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.