Click here for a completely bell-ringing post!
What a spoilt-rotten title for a post that is, to be sure!
But it’s true.
We’ve been planning this trip for months — a chance to meet with our Famous Architect in Paris, and increasingly for me to express some of the wishes I have for our eventual dream house. It was time, after John has put in endless months and now years working on this project, for me to think seriously about what matters to me, and to articulate it for the creative people.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because before that meeting happened, I had 24 hours in Paris to do with whatever I liked!
We popped up out of the Gare du Nord into one of those perfect, warm, blue-sky days in Paris, the kind of day that reminds you to look around, crane your neck at the inimitable angle of the tourist, to appreciate the extraordinary beauty all around you.
Firstly, lunch. We had looked forward ever since we booked our tickets to the ultimate Paris picnic. Actually it couldn’t be more mundane: wander down the boulevards until you find a supermarche, no matter how ordinary. G20 will do, with their excellent catch-phrase, “Depenser moins, sans aller loin [spend less without going far].” We came away in an instant with a bloc of pure foie gras, goose liver, a terrine of pate with forest mushrooms, a round of goat cheese in ash, and a baguette. Sauntering along with our booty, I realised if I didn’t acquire some butter I would regret it all my life, so as soon as we found another shop I dashed in and came out with a wastefully large slab of President butter, so delightfully salty and perfect.
We repaired to the cobblestoned yard outside the Guggenheim and carefully spread out paper maps of Paris to sit on. And we had our picnic.
Foie gras. Nothing should be so delicious. But truth be told, as always in Paris, it was impossible to separate the intensely rich goose liver’s flavor from the simple flavor of the city — full of people enjoying themselves, a violinist playing the Schindler’s List music behind us, French toddlers racing by chasing pigeons. We ate until we couldn’t eat any more, and then went on our way. “We haven’t planned anything,” John observed. “Nope,” I agreed. We simply walked, heading to the river and the Ile St. Louis, walking along the water until the pathway came to its pointy end, following a “chien typiquement francais” on its mysterious errands…
then heading up to a bridge to cross in the warm sunshine.
And there was the Musee d’Orsay! Since my dark past as an art historian, I tend to shy away from museums, galleries and other places of culture where I might be expected to display some expert knowledge, since it’s my sincere fear that I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew.
But in a fit of nostalgia for my old Paris self, working industriously at this archive or that private collection, we went into the Orsay. And readers, the past 25 years simply fell away! Rodin!
I’ve seen the “Gates of Hell” in many iterations over the years — the Musee Rodin itself, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Cantor Collection in New York (tragically destroyed in the World Trade Center). But I’ve never seen it in plaster before. Did you know that this sculpture is the art world’s only example of a work that exists in many copies, but with no original? This stems from the fact that Rodin worked on the piece from 1880 until his death in 1917, but never assembled it. When he died, in the confusion of the war and a desire to enhance his posthumous reputation, the pieces of the independent works of which it’s made were gathered up from the floor of his studio and … cobbled together, according to the views of various curators who had made it their business to appear there. Consequently — copies without an original.
How lovely, in any case.
How I was transported back to the many, many lunches I spent with my beautiful friend Joan, curator of the Cantor Fitzgerald Collection at the World Trade Center. My heart truly filled with memories of the intense conversations we had about the sculptures, about the man Rodin, about our ambitions in the art world.
Once I brought my newborn baby to see her there. I thought of that so many times, on September 11.
The “Monument to Balzac”!
How I love it, and cherish the knowledge that the Parisian public reviled it, and vendors produced little statues of penguins draped in cloth, to sell at the exhibition when it was revealed.
Around a corner we found a treasure, the avowed masterpiece by Camille Claudel, my dissertation topic.
She would be astonished to know that her work sits alongside Rodin’s, in the Musee d’Orsay. Importantly, directly opposite is Rodin’s bust of her, probably sculpture by her, since he never touched marble himself.
What a lovely afternoon, in that former rail station.
It was onto the paintings, with endless crowds of tourists. I tried to be glad they were enjoying my favorites, but I was happy when they stepped aside. Oh, Manet. I love your shadows.
John paused by the iconic, enormous clock window. I could feel his excitement over the upcoming meeting with his architect, the inspiration that comes from looking at art created by people at the top of their game, the happy revisiting of old memories.
“Now, look like you have an Instagram page for your architecture firm.”
Finally, feet already tired, we walked all over the Tuilieries.
Such happy memories of a Paris trip long ago with little Avery… she travelling now on her own all through Europe, nearly 19 years old. Smashing times.
Avery was with us in spirit in the Tuileries, however, as in the way of modern life, she texted us to say, “You HAVE to have sorbets from Amorino!” We found it, a busy hub of activity under an awning. Melon, lime and basil, and “agrumes de Sicily,” blood orange.
Home to our hotel, a lovely gem near the Republique, 123 Sebastapol. I stupidly took no pictures, but suffice to say it is a wonderful place to stay, the kind of staff who let me speak my best French, but speak to John in English, who help me find words and give me extra pillows and buckets of ice. Lovely.
We wandered the neighborhood at dinner time and sat down at several outdoor cafes, only to rise again and reject them — wrong ambience, touristy clientele. Just as John was about to strangle me, we found the delightful Bistro de la Gaiete, just off the busy road and so quiet, and in any case on our night in August — season of annual closings all over the city — quieter even than usual.
We sat outside in the pleasantly sultry evening, eating confit de canard and steak tartare, feeling that sense of excitement and coolness that is the hallmark of a Parisian getaway.
In the morning, we found ourselves at the sumptuous hotel breakfast of every cured meat and sausage on earth, creamy scrambled eggs, fresh yogurt and that special French method of serving coffee — a pot of hot black brew, a pot of equally hot, full-fat milk, poured in in equal measure. Divine. Rain pelted down onto the glass ceiling. “I hope it stops before we have to go out,” John mused, remembering the incredibly tacky “London 2012″ umbrellas we had brought with us, purchased cheaply after the Olympics and our standby ever since, since we tend to lose umbrellas. But we had to take them.
Out into the sprinkly day, filled with that grey, close, humid smell that comes up from Paris sidewalks in the rain. We arrived at the architect’s office.
Elevator out. We climbed five stories to the office itself.
There we were ushered into a simple conference room where, with piles of drawings, a model of the house, and a plentiful supply of little triangular rulers, we went over every square centimeter of the plans. The balcony doors? Will concertina all the way back on the dining and living floors, so that our living space will seem to reach straight to the Tower of London. There will be a new freestanding wall to accommodate an installation of sculpture I’ve been missing for 10 years, stuck in storage since we moved here.
The kitchen will have a hidden, capacious pantry for all my ingredients. Since I own only a paltry few clothes, my walk-in-closet will morph into our bathroom being much bigger. No tub, but a huge shower. Avery has a cozy room, to be sure, for the times she’s able to be with us in two years’ time or so.
I’m not able to tell you too many things about all our plans yet, because official channels are still considering what we want to do. Rest assured as soon as I’m able, I’ll show you plans and photos of every description!
We repaired, together with our architect and his assistant, to a simply SUPERB — but completely down-market and simple, in the Japanese way — restaurant for a feast of “tonkatsu,” a superior sort of crunchy, juicy fried things.
Pork fillet, chicken breast, giant shrimps, potato “croquettes.”
All accompanied by the finest shredded cabbage on earth, and a sauce of “everything savory” which I learned later is called “bull-dog” sauce. Vegetable-based, mixed with soy and mirin and sesame. And Japanese pickles! Cucumber and shallot. Our architect ordered everything for us, along with an udon noodle soup with some little bits floating in it. “Are these little bits of pasta?” I ask. “No, no, they are, how to say it, puffed rice.” Rice krispie soup! Fantastic.
We ate in what I think is a Japanese way — very quickly! With lots of steamed rice, an assiduous amount of attention to making sure everyone had equal portions. “What percentage of your clients can eat with chopsticks?” John asked, smiling. “One hundred percent,” our architect answered, dead serious.
We parted, simply filled to the brim with Japanese delicacies, with a plan to see each other soon in London, and a copy of his newly-published catalogue raisonne in John’s briefcase. How exciting it all is, to be sure.
We indulged in some desultory wanderings about and a visit to an exhibition of photographs of the Kennedys.
Finally, in need of a pick-me-up, we collapsed back at the bistro of the night before, for a much-welcomed coffee. And for John to take my “Paris Photo.” I call this my PhD look, slightly marred by my poodle hair from the rain. Ah well, it’s a truthful image of me.
And before you could blink, we were peacefully on the Eurostar, and another blink and home in London, our heads full of everything we had seen, heard and eaten. How is that possible? Whenever I get a little too absorbed by the sheer dailiness of life — the laundry, the litterboxes, the grocery shopping — I stop and remember that in two and a half hours, Paris is ours.
The gorgeous St Pancras station loomed over us as we arrived.
Paris. There is nothing like it, even for 31 hours. Or maybe especially.
I’ve been home a whole week now, battling jetlag with every weapon at my disposal: afternoon naps, two new Home-Start families to look after, more naps, and over the weekend, a two-day writing course on “Autobiography Into Fiction: How To Turn Your Life Into a Novel.” Being unable to nap for two whole days in a row actually got me over the edge, and I’m cautiously optimistic, from the point of view of a grey, sprinkly Monday in London, that I’m back in the saddle of my English life.
My American life, telescoped into two beautiful weeks, was so lovely! Of course Indiana and Iowa were sublime, but there was more fun, love, blue skies and good food to come. I headed to New York.
Knowing I would not want to jump in a rental car at 10 p.m. at JFK and drive to Red Gate Farm, long ago on my sofa here in London John kindly made hotel reservations for me, so very late on a steamy July evening, I turned up happily at the Duane Street Hotel — I would highly recommend this elegant, peaceful, friendly little retreat if you need a place to stay in Manhattan — and collapsed for the night. How civilised to wake up the next day and mosey on over to Morgan’s Market, the Tribeca delicatessen that fed me lunch more times than I could possibly count, during my years as a young mother and a local gallery owner. And guess who was still there behind the counter, quite as if no time had passed?
“Kristen! How have you been?”
“I’ll be better when I’ve had two eggs on a roll with bacon and cheese!”
We chatted over the unbelievableness of time gone by, that we’ve been gone nearly ten years, that Avery’s going to college in the fall.
“My oldest too, she’s a sophomore this year,” Manny assures me.
I grabbed my sandwich and said it wouldn’t be another ten years before I saw him again, and popped uptown to get my rental car, and up the West Side Highway I drove.
Months ago, I’d had the sense to realise that I’d be passing right through the town of one of my favorite artists in the world, Duston Spear. It was easy-peasy to arrange a studio visit, and although she ended being called away on a family emergency, her delightful husband Jon-Marc showed me what she had wanted me to see. Oh, heavenly work.
These pieces have everything I gravitate to: text, texture, muted greys, browns, greens, with the occasional red or gold to shock me out of my reverie. Even as non-figurative as my interests usually lie, she can seduce me with her people, her humanity.
Jon-Marc and I looked and looked, talked and thought. Then we paused at the railing of Duston’s studio-in-a-barn, and drank in the countryside, the peace.
I drove away with so much to think about that the journey up to Red Gate Farm seemed very short.
What a joy to arrive.
I unpacked as quickly as I could, and Rollie and Judy turned up just to check that I’d arrived safely! We talked fast and furious about the state of the house, the oppressive heat (delightful), and then I jumped in my car to head up to find my family.
Everyone was deeply involved in the creation of a plum and caramel cake! Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly, just as I’d left them at Christmastime.
Joel kindly fed me crab cakes — pasteurised lump, to be sure — just as I had requested. And Jill’s plum cake. And then we repaired to the swing-set for a vigorous game of “Sharky, sharky.” Don’t ask.
It was beautiful to be back together, and actually selfishly, very relaxing to have them all to myself — my beautiful sister with whom I never get to spend enough time, especially — not to have to share them all with John and Avery (I tell myself, knowing actually it would have been heavenly to be all together). We discussed the girls’ summer camp, Jane’s upcoming musical (I can’t believe I’m missing it), their exciting plan to build a new porch on the side of their house. “The window will become a door, and the door will become…” Something to look forward to at Christmas!
