Saturday, December 31, 2005

The year is going, let him go;*

Time to say good-bye to 2005. It was not a great year and one that I am glad to bid farewell to. We have had a tradition in the last few years of going to Kate and Ron’s for Chinese food on New Year’s Eve and then playing games. That is what we did today and the team of Ron and Lynne handily trounced Kate and Ernie and Lucy and me.

Lucy will leave in a couple of days and I can get Christmas photos sorted and the last few belated Christmas cards written. Best wishes to everyone for a bright and satisfying New Year.

* That’s the last question in the 2005 cultural literacy competition. Your answers?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve, 1947

That’s what is written on the back of this photograph in my mother’s handwriting. That’s me, striding along in my lisle stockings and my sensible shoes. And that’s Garby down the Lock. Both sets of my grandparents lived close. My mother’s parents lived about a mile away in Mandeville Road. They were “Nana and Garby round the corner.” Enfield was divided into several districts: there was Enfield Chase, Enfield Wash, Enfield Town, Enfield Highway and Enfield Lock, named for the lock there on the River Lea. My father’s parents lived in Enfield Lock, about two miles away. Hence “Nana and Garby down the Lock.”

Garby round the corner died when I was young. I mostly remember his moustache. But Garby down the Lock was very much a part of my growing up. He had served in India and then worked at the Royal Small Arms Factory. I remember his fondness for walking through the fields near the Lea and picking mushrooms, his love of jellied eels and his dachshund, Carlie. I remember vividly the combined living room/dining room of his little house and the picture which dominated one wall: a gondola moored on a canal which suggested Venice. I reframed the picture and now it hangs in my house.

This photo was taken in London, on Oxford Street. Then, and maybe still, street photographers would take photos of passers by. Garby must have purchased one as a memento of the day. I wonder what we did on that Christmas Eve. From the look of the objects under his arm, we must have done some shopping, probably in Selfridges or John Lewis. Did we have lunch in a Lyons Corner House? Did we travel up to the West End by bus or train? I don’t remember. I do remember that coat. It was a cornflower blue and made for me by my Auntie Doris, the cloth presumably bought with carefully hoarded clothing coupons. If you look carefully, you can see the deep hem. That coat was meant to be worn for years.

So many years, so many miles, so many Christmas Eves. To everyone reading this, best wishes for this Christmas Eve, for Christmas Day and for many years to come.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

All I want for Christmas is a Sausage Roll

With every passing year I miss England more. I have even been experiencing nostalgia for the English food of my youth.

My mother was not a great cook. How could she have been, when shortly after her marriage she was forced to cook with things like Spam and Snoek, and everything was rationed. There is a special place in my heart for her blackberry and apple pud, a mixture of blackberries and sliced apples placed in a suet dough-lined basin and covered with more dough and greaseproof paper all tied down with a pudding cloth and string, so that the whole business could be steamed for hours in a saucepan of water to mouth-watering goodness. And dripping. How can I explain dripping?

I have great memories of Sunday lunches after the war. Perhaps the cabbage was a bit over-boiled, but her roast potatoes were scrumptious (I can do those) and her roast beef, lamb and pork were delicious. Especially the pork. The joint always had a topping of the most tasty and crunchy, and probably heart stopping, crackling. Producing crackling seems to be a forgotten art, even in Britain, though I am delighted that a Mr. James Waghorn , suitably inspired by a bath and a few gins, has come up with a formula for crackling. The fact that the formula can also be found in the New Scientist is a little alarming.

Birthday parties, and special teas such as Christmas, had a predictable formula: jelly (that’s jello in the US), canned fruit with evaporated milk, trifle, celery sticks (don’t ask) and sausage rolls. I am longing for a decent sausage roll. I tried a few weeks ago to reproduce the sausage roll of my youth. They were a dismal failure. I am sure it helps to have a good English sausage, but I ought to be able to come up with something more appetizing than Jimmy Dean sausage surrounded by soggy puff pastry.

I have been getting much pleasure from an English food blog, Jam Faced . His photos are marvelous, and what a sea change there has been in British cuisine. My parents would not have given the time of day to bubble and squeak transformed by anchovies. Today’s post is adorned with a mince pie. Dare I hope that by Christmas he will have moved on to sausage rolls?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Away in a Manger

One of our traditional destinations when we are entertaining guests is the town of Frankenmuth, home of Bronners, where Christmas items are on sale 365 (well, actually 361) days of the year. One area I love to visit is the crèche department. There is something for everyone. Personally, I will not be buying the White Marble Lighted Plastic Nativity Collection (marble? plastic?) but that is for outside use and mostly sold out “due to high demand.” Many of the traditional crèches are beautiful and expensive. They come from Russia and India, Italy and the Philippines. Each reflects the diversity of the country from which it comes.

I would like to collect some of these sets, but the sheer number of small fingers exploring every reachable flat space in our house makes it impractical. We have two nativity sets which I pull out every Christmas. The first came with us from California almost forty years ago. Los Angeles was a treasure trove of Mexican pottery. The figures around the manger are solid and reassuring. The colors are muted yet rich. Mary looks like she just had a baby. I find the spots and the whirls attractive and wonder about the meaning of the other designs.

