Sunday, June 1, 2014

Very well, alone.

I just spent a week in Antigua beside a pool set in a garden right out of a Rousseau painting. To me proximity to a pool is a sapphire beyond price. 
My mother didn’t enjoy the water, in contrast to my father who swam like a torpedo, so it is odd that she is the one who taught me to swim. This is how she did it. She stood in the shallow end of our community pool. I stood a few feet away and threw myself at her over and over. She would catch my hands as I floundered. We did this day after day for weeks. (Selfishly I never stopped to consider that this must have been incredibly boring for her.) One day, at last, for a magic moment, between push off, splutter and grasp I floated. I knew what it felt like to be borne up by the water. I knew how to swim.

I remembered that as I crawled forward and backwards in my Antiguan pool. And I remembered her watching me as I swam at a B&B we stayed at on a weekend getaway. I said, “you should come in it’s beautiful”. She said, “when you love someone you get as much pleasure from seeing them enjoy themselves as doing it yourself”.

In her long dying I sometimes tried to rouse her to eat or do her physiotherapy by saying “this isn’t the spirit that built an empire”. I was thinking of a famous cartoon from 1940 that was reproduced in my grade 12 history text book. A British Tommy on a beach head shakes his fist at enemy aircraft and says, “Very well, alone”. She, who had survived being bombed in the Blitz, would roll her ice blue eyes and resume her descent.

When Taylor told me that about a week before she died, she grasped his hand fiercely and told him “I love you, you know,” for a petulant moment I thought, “she hadn’t said that to me in years”.

She’d shown me that she did, over and over. When I was a kid there were lots of romantic slogans, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”, “love is wanting for someone else everything you previously desired for yourself”. Both wrong of course. 

Her dying reminded me that love is wanting for someone else everything they desire for themselves, even if it means you must let them go. So, good bye Shirley Violet Glaze, thank you for teaching me to swim. Very well, alone.


Because this is supposed to be about food, here is a recipe I adapted from an old Food & Wine article by Dorie Greenspan and ate with gusto in Antigua.

2 cups chicken stock
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 cup couscous
1 carrot finely chopped
1 green pepper diced
1 small zucchini diced
3 green onions chopped fine, including green tops
1 Granny Smith apple cut into a small dice
1/3 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup drained and rinsed chick peas
1/4 cup lemon juice

Poach the chicken breast in the stock into which you have whisked the spices and one tablespoon of the oil, remove the breast and allow to cool. Return the stock to boiling and stir the couscous in a steady stream. Put on a lid and remove from the heat. Whisk together the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Dice the chicken. When the couscous has cooled, fluff with a fork. Mix in the vegetables and meat. Toss with the lemon/olive oil dressing and season with salt and pepper. Serves six to eight.

What I Read
What do you read at the beach? No mystery there, mysteries. Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse annoyed a little - the detective, Albert Campion has amnesia so you are lost along with him for the first two thirds. Murder in Grub Street by Bruce Alexander features the real life blind Judge John Fielding (brother of Henry author of Tom Jones) as seen through his “eyes” and protege Jeremy Proctor. A very satisfying read. I ended the week with Josephine Tey’s Singing Sands, her last and wonderful Inspector Grant novel. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What can you do?

In these blurry days between winter and spring it is hard to decide what to cook. In the last four weeks I have made scones imagining cream teas outdoors and huddled over a bowl of mulligatawny for warmth. The latest pie was chicken, olive and preserved lemon, because it struck a balance between the heartiness required by winter and the fresh warmth of Mediterranean flavours. The sun shone, ice melted and I made Marcella Hazan’s minestrina tricolore, a light sort of vichyssoise. The temperature dropped and a pot of bacon and lentil soup with pasta seemed in order.

My mother is in palliative care. Cooking is therapy and perhaps my food choices mirror the oscillations in my mother’s condition. I’m going to go all reckless on you and risk a poetic mash up. For a long time my mother has been more than half in love with easeful death, and longed to go gently into that good night. But that’s not how it works.

Every now and then, less and less frequently, she has a good day. By which I mean she stays awake for almost an hour at a stretch, drinks her juice without prompting and is able to hold the glass herself. Good days are rarely followed by good days, no matter what I do. I know this, but it does not prepare me for the shock of the bad days when she feels awful and is too tired to even talk on the phone to a friend of half a century. In this instance knowledge is not power. In fact, it doesn’t help a bit.

Tomorrow when I leave my mum I will come home to zuppa ci verza alla bergamasca. As I write this I am soaking the chickpeas. I will feel a little better because I made it and the buttermilk bread I will eat with it. It’s something I can do. A little victory, but aren’t they all? I intend to accumulate as many as I can, one spoonful at a time. They are a celebration of the good days and a salve against the bad.

