Monday, 27 October 2008

Food for the living

Note: I began this post on a Monday, but didn't finish it until November 2 -- the official Day of the Dead.

Not long ago, Just a Plane Ride Away and I were talking (on blog and off) about the Day of the Dead. Now I like holiday-themed food as much as anyone, and perhaps even more than most, but I've always been slightly creeped out by the thought of pan de muerto. Although I've happily consumed several gingerbread bats and pumpkins this weekend, something about a skull just puts me off.

As the natural world decays around us, (at least in the northern hemisphere), it seems appropriate to participate in all of those night-time festivals (Halloween, All Soul's Day, Guy Fawkes Night) which feature skeletons and ghosts and rubbish-burning. Of course, they are trivialized by the mass consumption of candy, not to mention plastic costumes, but there is still a spooky hush, a trace of darkness, about these ceremonies. Dancing around with the idea of death is preferable to confronting it in any real way. There's nothing like a controlled, fake encounter to keep something scary at a remove. Afterwards, you get to come back inside -- to light and warmth -- and eat a baked potato, or count your sweets.

One of the reasons that I am discomfited by the Day of the Dead is that it happens in daylight. Honoring the dead is one thing, but inviting them to a picnic is quite another. Perhaps it is rather too revealing of my own religious beliefs, but I believe that food is for the living. I don't think that the dead need tequila, but living souls might.

During the first week of our half-term holiday, a friend's father died. Even though he had been ill for a while, it was -- as it always is --a shock. There was a sleepless night; a frantic day of making decisions and arrangements; and an inability to tend to everyday matters. As bad luck and late October would have it, the weather was correspondingly grim: dark, wet, windy and cold. After offering my vague assistance, as you do, I decided to focus on something practical: providing dinner. I put together the most comforting, warming menu I could think of: meatball stew, homemade bread and butterscotch brownies. Eat it now; heat it up later; freeze it until needed.

I don't ascribe supernatural powers to food, but I do believe that it is an offering of love, of caring, of healing. I couldn't help but notice, when reading The Believers, that Audrey -- the monstrous mother -- had a withholding nature when it came to food and love both. The last conscious transaction Audrey has with her husband involves a bialy: he has asked her to get him one, but she has neglected to do so. In another scene, her daughter Karla describes a legendary meal in which Audrey takes some canned spaghetti, slices it up, and serves it cold. (The gruesomeness of this meal will probably stick in my mind long after other details from the novel have faded.) A friend brings Audrey some homemade chicken soup, but she leaves it to spoil on the stove. Audrey doesn't know how to give comfort; she has trouble receiving it, too.

Now I know that you don't need to make a casserole to show caring, but somehow it just seems to help. No one wants to think about cooking when they are tired and heartbroken, but the living body still needs to eat. It's nice to have some chicken spaghetti, beloved dish of Texas mourners, handy.

My mother and I like to talk about what we've been cooking lately, and when I mentioned my menu for grieving friends she wanted to know if it was typical for English people to bring food following a death. I realized that I didn't know. So far, I've been lucky enough to escape close contact with death. However, you do get to a point in life where death becomes a more or less constant feature . . . and I think that I'm nearing that point.

I know it is sheer denial to repress thoughts of death, and perhaps Day of the Dead mourners have the right attitude -- even if I don't care for the skeleton and marigold aesthetics. But if the practice ever comes to England, I think it would be best to bring a flask of something hot. November graves are cold places, and even if the dead can't appreciate a nice cup of tea or some warming soup, the living will.

Meatball Stew

This is a recipe that has been in my family for ages. My mother included it in a cookbook that she made for me when I got married. I often make it for Halloween, but it is good for any occasion which requires warming and nourishing loved ones. It can be made ahead, and like most stews, is actually better the next day.

Make small (3/4 inch) meatballs out of the following:
1 1/2 lb ground chuck (or good mince)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3/4 cups seasoned bread crumbs

Or, if you live in England, just buy the Organic meatballs from Waitrose -- they are ideal.

