Thursday, May 2, 2013

My bleak future scenario starts in Lagos, Nigeria.

Normally treatments for film ideas are dry and functional. I didn't like that idea so I decided to novelise my opening scene.

Lagos, Nigeria. Click on the photo for a great travelogue about Nigeria and the Ghanaian dish Fufu

My bleak future scenario starts in Africa's largest metropolis Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is a heaving, unforgiving city whose most historically significant figures testify to its violence and its explosive creative output. It was the home to afro beat originator Fela Kuti and the battle ground for the Ogoni writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

A big thanks to Greg, Jules, and Dave for their ideas and support.

Novelisation: The Age of Warlords Cookbook

Opening scene.

Characters: Frances Onibino and Albert Onibino
Location: Lagos, Nigeria. Africa's largest metropolis. December 13, 2014

Frances Abimbola Onibino could see the lights of his once beloved IBI towers through the front windscreen of his limousine. On this night the lights were brighter than usual, for earlier that day the IBI Corporation had successfully launched AFRISAT, a powerful geo-positional satellite intended to revolutionise communications across all of Africa. Tonight Frances and his nephew Albert were travelling together to attend the official countdown to operation. AFRISAT had taken 10 years to bring to fruition, and in that time Frances had watched the uptake of wireless and mobile technology all across the continent. He knew from long experience that Africa could not afford hard communications infrastructure like Europe, America, and China. AFRISAT would help Africa surpass the rest of the world through use of wireless communications.

“You seem a lot calmer these days uncle” said his nephew Albert who sat beside him. “Well I'm glad I handed the reigns over to you. It's better for my health” said Frances, barely changing expression. Albert looked at Frances, a little perplexed “Thank you Uncle, I expect the sea air is doing you a world of good” he said as he looked back at his tablet and began typing. After a few key strokes he stopped suddenly, closed the tablet, looked intently at his uncle and said “I've hardly seen you in the last two years and have been meaning to ask you, but, fishing trawlers?...With fish stocks so low? How is this securely diversifying our interests?” Frances chuckled, as a wry smile shot across his face. He looked intently at Albert who glanced uncomfortably out the window then back with a half shy half questioning gesture. Frances continued observing his nephew who, in that moment noticed a vaguely familiar affection in his uncle's eyes. “When you get older and wiser” said Frances, “you will truly know when a risk is worth taking.”

The limousine arrived at IBI plaza in down-town Lagos to a media throng. A white-gloved valet opened the limo door as a volley of camera flashes bounced around. Frances exited first and acknowledged the crowd with a thin smile and a nod. “Mr Onibino, what do you have to say about today's successful launch?” asked a voice cutting through the media huddle. “I'm happy of course,” said Frances with a slightly wider and warmer smile “but you should talk to my nephew”. Frances gestured to his nephew to come and talk to the assembled media. Albert finished shaking hands with the Nigerian communications minister, walked over to the reporters and camera people who were shouting questions, raised his hand for them to stop and said “There'll be time for questions later, but right now let me just say this...this is a great day for Africa! With AFRISAT we will leap frog the rest of the world. Wealth for Naija, wealth for Africa.” he pointed a finger upward and shook it for emphasis “Look to the sky!”

Frances and Albert made their way up the red carpet, shaking hands with African and international dignitaries, business leaders, and celebrities. As Frances entered the expansive plaza atrium he looked up to see the AFRISAT replica that had been installed five years earlier. It was suspended from cables to give it the appearance of floating in air. He stood for a moment, transfixed, focussed on the image of a Yoruban orisha projected onto its side panel. Frances and Albert made their way to the stage and took their seats in view of the giant count down screen. As the background music faded away Frances leaned over to Albert and whispered “Before you give your speech I just want to say a few words.” Somewhat surprised, Albert replied “certainly uncle”.

