Early one morning, well before sunrise, I climbed into our old blue pickup truck and headed out of the city of Chiang Mai. It was early November, the middle of sticky rice harvest, and I hoped to be in the fields as farmers first arrived. It was lovely to be driving, as the roads were almost empty and the air was cool, almost cold.
It was still quite dark by the time I arrived, but people had already begun to gather in the fields. I parked my truck and walked over to join one small group huddled around a fire, everyone rubbing his hands together to stay warm. The day, like every other day is time of year, would be sunny and warm, but for now the fire was a welcome sight. "Where are you from?" someone asked, "and why are you here?" "I'm here to take pictures, and to watch," I explained. "Then you can help harvest!" "Oh, no, oh no," I replied, as everyone laughed, " I can only take pictures."
A man handed me a glass of lao khao, a local rice liquor made from sticky rice, poured from a big plastic container. Then everyone began speaking quickly, and in northern dialect, and I couldn't understand a word. But there was a long day's work ahead, and they were ready to begin.
By the time the sky had begun to brighten, rice was already being cut, threshed, and loaded into bags. This time of year, after the fields have been harvested, the straw left in the fields is burned, leaving the land black and filling the sky with smoke and haze. There is also dust from the straw, all of which makes for sunrises and sunsets vibrant with red and orange, and this morning was no exception.
Grandparents, parents, and preschool children were out in the fields with a role to perform. People laughed and joked as they worked, yelling across the fields. The grandparents in the group where I stayed the longest made sure that my glass of lao khao remained full, as did their own glasses. They demonstrated several different methods of threshing by hand, and there was a friendly competition to see who could carry the most cut rice into the threshing ground.
By nine o'clock I was exhausted. Taking photographs is such hard work.
Seductions of Rice
By Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
Nearly 200 recipes, 480 pages
Hardcover, jacketed, $35.00
Reprinted by permission.
This page created November 1998
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