Some days I wake up with a sort of reasonless melancholy. I think we all do.
For me, it is often the letdown from an especially wonderful time, as we have had in the last several weeks. John’s mom has been here for a simply spectacular visit; we’ve had a sumptuous and extravagant Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by many of our dearest friends.
Avery’s school musical, “Les Miserables,” whose preparation and drama have occupied our household for months, has come and gone, a glorious spectacle far beyond anything you could dream of for a “school play.”
This morning, with John’s mother back in Iowa, and John and Avery gone on their various ways, I felt unaccountably sad. The Christmas tree is up and sparkling, which should have made me happy.
So it was all to…
My goodness, we’ve been rushed off our feet these days. Halloween and Avery’s birthday, two of my favorite days of the year, have come and gone in a blur. Our new neighborhood is quite chockful of children, so happily we had plenty of little monsters and angels, devils and Draculas to grace our doorstep.
And for Avery’s 17th birthday we headed to a matinee of quite the most perfect comedy any of us can remember. Go and see “Perfect Nonsense,” a Jeeves and Wooster farce, if you possibly can. Starring the divine Matthew Macfadyen (one of my most deserved crushes) and Stephen Mangan, it’s start-to-finish glittery, clever and sleek. Laughs at itself as much as you will.
Emerging after the play we were faced with this beautiful London sunset above, reminding us how lucky we are to live here and have this scene right at our fingertips every day.
There have been the usual grey, drizzly days so typical of London in November (or almost any other month for that matter!) filled with meetings for the church Christmas Fair, meetings to stuff envelopes of Christmas cards for my beloved Home-Start charity. Christmas in London begins too early, in my view, because of course they have no Thanksgiving to obsess over. I have, however, been obsessed, and our table will be groaning with delicacies to feed 19 of us! My new triumph: cornbread!
I am especially pleased about finally finding the perfect recipe for this filling and homely dish, because one of our expected guests on Thanksgiving is a young friend of Avery’s, a ROWER. I have been told by no fewer than a dozen people that rowing young men eat as much as three army regiments! I will arm myself with two turkeys, a ham, three potato dishes, and… cornbread.
(serves one rower, or probably 6–8 normal people)
1 1/4 cups/175 g plain flour
3/4 cup/105 g corn meal
1/4 cup/35 g sugar
4 tsps baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup/225 ml milk
1 tbsp olive oil
1 egg, well-beaten
Place a cast-iron frying pan (about 8 inches across) in a hot oven, 425F/220C for half an hour. (Thank you to my friend Annie for this sage advice!)
Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly with a fork, then add all the other ingredients and stir until just mixed.
When the pan is hot, pour the mixture in and bake for about 20 minutes.
Perhaps it is the aroma of such comforting delights as my cornbread that led this little fellow (lady?) to our door one chilly evening last week.
Avery of course is deep into rehearsals for the upcoming school musical, “Les Mis.” What I don’t know about “liberte, egalite, fraternite” is really not worth knowing, and our family has been treated to many versions of every musical number on YouTube. How I will get through the production (I get to see it twice!) without crying buckets I can’t imagine. Even stalwart Avery admits she has fears of simply breaking down onstage.
Of course no November would be complete without the bell-ringers’ annual Training Day, a truly challenging event in the countryside, being taught the most impossible things by the most talented people.
We rang happily all day, coming home late and tired. But not too tired to get up to ring for a brilliantly sunny Remembrance Sunday. The ringing was more beautiful than ever, I think, with the sound half-muffled in respect, and all our attention given to making it sound as perfect as possible.
Afterward in the churchyard the terribly moving poem was read, and the trumpet sounded. “They shall not grow old, nor the years condemn…”
My ringing friend Tricia said simply, “It’s lovely when Remembrance Day is sunny, and we can wake up to appreciate it when so many people can’t.” Precisely so.
All this activity, and I haven’t even told you about Copenhagen!
We were determined this year’s half-term break to go somewhere really foreign. “Really foreign” meaning, to me, a place where I don’t speak a smidgen of the language. I can get by in France and Italy, and of course Avery can thrive in Russia. We could even survive in Morocco. But Denmark! Not a word of Danish. Well, “tak” for thank you, but that was the extent of it. We set off in high spirits, and no wonder, because this is what we found.
This is called Nyhavn, “new harbor,” and it’s a gorgeous canal leading — as we found on our first day’s boat tour — to the lovely rivers that form Copenhagen’s waterways. Much was made of the history of Danish shipping (and not so much of the history of slavery that accompanied it) and their massive Navy.
And about speaking Danish? We found instantly that absolutely everyone speaks perfect English. So we contented ourselves with perusing menus and street signs in the local language and simply shaking our heads in amazement.
After our boat tour had given us some ideas of what we wanted to visit, we sat down at a darling creperie called “La Petanque” and enjoyed crisp, lacy crepes stuffed with spinach and goat cheese, with grilled chicken and cumin, and finally for Avery, Suzettes, suitably flaming. We were restored enough for a visit to the truly luxurious (and hideously expensive, like everything in Denmark!) Torvehallerne, which means “food market.” I wanted one of everything, but I was restrained. Just look at the display of fresh pine cones! Have you ever?
I perused all the incredible prepared foods — every smoked fish you can imagine, tiny little open-faced sandwiches piled with shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, and platters of sushi — and contented myself with three gorgeous pork meatballs in a creamy sauce (which combined with Danish eggs, sausage, Havarti cheese and a crusty roll made the best breakfast EVER. Although we ate it for dinner!).
For a full foodie rundown of our stay in Copenhagen, read all about it here.
We visited Rosenborg Castle, which one of Denmark’s kings built as a summer house for his lover. That would be a pretty fair inducement for a love affair!
We visited the palaces of the royal family of Denmark, Amalienborg, one of four buildings around a central courtyard which has been devoted to a museum housing really touching memorabilia of centuries of seemingly delightful, happy people who grow up to marry other happy people and produce generations of pleasant monarchs, all incredibly beautiful. And in the courtyard we witnessed a small Changing of the Guard (small because apparently the Queen was not in residence at the time), and an even smaller devoted admirer.
We had found a tour guide online who would be willing to show us the sights in Copenhagen associated with Danish crime dramas! I know it sounds daft, but in fact, the tour was only a little bit about crime scenes and much more about Danish life for real Danish people. There is no one like a former teacher to give you a guide about anything, I know, and we came up very lucky in our guide, Lise Lotte Frederiksen (I know!) who operates Peter and Ping, literary tours of Copenhagen.
We tramped all around the city, visiting first the police station, scene of many a fictional interrogation, unmarked save for its traditional star.
She took us to the famed Black Diamond royal library and cultural centre, whose granite surfaces reflect the sparkling water of the canal.
There, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Denmark’s most famous young poet, Yahya Hassan, who has received death threats after writing poetry critical of Islam. Inside the library, he was surrounded by enthusiastic supporters hanging on his every word. We would never have known about him without Lise to explain for us!
