Sunday, January 27, 2013

Adapted Caesar Salad– but first the story

Pierre Berton was not only a top notch, popular history writer in Canada in the mid-20th Century, but he was also renowned for his personal generosity. Once he donated considerable coin to help fund and make possible a conference for writers, some of whom had publicly accused him of being a privileged, racist, old, white man. It takes real generosity of spirit to realize that when people make such hurtful comments that it might be because of their own hurts, and also that it is worth learning more about the source of their pain. Pierre was that kind of guy with that kind of spirit.

For many years, he and his wife Janet also hosted the AGM after-party of The Writers Union of Canada at their home in Kleinberg. The food was spectacular, and many of the recipes can be found in the cookbook they published in 1974. At the first of these parties that I attended, I was 28 years old, and had been invited as the common-law spousal pontoon of Andreas Schroeder. Close to forty years later, we are still each other’s spousal pontoons. And a good thing that is.

 At this particular party, the food tents were set outside, and the drinks were served indoors. The chat amongst the writers became more brilliant and animated as the afternoon wore on. Pimms #1 was the secret, a beverage that tastes something like a mix of dry sherry, orange peel and then a hit of brandy or gin. Waiters clad in black and white uniforms glided around the living room with countless bottles on hand. There was no such thing as a glass half full. Time and again, I was so intent on either talking or listening that I hadn’t registered that my glass had been refilled.

It was only when I excused myself to go to the washroom that I realized I was in trouble. My clue was how hard it was to locate the lever in order to flush. Returning to the living room, I took Andreas aside, and suggested that we had better leave before I disgraced myself. He agreed, though he claimed not to be similarly afflicted. We said our goodbyes, the door closed behind us, and both of us strolled out to our car. Or we tried to. Twenty paces off the porch, a slight decline in the lawn caught us by surprise and we both went ass over tea kettle. Driving back to Toronto was clearly not an option, at least not right away. We hid out in our car, seats in the recline position, and chatted until dusk.

I think of Janet and Pierre, and other such stories, every time I cook from their cookbook. It could only have be written after raising eight children on a limited budget and entertaining dozens on weekends on a regular basis. No wonder the first chapter is called On Tribal Feeding.

A few weeks ago, I was asked for their salad dressing recipe after I had used an adapted version for a cohousing meal. It has many uses. It is thick enough that it can also be used as a spread on sandwiches. With a few tweaks and omissions, it can even be made vegan friendly. Here is my take on it, modified so that it works for both vegans and vegetarians.

Caesar Salad

  • 1 c Olive oil
  • 1/3 c red wine vinegar
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 c grated cheddar cheese (use vegan “cheese” when serving vegans)
  • 1 tsp dry English mustard
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 2 T Worcerstershire sauce (there is a vegan-friendly version that does not include anchovies. It is stocked at our local IGA)
  • 4 pinches cayenne pepper (leave out if guests are spice-averse)
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 coddled egg (leave out when serving vegans)
 Toss the dressing with:
  • 3 heads Romaine Lettuce
  • 1 c Parmesan Cheese fine grated (serve vegans before adding or else use vegan-friendly cheese)

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Hong Kong Embroidery - 1902

Annelise Connell, standing on a table to view this embroidery, was my mentor, host, and guide during my recent trip to Hong Kong.
NOTE: These photos are shared courtesy of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

 I can’t recall who had the thought that I should make sure to see this particular embroidery, but whoever you are – thank you. Seeing it in the flesh was a stunning experience. My only regret is that I couldn’t spend even more time absorbing the feel of the detail. It is huge, measuring: 5’ by 9½’. Thomas and Matthew, two of the archives staff, had to set out close to a dozen banquet tables before unfurling it for our viewing. 

A 1902 news account described the attempted presentation of this embroidered scroll to Thomas Jackson in Hong Kong at a banquet celebrating his life in the Colony. I say attempted, because the embroiderers, Kam Lun & Co. in Canton, were unable to complete the work before Jackson had to sail for England. Robert Ho Tung, the merchant who hosted this tribute to Jackson, explained: ... we are handing you the address in its present form, as it has not been possible for us to get the embroidered work done in Canton in time before your departure. It seemed to us that, got up in characteristic Chinese style, the Address may be a more interesting memento to you from the Chinese.

