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Canadiana, Part IV: Asparagus

Grainews

July 2022.

This year, May arrived suddenly, without fanfare, but with enough warmth for bare arms. Like many prairie gardeners relieved to finally – and abruptly – exit winter, I spent the sunny first day of the month cleaning up my garden beds.

To my delight, I found furled red knobs in the rhubarb patch, and sprigs of chives and green onions taking in the sun. As I raked and tidied and turned the compost, I mourned again the lost pop-up springtime bravery of my asparagus bed – the 2011 flood that had surrounded our home took my garden, the garden my mom and grandmother had planted and tended for decades.

These days, the asparagus patch, black currants, strawberries, and raspberry canes are buried beneath the berm that surrounds and protects our house. I now garden in raised beds and containers, which pose a whole new set of challenges in extremely hot and dry summers such as last year’s. Maybe this year, if my time and energy allows, I’ll dig a new bed, banish the quackgrass, and plant some asparagus crowns.

In the meantime, I wait patiently for local asparagus to arrive at the farmer’s market.

Asparagus is not a good keeper, so cook it the same day as you buy it. If it has to wait in the fridge for a day or two, stand it upright in a shallow glass of water. Prior to cooking, thick spears may require peeling, but thin stalks do not. Just bend the bottom ends, and they will snap off where the stalks turn fibrous.

Simultaneously grassy and sulphurous, asparagus stalks are a great finger food, and deserving of their own course at the table. Let everything else wait while you enjoy them – their season is so short, so sweet. How to dress up your spring fling is up to you and the degree of flash you want to inspire. Here are a few suggestions.

Instead of steaming, try roasting or grilling asparagus. Pop them onto a hot grill, and turn several times. They just take minutes, so don’t go far!  Oven-roasting – a single layer on a parchment-lined tray – is almost as quick in a very hot oven. In either case, oil lightly before cooking, then season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of lemon juice as soon as they emerge from the heat.

For high flash value that’s good with champagne or a grassy Sauvignon Blanc as party food, wrap raw asparagus spears individually in slices of prosciutto. Up your game by adding a smudge of Boursin, herbed goat cheese, or a thin slice of Jarlsberg inside the packets before you roll them up. Roast quickly in a single layer in a hot oven. Drizzle with lemon juice just before serving.

Asparagus has a natural affinity for butter and eggs – what doesn’t? – and the licorice notes of tarragon or anise seed. To keep with the finger food motif, make a tarragon-blasted Bearnaise sauce, the classic brunch accompaniment. Add poached eggs and English muffins topped with bacon or smoked salmon, and you’ll hit a home run, albeit in knife-and-fork outfielder’s territory. Or combine the flavours in a tart, quiche-style, or in an omelet.

For a simpler, quickie version, crack a pinch of anise seed in a mortar and add to browned butter along with minced chives, lemon juice and zest, and drizzle over asparagus, poached egg optional.

Other flavour matches for asparagus include smoky-salty smoked salmon or BBQ/smoked pork, and mushrooms, especially meaty, musky morels. The spears also pair well with potatoes, and high-mountain Alpine cheeses like Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Compté. Lots of possibilities with those variants!

Toasted almonds chopped and sprinkled on asparagus spears in olive oil are also delicious. If you have any meat juices left over from a succulent roast, combine it with some good chopped black Nicoise olives and a squeeze of lemon juice, then spoon the mixture over cooked asparagus. Yum. Lots of choices, so short a season. First we eat, then we tend the garden.

Asparagus with Korean Peanut Sauce

Serve this dish alone or with jasmine rice, or with grilled salmon or pork. Serves 4.

