of warm water at breakfast every day, and Dad became a beekeeper when he read that the beeswax might benefit those with allergies (me). When I turned twenty one they could not afford to throw a party but Dad cooked a dinner for me and ten friends with eight dishes from around the world. The dish that’s always stayed with me was the Kenyan peanut chicken dish. In his last years (he died young) he was sending me in Glasgow recipes for the cookbook he was writing. They have gone missing; I mostly remember, however, his insistence that rice be washed 5 times. I was so impatient at the time. Now it is a poignant memory.

When I got to university in what was then Salisbury my eyes were opened to the colonoial-Angloness of Dad’s curry. Invited for a meal to an Indian friend’s house I experienced for the first time the splendid variety and complexity and color of Indian food. And how to eat it. We (my boyfriend, later husband, NS) became friends with Tony Rodrigues from Goa who belonged to a huge Catholic family that celebrated every birthday and christening and festive day with a party. Almost every weekend there would be a sumptuous feast of Goan delights and they made the very best chicken piri piri in Harare. NR did learn to cook a lot of dishes from these friends but I remained adamantly a non-cook, just a grateful glutton. And then, living for so long in Australia, the Asian influences were mainly from South East Asia and Japan. Now I’m considering taking an on-line class in Indian cooking. My knowledge is patchy, I can follow recipes, but don’t really have a feeling for the principles and spices.  And isn’t it about time I did?

Then there is China, and in particular those flavors of Szechuan. The dishes I miss most from our visits to Spicy City and Spicy House are the green beans and the eggplant. That slow burn after-taste! I’ve tried many recipes for the eggplant, but this time, with a bit of fineigling, I managed to approximate my memory pretty closely

I’ve tried many recipes for the eggplant, but this time, with a bit of fineigling, I managed to approximate my memory pretty closely, though how “true” that is I have no idea really. A Chinese cooking class as well?

Then there is gochujang: a taste that gets under your skin and tickles your nostrils and sends your imagination careening wildly. Here I really don’t know what I’m doing, I just know that this hot-and-sweet red Korean paste induces magic. So it found its way into these dishes

barbecued quail

Korean pancakes (with a dipping sauce) and the ubiquitous tromboncini

shishitos and a few beans that hid from and escaped the ravenous marauding rats

I adapted this from a New York Times recipe for shrimp and green beans, super quick and easy and scrumptious. You make up a paste of gochujang with soy sauce and a few other ingredients, toss your beans and shishitos, spread them on a sheet pan and broil quickly until they blister and the sauce gets jammy. Mmmm.

Today is Friday, the last day of the heaviest week of the month on the new treatment regime, when i seem to spend more time in one hospital or another than at home. When I returned last evening I felt I was drowning in the never-ending sea that is CLL.

My old friend Charlie, who I met when I first went to Australia at the age of twenty six, and who now, like me, is seventy and has Parkinsons, writes to me from Sydney. She is having to face packing up the lovely little house where she has spent so many years, where she has her art studio and garden. She writes: “How did we get here, Les? And I know we are the lucky ones – great supportive friends, a roof over our heads a warm bed to sleep in, still being able to enjoy watching our gardens grow B U T ….. I get woefully fatigued which you are very familiar with too. I still find the disjuncture between what the mind still thinks is possible and what the body can actually do pretty extra ordinary. Is it denial or disbelief ?” She expresses so well what I so often feel. Though I think too that there is an element of belief mixed in there, that keeps us going. I am both much luckier, and more of a habitual complainer. I have the prospect (albeit slim) of remission, and even now am beginning to feel, on some days, fairly OK. And even on bad days I can do loads of things that are now beyond Charlie. The march of CLL is nowhere near as relentless as that of Parkinsons, and treatment options have improved dramatically. What Charlie does achieve amazes and inspires me.