She explained so many things, including the Danish character, which she described as rather ironic, self-effacing, with a wicked sense of humor. Rather like the British, in fact! “We are a very small country and have just one of everything here in Denmark: one famous novelist, Isak Dinesen, one famous philosopher, Kierkegaard. So we are very proud of them.” My philosophy-major past came rushing back.
Finally we hopped on a bus and made our way to the little enclave where Carlsberg beer is everything, built by a Victorian brewing magnate in 1847. He was one J.C. Jakobsen, and a benevolent patriarchal figure to his fiefdom. The architecture knows no bounds, as befits a man determined to build an entire little village around his factory. He liked to think big.
Finally we parted with Lise over enthusiastic thanks, and spent the rest of the afternoon valiantly trying to help Avery spend her grandmothers’ generous birthday money! There are lovely small shops in Copenhagen selling beautiful clothes at unbelievable prices, but finally she found a crispy white couture shirt, and was happy.
Next day found us walking through the city hearing church bells ringing. “That’s Grandsire,“Avery said at one point, and I went into a long, tiresome harangue about how European bells don’t live on frames and as such cannot ring methods, they can only chime. She listened patiently to me and then repeated, “That’s definitely change-ringing in the distance.” We followed the sound and found the adorable St Alban’s Anglican Church.
This church serves the English population of Copenhagen, and as such has an incredible peal of 15 “tubular” bells, which are played via a computer program! What an amazing sound to hear in the Danish air, and how generous of HRH Prince Charles to put his power behind the project and make sure the ring was complete. And how wonderful that my daughter could recognise the sound!
After a lovely train ride through the autumnal countryside (much more colorful than in England), we found ourselves at Kronborg, the castle that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet. You may have noticed that nearly every place name I’ve mentioned ends in “borg.” This word, Lise explained, means something like “power,” so it’s natural that kings, queens and heads of state might name their palaces and places of government with this word. Of course it’s the root of the fabulous Danish crime drama “Borgen,” set in the Prime Minister’s office.
Kronborg is just massive.
Avery dressed appropriately, of course.
Finally our luck with Danish weather broke. The heavens opened. We got completely soaked on the way to the train, and soaked again when we emerged in Copenhagen. It was deemed that dinner out was a good idea, and we repaired to the nearby Ravage Restaurant, which we can all highly recommend. Meltingly tender steak, crispy, fluffy fries with real, fresh Hollandaise, mussels in a creamy, winey sauce. It was heaven to sit back and be fed, since I had been cooking for us the rest of the holiday. Supermarket shopping in Copenhagen is a treat because of Irma, the family of grocery stores that stock Danish produce (at horrific prices, but amazing quality). I have never cooked with such magnificent dairy products! The cream made a potatoes dauphinoise to die for. But going out for once, was nice.
Perhaps the single most charming thing about Copenhagen is its bicycle culture!
As a cyclist in London, I often feel that it’s me against the world, with cars and buses and lorries all battling for ways to unseat me from my chariot. Not so in Copenhagen! The bicycle lane is fully as wide as the automobile lanes, and people ride — stylishly, wrapped all round in clever scarves! — three abreast, stopping at the lights just like the cars. In fact, Lise explained to us that it is against Danish culture to cross against the light, whether as a pedestrian or a cyclist. It’s so civilised!
And that was our Danish holiday. We came home with a deep admiration for the friendliness, generosity, calmness and life-affirming quality of the people we met, and a deep desire to live there one day. If we win the lottery! Really the best part of the holiday was getting to spend so much time with Avery, relaxing in conversation that didn’t have to be rushed or on-topic. Over one of our many meals together, she tried to explain Russian grammar to us.
“There are many cases. The nominative, the accusative…”
“Accusative?” John asked.
“Yes, like I love water, or I hate water.”
“‘I hate water’ sounds a lot more accusative to me,” John said. “J’accuse!”
And so now life moves with its inexorable energy toward the holidays. First among the celebrations will be John’s mom’s heralded arrival next week! We have much to look forward to. Thank goodness we have some energy stored up.
I bet this view isn’t what you picture when you think of living in London.
Forget the tourist sights, the theatre, the restaurants, the museums.
Real London is all about the river. New Yorkers tend either to stay in the borough where they live and work, or commute from one borough to another for life and work, occasionally using another crossing for a holiday, a visit to relatives. But Londoners cross any number of bridges all day, every day, because the river bisects our lives as it twists and turns throughout the city. There are 34 bridges in London! The river is just everywhere.
In our new house, I can see the Thames from my bedroom window, and I can chart the height of its waters by the odors that blow throughout our neighborhood: a whiff of saline, a bit of seagull, the smell of wet rocks and seaweed. Did you know that the Thames is a tidal river? Not everyone does know that. It can be very, very low, as it is in the photo above, or very, very high.
We can easily cross the river in three or four different places in one day. Once in the morning at Barnes Bridge, we haul our bikes up the steps for a long ride along the towpath, crossing Kew Bridge on our way home.
Then we cross at Southwark Bridge to visit our little plot of nettles (wishing that the bureaucratic nonsense slowing down our building project would abate). Sadly our view of Tower Bridge is obscured now by the giant housing complex going up next door. But John is still very excited, contemplating our new home, someday.
Then we cross the bridge again at Hammersmith to pop into Avery’s school and stand behind the wine bar for the new mothers’ and fathers’ first Parents’ Evening, answering their anxious questions. “Do you ever get used to the crazy names for the years? Lower Fifth? Middle Fourth?” “My daughter has already lost her hoodie. What are the hours of Lost Property?” It’s hard to believe we’ve all been a part of that school for five years. Remember the Christmas Fair? What fun we have had, really getting behind the scenes at such an iconic institution.
I’ve been thinking a lot about London and what it is like to live here, over the past few days. Over the weekend, the former London correspondent for the New York Times wrote a piece about her life here, having gone “home” to New York after 18 years in London (I absolutely adored her book “The Anglo Files” from several years ago, and a recent piece she wrote for the Times on her move back to New York is one of the best I’ve ever read comparing the two cultures). In the piece from the weekend, she mentioned how difficult it was not to feel like an “imposter” in London, and how removed she felt from truly belonging. She wrote about Trafalgar Square and Harvey Nichols and Harrods, and how they all seemed vaguely out of reach, to her, not truly “home.” I can certainly relate to the effort that it takes to penetrate real life here. It takes a lot of sustained effort.
London, to me, isn’t contained in visits to any of the tourist destinations. I go Trafalgar Square only to meet a friend in the quirky restaurant under St Martins-in-the-Fields, called (for obvious reasons) The Crypt. I’m far too intimidated by high-fashion clothes shopping to even walk through the doors of Harvey Nichols, and I take visiting friends to Harrods to see the fish display in the Food Hall, but that’s it. London, to me, is “getting stuck in,” as the English say, with my little neighborhood world. This means being excited with Malcolm, the local greengrocer at Two Peas in a Pod, when he gets the lease to the shop next door and can fill it with a seasonal display.
London is spending a week or so chivying all my bellringing friends to make cakes and Jammy Dodgers and strawberry tarts to bring to the church Coffee Shop, and then volunteering at St Mary’s one bright October Saturday morning to sell those cakes to all the parishioners, to make money for the Bell Restoration Fund.