Saute one clove of garlic in a small amount of olive oil. Remove garlic and brown the meatballs in the flavored oil.
Place the meatballs in a casserole dish with a lid (I use my Le Creuset) that is burner/oven proof.

Add the following:
16 oz tomato sauce/passata
32 oz water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
1-2 beef boullion cubes, or a couple of teaspoons of Marmite

Cover and cook on top of low heat for 30 minutes. Then place in an oven at 325 for 30 minutes. After this two-part process, you can add the following vegetables:

1 1/2 cup cubed potatoes
1 1/2 cups sliced carrots
1 cup sliced celery
1 cup chopped onions

Cook in oven until vegetables are tender. Approximately 45 minutes should do it.
Serve with french bread or corn bread.

Butterscotch Brownies

From the New York Cookbook; slightly modified by me. These are deliciously chewy and moreish. After I made some for my friends, my children complained until I made another batch. I gave one to a man who was cutting some trees for us that day, and he actually asked for the recipe!

3 oz, or a heaping half-cup, of all-purpose ("plain") flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 oz butter (or vegetable shortening, which the original recipe calls for)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Butter and lightly flour an 8 inch square pan. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, and then add the brown sugar. Mix thoroughly, and then remove from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes.
Quickly stir in the egg, until glossy, and then add the flour mixture, followed by the vanilla, nuts and chocolate chips. When everything has been incorporated, press the mixture into the prepared pan.
Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes. A toothpick should come out clean, but the brownies will be soft until they cool. After cooling, they will still be chewy.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Dusting off the bedside table

It is my job to turn off the alarm clock every morning at 5:45 am.

Despite the fact that the bell tolls for Sigmund, and not for me, our Bose alarm "system" is on my side of the bed. Although it might seem nonsensical and arbitrary, since Sigmund wakes before me at least 98% of the time, nevertheless it is a fixed feature of our domestic arrangements. I get to turn off the alarm, and then lie awake -- repeatedly nudging my comatose husband until he finally arises. Like clearing off the kitchen table, that neverending challenge, it is a task that seems to belongs to me.

For some time now, I've been aware (as much as my sleepy semi-consciousness will allow) that I have to make a stretching, lunging, arching motion to actually reach the alarm clock. Despite having a modestly sized bedside table, which also holds a large blue Chinese lamp in addition to the aforementioned Bose system, my arm must get past several towers of books.

I have mentioned before that I have a predilection for creating book piles around my sleeping space. I'm aware of these piles in a vague sort of way, and yet I also don't really notice them . . . if you know what I mean. It does make it difficult to dust; but then, I've never been one to actually move objects if I can just dust around them. I'm definitely a yielding force when it comes to an unmovable object.

Yesterday, I had my biannual urge to tackle at least some of my most notorious areas of clutter. To my surprise and dismay, I discovered that my bedside table was harboring the following twenty books. There were also several cards that I meant to send, numerous bookmarks, some correspondence, my husband's new American ATM card, some matches, and three coasters. It occurred to me, as I was performing the book-cull, that these piles serve as a sort of record of my reading life. Although I've read many, many books in the last six months that haven't got mired in bedside table purgatory, my piles are still a telling -- if incomplete -- collection of artifacts.

So, in no particular order:

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
I started reading this one about a week ago -- mostly because of enjoying the recent BBC production. I haven't read any Hardy in almost 20 years and it seemed time to visit him again. (stays on bedside table)

An Imaginative Experience, Mary Wesley
I'm not sure why this one is even here, but my best guess is that I wanted to look at Wesley's writing again after reading the Wesley biography, Wild Mary, last spring/winter? When I first moved to England, not long married and pregnant, I read the entire contents of my neighbor's bookshelves. I remember there being a lot of Mary Wesley and Joanna Trollope. It was my first introduction to the publishing concept of an "Aga saga." (remove to bookshelf)

