3.24.2005

One More Thing About Food

(With apologies to those who encouraged me, via email, to drop the subject as it was apparently getting boring)

I used to work with this woman who had to have Lawry’s seasoned salt on everything she ate. Not everything, mind you, not on salad or cereal or whatever, but any soup, pasta, stir-fry, casserole…tagine, thali, meze... She had grown up in a house where it was used with everything and thus food just didn’t taste right without it. If you’ve never had it, you should know that Lawry’s seasoned salt has a distinctive flavor—thus to me, anything cooked with it tastes rather like Lawry’s seasoned salt.

However: another milestone in my becoming fully Sri Lankan has arrived. I think food doesn’t taste proper if it’s not cooked with turmeric and at least a little bit of chillies. Again, not certain foods (barbecue veggie patties are fast becoming my favorite quick meal) but pretty much everything else. Now, if someone who hadn't been here 5 1/2 months ate a turmeric-and-chilli-spiked dish, they would probably think it tasted Sri Lankan, or 'ethnic' or something. Discuss.

On the subject of things that taste like their dominant flavors, I have discovered that if you put a tablespoon of tomato paste in any soup with at least two vegetables, the soup tastes exactly like Campbell’s Vegetarian Vegetable, and/or Progresso Minestrone. Don't tell me that those two taste different. Reminds me of the Sharples veg-veg soup too, which is blandly—very blandly—comforting, from this remove.

That was boring. My regrets to all. Had a post almost finished about the weekend trip—Colombo and posh beach hotel, very enjoyable—but the computer crashed and it was lost. Will try to reconstruct but my track record is execrable in this regard. Also, forgot my camera. Damn, damn, damn.
whoa.

For those who don’t know iTunes, there’s this nifty feature called Party Shuffle where it will make a playlist from all your music and list it onscreen so that you can quasi-pre-edit it… it just picks stuff and throws it up there. I get fun combinations sometimes (alternating Django and Bob Dylan for seven songs, e.g.) but never like this.

[clearly the title:]
Faithless Love :: Najma
[start sequence]
I love being here with you ::Diana Krall
I Smell Trouble :: Ike and Tina Turner
…[unrelated song]…
You Think You Are So Generous, But It's The Most Conditional Anything I've Ever Heard :: Yuka Honda
Just Go Away :: Blondie
Let’s Get Retarded :: Black Eyed Peas
Let’s Stay Together :: Al Green
…[2 unrelated songs]…
I Shall Be Released :: Bob Dylan
…[unrelated song]…
My Man’s Gone Now :: Nina Simone
Epitaph For My Heart:: The Magnetic Fields

Freaky. Is someone trying to tell me something? I can’t imagine what.

Other recent adventures in bizarro world: recently received the spring/summer Anthropologie catalogue from Marmee in a package of January New Yorkers and other delights… I am looking through the overpriced trendy clothes, salivating and being scandalized at all the skin showing*, and I start thinking, hmm, this location looks really familiar. Then I start flipping through the pages, getting more and more convinced—look, there’s a trishaw! That looks like the Dutch House Museum in Galle!—and ultimately land upon a picture of a train station with the unmistakable name of Unawatuna. (With a skinny, leggy, scantily clad woman looking bored. Classic.) Yup, it’s Sri Lanka! That’s my beach hangout, yo.

I am amused. Suddenly I realize that all the extras in the photos are ordinary Sri Lankan people. I always thought the picturesque locals in their catalog were, like, other models. Though the fact that their extras are usually crusty old farmers and stuff like that. There’s a priceless shot in the catalog of a model getting blatantly ogled by two guys. My life is like that! I could be a model!

I remember belatedly that Marmee told me about this. Also my friend Puma who lives in Una and runs a magazine production company actually arranged their whole shoot—just before the tsunami. She just didn’t tell me who it was. There’s this lame-o note in the back of the catalog saying “oh we left right before the tsunami and we are so so sad; we dedicate this ‘book’ to the people of Sri Lanka” (scare quotes mine). How awful is that. I should make a t-shirt saying “I survived the tsunami and all I got was a fake dedication in a catalog masquerading as a piece of art.” I bet that would make the Sri Lankan people feel so much better about losing their homes and relatives and stuff.

*That is such a common pair of emotions that there should be a special word for it: scandal-ivating? salivandalized? The latter sounds like a technical term for defacing public property by spitting on it.