As the MC, a Nigerian TV personality was winding up his introduction he looked over at Albert who gestured to his uncle. The MC announced Frances who walked up to the lectern, looked up at the replica and called to the crowd “10 years! 10 years ago I had a vision of Africa competing with the world and bringing our unique approach to innovation. So much has changed in that time! We need this technology more than ever.” He gestured again at the replica “Do you see on the side? It is the Yoruban orisha, Eshu.” He looked at the crowd intently “Many of you who are Yoruba will know that Eshu is the first orisha to be acknowledged, Eshu is in our doorways and our ceremonies, Eshu is the messenger who talks to Obatala and Olorun on our behalf, Eshu is also a trickster, both forgiving and cruel, a lot like life.” Frances looked around to catch the MC's eye and gestured him over. “Anyway, enough from me, my nephew is the man of the moment.” He shook hands with the MC and gave a little smile to Albert who was approaching the lectern then walked straight off the back of the stage and through the security cordon as Albert was starting his speech. Frances found his driver playing cards with a plaza security guard backstage. They were surprised to see him and quickly abandoned their game. Frances raised his hand “Relax boys” he turned to his driver and said “When you've finished your game I want you to drive me to Apapa. I need a new hat.”

The driver excused himself and moments latter had the limousine waiting at the private entrance. He drove Francis across the Eko Bridge and along the Ijora Cause Way to Apapa Road. In Apapa Frances told the driver to stop outside a traditional menswear store and asked him to park nearby rather than directly out front to avoid drawing attention. Inside the menswear store he browsed briefly then selected a green Buba (shirt/top) with a matching Sokoto (trousers), matching Toms (shoes) and a cotton Fila (hat).” I'd like to wear these away” he said to the shop owner who offered him a bag for his suit “Don't bother,” he said to the smiling man “you keep it...and please...take my shoes”. Frances paid in cash, then looked at his watch. On the way out of the store he stopped to look in the mirror, chuckled to himself, and walked out the front door just as a bright golden light filled the street, showering the sea of roofs in the neighbouring Ajegunle ghetto. Blue rings appeared in the sky around a fading golden ball and began radiating outward growing larger till they disappeared on the horizon. Traffic came to a stand still. People stopped and got out of their cars. And while all were engrossed in the light show, Frances walked into a side street and disappeared.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why I'm becoming a nomad

We are going to be talking about austerity for a long time. If not, then we'll be talking about the next great depression, or the last great depression, or end days, or whatever. The new measures to be rolled out in Greece under pressure from the EU, and the response by the people have been a major talking point for future pundits of late. How the people of Greece respond to austerity will be closely watched and I hope that in the west many lessons will be learned. It will be a great shame if  we don't because as many of the aforementioned pundits have been saying "the rest of the west is next".

'Tramping for Tucker' by Lionel Lindsay from the Josef  Lebovic  Gallery

To quote a recent article by Charlie Brooker in The Guardian "Money is broken". He's right, and many writers have been trying to say the same for a good while now  - though I think Mr Brooker gets the prize for brevity. The sense that our problems with money are intractable is inescapable given the west's failure to resolve the issues brought forth since the GFC and the excruciating money games being played out in Europe. Those of us here in the overprivileged west who are blessed with foresight have begun to adapt to the spectre of an uncertain future. Yard sharing, urban agriculture, alternative means of economic exchange, schools of everything, survivalism lite, the Dark Mountain Project, the occupy movement, and many more responses have been issued forth. Some of these retain an air of western self interest while others look to develop frameworks that are mindful of, or can be shared with, the unprivileged world. But can we fix money? I doubt it, and I have a feeling those gen y folk whom I'm told have an intuitive sense that something is wrong doubt it too.

The history of the west, the history of the last two millennia, is a rotting midden of externalities that the people of the unprivileged world and some in the west are forced to pick through. Us overprivileged types - of which Australians are of the highest order - are grudgingly given our right to consent as we enter into adulthood, and as our eyes open and the scales fall away we adjust to the truth of our condition reassured that we can comfortably close them again believing something is being done to remedy things. I have watched this reality unfold, bleary eyed, privileged, sometimes unbelieving, often giving in to immense freedom, in the safest country in the world. By dint of birthplace and by choice I have come to be privileged. As the truth of my present affluence has unraveled I have had a sense of unease - a feeling that has been growing since I left university and my cookie cutter degree - a sense that I should be without many 'things'.