Sometimes I just want to be like I once was – kind of normal. Of course everyone is so fed up with living in the COVID-19 world and yearning for a return to normal. But as the science writer Ed Yong argues, in a brilliant but hardly comforting article in The Atlantic, How the Pandemic Defeated America,” “normal” is what got us into this fix. A normally disastrous and inequitable attitude to public health; endemic racism which has made Indigenous and Black Americans particularly vulnerable; the virtual absence of a social safety net which has forced millions of low paid workers to risk their lives.

“Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us.”

It’s true that we are the privileged and lucky ones, and never has it been more clear or humbling than in this crisis. I felt it especially when I got home from the hospital yesterday evening. Drowning in a sensation of drowning. Then I opened the car door. And there was my garden. Small, dusty, overgrown, but swarming and whirring with insect life.

You can see the small pomegranates forming, a yellow (turning apricot) Graham Thomas rose edging into the picture, fennel fennel everywhere, and white yarrow, a few white roses over the house, the gorgeous burgundy foliage of the Spice Zee tree, and there in the center the white Psyche cosmos that I mentioned planting out a few blogs back. Then it was tiny, now long-legged and balletic. Thank you Steve for nurturing them into existence. Next year I would love to plant them all over the front yard. Here is one in the vegetable garden, asserting elegant dreaminess in the face of powdery mildew and fizzling veg.

The show stopper in the front at this time of the year is a milkweed or asclepias, less common than the orange and red flowered tropical variety. Sprays of small pendant white flowers are tinged with purple, but it’s the soft bristly globular seed pods that stop the traffic

This is Gomphocarpus physocarpus, formerly known in botanical nomenclature as Asclepias physocarpa. Also known as Goose plant, Giant swan plant, Hairy balls, Family jewels, Oscar, Cotton-bush, Balloon plant milkweed. Both the monarch butterflies and caterpillars love and are sustained by this tall willowy plant. And kids adore them. I got the original plant from a nursery, but if anyone in San Diego or around would like seeds let me know and I’ll keep you some.

Imagine you are walking by …

And although my garden looks like a jungly mess, compare it – though to do so is of course invidious – to my neighbor’s lawn. And compare my neighbor’s lawn to what that exact same space looked like when dear Mrs Tam was alive

I miss her and hope that one day the lawn might again transmute into something we can’t yet envisage, but reminiscent of her green talent.

Spending a lot of time in the Halls of Medicine there’s lots to complain of … that arrogant young doctor who was offensively rude to both the nurses and myself; the desk staff who opted for infantilization and refused to tell me what was going on when I was kept waiting two hours for an infusion; the registrar who wouldn’t keep her mask on. But I am indeed lucky, in an excellent medical system with comprehensive insurance. And I know it isn’t in fact luck, it’s because I am white and middle class. It’s often easy to assume arrogance oneself, even if it’s the arrogance of the entitled victim.

So I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge all those health care workers who work so efficiently and cheerfully, negotiating their way through a barrage of cranky demanding patients as well as a system so bound by protocols that it’s sometimes difficult to maneuver. Like Denise the marvelous pharmacy worker who managed to get the insurance to approve the replacement of a single expensive pill that i lost because it popped out of its package and rolled around the floor. She ordered the replacement from the company and when the delivery went missing she tracked down the driver and retrieved it at the eleventh hour, all the time keeping me in touch with the unfolding drama. Or like my friends in Hillcrest Infusion. Last week there was an unexpected lull and so we were able to catch up, and I discovered that D’s father had died suddenly in the last month, and that L’s new dog got a very messy cancer. She’s been alone as her boyfriend is at sea for six weeks. She’d work in a cancer center all day and then go home and be up much of the night running a veterinary ICU unit. And you’d never know. They are always cheerful and efficient, and helpful. It’s a tough job in any time, but during COVID the stresses are massively exacerbated.

I was anticipating a lot of chagrin about the low potassium diet, but actually it’s been fine, just have to think differently and try to figure out a balance each day.