And London is most definitely getting a firm hug from my friend Colin, happily washing dishes with me that morning. He used to be a bellringer, but has given up his rope reluctantly, now in his 9th decade. Once in awhile we meet for coffee and he flirts successfully with every waitress.
Living in London, or anywhere, is much cosier when you do what the locals do, which for me obviously means bellringing. I have succeeded finally at something maddening called “Grandsire Doubles,” with whose details I will not bore you, but can you imagine, these are the instructions?
I am happy to report that where I was nearly in tears at practice three weeks ago, I can now manage to keep my head above water and ring this “method” without too much fear. Which was good, recently, because I had to ring it at a beautiful wedding. Afterward, the wedding party squabbled amicably during photos. “And so it begins,” said my ringing friend Giles, shaking his head wisely.
London is most definitely encapsulated in my social-work volunteering. I will never underestimate the privilege of being in a family’s home, listening to their struggles with nursery school, potty-training, visiting in-laws, trips to the pediatrician. Being the mother of a nearly 17-year-old, I do not take lightly the joy of having a toddler on my lap, the fun of walking to playgroup listening to little girls singing randomly, “Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall, one named Peter, the other named Paul…”
I am about to be “graduated” from my current social-work family, because it has been a year and that’s the contract. I look at the little children I met a year ago, a bit muted and sad and lonely, and hear them laughing hysterically and sharing little jokes with me, and I know it’s time to say goodbye. I have done my job. But it will hurt.
Maybe that’s the key to belonging, anywhere. You have to be willing to get hurt. It’s tempting to sit on the periphery of any life, observing the peculiarities of the locals, marvelling at (for the English) their reticence, their tendency to say “sorry” every five minutes, their obsession with tea breaks. Lord knows I have been the brunt of a lot of laughter at every bellringing practice when I haul out my bottle of cold water as everyone else is queueing for tea! But it’s really at just those moments, when I’m close enough to being English to be made fun of for my not being English, that I adore living here the most. And the moment an English friend loses her reticence, confiding a story or sharing an anecdote that is close to her heart, the intimacy is all the more to be cherished because you know you’ve earned it. You’ve passed a sort of test when the barriers begin to come down, and it’s to be deeply wished.
I know I’ll never truly belong. My accent, my tendency to be indiscreet, the lack of even one silk floral dress in my closet, gives me away as a foreigner. But I can get close enough to treasure every moment that I get under the surface, at the end of a rope or the foot of a bridge.
And the next time I need to turn up at a church bake sale with a cake, I’m lucky to have a proper Bramley apple tree in my back garden. What could be more English than that?
(serves about 8 for tea, also very good for breakfast)
1 1/2 cups/200g plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp each ground cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg
pinch sea salt
1/2 cup/113g butter
1 cup/200g sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
about 1 cup/120g/2 medium mashed bananas
about 1 cup/120g/2 medium chopped apples
1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
Combine all dry ingredients. Cream butter and sugar, eggs and vanilla. Mix together dry and wet ingredients and add mashed banana and chopped apple. Bake at 350F/180C for 45 minutes. Cool slightly and dust with sugar. Serve warm.
I forget, every autumn, that the entire month of September and usually the beginning of October are mad, mad, mad. Partly this insanity is to do with getting back in the swing of all the stuff I’ve committed to do — hosting 30+ Ladies Who Volunteer for Lost Property (this year in a kitchen a bit too small to hold us all so it was crowded and loud), being reunited with “my” social work family with Home-Start (and going to an extra training session on how the new welfare cuts will affect our clientele).
The beginning of the school year always also brings the fun of sorting through, folding and making ready for delivery the thousands of garments that make their way through the Queen Mother’s Clothing Guild, in the stately rooms of St James’s Palace. Two days of a very funny combination of hard graft and soaring, gold-tipped ceilings. I wish I could show you, but photographs are strictly forbidden. Only the beautiful gardens outside are fair game.
Of course life wouldn’t be complete without visits from the local cat population, this year in the shape of the beautiful girl you see above! Is she, as neighborhood gossip would have it, Oscar? Or is Avery correct and she’s in fact a girl, and therefore christened Cressida by us? Never mind. It’s just great fun having her around.
Our lovely house-sitter Elsie, who morphed into the loveliest house-guest ever when we returned to London, has basely abandoned us for the joys of life and education in Oxford. We miss her! A two-girl household was truly wonderful. Avery has had to make up the difference by telling us ever more entertaining stories about musical rehearsals, the adventures of the Debate Team, by proudly joining the Labour Party, and by singing gloriously at a certain beautiful cathedral, in honor of the 504th (or 505th?) birthday of her school. It is hard to believe that next year will the last that we attend. Time has gone so swiftly.
There are delicious reasons for the mad whirl, as well. I think the quietness of our summer, and the fact that the only restaurant I like in our Connecticut town is the fabulous Laurel Diner, meant that we come back to London quite literally hungry, and for something unusual, something festive. Nothing says “festive” like foie gras, so it was but the work of a moment for John to reserve a table at the incredibly trendy, unbelievably delicious Duck and Waffle, not far from the cathedral, in the City. A restaurant on the 40th floor of a skyscraper, in fact, and entirely made of glass.
Did I mention that I am massively afraid of heights?
“Don’t even sit down, if you don’t think you’ll have fun,” John said with obvious mystification. “But it’s really a gorgeous view.”
“Yes, but it’s REALLY FAR DOWN! My heart is pounding!”
“Just look at the menu.”
Of course I was sucked in, because the first thing I saw was raw beef with foie gras and Parmesan. The second thing I saw was yellowtail sashimi. I was hooked. And the food was just about the best I have ever had. The tuna was served on a slab of pink salt!
Then came a foie gras creme brulee topped by a chunk of lobster. The combination of sweet, creamy, livery, crunchy flavors with that ultimate luxurious seafood was heaven.
And then very inventive pollock meatballs in a lobster sauce. I love the idea of fish meatballs, and these were incomparably light and airy, topped with lemon-grass and Parmesan breadcrumbs. How clever.
Finally, no visit there could be complete without duck (confit of leg) and waffle. A strange sounding combination perhaps, especially topped by a fried duck’s egg and drizzled with mustard-seed maple syrup, but quite, quite perfect. My American friends from the Deep South assure me it’s just a posh take on a traditional dish of chicken and waffles. Will have to seek some out, one day. In the meantime…
Throughout this parade of inventive and thrilling dishes, I gradually got over my fear of the view, although I did notice that I was sitting on the VERY far edge of my chair, away from the window!
This culinary adventure would have been enough for a normal person, but the next day I trooped to Notting Hill for yet another amazing lunch with a new girlfriend — although a very different, very simple lunch — at the brilliant Books for Cooks. How is it I have never eaten there before, all the times I’ve browsed their shelves?