The girls have gotten just that little smidgen taller, skinnier, and seem to embody all that is all-American sporty childhood.
We decided that the best thing would be to have them straight over the next day to Red Gate Farm. “How about a honey-glazed ham?” Jane asked, leafing through my cookbook. “And slaw, please, and tomato-mozzarella salad,” Joel added hungrily. We had just had dinner, for heaven’s sake! That’s what reading “Tonight at 7.30″ will do for you, apparently.
I drove home in a haze of happiness at the prospect of five whole days of peace, nothing really to do, just hang around, at Red Gate Farm.
The moment my car pulled up in the drive, up ran little Kate-from-across-the-road, full of her summer’s adventures. “Kristen, my Kristen! Have you met my fairies? Have you seen them yet tonight? We have glitter on a stick to attract them and I’ve built them a house and they’ve written me NOTES!” So much for her Christmas shyness! We arranged for her to come over first thing the next day, to help with preparations for our dinner party. I fell into bed, and morning came quickly.
Anne and Dave lugged chairs up from the Little Red Barn.
Kate donned an apron to lend some help in the kitchen.
Tomato mozzarella salad — with a smiley face, to be sure.
The family turned up, with an addition in the shape of one Kai, excellent next-door-neighbor and Jane’s shadow this summer. He commandeered my camera, and Jane her father’s, and some 300 photographs ensued, among them some real jewels, as they gathered up Kate and Molly to cross the road to Stillmeadow, surely among the most photogenic of all acres of Connecticut countryside.
The fairy correspondence was duly recorded, with solemn attention from all the children, big and small. Having been asked if she believed in fairies, Molly replied, “You mean the kind that go across water?” She is rather a practical child, it would appear. Never mind.
The webs where the fairies play were much in evidence.
The kids swung (or “swang” as I’m sure we said in our childhood) on the swingset which requires adults to hold it into the ground. This gave me a rare chance to tether my dear Anne to one spot, and really chat, about fairies, Oxford, Potters Fields, the cookbook, our parents.
We crossed the road for an exploration of the Big Red Barn. Kai captured Molly’s little profile perfectly.
I grabbed the camera to get my beloved brother-in-law at his laughing best.
Poor Quincy, relegated to the Little Red Barn. He didn’t run last summer, and I don’t think we even tried to turn over his motor at Christmas. Land Rover as camping tent, perhaps?
The horsey jumps, possibly the most appreciated of all toys ever, made their appearance.
We wandered around Red Gate Farm, assessing all the ways in which it is falling down, with special attention this summer to the mossy, moldy damage from the winter’s outlandish snowfall. “You can see the problem,” Anne explains. “The gutter has become twisted and has come away from pointing downward to the downspout, and all the water’s just pouring down the side of the house, leaving mossy streaks.”
Indeed it is, but such was my sunny, happy relaxation at being there, with all my beloved people, that I could only smile and say, “I’m sure something can be done.”
I honestly feel there must be some sedative ingredient of life at Red Gate Farm, even for just a few days, that should be bottled (it could fund our moss removal). I felt as if I’d had a tranquiliser. Even with dinner for 9 to produce!
How we ate! All the way through an entire roasted ham, with the attendant crisp slaw and creamy salad, with its fragrant fresh pesto. Jane might well be on her way to photographing a cookbook herself!
Finally the end of the day had come, and the family piled in the car to go home, with many hugs and plans to see each other one more time before it was time for me to fly away.
Anne, David and Kate lounged on the trampoline with me in the gathering dusk, talking about school, favorite picture books, Avery’s travel plans, the fairies’ wishes for Kate. The bats circled overhead, eating up the mosquitoes, one hopes. Total peace.
Taylor stopped by with her American Girl doll, so Kate dashed across the road for hers (“look both ways, then look again!” Anne and I shout as she dashes), and was back in a moment.
Taylor’s mom Konnie found time to hang out on the terrace with Anne and me, then share a barbecued chicken dinner. Not, however, successfully grilled by me. “The grill’s just not heating up!” I discovered, feeling that essentially feminine frustration when a task traditionally taken by a man turns out to be a problem. “Check your propane level,” Konnie advised, arguing for a level of capability beyond me.
The chicken went into the oven.
Thankfully, Rollie and Judy showed up to see how we were doing, and Rollie crawled helpfully under the grill to remove the tank. “You’re running on empty,” he said, and for a brief moment I thought about lugging the replacement tank up from the barn. Nah. Much more fun just to wander down to the pond with the girls, to catch up with chat.
Taylor and Kate were fearless about the pond, which I admit always gives me pause. What’s under that murky surface? They didn’t care.
Tuesday morning found me lounging on the terrace, reading and corresponding with John and Avery, lazy in their London July lives. And then up popped Mark, sweaty from scything the meadow, and happy to replace my propane tank. It takes a village! You can’t help but smile when Mark’s around, which is a gift, in case you didn’t realise it.
“Konnie tell you about the rabbits she’s planning to raise, for meat?” he asked me, eyebrow quirked.
“Yep, she did.” A pause.
“Now, keep in mind this is a lady who hasn’t eaten pork since she was a tiny kid. She helped her grandma raise a pig on her farm, named it, played with it, the whole nine yards. Then she turns up at Sunday dinner one day and there’s ham. Uh-oh.”
“Ooh, that’s harsh,” I said.
“And so she’s gonna raise little Easter bunnies and eat ‘em? I don’t know about that.”
He downed a huge glass of icy water, and was back to the meadow.
I settled down to a bison burger — grilled with my new propane tank in place! — with a small feeling of guilt that Avery and John weren’t there to help me enjoy it. Just a small feeling.
There was succotash to go with it: zucchini, crisp fresh Connecticut corn, red onion, garlickly olive oil.
A quiet afternoon, a trip to the Gap. Our favorite saleslady exclaims. “Oh, you’re here! I wondered what had happened to you all. I wonder — could you be my son’s emergency contact when he spends his fall semester in London?” Of course.
Wednesday meant a trip to the seaside with Rollie and Judy! Guilford, a lovely spot.
Oh, the fresh breeze stirring the American flag, the scents of ocean and bait, the sailors buffing up their boats. What a treat, an outing with two of my favorite people in the world. They’re not at all old enough to be my parents, but when I’m with them, I feel like a bit of a daughter.
I got home in time to wander, in the stunningly sunny humidity, up Sanford Road to visit Mike, hard at work on the new barn at Phillips Farm.
Mike is an artist, giving his heart and soul to this building.
To think that when we arrived at Red Gate Farm for the first time eleven years ago, this spot was occupied by a sadly dilapidated, falling-down, neglected structure. It took the passion of the Southbury Land Trust to clear it away and put in its place this beautiful, artisan barn.
“We had a fundraiser,” Mike explained, “where people could buy pegs — the whole structure’s pegs — with names on them. Here’s Abigail’s peg.”
Abigail, her little brother Gabriel, mother Lauren and Mike appeared later in the day for a delicious dinner at the picnic table. There is something heartwarming about the bond between beautiful Lauren and intrepid Abigail. Lauren is one of those women who can wholly devote herself to a “real” job — a pediatric nurse — and then somehow also have 110% to give to being a mother.
They had kindly invited me to their house, but had succumbed to my wish to spend as much time at Red Gate Farm as possible, merely bringing their kebabs to me, luxurious with giant shrimp, zucchini, peppers. How thoughtful!
Mike was there, and since he was a man, he grilled. What a wonderful person he is, a perfect combination of dreamy artist, practical griller, devoted father and husband.
We feasted, and tried to work sort of six months’ worth of news, reflections, predictions into one evening. The story of my American holiday, in short.
Thursday I spent running errands madly, to the post office to thank our dear friends for forwarding our mail, to the Laurel Diner for one quick “two eggs on a roll” and brief “hello” with brilliant Pete, diner chef extraordinaire. Home to wash sheets and towels, clear out the fridge. Didn’t I JUST arrive? And in the evening, off for an Italian dinner with the nieces, one last treat before I had to say goodbye.
That evening, in the warm dusk, I couldn’t help thinking about all the classic Connecticut things I never managed to do, in my five days. No library trips (I love that library), no lounging by the scruffy Town Pool, no ice cream excursion to Rich’s, no trip to the Hickory Stick bookshop in nearby Washington, CT, no visit to the lowkey, intimate farmer’s market. There just wasn’t time, and my heart broke, a bit, to turn my back on so many pleasures.
In the morning I was off, locking the door, looking back over my shoulder at Red Gate Farm, goodbye until Christmas. How hard it is to drive away, every time.
New York City, positively sizzling in the heat, awaited. I managed — readers, it was a miracle — to drop my luggage off at the hotel downtown, wend my way through the endlessly circuitous one-way streets of the West Village to return my rental car, then saunter along the sidewalks, enjoying the inimitable energy of New York City. There is just no place quite like it.
Lunch with my darling Alyssa! Mario Batali’s Lupa - fried baccala, heirloom beet salad, peppered, buttery spaghetti — did not disappoint.
We talked feverishly, exchanging observations of the unbelievable position we find ourselves in — sending our girls to college. How I miss Alyssa and our almost daily coffees, lunches, walks, talks.
How on earth could any place be so HOT? I walked slowly, cooking in my shell, to meet my friend Elizabeth’s gorgeous daughter Isabel, and her friend Alex, and bravely make our way to Long Island City — I can’t convey to you my pride on not getting lost!
My darling artist friend Kate awaited, to welcome us to her studio. Our friendship goes back 20 years, to my first experiences teaching in New York City. My gallery would not have thrived without her work, her intellect, her heart.
I had almost forgotten what a joy it is to be welcomed into an artist’s realm, to have her pull image after image — magical — from her flat file, to help her unwrap framed treasures, to look and ask questions and listen to the description of an artist’s life.
I think Isabel really enjoyed herself, and as a future art historian, it doesn’t get any better than that afternoon.
After the heavenly cool of Kate’s studio, we braved the harsh sun and took the subway to Brooklyn to find Kate’s husband David, the most brilliant sculptor I know, happy to welcome us as well. Oh, the work.
Isabel and Alex went off for a further Williamsburg adventure, and Kate, Dave and I found ourselves at a gorgeous local Italian spot, to share prosciutto e melone, pizza with bresaola, and the luxury of conversation. I headed back, exhausted by my day - Connecticut, West Village, Long Island City, Brooklyn, Tribeca.
Saturday, my last day in America, and I was in an emotional mood. I toured my beloved Tribeca, home of Avery’s babyhood and childhood. How many games of hide and seek were played in this gazebo, figures of colored chalk drawn around her toddler body, birthday parties with cake and ice cream eaten, in her little local Washington Market Park?
Her heroic school once more thrives in the shadow of the World Trade Center.
It was, quite simply, the warmest neighborhood anyone could ever wish for, site of the September 11 tragedy and despair and fear, but then recovery and beauty and love.
I went for lunch at one of my favorite spots in the world, Roc, in my beloved Tribeca.
And who, out of the blue, appeared before me?
Rocco himself, of course, to give me a much-needed hug and to remember the old, dark days (“I remember you stood just here and cried,” he said, shaking his head, “and I told you everything would be all right. And it is.”), and to celebrate the hot, happy afternoon we had right now.
My darling friend Binky — of whom no photo can ever be taken — joined me for tuna tartare, for baccala croquettes, for tortellini with peas and ham. And for irreplaceable friendship, of a lifetime, reminiscences about last summer, Avery’s life with them. Why, oh why, I wondered, do I have to leave New York?
Because it was time to go “home,” whatever that could possibly mean after my Summer Adventure 2015. Exchanging one brilliant set of characters for another. Home to London it was, with enough memories to last the summer, or even longer.
Do you remember, back in the autumn, when the Kickstarter campaign ruled my life?
When all I could think of was bringing our cookbook project out of the recesses of Word files, graphic design plans and publishing contracts?
No one in the world could have been more supportive than my mother, and my mother-in-law. They listened, cajoled me out of my blue moods, reminded me how much I really love to cook, to feed people, to tell our stories. They convinced me that however tired I was of the project at any given moment, it would be worth all the trouble to bring the book to fruition.
And together, we did!
Fast-forward to this summer, with John deeply occupied in building plans and Avery happily all over Europe for a fun-filled adventure. I decided to go on an adventure of my own, to thank as many of the people as I could who had come together to make my book a reality.