3.18.2005

Biz-nass & Farewell

Off to midprogram conference to present my scattered research. In fifteen minutes. (The presentation lasts for, not I am leaving in.) I have the nagging sense that I am either going to come off as a big fool or an active, well-organized scholar, neither of which is really the case. Oh well… haven’t been in Colombo in a few weeks (three) and thus I am minorly psyched for coffee, going-out-dancing, and seeing folks. This weekend there is a big weddings trade fair going on in the city and so I am going to go and, you know, drum up some interview business.

Isn’t it weird when all of a sudden people start asking if you got a haircut? I definitely didn’t. Haven’t made a mental commitment to growing it out which in my mind means, like, “able to hold hair implements” which isn’t much out by Sri Lankan standards but long for me. Haven’t had “long” hair since 2002. I think my hair has gotten to a length at which it curls, which is a departure in looks at least. Pretty strange though, when everyone is convinced I’ve been chopped.

Because I love Amelia’s blog, I’ve linked to it. Amelia, if you’re reading, I don’t have your email, so I couldn’t pre-ask you. Hope you don’t mind. If someone knows Amelia’s address, tell me?

Ooomph, I miss people! And yet I’m happier here than I have been since, oh, before the tsunami. Always this tension: wonderful things here, wonderful people there. Right. I’ll be away until Monday, so call the mobile not the house. And email me. Always.

3.17.2005

Research is Fascinating
Or, These Are My Sisters and My Cousins and My Aunts

Just finished the blatantly Western-centered A History of the Wife. I don’t recommend it; besides being Eurocentric and ig’nant—only reference to places outside W. Europe and America is a handwringing mention of child marriage in India—she writes like she’s selling something and is constantly making coy jokes about today’s wives and what they’d think of all the medieval butter-churning ad linen-starching. Lame-o. In the real scholarly world, I been a’readin’ Yalman’s Studies in Caste, Kinship and Marriage in Ceylon (a real page-turner), actually for quite a while, trying to finish the damn thing! It’s very well written but/therefore quite dense, involving many phrases like “bilateral merging unilineal endogamy” and diagrams of family trees that display how it all works. It’s pretty fascinating stuff; cross-cousin marriages are something that authors in the field of kinship talk about a lot but don’t often take the time to fully understand.

For example, in the Sinhalese system (studied forty years ago in villages, doubtfully in place so strongly today, but figgerin’ that is my gig) the status and terms of relationships extend through blood and affinal ties infinitely. Therefore your brother’s wife’s brother is your cousin, just as your mother’s brother’s son is your cousin. However your sister’s husband’s brother is your brother, and your mother’s sister’s son is your brother too. (For the obvious reason that these terms are complicated, in the literature they use sometimes-helpful abbreviations like FBD/father’s brother’s daughter and MeZH/mother’s eldest sister’s wife.) That is, your parents’ same-sex siblings’ kids are your siblings; your parents’ opposite-sex siblings’ kids are your cousins. Your siblings’ spouses are always your cousins, in terms of classification, which means that your siblings’ spouses’ siblings are good matches for you. Therefore you’re not always marrying a blood cousin, but instead someone who’s in the “affinal position” of a cousin.

(For those who know my family at least a little,) This poses fun questions about my many relations and who they really are. I have one “sister” in the Goodman family, Felicia, but Alyssa Sarah Meryl Julia and Tova are my cousins. Ariel is a daughter-in-law, whether or not she marries my child. It would be appropriate, desirable even, for me to marry Stuart’s brother. (Does Jeff or Tim have a brother? Don’t know.) On the Ennen side, I have a huge number of siblings, because my father has lots of brothers with children. My only true cousin is Kate, my aunt’s daughter. However I can look for marriage partners within the immediate families of my siblings’ spouses, for example, Colin’s wife’s brother. Technically, these people are already my cousins, and thus it is permissible for me to sleep with them without marrying them. Marrying them would only further cement the obvious kinship between our extended kin groups.

And you wondered why I was interested in this field.
A Good Example of Multi-Lingual Cooperation
Which is not as dirty as it might sound

I was reading the above-mentioned trashy stuff, trying to plumb the diagrams—even with abbreviations it’s slow going—and took a break for lunch. Came back in the middle of a presentation that I didn’t know was going to happen. Decided to stay. Ram, a geography professor at Peradeniya who works with ICES a lot, was explaining the results of a “community mapping project” in the Northeast, where he and other professors went into communities with significant tsunami displacement and rebuilding needs, and helped the people make maps of where resources (civic, transportation, education, building, agricultural etc) were located in their areas. The idea was to promote a grassroots effort towards good planning and locally meaningful development and (re)settlement. Cool results—a lot of local knowledge about human and environmental challenges to rebuilding, which is not usually considered in the top-down relief models. I could go on about this (why it’s brilliant and useful and cool) but the really nifty thing about the presentation was the way language was working.