1 lb. asparagus

1/3 c. sunflower oil, divided

salt + pepper to taste

¼ c. lemon juice + zest

¼ c. orange juice + zest

1 tsp. grated ginger root

1 Tbsp. light soy

1 Tbsp. roasted sesame oil

1 Tbsp. minced cilantro or chives

hot chili paste to taste

1 c. chopped toasted peanuts

Preheat the oven to 400 F or turn on the grill to medium-high. Brush the asparagus lightly with oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine the remaining oil with all other ingredients except the peanuts. Cook the asparagus for 5-7 minutes, depending on thickness, turning as needed. Dress immediately with the vinaigrette and top with the nuts. Serve warm or hot.

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Canadiana, Part III: Rhubarb, a Spring Tonic

Grainews

June 2022.

Few ingredients say “Canada” – or spring – as insistently as rhubarb. Rhubarb thrives in cool climates and is among the first plants to emerge in spring. My Mom has a rhubarb patch, like most prairie gardeners. She can’t keep up with it once it hits its stride, so I am the lucky beneficiary. The broad but inedible leaves are big enough to shelter entire families of runaway bunnies gone bamboo, and its pink stalks gleam like love grown wild. Astringent and biting, rhubarb is the ultimate spring tonic, arriving just as we tire of roots and long for shoots.

Technically a vegetable, rhubarb forms a virtual bridge from winter to spring, and thence into early summer. But think of it as a bridge between sweet and savoury too: simmered rhubarb makes good chutney, flavoured with ginger, dried fruit, apple or pear, citrus and onion, a bit of hot chili. This makes it a hot date for curries, spring rolls, or meats such as pork, beef, duck and salmon. Alternatively, use simmered rhubarb as a starting point for a lime-and-ginger-enhanced vinaigrette.

In the sweet kitchen, many cooks find rhubarb’s tart nature easier to bear in the company of less demanding fruits. Try mixing cooked rhubarb with raw strawberries, or with apples or pears, or apricots and peaches later in the season. But in spite of its acid bite, the taste of rhubarb is surprisingly mild, so don’t overwhelm it. Spearmint and lemon thyme are good herbal accents, if sparingly used.

When facing a particularly prolific rhubarb plant, make buckwheat crepes, galettes, chutney, tarts and jams, crisps and cobblers, buckles, muffins and sweet loaves. And pie. Rhubarb was known for generations as “pie plant”, and makes stellar pie, especially when paired with strawberries and/or apples and cranberries. Stewed with sugar and perhaps another fruit, served with heavy cream, it’s called a fool. Try rhubarb slushies, made with stewed and frozen rhubarb mushed up in ginger ale. Add ice cream for a refreshing float. Or simmer and strain sweetened rhubarb seasoned with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, peppercorns, and ginger. Give the syrup to your favourite bartender, or use the resulting syrup to make an old-style non-alcoholic shrub, a surpassingly springlike refreshment.

Regardless of what you plan, choose firm ruby stalks for the best colour. The colour will fade during cooking, but returns if you partially simmer the stalks, whole or sliced, and leave the rhubarb to finish softening in its own liquid. Peeling or not peeling depends on the thickness and fibre of the stalks. Adding the minimum of honey, maple syrup or sugar to tame its astringency helps rhubarb keep its shape, as does cutting it into longer lengths or leaving it whole during cooking, without stirring.

Whatever direction you go with this prairie favourite, remember there’s no place like home. Rhubarb holds pride of place in Prairie kitchens. So first we eat, then keep that fork. There’s pie. Or cobbler. Or crisp. Or buckle.

      Rhubarb Berry Buckle

      Nothing says SPRING! as loudly as rhubarb. This spectacular stresuel-topped coffee cake

      does indeed buckle a bit after baking. Garnish each serving with optional simmered fruit

      compote and whipped cream. Serves 12

      streusel topping:

¼ cup softened butter

¼ cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

½  tsp. ground cinnamon

3/8 cup flour

½ cup rolled oats

batter:

1 cup flour

1 tsp. baking soda

¼  tsp. salt

½ cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1 lemon, zest only

1 ½ cups yoghurt or sour cream

1 cup berries

1 cup chopped rhubarb

¼ cup minced crystallized ginger

fruit compote and whipped cream for garnish

To make topping: Combine ingredients and mix together by hand. Set aside. Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly butter a 9” springform pan or 2 loaf pans.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Use a countertop mixer to cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs, vanilla, and zest. Mix until combined. Add half the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Add half the yoghurt or sour cream and mix until combined. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients and yoghurt/sour cream, finishing with a bit of flour.