And frankly, to go home again.
Because as much as we’ve moved around in the last 30 years or so, the wonderful years we’ve spent in New York and London, the Midwest will always feel like home to me.
I began in Indiana, in my childhood home, cooking a celebration lunch for Mom and her closest inner circle, the long-awaited, exclusive Kickstarter luncheon! A day travelling from London, through Detroit, I rang Mom from the lounge. “My flight’s due in at 9 o’clock,” I said breathlessly, cocktail in hand. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said sadly. “We are having near-tornado storms here.” Sure enough, I ran to the gate to find that the flight before mine, mine, and the flight after had all been cancelled. “Don’t DO this to me!” I shrieked inwardly. “I can’t be late for tomorrow.” And five LONG hours later, I arrived in Indianapolis after midnight, to look at the clock in Mom’s kitchen and realise that I had twelve hours in which to shop for, cook and present a three-course meal for eight! I had planned to spend some of those hours sleeping, to be sure.
It all worked out. I’d come armed with gifts, of course.
The guests arrived, among them an early bird, one of my oldest friends in the world, my dearest Amy. Partner in many a childhood caper.
We talked fast and furiously as I raced about, preparing creamy red pepper soup, slow-braised chicken thighs with olives and bay leaves, tomato and mozzarella salad with fresh pesto, steamed rice, all to be served on Mom’s highly-prized brown and white china.
The guests arrived! Janet, my mother’s dear friend for over 50 years. Oh the years our families shared a duplex, a little plastic swimming pool, a swingset.
And their great chum Dallene, the best piano teacher a girl ever had.
Janet’s beautiful sister Judy, and my mother’s newest friend Julie.
And Julie’s mother Nancy. She and her daughter have added so much fun to my mother’s life!
We settled down to our lunch, and a rather frenzied attempt to relate all the important things that had happened to us all since we last saw each other — and in Nancy and Julie’s case, since it was our first meeting, proper introductions. “Julie reminds me so much of you!” my mother said, which is always an intriguing suggestion. And indeed, super-extroverts we both are, always happiest when surrounded by lots of people. I knew she and Amy would find each other kindred spirits, since my mother loves us all.
We ate and ate, with second helpings, and finally cake. A towering Victoria sponge with a layer of lemon curd I had brought all the way from Barnes, from our Christmas Fair.
Our guests departed one by one, Amy with an extra “Tonight at 7.30″ apron over her arm, to try a spot of tie-dyeing on it! “That way, the places where you wipe your foodie hands don’t have to try to stay white!”
I raced to a nearby bar to make my next rendez-vous, drinks with a little group of high school friends, plus my dear friend Kristin. We talked over and over each other, trying to explain to Kristin via a sort of Venn diagram on the tablecloth, how intricately we are all involved in each other’s pasts: who dated whom, who married whom, whose brother was married to whose sister, whose law firm represents whose business. A tangled web, stretching back 35 years or more.
I drove away in the intensely humid Indiana heat, reflecting on the extraordinary luck that gave me such friends, still such fun after such a long time.
And as I settled into a nice talk with my mother, the doorbell rang and up popped Todd, who was to be the only man at our drinks party but missed me, and trailed me home!
It was a happy accident, really, to miss each other at the bar, because we got an uninterrupted evening of catching-up, hearing of his brilliant children’s activities, telling him about Avery’s adventures. Someday our families will meet.
I awoke again very early next morning, on London time, and decided that I would go on a little voyage of reminiscence around my childhood neighborhood. Everything always feels slightly askew, when I return. The church where my madrigal group sang its Christmas concerts, for my dear old friend Mrs. Young, looks tiny, insignificant and rather awful, compared with the glowing image in my memory.
The tiny, dollhouse-like house where I had my first baby-sitting jobs, watching “The Newlywed Game” and doing my homework, seems also much smaller than in my memory. It’s now on the Historic Register.
I parked the car and wandered, ducking under the hanging branches of oaks and maples, down to the creek where as a little girl with my friends I clambered among the rocks, swung from a very dangerous rope swing. No one must play there anymore; the path is entirely covered in ivy.
Where, in fact, were the children, any children? In the whole of my Midwestern trip this summer, I saw no children just out and about playing. Perhaps they were all indoors looking at one kind of screen or another, but I chose to think they were in summer camp somewhere. Not that my childhood was spent at camp; most of it was spent trespassing across this lovely golf course, whether disturbing angry golfing dads in summer, or sledding down snowy hills in winter.
I meandered in a fog combined of Midwestern humidity and nostalgia, thinking of the innocent hours I spent on my bicycle in these neighborhood haunts, dreaming of what would become of me when I grew up. I picked up a souvenir for Avery, whose childhood — spent in the urban purviews of New York and London — has probably never admitted such an exotic object.
I like to imagine another kind of life I might have had, one where I stayed “home,” close to my parents and my friends, a continuous sort of life rather than one I’ve had, with a series of curtains coming down between its acts — childhood in Indiana, the first scary decision to live on the East Coast, early married life in London, my teaching years and Avery’s babyhood in New York, our European adventures since then. Oh, it’s been wonderful, but how wonderful, too, it would have been to remain where I began, ties unbroken.
Underlying my nostalgia, of course, is the massive missing of my father. So sick now, in faraway Connecticut, no longer himself, I feel his presence along every path when I go “home.” I spent many happy early evenings as a little girl down by the creek, waiting for his car to pull into the alley on his way home from work. Everything has changed now, from the driveway that some professional now tars (how I remember the intense smell and the beating heat of those weekend projects with him each summer), to his tomato garden now filled with my mother’s daisies, to the garage once so filled with uncontrolled piles of his tools, small motor parts, collections of Miracle Whip jars containing this or that handful of nails. Now all that remains in the garage is a small huddle of the Squirt bottles, his favorite tipple.
I drove to the nearby grocery store, with its shelves of unabashed American bounty.
What fun to whizz along the wide American streets in the early morning sunshine, singing happily to “The Greatest Hits from the 80s and 90s” on the radio. Nothing beats the B52s, and “Roam If You Want to,” and Glass Tiger’s “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone.” My teen years, on the FM dial.
Home to prepare lunch for my beloved Wedeking family all the way from Kentucky, on an impromptu whirlwind visit to celebrate my uncle’s 70th birthday! My Uncle Kenny, fondly known as Uncle Whiskey for the single-malt devotion we share (he tried the amazing peaty sample I brought from Duty Free!), my beautiful Aunt Mary Wayne, and their daughter, childhood partner in crime Amy, with her gorgeous son Ryan. How the years have flown!
We laughed and ate, ate and laughed. I am always so glad to know that my Kentucky family are on the other end of a telephone line, and there for my mother and brother at the Thanksgivings and the Christmases when we are not together. They have such fun, always.
We repaired to the living room for lemon bars and more family gossip.
Far too soon, with shouted goodbyes in the late afternoon sun, they departed. What fun we had had, remembering their trip to London, our family reunions, bringing my father into the room with favorite stories.
I spent the evening looking through old photos of our shared ancestor, our darling Mamoo. We all thought we saw a distinct family resemblance to Avery, though Avery can’t see it herself. Maybe we never can, see ourselves, that is.
Mom and I sat on the porch late into the night, the air filled with lightning bugs and the sound of two wonderfully evocative Indiana institutions: the railroad, and the race track. Wooh-wooh, went the train whistle, and vroom-vroom, the cars around the Brickyard. Those two sounds, like the smell of freshly cut grass, bring back my childhood in an instant.
The next day found us back on the porch, sharing a lovely chat with Mom’s friend Pam, provider of beautiful manicures as well as warm friendship. And then I concocted a big pot of Tom Yum soup and left it on the stove, wandering out to the lovely, ferny front porch to catch up with our next-door neighbors, hearing of their grandchildren’s exploits, wondering together “where are all the children?” I marvelled at the profusion of daisies that Amy’s garden firm have provided for Mom, adding so much to the beauty of our little street.
I managed to capture my brother Andy in a contemplative mood. It is always so lovely, on my visits, to have a chance to find out what he’s been up to, to thank him for being in Mom’s corner, for keeping her company.
And our next guests arrived! Our old friend Kevin, and his startlingly grownup daughter, Colleen. Happy to share a bowl of spicy Thai soup with us.
Absolutely nothing brings the passage of time to the forefront like sharing a meal with a young person you have firmly age 5 or 6, and to hear her describe her professional accomplishments, her travels, her undeniably adult life. It was a total joy to see her with her dad, such a staunch friend to our family over the years.
It was so hard to say goodbye to my mother and brother, to leave a place where I’m loved for just being me. What a perfect visit, far too short, but filled with all the things I long for when we’re separated: a long-awaited luncheon, mother-daughter gossip, a chance to give and receive a tight hug whenever I want.
In the morning, Andy brought me to the airport for the next phase of my Midwestern jaunt: Iowa!
It’s been 31 years to the month since I packed up my little Honda Civic, my hands full of maps given me by my anxious father, sure I’d get lost (I did), and crossed Indiana, Illinois and half of Iowa to arrive in Waterloo, at the beautiful home of my then-boyfriend, and this dear lady, my mother-in-law Rosemary, friend now for my whole adult life.
She greeted me in the best possible way: with a lunch of BLTs and fresh-picked corn!
As much as I love my adopted home of England, and superior as its ingredients are in many instances, nothing, NOTHING beats the Midwest of America for its ultimate summer treat of corn on the cob. The crispness! The sweetness. Oh, it can’t be rivalled anywhere in the world, I feel sure. The lunch was a perfect throwback to the old days of my Iowa visits, when his dad would turn up for lunch in the middle of his workday in a crisp, gorgeous suit. BLTs with the bread cut in half, so you could eat two or even three quite easily. What happy days those were.
Because much as with my Indiana visits, there is something now missing from my Iowa trips. How I miss John’s dad, with his tight hug and insistence on carrying suitcases, driving us home from the airport past waving cornfields, his fatherly demeanor placing us firmly in the position of “the kids,” not in charge, not yet adult, not responsible. What a forever arm-around-your-shoulders sense of protection he conveyed, always.
Even with the empty space, there is so much to love about a visit to Waterloo. Not the least attraction of which is the beautiful screened-in upstairs porch. “Gosh, I sure wish we’d made this porch a foot wider,” John’s parents were wont to say, as soon as it was built. No matter, it is a haven of serenity on a July afternoon, and I lay back on the sofa cushions, listening to the birds in the pine trees, to the air conditioner humming off and on, to the sound of a faraway lawnmower.
I roused myself to join John’s mom at Sunnyside, the perfect country club where I spent so many hours and hours, first as a girlfriend on the diving board at the shimmering pool, then as a young mother chasing after my little girl on the immaculate green.
What IS it with me and golf courses? I think it’s the unchanging quietude that attracts me, year after year.
It was lovely to be reunited with Dennis and Camille, best friends of John’s parents for so many years.
We reminisced over perfect, crunchy fried shrimp, my special treat at Sunnyside, harkening back to my first visits there. “Where, do you think, is the playground, with a merry-go-round where John and I had our first picnic?” I wondered. We had ‘Hay and straw salad,’ made by you, Nonna. Do you have any idea?”
“That will be at Lookout Park,” Camille said immediately, and it was but the work of a moment the following morning to find it, and its attendant memories of a summer 31 years in the past.
On this wave of nostalgia, we drove to nearby Cedar Falls, home of the world’s greatest coffee shop, Cup o’Joe, presided over by the beautiful Dawn, who remembered me and asked after Avery. What makes their coffee so delicious, so inimitable? Dawn’s passion, I think.
We wandered down the charming American village street, like something out of a picture book.
I’d forgotten all about RAGBRAI, the Iowa “Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa,” a completely nuts thing that some 20,000 bike riders take part in every July in Iowa, riding across the entire state, in any and all kinds of weather. John and his family took part, many times — his first kiss occurred with one Elizabeth, somewhere in a cornfield! The ride just happened to be passing through Cedar Falls the very day I was there.
Cedar Falls is a perfect example of Americana gone terribly right: small independent shops selling beautiful things, cheerful people. None lovelier than Anne, who used to own Cup o’Joe, now proud proprietor of a charming vintage shop.