My friend explained. “Every day, Eric cooks three dishes from a different cookbook. That’s it, no choice.” The day we visited, the starter was a chunky tomato soup with plenty of fresh basil; the main course was a creamy, hot concoction something between bolognese sauce and a moussaka: full of lamb, tiny tender chickpeas and a bechamel-like sauce. So comforting and homey. Dessert was yogurt cheesecake with raspberry glaze.
My friend introduced me to the owner and chef, and blithely announced that we would expect to have a launch party there when my cookbook is finished. From her lips…
Somehow after this feast, against all odds I was starving for dinner, and so glad to make a real family treasure. My mother’s special, when I was growing up.
Mama Nel’s Buttermilk Herb Chicken
1 large chicken, or 2 breast fillets and 2 whole legs
2 cups/484g buttermilk
1/4 cup/32g cornstarch/cornflour
3/4 cup/96g plain flour
1 tbsp each: dried sage, basil, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, celery salt
3 tbsps olive oil
Quarter the chicken if using a whole chicken (reserve the spine for stock).
In the morning of the day you want to eat the dish, place the chicken pieces in a large zippered plastic bag and pour in the buttermilk. Squeeze the chicken pieces around in the buttermilk to coat thoroughly and refrigerate.
Shake the cornstarch, flour and all the dried seasonings in another large zippered plastic bag. One at a time, place the chicken pieces in the bag and shake until thoroughly coated.
Line a large baking dish with foil and pour in the olive oil. Place the chicken pieces skin-side-down in the oil. Bake at 425F/220C for 30 minutes, then turn skin-side-up and bake for another 30 minutes. Perfect with mashed or dauphinoise potatoes.
My mother was famously not happy in the kitchen, and also endlessly on a strict budget, so simple and inexpensive was the watchword during my childhood. I am pretty certain this dish was a way to copy Shake ‘n Bake without spending the money. I’ve loved cooking this dish my entire life, and my own deviation from Mom’s recipe is to marinate the chicken pieces in buttermilk for as long as possible before shaking the pieces up in herby flour. It’s a warm, appealing dish to offer especially children, and the kitchen smells delightfully spicy and rich as it bakes.
Perfect on the side is a dollop of avocado pesto, which is nothing more or less than an avocado added to your normal pesto recipe and whizzed up in the food mixer. So creamy and smooth.
No sooner had we done the dishes from this supper than it was time for my latest research job for HandPicked Nation, the most brilliant foodie website out there. Up for treatment this time was the divine Monty’s Deli in the Maltby Street Market of Bermondsey. Like a little slice of New York set right in London. Go, but go early so they don’t run out of pastrami and disappoint you!
Watch this delicious space, if I can still fit in it after all I’ve eaten this month. (And it’s only the 9th!)
I have a confession to make: I am not really all that enthusiastic about vegetables.
I blame my childhood in which — with the exception of homegrown tomatoes and corn on the cob in August — every vegetable that graced our table did so via a can or jar. Canned corn, canned green beans, canned spinach, pickled, crinkle-cut beets. Night after night.
So my experiences with actual fresh, raw, colorful things came late and maybe a bit too late for me to be a total convert. It’s always a bit of a challenge for me to gussy up vegetables so I actually love them: zucchini gets stuffed, carrots get caramelized, broccoli gets sauteed with garlic and olive oil. My absolute hands-down favorite way to consume vegetables is simmered and hand-blended into a soup: mushrooms, red peppers, celeriac, spinach all receive this treatment and then go down happily.
The exception to this rather torturous method of dispensing vegetables is roasting. John especially and Avery and I too love almost anything drizzled with olive oil and subjected to a hot oven. Beets are a revelation prepared this way, having been wrapped in heavy foil first, where they can sit quietly and steam out of their skins, once roasted. A sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and a snipping of parsley or chives, and you’re all set.
So I was especially pleased last night to discover something truly sublime that can come out of roasting a vegetable. I give you:
Butternut Squash Puree
1 large butternut squash
drizzle olive oil
1 tbsp butter
fresh black pepper
3 tbsps half-fat creme fraiche or sour cream
1 tbsp light cream
1/4 cup milk
grated nutmeg to taste
chili powder to taste
Line a baking dish with foil. Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise (do this very carefully as the squash will rock and roll as you split it with the knife). Scoop out the seeds from each half and discard. Sprinkle with olive oil, divide the butter between the halves and place in the seed hollow, and season. Roast at 425F/220C for about an hour or until completely soft and browned.
Scoop the softened flesh from the skin and place in a large bowl. Add all the rest of the ingredients and blend with a hand blender. The mixture will not move because of its thickness, so simply move the blender around until all the squash is pureed. Mix well with a spatula. This puree is lovely eaten hot, warm or cold.
This dish rises above its humble ingredients with its creamy perfection, its richness belying the small amount of dairy. Autumn has arrived, when you eat it.
I’m amazed that I was even able to summon the appetite to create and eat this dish because I’ve been awfully busy consuming other cooks’ efforts lately.
First up this week was our Monday lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant in Grosvenor Square. It was the 30th anniversary of our first date, an occasion we felt warranted a little splurge. Four tiny courses apiece: from duck foie gras terrine with almonds and cherry jam, to pork belly with razor clams, beetroot-soused mackerel with horseradish potato salad — tiny bites! — and my personal favorite, watercress soup with lemon yoghurt and a dollop of smoked salmon tidbits.
I think this is the most attractive way I have seen of presenting soup (always a challenge for Avery to photograph). The pillow of smoked salmon was placed alongside the quenelle of yogurt, then the soup itself was poured around them from a little tureen. How clever, and it stops that muddying that occurs when everything is mixed together.
We had barely recovered from this gorgeous experience but it was time for my long-anticipated lunch with my beautiful friend Dalia. “Let’s go to The Depot,” she had suggested. “It’s just around the corner from your new house.” And indeed it is! I arrived early and sat in the late-summer sun, feeling luxurious, a “lady who lunches.”
I was too blown away by the deliciousness of the food even to take a photo! But I will go back. Our chatter was absolutely silenced by the stunning yellowtail sashimi with an unbelievably savory ginger and soy dressing. The best tuna I have had EVER, including Nobu. Here’s the restaurant’s official image of this divine plate of food.
I can’t wait to go back. This was followed by very high-quality plaice goujons (fish fingers, to my friends on the other side of the pond) and homemade tartare sauce, and perfect skinny fries. Ooh, I want to go back right now, and get a place at the window. This has to be booked two weeks in advance, as the river views are simply to die for.
I thought I would never eat again, but of course Saturday, I was starving again. It was hard to feel I deserved anything, after possibly the most disastrous bell-ringing practice in the history of the endeavour. I simply could not do anything right. The latest challenge is “calling back into rounds,” which means the teacher (fiendishly talented Mark, in this case) mixes our order up into a total mystery, “Two to three, four to five, six to seven, two to five,” and so on (hard enough for me to OBEY, much less keep track of), and then he turns to me and with a twinkle in his eye says, “Right, Kristen, bring us back into rounds.” I know this sounds nonsensical to 99% of my readers, but trust me, it’s impossible to do.
For me, at least.