Stir half of the berries and rhubarb and all of the ginger into the batter. Spread batter into pan(s). Top with remaining berries and rhubarb. Crumble streusel on top. Bake for 60 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched in center. Slice and serve warm with whipped cream and compote.

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Canadiana, Part II: Nanaimo Bars

Grainews

May 2022.

I lived in Vancouver in my twenties. Yaletown didn’t exist yet, other than as hulking rows of empty warehouses to be bicycled past quickly. Granville Island was an industrial wasteland, the Fairview Slopes didn’t slope anywhere, and False Creek was still a reclamation project. Elsewhere in town, the Ridge Theatre became known as the city’s repertory theatre, home to second run and art-house films. It showed midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, classics like Casablanca, and weeks-long series by Kurosawa and Hitchcock.

Going to the Ridge was a one-screen double-bill trip. The popcorn dripped with butter, and the concession stand’s most famous offering was Nanaimo bars from The Lazy Gourmet, owned by Susan Mendelsen and her then-partner, Deborah Roitberg. Susan started selling the bars to pay her way through a social work degree. Since then, The Lazy Gourmet has celebrated over 40 years of catering in Vancouver. Susan’s first book, Mama Never cooked Like This, was a joyful celebration, including Nanaimo bars. Susan included the recipe in her Expo 1986 cookbook as well, sealing its fate as a Canadian classic.

The Nanaimo bar, a 70-year-old Canadian dainty, has cracked the bastion of “old-money” food, the New York Times food pages. In 2019, writer Sara Bonisteel called it “a geological cross section… Its base is sedimentary…[with] a buttery silt… yellow buttercream… on the brink of liquefaction. And its top crust of chocolate… thaws like the Arctic tundra.”

Scholar L.L. Newman, who exhaustively researched the history of the Nanaimo bar, learned that the sweet was first mentioned in print in the 1947 Vancouver Sun, likely developed by a member of the Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary, and published in that group’s 1952 community cookbook. It appeared in The Sun again in 1953, where it was also called “London Smog”, in a recipe contest under the paper’s “Edith Adams” moniker. It was most likely a mill town recipe, having first appeared in Nanaimo and across the Georgia Straits in Milltown. It has become an iconic Nanaimo bakery item that lures tourists to explore the city’s “Nanaimo bar trail” in pursuit of the best bar.

Prairie cooks had a similar sweet, also called “London Smog,” that appeared on dainty trays at midnight suppers and wedding lunches. Prairie cookbook author Jean Paré included Nanaimo bars in the first book of her long-running Company’s Coming series, 150 Delicious Squares. From Drumheller to Nova Scotia, the Nanaimo bar appeared under pseudonyms like Mabel’s Squares and Victoria Specials in cookbooks and on home tables.

Nanaimo bars are indicators of the era’s faith in newly emerged processed imported foods: Bird’s custard powder, Baker’s chocolate, Fry’s cocoa, Graham crackers, Tropic coconut. With ingredients like that, it’s hard to make the case for Nanaimo bars as a Canadian classic, but as Margaret Fraser of Canadian Living once wrote, we know that at some point a Canadian cook came up with it. So first we eat, then a brisk walk – those bars are rich!

Susan Mendelson’s Nanaimo Bars

Adapted from The CanLit Cookbook, compiled by Margaret Atwood in 1987. I recently made these as a birthday gift for my nephew. Susan will forgive me for doubling the cocoa, deepening the custard centre, and sprinkling Maldon salt on top! Makes 1 8” x 8” pan/ 36 squares.