We should be thankful that Kam Lun & Co. cared enough about their craft that they didn’t do a rush job. This embroidery is nothing like one of those mass-market embroidered scrolls that can be found these days in great profusion in some of the lower priced stalls at Stanley Market. It is a superb work of art, both in its design as well as its execution. Every individual stitch that was sewn into the silk backing was perfectly executed. It took thousands upon thousands of stitches to produce this final result. I would love to know more about Kam Lun & Co., but our dear Brother Google is silent on this score.
A heron in the bottom right corner of the embroidery.
I also regret that my photos of this embroidery don’t entirely do it justice. In real life, each bird, each flower, each creature, each embellishment looks as if it had been painted on the silk, not stitched into place. The stitches are so fine that a viewer actually has to be as close as eight inches away before being able to discern the individual threads. At home, I have enlarged the photo, which I have in a higher resolution than I am able to share here, and have studied the progression of individual elements. Unfortunately, I do not know enough of the meanings of peacocks, herons, dragons and the like to be able to tease out a narrative. I suspect that there is an intention behind the placement of each element, and hope that someone reading this may have a clue or three that they might be willing to share.

All I know so far about the meaning of the four large characters in the middle of the embroidery comes from a letter where it is said that they are intended to be read as a metaphor: He is the man of whom the poem “Autumn Winter” reminds one. The letter writer added: Written on a lucky day in May 1902. If anyone out there can translate the other words which are surrounding the four characters, I would be most grateful. I am also curious about which particular poem of the thousands of Chinese poems that mention Autumn Water that this one might be. I have tried to find it online, but am none the wiser. There are too many of them.

On last thing. Yes, this embroidery was commissioned to honour the banking accomplishments of Sir Thomas Jackson, as well as for his significant volunteer and philanthropic efforts, but that was not all. More importantly, as Robert Ho Tung stressed in his presentation, it was also because of the kindness and sociability that Jackson had extended towards the community of Chinese merchants. In the long run, I get the feeling that this is what mattered most to many members of the Chinese merchant community. They had counted Jackson and themselves not only as colleagues, but also as friends.

Thanks to Helen Swinnerton, Senior Archives Manager of HSBC Archive in Hong Kong; Matthew Edmondson, Manager Archives Collection and Thomas Warren, History Manager - both in Hong Kong; Tina Stapes, Global Head of Archives, London. Annelise Connell who made sure I took the right public transit in order to arrive where I needed to be.

News reports 1902 – 1st farewell event
News reports 1902 – 2nd farewell event

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Accidental Vegan Veggie Pie

The Sisters of Mercy Cooking Team

One of my volunteer gigs is to cook a meal once a month with two friends for the members of Roberts Creek Cohousing. As we cook, we chat about this and that: family news, dreams, politics – you name it. If the menu is not too challenging, we also take time to listen carefully to a particular piece of music, or share some poetry. You can’t beat it for a way to spend an afternoon. That is, unless you try to poach 40 apples in Saltspring Island port for dessert. So, I won’t say much about that debacle. We turned that particular mess into high end apple sauce.

Instead, since so many asked for it, here is my recipe for My Accidental Vegan Veggie Pie. I am calling it accidental, because I am not a vegan and when I started in on this recipe I was mostly guided by significant doses of guess and by golly, but that is the beauty of these afternoons. We are often required to cook outside our usual culinary box.

That night, we were cooking for 40-45 people, 10 of whom were vegetarians and 3 of the vegetarians were vegans. For the omnivores, I was on more experienced territory. We made half a dozen turkey-vegetable pies using up frozen left-over Xmas turkey and stock. Easy, peasy.

That being said, I will in the future cook this vegan pie for my own home meals. The trick is the gravy:

Mushroom Miso & Mustard Gravy
  • 3T vegan butter substitute
  • 2T olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 generous cups finely sliced mushrooms (about 1/3 pound)
  • 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 1/4 cups vegetable stock (If store-bought, I prefer Knorr– some of the other brands smell like old cabbage or unwashed socks  to me)
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
  • 1 generous tablespoon golden miso (aka sweet white miso)
  • 1 generous tablespoon dark miso (aka traditional red miso)
  • 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1 T Dijon mustard
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Melt the butter and olive oil together in a large skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add the onion and sauté, stirring often, for about 4 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften but doesn’t caramelize. Raise the heat slightly and add the mushrooms. Continue cooking, stirring often, for 5 to 6 minutes more until the mushrooms are soft.
2. Turn the heat down to medium and sprinkle the flour over the onion, mushroom mix. Stir quickly as you would when making a roux until all the flour is absorbed and has cooked into the rest a bit. Then slowly add the vegetable stock, and stir until it is well combined. Allow it to simmer for 5-10 minutes. Do this until it is thickened, but not like glue.
3. Pour the wine into a suitably sized bowl, and add the garlic, golden miso, dark miso, nutritional yeast, and mustard. Whisk them well together, and then then whisk them into the stock and veggie mix.
4. Reduce the heat and let the sauce simmer very gently, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, and then set aside.