The show, ostensibly, was for Dr. Sam Samarasinghe, who’s one of the directors of ICES and from Kandy but lives nearly full-time in Washington, DC and teaches development economics at Tulane. He’s always jetting around. Last week he was in Hong Kong drumming up support for rebuilding. Ostensibly he’s teaching his Tulane program now, but because of the tsunami he’s here. He’s Sinhalese but because he lives in the US he functions professionally in English. Except for when he talking to the female research staff, which pisses me off as they’re all totally fluent in English, but that’s my deal. Ram, the geography prof, is Tamil, but speaks all three languages fluently and has lived in West Virginia for a couple years on a fellowship. There was another geography prof present, a Dr. Sanath Somebody, who had worked equally on the mapping project and was helping Ram present it. Sanath is a Sinhalese who doesn’t have international experience and speaks only a little Tamil. Also present were Jill and I, hapless Americans who speak Sinhala reasonably well. In the areas where they were doing the mapping, the predominant language is Tamil.

Therefore: how many translations are we talking about, over time? Many, many. And the atmosphere in the room was totally unstrained in terms of understanding. It was fascinating. Sam spoke and asked questions in English, as did Jill and I, and Sanath would clearly understand the question and respond in Sinhala. Sam and Ram didn’t translate the Sinhala for us, which we agreed was good because we were doing pretty well (especially with context). Ram had done a lot of translating for Sanath while they were in the field, because Ram speaks Tamil, but Sanath was better at remembering what people had said even though Ram had had to tell him. The two of them were jabbering in Sinhala trying to remember what those other folks had said, Ram is back-forming the Tamil interviews, Sam is marveling at the knowledge power of the people involved…

It was lovely. It might not seem like this is a big deal, but believe me, a trilingual situation like this, with no one struggling to speak a language they don’t and no one claiming that their language is better or more valid, it’s heartening. I can’t think of a good comparison to make—language is so political here that it’s hard to imagine a similar situation in the US! American language issues have to do with bilingualism, mostly, how much is a good thing. We know that English is going to be important. Imagine that you’re part of an institute (in Boston perhaps) where most of the members are from the Latino community and the remainder from the Vietnamese, and they all believe that their own language is crucially important to their identities and political power, and generally are unwilling to use English as a link. Some of them, notably the less-elite ones, don’t speak it well, and no one wants to discount these folks’ ideas, because doing so is clearly elitist and undemocratic. You know, probably there are community organizations in Boston with just these problems.

Here English isn’t uncontroversial. Everyone knows that if you want to be part of the international/professional elite, or even have a decent service job, you have to know English. Yet the paucity of good ways to learn it, and the willingness of political parties to equate language rights with ethnic and economic rights, construct an atmosphere of distrust (sometimes) and certainly resentment of those who use English well. It’s pretty anti-intellectual. You may recall that when I went to a conference on women’s issues in the peace process), they had cross-vernacular translation but no English at all, and the Guy In Charge (at a women’s conference! how typical) was really snotty to me about it, as if I was being extremely rude to even ask about it.

Thus, Sanath’s understanding English but responding in Sinhala was a mark of his comfort in the situation—otherwise he would have struggled and felt less-than-prepared to be in our company. Ram was switching right left and center, but not feeling left-out because no one else spoke Tamil. Sam was comfortable letting everyone just muddle on (notably, wasn’t translating for me and Jill) and therefore allowing maximum understanding with minimum friction. It was heartening.

3.16.2005

Rice and Stuff
Why Curry is a Verb Not Only in the Sense of Something You Do With Favor

…because you can make any food substance into a curry. It’s easy—and pretty much the same for everything.