I have had for several years now this idea of building an escape pod, a small parcel of items of irreplaceable value. Inspired by an event in Star Wars and the idea of jettisoning the unnecessary into space at an opportune moment, I plan to purge myself of my hoarded goods and chattels as I am propelled into the unknown clutching onto a few belongings and some big ideas. This idea has been a foil against my hoarding tendencies and an antidote to conformity and the relentless pressure to give in and give my consent in the hope that privilege will keep me safe. I have to note here that this choice is easy for me, no kids, no wife, no mortgage, little debt, and a long shit-list of people for whom I refuse to work. I am privileged even in my choice to reject, and I can be confident that I will be safe even if destitute.

An old friend who works in the book selling trade recently gave me a copy of Bruce Chatwin's 'The Songlines'. He had heard me talk about my aspirations toward nomadism and found the perfect book to help crystalise my ideas. Through it I felt my restlessness validated and my sense that I need to be both resourceful and embracing of otherness reinforced. Bruce Chatwin's compelling argument that with settlement and the aggregation of power comes the hegemony, war, and genocide strengthened my sense that this civilisation project was broken and hollow. His own nomadic drive, his forthrightness, and his well integrated experience of being 'the other' and of being with 'the other' make him a model for a life of truth searching.                  

Australian? Check out this article by John Birmingham      

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My Manifesto

I wrote this piece for the crowdfunded book The Future We Deserve just over a year ago. Proof 1 edition is now available and includes this essay. The ideas and changes I talk about continue to develop so it's about time I put it up here.   

It seems we manufacture ‘consent’ more than just about anything else in the west. Our media and commercial food industries are staking their claims on the last pieces of moral and aesthetic high ground in an effort to exploit our patterns of conspicuous consumption. Our tastes in food are being driven by our unprecedented access to global resources. This is all at a time when age old aphorisms like “teach a man to fish...” and “there's plenty of fish in the sea” are in the process of being rendered untrue. A time when catastrophic climate change and economic disintegration threaten to test the stability of western civilisations. Food is our fuel and when we are at our greatest need it is the one thing we value above all else.

Rick Stein recently said something that confirmed my feelings about how all of humanity relates to food and how sharing is valued in times of conflict. He was speaking from his studio kitchen after his recent South East Asian Odyssey when he remarked on the resilience of the Sri Lankan people during the recent civil war conflict saying "Food is about good times even if there are terrible things going on all around you". The former fish monger is known for his rapport with the people he visits and the engaging quality of his documentaries and cookbooks. The truth he has recognised is that humans need to share the act of eating and must work collectively to add value to food and to bring meals to the table in tough times.

Powdered egg is the one food that at the toughest of times will become a highly sought-after commodity. At the heart of western delicacies like sponge cakes, souffle, meringue, and many other sweet and savoury dishes is egg whites beaten to soft or stiff peaks. Egg whites are irreplaceable in western delicacies as nothing else can substitute for its particular qualities. My question is “Do powdered egg whites match up to the qualities of fresh egg whites?”.
The west's media are currently obsessed with both the haute cuisine and boutique agriculture sectors. Our current knowledge base is at once expanding with knowledge of exotic and labour intensive ingredients, whilst also contracting due to masking of the true nature of our supply chains.

In many countries with unstable governments, warlords are a fact of life and a constant force affecting economic and social stability. Unstable governments are forced to mediate the engagement of militant groups with the general population. In countries where crops have failed and food production and other economic infrastructure are also compromised those who have weapons have the power to control food. Max Blouin and St├ęphane Pallage contend that poverty levels are now being managed to qualify for food aid and deliver control over larger food surpluses to warlords. They confirm the fundamental rule that in a time of scarcity, those with weapons and power have control over food.