The Vegetables for the Pie

While the gravy is simmering, chop whatever veggies you want in your pie. Quantities are flexible. Use whatever you have on hand, enough to fill whatever size of casserole dish you are baking the pie in. We used potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and onions, and cut them into large thumbnail sized bits, enough to fill a 13”X9” dish. Then we tossed the chopped veg in salt, pepper and olive oil, and roasted them at 400 F for about 25 minutes (check them after about 20 minutes. You want them to be slightly caramelized, but not blackened.) Once they were cooked enough (the main idea is to reduce the water content and thereby to intensify the flavours), we added sliced mushrooms and peas.

Mix all the veg into the gravy, and pour into a Pyrex baking dish, and top with pastry.


My pastry recipe is something like (approximate, because after doing it for 5 decades, I don’t really look any more):

·       2 ½ c organic white flour
·       ½ lb shortening
·       1 tsp white vinegar
·       ½ c or so of water – enough so that the dough coheres.

Bake for about 30 minutes at 375F.

These amounts will serve 6-10 people, depending on how many are adults and how many are children. Bear in mind that teenage boys count as if they are three adults. Fair enough.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Hong Kong & Ireland: Two British Colonies

An excerpt from a speech delivered to the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in November 2012. Since then, I rewrote it a bit to better suit the format of a blog.

The early days of the British Colony of Hong Kong benefited from the fact that men such as Thomas Jackson, the renowned Hong Kong banker of his day, grew up in Ireland experiencing life on both sides of the table – Colony and Empire. It is also worth noting that the 19th century government of Hong Kong was thick with Irishmen. At least eight of the early Governors had Irish ancestry. Clearly, most of them knew how to play the game. It also probably helped that by the time that Hong Kong became a Colony in 1841, England had already learned a trick or two from its long-term, botched management of Ireland, not to mention having learned from the taxation-without-representation debacle in America. Been there. Done that.

When I look at Irish history up to 1841, the year that Thomas Jackson was born and Hong Kong became a Colony, there are three long-term, inter-generational realities worth mentioning. Their effects shaped the values and actions of these Hong Kong Irishmen, whether they had arrived to govern or to conduct trade. They included the experience of:

  • Unfair land ownership policies coupled with a lack of urbanization. For centuries in Ireland, power and wealth had been based on owning land. The laws were heavily skewed in the favour of the landlord, who was all too often absent and based in England. The Irish economy was essentially a rural economy, with little urbanization. Ireland had no coal, or major industries, aside from the linen trade, so the fuel to build cities simply wasn’t there. The country’s culture was essentially rural.
  • The impact of proxy wars.  These wars which were fought by France and England and others in Ireland over several centuries resulted in a dangerously militarized countryside. This meant that most males were skilled at fighting, either as members of a formal army on the one side, or as guerilla activists on the other.
  • A cultural chasm that divided people along religious, political, and economic lines. As a result of the proxy wars as well as the effects of land ownership policies, Ireland was deeply divided. This polarization obscured the fact that policies governing land ownership and voting rights were the more likely roots of the divide - not religion. Religion was often exploited as a diversionary proxy for what was really wrong.

It is easy to see how Ireland’s history could have served as a cautionary tale to Irishmen in places of power in Hong Kong. Add to this, the fact that most of these Irishmen who served in Hong Kong had lived in Ireland during the Great Famine, or had family who did. The focus of the book that I am currently writing is Sir Thomas Jackson, so I will stick to how all this influenced him.

Jackson served as the Chief Manager of HSBC in the mid to late 1880s. At the time, the Bank could almost have been called The Irish Bank of Hong Kong - at least going by the numbers of Irishmen serving in the upper levels of management.  Many of them came on his coattails. Most of these managers were also related to each other, partly by blood and partly by the fact that they’d grown up on neighbouring farms. Photos of them in Hong Kong wearing suits and holding top hats can be deceiving. Three realities particular to their class are worth mentioning:
  • Until they had come to Hong Kong, most of them had been wearing shirts that were hand-sewn by their sisters.
  • Their education was not at the prestigious schools favoured by the British banking class.
  • Most of them grew up eating their family meals in the company of the hired help.
 Andrew Hugh Gilmore JACKSON, the man on the right, was a nephew of Sir Thomas. Like his uncle, he grew up as a farmer’s son, and then worked at HSBC. Later, he worked as an independent broker. He died in Hong Kong of Hong typhoid fever in 1918. He is buried at Happy Valley, just across the street from the Race Track that he and his uncle often frequented. The surname of the person on the left is MOORE. I know nothing more of him.
I’d like to touch briefly on four ways in which Jackson’s childhood experiences, both at the macro-level of Irish history, and the micro level of life on his family farm, influenced his actions as a banker. This is just a taste. There is much, much more to say and to learn about all this.