I could easily have bought a suitcase full of her things. Perhaps an apron for Avery, pursuing her first adventures in cooking, in London.
We drank our coffee in the warm sunshine, texting photographs and messages to John and Avery, in one of those wonderful moments when technology really does add to one’s life. We stopped in our mercantile adventures for quite a perfect Reuben, without which a trip to America is not worthwhile.
We dashed, then, to the grocery store to finish off the shopping that would be needed for our long-anticipated dinner party the next night, to celebrate a number of things: Rosemary’s new kitchen, my cookbook, my visit. What fun to plan every detail.
For our evening’s adventure that night, though, we journeyed back to Cedar Falls to observe RAGBRAI in all its glory: the tents…
The sponsors. What a sight!
And a sight that would have astonished little John, back in the day. How can so much change in so short a time? “This would have made my meeting up with Elizabeth a bit easier!” John laughed, when I sent him this photograph.
We repaired to a local sports bar to achieve one other culinary wish for my Iowa visit: the perfect pork tenderloin. And for conversation with Dennis, Camille and Rosemary’s cycling friend Randy, all of us happy to bask in the easy familiarity of such an American evening.
The next day was given over to party preparations. Thank goodness we had a decent cookbook.
There is no happier way to spend a day, to my mind. Chopping, chopping, chopping, together with Rosemary. How many times we have done this! But never together at her house. It was a treat.
She happily pulled out the best china cups for my red pepper soup. How beautiful the table looked, when we were ready.
Everyone arrived, feeling festive. Camille and Dennis, of course, and old friends Ric and Mary, and new friends to me — I have heard about them all these many years — David and Lyn.
“Where’s Suave Duck?” Ric immediately asked, taking me back three decades to his old, perfect nickname for John! Who was incredibly Suave, to be fair, at age 20 or so.
How wonderful it would have been to have John there, especially to explain the plans for Potters Fields! I did my best.
What a wonderful evening. The food was delicious, though I say it myself, especially the curried chickpeas with spinach and feta, and the star of the evening: Rosemary’s plate of lemon bars, since she is the queen of delicate desserts.
A day to remember, full of reminiscent laughter, warm memories of many summer visits, anticipated times together in London in the coming years. Not many people are as lucky to gain such a mother-in-law as I have, an endlessly supportive listening ear, making me always feel much more interesting than I really am. And such fun in the many kitchens we’ve chopped in, over the years.
The next morning dawned dark and gloomy, with a promised rain storm that sent Cathy scurrying away back to her real life in Minnesota. And we turned our minds to driving about, finding the perfect, iconic Iowa barn for me to take home in my mind. There is something magical about the white against the cornfields, so different from our red Connecticut barns.
The cornfields themselves swayed with their tassels in the wind.
That was my Midwestern extravaganza of Summer 2015. A trip planned in the chilly, damp spring of London, come to fruition in the hot, steamy world of Indiana and Iowa. So many meals shared, so many cookbooks inscribed to dear people, without whom it would never have come about. Long, luxurious conversations with people I see far too infrequently, but who are always ready to pick up where we left off, to maintain the ties.
I was up in the air again, to land on the East Coast for a week of adventures in New York City, Connecticut, and points in between. Watch this space…
I’m in yet another airport. Headed home.
Where IS home?
Two weeks ago I left London — home — to begin my American Summer 2015 road trip, only the road trip was in the air. London, Detroit, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cedar Rapids, Detroit, JFK. All places that take me home, really (except for Detroit, which I’m sorry to say must be home to somebody but to me it’s an airport, pure and simple).
I’ll tell you all this in loving detail when I’m safely in London, but suffice to say that Indiana was superb…
I spent time with so many people I love.
And then I went to Iowa, a place truly beloved to me, filled with brilliant people.
Of course Red Gate Farm is “home.”
And so are other other important bits of Connecticut.
There were dear friends.
New York City. Need I say more? Old and new merge in my memory.
I have cooked a luncheon and five dinner parties, attended several more, held a baby, contemplated an hour-old painting, kissed a cousin, poked a dead bat, toured a new barn, jumped through a sprinkler, wept over a childhood golf course, smelled the sea, and I have witnessed the waving cornfields, American flags and loving “hello, goodbye” hands of all the people and places I’ve left behind.
I counted it up: I have sat at a table, on a porch, in a studio, on a trampoline, a swing or a park bench, with 55 — fifty-five! — people I hold near and dear, in the last fourteen days.
It’s time to go… “home.” Next post, London. And if I didn’t see you on this trip, I will on the next.
It’s a wonderful life.
Once again, we’re in London for the month of July, and what a parade of festivities there has been! Most elaborate of all, of course, is Barnes Fair, which has grown (from what I hear from long-time natives) from a couple of trestle tables selling Pimms and lemon curd, to a full-blown extravaganza that draws thousands of visitors from all over southwest London. And we had the perfect day for it.
and then welcome the General Public to climb the 75 treacherously narrow treads of our Tower steps to the very top, there to be offered beautiful views of Barnes, Richmond and even further afield.
To think that there were people standing in that spot, gazing at fields and trees, 800 years ago!
Someone had to sit in the clock room, too, to make sure no naughty visitors tugged on ropes or otherwise disturbed all the delicate mechanisms of our belltower. The Victorian clock workings are just beautiful.
And the view from the clock room, through the trap door, down into my precious ringing chamber… a new perspective!
Of course part of the fun of being on the Tower Team is the walky-talky. “Sending four people up to you, Kristen,” says Charles cracklingly. “Copy that, Charles, I will welcome them. Over.”
I sat in the humid, stale clock room, smelling of bell ropes and old wood, listening to the visitors tramping up and down the belltower steps, listening to the cheerful chatter through the trap door. How I LOVE every moment I spend in this quiet village church, being a peaceful part of a ritual and community that seems not to have changed for 100 years.
There was much fuss over the main event of Open Tower Day: the Teddy Bears’ Parachuting. It wasn’t easy for Curate Ann and Freya’s mum to sort out the rope pulley, for one thing.
But eventually all was ready for the £1-per-teddy adventure!
Of course the Teddies’ Adventures in Space went extremely well, after all this preparation. Ann launched them on their journeys.
Some fell onto the roofline and had to be rescued with long poles, by Vicar Richard. Some had less perilous journeys.
Flying down past the ancient tower…
Into adoring hands…
Everyone below was suspended in anticipation.
The crowds grew!
I sat in the bell chamber selling tickets, attaching “Tower Tour” necklaces to everyone so we could keep track of who was where. My good friend Colin was a stalwart helper, as always.
To tell you the absolute truth, I was very brave even to be IN the bell chamber after last weekend’s small accident. How on earth am I in the position to teach anyone anything? I really shouldn’t be. When one sweet learner lost control of her rope, I struggled to know what to do. I grabbed for the first bit of the rope I saw — the brightly colored, fluffy sally! I’m sorry to tell you I forgot what would happen to me if I did, even though the results are memoralised in leaded glass in the tower.
I simply flew into the air, perhaps four or five feet above ground, with that damned sally in my hand. Of course what the lovely glass image doesn’t show you is the sprained two knuckles of my right hand, and my sore left shoulder. What an idiot! We all gathered around Eddie for a much-needed basic lesson in “grab the TAIL” in an emergency. I’m still paying for it all in a sore right set of knuckles.
Avery and John joined me for a late-afternoon walk around the Fair, after my Tower responsibilities were over. The weather was perfect, the popcorn delectable.
This vision of Barnes Pond by late afternoon belies the chaos of the day.
I absolutely could not resist this particular sight, within the controlled bustle of my friend Trisha’s Annual Bike Sale, held in the churchyard. How the dead must have rejoiced! I would.
We came home, sun-soaked and tired, full of the noise and bustle of the fair. We needed the summer seduction of a home-minced beef burger, piled with everything you can imagine. Sheer summer barbecue joy.
The Fair is only the latest of our July adventures. We’ve been inspired by dear Nigel Slater’s new show, “Eating Together,” a truly lovely exploration of how British cooking is influenced by its immigrant population. In this day of threats to all our open countries’ appreciation of the immigrant joys we’ve all loved, this programme is a warm comfort. The concept is to take a celebrated British dish — slow cooked beef and vegetables, for example — and see how Britain’s immigrants have contributed to the notion, expanded it, and frankly exploded it past all recognition. One such example was a supremely hot Ghanaian dish by a lovely young chef, proprietor of one of the new Brixton pop-up restaurant Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen.
On our visit, Zoe’s sister Natalie was in charge, and oh my, the FOOD!
The beef and pepper skewers, the red spiced rice, the fried plantains, and best, to my mind, the spiced mackerel. We ate it ALL.
The whole of the pop-up establishment was wonderfully energetic, fresh and new. All built of containers and simply plopped down in the incredibly vibrant community of Brixton, a new place for me.
We wandered around after our lunch in search of a fishmonger — and found seven or eight of them in shouting distance, not to mention a dozen butchers, fresh fruit and vegetable displays, spice huts. I wanted to move right in.
What a part of this vast Londonness that I’ve never appreciated before!
In the spirit of that openness and celebration of difference, then, we approached our Fourth of July celebrations. The weather was perfection.
I made burgers, John grilled hot dogs. We had found proper French’s mustard, watermelons, fresh corn (it was rather awful) and unearthed John’s mom’s gift at Christmas of Fourth of July napkins! We were ready.
Our guests came with appetites: Elizabeth and Maddie — happy to indulge in Mojitos with Avery — Andrew and Hazel from next door, and Nora’s beautiful family — two little boys, about to be three, when she has her new baby in October. The three she has already are just gorgeous.
From the Fourth, we emerged to enjoy another London summer tradition in July, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition visit. We went with my dear friend Sue, who having had us over for dinner on THE HOTTEST evening of the year, had somehow in a fit of heat stroke convinced us to pop back into Central London for the show, the Monday after.
I was sorry to find that the pieces I loved the best — a vitrine installation and a drawing — were by already-famous people (Anselm Kiefer and Cornelia Parker), rather than the undiscovered gems one is meant to find at the RA Summer show. But it was glorious.
As was the play the following night, yet another production of the Importance of Being Earnest. How many versions of this delicious Oscar Wilde invention can our family ingest? Of course David Suchet was marvellous, as expected, but the true joy was in finding the actors playing Cecily and Gwendolyn (“Good heavens, Gwendolyn!), and Algernon and Jack so inventive, so fresh, so able to invest their roles now over 100 years old with new layers, new laughter. It was a total joy.
All this was mitigated only by the sorrow of a toothache for John, which kept him from the play. This combined with his having sprained his toe on a pile of my cookbooks led to my coming up with surely the WORST pub name in the history of English pubs: “The Toe and the Tooth.”
He survived by working hard on Potters Fields, with meetings here and there, and the plans spread out on the dining table, only recently cleared off of Avery’s piles of revision notes.
Oh, the evening when I drove with John to his late-night dental appointment in not-so-nearby Harrow, to chat in the heavenly summer sunset as we went, then read peacefully in the hospital waiting room while he was seen to, then drive home again in the balmy night air. Only to arrive home near midnight to find out car convertible roof wouldn’t close. “Bloody hell,” we said in unison, as John fetched a cocktail and a tool box. Finally we left it covered with a tarp until help could come the next morning.
There have been quiet days of the three of us reading in the sunny living room, wandering into the rather crunchy brown garden now and then, with a lawn chair or just a bath towel in the sun, watching Tacy eat cobwebs. Which turns out to be a thing.
With the garden doors open, Cressie the Visitor Cat has tried to make inroads.
Avery and I field the dramas, which ended one night in a slight scuffle and a “Keechie’s ear actually bled onto my phone!” from Avery, a sentence we must surely add to our collection of “never been said before.”
Tomorrow is my last day in London before we all disperse for the coming six weeks or so. On Wednesday, I will take a train to Devon for an overnight bell-ringing adventure (more on this to be sure!), then to America for two weeks (ditto, there will be loads of commentary!). But I will miss my family dinners at home.
To mark the occasion with a truly delicious dinner, last night saw us with a vegetable-laden extravaganza, inspired by Sue’s hospitality earlier in the month. I hate peas! normally. Famously! But this dish, raw, fresh and highly flavored, was a revelation.