The most maddening thing I have ever tried to do. I could literally feel a disconnect in my brain, which sounds odd, I know, but if you’ve ever had the experience of being told to do something and find that you simply do not have the mental equipment, you know where I was yesterday. I wanted to cry. The tower, scene of so many happy times, became a bit of a nightmare.
My friend Elspeth met me for the Barnes Food Fair, a truly decadent event on the Green for which you should mark your diaries for next September. After a wonderful, authoritative talk and demonstration of pasta by Angela Harnett (which left me feeling I knew precisely NOTHING about cooking), we wandered outside to find something to eat. A wide circle of prepared food stalls offered everything from jerk chicken to tagines, gourmet popcorn to pulled pork, speciality sausages to paella and curries. We went for the jerk chicken, heady with a coriander sauce that sent me back more than once for an extra dribble.
We wandered, munching happily and discussing everything under the sun from our children to Lost Property. We succumbed to a delicious and refreshing iced coffee at Frappattak, served by possibly the most charming coffee purveyor ever known.
Then it was onto the fresh shellfish stall, where I wanted to buy all the lobsters (an exorbitant £20 each!), but compromised on a pile of luscious steamed langoustines. Everything looked extravagantly fresh and luxurious.
Then it was into the tent (which I remember being unbearably sweltering two years ago, but was lovely and cool yesterday), where I was quite unable to resist Dorset-smoked chorizo, a soft, smelly cheese from Bath, some cheek-puckering lemonade, Fever Tree ginger beer, a jar of pork rillettes and a bag of tiny farfalle from the soon-to-open Duck Pond Deli in the village. I can’t wait for them to open their doors!
I bought brownies and cupcakes for Avery, and a brace of sausage rolls from Gail’s, also soon to open in the Barnes High Street.
What a foodie village we are, to be sure. Gail’s embodies everything I feel about bread: I won’t waste the calories and gluten on anything but the absolute best, and their potato rosemary loaf is to die for.
Finally we staggered out, full of samples, lugging heavy jute bags full of loot.
I thought, again, that I would never ever want another bite to eat, but something tells me that the Gressingham duck, slow-roasting in my oven right now, and a casserole of potatoes Dauphinoise, will be very welcome in a few hours. I just need to think of a vegetable.
September has wrought its usual miracle of replacing one part of our lives with another.
The re-entry to our London existence is a mind-bending combination of sadness at leaving Red Gate Farm, elation at again hearing English accents all around, seeing our new home after our summer away, reuniting with the kitties who are gratifyingly happy to see us. They were thrilled to be let out into the garden for the first time.
There’s the fun of going to the grocery, full of English treats, to fill an empty fridge. How happy it makes me to settle into a new kitchen.
Then there’s unpacking the weird things we bring home with us (like eucalyptus and spearmint shampoo, proper Ziplock bags and Fox Point Seasoning), going through the enormous piles of mail (including seven Hello! magazines, how heavenly). We wander around the house acquainting ourselves with where we put the knives and forks, where the light switches are (still working on that one), and we discover little touches of our new lives here that are a real pleasure, like a mass of lavender growing right outside the front door. Walking up the front path is an aromatic delight.
There is the irreplaceable joy of finding our friends again! Elspeth and Minnie were the kind souls who attached our welcome sign to the front door, so while Avery and Minnie headed off to a party, Elspeth dropped in to join us and our beautiful house-sitter, now house-guest, Elsie.
It was but the work of a moment to break out the pots and pans to create the first dinner party in our new house. What do you get when you put everything from the fridge into the food processor and then rub it on a butterflied leg of lamb? Umami heaven.
Ultimate Savoury Rub
(makes enough to coat a leg of lamb to grill, a chicken to roast, etc.)
1 tbsp each:
fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, fresh chives
Madeira or Marsala wine
2 tbsps butter
2 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1/2 lemon, skin and all
Process everything together and rub it all over the cut of meat you are preparing, then marinate in a fridge for as long as you can, a minimum of two hours.
This lamb was gorgeous. Somehow all the competing flavors of the rub simply get along beautiful, with citrus notes sitting happily alongside the intense fishiness of anchovies, the woody flavors of the fresh herbs, the heady notes of liquor. Beautiful.
I served this with what possibly the world’s finest potato dish. Endless thanks to my pal Becky who made these for me many years ago. We think of her every time we cook them. With roasted balsamic-glazed beets, it was quite possibly a perfect dinner for a chilly early September night.
A new week dawned, bringing with it the usual suspects: Lost Property (always amusing and filthy), social work meetings, and new classes for Avery. She is beyond thrilled to have dropped all the ogres from her shoulders — no more sciences! no more maths! Latin, goodbye, see you later French — and to have picked up two new friends: politics and economics. Suddenly she comes home from school with a smile on her beautiful face and a book bag full of treasures, with questions and ideas overflowing.
We’ve had the first Parents Guild meeting, feeling elated as always at being part of this incredible school community. It’s always just plain fun to sit in the dramatic Old Library, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling oak carved bookshelves, sitting at the enormous old tables under the painted gaze of former High Mistresses, under the plaster ceiling rosettes and glowing lights. We set the world to rights that evening, apportioning money to girls’ travel adventures, helping the school to buy new machinery to record an oral history from the cleaning and cooking staff, to acquire special masks for the theatre department. All such fun to discuss. How I love anything to do with that wonderful school.
The weekend brought, of course, ringing! What a delight to be reunited with my beloved band at the tower of St Mary’s. Uncharacteristically for this grey country, the skies shone bright blue to welcome me back to church.
It’s impossible to explain the fun of returning to a hobby that drives me mad with its impossibly difficult skills, the resulting blisters on my fingers, the embarrassing discovery that I had forgotten almost everything I ever knew how to do! My patient teacher Edward pauses, rope in hand, after a particularly disastrous attempt at Plain Hunting. “Perhaps a bit of… revision is in order,” he says mildly, to a burst of laughter from all of us. I adore him, and St Mary’s, and everything about the bell chamber, scene of so many triumphs and… not.
We’ve been reunited with our bicycles, and John and I spend plenty of time cycling around in an aimless sort of way, acquainting ourselves with our new neighborhood. Is there a short cut to the high street? We haven’t found it yet. But it’s lovely to be back in the saddle.
To chase away the rainy blues, and to keep at bay the bit of melancholy that always dogs me on this anniversary of September 11, I settled down in the kitchen this afternoon to make my foolproof (the fool being me) ally, Avery’s favorite thing for breakfast.
Lemon Blueberry Drizzle Cake
(serves 8 for breakfast or teatime)
225 grams (one cup) unsalted butter, softened
225 grams (one cup) caster (ordinary American) sugar
zest of 3 lemons, finely grated
zest of 1 lime, finely grated
225 grams (one cup) self-raising flour, or plain flour with 1 tsp baking powder added
juice of 3 lemons
85 grams (1/3 cup) caster sugar
Beat the butter and sugar till soft and fluffy, then beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in zests and flour gently until fully mixed (including the baking powder if you are using plain flour). Tip into a loaf pan and smooth the top flat with a spoon. Lick the spoon.