Mr. Bridge, Evan Connell
This is so shaming. I've had this on my to-read bookshelf for years, and finally motivated to start it last spring. I only made it halfway through, sadly, before abandoning it. The first line is totally arresting, but it gets a big draggy in places. I just ordered the Merchant Ivory film made from this book (and its companion, Mrs. Bridge), because I'm really in the mood for a Paul Newman tribute. Hopefully, it will inspire me to -- finally! -- finish this book. (stays on bedside table)

West Coast, Kate Muir
This was on a good special at WH Smith's. I enjoyed her previous novel, Left Bank, but I haven't even cracked the cover on this one yet. (stays on bedside table)

So Many Books, So Little Time, Sara Nelson
A memoir of a reading year. Words like "fairly" and "moderately" are immediately coming to mind, which means that I will inevitably damn with faint praise. It's pleasant. I've read about half, and skimmed the rest. (remove to bookshelf)

Ghost at the Table, Suzanne Burns
My friend Jenni, always a source of good books, loaned me this one. It takes place at Thanksgiving, so November seems like the right time to read it. (stays on bedside table)

The German Bride, Joanna Hershon
My friend Michelle loaned/gave me this one after I cajoled her into it. It was written by a friend of hers. This one got lost in the gardening/Moonwalking haze that was May and June. Must resolve to read it soon. (stays on bedside table)

Jane Austen, A Life, Claire Tomalin
Periodically, I go through a Jane Austen phase. I was in one of these phases in late May, partly because of the movie Miss Austen Regrets, and partly because my daughter had Emma on a constant loop, and partly because Jenni and I went to The Jane Austen Centre in Bath. By the way, I'm not sure who the JAC caters for -- because if you are a fan, you already know everything they are going to tell/show you; and if you are not a fan, you certainly won't become one by visiting this very poor tribute to one of England's finest and most famous writers. We did get to see the costumes from Miss Austen Regrets -- and a documentary on the lace-making industry in Sri Lanka. For what it's worth. (remove to bookshelf)

Jane Austen, Carol Shields
I'm very fond of Carol Shields' work, and I'm still cross that she died too young. I had no idea she was a Jane Austen fanatic until I came across this book in The Jane Austen Centre in Bath. I've only skimmed this one, but I will return to it when I'm next in a Jane Austen phase. (remove to bookshelf)

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
This is my mother's childhood copy, and the cover is completely threadbare -- but the pages have a lovely dense feel. I've read it more times than I can possibly trace. My youngest daughter went through a Little Women movie phase at the beginning of the summer, and knowing me, I was probably rereading some of the scenes from the book. (remove to bookshelf)

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs, Jeremy Mercer
A memoir from a Canadian journalist who takes refuge in the Shakespeare & Company Bookstore in Paris. I was moderately entertained by it, but I got distracted by something more enticing and abandoned it about halfway through. I bought this one at the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill when my mom was visiting in September. (undecided; remove to bookshelf for now)

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
I bought this one days after seeing Vanessa Redgrave's tour de force show. I gobbled the book up, and found it thoughtful and not too depressing. But I have a high tolerance for the morbid. (mail to grieving friend)

Grace (Eventually), Anne Lamott
I don't share Lamott's religious faith, but I like reading her take on the world. She is a funny, irreverent, clever writer -- although some might call her self-absorbed. I bought this in Texas in April and I still haven't gotten around to reading it. (remove to bookshelf)

Without Reservations, Alice Steinbach
A memoir from a journalist who decides to go travelling for a year to see what she can find. Visits Paris, London, Oxford and Milan. There is some nice writing in it -- with some gentle humor and insights -- but I lost steam about 3/4 of the way through. Memorable for her interesting liason with a Japanese man while in Paris. I never made it to Milan, but I assume that she did. I have a feeling that this came from an independent bookstore, but I can't remember which one. (remove to bookshelf)

Texas Women, (anthology from Texas Monthly magazine)
I bought this at the LBJ Ranch gift shop when I was in Texas -- mostly because I was lonesome for some Molly Ivins. Haven't read it yet. (remove to bookshelf)