Sue’s July Peas
300g/ 2 cups fresh-shelled, raw peas
juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves
125 g/4 oz/1 cup grated Parmesan
generous drizzle olive oil
fresh ground black pepper
sea salt to taste
Put all the ingredients into a small food processor and pulse until a pleasant, rough-ground texture is achieved. Tip into a bowl and sprinkle with more olive oil and cheese right before serving.
This dish, served with roasted beetroot wedges with fresh thyme and olive oil, and steamed new poatoes with parsley, butter and garlic, would have been a perfect dinner. But because it was July, and I’m about to abandon my family to weeks of their own cooking, it seemed only right to combine the vegetables with a gorgeous barbecued pork tenderloin, marinated in a wonderful spice blend I found in Brixton called “chicken salt,” plus garlic and onion powders, fresh black pepper, lemon and lime juice, lemon grass, chopped red onion. This tenderloin was left in the fridge to its own devices for perhaps an afternoon, then grilled for what I will forever think of as “pork 5/5/5.” This means, high heat for five minutes, turn over and grill for another five minutes, then turn off the heat and shut the grill lid for another five minutes. This serves as the resting period. Cut thick slices and serve with all the vegetables you can find.
And enjoy July, on your church tower, or wherever the beautiful early month finds you.
It’s been a perfect maelstrom of events here in our London lives. All the seeds I’ve planted throughout the year somehow come up as regularly as our June lavender, every year. This particular June some unusual blossoms appeared.
How many people can say they’ve rung bells for an Archbishop of Canterbury? Well, I have, as it turns out.
As part of the ongoing celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the most recently retired Archbishop, Rowan Williams, came to St Mary’s to offer a sermon. It was a gala occasion. We “rang him in,” and then as I was walking my bike around from the back of the church, where the bell chamber door is, this is the sight that greeted me.
This particular Archbishop is dear to my heart for a number of reasons: his liberal thinking about women and gay bishops, his deep understanding of Islam, his new position as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and: he married William and Kate!
I paused to see the pageantry of his arrival at St Mary’s, feeling self-conscious that I was pedalling away rather than staying for his sermon. But he looked twinklingly at me and gave a slight smile, then entered the packed church.
That was a very cool moment for me.
We’ve had my very last “MIV Sale,” which sounds as if we’re selling the MIVs (first-year students at Avery’s school), but really means we’re selling lacrosse sticks, masks, boots and drama shoes to the incoming MIVs at their Welcome Tea. It’s such a warm, cosy event, at which I traditionally meet the new mothers who will be the latest recruits to Lost Property in the autumn. Many mothers have told me over the years that meeting me at the Tea was their first introduction to the school, and it set the tone for welcome and warmth. I took a moment in the empty Old Library, scene of the Sale, before all the clobber arrived. What happy times I have spent in that sunny, elegant room: Parents’ Guild meetings around these tables, decorating for the Christmas Fair, Parents’ Evenings hearing our daughter’s work praised.
Last week saw John and me in that very room again, sipping sparkling water and greeting fellow volunteers, at the High Mistress’s thank– you meeting with all of us. Seven years of giving time, effort, money, and love to that school have come to an end for us, unbelievably.
I’ve been united with my latest Home-Start family — a big one this time, lots of children who clamor for my listening ear, my welcoming lap! How I wish I could tell you about them, show them to you. They are my fifth family, and I couldn’t be happier. This turns out to be literally true: of course most of the world’s attention to this fantastic charity is on the impact our work has on the families we support, but Home-Start just sent all its volunteers a 37-page study on a surprising subject: the impact of Home-Start on the lives of the volunteers. The conclusion?
“The greatest journey of change was in the volunteers’ self-confidence, the mean score at the start of training was 2.90 and increased significantly to 4.50. There was found to be a significant change over time in the volunteers’ sense of usefulness, awareness of others, confidence in own identity and looking forward in life. The measures of both physical and mental health for the volunteers improved during their time volunteering.”
I can absolutely attest to this result. Being one of those people who can be a bit anxious, a big moody, a bit self-absorbed, one of my sovereign remedies for these feelings is to arrange a meeting with my Home-Start family. It’s absolutely impossible to feel negative when in the presence of a gaggle of friendly, smiling little people.
To be a more useful volunteer, I’ve signed up for a three-day course in pediatric first aid.
You might wonder — is this qualification perhaps 18 years or so late, in my life? Yes indeed. Avery somehow survived her entire childhood without my being able to do anything to save her, should she have needed saving. To be truthful, I never even learned to take her temperature properly. I remember turning up at her New York pediatrician with a feverish child. “What’s her temperature, Kristen?” her suave French doctor asked. “I don’t know! Too hot!”
So this skill is definitely one whose time has come, given how much time I spend with my current Home-Start family, my former Home-Start family (now dear friends of mine), and Home-Start playgroup. I’ve had just the one lesson and I can tell you, I now feel certain that someone on every bus journey I take is about to choke on a grape.
Of course, the kitties, Avery’s mainstay throughout this endless, stressful month of exams, have been much in evidence. To John’s chagrin, all of them have learned Tacy’s trick of drinking from his water glass. Keechie’s thirst (with a full dish of clean water at her disposal at all times, of course) knows no impediments.
Visitor kitty extraordinaire Cressida is loyal to Avery and comes round often, leaving drifts of her impossibly long fur everywhere. Better she visits in the garden.
Food, of course, rears its delicious head every June, when John and I find ourselves taking up our tickets to “Taste of London.” Every year I look forward greatly to this afternoon of gluttony, and this year, under a bright blue sky, the food did not disappoint.
Sweetbreads “popcorn” with Worcestershire mousse!
These were crunchy, soft, savoury. Made me want to buy some sweetbreads and start experimenting.
What could be better than ceviche of scallops? With dainty pickled cucumber towers.
The best dish, we thought? Crab and single-malt scotch soup, with a crab and cold butter “lollipop.”
The concept of this dish is deeply pleasing: it’s a very hot soup, into which you dip a very cold “lollipop” on a stick. The lollipop consists of white crab, beautifully blended with butter and chilled. When you stir the lollipop in the soup, it melts and disperses its crab in a buttery wave throughout the whole dish. Just amazing. I shall certainly try a version of this for us, very soon.
But funnily enough, the dish that served as the most immediate inspiration to me was a dish we didn’t even sample at Taste! I saw the title “Prawn Burger” too late: we were completely stuffed! But it was just the work of a moment to give it a think and come up with a quite perfect recipe.
Thai Shrimp Burgers
1 lb/450g raw shrimp
1/2 cup/30g Panko breadcrumbs
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 lemon
1 medium-hot red chilli, finely chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
1-inch knob ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
handful chives, finely chopped
handful cilantro/coriander, leaves only, finely chopped
juices of lime and lemon
tiny squirt clear honey
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp mirin
plenty fresh black pepper
sprinkle sea salt
4 bread rolls
3 tbsps mayonnaise
squirt hot chilli sauce, to taste
4 handfuls arugula/rocket
In a food processor, pulse the shrimp until the texture of ground meat. Tip into a largeish bowl and sprinkle on all the ingredients up to the juices. In a small bowl, mix the juices, honey, Worcestershire and fish sauces and mirin, then pour over the shrimp and mix everything well. Form into four burgers and sprinkle with the pepper and salt. Set in fridge, covered with plastic wrap, for at least an hour, but up to six.
Heat your grill to 400F/200C and grill four about 5 minutes per side. More reliable than timing is the way the burger feels. Pressed with your fingertip, it should have the resistance of the tip of your nose. Err on the side of cooking longer as you really don’t want undercooked shrimp. At the end of the cooking time, cut the rolls in half, remove as much of the inside bread as possible and save for bread crumbs later. Grill the rolls cut side down till crisp.
Mix the mayonnaise and chilli sauce to the hotness you like. On each open roll, pack in the arugula. Top with the burgers and a dollop of spicy mayo, and close with the top half of the roll.
Oh, the flavors of this burger! Fresh, spicy, exotic. And the texture: soft, but firm enough to survive their exposure on the grill. What a good idea these burgers are. I can picture doing them VERY tiny, on a lettuce leaf, as an appetizer for a dinner party.
I would have taken them with me for EITHER of the glorious Lost Property lunches that have been given for me, but… I wasn’t allowed to bring anything to EITHER of them! First, my darling friend Fiona hosted our whole group, all the current volunteers. Oh, the gorgeous food, the laughter, the remembered fun of dirty lacrosse boots finding their mates. What a gift Lost Property has been to me, all these seven years: a reason to be in school and see Avery, a seat at the Parents’ Guild meeting, a way to be part of that wonderful, wonderful school.
And their delightful gift to me: this sweet bag, signed by them all. To help keep me organised!
And then dear Emma, my oldest friend from Lost Property, gave another lunch for a small group of us representing the past and the future. How lucky I am to know that my beloved group of volunteers will be cared for by Fiona and Rebecca.
Oh, the menu! Roasted salmon with spinach and asparagus, quinoa with mango and pomegranate, tomatoes with mint and preserved lemon, all rounded off with an incredible lemon meringue ice cream and apricot tart.
There is simply nothing more comforting than the company of like-minded friends in times of big life changes — saying goodbye to the school that has been such a joy for all of us. These are friends with older children who can reassure me that life goes on, friends with younger children who are still deep in the throes of all the hard work and decision-making that results in an adult child.
It was a wonderful afternoon.
And our child is adult. We turned up at school for “Valediction,” the English version of graduation. The reason that “graduation” doesn’t apply is simple, and rather diabolical. Avery’s exam results don’t come through until mid-August, and university offers are no more than that: they are offers, contingent on those exam results. Now, there is no doubt that Avery will do just fine on her results, and she’ll be off to Oxford in the autumn as planned. But until those results come through, there’s really no closure. The school has in recent years come to realise that parents (perhaps particularly American parents) like a bit of fuss, so they invited us all to school, into the aptly-named “Great Hall,” to thank the girls for their hard work, the parents for their time and support.
What an emotional afternoon. We sat with dear, dear friends, parents of Avery’s closest friends, on either side of us, I clutching a tissue in the certain expectation that I would cry (I did, as quietly as I could). Tutor group by tutor group, the girls crossed the stage to shake the High Mistress’s hand and receive a book and a brooch with the school crest. Their future plans were announced. The High Mistress spoke, then the Master of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, the owners of the school, spoke (she’s a lady, for the first time in 700 years). The President of the Mercers spoke. The Head Girl spoke. Through it all, I could only try not to become overwhelmed by the memories of the little girl, eyes wide with anticipation, fear and delight, that we delivered to this magical institution seven years ago.
The next evening, she dressed up for the Leavers’ Ball, a swishy affair at a Piccadilly hotel. How lovely she looked.
At the close of this eventful month, we all take a deep breath of gratitude for all the planted seeds — Avery most of all — and the beautiful blooms they have become.
And so it’s finally June. The month of roses, clearly. And buttercups, who open bravely each morning, and then fold their tiny petals at dusk. I won’t let John cut the grass, not until they’ve had a little chance at life.
And what on earth is this bizarre flower, a combination of Victorian fashion and cake decoration?
‘Tis the season as well for one of England’s cherished early summer delights, the fresh pea.
I want to like peas, I really do. Avery adores them. So I conscientiously bought a huge bag of the fresh pods and laboriously shelled them all, only to end up with a very small number of actual peas and a reminder that I am just not a fan. Still, it’s June, so I did my bit. I consoled myself with a beautiful fillet steak and a truly simple Bearnaise sauce. Don’t scare yourself with double boilers and the like. Just jump in and enjoy.
Simple Bearnaise Sauce
225g/1 cup (two sticks) butter
3 tbsps white wine vinegar
1 tsp white wine
1 banana shallot, finely chopped
12 tarragon leaves, finely chopped
3 egg yolks
fresh black pepper and salt to taste
Put the butter in a small saucepan to melt very slowly. Some recipes have you clarify the butter, but I have never known why: the whey is perfectly delicious, in my opinion. Meanwhile, place the vinegar, wine, shallot and tarragon in another small saucepan and simmer gently until the mixture reduces just a bit. Leave to cool while you separate the eggs, then put the butter, wine mixture and egg yolks in a small food processor and blend until smooth. Season to taste and serve hot. If you have to reheat any leftover sauce, do it extremely gently, as this sauce will split in an instant if treated harshly.