In stark contrast is the crèche from Rwanda that was a gift from Gody. All the carved wooden figures are tall and slender, their faces finely chiseled. The animals are realistic and delightful. I love the detail of Mary’s hair and the king’s crowns, and the sheen of the dark wood.

Next time we go to Bronners I must visit this department again. Maybe I have room for one more . . .

Friday, December 09, 2005

Keep this Man out of my Kitchen

(My thanks to Ernie, who pointed out this article in the December/January edition of WOOD magazine.)

The author is proposing that the woodworking aficionado fabricate a “simple serving accessory” which “holds your taco shells upright so you can put (and keep) the fixins where they belong.” This article is so wrong that I don’t know where to begin.

  • Consider the materials. Cherry wood! Admittedly this is a project for scrapwood, but cherry is a bit over the top for holding tacos. When it is finished, it is to be sanded to 220 grit and finished with three coats of a food-safe topcoat. The dividers are to be angled at 15° from vertical and the edges bevelled. I don’t think there is much furniture in my house as fancy as that. And how did he calculate the average angle of a taco at 15°? Has he nothing better to do?

  • Next, consider the math involved. The whole article looks like one of those questions on the GRE where you have trains rapidly approaching each other from different directions at different speeds while water is gurgling down the sinks in the bathrooms. I quote: “To make a longer divider, determine the length of the divider (B) blank by dividing the number of tacos to be held by 2, then multiplying by 41/4”. For example, the length of the jumbo taco holder blank equals 251/2” (12/2=6x41/4”=251/2”). Reader, forgive me, I can't figure out how to type fractions into Blogger. The author of the article did a better job with superscripts.

  • Form! Function! Anyone who knows anything about serving tacos (and I am a veteran of many a taco dinner, including Andrew’s never to be forgotten sixth birthday when all these little boys wiped their greasy fingers on my brand new apple-green brocade dining room chairs) knows that the hard part is NOT filling them. Especially since taco shell manufacturers are ahead of the game and now make shells with flat bottoms. The hard part is passing around all those little bowls of shredded and diced lettuce, onion, tomatoes and cheese and keeping them moving so everyone can take a turn. Sir, you cannot imagine the mayhem if everything had to come to a stop in front of the person who was sitting with a container of rapidly cooling tacos in front of her while selecting her fixins.

Heaven only know what the author of this article would have us do with a wet burrito!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Two and a half Weeks

No, that's not the title of an abridged Kim Basinger movie, it's the length of time our contractor told us it would take for him to remodel the basement. Today, nine weeks later, we bade him a fond farewell. He did pretty good work, his price was reasonable, but he put in very short days and occasionally did not turn up at all. I believed the story about taking the dog to the vet for stitches in his paw. The broken whatever in his car seemed reasonable. We've all had toothaches. At least he didn't try the grandmother's funeral story. Ernie saw that one regularly when he was teaching. Some students had a couple of grandmothers die. Every semester.

There's still a lot to clean up and some painting yet to be done. But with any luck, we'll be ship-shape for Christmas.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sis Boom Bah

A certain kind of writer would have described Jane Smith as a tough broad. She was somewhat north of forty, a chain smoker, with a face weathered by the California sun. She was a fellow student in my first graduate seminar in America and she was compassionate enough to realize I was suffering from culture shock and needed a friend. So she invited me to a college football game. I had no inkling that the university in which I was enrolled, the University of Southern California, was—and still is—one of the powerhouses of American College football. I didn’t realize that the stadium to which we casually strolled on a beautiful day in September was the Los Angeles Coliseum, which housed the opening and closing ceremonies for two Olympic Games. I didn’t know that all over America football fans were settling down on their couches with a six-pack of Bud and a bag of Cheetos. I would have been amazed to learn that most of them would give their next paycheck to have the opportunity to sit in the stands for the game.

It didn’t take me long to be astounded by the sight of all those cheering students. But who were these Gidget look-alikes in short skirts jumping up and down on the sideline and getting tossed in the air by so many Troy Donahues? And what was the point of the guy in fancy dress who came cantering out on a white horse? It seemed that Jane was compounding my culture shock rather than ameliorating it. Before the start of the game, the crowd rose to its feet and for the first time I heard the power of The Star-Spangled Banner being sung by 100,000 voices. That was a pivotal moment in my introduction to the United States.

Then the game began. Jane tried to explain what was happening, but it was a far cry from the Tottenham Hotspurs and Manchester United. Over the years I have finally figured the game out. Most of it, at any rate, but even the TV commentators have problems with some of the more arcane rules.

So why am I thinking about football now? The college football season is ending and once again I have failed to watch a single game from start to finish. I no longer had to watch children, I didn't have to take them to practices, games and meets, I didn't have to cook huge meals. There was nothing to prevent me from taking my place on the couch with my six-pack and my Cheetos. Except, perhaps, the realization that no game could ever measure up to my first, enjoyed in the company of a tough and kindly broad.