African cities have been hot beds of cultural production since the wave of independence of the late 1950's and early 1960's. Despite every kind of economic manipulation and the legacy of centuries of colonialism African cities have produced cultural product that demonstrates astounding resilience. Pioneering Afro-beat musician Fela Kuti whose Lagos night club 'The Shrine' provided respite from dangerous streets spoke out strongly about the effects of economic exploitation by foreigners and his own countrymen. The creative legacy of African musicians speaks to their resilience and ability to use culture to transcend adversity. It is this quality of resilience that the large scale manufacturing of consent has stifled. Empathy and consideration of the conditions and successes of resilient people gives us the power to learn about resilience.

What do our contingency plans for the future say about our motivations? Survivalism lite is the name given to the movement (in the USA) toward relearning basic survival skills and developing stores of food and supplies for catastrophic futures. It is primarily about the preservation of the highest possible level of comfort for the individual and the family.
The Dark Mountain Project also identifies risks to the 'civilisation' project but asks a much larger question “Has the civilisation project delivered us a society that is able to deal with catastrophic climate change and economic disintegration?”. It has begun to answer this question in two ways. The first is an intuitive “No!”, and the second is by stimulating new answers that look beyond the western civilisation to 'cultural contingencies' that recognise the true cost of western affluence.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Food, love, and war in words.

I've read background briefings in left leaning newspapers, watched the TV stories about conflict and history in the Middle East, and generally tried to keep an empathetic ear open in the hope of gaining some real understanding about the lives of people there. But nothing has done more to give me understanding about the Middle East than reading about food in times of conflict. Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo gets to the heart of life, friends, and family, and reveals the true source of resilience - human engagement over 'something' that must be truly and honestly shared - in this case that 'something' is food.

The power of this wonderful book comes from Annia's ability to engage and empathise with people struggling to survive amid physical danger and grieving societies fractured by suspicion and fear. The intimate details of day to day life that she provides are a testament to her willingness to listen and her hunger for truth. What makes her stories so grounded are the revelations of her senses, switched on to aromas, sights, and experiences. She shows how relations are made honest and more palpable by the sharing of a meal, a discussion about provenance, or the teaching of a technique.

I especially admire Annia's engagement with 'the other'. She is highly reflexive about her role as a foreign journalist, and exercises the humility and sensitivity needed to document culture deeply. By being mindful that 'the other' are hers through friendship and marriage, and sharing their grief, she balances the many pressures she faces and acknowledges that she has greater choices and privileges.

I was deeply, deeply, moved by this book, it's candor and honesty, and by Annia's fearlessness and humility in the face of war.

Day of Honey:A Memoir of Food, Love, and War by Annia Ciezadlo is now available on ebook.

You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Malalai Joya says it best

Malalai Joya is a former Afghan parliamentarian, activist, advocate, and author. Joyas words are desperate and articulate. Below is a video of the speech that brought her to prominence. In it she calls out the warlords among the elite.

Joya's finger is on the pulse because she speaks for those on the ground who know very well that their leaders have an interest in continued conflict rather than supporting and protecting ordinary people.

A recent quote from  Malalai Joya in an interview with David Zlutnick Documentary Filmmaker- from the OnIslam website

"Now, my people, they're squashed between three powerful enemies: warlords, Taliban, occupation forces. With the withdrawal of these external enemies, my people will fight two internal enemies. They will fight steadfastly till the end because of the hatred that they have for the Taliban and also the warlords. In this presence of these occupation forces in Afghanistan, they double our miseries and make these warlords and Taliban more powerful. They make our struggle for justice, for democracy and women's rights much harder, as it now seems like Taliban times..."

Malalai Joya's latest book is titled "A Woman Among Warlords" published through Scribner 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My visit to 'rabbit country'

Early morning in autumnal Ballan

As you may well be aware I have a fascination with wild rabbits and their role as food in tough times. Australia has a rich history of fighting and eating wild rabbits. Rabbits were introduced in the state of Victoria in 1859 for hunting purposes and quickly became an invasive pest. During the great depression rabbitohs sold rabbits door to door. Now both wild and farmed rabbits are highly regulated as a food while the ongoing struggle to develop biological controls over wild populations continues.