I’ve been tremendously inspired to cook some new things by a visit to one of the most sublime restaurants we have ever encountered, Manchester House. Oh yes, did I forget to tell you we went to Manchester? For LUNCH. I’ll explain.
Last year, the BBC aired a programme called Restaurant Wars, in which two star chefs arrived in Manchester to see if they could open a restaurant that would win a Michelin star. I’ll put in my two cents right at the beginning of this tale: I could not care less whether a restaurant has such an accolade. I can’t imagine being dictated to by some professional critic as to what food deserves my attention, and the idea of competing for deliciousness is just ludicrous to me.
But chefs do care, at least these two did. So Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne arrived in the great northern city, famously unsupportive of fancy places to eat, and set about to wow the populace. Their styles, both personal and culinary, were very different and we felt quite sure that we would love the food prepared by Byrne, a mild, soft-spoken, precise man who had had professional disappointments and was filled with ambition.
I would not probably have gone all the way to Manchester for lunch but for the coincidence of a tremendous art exhibition I was dying to see. Do you know the Whitworth Gallery, and the divine Cornelia Parker? Her work is all about taking things apart and putting them back together in mind-blowing ways.
Oh, SO worth a trip almost anywhere, Cornelia is. So off we went, leaving Avery to her own devices, which in these boring pre-exam days seem to be filled only with index cards.
Ever since our adventure in Zurich this winter, we’ve been determined to do more things just the two of us, and Manchester was just what the doctor ordered: a few hours on a comfortable train, speeding north through the beautiful English countryside, ending up in a great city with a completely different accent to what we hear down South, against a backdrop of industrial architecture.
There is just something brilliant about getting out of the daily routine, daily chores, and the daily scene, even just overnight. Freed from the responsibilities of kitchen, laundry, pets, and computer, we gazed around at our new surroundings, hopped on a very foreign-seeming bus, asked directions from strangers. At the restaurant, we settled down to truly enjoy ourselves, and our gourmet lunch.
Things I couldn’t even imagine knowing how to cook! After writing a cookbook, that’s a challenge: finding something I really couldn’t make at home. But Manchester House fed us dish after dish that was just that: unimaginable. “Chicken butter”! Made by cooking a chicken in a pressure cooker for several days to bring it to “chicken essence,” then blending it with homemade butter, and topping it with dehydrated, powdered chicken skin. heaven!
And a smoked foie gras parfait, served in a perfect egg shell, topped with pea puree and tiny, halved fresh peas.
These delights were followed by a perfect sea bream fillet with langoustines smoked in pine oil, with the ultimate CARROT, blanched in carrot essence and served with carrot butter. Heaven.
We had to roll ourselves out of the restaurant, talking a mile a minute about the meal, enjoying a tour around the city’s magnificent Chinatown. John is so tolerant of my desire to enter every single supermarket, wondering if I might find a still better chilli and garlic sauce than the one I have at home, pinching heads of garlic, assessing the relative spiciness of bags of peppers. Food shopping: always perfect fun.
We collapsed with cocktails at the hotel and I enjoyed the rare feeling of freedom from the kitchen: no prep, no timings, no mess. Very late, we wandered out and had a gorgeous, sizzling, spicy Korean meal of “jat bulgogi,” a Korean barbecued beef, and “bibimbap,” a mixture of fried rice, cabbage and egg. We weren’t even really hungry, but the fun of eating two meals out in one day was not to be missed.
Next day we braved the rain to walk through the city via the University, a really lovely campusy place with a very vibrant feeling. Among its beautiful buildings we found the Whitworth Gallery and the Parker show. She is among a handful of artists whose work leaves me speechless with admiration.
The hallmark of her work is a desire to take things apart, to empty them, transform them, flatten or wrap them, or often to show what is NOT there. Take this stunning installation, for example.
This is an entire room lined in the reams of paper left behind when the Remembrance Poppies are cut from them. So the shape, of such iconic significance, is in its negative form, the white space left behind after the manufacturing process.
There is such humor, too!
When Parker worked as an assistant at the Tate Gallery, Rodin had fallen out of favor and this precious group, “The Kiss,” was simply left in storage, forgotten. Parker asked permission to wrap it in a mile of rope, and permission was given.
What a show. “Drawings” made from bullets melted down and turned into wire, threaded through handmade paper.
The imagination, the sheer love of process, the joy in the unexpected. Quite a lot like our lunch the previous day, actually! Ingredients that have been taken out of context, treated in a way you’d never imagined, presented in a way that highlights the endless possibilities of every element. What an art form, whether in food or in paper, or bullets.
Isn’t that the fun of culture, after all? Seeing what someone vastly more imaginative than I can do with the elements of life that we all have around us.
We came home in a haze of appreciation, and the very next day popped off to the divine “Old Vic” with Avery to see one of our family’s absolute favorite movies, only on stage, LIVE! High Society, what a joy. The Old Vic is now coming to end of its tenure under Kevin Spacey’s direction, and this was a massively fitting celebration. Staged in the round, and we had front-row tickets! The dancers’ dresses brushed our knees. Oh, the music. “True Love,” my childhood in a song.
Isn’t it wonderful to watch and hear incredibly talented people at the top of their game? Joe Stilgoe, a mind-bogglingly talented pianist and singer, opened the musical with a completely clever, spontaneous mash-up of ANY song that an audience member might suggest! Can you imagine the talent? Go, if you can.
All this exposure to creative people pushing the envelope led me — don’t laugh — to enter the kitchen with a renewed sense of purpose! Why complain about the quality of things I buy in the grocery store, when I can make them myself, and SO much better? I began with a family favorite.
450g/1 lb fresh salmon fillet
85g/5 tbsps granulated sugar
70g/4 tbsps Maldon salt
2 tbsps vodka
juice of 1 lemon or lime
2 tsps fresh black pepper
100g/3½ ounces fresh dill
Lay the salmon fillet in a plastic box with a close-fitting lid, or a Ziplock bag. Mix all the other ingredients well and pour over the salmon. Cover, or zip shut, and refrigerate for at least 48 hours, turning once.
When you are ready to eat the gravadlax, remove the salmon from the marinade and lay on a cutting board. With a very sharp knife, cut in very thin slices, at an angle across the top of the fillet. Serve plain, or on a bagel with all the trimmings.
The quality of this fish was beyond anything I had ever purchased, for the simple reason that I was able to buy the highest quality possible fresh salmon. Who knows if commercial preparers are willing to spend for the best, when the perception may be that the curing process will cover any deficiencies? As well, the fresh slicing is a boon. The fish was soft as could be, and highly flavorful.
The bagel was just awful. A supermarket variety, since I had no opportunity to visit a specialist delicatessen or a Jewish neighborhood. And suddenly I thought, “What on earth is stopping me making bagels at home?” The answer to that question was “absolutely nothing.” Because this was a baking project, and therefore scientific and requiring strict following of instructions, I did just that, and you should too. Easy-peasy, from this lovely blog, “The Sophisticated Gourmet.” I’ll reproduce the instructions here, with my little addendums. You’ll need to have what’s called a “stand mixer,” in my opinion, unless you’re a truly experienced kneader. I borrowed my friend Fiona’s Kitchen Aid, and now I’d really like one of my own.
2 tsps (one envelope) active dry yeast
1 ½ tbsps granulated sugar
355 ml/1 ¼ cups warm water (you may need ¼ cup more, depending on climatic conditions)
500g/3.5 cups strong bread flour or high-gluten flour (will need extra for kneading
1 ½ teaspoons salt
In a cup, place the yeast, sugar and 125 ml/1/2 cup of the warm water. Leave for five minutes without stirring, then stir thoroughly.
Place the flour in the bowl of the stand mixer, and make a well in the center. Pour in the yeast mixture, lower the bread-making blade into the bowl and turn on low. Gradually add the remaining warm water as the mixer works, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. After several minutes the dough will be so stiff that the mixer makes small thumping movements and noises. Don’t worry! The goal is to incorporate all the flour for a very stiff dough, so add more warm water as you need to, to form such a dough. It was such fun, using my friend Fiona’s machine and my mother’s flour canister, a wedding present over 50 years ago.
When the dough is ready, place it in an oiled bowl at least twice as large as the dough. Turn the ball of dough so that it is all covered with oil. Cover with cling film or a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place for at least an hour (I left mine for over six hours as I was out of the house). Punch down and on a floured surface, divide into eight equal portions.
Roll them into as perfect balls as you can attain, then with a flour thumb, make a hole in the center and spin the dough around your thumb until you have a… bagel! Place them on an oiled baking tray.
Cover them with a damp towel and let rest for 10 minutes. Heat your oven to 220C/425F.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then place as many bagels as can fit in a single layer into the bubbling water. Boil for 2 minutes, then turn over and boil for another 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to the oiled baking tray and continue until all bagels are boiled.
Now, while they are wet, you can choose whether to bake them plain, or sprinkle them with toppings. Sea salt is perfect, of course, but other wonderful ideas are:
sesame seeds (black or blond)
dehydrated minced onions, garlic
The classic New York “everything bagel” is just what it says on the tin: everything on this list.
Bake the bagels for about 20 minutes, to the brownness you like. Sit back and feel homesick for New York City, then dig in.
Now of course you’ll note that by the time I made my bagels, I had run out of my precious gravadlax, and so resorted to very posh plain smoked salmon from Fortnum’s. Next time I’ll time my projects so I have both elements of the perfect brunch in place, all at once.
And while you have that borrowed Kitchen Aid mixer, go on. Do something special for your daughter studying for her exams. Make her proper doughnuts.
New Orleans Beignets
(makes about 4 dozen, so you can pop some of the dough in the freezer, or share with your friend who loaned you the Kitchen Aid mixer)
2 tsps (1 envelope) active dry yeast
125 ml/1/2 cup water at precisely 46C/115F
1 tsp granulated sugar
250 ml/1 cup evaporated milk
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
1 tsp salt
112g/1/2 cup granulated sugar
250 ml/1 cup water at precisely 46C/115F
55g/1/4 cup butter
900g/7 cups plain/all-purpose flour
In the bowl of the stand mixer, place the yeast, warm water, and 1 tsp sugar. Mix well and leave to sit five minutes. Add milk, eggs, salt and sugar and mix well.
Microwave second quantity of water until the precise temperature is reached, then melt the butter in it. Add to the yeast mixture and on low power, mix well. Gradually add the flour until a sticky dough is reached (you may not need the last 125g/cup or so). Place in an oiled bowl and turn the dough so it is all oiled, then cover tightly with cling film and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, but up to 1 week.
Grab a handful of this dough and place onto a well-floured surface, then flour the dough further. Roll out to half-centimeter/1/4″ thick and cut into squares of your desired size, with a pizza cutter. Bring oil in your frying pan or deep-fryer to 180C/350F and fry the beignets on one side for about 1 minute, or until golden brown, then turn and fry another minute, or until golden brown. Remove to a cooling rack and dust with icing sugar.
At this point, you can see that the beignets are a bit hollow inside, so if you feel inclined you can pipe in some Nutella or whipped cream, or slip in a slice of ripe peach or two. I have a mind to substitute some melty cheese for the evaporated milk in this recipe, and produce some savoury beignets, perhaps filled with sausage?
You see, once you get out there, see what other brilliant people are making with their energy, it’s but the work of a moment to make something yourself. Go on, be inspired.
It is a beautiful spring day here in London, edging ever closer, day by day, to true summer. The churchyard is hung with bunting to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, whose signing took place in Runnymede, and one of whose signers, Bishop Langton, came through our neighborhood on his way home, and sanctified our church chapel. 800 years ago. That is history.
It’s helpful to focus on the REALLY long game, because I won’t lie to you. I’m finding the big picture of my own small life at the moment to be a bit challenging.
It’s the forest that’s getting to me. The trees themselves are perfectly lovely: Avery is in the last month of her much-appreciated secondary education, doing well, anticipating the excitement of university in October, after a summer of blissful travel. She is ready to leave.