Bake for about 45–60 minutes in an oven set to 185C/350F. Watch carefully, because all ovens are different. Take care not to burn the bottom or brown the top too much. The cake is done when the middle of the top doesn’t jiggle when pressed gently. Err on the side of baking less rather than longer.
Cool cake enough so that you can handle the tin. In the meantime, mix the lemon juice and sugar till dissolved. Prick the top of the cake all over with a fork and then SLOWLY drizzle the mixture over it. If you drizzle too fast, the mixture will end up all sliding down the sides of the cake. Serve warm.
And so the “new year” (as anyone with children, however grownup, feels that September is) begins. We are quietly happy to be back, and ready for the challenges and joys that await us, here at “home.”
It’s hard, every summer, to pinpoint when the season begins to give way to fall. It’s still hot, and sunny, and the birds are still chirping their way from birdfeeder to birdfeeder. The hydrangea blooms extravagantly, attended by Rollie’s bees.
But summer is nearly over. The terrace that was covered in weeds when we arrived is now covered in crunchy leaves, although I don’t see them fall. They just appear, reminding us that it’s time to go “home.” The picnic table, home of so many delicious lunches in the sun and suppers that only end in darkness, is too dark at suppertime now for us to eat outside.
The intense, sweaty heat of a July tennis game has mellowed into a sort of lazy imitation of playing, letting shots develop into two-bouncers, and our cold water not beckoning so imperatively. Time to go “home.”
We’ve started thinking about the new house that feels so unfamiliar. It’s funny to think that Elsie the house-sitter has been there for two whole months without us, and that even her mother and grandmother have spent much more time there on their two-week visit than we have! Will we like it, when we get back?
And I have very sad news: dear, darling, tiny Mulder did not make it. Her brief month on earth with us was all that she was allowed of life.
The shelter kindly informed us, and told us how sorry they were, and how thankful that we had taken such good care of her and her family for a month. But life conspired in so many ways against the little thing. She was the smallest in the litter, and never seemed to grow at all. Perhaps there were too many kittens for her to get her fair share. But we will never forget her, or the precious hours she spent in our lives.
Donate to the shelter, or any shelter, if you possibly can.
Our thoughts are turning now to our London cat family, who I can tell you from past experience will seem ENORMOUS when we get home! Of course, to be fair, they ARE enormous by any standards, but most especially when compared to tiny newborn kittens. it will be lovely to be reunited with them.
Avery has had her exam results, and they were stupendous! The news came at 5 a.m. and we were perfectly happy to be woken up to share it. We are all thrilled and proud at the successful conclusion to such a long, dragged-out ordeal of 27 exams in 11 subjects. Now she can drop all the subjects she doesn’t love and devote the next two years to Russian, history, economics and politics, all the things about which she is passionate. A future diplomat in the making, I’m sure.
We’ve had our last trip to the swimming pool, empty of schoolchildren and feeling just this side of chilly, and definitely our last trip to the Laurel Diner this afternoon, for one more buttery lunch.
I reveled in one last trip to the farmer’s market, for tomatoes that are thankfully full of flaws, character, and flavor.
There’s honey made by the very bees that people my hydrangea (with a little help from Farmer Rollie and Tricia).
And the most fabulous, creamy goat cheese, perfect for stuffing peppers for the grill.
We have eaten more ears of corn than I could possibly count! Scarcely a dinner has gone by without at least two ears for each of us. I get it all week long at the farmstand, but the farmer’s market corn is the very best, sweet bi-color.
Yesterday actually I eschewed the goat cheese in favor of the equally stunning feta, which by afternoon’s end had morphed into simply fabulous chicken sausages. What fun that messy project is.
Chicken Sausages with Feta, Red Onion and Chives
(makes about six large sausages)
3 pounds chicken breast fillets, carefully trimmed
2 tbsps Penzey’s Fox Point Seasoning (or other savory herb blend)
1 tbsp olive oil 1 large red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces feta cheese (or goat would do as well)
handful chives, minced
Put your chicken through the mincer and set aside in a large bowl. Sprinkle the Fox Point Seasoning over.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the onion and garlic until soft. Allow to cool slightly.
Mix the chicken, vegetables, cheese and most of the chives very well (keeping a little bit of chives aside for sprinkling when ready to serve).
Now get your casings ready. Interestingly, the casings I get in London are from lamb intestines, but these Connecticut ones are labeled “hog.”
Carefully put the chicken mixture through the mincer with the blade removed. Let the casings fill up plumply.
Then tie them off. I just happened to have some very pretty vintage string.
Saute them slowly in more olive oil (I used a gorgeous Italian-herbed oil from the farmer’s market). Sprinkle with the reserved chives (as opposed to the outgoing ones). They are firm, juicy, cheesy and crisp on the outside. And you know EXACTLY what’s in your sausages.
Avery and I have been hard at work finishing the last few dishes she wanted to photograph here at Red Gate Farm, for our cookbook. Someday these spattered notes will be in the Smithsonian someday, I’m sure.
Of course Red Gate Farm wouldn’t be complete without many, many games of Aggravation. John shouts with disgust over a captured marble, a shout so disturbing to the quiet country air that David crosses the street, asking mildly, “Did somebody fall off a ladder?”
Rollie ambled out of his truck one blue-sky morning for a long, relaxing chat peppered with anecdotes about machinery repairs and the haying season. Judy and I found time one rainy day for a lobster-roll lunch and a long gossip. And she solved one of the age-old problems of Red Gate Farm — not enough clothing storage — with a trip to a local consignment shop. Finally, even if I have all the laundry done, everything has a place. It fits right in, under the eaves.
Yesterday we made our annual pilgrimage to Tricia and Rollie’s and little Rollie’s farm, to celebrate the arrival of a batch of chicks. The hen had disappeared for weeks on end, then hidden herself in the barn to have her babies. Oh my.
It was exactly like one of those fluffy pipe-cleanerish chicks you put in a child’s Easter basket! I also got to hold one of its aunts.
Kate got in on the action, naturally.
Tricia and I raided her magnificent garden. Just look at this oregano!
Little Rollie and Judy basked in the sun.
While Biggest Rollie posed in front of the most American barn in the world. Still Life With Chickens.
In the sunshine, it was as hot as any summer day, and humid. Luckily Quincy is well-ventilated.
It’s been a lovely, lovely summer. Probably it’s been a bit too boring for Avery, but I’m of the mind that after the Spring of Exam Hell, she needed a dose of boredom. What a luxury to have her around all the time, making trips to the library and to the Gap, to the pool, or just sitting around on the terrace watching the days go by.
To think that when we next see our sitting room, it will be ready for a Christmas tree in the corner. It’s hard to get my head around that.
Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos. Swimming pool, Marco Polo, trampoline and horses in the meadow. Grandmothers and cousins, aunts and uncles. Goldfinches and chipmunks. “Days of Our Lives,” “General Hospital,” and News 4 New York. Lobster, crabcakes, Boar’s Head dill pickles and Pennsylvania Dutch noodles. Tiger lilies, ferns and walking around barefoot. A dusty road, the best neighbors in the world, and votive candles in the nighttime windows.
