In so many ways Tree of Smoke is easier to describe for what it really is not. The setting is Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the Philippines, in the 1960s, but it is not a war novel. The protagonist, Skip Sands, works for the CIA, but neither is Tree of Smoke a spy story. Rather Johnson’s award winning novel is a detailed chronicle of a number of lives over the course of the 1960s told with page-turning drive and riveting attention to detail. Every baguette served in Saigon tastes a little different from the last. The temperature of the tea is hot on your tongue. The swampy humidity makes your clothes stick to you and each character’s choices in life seem preordained. A pair of down-and-out brothers from Arizona go off to fight in Vietnam and after being discharged continue to fight enemies within and without. A Canadian missionary heals orphans when no one else will because her bible leaves her no alternative. The Colonel is larger than life and for a time bigger than the army until he isn’t. . Uncertainty, like much of life, pervades. America’s role in Southeast Asia is a perfect metaphor.
My longtime friend, Jen, has gone big-time into fermentation. She’s making ginger beer. I gave her a Kombucha scoby that she is turning into super-fizzy kombucha experiments with cherries, limes, ginger, and oranges. So to satisfy her urge to learn sourdough she drove out from Cleveland for a weekend of baking and a jar full of starter. Above, we are holding our stack of barbecued flat breads that we used to smother in baba ganoush. We roasted the eggplants on the barbecue, which is a trick I learned in the Middle East. The charred skin sends a smoky caramelized flavor to the deflated pulp even after you peel it. (You can achieve the same result under a broiler and the strong heat will make the eggplant deflate in record time.) The baba ganoush was warm and creamy when we ate it and the lightly bubbled flat breads were still lightly coated in olive oil from their grilling.