1. “Temper” (sautĂ©) onions, curry leaves, mustard seeds, green or dried chillies, and curry powder/a mix of spices you make up yourself in coconut oil.
2. Add the thing you’re currying, cut into appropriate finger-smushing size chunks (and if necessary, soaked in salt water, as with eggplant), stir up a bit to coat with spices and oil and whatnot. Add half a dessertspoon of “saffron,” which is really turmeric, and half a dessertspoon of salt. Temper until it starts sticking a little.
3. Pour in coconut milk (enough to do what I, in my infinite food snobbery, would call “braising”) and simmer the whole mess for as long as it takes to reduce the main item to a smushable—but not smushy—state.
4. Crucial: having turned off the heat, let it sit and mingle with itself. Curry loves company.

Right, this works from potatoes to omelettes (a Sri Lankan specialty: make plain omelette, chop up, curry) to plantain flowers to okra to, oh, meat and stuff. It doesn’t all taste the same, of course, because every cook uses a different combo of spices and secret ingredients for each curry. Key secret ingredients: tomatoes, ginger, coconut vinegar, lime juice.
Why am I yakking about this? Don’t know.

Back when we lived in the Barn, lo these many years ago, Ester complained that The Rest of Us were always making “rice and stuff” for dinner. I think she was right; we were in the unfledged fledgling stages of being decent cooks and I recall, in particular, a long string of faux-Chinese stirfry suppers. The benefit of this cooking as any college student knows is that you have only to wash the wok, the rice cooker, and your dish. Plus the leftovers keep well. But I pity the poor girl, and Ester, if you’re reading these days, accept my apology. Rice-and-curry is only permissible two meals a day because it is usually well done and there is a lot of variety. I rarely eat it more than one meal a day anyway.

This is turning into a blog about food, which is one of the few things I can always think about and write about. I have been really busy with actual research work and would write about that but for the simple fact that if I was writing interestingly about my work it wouldn’t be for the blog. Or rather, the things I have written are not blog material. I could rant about this silly book I’m reading, A History of the Wife, which is shockingly poorly researched, and bad scholarship and reinforces all kinds of nonsense attitudes, blah blah blah. It was written only a few years ago! On the other hand I found a good source of demographic/census info today: the Bureau of Census and Statistics yearly review. What a triumph! What innovative methodology!

Which is not to say that I’m down on my work—on the contrary, it’s going well. I’ve been really busy. I did have a hedonism/Americana evening with Gavin on Saturday, involving beer, pizza, movies, and pie. The pizza was from Pizza Hut—to get delivery from the Kandy outlet, you have to call Colombo! And it’s near-impossible to get the number! The beer from everyone’s favorite source of everything, the Royal Mall Supermarket. For real: everyone in Kandy shops there. I always see people I know there, plus it’s walking distance from my house. Well, everything’s walking distance when I have time or am feeling irate about trishaws.

Gavin didn’t even know that they had beer there, and I chided him for his ignorance. He lives with a hostfamily and so doesn’t do anything domestic like shop. Apparently while he was there he ran into Judee (who’s been trying to get out more, a good thing) who later reported to me that he was “skulking around” and looking embarrassed to be buying beer. Ha ha; half the business any supermarket-cum-liquor-license does is arrack and things to go with it.

The highlight of the experience was the pie. Crust: ginger biscuit and hawaian (sic; coconut) cookie crumbs. Filling: lime juice, egg-and-condensed-milk custardy meringuey sweetness. Topping: fresh whipped cream. Verily and forsooth: Sri Lime Pie.

Have shared the bounty with various & sundry. Anyway. Trying not to just write about food. Went to an interesting talk given at ICES (my work-crib) Friday by one of the other researchers there, Dr. Das from Assam, who’s working on tea sector economics. He was so nervous that I didn’t want to look at his face while he was talking, though his PowerPoint (the other thing to look at) was boring in the worst kind of Tufte-analyzed ways. The assembled audience of about fifteen local econ profs and tea estate HR folks sort of ate him alive in the classic Sri Lankan academic debate style, which involves a great deal of genteel-nasty mocking. Actually, they ate each other alive and Dr. Das couldn't get a word in edgewise, which I think was something of a relief for him.

Dr. Das is nice but always seems really really nervous which I certainly would be if I were Indian here, because people simultaneously look up to India (not just north) and revile its Regional Bully policies. Also, I bet people always speak Sinhala or Tamil to him because he’s brown. I may hate being white but at least people are thrilled when I speak Sinhala, not disappointed when I don’t. On a slightly related subject, which I won’t go into now: man, Brown is Beautiful, and I am one giant towering honky.

Eh. Tired.