John is in the throes of applying for permissions for the details of our dream house, to be built in the coming two or three years at the foot of Tower Bridge. It’s an unbelievably complex process, a drama peopled by seemingly ever-increasing numbers of advisors, engineers, architects, planners. He is very ambitious, and very positive. He is inventing a business.
I myself am still basking in the glow of the finished cookbook, hearing almost every day reports by Facebook and email of things my friends are cooking, taking to potlucks, dishes that are becoming Friday-night staples, most-requested family dishes, new birthday traditions. The recipes, the photographs, and the stories in the book have become part of people’s lives. I couldn’t have predicted the wide range of sheer FUN everyone is having with the book, all over the world. It is a dream come true.
Even Tina the Wonder Dog, my friend Alyssa’s partner in crime, isn’t immune to the book’s charms.
And my bell-ringing! Would you ever have believed, when I started regaling you with my ambitions and adventures in the belfry four years ago, that I’d still be at it? That I would be thriving and still learning, but amazingly, accomplished enough to help others learn? A massive milestone on Saturday: I gave my first lesson to a new learner.
It seems very recent that I myself was learning, the tail stroke and sally stroke rung separately, my dear teachers Andrew, Trisha and Eddie devoted to my progress. Of course every week I still need to learn something new myself, but to be in a place where I can pass along even a tiny piece of wisdom? That feels very good.
So what can I possibly have to worry me? It’s to do with the threads I’ve woven around me.
It’s part of my dark, twisty Scandinavian nature to value things to the precise extent that I’ll be heartbroken when they’re over. I’ll miss Avery’s school — and my place in it — terribly, come autumn. This will be the first autumn since I was five years old that my life won’t revolve around a school. I went straight from school as a student to school as a professor, to school as a mother. What on earth will happen to that part of me that sees autumn as a beginning? I don’t think that the mother of a university “fresher” counts as a school mother, any more.
I really can’t even think of not having her here, either. The loosening of that particular thread will take a lot of getting used to. If I hadn’t tied it so tightly, it would be easier. But ties aren’t really made to be loose, are they? Slipknots are a cheat. You have to tie real knots, but then be ready to undo them, when you need to.
Of course I’m excited for John to have his project looming so large, and I’m incredibly proud of what he’s achieved already, against so many odds. I know I will love our eventual dream home. But I love the home I have now, in my secure little village with its small, cosy shops filled with people who ask how I am, what I’m cooking. I love my church, my belltower, scene of such drama, learning and just plain good fun.
I know I’ve been happy in other places, in fact in all the other places in my past. Every time we move, every time things change, I vow for a brief moment not to get so involved, not to get so wrapped up in the new life, the new people, the new community. But each time, I find myself falling in love. I find myself at the Church Hall with eight other ladies, scraping snails off 90 wineglasses and dinner plates, since they were stored outdoors in a cardboard box that disintegrated in the English rain. We will need them all for a parishioner’s 95th birthday, next month.
I want to be a person who sees five people she knows on her bike ride home from yoga, and for her yoga teacher’s mom to be a trustee at Home-Start, where I’ve put so much of my heart. I like to put down roots, connect things, to belong. If I were a knitter, I’d make myself the kind of warm sweater I like to wear.
Houses, too. They change. But I like this place, the warmth and love I’ve poured into this home, the dining table that has been the scene of so many beautiful dinners, but also — as now — the locus of all Avery’s schoolwork, exam after exam. How hard she has worked, here.
This is the place that gave birth to my beloved “Tonight at 7.30″! It was here that the vast bulk of the photographs were taken by Avery, in the sunny garden, in the lightbox in the crowded laundry room, on the stovetop with savoury things bubbling away. It was here that the hilarious “dropping of the turkey” at the Kickstarter video day took place, and here that I slaved over the design of every paragraph, the sweet aprons, the back-breaking index, the passionate Kickstarter campaign, the packing of the parcels to mail around the world.
I hate to say goodbye to any of it, the memories that fill this house, and my life in it.
Naturally, the thing to do when I’m already feeling sad and nostalgic is to spend an entire afternoon positively wallowing in the past. Oh, the stack of photo albums.
It is only in the last couple of years that I’ve stopped putting all our photographs into albums. John’s mother dotes on this pile whenever (wherever) she comes to visit, and her time with us isn’t complete until she’s gone through every single page of every single album, sticky with photo glue, representing every stage of our lives from marriage until just the last year or two, when it began to feel a bit odd to memorialise the lives of middle-aged people and their nearly-adult daughter. Sigh.
Actually, I found the process of looking through the stack quite comforting. Rather than feeling melancholy over the passage of time, I felt really grateful for all the fun we’ve had, with the small child we enjoyed so much, in all the places we’ve lived and thrived, with all the characters who have peopled the drama. Here are just a few…
Christmas in Indianapolis, with my mother and Wishbone, a pal from baby days.
Avery, Annabelle and Elliot, her “nearly cousins,” out picking apples on a sparkling October day in New York State.
Me, Mia and Joel, the “client” and the creators, of our lovely New York loft.
Avery in a library in Waterloo, Iowa, during an idyllic summer visit.
Avery and her dad in an earlier summer in Iowa, posing on the golf course.
Another happy moment, that same evening.
Avery with Vincent’s little girls, all talented photographers now, descended from the photographer fathers.
Me, in our New York Broadway apartment of a lifetime ago, playing with the little girl next door who inspired us to have Avery.
A millennium bash, the dinner party to end all dinner parties, 2000.
Posing with friends at the most glamorous wedding ever, back in the five minutes, circa 1996, when smoking a cigar was actually cool.
This hilarious shot of Avery, aged perhaps five, the first recorded moment (of MANY) of her reacting with indignation at something she’s read in the paper.
Basking in the sunshine in a riyadh, in Marakkesh.
A long-ago birthday party, without a care in the world.
The next 20 years of our lives won’t be lovingly photographed in quite the same way that the past 20 have been, I know that. This is the calm before the storm, the last few months before everything changes, before the focus shifts and the kaleidoscope settles into a new pattern.
The thing about relationships, whether they’re with schools, or homes, belfries or children, is that you can’t insulate yourself from the heartache of things changing. You have to throw yourself heart and soul into the relationships as they grow, enjoying every bit that you can, and be ready to let go when the time comes.
I must find a way to enjoy the forest AND the trees, and this single peony in my garden. After all, it’s in the nature of a garden, and a peony in particular, to be temporary. But it’s still important to love them. And then gather my energy to tie a few new knots.
It’s that time of year again…
The Gathering of Nuts in May, that annual celebration of gluttony – or gastronomy, as my Nuts and I choose to think of it – shared by a half dozen or so aspiring food writers, reunited every May after our 2008 adventure with the Arvon Foundation, at Totleigh Barton, a pre-Domesday whitewashed house in the wilds of Devon.
Who would ever have predicted that we six, survivors of the original 15 writers who gathered in the wilds of Devon seven years ago, for five days of instruction by our tutors (some of it painfully, even brutally honest!). Oh, the hours we spent honing our craft.
What happy memories we all have of our shared experiments in learning, writing, reading, reading aloud what we’d written, in an ancient English barn.
Funnily enough, the least of our adventure back then was in the eating! Arvon arranges for its students to cook together every evening, in teams, but little did we know that for a weekend every May ever since, those diehards among us would eventually think of virtually nothing BUT cooking, for the several days we spend together. Our memories of our first meeting are bright, if fuzzy.
At our reunions, we are unabashedly obsessed with food. There’s the shopping. And the eating. And the talking about shopping and cooking and eating. We none of us finish a meal without instantly talking about where the next one is coming from, what it will be, who will cook it. It’s a recipe for intense boredom for most people I know – including my long-suffering family! – but for we six, it’s heaven. Kristen, Rosie, Sam, Susan, Pauline and Katie: the GNIM.
And for the last several years, we’ve been joined by one of our original tutors, the divine Orlando, such a staunch supporter of all our work from Day One, generous writer of one of the “blurbs” on my cookbook flap, cook extraordinaire and writer to match. Even with a flower behind his ear.
This year, Orlando offered to pick me up at the train station closest to our destination – a truly remarkable house found by our Susan, in Ilfracombe, coastal Devon. This sort of favor isn’t really properly appreciated until I tell you what burdens I labored under. Because the Friday night plan, on our precious weekends, is for me to bring the supper and Rosie to bring the pudding, I had with me a large crustless tart containing a wealth of white crab meat and lashings of cream and goat cheese, plus a plastic box of delicate potato salad, made with new Jersey Royals just dug out of the ground. Not by me, of course, but fresh nonetheless. So it was most welcome when Orlando’s car pulled up at the local train station and we motored on over to the coast.
This was our view from the sitting room of The Round House, which was just what it said on the tin.
Built on a dare from one architect to another, The Round House is truly round. Curved everywhere.
Inside, it’s large enough that its roundness isn’t immediately noticeable, especially in the spacious sitting room, furnished like the very best Edwardian retreat.
We were astonished at the sheer wealth of THINGS that the owners left behind, so vulnerable to the average renter.
Furniture simply overflowing with precious things.
Some verged on the creepy, in an entirely charming way.
Rosie, Susan and Pauline greeted us and began to give us a tour, but before we could properly settle in, of course, provisions of a lavish nature had to be delivered.
Oh, the butter, the cream, the eggs, bacon, olive oil, lemons and limes, garlic and onions, bread, marmalade, coffee. The basics, so that we could focus our considerable food-gathering talents on the Stars of the Show each meal: the fresh meats and vegetables bought locally, for the maximum in fun.
Rooms were apportioned, luggage stowed, hands washed, and Orlando and I set out on a voyage of discovery in the nearby town of Ilfracombe, pronounced “coom.” Here we searched in vain for a wine shop, armed with Orlando’s phone video of Rosie’s describing precisely the type of cider she would most like to drink. We played this video for the young woman behind the till in the shop that finally yielded up the cider. “You can see that this is not a woman to be trifled with,” Orlando explained. The young woman backed away from us. “I think she was tapping her foot on some sort of panic button, there at the end,” he hazarded. “We might just have crossed that border from friendly to frightening.”
Ilfracombe itself was a little… odd. A bit of a town that time forgot, with all unique and rather tired, dusty shops containing a plethora of odd items.
More on the town later, as it was time to settle in at The Round House.
As the afternoon came to a close, up drove the gorgeous Sam, still in his work clothes and extremely glad to have left his students behind for the long weekend.
Orlando and Sam have a unique bond, forged in years gone by in the hot kitchens of Orlando’s luxury hotel.
Everyone feels better after the first hug from Rosie.
And then came our beautiful, calm Katie, fresh from the rigors of the Britvic invention labs.
“Roomie!” she cried, arms around me. We always room together, even if we don’t stay up half the night as we used to do, younger selves who didn’t know each other quite well enough.
And it was time to pour drinks, catch up with everyone’s news. Rosie has had a spell of feeling poorly and I think we all shared the sense of fragile relief that she is well, and with us for the celebratory weekend. She looked over the plans of Potters Fields with Orlando, discussing the kitchen, of course.
We munched on a selection of cured meats, a treat I would never normally think to buy, but so delicious, in the way that only something so purely fatty can be. The platter rested near a certain cookbook that everyone was truly lovely about: the culmination of the project that, when we first met nearly eight years ago, was but a dream, the reason for my turning up at the food writers’ course.
Susan brought out her super surprise: one of the new decorated cakes in the Marks and Spencer line she’s been proudly working on.
Personalised for us!
We trooped into the elaborate dining room for our inaugural supper. I brought along a special little touch.
We greatly enjoyed the crab tart.
But is it a tart, if it’s crustless? We discussed this with the level of detail that only seven such insane people can bring to a topic. “Strictly speaking, a tart does imply pastry,” was the general consensus. “It could be a frittata,” I said, “except that it doesn’t start on the stovetop.” “How about a quiche?” “That’s really a specific term for a type of tart from Eastern France,” Orlando clarified. “A tartine?” All very absorbing conversation.
We ate it all.
The potato salad came under similar scrutiny for the level of mayonnaise-y-ness. “I don’t really think there’s enough mayo,” I apologized, “but I left some home for Avery and she really hates gloppy potato salad.” “It may have soaked up some in the journey,” was suggested, and the general feeling was that any deficiency in the mayo was made up for by the delicacy of the potatoes and the zing of lemon grass.
