Thursday, January 31, 2008

White Bread

It is funny how the phrase "white bread" is advanced as something of an insult suggesting bland, tasteless and uninteresting. Since a bit before Christmas I have been succumbing to the temptations of white bread (better than many other temptations) and have become ever more conscious of what misconceptions are built into this insult.

White bread is the essence of simplicity -- white flour, yeast (perhaps a sourdough starter), salt, sugar (maybe honey) and water. Oh yes, time and heat are also essential ingredients and I expect it is the shortage of the former in the modern world that actually makes it hard to find homemade bread that often. The ingredients are easily available and while the flour will usually not be local it is hardly exotic.

Out of these few ingredients there are a multitude of beautiful sensations. The first -- if you are lucky enough to have a baker in your home -- is the smell. The smell of freshly baked white bread is irresistible. It fills a house with the smell of sweetness and warmth and if we scratch beneath it, it is likely the Platonic ideal of the smell of home, or at least the smell of a happy home.

Next is the look and the texture of the outside. White bread -- whether baked in baguettes or in ordinary loaves -- has a wonderful varied brown colour that embodies the look of "cooked". When you are struggling through cooking a roast, a chicken or even some vegetarian (god forbid) dish and want a perfect outside crust on it, guaranteed that what your mind is using as a standard is the colour that is on the top of a perfectly baked loaf of bread. In addition there is the sensation that comes from the crispness of the outside combined with the softness of the overall structure which evokes the concept of perfectly hidden treasure -- you have to work a bit to get to the reward: but not too much.

Finally there is the interior of the bread itself and its taste. If well made that taste -- both the flavour and the texture -- is the taste of comfort. It pleases without testing. It is welcoming of other flavours or it has rewards that come from eating it alone or, perhaps, with a swipe of cold butter. It is good warm out of the oven (don't cut too quickly though -- you will ruin the crumb), or cold, or toasted. It is forgiving in a way other dishes are not and will bend to your taste and your mood. It is in this last way that it dramatically differs from the other breads that are out there -- ryes, whole wheats, pumpernickels and so forth all have their charms but they are choosy about how they are served and who their companions are. They are good choices when you want the challenge -- but they keep you on your toes.

There is one aspect of bread which is only enjoyed by the baker -- there is little as satisfying the world of cooking as making bread. Simple ingredients -- yes -- but demanding technique which carries with it the therapeutic experience of kneading. There are many things to get just right in order to have the bread come out just so and those things are learned by experience (as I learned when I discovered that boiling water kills yeast -- and unleaved bread made from an ordinary recipe is very unsatisfying) or by careful guidance from another. I still have my grandmother's old recipes, her notes and her hints about how to make white bread of various sorts. At the end the simplicity of white bread belies and hides the effort, technique and care that has to go into making it just so.

White bread -- an insult? Indeed.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Canadians on a Buying Spree.

An interesting article in the New York Times today (January 20, 2008) about how United States companies are being gobbled up by foreign investors. The front page article raises the spectre of foreign sovereign capital pools buying up major United States assets (do we want China owning our ports) but there is an interesting chart showing the actual numbers inside. Canada shows up in a surprising way when the real numbers are actually revealed.

In 2007 Canadian investors were the largest foreign investors in the United States purchasing over $65.6 million worth of assets. This is to be compared with $28.6 million worth of US assets being bought by Canadians in 2000. By contrast the United Kingdom bought $45 million worth of assets in 2007 compared with $77.1 million in 2000.

It is heartening to see that foreign investment stories are not just about Canada being hollowed out by other countries -- perhaps Canada is doing a little hollowing of its own.

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The Role of Sanctuary

There has been a fair bit of press lately out here in Lotusland about the right of various religious groups to declare their churches/temples as sanctuaries for persons who have exhausted the refugee system and are facing deportation/removal from Canada.

For the most part this is a bad development in our society because churches and church groups have taken to asserting this "right" not as a means of really effecting change -- for example by triggering a legal test case -- but instead as a completely independent assertion of a right independent of the rule of law and democracy.

As a tool for triggering social change the use of sanctuary is understandable. On that approach the state is expected to intervene and the churches welcome them -- preferably with a large number of cameras and lawyers around to trigger both the democratic debate and the legal debate. The giving of sanctuary in this model is the approach to the legal and democratic process rather than the assertion of right to be free from or outside of that process.

