Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Christmas

Amen with a T will resume in 2008.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Pud

There are a few pieces of paper I brought across the Atlantic and have filed and re-filed over the years. Some I will introduce you to later, but there are one or two I need to mention today. Both are recipes. While I was in college, I stayed with my friend Sylvia in Lincolnshire. (I will always remember Sylvia for two things: her recording of Four Freshman and 5 Trombones which rang out through the basement of Lindsell Hall during our first year at Bedford and her proud association with Scunthorpe). While staying with Sylvia I tasted a sweet bread which is preserved in my recipe file as “Sylv’s mum’s plum bread.” It was delicious. Needless to say, I have never made it, but my preservation of the recipe is a contribution to fine dining.

In my last post I mentioned Christmas pudding. My son-in-law Ron has tried his hand at this piece of English tradition. I, alas, have not. But I cherish my mother’s recipe, which I have preserved, written in her own hand. This is a war-time or certainly pre-war recipe and it calls for brandy or rum butter as opposed to our traditional custard. I like to think of her, in our little kitchen, mixing up a batch of this recipe. I am sure the Christmas pudding we will eat this Christmas will be a little more sophisticated, but both cooks prepared this recipe with love. And for your listening pleasure, go here and click on Listen Now.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Child’s Christmas in England

Last Christmas Dave Lane, who is married to Ernie's niece, Bridget, invited the family to submit their memories of Christmases past for inclusion into a publication. I don't know how many submissions there were, but this is the text of what I wrote, together with some of the photos.

I wish I could tell you all that my Christmases when I was a child were like something out of Dickens. They weren’t. Remember Scrooge and the goose? We never had goose. It was always a turkey, and what a treat that was. Remember, I was born in the first year of the war and food rationing lasted through my childhood. We always had enough to eat, but it wasn’t fancy. We pulled out all the stops at Christmas. Our main meal was around one p.m. I remember that my maternal grandmother (Nana-round-the-corner) joined us. I think I have a vague memory of us going to her house for Christmas dinner when my grandfather (Garby-round-the-corner) was still alive. I don’t think my paternal grandparents (Nana and Garby-down-the-Lock) were ever with us. We wouldn’t have left them on their own, so I suppose they celebrated with some other family members. The piece-de-resistance was the turkey. In fact, I can’t remember what else we had, though it must have included brussel sprouts. (And any of you who haven’t given brussel sprouts a try have missed a real treat.) No Christmas dinner was complete without Christmas pudding. This rich, almost cake-like, concoction is made of currants, raisin, butter, spices and a minimum of flour. The mixture was put into a buttered bowl, covered with greaseproof paper and a pudding cloth and steamed for hours and hours. So rich are Christmas puddings that they are traditionally made several weeks before Christmas in double quantities so that one can be saved for next year. No brandy butter for us. It was always thick custard. Hardly had we digested this meal than it was time for Christmas tea. In our household this was traditionally stalks of celery with bread and butter (don’t ask, I have no idea why except that in post-war England celery was a treat), followed by canned fruit and evaporated milk, jello (called jelly in England) and trifle. This was topped off by mince pies and Christmas cake. The latter was also made weeks before Christmas and was a fruitcake stuffed with currants, sultanas and raisins. There was a layer of marzipan and the icing was a hard, royal icing. Funny, after all these years I have just remembered a rather worse-for-wear robin that we always had decorating the top of the cake.

Christmas crackers were a traditional part of Christmas tea. They were designed to be pulled apart with a sharp “crack” and there was always a paper hat and some other goodies inside.

Not only was there lots of food at Christmas, we also had drinks. I don’t think my parents bought alcohol during the year, but on Christmas day we always had Dubonnet and Sweet Vermouth.

Another food I remember when I think of Christmas is crystallized fruit. Some of my father’s relatives immigrated to Australia earlier in the century and Aunt Hetty and her family always sent us a big box of this dried and sugary fruit. I wasn’t fond of it (except for the pears) but it was a kind thought at a time when candy was rationed.

Our Christmas decorations were mostly paper chains hung from the picture rails, and in spite of Prince Albert, we never had a tree. Most people didn’t. So there were no gifts under the tree. We didn’t have stockings, either. The custom was to hang a pillowcase on the end of the bed, and Father Christmas came during the night and left our presents. They were never lavish. Brian and I both got bikes at some point, but obviously not in our pillowcases, and for the most part the presents from our parents and grand parents and one aunt were modest. I almost always received books, and I can admit now that I was so often disappointed. I wanted something more exciting. But I came to love those books and many of them have found their way across the Atlantic. Last year I gave my grandson Patrick my copy of A Christmas Carol. I’d treasured it for nearly sixty years.

Seems to me that there was snow in A Christmas Carol. At least there was in the Muppet version. I don’t remember snow in the London suburbs at Christmas. In fact it rarely snowed ever, and then only lightly (early emergence of global warming?) It could be cold. As we grew older we were taken up to London to see the Christmas lights on Oxford Street and Regents street. Last year I wrote a post which included a photo taken of me on Christmas Eve in London with Garby-down-the-Lock.

