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.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Jonathan Bing & I

Jonathan Bing is the hero of one of the first poems I ever learned. He makes three attempts to visit the king and is thwarted each time by someone who points out a lapse of protocol on his part, “. . . by the palace the soldier said, “Hi! You can’t see the king; you’ve forgotten your tie! (He’d forgotten his tie.)” Poor old Jonathan Bing.

When I set out to explain my recent cyber silence, to answer the question, where have I been? A voice in my head said: I’ve been to the palace to visit the king. Really. 
Really I’ve been trying to cook my way out of chaos. To bring order to my life (and pleasure to my friends) by knowing not just where my next meal was coming from, but what it would be. I may not be able to find eternity in an hour, or the world in a grain of sand, but there is some certainty in a saucepan. 
So I've been making pots of soup, soaking Romano beans over night - peeking into the pot at two in the morning to make sure they are swelling satisfactorily for pasta e fagioli. I've been stewing up a barrow’s worth of vegetables for stock in which to cook spinach dumplings. I've been slathering a butterflied leg of lamb in a puree of olive oil, garlic, lemon, rosemary and mint. If I do say so myself, the leftovers made a pie that would have brought a smile to the face of the most dour shepherd on the moor.
I wanted to call this post “Where have I bean?” but puns sully one’s reputation, and it has bean - aaagghhh, couldn’t help myself - so much more than beans. It's been multiple loaves of pain de mie, raisin bread, eggs Florentine, three different pasta casseroles, and croissant stuffed with sauteed apples and creme fraiche.
In the end, Jonathan gives up and writes a short note to the king. “If you please will excuse me, I won’t come to tea. For home’s the best place for people like me.” For people like me, it’s the kitchen.
Are there no workhouses?
Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is by Diana Athill. At 95, she was recently shortlisted for the EFG Bank Short Story Contest. This collection contains her earliest work. I particularly liked The Return, a funny and frightening story of two women’s adventure in Greece.
Toast is Nigel Slater’s account of his childhood told almost entirely through what he ate. He is the master of culinary improv - the croissant recipe mentioned above is his - and endearingly fond of good and “bad” food. Spoiler alert: you may be put off pub food after what Slater reveals behind the curtain. 
The Imperfectionists is a tour de force by Tom Rachman. This collection of linked short stories had me at hello, since most of the pieces involve Rome, my eternally my favorite city. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hobson Who?

My friend the dauntingly good cook Elizabeth was coming for dinner. The dish was sausages and lentils. The butcher thought either the mild Italian or the Farmer’s would work. When faced with the dilemma of either or, if the subject is jewelry, desserts or sausages the answer is to have both.
I cooked the plump pairs for about 15 minutes, set them aside and sauteed an onion and some garlic until the onion softened. In went a handful of sliced mushrooms. When they were done I tossed in about half a cup of lentils and covered it all with boiling water, put the lid on and left them to cook. When the lentils were nearly done I added splash of red wine and nestled the sausages in to warm up.
Served with a salad of peppers and asparagus on a bed of boston lettuce, this was intended to feed the two of us, but the sausage twins were too much for both of us. The remainder made a fantastic soup base. I cut the leftover sausages into coins and tossed them and the lentils into a pot in which I had cooked carrots, celery and quartered new red potatoes. In went four cups of chicken stock. The result? Happiness by the spoonful.
The Farmer’s sausage were definitely the better match for the lentils, but do I regret my indecision? Not a whit - and that guy Hobson? He’s never coming to my place for dinner.
Energetic Victorians
Auguste Welby Pugin, the name may not ring any bells, but he is largely responsible for the most famous clock tower in the world and most of the fittings of the English Houses of Parliament. He designed and built dozens of churches, influenced the course of architecture throughout the British empire, helped establish the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and laid the foundation for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts Movement - all before he was 40. 
He finds a worthy biographer in Rosemary Hill. God’s Architect, Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain is magnificent in the depth of its scholarship and the breadth of context the author provides. Hill sees her subject with sympathetic clarity and tells his story with gentle humour.
The White Garden
Just wanted to give a nod to this mystery by Stephanie Barron while Canadian gardens are white with snow. The garden of the title is among Vita Sackville-West’s creations at Sissinghurst. The premise is that Virginia Woolf did not immediately walk into the River Ouse with stones in her pockets after she left her suicide note on the mantel at Monk’s House. The historic fact that her body wasn’t discovered for two weeks gives some heft to this otherwise lightweight bit of entertainment as our heroine pursues the why of the suicides of both Virginia and her grandfather, who worked as a gardener as Sissinghurst as a young man.      

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Poster Child for an Improvised Life

When I was a teenager one of the most popular bits of poster wisdom was, “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it is yours. If it doesn’t it never was.” Today the vox populi likes to quote, to the point of chanting, Eleanor Roosevelt, exhorting us all to “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”

I have had a nomadic life thrust upon me, I who treasure my nest am without a garden, sleep where unfamiliar things go bump in the night, and cautiously try to find my way around other people’s kitchens. Scary. 
Attempting new recipes in unknown territory didn’t seem like a good idea, so when I promised to make lunch yesterday I decided to improvise on a Nigel Slater dish I’d made a couple of times before, the caveats being I was doing it from memory and couldn’t get all the original ingredients . . .
Here’s how it went. I sauteed separately a diced onion (should have been a couple of shallots, I think), three slices finely chopped bacon (should have been pancetta, I think), and a cup of sliced mushrooms. I grated six ounces of emmenthal (should have been gruyere, I think). I mixed the shredded cheese with the sauteed onion, a little of the bacon and a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped parsley. I cooked four pork loin steaks two minutes each side, layered on the mushrooms and then the cheese mixture, which should have been stuffing, and briefly grilled them (they weren’t thick enough to stuff). I deglazed the saute pan with sherry and made a warm salad dressing with the remaining bacon, olive oil and white balsamic vinegar. I cheated with some prepared microwaved mash potatoes, which were decidedly gluey, but at least they looked the part.
Letting go of people is hard. Letting go of dreams is even harder. It’s downright scary. The challenge of the nomadic life is not knowing what ingredients will be to hand, and not mourning for too long what is left behind.
In Praise of Late Bloomers
Mary Wesley’s novels are a mercurial mix of abandon, wit and cruel darkness. Many people, including her biographer, Patrick Marnham think her middle works, like The Camomile Lawn are her best, but my favorite is her first, Jumping the Queue. 
Most of the “post Jumping” books feature the beautiful, independent and unconventional Calypso. Having now read Wesley’s biography, Wild Mary, it seems to me that Calypso is Mary Wesley as she wished she had been, while Matilda, the heroine of Jumping the Queue is Mary to the bone, not just the stylish frock.
Wesley is credited with revealing to the younger generation that Larkin was wrong, sex didn’t begin in 1963. Long before Mary had three sons by three different fathers, and she probably couldn’t have told you how many lovers, two husbands, both of whom she respected, one of whom she loved. She converted to Catholicism and remained partial to the Latin rites while never shedding her liberal attitudes to sex or her scorn for hypocrisy. In old age she found herself impoverished and alone. Then, in a two week span, she sold two of her novels. She was 70. It’s a riotous, sometimes infuriating story, well told. 
I am writing this in England in mid-winter where crocus and daffodils are courageously reaching for the weak sun. They and Mary Wesley remind us we can’t always choose where and when we bloom, we can only seek to grow.
P.S. Podcast Bonus - Hear Mary
Here’s a link to the BBC Radio 4 website, Desert Island Discs Archive 1988-1991 for April 22, 1990, featuring Mary Wesley, wonderfully honest, indisputably brave.