Earthy pleasures
Clare Leighton is famous for her woodcuts, which have a muscular vitality. Her two best known books are The Farmer’s Year and Four Hedges which are both structured around the annual cycle of sowing, growth, harvest, rest and renewal. Reading Four Hedges makes you feel that you are following a friend around her garden. She doesn’t bother with lengthy introductions to herself or any of the other characters, because we’ve all known each other forever. She works with such enthusiasm, you long to be invited to help.

If you are a gardener, you will feel an even closer kinship with her when she talks about the tenderness she feels towards plants she has nurtured over many seasons, and the brave hope that planting bulbs represents. I often think of my last, lost garden and wonder if the new owners are taking proper care of my rhodies and if the crocus and trilliums have naturalized. One last poetical paraphrase: one could do worse than be a sower of scilla.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Winter of Pie

Ground Hog Day 2014 is over and I emerge from my blogging hibernation to announce that this is the Winter of Pie. Not the “American as” apple pie or the cherry pie that is the test of Billy Boy’s girlfriends, or the slutty “easy as” pie. No, none of these. Rather the savoury pie. 

Admittedly it has an unsavoury past. Before ovens wore burnished steel and were obligingly self-cleaning, meats were baked in inedible pastry “coffyns” that were re-used. I told you it was unsavoury. This is the sort of pie from which four and 20 blackbirds would sing. There are reports of coffyns filled with live frogs being brought to the table. In a discarded novel called Warts and All, Jane Austen says, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman must subsist on frog pie if she is ever to skewer a prince” . . . OK, I made that bit up, but the rest is true. 

For such a feeble joke I might be made to eat humble pie, which is a corruption of “umble” pie. “Umbles” are the offal of deer. Where else could you learn these things?

The Winter of Pie has been thrown off course sporadically by Christmas and the traditional yule tide power outage, and sundry other shocks that we are all heir to. The first pie is pictured above. It’s ham, cheese and leek. Since then I’ve made a beef and olive pie - my sun dried olives were a little too powerful. A pork and prune pie with apple mash was moving. Spiced lamb with beans topped with mash was pleasing, but the best to date was Moroccan lamb with apricots. Harissa spice was a wonderful counterpoint to the sweetness of the meat and fruit, while the puff pastry topping made it truly decadent. These are all to be found in Sophie Conran’s Mini Book of Pies.

This winter feels as if it’s been February since December. What I wouldn’t do for a coffyn full of crocuses singing spring. I think I’ll fill the hot water bottle again and ponder my next pie.

A Bounty of Books

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last year, even embarked on e-reading at last, but I’ll just mention these three. In Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise the nuances of the characters’ feelings reminded me of George Elliot, and the unconventional plot will keep you guessing.

I cite the next two because they are fun in and of themselves and brought to my attention a whole range of books that would otherwise have escaped my notice. Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree is a sort of reader’s diary. He discusses what he’s bought, what he’s read and thought, and not read and why. If you are a bibliophile you will probably laugh out loud or at the very least smile in recognition. Have you ever bought a book knowing you would never read it, but wishing that you were the sort of person who would? Me too. 

Hornby directed me to John Carey’s Pure Pleasure, which is his must reads from the last century, it includes novels, poetry and non fiction. As a result, my Collected Auden is beside my bed, two or three poems a night, and so to sleep, hot water bottle still at my feet.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Re: Past

Writers have a lot to say about the past. “You can’t go home again.” “The past is a foreign country.” Then there is Proust’s meticulously remembered madeleine.

My mother is adrift on an ebb tide of dementia. If near death experiences are described as traveling towards the light, dementia is a cruel pulling into darkness. 

Once upon a time my mother was fun loving and funny. Now she is petty and resentful. Our visits are full of senseless repetition and unbridgeable silences. Once upon school lunch times she read to me: anything from studies of the Iroquois to Coral Island while I ate peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches. Once upon an Eastertide she would leave rhyming clues to the whereabouts of chocolate eggs at the foot of my bed. 

My mother was an unenthusiastic cook and at bad at it. But I loved it when she made her beef curry, this not too hot, not too bland, just right stew. I would happily have eaten bowls of rice dowsed only in the resulting rich red sauce. 

Where was the recipe? 

My mother had a small suitcase worth of recipe clippings. There were hundreds of them, for pies, cakes, stews, and casseroles not one of which she ever made, but no sign of the curry of times past.