I just interrupted this to answer Marivi who arrived with a Gorgonzola bread she baked when told I couldn’t eat the chocolate cake she brought last time! (Bread and cheese, praise be the Lord, are OK)

cauliflower in a miso glaze. We had this with rice and gochujang shishitos

and finished up with a simple bowl of berries

Jeffrey made chicken stock and garnered a great deal of tender flesh which we used, little by little, in a variety of dishes:

Alas no ice cream or yoghurt or chocolate cake, but plums are fine – in a simple cake mix (recipe from Milk Street)

That would be a sweet note to end on. But my inner demons and my pugilistic propensities turn me back to the rats and other scourges in the garden, including the opening image. Rats, it seems, are everywhere in San Diego this year. Their latest crime is to devour half of the kabocha squash that was just coming ripe. I did manage to save just a few black Concord grapes by using plastic clam shells.

And so to the opening image. It is the plant we call the hydra, the invasive that plagues the garden. Its common name is Mexican Petunia (though it is not a petunia) and goes by various botanical names. The plant is attractive and the flower a lovely deep lavendar. My records tell me that I bought this as a one-gallon Ruellia brittoniana from a most reputable nursery in Vista as long ago as 2004. Has it been dormant all this time, just waiting its moment, or did it in fact travel here from another garden more recently? Whatever the answer, once it takes root it spreads tenaciously. We have been trying the attrition method, as we did with the bamboo: cutting to the ground every plant that sprouts. But the problem is that it has rhizomatic roots and so if you don’t get the whole root it will just reproduce. And as it regrows these hard knobby bases form. So Craig’s solution is to dig the whole thing out where possible. He is as tenacious as the ruellia. And who is Craig? you ask. And Peggy, and the other names entangled with this garden? Keep tuning in and the answers will be forthcoming.

But for now: do not be seduced by pretty purple flowers, think of what’s below the soil.

“Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” Friday, July 24, 2020

Bad news is everywhere: streaming on your phone, the radio, delivered by your friends as though they’d discovered it, it’s on headlines everywhere and also in the small print, don’t forget the small print, it’s in the walls and on the floor and in the fridge. Lucinda Williams has a great song, “Bad News Blues” that captures perfectly the sense of paranoia one can experience in these times of escalating crisis. But she pushes the repetitive refrain into hyperbole so that disaster eventually morphs into hilarity. You can see and hear her play this song, in dialogue with Steve Earle. She introduces Bad News Blues by asking “Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” I like even more the other song she performs as it’s more familiarly Lucinda Williams – “When the Way Gets Dark.” the refrain is “Don’t give up.”

While some are asking “Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” others of us, gardeners that would be, are asking “what can be done about the plague of rats that is here already?” Murderous thoughts fuel my nights and days. I go out in the morning to discover they have chewed great holes in the bags I foolishly and laboriously tied around the bunches of black grapes, and have demolished the crop. 

I knew that this was likely to happen so why did I even try? I suppose because it sometimes seems like a bit of a crap shoot. They haven’t, for instance – so far –  gnawed through the bags protecting yellow and orange tomatoes. And they haven’t yet attacked the plastic clam shells. But perhaps this does not indicate color or taste preference so much as the fact that they have been obsessively absorbed in the project of demolishing the grape crop. Now that’s done, they will move on. My fear is that they will move on to the figs, first the strawberry figs, swelling and turning a deep purply pink, promising succulence

I’ve done enough research on rats to know that they are unrelentingly invasive. I wrote a little piece for a fabulously frightening on-line project that Anna Tsing (who wrote the wonderful Friction and The Mushroom at the End of the World) and a group of colleagues are about to launch, called Feral Atlas. In initial discussions I had with Anna she kept gently reminding me that I was adopting a typically Humanitstic position which goes something like: of course invasives are terrible but in the end equilibrium and balance prevail. She was interested in invasives that have really done irrevocable damage, most often damage initiated in the post industrial world and spread through the paths of empire and colonialism. Rats, I discovered, actually started migrating and wreaking havoc much earlier: on the first boats to sail between continents. And they have never stopped. The bottom line is this: it’s almost impossible to eradicate rats except on islands, small ones preferably, like the Edenic Ulva Island we visited on the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.