3.12.2005

Sauce?
I Am Going to Mock Europeans, But Only Because I Am Tired

There’s a family of tomatoes, walking in a line, and the littlest one keeps lagging behind…suddenly the big tomato pounds the little one into a pulp, and yells,
“you knew this joke already!”

Ha ha. But, in Sri Lanka catsup/ketchup is called “sauce” and it’s either sweet or spicy. The spicy sauce is also sweeter than American catsup/ketchup. I can’t decide on a spelling because they both look offensively wrong. I think the best spelling is “Heinz 57.” Right. Sauce comes with lots of snacky foods in restaurants, from fries ("chips") to prawn vadai. It’s good though the sweetness gets to me sometimes as I generally prefer a vinegary tomato-based dipping condiment.

I thought I was a relative agnostic on the subject of sauce—take it or leave it, according to mood—but I made these baked mixed-veg tofu patties for dinner tonight and in sampling one for doneness, my mind said to me, “better to have with some sauce, no?” and my mind headwaggled at me. If that’s even possible. But the fact that my inner voice is speaking Sri Lankan English, and demanding sauce, is pretty hilarious. Culture shock, here I come!

And in other news… tomorrow is the deadline to sign up for the upcoming foreign service exam. I’m not signing up because I’m just not ready to contemplate a lifetime in thankless bureaucracy, though it may be offset by world travel and nice people. I did have lunch (at Yvonne and Judee’s, informally) with Debbie Sharpe-Lunstead, mother of Jenny and wife of His Honor the Ambassador Jeff; she is among the best endorsements of the foreign service or perhaps the foreign spouse service: a friendly, intelligent, liberal, strong-willed, gracious, and generous lady.

It is probably grammatically incorrect to call a person an endorsement but she’s not specifically an endorser. It is probably politically incorrect to call women ‘ladies’ anymore but given the frequency with which people call me ‘madam’ here I will be excused. It still cracks me up to be called madam.

Oh, right, the reason I had lunch with Debbie and YJM, as I abbreviate them in my appointments calendar, was that the new Kandy Library “American Corner” just opened. Lo these many years ago, before the USIS (U.S. Information Service—formerly an independent cultural diplomatic wing) was merged with the State Department, there was an American Center in Kandy. Due to funding problems it closed, leaving only the one in Colombo. They’ve reinstituted some of its presence in the main library in Kandy, where I had actually never been.

They had a big formal opening, with flags and short-eats and tea and sauce, and I got invited (by engraved invitation! but the names were handwritten) so I got all tarted up in a pretty sari and made a big show of myself around the neighborhood and in town on the way to the libe. It was a nice event and the Corner is both charmingly (pathetically) small, and dangerous—subscriptions to Harper’s and American Theatre mags, T.C. Boyle novels, posters advertising the tourism opportunities of each of the fifty states. I can only see myself, wasting precious research time, gorging on the luscious glossy pages representing the world I have largely left behind. They gave out nifty mousepads and other cool US-SL swag.

I noted that both countries have ridiculously complicated flags, as far as flags go. Perish the thought that boring-flag countries have to throw joint flagbearing events; I can only imagine the tedium of a French-Italian flagfest.

Alors, mon ami, eet ees zo… eenspiring… to see ze noble couleurs of our deux peoples togezzer like zees.
Its-a boring, is dat what-a you mean? We have-a de same-a flag!

But they would have really good wine. However: no sauce! Right, so, I should probably end on that note.

3.10.2005

Everyday Things

I realize that I am not good at writing about ordinary life—what I did today, what it was like, etc. I tend to write about little experiences and loony ideas and dumb stuff that happens. Thus y’all are justified in writing emails to me about how you can’t picture Sri Lanka or imagine what my daily life is like. Actually, “y’all” don’t write me emails, it’s more like “y’few” and thanks to the few.

Still—I want to help explain these things because my not doing so only makes the whole thing more elusive and seem heroic or brave or whatever, prompting people to go, “wow, you lived in Sri Lanka!” or whatever. Which is something that bothers me, because once you get a couple weeks in, it’s just the place you live, with its own boring hassles and small pleasures. It’s no more brave or adventurous than living in any new place. However, in order to demystify my existence, I’m going to try to write more about the ordinary and the bizarre aspects of life here. (Which may or may not prove my point.)