Then I came up on the 18th edition of The Radiation Cookery Book, which includes recipes for Beef Tea, Bread Cheese Cakes and Stewed Eel: take one eel and 1/2 a pint of white or brown sauce . . . It is a charmingly paradoxical book. A guide, it claims to the most modern kitchen craft, with elaborate capitals such as you would find in a medieval manuscript. It is a book that was four years old when my mother was born. Why she kept it, I’ll never know. To the best of my knowledge she never used it, except as a scrapbook for other recipes she never cooked. The curry recipe was taped to the back cover:

2 pounds of stewing beef
1/4 of cooking oil
1 medium onion sliced thin
1 medium apple chopped
1 tblsp curry powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp ginger
28 oz can chopped tomatoes
6 oz can tomato paste
2 tblsps lemon juice
1/2 cup hot water
2 beef bouillon cubes

Trim the beef if necessary. Heat the oil in a dutch oven. Add the onion and apple, cook until the onion is transparent. Lift out the onion and apple and set aside. Add the beef to the pan and brown on all sides. Return the apple and onion to the pan. Add the remaining ingredients. Stir well. Cover and simmer for about two hours. Serve with rice.

Messrs. Wolfe, Hartley and Proust may know a thing or three about the past. I know that though my mother lives, I will never see the mother I loved again. But when I savor that fragrant beef I know one more thing about the past: you can eat it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

When is a meal a telescope? Or, a tale of two Nigels

No grasshoppers, I am not teasing you with a mind dislocating koan. 

I love how books and meals can telescope ever outward. I’m thinking of how Frances Partridge’s diaries lead me to Selina Hasting’s biography of Partridge’s eccentric traveling companion, the novelist Rosamund Lehmann, and then onto her book The Weather in the Streets.
I’m thinking of my recent adventures in the kitchen. Giving up the fight against insomnia in the wee hours (when are the big hours, BTW?) I listened to a podcast in which Nigel Barden described a pasta dish of pancetta, sage, parsley and chestnuts, mmmm. I’m a big fan of the chestnut, which you can now get roasted, peeled and vacuum packed for those of us deprived of an open fire.

I used smoked bacon in the absence of pancetta. The sage came from the garden of the house I am leaving, which made me sad, but I took the occasion to invest in a pot of parsley I’m hoping will winter in the window of my new home. Definitely a dish worth repeating, but not two nights in a row.

So I turned to another Nigel, Slater this time and his Kitchen Diaries and found “a hearty vegetable supper for a windy evening”. A savoury crumble of courgettes (zucchini to us North Americans) and Lancashire cheese, I had nearly all the ingredients - including the windy evening - but not the walnuts. I was dubious about the walnuts anyway, and I had half a package of chestnuts. 

Weirdly I’ve just remembered another wonderful dish involving chestnuts and brussels sprouts by none other than Nigella Lawson. Is there such a thing as Kitchen Karma? Or is it three degrees of Nigel?

Robert Hughes, In Memoriam 
Robert Hughes, the art critic and writer passed away last month. I learned a great deal from his Shock of the New, which illuminates the historic and political context of modern art and hugely enjoyed his autobiography Things I Didn’t Know. I periodically checked to see if he had finished a second volume. I’m sorry there won’t be one. Then I remembered I had had a copy of The Culture of Complaint for years, but not read it yet. 

Written in the early 1990s, the book is as impressive for its foresight as its wit. Hughes anticipates the current state of the American right with uncanny clarity and provides the most cogent critique of political correctness that I’ve ever read. While Hughes didn’t believe art had any “moral effects” his criticism and analysis are a vaccination against cant and a spur to challenge received opinion. Long may he be read.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Four Reasons to Hate Brownies