Layer 1:

½ cup butter

¼ cup sugar

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

2 Tbsp. cocoa

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1 cup shredded coconut

½ cup chopped nuts

Layer 2:

3/8 cup butter

¼ cup + 2 Tbsp. milk or cream

3 cups icing sugar

3 Tbsp. custard powder

Layer 3:

4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped

2 Tbsp. butter

a sprinkling of flaky salt (Maldon)

Line an 8” x 8” pan with enough parchment that it hangs over by 2’ on all sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and cocoa in a double boiler over simmering water. Whisk well until it thickens, then add the  crumbs, coconut and nuts. Mix well, and pack firmly into the pan, pressing down with the back of a spoon. Chill for 15 minutes.

Cream the butter in a mixer, then add the milk or cream and mix well – it will look curdled. Scrape down, then add half the icing sugar and the custard powder. Mix on slow to combine. Add the remaining icing sugar, blend to combine, then beat on high speed for 3 minutes until fluffy. Spread over the bottom layer, smoothing with a small palette knife. Chill for 15 minutes.

Melt the chocolate and butter over simmering water or in a microwave on 75 percent power for 1 minutes. Stir well, then smooth over the second layer. Sprinkle scantly with salt and chill.

Remove the square as a whole from the pan by lifting the parchment and placing on a cutting surface. Slice into small squares with a large knife, cleaning it under hot water in between slices.

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Canadiana, Part I: Habeeb Salloum and Lentils From the Ashes of War

Grainews

May 2022.

In 1923, Jirys Ya’qūb Sallūm kissed his wife and young sons goodbye in the town of Qar’awn, located in the Biqa’ Valley, in the French protectorate of Lebanon and Syria. Speaking only Arabic, he traveled to Canada to work for a relative who had a farm in southwestern Saskatchewan. He wanted a safer home for his family than the Middle East, turbulent in the wake of the First World War. His region had been occupied by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, then by the French, and it seemed to him that Canada was a long way from this strife.

One of only 3000 Syrian immigrants to Canada, his name anglicized to George Jacob Salloum, he found that working for his cousin was not ideal, and he briefly became a peddler. When his family arrived three years later, George’s wife, Shams, arrived with Syrian dietary staples – lentils and chickpeas – in her luggage.

The couple acquired a homestead near Val Marie, close to the US border. Drawing on their family’s agrarian traditions, they built an adobe house and planted a large garden. George and Shams had a large family over the years, and the children worked hard on the farm, picking rocks, gardening, seeding, harvesting. But the Dirty Thirties arrived instead of bumper crops.

Shams planted mint, chickpeas and lentils in her garden, and made yoghurt and fresh cheese. Some days, their second son, Habeeb, hungry from working in the fields, would feel furious at another meal of chickpeas or lentils – lentil stew, lentil soup, lentil salad, lentils with yoghurt, lentils with burghul (parcooked, dried and chopped wheat). At school, he and his siblings were ridiculed for their “foreign” food, and often retreated to eat in private.

In efforts to assimilate, and because she thought her immigrant fare not good enough for non-Syrian palates, Shams did not cook Arab food for the threshing crews when they came to the farm to harvest. Instead she offered fried chicken with simply prepared garden vegetables, and lunches of bologna sandwiches, which young Habeeb loved. But one year, a man on the crew brought her three jack rabbits, and she marinated, stuffed, and roasted them with Syrian ingredients. The threshers were thrilled.

Those healthful “foreign” foods that helped the family survive the drought years became important in the province’s food culture, as much-loved food, and agriculturally and economically. Lentils and chickpeas – lentils in particular – became commercial crops in Saskatchewan several decades later. In 2020, Canadian-grown lentils (95 percent of which are grown in Saskatchewan) generated over $2 billion in export sales. Crop specialists at Sask Agriculture see the Salloum family’s plantings in the ‘30s and ‘40s as forerunners, but there are no official government records providing a link.