So before my recent working holiday in Melbourne (2000 k's on the train) I asked my mate Tony who grew up in the regional centre of Ballarat if he had any ideas about how I might find a rabbit hunter to interview. He told me about a little town called Ballan just outside Ballarat where he recalled seeing a sign at the pub advertising fresh rabbits. I was instructed to find Hudsons Hotel where Tony's uncle Kevin used to drink, and see if anyone can sell me a rabbit.

The unassuming Hudsons Hotel 

I had only left myself one day to get a rabbit and/or interview before my train ride back up north. I knew this was not enough to guarantee that I got a rabbit, but I resolved to make the most of the experience. Ballan was a comfortable one hour train ride from Melbourne that took me through hilly grazing country and dropped me in a very autumnal little township smothered in amber leaves. After arriving at Hudsons I had a couple of beers and discovered that the deceased father of the lady behind the bar was the last person to openly sell wild rabbits in Ballan. I booked a room and was escorted down a long faux wood panelled hallway into a demountable extension and as I was putting my bags down I met Dave, local sparky, and the pubs' self appointed welcoming committee.  After dinner I checked in with the cooks in the kitchen, I was told I should talk to a fella called Muzzy who I discovered holding court at the end of the bar. I decided to catch up with him when he wasn't so busy and went outside for some fresh air. I bumped into Dave having a cigarette with his mate Benny, and told them I was looking to buy a rabbit, Dave said he'd make some calls as he was certain he could get a frozen rabbit from a mate. I asked both fellas about field dressing and butchering techniques. Benny was very forthcoming and rattled off answers to all my questions with complete confidence. He told me that there were times when he could have shot as many rabbits as he wanted from his bedroom window. He also told me that the rabbit calicivirus that controversially escaped from an island laboratory off the coast of South Australia in 1995 had come and gone and that rabbits were as plentiful as ever. Along with stories about just how abundant rabbits were he informed me that if you cook rabbit for 35 minutes in a  pressure cooker the meat will fall off the bone.

I saw this place in the main street. I wonder if they'll stock wild rabbit?

When I arrived in Ballan I had the vague expectation that I was going to talk to an old man about old skills and a dieing art. How wrong I was! Rabbit hunting and processing skills were very much alive. I never got to talk to Muzzy as he seemed to hold court for ages and I had become the special guest of the welcoming committee who was using me as an excuse to get the jukebox cranking. I left at midday before Dave was able to find a rabbit but I left feeling reassured that the skills necessary for dealing with hard times were guaranteed to survive.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Toasted brioche with vanilla dusted lady finger banana, cape gooseberry conserve, and Maggie Beer's vanilla bean and elderflower ice cream

I'm prone to burn out. I lose faith in the people who are meant to provide me leadership and try though I may I often find myself on the outer and wondering why I insist on speaking my mind. Twice when this has happened I have wound up washing dishes in one of Brisbane's best bistro's. The first time was when I dropped out of uni in 1998 and went to work for Philip Johnson's Ecco Bistro. It was there that I encountered cape gooseberries for the first time since my childhood.

A cape gooseberry in its lantern. Physalis peruviana

The cape gooseberry is not a true gooseberry. It is in fact a type of tomato native to Peru and brought to Australia in the same way that lantana came here, via English gardening fashions. What makes the cape gooseberry so endearing and what fascinated me as a child is the delicate 'lantern' that surrounds them. But what makes them so memorable is their flavour. They vary in acidity from tart to sweet but when the sweetness and tartness are in balance the flavour is thrillingly electric! Over the years I have tried to find words to describe the flavour but only the words 'grown up tasting' come to mind.

Since rediscovering the cape gooseberry I have gone on a long journey and made many mistakes. It has been a true test of my jam making skills. Compared to strawberry or peach jam, gooseberry jam, as the older ladies at my mum's charity The Little King's Movement call it, is exceedingly tricky to perfect. The berries have a high water content and while I have been tempted to cut them up to release more of the pectin in the seeds, I am too attracted to the berries' colour and shape. So producing a jam/conserve of an appropriate consistency requires diligence and commitment. I've developed techniques to release the pectin whilst keeping the golden berries more or less in tact.