Brownies. I hated Brownies. Not the delicious chocolatey dense squares often studded with nuts. Brownies the notorious organization that meets by night and is run by mysterious women known only as Brown Owls. Here’s why. 
One, I am not a joiner. 
Two, my “sixer” name meant I was a Pixie. It foreshadowed a lifetime of being referred to diminutively, metaphorically if not always literally being patted on the head. Even at the office I have been referred to as The Little One. 
Three, I wasn’t any good at most of things you had to do to earn badges. My mother bought me a cactus so I could earn my horticulture badge. I can still hear her comparing my sewing project, a pin cushion, unfavorably with Miriam Rosenbaum’s. (A Pixie never forgets.) It consisted of two circles of felt, one yellow the other Brownie Brown, stitched together (unevenly in my case) and stuffed. Then you made a face: two stem buttons for eyes, a flat button for a nose, and finished it all with a (crooked) chain stitch smile.
Then came the Brownie Revel in the Downsview Dells and I learned to make French Toast. Could it be simpler or more wonderful? Bread soaked in a custard of egg, milk and vanilla, fried in butter and drenched in maple syrup. Upon my return home, I offered to make this manna for my parents. They bravely agreed. “There is only one problem,” I told them, “I only know how to make it for 40.”
Four, Brownies brought my mathematical inadequacies into sharp focus.
I still make French toast, ideally with my homemade pain de mie, but a good store bought challah does admirably. And I can make it for any number of people, or just myself. I have mastered the concept of scaleability. What a clever Pixie I am. And my mother still has the pin cushion. 
What’s a Good Person to Do?
Diana Athill’s work is characterized by a self-awareness that never slops into self-absorption, because she is never seeking to justify herself, rather she wants to understand herself and others. 
After a Funeral recounts her relationship with an exiled Egyptian author whom she befriends and ends up sheltering for a number of years. Initially Didi is great fun. Helping him out of various scraps has its rewards: he cooks interesting meals; they enjoy Saturday trips to London’s markets; he charms her friends. But close contact makes Athill gradually aware of Didi’s instability. His gambling and drinking aren’t joie de vivre, they are the veneer of incipient madness. His insanely predictable love affairs have nothing to do with love, everything to do with a hideous self-loathing.  
Yet she admits to being “hooked” in the same way that unhappy couples are often unable to part, their “mutual torture” having become a way of life. The passage of time takes her to another, equally uncomfortable place: the realization that she has done all she can do for him, and it is to no avail, as she writes to him, “It’s a nightmare that anyone should suffer as much as you do without someone else being able to take off at least part of it, and I’m ashamed of not being able too.”
I know that shame and the leaden guilt that comes with it. It’s the burden of loving a trouble mind, an addict. If you do to, Athill’s book offers not just insight, but the solace of shared experience that so many troubled minds are unable to access, trapped as they are in tragic isolation. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Cooking Smells

My mother’s life is like an unopened bottle of perfume, full of unrealized possibilities, about which I feel intolerably guilty. She now lives in a relatively swanky retirement home, where, true to form she indulges in the minimum amount of pleasures. 
I have a theory that all of us have a central paradox, with many little ones as accessories. My mum, for whom adventure poses no temptation, is fascinated by mountain climbing. Evening walks were more interesting when she could look into lit rooms to see how other people decorated. She herself lived in the same place for more than 20 years, along with the previous owner’s wallpaper. She has had a lifelong fascination with how the brain works. She now describes her own as “jagged,” though she refuses medication to blunt its ongoing serration. 
She never enjoyed cooking. I learned early on never to say I liked something, because it would be repeated, dare I say it, ad nauseum. When I tell her about dishes I am making her most common response is, “Oh, do you have to?” Of course I do. 
Last week I had to make pork vindaloo. The garam masala had a fabulous base note of cinnamon. As I grated cucumber for the raita it gave off a fragrance like cool rain. I am my mother’s daughter. I’ll make a chicken curry tonight so I can use up the rest of the coriander before it turns gunky. 
Happiness, love, security, they can all be fleeting, perhaps even illusory: music and laughter wafting from other people’s rooms. But, in this country at least, every day can include a good meal, and if you are lucky, like me, sometimes a friend with whom to share it. I am not my mother’s daughter, I will make my stand by the stove and breathe deep.
Gray Smoke
The Last Cigarette is the final volume in Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries. It isn’t the usual retailing of events, people met, meals eaten and so to bed. It is more like a cruise down his darkly funny stream of consciousness. 
He worries ceaselessly and often unnecessarily, reminding me of one of my mother’s favorite refrains: “I’ve had a lot of trouble in my time and most of it’s never happened.” 
I have often repeated it. “My mother always says, . . .” and many people have nodded in agreement. In fact, once someone said to me “that’s very good, I’m going to write that down.” I reported this thinking she’d be pleased. She was embarrassed. “It’s Mark Twain,” she told me. I wish my mother came with footnotes.
Back to Mr. Gray. He takes us on holiday to the Greek island of Spetses, a trip made happy and sad with memories of friends passed, hilarious by his fear of rats and his descriptions of life on the beach. He noodles around with a story idea inspired by what he thinks a woman in the street might have thought and consequently done as the result of seeing him shuffling along Holland Park. Everything is now. The humiliation of losing his virginity. His mother’s death. He is as unsparing in his account of his failings as he is generous in his appreciation of his friends, whom he loves because of their flaws, not in spite of them. Simon Gray is the kind of hero most often overlooked: the man who lead an unblinkingly examined life.