The best existing record is the late Habeeb Salloum’s award-winning and brilliant book, Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead: Recipes and Recollections From a Syrian Pioneer, which he wrote at the age of 81. In 2017, Habeeb was 93 when the University of Regina Press issued an updated edition.

His book combines a scholar’s diligent research with the memoir of an immigrant family. The result is a marriage of personal, cultural, culinary, geopolitical and economic history served up with traditional Arab recipes. The book was recognized by the Saskatchewan Library Association as their 2022 selection for the annual “One Book One Province” – the book chosen for provincial residents to read for literary and cultural bonding. In this chaotic year of war, refugees, pandemic, and escalating food prices, a little bonding is a timely idea. First we eat some lentils, then we talk about an end to all the rest.

Lentil Salad (Salatat ‘Adas)

Adapted from Habeeb Salloum’s Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead, my version substitutes roasted winter vegetables for high-summer tomatoes. I am sure Habeeb’s gardening mother Shams would have done exactly the same thing. Serves 8

1 cup Du Puy or green lentils

4 cups water

½ tsp. salt

1 lb. small carrots, trimmed

2 cups cauliflower florets or quartered Brussels sprouts

½ cup olive oil, divided

salt and pepper to taste

½ cup lemon juice

1 Tbsp. roasted and ground coriander

1 tsp. roasted cumin (ground or seeds)

zest of 1 lemon

1 cup cooked chickpeas

I bunch green onions, minced

a handful of minced fresh mint or parsley

Combine the lentils, water and salt in a pot. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain.

Set the oven at 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. While the lentils cook and cool, toss the vegetables in a little oil with salt and pepper. Spread on the baking sheet and roast until browned and tender. Let cool.

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and season to taste, adding extra salt and lemon juice as needed.

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Bread & Water: Essays

March 2021. I am so pleased to announce that my eighth book, Bread & Water: Essays, will be published in Fall 2021 by University of Regina Press. I will put up cover art as soon as I get it. Thank you to the great team at U of R PRess; they are a dream to work with, and I am honoured and humbled that they are giving voice to my new work.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Good Neighbours

Grainews

Our neighbours are one of the reasons Dave and I are able to live in the country. Admittedly, as writers, we have the wrong skill sets for rural life. Dave can edit a short story like nobody’s business, and he’s a fabulous writer, but he’s not so good at manual labour or at troubleshooting failed machinery. And me? Well, I am good with animals, a screwdriver, a hammer, an axe, but give me a crashed septic tank or a misbehaving water pump or stalled snow blower, and I revert to Plan B: call the specialists.

Our neighbours help out – with friendship and moral support, by keeping our long driveway ploughed out each winter, and with practical advice to bolster what we learn from our hired-gun specialists with the hefty price tags.

But our neighbours really shine when the chips are on the table. Not long ago, my brother the metal sculptor came rushing in from his shop where he’d been grinding metal, shouting, “Call 911! There’s a fire!” When I stepped outside, a column of black smoke marked the spot for the entire countryside to see, and the flames were already visible as they roared through the shop.

The volunteer fire department arrived within twenty minutes of my call. I know that in nearby Saskatoon, the fire department’s emergency response time is under seven minutes, and twenty minutes can seem like a terrifyingly long time when you are face to face with a ravenous fire, but that afternoon, those minutes flew by.

Half a dozen of our neighbours showed up in advance of the firefighters. We all muscled what tools we could reach out of my brother’s shop, then retreated when the fire advanced. I’d never been that close to such flames, and its sheer uncontrolability and magnitude humbled me. We moved on to the barn, which was built in 1900. The barn’s timbers were as dry as an old joke, its upper level crammed with straw waiting to torch the yard if the fire spread. The old John Deere garden tractor and the snow blower took several people several minutes of effort to roll out of the barn and across the yard. By then, the dried grass was going up. Flames were creeping northward, toward the house. The flood that had surrounded our yard in 2011 was still in evidence, no longer a lake but enough of a slough to fill buckets. One neighbor went south, shovel in hand, in case sparks flew to the pasture. Two of us split off, running with heavy buckets sloshing and banging our legs until we up-ended their contents on the smouldering grass. Fill, run, repeat, fill, run, repeat.