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light
I'm a huge Woolf fan, and I love the domestic detail of a writer's (or anyone's, actually) private life. A gift from Sigmund for Valentine's Day (maybe?). I haven't even started it. (remove to bookshelf)

The Gathering, Anne Enright
The 2007 Booker Prize winner. Irish, miserable. Dysfunctional family saga. Sigmund gave it to me for my birthday last winter. I struggled to like it, but ended up abandoning it halfway through. (remove to bookshelf)

I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron
Even though my neck is still holding up okay, Ephron's precision humor had me totally identifying with her plight. A book of essays -- all of them about being a woman; most of them about being a woman of a certain age. I've skipped around in it, but I think I've read most of it. This is the kind of book I will reread in 5 years -- and then again 5 years after that. (remove to bookshelf)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
When I manage to become totally evolved I hope that I end up something like Barbara Kingsolver. I was fascinated with this book -- although informational, it was as entertaining and warm as her fiction. (remove to bookshelf)

Home, Marilynne Robinson
I just bought this one: the fact that it is a hardcover reveals just how much I want to read it!
(stays on bedside table)

I have a poor memory and have never bothered to keep any kind of journal for long -- despite frequent vows to do so and the purchase of attractively bound books for the purpose.

It occurs to me that these piles of books I keep are the strata of my life -- not as permanent as rocks, but horizontal layers of memory all the same.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

In Bed with a Book

Even though I'm not a particularly superstitious person, barring an odd knock-on-wood, the overt tempting of Fortune just doesn't seem to be a good idea. Any kind of bold pronouncement or claim automatically sets a person up for a reversal; hence, a certain smugness about one's good luck in "never getting sick" is bold invitation for a cruel smackdown.

Having avoided allergies, the flu, and even the common cold for many a year, I suddenly have the constitution of a Victorian miss who does "delicate" for a living. I just can't seem to recover my rude health. I have felt puny for weeks now, and one bug after another seems to be invading my system. One of the most fascinating chicken-and-egg questions of origin has to do with health, I think. Does depression make us sick? Or are we depressed because we feel too poorly to go out and absorb some Vitamin D? My friends are getting weary of my constant and boring lament: "I'm tired." How can I snap out of it? It's hardly the season for rising sap; in fact, a long hibernation seems far more appropriate.

Since I don't know how to kick my bad health blues, I am forced to rationalize them. As long as one is not too ill, a bout of sickliness can do wonders for the reading habit.

I was supposed to attend a Ball on Saturday night, but my floaty black dress and new shoes will just have to wait for another festive occasion. Instead of dancing, I lay propped up in bed most of the weekend. When I wasn't sleeping, I was reading -- and I managed to polish off Zoƫ Heller's latest, The Believers, and half of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I also watched a film that I had really looked forward to, and then unaccountably didn't get to the theater for: The History Boys. In one sense I didn't have a particularly sociable weekend, true, and yet I felt that I kept extremely good company with these three.

Having recently enjoyed the BBC's production of Tess, I am up to my usual trick of comparing film to book. (I rather like seeing the film first, and then getting to fill in the details from the book.) I hadn't read any Hardy in more than 15 years, and his language is like an impenetrable thicket compared to the modern, clear prose of Heller. It's not that Hardy isn't fit reading material for the sickbed, but he does require a bit more mental concentration. A friend's fifteen-year-old is reading Tess in school this year, and I wonder what those teenage girls -- so used to text-speak -- make of the vanished Wessex vernacular.