Thank you, America. It’s been great.
If you are lucky enough still to be in touch with the people who knew you when you were little — and I’m talking LITTLE, like newborn baby little — then you will know how much fun I have just had over the past four days at my High School Reunion. Thirty years!
I doubt that I ever would have gone to this reunion but for two things: my mother, and Facebook.
I love it that my mother still lives in the house where I grew up, so that going back “home” feels like going back in time. I know that one day, this situation will probably change, and I’ll no longer sleep in my childhood home, cook in the kitchen where I learned to cook 30-some years ago, look around me at the furniture that my dear dad built. So I’m cherishing it as long as I can.
I love being picked up at the Indianapolis airport — my first airport, of so many now! — by my mom and brother, driven home in the hot summer twilight to arrive at the familiar house, my mother’s pride and joy.
For some reason, my sister’s bedroom became the guest room, so I settle in for what is always a peaceful, nostalgic, sleep, and in the morning take the tour. The gardens are looking gorgeous, even in the near-drought conditions that spell August in Indiana.
It’s fun to walk around with Mom as she points out the various new plants and to look with nostalgic sadness at what used to be Dad’s tomato patch. But things change. I just like it when they don’t change too much.
Within minutes, though, it was time to get to work for the first of many parties, trying to take advantage of every hour I was in town. And for the first time ever, I had company cooking in the kitchen: Chef Todd!
For ages now, my mother, who never liked to cook at the best of times, has been eating less and less of what she should, so this summer for her birthday present, my sister brilliantly found help for her, in the shape of tall, warm, friendly Chef Todd, who will be filling her fridge and freezer with healthy treats for the foreseeable future. He’s not just a great cook. He’s great company. And he loves my mother.
“I’m going to get her feeling great,” he said with conviction, chopping a soffrito for a vegetable meatloaf, peppers for crabcakes, garlic for a carrot and ginger puree. And I believe him. Since there is nothing that our family could possibly want more for our beautiful mother, my heart’s a little lighter for her than it was a week ago.
I, at his side, was making chicken meatballs, tomato-mozzarella salad, cucumber-dill salad, fruit salad, for a little group of very good friends. They arrived in groups, saying out on the front porch, “We can smell the food already!” We decamped to the porch to enjoy the food and each other’s company.
Among this group are Joy, the girl who lived in the other half of the duplex to which my parents brought me home from the hospital, and her mom Janet, my mother’s best friend for life. My oldest friends! And grade school friends, and high school friends. After a bit, Todd, the “honorary girl”, arrived, calling the reunion “Facebook Live!” He is one of my favorite people in the world.
I adore my mom’s porch, no matter how hot it gets. There is always enough sparkling wine and ice-cold water to refresh us, so we sat on and on, gossiping, reminiscing about high school musicals, swim team, the school newspaper, favorite teachers, creepy teachers. Then, “Oh my goodness, is that the time? I have kids to pick up!” and everyone dispersed into the late afternoon, me to make hummous to take to the NEXT party.
And what a party it was.
In my childhood, there were two Amys. The Amy I met first is “Amy” to our group of intimates. Then we got to high school and met “The Other Amy,” who pointed out, at this summer’s party, that strictly speaking as the older of the two Amys, she is in fact “The Original Amy,” and wore a name tag to that effect!
Amy possesses one of the wickedest wits I know, along with a generosity of spirit that just makes you want to keep her by your side.
With us in this lovely photo is my chum Karen, with whom I have reconnected gratefully on dear Facebook! How we always understood each other in matters of the heart, of homework, of school affairs. And she hasn’t changed a bit. Even more fun, if possible, and one of those moms who understands and shares my tendency to cry at the drop of a hat. That is a good friend to have.
This magnificent party was given by my “first” Amy, who is a professional gardener. It shows. Look at this paradise!
We walked around the garden, lighting her candles. These were made by putting an empty tuna can on top of a pole in the ground, then placing a votive inside a Ball jar into the tuna can. How clever is that? The whole place was strung with fairy lights, a heavenly spot on a summer’s evening.
And what would a water feature be without a pair of legs?
Being reunited with John, my partner in musical theatre crime, was worth the whole trip. He is an indescribable combination of class clown, confidante extraordinaire, and sage. Incredibly tolerant, full of limericks, and delighting in every possible ambiguity of meaning. I have missed him terribly over the years. Here he is with my darling Jami, who struggled through pre-freshman-year summer PE with me in 1979.
There aren’t enough adjectives to describe my “first” Amy, fellow Campfire Girl, swim team member, co-conspirators in many a school musical, the hostess with the mostest. When I am reunited with her, the years just drop away and we giggle as much as ever we did. How wise I was to gain her as my friend over 40 years ago!
“Do you remember, Amy,” I said, “when we sat together in the bathtub with a plastic toy that had a sprinkler bottom, and we decided that if we could build something just like it really BIG, and attach it to an airplane, we could solve all the problems of the desert?”
She did remember.
When I was in kindergarten, I walked to the neighborhood school up the street from my house with my big brother, taking part in every delight a five-year-old could imagine, including “Fun Night,” which was an amusement park set up once a year inside the school. At this event, one could compete at various games to win the top prize: a goldfish brought home in a Chinese-food container. And naturally, “Fun Night” elected a King and Queen from each grade. Guess who represented kindergarten?
I think my “Fun Night” crown is still in my childhood closet.
And how about Dave, also a kindergarten buddy, whose beautiful mom sewed all my high-school musical costumes?
There just isn’t room to describe all the beautiful friendships renewed under Amy’s fairy lights. Finally, I went home to sit on the edge of my mom’s bed to tell her every single story, just as I had as a child.
The next day brought lunch with the family of our beloved London housesitter, Elsie! Her mother and grandmother met us in Irvington, the quaint little neighborhood where my mother’s house is, at a darling cafe called “The Legend.” Delicious!
There, we heard stories of our London house where they’ve just come from visiting Elsie, and they bore photographs of our beloved cats, who look huge in comparison with our Red Gate Farm kittens. We have made friends for life.
I just barely had time to brush my teeth and change clothes before it was time for the next party: this time at the “original” Amy’s parents’ house, a porch I hadn’t sat on for 30 years. Icy-cold tumblers of vodka and Izzy, and more friends.
And it was time for the official high school “Block Party,” a nice, hot evening’s walk away from Amy’s parents’ house. We walked in a pack, still talking nonstop about the past, about our kids, our jobs, our families. I felt intense envy of my several friends whose parents are just a five-minute walk or drive away, rather than an ocean and then two airplane flights away.
The “Block Party” itself was a hoot! The band (led by my cherished friend Kevin) was fabulously loud and the songs were from the 80s, so everyone could sing along. Some people danced (not me!).