Firstly, he never stopped his practice of reaching across the class divide. He usually ate his mid-day tiffin with the young bank clerks, even when he was Chief Manager. He had a saying that rubbing the old file against the young flint brings out the best qualities of both. Members of the Chinese merchant community also appreciated his inclusiveness. At a banquet in 1902, they celebrated the unvarying kindness and courtesy exhibited by you towards us as a distinct class. Unlike many other Europeans of his time and place, Jackson was remarkably free of racism.

Secondly, he and his board resisted the pressures to move the head office from Hong Kong to London – even though the pressures to do so were considerable. As realtors always say: location, location, location. What this meant for the early Hong Kong banks was that the ones that failed had head offices elsewhere and became too disconnected to be attuned to the needs of the Chinese community. Unfortunately, HSBC eventually had to leave the island as a result of WWII when Japanese troops overran Hong Kong, and imprisoned their staff. Several HSBC staff lost their lives at this time. Some of these men were also Jackson’s relations. One of them had been baptized with his name.

 Thirdly, Jackson insisted on investing the bank’s profits where those profits were made.  One consequence of the Bank’s policy of investing locally was that since local businesses felt that they were supported and could trust in that ongoing support, they flourished. As a result of the successes of local businesses, even more coin flowed into the bank’s coffers. This commitment to the local community was another reason why HSBC survived the currency crises of the 1890s, a time when many banks bit the dust. Adding to this commitment, Jackson also set an ethical standard by not lining his own pocket in side deals. Had he done so, he could have retired as a much wealthier man, but he saw this as a conflict of interest and felt the need to set an example.

Fourthly, he took good care of his staff. Pensions, decent pay, medical care – you name it. Better than the norm. He set up a staff cafeteria, and insisted on supplying good quality food. As his daughter described it, he was so much afraid that the clerks would be tempted to save money by buying cheap and inadequate food instead of having the dinners they needed.  When he first retired, few men would have acted as he did just before taking his leave. The Bank’s balance sheet was in great shape, thanks in part to his efforts, but he deferred the announcement of the Bank’s profits so that his successor could get the credit. You don’t have to be a genius to imagine the positive effects of that on bank morale.

There is at least one last thing that may or may not be fairly attributed to his roots. Lucky Jackson, as he was also known, was a gifted currency trader. Did it help that he had grown up hearing stories of a cousin from Co. Louth who ran silver mines in South America? Did he learn as a result what kind of news mattered in currency trades and what kind of news didn’t? I can only guess. And what about the influence of his wife’s roots on his work? She was definitely a force in his life. Did it also help that she was the child of a Singaporean merchant, ship-chandler and ship captain and had several brothers and brother-in-laws who shared all the latest gossip about ships, silk, tea, silver bullion and opium? Probably. But more of that anon.

Grave marker at Stanley Military Cemetery in Hong Kong. Thomas Jackson Houston, a great-nephew of Sir Thomas Jackson, died of dysentery while a prisoner of war. He had been married in Hong Kong, and had taken his wife, Margaret, who was about to give birth, to Australia for safety. He arrived back in Hong Kong just in time to be captured. OBITUARY - DIED IN HONG KONG Mr. And Mrs. J.K. Houston, 14 St. Jude's Avenue have been informed of the death, in a camp at Hong Kong, of their son, Mr. T.J. Houston, B.A. of the Colonial Administrative Service. Mr. Houston had a brilliant scholastic career and in 1934 won a Mathematical scholarship in the Cambridge University examinations. He was a pupil at Methodist College and gained exhibitions in both his Junior and Senior Certificate examinations. He entered Queens University in 1930 and two years later was awarded a Major Scholarship at Christ's College, Cambridge. In June 1933, he obtained a first-class honours degree in mathematics and mathematical physics at Queen's University.

So, there we have it: The Irish Bank of Hong Kong - in all but name.