I rarely spring for hardcover books, but I've been wanting to read The Believers since the flurry of Heller interviews and reviews. I thought that Heller's last book, Notes on a Scandal, was an absorbingly good book. It also features one of the best examples of the "unreliable narrator" in literature. Like Barbara, the sour snoop from Notes on a Scandal, unlikeable female characters make up the majority in Heller's latest novel. Apparently this is becoming her stock-in-trade, as her interviewers seemed to not want to talk about anything else. Although her main characters – a mother and her two daughters – could be described as shrewish, judgmental and wet, in that order – they are not without their sympathetic sides. A family crisis tests what Heller describes as the “Litvinoff family’s romance of itself” (p. 270), and its members are left floundering. Although they have all of the toughness and sophistication of the average contemporary Manhattanite, they need something to believe in – whether it is religion, political ideals, love, marriage, drugs, rehab or sex. They try pretty much everything but literature, I think. Heller has a very pleasing, truthful way of describing her characters, but the narrative does lack a certain something – not resolution, really, but momentum and depth. Still, any book which I can read in almost a single sitting (or lying-down, as the case was) is worth some praise.

If you are interested in a nuanced story, both funny and poignant, with fascinating characters set against the backdrop of a school, then The History Boys should go to the top of your Netflix/LoveFilm queue. Although the plot of The History Boys is easy enough to grasp, the story has a load of cultural markers -- "Grammar School," "A-levels," "Oxbridge examinations," "Yorkshire" -- which it give it a particularly English spin. Without going into too much detail about the specifics, (English class system, North/South divide, etc.) I think it is enough to say that a group of eight young men from a range of modest circumstances are trying to get into the poshest, most illustrious names in education: Oxford and Cambridge. "Getting in" is the Holy Grail, with little thought given to what the boys will do with the achievement afterwards. But happy futures assured or not, even the non-English know that those hallowed places are like an expensive, rare perfume that trails after you for the rest of your life. The fact that the boys are all trying for places in "History" has a neat double meaning.

Despite the specificity of the setting -- Sheffield Grammar School in 1983 -- many of the questions raised by the film (originally a play) are universal. What does it mean to be well-educated? What is the purpose of education? How do you determine if one has been educated? How important is Truth? And is there even such a thing -- or is it all down to argument, context and presentation? The film handles all of these with a light touch, though, and there is really no pontificating. In addition to these Big questions, a number of other issues germane to education are more or less "touched" upon: student/teacher relationships, sexual and otherwise, corporal punishment, authority, and the desirability of academic selection or streaming. Indeed, the very subject of grammar schools -- which are an academically selective form of state education -- is a matter of ongoing debate nearly 25 years later.

Three teachers-- Hector, Mrs. Lintott, and Irwin -- are attempting to school the boys for these all-important exams and interviews, and each of these three represents a different face of education. Hector and Mrs. Lintott are "old-school" in every sense. Both nearing retirement, they are the kind of teacher often described as an "institution" -- and I like the way that word plays on the idea of "fixture," important customs and handed-down wisdom, and even a touch of the crazy too-long-inside-ness of a teacher who has seen a lot of Septembers roll by. Hector, played by the marvelously original Richard Griffiths, is the rather whimsical director of General Studies. A great lover of poetry, Hector has a suitable quotation for any occasion. When one of the students complains about having to learn yet another verse of obscure meaning, Hector counters: "Learn it now, know it now, and you'll understand it whenever." Showy and theatrical, Hector emphasizes the "fun" and even the subversive in learning -- but the students aren't always too clear as to the point. His "curriculum," as such, is littered with his own personal enthusiasms. As the Headmaster complains, Hector gets results and provides inspiration, but the results are "not quantifiable." Mrs. Lintott, on the other hand, is "straight man" to Hector's rather more flowery and wayward genius. She believes in "The Facts," and one can deduce that good old-fashioned rote learning plays the leading role in her classroom. Played by Frances de la Tour, with perfectly dry and wry wit, Mrs. Lintott is the one female counterbalance to the overwhelming male atmosphere of an all-boys' school.