For example: a biggish hassle recently was the shifting-annexes process, not because I had a ton of stuff or was going particularly far. I moved, literally, down the street and around the corner, to another of the several annexes in Dangolla (my village) that are often occupied by foreigners doing research. A lot of Peradeniya professors live around here and so there is this English-speaking middle class that has connections and therefore are able to get very desirable foreigner-tenants. Anyway, shifting would have been a cinch. I borrowed some boxes from Yvonne and Judee, the Fulbrighters down the street, and got Sumanasena, the ISLE program driver/mastermind, to bring his van around to help.

I had not, however, figured on the monkeys. In the packing process I put together rather a large bag of trash, including some irresistible items like stale packages of snacks and bananas gone overripe. I put this bag out on the verandah (the only thing I miss about the old place) and continued packing inside. I should have immediately taken the bloody thing up to the front gate but that’s a bit of a hike—up a flight of stairs, through the landlords’ garden, up another flight of stairs, through the carpark, up the steep driveway. So I let it languish. Bitterly did I regret this choice.

It started with just one or two, poking their evil little heads over the parapet, but eventually there were about fifteen monkeys around the porch, on the upstairs and downstairs balconies, on the neighbor’s retaining wall, in the fruit trees… I tried to scare them off with loud noises and waving a broom but frankly I am sure they are smart enough to have figured out that I was scared of them. A biggish male sort of stared at me and snarled while going for the luscious bag o’ trash.

Meanwhile Sumanasena, who is in his late sixties, was carrying my boxes of things up the aforementioned hike to the van outside the gate. I tried to get him to run monkey interference for me (and not do all the work!) but he just sort of laughed at me… “they will be happy for a long time! It’s a big garbage,” and left me to whimper, slam doors, brandish my broom, and dash around the house in a panic.

It would have been cute, really, except that it was my porch and I was trying to move. They found the packet of hakuru, traditional sweets that are wrapped in strips of wicker, which are sort of annoying to eat because getting the wicker off or the candy out is tedious. It was pretty comical to see little monkeys having the same problems and getting mad at the hakuru. One of them was holding a bag of crunchy salty snacks up on her belly and stuffing them in her face like a little hairy couch potato. Adorable. However they were making the nice bundled trash into a trashstorm on the porch.

Eventually I heard the welcome sounds of gunshots. Actually, firecrackers, which are the usual monkey deterrent. They aren’t quite scared by them—they sort of saunter off once the noise starts—but it gets them gone. My eversmiling (really, he doesn’t stop) landlord was on the porch above, grinning and lobbing firecrackers after the monkeys and rocking his at-home outfit of stripy tank top and cargo shorts parting to reveal his rice-paunch. I waved up at him, and he headwaggled back and said, as if it made sense, “they will remove all the roof tiles!”

Then of course I was able to finish moving. No monkeys at the new place. When I got here, I put everything inside with the help of Sumanasena and Dilanthi, the 19-year-old daughter of the new landfamily (as Jill says), who’s a Sri Lankan national swimming champion and is waiting to hear from US colleges. She applied to 22 schools (including Swarthmore!) in the hopes that someone will give her full financial aid. She and her parents invited me upstairs for tea and cookies and bananas and milk-toffee, in the midst of all my grubbiness, and we ended up yakking about college for quite a while.

Ordinary life, right?
Bounteous Cookies
In Which My Writing Becomes Extremely Officious

Cookies have become a striking presence in my life since I moved to the new annexe. Been here just over a week and it doesn’t feel spanking-new any more, but has few enough memories associated that I get excited about firsts—my first laundry! my first rice and curry dinner! my first try-to-do-yoga-outside-and-get-eaten-by-mosquitoes!

Cookies, though. You all know that I baked cookies. I plan to do so again. Even in the absence of selfauthored cookies, shortly after shifting (which is what Sri Lankans call moving) I received a gift of approximately one pound of heartshaped pinksugared cookies from Jill. I can only hope that Jill’s kind wonderful mother doesn’t read this, because the cookies were sent via mail from her to Jill for Valentine’s Day, as Jill’s glorious generous mother is in the habit of making appropriately-shaped sugar cookies for each major holiday, but Jill (only one of many cookie recipients, she says) is not particularly fond of sugar cookies. She eats one and gives the rest away, sometimes to me. She does not tell her mother. This time I got pretty much the whole boxful as she didn’t have space in her tiny fridge to keep them away from the ants.