But you can wage a vicious war that will eradicate their presence for a while. 

Of course they are not the only critters to threaten my little Eden, but they are the most difficult to contain. When Louis lent me his infrared camera last year three invasives were caught on film: Roxy our cat, the resident possum and a RAT. The video files are too large to download here, but here is Roxy occupying a wicking bed that has just been planted (more about wicking when I do a blog on water saving technologies and techniques).

You have probably wondered about the rather ugly structures that surround my raised beds in the vegetable garden. Not to mention the netting that in the past would often spoil a good photo. 

When I developed the veg garden and built the raised beds we were visited frequently by raccoons, as well as skunk and possums and squirrels, cats and chickens, some of which critters would get into the beds and create havoc

Some would eat the produce but on the whole they seemed more interested in digging up the grubs growing in the compost rich soil – they were just as happy with what they found in the pathways as in the beds. Not so chickens and cats and raccoons. So I concocted these rather ugly structures over which I would lay netting (until the plants grew too tall). Basically, it’s plumbing tubes and elbows. It would have been a good idea to paint the starkness of the white plastic, as I saw done in the water-wise garden so that the structures merge more into the landscape. In recent years I’ve stopped laying the netting. My dream is, if say by some miraculous means my next book made a bit of money, to build the kind of enclosure that Nan has – protecting her whole veg garden, so that you can walk in, and so I think can butterflies and other pollinators fly in. Though what about rats, I wonder. They devour produce and can weasel their way through any barricade. Rats rats rats – they gnaw at my fruit, they gnaw at my dreams. 

The chickens had a small run attached to their house and so we would let them out during the day to freely range and create havoc. They were deliriously happy

tossing the compost about

sneakily purloining tomatoes

and pulling up tender plants in the veg garden. So the structures kept them out, but still they were in heaven, churning up the white bed, and scattering mulch all over the backyard.

Eventually Matthew built a lovely run along the side fence, to extend el palacio de las princesas. My old beloved cat Elvis is buried in there and his spirit watches over the gallinas, just as he himself watched over them when they were young

“where did they come from? Whose land is this? … you have to admit, though, more tasty looking than rats …”

Rat cake, rat sorbet and strawberry tart with rats in it – these are some of the delicacies offered in a gruesomely hilarious Monty Python sketch. See if you can detect the rats in any of these salads we’ve been making to keep cool.

I first saw this salad – combining sweet, sour, spicy and herbal flavors – made by the Senegalese chef, Pierre Thiam on Milk Street TV. Mango and avocado with cherry tomatoes make a stunning combination, marinated and tossed in Rof, a mixture of parsley, scallions, chilies and garlic. I got the layering confused here, so you can’t really see the avocado. But believe me, it is a wonder to behold, and to to taste

celery, fennel, radish, apple, celery leaves

smashed cucumber

and here comes that tromboncini again

Mulling maliciously over the nuances of rat sorbet I muse as well on the question of whose land this is. Who has rights to the fruits of the land? Why should humans and domesticated animals be accorded greater respect and a bigger bounty than the feral and urban-wild creatures that roam far and wide and no doubt know the landscape better than any of us? I’ve been imagining how this land once was, before the Spaniards came, who lived here, who roamed and cultivated the land. Also, what will it become? If I die soon and J chooses to move, can I ensure that a like-minded person will buy this garden-with-a-house-attached, that they will keep alive the trees and nurture chickens and understand how grey water works and how water moves through the soil? Then I catch myself: What preposterous pretension. Once gone you have no say, why try and control the future, let it be, let it be whatever it is in other hands. And yet, and yet. History, the history of land, the association – not necessarily ownership – between people and creatures and land and place, this matters. And though we cannot change the past we can try to better understand it and thereby wiggle the future. 