Irwin, the Young Turk brought in to give some authentic Oxford sophistication to these rough boys, is not all that he seems . . . but then the Stranger never is. He is meant to spice up the meat and potatoes teaching of Mrs. Lintott, but he proves to be more about spin than substance. He doesn't exactly teach the boys to be original, but he teaches them how to appear original -- and convinces (most of) them that the result is all that matters. Irwin represents the arrogant, breezy future, but he is not nearly as invulnerable as he initially appears. Like the snobbish, ambitious headmaster, who fakes his conversational French and has to ask the boys to explain an Anne of Cleves allusion, Irwin's lack of solid scholarship is repeatedly revealed.

All three of the teachers are effective in their own way, and all of them find their adherents among the boys, but Hector -- flawed though he is -- is the teacher that I wish that I had. There is a particularly tender moment between him and the gifted, sensitive Posner ("I'm a Jew... I'm small... I'm homosexual... and I live in Sheffield. I'm fucked. ") which is the quiet center of this story. As they examine one of Thomas Hardy’s poems together, Hector tells Posner:

The best moments in reading are when you come across
something -- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things -- that you'd
thought special, particular to you. And here it is -- set down by someone
else, someone you've never met, perhaps even someone long dead. It's as if
a hand has come out and taken yours.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Use your loaf!

Last night I made a quick detour to the grocery store to pick up some flour and yeast. I've had a full-blown obsession with baking bread for the last couple of weeks and I managed to run low on the vital supplies. Although statistics show that people hardly cook or bake anymore, the shelves of Waitrose told a different story: they were fresh out of yeast!

Apparently, it's not just me. I don't know if it is an autumnal rite, nesting instinct, or soothing ritual, but a lot of people seem to be baking. Even if everything is definitely not "all right" with the world, the exquisitely yeasty smell of a fresh-baked loaf can help you feel that it is.

My family aren't big bread eaters under normal circumstances. We hardly ever eat sandwiches, and we tend to favor oatmeal over toast. When I buy sliced bread, it will invariably grow moldy or stale (ie, chicken food) before we manage to finish it. But freshly baked bread! It has a siren's lure. If I leave a warm loaf on the counter on a weekend morning, it will disappear by afternoon -- slice by surreptitious slice. And if I strategically position the peanut butter (for the girls) and Marmite (for my husband), I can manage to get out of making lunch -- and crack on with the "fun" stuff, like washing all of the p.e. kit and school uniforms.

In the past couple of weeks I've made banana muffins, gingerbread, apple pie, butterscotch cookies, english muffins and Homesick Texan's splendid oatmeal bread -- and they've all done an admirable job of perfuming my kitchen and pleasing my family. However, the recipe I keep returning to has the seductive title (and method) of The Easiest 100% Whole Wheat Bread Ever. It is nutritious, adaptable and easy; and for bread, it's pretty quick, too. It doesn't have to be kneaded, or punched down, or proofed, so there's no need to be wary of it -- even if you are short on time and/or baking skills.

The Easiest 100% Whole Wheat Bread Ever
(from the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book)

Combine the following ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
(If you have a standing mixer, use that bowl.)

1 1/4 cup (10 oz) lukewarm water
1/4 cup (2 oz) orange juice
3 tablespoons (2 1/4 oz) molasses (I use treacle, or honey)
3 cups (12 oz) traditional whole wheat flour (I use "strong" bread flour)
1/4 cup (1 oz) nonfat dry milk
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast

At a medium-high speed, beat the mixture for about three minutes. (If you have a KitchenAid, use your paddle attachment. )

Spoon the batter (it will be sticky!) into a greased bread tin. The recipe calls for something that is 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches, but I just used my biggest tin and that was perfect. Cover the pan with greased plastic wrap and let the dough rise for an hour. By the way, I use Crisco (vegetable shortening) for the business of greasing.

Preheat your oven to 350 F/175 C while the bread is rising. The bread will need approximately 45 minutes to cook, and you should tent if with foil after the first 20 minutes. Remove it from the oven and let it cool on a rack (in the tin) for about 5 minutes. Then you can run a table knife around the edges and ease it out of the pan. King Arthur recommends cooling for 30 minutes before you attempt to eat it . . . but you're on your own with this advice, because I won't even pretend to be so abstemious. It should be golden brown when finished.