Unfortunately, what sanctuary has appeared to have evolved into is more of a modern variant of the medieval law that allowed fleeing criminals to hide in the sanctuary of churches and be exempt form arrest or detention by legal authorities for so long as they were able to hold out (which depended -- as does the modern right -- on how long people were willing to bring them food). This right became an affront to the rule of law over time and an embarrassment for many churches (picture the stench of a large collection of unwashed criminals hanging out around the edges of the altar of your local church for weeks on end).

The evils of the modern version of sanctuary should be obvious -- which churches and which crimes? Would it apply if it was the Church of Scientology wanting to protect one of its members from Canadian charges of tax evasion? How about the Catholic Church if it wanted to oppose the extradition of a person wanted for shooting an abortion doctor in the United States? How about a mosque that wanted to prevent the deportation of a person wanted in the Madrid bombings? Where do the poor atheists go? We have no established church here in Canada and it is not so easy to sort these questions out as one might think at first.

The Canadian immigration and refugee system has its good and bad points. Anyone who tells you that it is devoid of process or any sense of fairness is out of touch with reality and should have a good hard look at what really goes on in other countries. On the other hand, anyone who says that the system is without systemic flaws need only read Justice Phelan's recent decision in the Federal Court about the safe third nation rule (a case interestingly enough brought by the Canadian Council of Churches).

What will be inescapable however is the fact that at a certain level immigration and refugee determinations will have to be made at an individual level, indeed, this is just what has been fought for over the years (that is, no blanket rules like "no Chinese" or "no communists"). Any process which does this will inevitably produce results that some people will like and some people will reject -- that is the nature of independent adjudication: someone makes a decision when people are unable to agree amongst themselves. What we cannot tolerate then is the idea that superimposed on this is a veto by churches who can claim the right to make their own decisions that we all have to live with regardless of their democratic or constitutional legitimacy.

The churches of the west have a deal with the state: we leave you alone; you leave us alone. Churches are free to advocate for change. Churches are free to speak out. Churches are free to use their money to support court cases. Churches can bring court cases. Churches are free from paying taxes on properties worth millions of dollars. Moreover, they are free from state supervision of these activities. But they are not empowered to rule us, make laws or exempt citizens from the laws. These are values we cannot lightly set aside and unless the churches want to accept a move toward a legal system where they are supervised (for example, what processes do they have in place to pick who will get sanctuary -- are they fair? do the claimants have a right to a hearing? how about a lawyer paid for by the church?) perhaps they may not want to claim the power they have been claiming.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Yolande Lono

Yolande Lono, the mother of one of my oldest friends passed away this week in her 82nd year.

Mrs. Lono was an elegant french Canadian woman transplanted to St. John's with her husband, who moved there from Quebec to establish a roofing business. I don't know what she thought when she first arrived -- particularly since she spoke poor English at first and St. John's was (and remains) an very anglophone city -- but she remained there for the rest of her life and was an active member of the community.

Mrs. Lono and her family were actually instrumental in getting me to think as a young child about what is good about Canada and Newfoundland being a part of it. St. John's in the 1970's was a great place to grow-up (subject to not being a resident at Mnt. Cashell) but it was a very homogeneous city deeply coloured by Newfoundland's anglo-irish culture.

In that setting Mrs. Lono with her french accent, her Franco-Canadian approach to life and her endlessly different and interesting cooking was a hothouse flower. It was fun to be around her place because it was different and interesting (well also because my pal was there). Part of what was interesting about Mrs. Lono was that despite the fact she became very much part of Newfoundland and St. John's she equally remained a part of Quebec. She frequently visited there, maintained her family connections and talked about it. She did not do so with regret or longing in the way that an immigrant to another country or an exile might -- instead it was just another part of her home.

It is telling that two of Mrs. Lono's sons have remained in Newfoundland and another one is returning (indeed may have already returned as I am behind on the news). These sons have contributed richly to St. John's life in turn in many different ways -- including an active involvement in municipal and provincial politics. They too have gone on to have children who have also become part of the fabric of Newfoundland and its people. Thus Mrs. Lono's contribution to her adopted Province carries on.

This I think is the essence of what being inside a diverse country is all about -- one can leave home and experience something different without actually abandoning home. It is fundamentally different psychologically and not just legally to emigrate -- there the cut is more serious, more permanent.

Fare thee well Mrs. Lono -- it has been many years since I have been at your Christmas Eve soirees but I miss them still and think of them and you fondly.

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With Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses last night the United States of America moved one giant step forward toward electing its first black president.

When one considers that in my lifetime -- and I am not that old yet -- there were police forces setting dogs on civil rights protestors promoting black voting rights this is an amazing turn about.

Of course the United States still puts a substantial portion of its male balck population in prison for a substantial part of their most productive years so not everything has changed.

But still.

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