A cape gooseberry lantern after a few months in the garden

In 2001 I went to wash dishes at Arc Bistro started by P.J.Macmillan who had been head chef at Ecco. He was ably assisted by Lynette Knowles, an alumnus of Le Bronx which Philip Johnson started on his return to Australia. Knowlesie would make a cape gooseberry conserve using brown sugar which was designed to be served with a banana and poppy seed upside down cake which had halved cape gooseberries placed in the bottom. Since then banana has been my favourite thing to pair with cape gooseberries.

A worthy cause

Each year, dependent on availability, I make a small batch of jam/conserve for The Little King's Movement fete which falls in late September at the end of the cape gooseberry season (they are very seasonal). The jam/conserve is a favourite of the older ladies and also helps to lure my friends along. Over the years interest in my jam/conserve has grown steadily and since I feel that I have sufficiently refined my method, this year I am going to make a larger batch, with a label and all. My friend Kristina who co-owns the charming Flamingo Cafe has agreed to buy some and my mum has given me permission to name it Little King's - Cape Gooseberry Conserve.

Mum and Dad enjoying a special dessert

So the 'hero' of the dish at the top is the cape gooseberry! And in keeping with Rick Stein's 'The hunt for Australia's top food blogger' competition I've made a rustic dessert that reflects Australia's diverse cultural heritage, our significant food people, and Queensland's subtropical climate (cape gooseberries grow wild an hour west of Brisbane). Oh and I provided Splayds (invented in Australia) with which to eat the dessert.        

Rick Stein Food Odyssey Live On Stage

Toasted brioche with vanilla dusted lady finger banana, cape gooseberry conserve, and Maggie Beer's vanilla bean and elderflower ice cream

  • Brioche slices 8mm thick 
  • Ripe but firm lady finger bananas
  • Cape gooseberry conserve
  • Vanilla dusting sugar
  • Maggie Beer's vanilla bean and elderflower ice cream

Method: Dice bananas into 1cm  pieces, add to a bowl, dust liberally with vanilla dusting sugar, and toss gently. Lightly toast the brioche slices and allow to cool a little. Place the brioche slice on a dessert plate. Place the diced banana at one end of the brioche slice and place a scoop of  ice cream against the banana pieces. Dollop cape gooseberry conserve at the point where they meet and drizzle a little syrup over the bananas and ice cream, and serve.

Cape Gooseberry Conserve

  • 2kg cape gooseberries
  • 1.2kg white sugar
  • 1 to 2 lemons

Method: Preheat a deep heavy based saucepan on medium heat. Vigorously sweat the berries stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until they begin to simmer in their own juices. Reduce the heat to low and allow them to simmer for 10 minutes, then add 1kg room temperature white sugar and stir till the sugar dissolves. Simmer for at least an hour on low stirring regularly and pressing the berries against the side of the pan to release the seeds. When the berries are almost translucent add the juice of one medium lemon and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. As the berries are becoming fully translucent begin skimming the foam from the top of the mix and start tasting. If the mix is too tart add a little heavy sugar syrup (pre-prepared), if too sweet add a little more lemon juice. When you're happy with the flavour test the consistency by dropping a little of the mix on a chilled plate to test for thickness (the mix should develop a slightly crinkled skin). Continue to skim and be careful not to let it caramelise much. It is better to remove some of the syrup than allow to reduce too long.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Day of Honey: A memoir of Food, Love, and War

I've never wanted to read a book more than this one! Day of Honey: A memoir of Food, Love, and War explores the idea that the pursuit of food and culture help maintain our humanity in times of war and violence. My heart is warmed whenever I hear it said that the preparing and sharing of food in war time brings comfort and some joy to a difficult life.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Eating for empathy

It's time to pretend I'm stuck at home in London during the Blitz. I'll be doing this with the help of my new purchase 'Eating for Victory' which is a compilation of official WW2 instruction leaflets on cooking with food rations. I've had a brief look at the table of contents and I've decided to start with 'Crumb Fudge' and 'Dresden Patties' from the 'What's left in the Larder' chapter. It's certain to be enlightening!