King Arthur describes this bread as "a coarse-grained, moist, easy-to-slice loaf." If you make it with molasses, it will definitely have a texture and flavor that brings Boston Baked Bread to mind. (My daughters prefer it made with honey, but I like both versions.) It is sturdy, and it toasts quite obediently. It has a satisfying chew to it, and it tastes nourishing -- but without being the slightest bit reminiscent of sawdust or birdseed.

I was fortunate to have a bread-baking mother, and her kitchen was (and still is) always warmed by the smell of good things. In addition to my KitchenAid mixer, almost any decent pan or knife I own, and a dozen favorite cookbooks, my mom gifted me with this awesome book. Thanks, Mom!

English trivia: "Use your loaf" is Cockney rhyming slang for "be smart." It works like this: "use your head," and head rhymes with bread, and bread is synonymous with loaf. Get it?

Monday, 6 October 2008

Seasonal Food

Apple Harvest (for a lazy person)

Last weekend was apple weather: crisp, sunny and cool. As you can see, nature's bounty was laid out, blanket-like, for us -- and all we had to do was scoop it up. The girls and I gathered up great bowls of apples, which became numerous jars of applesauce, bags of sliced apples for the freezer, and a delicious apple and blackberry pie. If the blackberry foraging was slightly more difficult than the apple picking, only because of the arm-grazing bramble, it was equally unearned. Eating "seasonally" is certainly easier in some seasons than others.

Whilst a turnip has to be planted, and then dug up, and then somehow made palatable, an apple drops (literally, and literarily) into one's hand. How apt that it symbolizes temptation . . . or should I say knowledge. If only other bits of learning were so easily picked up and passed hand to hand.

The truth is, while I know a bit about cooking food, I am more or less ignorant when it comes to procuring food at its source. I can negotiate my way around a grocery store, sure, but give me a bit of earth and I'm scratching my head in pure befuddlement. For many years I've been content in my cluelessness, but just lately it has started to bother me. I'm sure it is partly due to a growing environmental awareness, which often borders on anxiety; and it may also be attributed to my specific English environment, in which it is common to trade plant cuttings and recipes for elderflower cordial. For many years now, I've been increasingly curious about the source of my food, and really this new urge to grow things is the natural extension -- or conclusion -- to that concern with origins. Growing your own food is a matter of simplicity versus complexity, and independence versus dependence. Who knows what will happen with pensions and Social Security? Just in case the all-you-can-eat buffets are gone for good, it may be best to have some real-life growing skills.

I'm not the only who thinks so, either. Foraging was the lead story in the Sunday Telegraph's Food section, and I've read in more than one place that keeping chickens is the nation's new favorite hobby. Colin, my gardener, reports that all of his "clients" are expanding their interests beyond herbaceous borders. One woman is putting in an orchard, with enough trees to supply the fruit needs of all of her family. Another man is buying up some wooded acres to graze poultry and pigs. As Colin and I reviewed the successes and failures of my family's first attempt at a vegetable patch, and made plans for next year's new and improved patch, I realized that I had made some mental switch: from frivolous experiment to rather more earnest project.
A wigwam of runner beans

Although I have only one growing season under my belt, I did indeed learn a few things. For instance, the runner bean is a most prolific plant. It is marvellous to watch it grow so quickly, and it has quite an attractive orange flower, but unless you are a great lover of the runner bean (which has a surprisingly coarse and "hairy" surface) two wigwams of them should suffice. We planted four wigwams, and that was at least two too many. Another thing that I learned from hard experience is that a slim and tasty courgette (zucchini to the Americans and Italians) will quickly turn into a bloated and watery marrow if neglected for a few days. I actually had no idea that courgettes and marrow were different versions of the same plant . . . or is that "fruit" of the plant? I'm not entirely sure that any Americans know this. I have a theory that the thrifty English "invented" the idea of the marrow -- and then came up with the idea to stuff it and call it deliberate. Americans persist in thinking that it is just an overgrown zucchini, and better fed to the hogs. On the subject of courgettes, I can also report that there will invariably be a correlation between the vegetable your children least like and the one that produces the most offspring.