Then Rosie brought in her divine chocolate mousse, the absolute star of the dessert section of my cookbook. Where I serve mine in a champagne coupe, she serves hers in a gorgeous loaf, topped with biscuits and accompanied by luxurious shots of Amaretto.
We lay becalmed on the living room rug, talking and talking over each other until the prospect of a good night’s sleep beckoned.
Next morning found us fretting that the Duchess of Cambridge had gone into labor. We assuaged our anxiety with huge numbers of poached eggs (a pot of simmering water remained on the stovetop for the duration of breakfast, growing progressively cloudier as eggs of various levels of proficiency were popped in and scooped out. Orlando was the king of poaching, everyone turning out perfectly. Bacon and juicy sausages, fried mushrooms and tomatoes, bread of every description toasted and slathered with butter and jam. And there were Orlando’s incomparable brownies.
Orlando’s ‘After-Dinner’ Brownies (from his “A Table in the Tarn: Living, Eating and Cooking in South-west France”)
(makes about 36 small brownies)
85g/6.5 ounces unsalted butter
285g/10 ounces dark chocolate, broken up into small bits
85g/3 ounces plain flour
40g/1.5 ounces cocoa
100g/3.5 ounces walnuts or pecans, cut in pieces and toasted lightly in a frying pan
3 large eggs
275g/9.75 ounces caster/granulated sugar
“Carnation” tinned caramel sauce for drizzling
Melt the butter with the 185g chocolate (that portion that’s been broken up), either over hot water or in the microwave (about 2 minutes on high).
Sift the flour, cocoa and a pinch of salt into a bowl, then add the nuts. Keep the sieve conveniently to hand.
Whisk the eggs and sugar together, using a stand mixer or electric whisk, for 3–8 minutes (depending on how powerful your mixer is) until thick and foamy. When you lift out the beaters, the egg should leave a short-lived trail on the surface of the mixture rather than sink straight into it.
Pour the chocolate mixture over the surface of the egg mixture, then gently fold in with a large spatula until evenly mixed. Now sift over the flour-cocoa mixture and start to fold this in. Before it is fully amalgamated, tip in the remaining chocolate that you’ve left in small squares. Continue folding, stopping just before the flour is fully mixed (you should spot some flecks of unmixed flour — trust me, this is correct).
Bake in a 20cm/8-inch square tin at 180C/350F for 22–30 minutes until the cake no longer wobbles in the middle and the sides are just beginning to come away from the tin. A toothpick or skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should emerge with sticky crumbs attached (unless you accidentally speared a piece of chocolate in which case try again.
[Orlando assures me privately — and now you know — of a couple of secrets. “You must get the egg-sugar mixture truly mousse-like. Fold in the choc mix and flour gently, stop mixing while there are still light traces of flour evident. And as always, underbake, and as Katharine Hepburn said, ‘Never add too much flour to your brownies.’”]
Dishes done, it was time to begin the journey into town for lunch! To be fair, we also intended to shop for the evening’s “protein” and vegetables. Pauline, Katie and I set off on foot. Oh, the lovely Devon architecture.
And unparalleled floral displays, set into the rather tired, old-fashioned hotel and guesthouse lawns.
Ilfracombe. How to describe it? For a seaside resort, on a Bank Holiday weekend, it seemed oddly muted and certainly not flashy or full of itself. The narrow pavements (what the British call sidewalks) were chock-a-block with locals carrying children, doing their weekend shop, talking in an accent that I found truly challenging unless the person was talking directly to me. The local Green Party occupied space outside one shop, extolling their virtues for the upcoming General Election on Thursday. Sam succumbed.
We acquired a gorgeous slab of pork belly and a couple of roasting chickens from a simply fantastic butcher, Mike Turton, since 1855.
Food always tastes better if the purveyor has a sense of humor.
Susan always achieves the very best bargains.
“It’s a GIRL!” Orlando announced suddenly, his first and last show of interest in the new Royal Baby, and talk of baby names occupied us for the duration of our shopping trip. Oh, the shops. One seemed to have a rather low bar for mercantile appeal.
We all tried to imagine what this empty shop might once have offered.
This bakery seemed positively steeped in the past, with pastries named things like “Japs.”
This restaurant… not sure what to say about its menu.
We heard tell of a Farmer’s Market.
“We should go quickly, in case they sell out early,” Pauline advised, so we began what devolved into the Ilfracombe Market Death March, up one street and down another, searching in vain for a clue to the market’s location. Locals were quizzed, and their patent ignorance taken to be a bad sign. “How much of a market can it be if no one knows about it?” We entertained ourselves during this Quixotic trek with the shop names and often hand-painted signs. Finally we began walking up a hill so steep our noses were practically on the pavement, in search of the church allegedly containing the market.
In light of the new Royal Arrival, we felt this street sign to be fortuitous.
And there was the church! In we trooped, in hot anticipation, our eyes adjusting to a truly extraordinary gloom inside. I wish I had taken pictures, the scene was so odd, but we were already attracting such attention as obvious “Londoners” that I felt inhibited. Oh, the sad displays of a few scones. ‘I’ve sold out of most,” the seller assured us proudly. Hmm. One single sweater for sale, accompanied by a random pile of yarn that could possibly produce another. Under a sign saying, “Organic Meat,” a Styrofoam box containing three frozen lamb chops. And most bizarrely, a girl with a distinct American accent standing behind a table with four boxes of local eggs.
“I have to ask: where are you from and what are you doing here?” I wondered. “I’m from California, and I’m here on a sheep-farming internship.” She must have felt she had landed on Mars. All around in the air hung the silence of the sellers all scrutinizing us openly, while 1940s music played from an invisible Victrola. We left.
And then it was time to walk down the long, LONG steep hill again, to achieve the seaside.
We bought fudge and Ilfracombe rock, that unique and funny British seaside candy with the name of the locality built into the long stick.
We claimed two slightly sticky tables at a fishy pub, The Pier, that spoke clearly of sunny summer days full of tourists.
On our grey, windy, rather damp Saturday in May, it felt a bit out of place. But the fried cod was divine.
The local cider was not to be despised.
It was a lovely lunch.
We investigated the bizarre and massive sculpture, “Verity” by Damien Hirst, at the end of the pier. Unsurprisingly, it is reported that she’s divided the town. “She’s standing on a pile of law books,” Pauline reported in some astonishment.
Nothing, after all, says law and order like a pregnant naked lady holding scales with half the skin on her belly pulled off.
Sam and Orlando drove Rosie and Susan home, while Katie, Pauline and I decided to give the town a bit more time. We walked in a drizzly wind around the more touristy parts, near the sea (“NOT an ocean,” Orlando corrected me more than once. To a landlocked Midwesterner, all water is an ocean.) I was reminded that English is, in fact, a foreign language. I was happy to have translators. “What’s a knickerbocker glory?” I asked. “A huge ice cream,” Katie said. “How about a saveloy?” “A giant red sausage,” she explained. “With batter? Deep-fried?” Pauline wondered. We did not know.
“What’s the difference between a Cornish cream tea and a Devon cream tea?” we all wondered, and a lovely young couple, offering samples of just such treats, answered. “A Cornish cream tea has the jam first, then the cream. A Devon cream tea has the clotted cream spread on the scone first, then the jam. And that’s what you’ve got there.”
We walked home slowly, pausing in the graveyard of the church on our way. I came upon my first knitted poppies, a fine English tradition.
Did you know there is a British activist group who knits GRAFFITI? “Yarnbombing, or yarnstorming,” it is known as. What a typically clever, subversive, subtle, many-layered way that this country finds to express itself.
We approached the church.
“I emailed them to ask if I could ring with them,” I said, “but no one ever replied. Just then, as if summoned by my words, the bells began to ring!
As I was explaining “Devon call changes” to Pauline and Katie who probably had absolutely no interest, a bride and groom emerged from the church door!
The charm of this encounter got us up the incredibly stiff hill that awaited us at the end of the walk home. I tried to capture the steepness, but I can see now that I did not succeed. But it was a lovely path.
We were so glad to arrive home, panting!
We took a tour of the incredible, award-winning gardens that surround The Round House. Orlando and Rosie between them knew all the names of the plants and flowers.
Knowing less than nothing about growing things, I concentrated on the garden decorations.
Water features abounded.
What would an English garden be without a gnome?
The flowers WERE lovely.
But the people were lovelier.
We posed, elaborately and repetitively, for our annual photo. Sam turned on the timer and raced back to us. “I’ve cut my head off!”
Sam is the best little brother I never had.
As our pork belly cooked slowly on its bed of carrots, celery, garlic and rosemary, Jersey Royal potatoes boiled merrily, my beetroots cooking in their foil wrappings, and Pauline’s cumin-dusted cauliflower roasted, we sat up in the rotunda of The Round House and chatted, cocktails in hand.
Susan and Orlando discussed, from their various vantage points of a nursing stint and a growing-up spent there, the Island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, and home to a truly horrifying-sounding museum, the Jersey War Tunnels, chronicling the treatment of the Russian slaves by their German captors.
Rosie regaled us with stories of her teenage years spent working in retail at Harrods, back in the day when the store closed at noon on Saturdays for the duration of the weekend and store employees took pets home from the famed Pet Shop, to look after them during the off-hours. “Of course in those days,’ Rosie recounted dreamily, “you could order a lion, or a zebra, from the Pet Shop at Harrods.” And the employee who, upon retirement, simply moved himself and various items from the beautiful Harrods collections into the tunnels underground where inventory was stored! He was discovered years later, only because the puppy he’d “borrowed” from the Pet Shop was whining! We all think she should write down her memories and make a mint.
Dinner was superb, of course, fragrant with the sticky aroma of rosemary-scented pork and the little potatoes tossed with lashings of butter and chopped parsley. And cumin and cauliflower? A match made in heaven. What a festive evening.
In honor of the Royal Princess, Rosie served her Pink Marshmallow School Pudding, a favorite of her daughter’s from childhood. It was strangely wonderful.
The mammoth task of cleaning up the kitchen was enlivened by the window’s threat to come off its hinges. Thank goodness for two strong men.
To bed with visions of pork belly dancing in my head…
And of course first thing in the morning, Sam set the two little chickens to roasting, and a rich risotto of carrot to simmering. We watched the very limited but still addictive coverage of the Royal Princess’s arrival, and pored over the newspapers that Orlando had kindly brought back for “you females.”
“I have never in my LIFE heard such oohing and gurgling and blooey hooey [incomprehensible male imitations of female blithering] as is coming from you females at this moment!”
She is a very cute baby, now known to all of course as Charlotte Elizabeth Diana (surely the ultimate in clever compromises that ever a baby name was), Her Highness Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. How lovely.
Orlando and Sam concocted the risotto.
I was allowed to grate the cheese, to the accompaniment of Orlando’s experimenting with various Devon-ish pronunciations of “butterrrr” and “Parrrrmesan” in what we took to be the local accent, from our adventures in Ilfracombe the day before.
We sat down – I with scant appetite, since I’d already somehow eaten all four roasted chicken wings, but massive enthusiasm — for our chicken risotto lunch.
At this luncheon, further discussion ensued about the differences between English and American. “Why do you say ‘hotchpotch’ and we say “hodgepodge’?” I wondered. “And why do you say ‘titbit’ and we say “tidbit’? Probably because Americans can’t say anything to do with ‘tit’ without laughing.” Orlando scolded me several for – I think the term was – “nosing” the chocolate mousse. That is, I sliced off the corner of the loaf, to give myself the tiny portion I wanted, just a taste. “That is completely unacceptable, especially in France, to do to a cheese, especially. The proper treatment is to take a portion that leaves the original serving in the same SHAPE, just a smaller size.” I think I was similarly taken to task about this years ago by my friend Vincent, on exactly the subject of cheese, so I had better take note.
And it was time to go home. As usual far too soon, it was time to leave my glorious friends who never tire of talking about food, who match me in my endless enthusiasm for discussing recipes and methods, choices and menus. And above all, who strike such an unusual note of friendship: seven people who look forward all year long to just a few days together — warmth, honesty, inspiration, laughter, intelligence, and culinary delights.
I sat in the darling little train from Barnstaple, watching the gorgeous Devon countryside speed by, thinking of the fun we had had.
Until GNIM 2016…