I know the Cuyamaca Indians lived in this region, and some still do. I do not, however, know the no-doubt gristly details of how their land (of which my land, my garden, is now a part) was appropriated. I attend occasional workshops or lectures on Cuyamaca medicinal plants, for instance, but to my shame I do not know which particular group lived around what is now the city of San Diego. And about the rest of the U.S. I’m as ignorant as most of the population about the Native American heritage, and the land that was stolen from the various First Nations.

A few years ago Jeffrey and I drove to Marfa and stopped overnight in the town of Wilcox so that we could visit the Chiricahua National Monument, a spectacularly mountainous area composed of pinnacle-like rock formations. We knew a little about the Chiricahua Apache Indians, but not much. I’m reading at the moment Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a marvelously intricate novel in which one of the characters is researching the Apache Nation. I’m provoked, now, to read more. To visit the Chiricahua mountains again, with greater respect for the history of the land.

The town of Wilcox now faces different sorts of battles, battles over water. There is only ground water in the region, and the water is running out. This is primarily because of mega agricultural corporations which have moved in and can afford to sink bigger and deeper wells than locals in the town and small farmers. Now only the aquifer remains, but for how long?

While there is no simple causal link between The Apache wars and the Water Battles of today, there are nevertheless threads that criss cross and shape the environmental landscape in knotted ways.

It has always rather shocked me the indifference shown by North Americans to their settler colonial history. On tours there is seldom a formal acknowledgement made of the original inhabitants and custodians of the land. This is now pro-forma in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Of course one could, and I know some people do, append to their signature on emails and articles and posts a statement saying they honor the original Owners of the land they are on. Something stops me from doing this. I’m not entirely sure what. Perhaps it is because of a sense that it has to be more than gestural and an individual declaration of good will, it needs to arise out of a collective engagement with the past, and with the surviving communities. We need to confront the thorny truths, we need as a nation (or even as a state, or a county to start with) to make reparations, to acknowledge sovereignty, to acknowledge the genocide. Perhaps, though, I am being horribly fastidious. Anything that raises consciousness is going part of the way. I could add a line or two to my garden placard that says This is a Certified Habitat Friendly Garden, that would say something like: This Garden is made on land taken from the Cuyamaca Indians. But let’s face it, the Garden placard is somewhat fraudulent: all you have to do to get one is fill in a form asserting what a good person you are and how you respect the habitat, and hand over $20. And so too, good liberal sentiments, are often fraudulent, motivated more by wish fulfillment rather than active engagement.

Strawberry tart with rats in it – that is a definite yard-to-table possibility. But first I have to gorge on all the foods that will be verboten in a few days when the low potassium diet, dictated by the new drug regime, kicks in. Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes that fall out of the sky and into our laps, is on the danger list. And so an itching began, uncharacteristically, for a robust meaty tomato sauce with pasta.

I crumbled hot Italian sausages, producing a good fond, added fennel and fennel seeds to the usual sofrito, upended the remains of a bottle of red wine, and when it was cooked down stirred in a bit of tomato paste and loads of fresh tomatoes, a few bay leaves and a stalk of rosemary picked from the garden. Let it cook down slowly into a darkly unctuous sauce. It was deeply satisfying and I don’t believe I will feel the itch again – for at least a year.

But the best meal of the week did not come from our garden or kitchen. My gardening friend Connie, who lives close by but whom i haven’t seen since the lock-down, came across a cache of vidalia onions – enough for two quiches! So we got one. Caramelized onion laid over the most flaky buttery pastry, and topped with goats cheese and roasted garlic. I have made a lot of quiches in my time, but never one this glorious.

Look. Imagine the taste. Say no more.

To mellow out a scary day. Sunday July 19.