The runner beans and the courgettes were our biggest successes -- although, as I have suggested, this was a mixed blessing. As for the rest, they were mostly failures. We had a few nice strawberries, but we weren't vigilant enough about picking them before they were taste-tested by creatures. The corn looked good, but we were pipped to the post by some marauding muntjac. The broccoli and cauliflower were devoured by caterpillars. The tomatoes and peppers never ripened. I'm not sure what happened to the broad beans. The carrots were a mixed success -- although they would have probably thrived if we had thinned them out properly. Unfortunately, we left them all bunched up -- and they never managed to attain their rightful length. Still, they were edible. The lettuce was a great success -- but we should have planted less, and staggered the plantings more. We had way too much of the stuff, and then it went all coarse and leggy. I'm not sure what happened to the cucumbers. We have two beautiful artichokes, still on their stalks, but only two. Although I carefully labelled each row of seeds, we had so much rain that I think we lost a few crops -- both in the ground and in my memory. Did we plant onions? I can't remember.

The blueberry vines didn't produce any fruit, but they are still alive -- so better luck next year? Speaking of next year: I think that I will focus first on what we really like to eat. Instead of all of these annual plants, which just have to be ripped out at the end of the season, I'm going for some of my favorite perennials: rhubarb and raspberries. I think that it would also help if we start planting earlier than May, and if we didn't go away for the better part of July and August. That last bit is crucial. There really isn't much point in growing your own food if you aren't there to eat it!

I've just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's inspiring book on a year of seasonal eating -- titled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -- and it was truly illuminating on a wide variety of food subjects. Although I was hardly a grower on Kingsolver's scale, it did make me realize that serious vegetable growers don't leave their patch during the summer months! Part cultural critique, part memoir, and part field guide, Kingsolver's chronicle of the family farm made me a believer -- but it also made me a realist. I need a much bigger freezer, more equipment, more energy, and a more cooperative partner if I'm going to expand the family's agricultural holdings. Although I think that eating seasonally is a really sensible idea, I might (personally, you know) be better off with an organic veg box scheme. But even if we are starting small, I think we will persist in trying to grow things -- and then eat the things we grow.

Perhaps there is something atavistic about my sudden urge to grow edible things . . . after all, my paternal grandfather was a farm boy. Even later in life, when he lived in Fort Worth, he always kept an extensive garden in his back yard. I can remember him carefully tending his rows, and bringing in handfuls of vegetables for my grandmother to do something with. I can also remember him dripping with sweat from the hot Texas summer, and perhaps this explains why I didn't pick up any of his gardening skills. I was perfectly content to stay in the cool darkened rooms, either reading books or watching old Shirley Temple movies. It never occurred to me that I might learn something useful from that patch of dirt.

Now I regret that I was such an indolent, air-conditioning loving creature. Colin must think that I'm the most ignorant greenhorn that ever lived on this lane. One of the points that Kingsolver makes is that the knowledge about growing and preserving food has largely been lost in just two generations. Except for farming families, and they continue to shrink in number, many of us haven't got a clue. As I read the Little House on the Prairie books with my daughter, I am constantly struck by the fact that Ma and Pa are almost entirely self-sufficient. They buy coffee, cornmeal, flour and Christmas candy -- and that's about it. I'm having to play catch-up on all sorts of basic things that I should have already known, but hopefully my youngest daughter will grow up taking for granted the mysteries of growing vegetables and fruit.

While I'd never want to give up Waitrose, and yoke myself to the land, I hate to think that I would be the least useful person to have around if we all run out of petrol. And I can vouch for the fact that homemade applesauce tastes a lot better that the stuff that comes in the plastic pot.