I remember spending a lot of time in the Woolworth’s in Waltham Cross picking out gifts. I can still see the bird brooch with blue and white stones that I bought one year for my grandmother.

Strangely, I do not remember any changes in our Christmas celebrations when Brian and I became teenagers. I do recall that when I was at university I worked for a couple of years for the Post Office, delivering Christmas cards. I have a hazy memory of coming home one day chilled to the bone and sinking into a tub of hot water.

What a great idea it was to collect these accounts. It brought back so many happy memories of Christmas in England. And guess what? For the first time in forty-four years, that's where I will be spending Christmas this year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Piccolo Ernie

I am happy and honored to share my birthday with Nathaniel, the youngest of Al and Gody’s four boys. Today he is one year old. He was here at Thanksgiving when he was already running around, flashing his lovely smile and gazing out of those big brown eyes. So, who does he look like? He somewhat resembles his brother Emmanuel at the same age, but the general consensus is that he looks a lot like his grandfather Ernie. Not surprising that his Detroit family, who has at their disposal all the family photos, should think so, but Gody told us that when Nate spent three weeks in Italy in June, all his Italian family was calling him “piccolo Ernie.” I will make sure they see this photo of Ernie, clinging adoringly to his dad over three quarters of a century ago, and I think they will agree that they got it right.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Gift of the Three Wise Women

Three women came to my house today bearing precious gifts of their time, creativity and energy—and lunch. My daughters were bringing me an early birthday present: their combined efforts to dress the house in some Christmas finery. It really doesn’t make sense. I have all the time in the world, a modicum of creativity and memories of a time when I could move mountains, but I do seem to need a push to get me going. There are too many things undone around here. I have lost my sense of proportion—I found myself the other day energetically working away at a sewing project, carefully calculating 45° angles and seaming triangles and had to tell myself that so much effort was hardly worth spending the morning in frustration. The project was in response to my granddaughter Evelyn’s request for a Christmas stocking for her cat, Faygo. Meanwhile larger and more important projects are ignored.

A delicious lunch (wild mushroom soup, accompanied by a still-warm loaf of Ron’s tasty bread, salad and a hazelnut cake with poached pears and ice cream) was followed by more work and soon door and window frames and mantels were wreathed in green picked out with scarlet berries.

Recently Ronni Bennett wrote a post about gifts suitable for the elders on a person’s Christmas list. There were wonderful suggestions and I wish I’d though to comment and include the gift I received today. I have my new camera, but I am taking working with it slowly. I hope I can post photos of the lovely work done by these three loving Magi.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Things Scandinavian

Today we pay homage to Shield Sheafson and his descendents and to the Geats and the Swedes.

Firstly for their modern books. I have written previously about some of the Scandinavian literature I have enjoyed reading. Since then I have discovered ├ůsa Larsson, read a mystery set in Iceland (is that considered Scandinavia?) and been bowled over by another Henning Mankell book, Depths , which proves that you can live alone on an island eating only fish.*

Next we come to Beowulf. We got babysitters and went out to see the movie the day after Thanksgiving. I enjoyed it a lot, but I still don’t understand why it has been such a box-office success. Does everyone go to expand their knowledge of myth and watch the Great Mother do her thing, or are they just going to see Angelina Jolie? I wonder if she knew what she was getting in to? Can’t you just see Bob Newhart pitching the part to her?—

"Yes, Angelina, there are a lot of muscular men in the movie. Well, no, the translation actually calls her “a tarn-hag.” No, it’s more like “a swamp-thing from hell”. No bikini, Angelina, but you will get to raise your head out of the water. Several times—whenever there is a new king and you need a new son. No, not a cute little baby like Shiloh, Angelina, more like . . . well, let me send you the script."

They sure did make it look cold and bleak. There was lots of merrymaking and feudal carryings-on. Gody, for whom English is a fourth language, was confused by the concept of a “meat-hall”. We explained about “mead” but we could certainly understand her problem as they all sat around eating huge chunks of roasted beast, with side dishes of roasted beast, garnished with—well, you get the idea.

Scandinavia’s third contribution to civilization is IKEA This store was founded in Sweden because it takes those muscular men to carry the goods. If you buy bookcases and wardrobes, as we did the other day, it’s comparatively easy to get the boxes on the carts, into the parking lot and into a van, but bringing them into the house is quite a different story. Of course, the instructions, which you find after you open the box, indicate it needs more than one smiling naked man to bear the weight. In our case it was Ernie and Lucy. Both fully clothed. Then we had to put them together. But that’s another entry.

*Editor’s note: Let’s just hope they didn’t look like those piscatorial monsters that appear in that cute commercial about the guy who didn’t know if he was a Swede or a Geat.