My feeble excursions into the garden in these last weeks, luckily when there is less to do than at some times of the year, have been mainly to harvest and give extra water where needed (to the Astia zucchini at front in the pot, for instance. Incidentally this is a great variety for small gardens, and pots – it grows in a circle, doesn’t meander, unlike the heirloom Cocozelle, which, being stripey, is so pretty but also greedy, stealing space, ploughing into squashing and flattening all other meeker plants in its path), to tie up bunches of grapes and tomatoes to protect them from the beasts. 

Or to put that more correctly, I should say: to preserve the fruit for US. No doubt the critters see this as stealing fruit from them. And if they could tie us up in bags they would.

Talking of this relation between animals and humans, between the wild and the domesticated, or the wildness within the gates of domesticity, within urbanity, here is a most unusual and unnerving novel about species interactions: The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay. Although written before the pandemic it eerily prefigures our current situation. Set in Australia it begins on a wild life preserve just as an epidemic is striking the country and everyone is masking up. A most peculiar effect of the virus is that those who are afflicted acquire the ability to hear animals speaking. They do not speak, though, through their mouths, but meaning emanates through their bodily parts and smells and sweat. Is that meaning immediately accessible? No. And so communication is not automatic or serendipitous. The novel charts the relationship between a foul talking drinking fornicating grandmother and her kin, which gradually narrows down to a Dingo she saved as a pup. Their journey is extraordinary, slowly the tables flip as the dog cares for and guides the increasingly sick woman, but as the role of carer is adopted so too many of the attributes that come with The Carer are put into play: domination and punishment as well as patronage. Remarkably unsentimental, the novel – even through its humor – explores a larger-than-human world and casts a grim spotlight on human presumption. Although it is a very different kind of novel, it echoes Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk.

It was Helen Barnes who recommended The Animals to me and who also sent this image from Melbourne, which she described as

grevillea robina doing ikebana all by itself.

Though it’s winter in Melbourne, here summer has really arrived. It’s hot and dry, all the spice zees and all the nectarines have been eaten and the strawberries, exhausted by their own fructosity, are slowing their production.

Though there are some last gasps of strawberry magic:

And This is Jerrelle Guy’s strawberry spoon cake. The recipe popped up out of nowhere and made a beeline for my taste buds, so I made it immediately and wow is it good. Especially if you like puddings, as it’s a kind of hybrid cake-pudding.

See the curly crispy bits around the edge and the sense of sogginess it exudes

It’s a very friendly recipe, easily accommodating of variations and substitutions. I used quite a lot more strawberries and also, before popping it in the oven, poured over the top a bit of cream remaining in the fridge.

Way to go – with ice cream

The front garden is transformed from the bountiful colorful and variegated splendor of spring. Though streaks of color remain: 

between Peggy’s agapanthus and Steve’s sunflower the little frog keeps watch

and the bee works away

these photos were actually taken a few weeks ago and by now that sunflower is dusty and deadish looking but the seeds remain – for the birds.

And the fennel, sprawling and bushy now, remains for the caterpillars, but also to provide structure for other plants to grow through

Some mornings I wake early, as the sun is coming up and the air is cool and am tempted to throw on my gardening clothes and get out there; but the temptation is weak, the serpent in the garden of Eden is somnolent, and so am I and so I slither back to bed. Then, a few hours later, I rise to face the day, though by then it is too hot to work in the garden.

Breakfast, slow and lazy – minimal maybe if you are feeling slender and the day ahead looks streamlined, or extravagant and luscious if you need to be tickled into the day – breakfast always slow and lazy, this is one of the perks of an involuntary slowing down. It’s also a way of keeping the terror at bay. 

That chevre I wrote about in the last blog, well it turned up everywhere, in many guises

on toast, unsullied by any accompaniment, its creamy tartness opening your sleepy senses to the world

with honey, on fig and walnut soda bread

Through my absorption of cooking shows during the last month I discovered (among many other useful things) soda breads as a quick and easy solution for those breadless days when I have either forgotten or been too fatigued to make dough in the evening.

here’s s seedy one

And here, heaven on a stick: freshly made strawberry jam with fresh chèvre on delicious toast. The textures: crunch and slinkiness, chunkiness and sticky sweetness.