The fire trucks, tankers and water hoses arrived, and checked the spread of the grassfire, and saved the barn.  But without our neighbours appearing on our yard when that plume of black smoke sent up its SOS, the results could have been catastrophic. If the wind had shifted to the south. If the grassfire had spread more quickly. If the fire had reached the barn. Or the house.

Reliable as the changing seasons, those good neighbours all understood the risk a grass fire poses on the prairie. We are beyond grateful, to them, and to the volunteer departments who showed up. I hope I never have to return the favour, but I will if need be. But first we eat my favourite butter chicken, ideal for a crowd of hungry firefighting friends.

Butter Chicken

Serve this luscious dish with basmati rice, flatbread and lentils. From Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet

Serves 6-8

4 T. butter

2 onions, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 T. grated ginger root

4 T. mild garam masala or curry powder

8 large boneless chicken thighs, cut into cubes

4-6 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced

2 T. tomato paste

¼ c. white wine

1 c. chicken stock

1 c. whipping cream

Lemon juice to taste

salt and pepper to taste

minced parsley or cilantro

Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onions and half the garlic, half the ginger and half the spices. Cook over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle the remaining garlic, ginger and spices on the chicken pieces and mix thoroughly.

When the onions are tender, add the chicken, wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, and stock. Mix well. Cover and simmer for 1 hour, or until tender, stirring from time to time and adding additional stock if the liquid level drops too low. Remove the lid and simmer briskly until thickened if the sauce is too runny, stirring several times. Add the cream and simmer to reduce. Taste, adjusting the balance with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Garnish with cilantro or parsley.

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat – By the Book

Grainews

Dave and I are writers. Every room in our house is filled with books and literary journals, framing windows and filling every shelf. Upstairs in my studio, half the room is devoted to my culinary library.  The kitchen, too, has a bookshelf, thanks to my mother. Continue reading

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Grainews: “First We Eat” – Curling & Chili

Grainews

For the past seven years, we’ve greeted the New Year by throwing makeshift curling rocks across the icy lake that surrounds our home west of Saskatoon. The lake arrived in spring 2011, eight months after we’d taken up residence on what has been my family’s farm for decades. Continue reading

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35th Writer in Residence at Saskatoon Public Library

Here’s some news… I am the 35th Writer in Residence at Saskatoon Public Library; my term runs from 1 September 2015 until 31 May 2016. Some very big shoes to fill, including some of my favourite Canadian writers! Guy Vanderhaeghe, Yann Martel, Anne Simpson, Patrick Lane… these are just a few of the writers who have preceded me in this chair. Humbling, oh yes.

In addition to consultations with other writers, a good part of the Writer in Residence’s time is devoted to writing. This morning, during my walk with my dog [his idea of a walk is to gallop, wild-cannon-like, through the fields while I walk, tea in hand and rather more sedately, along the driveway, observing the waterfowl], I think I originated an interesting idea for a new writing project for my library term. I want tannins, backbone, edginess, a little roughness around the edges, from an idea in early stages. This one needs time to ferment a bit, but I am hopeful.

My WIR office hours:

Tuesday, 10 Am – 6 PM.

Wednesday, 12:30 Pm- 9 PM.

For the duration of my SPL Residency, to book an appointment, please contact me directly at d.hobsbawnsmith [at] saskatoonlibrary [dot] ca or call my SPL direct line at 306.975.7598.

I’ll see you at the library!

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What I’m reading this December

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Chez L’Arabe by Mireille Silcoff

Forms of Devotion by Diane Schoemperlen

Lake of Two Mountains by Arleen Paré

Leaving Howe Island by Sadiqa de Meijer

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