Oh, the ants… the new place also has extremely efficient and well-organized ants. There are three types of ants, says Kanthi, the lovely and helpful and hilarious librarian at ICES (my erstwhile ‘office’). In Sinhala: black ants, red ants, and smelly ants. The smelly ants aren’t smelly unless you kill them and smell the remains, something I’m not about to do. (I squish, but I don’t sniff.) They are teensy and brown and boy can they move! They get excited about things in the kitchen that aren’t even food and swarm all over, putting me in a panic that that unopened package of noodles has a hole somewhere where they’re getting in and oh my god what are they doing on the sesame oil bottle? They love getting into the compost. Of course.

Right, but, cookies—after I received Jill’s cookies, and baked my own, I fielded a phone call from a certain seven-year-old cousin of mine (and her parents) in which I was briefed on the contents of a package slated for my eventual receipt. To wit: cookies. Butterfly cookies! The package, it seems, is butterfly-themed. I inquired from said child as to whether it was coming via butterflies, to which she, nonplussed, replied that no, you foolish halfwit, it is coming by normal mail. There are some really big strong-looking butterflies in the new garden. Maybe I should enlist them against the ants!

And then! I received an envelope this very day, containing a variety of print material and a single, delectable cookie from my favorite vegan/organic/natural/overpriced baking company. These cookies are approximately the size of a soup plate and stuffed, I tell you stuffed, with good things like chocolate chips and peanut butter in the same cookie. They know their cookies. I wouldn’t even call myself a cookie-oriented person (rather have straight unadulterated chocolate, or a fruity cake or something) but gosh, folks, thanks. Keep it coming. Note, for the unconvinced: I am not vegan these days, so really, don’t hold back—send those cookies!

3.08.2005

Bear With Me While I Brag About My Cooking
Or, the Postcolonial Dinner Party

Made a delectable dinner for Malka Jill Gavin Lori and Roshel (sp? Lori’s eccentric boyfriend) on Saturday night. The focal point was chocolate chip cookies, to inaugurate the new oven (!!!) in the new annexe (!). Most homes here don’t have ovens, as folks use propane cookers rather than stoves and who wants a hot, hot oven roasting the kitchen up? But posh people have electric ones. Posh people like me.

Actually my oven is not-posh, as you would be able to see in a photo except that my camera cable has vanished. I hope it’s someplace within my annexe and not Out In the World but I am afraid because a) I just moved and b) Ross was using it at some point while he was here. (Not that Ross is stealful; things migrate sometimes.) So for several of the guests the high point was homebaked cookies, that being a hard thing to come by.

For me it was as usual a great delight to cook for a whole crew. Compounding that pleasure was the fact that I successfully convinced everyone not to help. Thus I was able to reach the state of culinary no-self. In perfect concentration, I moved seamlessly between cooker, cutting board, fridge, and sink; my pet knife in my hand and breezes sailing through the giant kitchen window and fresh spicy smells winding their way amongst the food piled everywhere. It was beautiful.

The menu was typical of me: yellow rice, thick refriedy stewy beans, shredded lettuce, fresh salad of cucumbers tomatoes beets and carrots with lime-salt-pepper dressing, toasted garlic-parsley wholewheat flatbreads, plain yogurt. What made it So Good was how mixed and fusiony the array was, sort of South Asian American Middle Eastern European fresh tasty good. The colors were amazing, as you will be able to see when I get to post today’s leftover-lunch photo.

Then I felt like a total badass whiz kid: successfully made chocolate chip cookies without baking soda. Google “substitute for baking soda” and you’ll see how fantastically dangerous this is; basically, you have to recalibrate the whole recipe for acidic ingredient levels. I didn’t, I just winged (wung?) it. By the time the cookies were baking I was on my third gin&tonic so I was calm and happy and not worrying about leavening agents. They were, objectively, very ordinary cookies—plus chocolate chip isn’t my favorite simple cookie. (All hail oatmeal raisin!) However, feed warm CCCs to a bunch of ovenless expat Americans and you too will feel magnanimous, pure of soul, warm of heart. I did forget, vegan in the head if not the stomach, to buy milk for drinking-with. Malka mocked me pitilessly but then again she’s a selfproclaimed milk devotee. I was happy with gin.

So, the weekend was a success. The new annexe is a success. I can still cook.
Things To Think About

Onions frying in coconut oil smells like bleu cheese—why?

The location of the bloody camera cable—crucially absent!

Spending all day rewriting and editing an article about American higher education—why do I suddenly sound like U.S. News and World Report?

Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife—did she not get the memo, the one issued daily to me in college, about how there is this whole other world outside the West and a whole lot of people who are not upper-class? These places and peoples have History too. I hear.

My new front yard is just like Parrish Beach—except with coconut, papaya, banana, and avocado trees.

The number of ants I will have eaten by the time I leave here—a lot.

3.04.2005

URGENT URGENT URGENT
New home phone: 00-94-81-238-7373
Same old mobile: 00-94-77-311-5694
It’s been a while, and I’m working hard on several fronts—research, preparing for midprogram conference in two weeks, new apartment—so I’m just going to write some random stuff and toss it in here. Email me or post a comment if you would like coherence or perhaps actual narration of past events (Sri Pada, Sri Ross and Sri Betsy…) then post a comment or send me an email.

In The Department of:

Apologies, or, Ms. Compulsive Fixes Guacamole

I would like to formally apologize to anyone who’s ever cooked with me. In a rare moment of out-of-headspace consciousness, I observed myself chopping vegetables for a simple guacamole the other night. I was “dicing” onions into near-perfect 3mm cubes, and the tomatoes slightly larger, because their flavor is less intense and you want bigger pieces to get the right mouth-feel-balance; I was making garlic into powder with only a knife. I realized that I am ludicrously attentive to these kinds of details in my cooking and that this quality is probably what makes people nuts about helping me in the kitchen. Last weekend Gavin was over and making tuna melts and even with, like, four ingredients (tuna, mustard, salt, pepper; I don’t keep mayo) I was fussing with my portion once he had moved on to melting his.

So, I’m really sorry, people. I’ll try to not be so picky.


I Am So Psychic

Generally I’m not that fond of blue. It’s a shallow color in many incarnations. (In carnation, it’s not blue at all. Yuk, yuk.) So why did I purchase all blue towels, you ask? Why, on the several occasions that I added to my towelstash—I bought them each individually—did I always buy blue*? Clearly: because all the fixtures in the new bathroom are blue and I am just that psychic.

*okay: I have a floormat that’s sort of blue-green, and a hand towel that, according to the hang tag it came with, is “ginger” but I think of as pink or maybe peach. Still!


Things You Never Knew About Sri Lanka

Finagle A Bagel™ set up shop here a few years ago, initially to blitz the breadlovin’ Sri Lankan public with a new craze: the bagel. I can only imagine what this country would look like if bagels had caught on.

Standard breakfast: Chillie Bagel with Dhal. With tea: bagel-cream-buns, filled with frosting. Late-night takeaway: Chopped fried bagel kotthu, available with your choice of beef, fish, chicken, mutton, or egg.

As it is, the only bagels available here are frozen and far, far worse than Lender’s. Imagine if someone took a package of Lender’s, left them in the freezer a few months to get lightly burned, took them out, defrosted them in a dusty room, put them in a shipping container on a six-week sea voyage, then refroze them for sale in Cargills. Needless to say, I do not eat bagels here. In 2002, I started dreaming about Everything bagels with hummus and mustard and romaine and red onions. I bought a bagel of that description in Heathrow for some ridiculous amount of money—£4 or something—and though it was mediocre (a British bagel, come on) it was so, so good.

Thus imagine my joy when I sighted a Finagle truck on Galle Road in Colombo a few weeks ago, and salivatingly (ugh, saliva-tingly?) begged Prakash to tell me where their retail bagelries might be. I imagined I might even find a spinning bagelsaw, which would bring me back to the days of Commonwealth and Mason’s toddlerhood.

Alas! Prakash told me that they started out doing concessions contracts for garment companies, a lucrative and more-or-less assured way to make money. It’s risky to open retail shops and wait for customers; easier to get a contract to provide X number of snacks at Y time and Z location every workday, deliver, and profit. Thus they started out making ordinary Sri Lankan short-eats (variety of snacky things; rolls, buns, rotis) and though they made bagels too they didn’t catch on. Then the company started making bread for commercial sale and I guess they gave up on the bakery-cafĂ© thing.

I bought some of their “health” bread today, which contains various grains including millet. Am hoping it’s better than the Prima wholemeal bread, which reminds me of that US commercial where a guy sands his antique rowboat with a slice of wheat bread. The purchase was a little melancholy-inducing, because of no bagels, and a little bizarre; Finagle A Loaf of Bread just ain’t that catchy.

I am going to make toasted Gouda with avocado for dinner.