Chèvre, however, isn’t the only cheese in the world

Some days fruit and tomatoes and a few varieties of cheese – oozy and chalky alike – is all it takes for breakfast

to mellow out a scary day

and when you want nothing but simple perfection: Paul Robeson on an oat cake

Then there’s burnt cheesecake. What a revelation! Nilo baked this for us

I remember Nilo as a little kid, and his sister Sabina, at a Thanksgiving dinner, intrigued by the food and amused by the whimsy. When we are hosting Thanksgiving we usually construct a meal around a single seasonal fruit or vegetable – every drink or dish has somehow to contain or refer to the chosen item. That year it was quince. And now he is an adult, cooking and experimenting with all sorts of ingredients, spinning tradition.

On Sunday mornings a different sort of breakfast, when Jeffrey delivers endless variations on the humble egg. Here he lets the Persian tomato rice star.

This came as a gift from Nilo’s Dad, Brian, and Parastou. She knows I love her rice, particularly the burnt crispy bits.

This is what it looked like when it arrived

oops, slight mishap as it was unmolded

but somehow the mishap makes more evident the contrast of crispy exterior and fluffy inside. It lasted us through many meals.

Part of me feels fraudulent, being the recipient of such generosity, when I am not so ill or bereft of food. But a much larger part of me feels pure delight when these unexpectedly rich tokens of friendship appear, dishes so lovingly prepared, dishes I would not make myself. I have been very drained going through this initial phase of the one-year treatment for the return of the chronic lymphocytic leukemia, particularly since most of last year was taken up with treatment for lung cancer. It sometimes seems never ending just like Covid-19. And now I’m about to embark on the next phase, adding in the next drug which for the first 5 weeks involves an intensive blood testing regime (lots of trips to the hospital), and a low potassium diet for the whole year. No potato, avocado, oranges, white beans and countless other things. Millions of people manage this diet as it’s what people on dialysis have to opt for, so I dare so I will too, though it will test my imaginative limits. Hopefully I can keep up the colorful pics! In the next week, before D Day, I plan to gorge on all the forbidden foods. This morning for breakfast: egg and bacon accompanied by utterly delicious fried potatoes with tarragon and rosemary left over from last night’s dinner. Jeffrey eventually revealed the secret ingredient that secured that deliciousness: duck fat!

One day the whole Alsidnawi family turned up, all in their masks and bearing beautiful flowers, a bottle of Holy water from the Holy Land, and a complex perfumed dish of stewed okra that Merfet knows I crave, as well as her distinctive Syrian rice with vermicelli.

But the greatest gift was to see them all, albeit at a distance. Huda calls regularly but I miss her and her sisters and parents. Neither J nor I have family in this country, but they have become kin. To actually share a physical space of laughter, even if muffled by masks, is amazingly energizing.

That round squash on the plate is my attempt to instantiate a childhood memory from Zimbabwe. We called them cricket ball marrows for obvious reasons, but such a name does not exist in the seed catalogues of today. These are called Eight Ball and I’m guessing they are a hybrid development of those childhood squash. We would eat them boiled, cut in half and filled with butter, salt and pepper. Describing them brings the taste to my lips! Eight ball are pretty nice but not as nutty and the squash are not as fleshy. But this might be about memory and the tricks it plays. Do any of my Zim friends remember these squash?

Thank you too to Doris for the mujadara; Marivi for the whimsical concoction, looked like a chocolate cake until you cut into it and it was bright orange – a carrot cake covered in ganash; Nancy for flowers and Lesley R for the marvelous Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.

It is with some sadness that I end today. Two deaths: an old friend in Australia, Tom O’Regan, and the other a person I did not know personally but who has been an inspiration, a public figure so impressive in his dedicated “staying with the trouble”: the great John Lewis. May his legacy live on, and guide us in the days ahead.