Finally we realized we were starving, and a pack of us abandoned the Block Party to wander over to the restaurant where I’d had lunch, to beg them to stay open late for our table of 12! And they did. For HOURS. I haven’t laughed so hard in recent memory, at stories of childhood (and later) romances, crushes that never materialized, crushes that DID materialize, some mildly raunchy limericks. Possibly my fondest moment was being described as “the original Hermione Granger” by John, a description that made me laugh at my former self, and also feel a bit of a retroactive kinship with my own daughter, who is surely just one such.
We all tried to analyze what makes us feel so comfortable with each other. Is it the feeling you can only have for people who helped make you what you are? People who knew you when you were building your personality, making the choices that would determine who you became, and so those people are part of your essential fabric? They knew you when you were learning to do all the things that would become your skills and talents, who saw you through your first disappointments and triumphs. There’s no question of worrying about who are you now, because these people know who you’ve ALWAYS been. Total trust among people who have never hurt each other’s feelings, who have stayed friends all their lives.
Finally we closed the restaurant, leaving enormous tips as a thank-you. And we strolled through the dark Irvington streets, meeting cat after cat, passing candlelit or lamplit porch after porch.
To one more party! At “original” Amy’s brother Jim’s beautiful Irvington house. Of course, we sat on the porch.
It was 2 a.m. Time to go home, to say goodbye. Not, one hopes, for another 30 years…
Lunch the next day (feeling slightly hungover and completely exhausted! not to mention hoarse) was over pizza with my soul-mate Sheri (neither of us brought a camera, silly). Here we solved all the world’s problems and talked about my remarkable daughter, of whom Sheri is a passionate admirer, although they have never met. Our time together simply flew, leaving us with a thousand topics unspoken, as always. Another reason to come back.
Mom and I spent a quiet evening watching television and chatting, looking through old photo albums and letters as I always do when I’m “home.”
And then I was off, for a day of travel and thought, remembering conversations and a thousand tight hugs, feeling I had stepped back into a very happy past full of characters I couldn’t invent, they are so varied and dear to me, each in their own way. All of us back to our ordinary lives, our families and other “homes.”
I was very happy to be reunited with Avery, John and the hydrangea, now in full end-of-summer blossom.
Here’s a dose of philosophy for you: Human happiness is to a great extent dependent on flexibility of spirit. You have to be able to commit fully to a situation, then if you must, accept a change to that situation, and move forward with the future looking different from what you expected.
This truism was brought home to us late last week, in the form of one small family of kittens.
Coming home from a fabulously fun-filled day in New York, Avery and I went in to the kittens’ room to feed, water and clean up after them as usual. Until we embarked on this nursing-family fostering situation, we had no idea how much work was involved — the mother having to be fed constantly, their linens changed more times a day than you could imagine, cleaning up after little creatures who cannot yet use a litterbox. Not that we minded one bit; their love made it all worthwhile. Like a human baby, actually (or four of them).
So we were not particularly troubled to find a quite messy little Mulder (the runt of the litter) and a trail of her messes on the floor. “What have you been doing to yourself, little guy?” Avery wondered as we cleaned up and disinfected. We got her all put to rights, we thought, played with them all for awhile, and went to bed.
In the morning I went to feed them, and to my shock and horror, found Mulder stretched out full-length (which was smaller than a stick of butter), not curled up asleep in the way kittens typically do. I lifted her up and there was absolutely no response, just a dead almost-nothing weight. She seemed to have lost half her size during the night. I turned the limp form over in my hands to find her eyes closed and no discernable heartbeat.
“John!” I shouted, running with the tiny thing into the kitchen. I wrapped her in a dishtowel.
“Mulder is dying, or maybe dead! We have to get her to the vet!”
John ran to get Avery and we jumped into the car, me cradling the weightless baby. We sped down our winding road, which seemed about six times as long as ever before, and through town, running at least two red lights. Luckily it is a very small town and the vet was close, as everything is. We said nothing during the journey except once when I felt I had to come clean, “I think Mulder may be dead.”
We ran in the door of the vet and up to the reception desk. I said, “We have a dying kitten; it’s an emergency.” A door opened and a slight young man beckoned us in. A burly, small man took Mulder in his hands in the dishtowel and lay her on the table.
“This kitten is severely hypoglycemic and dehydrated. I’ll take her in and give her some fluids and vitamins. I’ll do what I can, but I can’t promise you anything.”
“How could this happen, literally overnight?” I asked.
“You have to understand that in a creature this small, you go to bed at maybe 11, get up at 7, those eight hours are very long. Anything can happen.”
In shocked silence we stood indecisively in the waiting room. An elderly woman with a kind, lined face and a cat carrier said, “She is in good hands. Doctor Ross will do all he can.” We left, and rode home again almost in silence. I think we were all thinking of the enormous responsibility of caring for such creatures, and feeling certain that Mulder would not have survived in the wild.
We spent the next two hours in an agony of uncertainty. Finally I called the vet. The receptionist said, “The doctor is in a procedure right now, but he’ll call you back in 15 minutes.” “Just tell me if the kitten is still alive.” “Yes, she is still alive.”
Ten minutes later the phone rang. “You can come get your kitten now,” the vet said calmly. “It’s touch and go, and she’s not out of the woods yet, but she needs to nurse. I’ll send a vitamin supplement home with you. At least she’s up and about walking now.”
Unbelievably, this was true. Mulder was up and about! Struggling to get out of the box we brought to carry her, in fact. Thank God.
“There’s no charge for the visit,” the receptionist said. “Just for the supplement.” I could feel tears come, at this kindness.
All through that day, then, and as it turned out, every two hours during the night, we fed her with dabs of a sugary vitamin supplement which she was willing (Avery discovered) to suck from the wet corner of a t-shirt. I dripped water into her tiny mouth, her face little bigger than a quarter coin. All through the day, and night. At about 3 a.m., Avery said exhaustedly, “Good riddance to this day.”
In an tense email exchange with the shelter all through the day and evening, we had discussed the kittens’ general health. All four had developed what looked like ringworm (in our shelter-kitten-wisdom, we could diagnose this), and Dickens had taken to vomiting. Ripley’s eye remained stubbornly shut. Ivy, the mum, looked resigned. Finally Avery and I took the whole family back to nice Doctor Ross. “This is a paying visit,” John said firmly. But after Doctor Ross had examined them all, rehydrated the sick Dickens, taken Ivy’s temperature and given us ringworm medication, there came the phrase again. “No charge.” Can you imagine the generosity?
The shelter asked for them back, first thing in the morning. “This situation is too much for a volunteer foster family.” We had to agree, reluctantly.
When John woke us early, Mulder was amazingly recovered. For a thing weighing less than a pound, life had certainly turned on a dime for her. We drove in near silence, again, to the shelter and climbed the outdoor steps to the sunny, clean, quiet medical clinic where the whole family sat in a sunbeam on the floor and the nice receptionist assured us that everything would be done to care for them all. “It was really nice of you to foster them. Animals are therapy, aren’t they?” What a way to look at the enormous responsibility she had taken on, in that calm, professional room. We left our beloveds behind.
Strangely after leaving them there, the three of us felt better.
“At least now, they’re in capable medical hands,” we repeated in various ways. “We did all we could.”
What would the world do without the kindnesses that so often happen? You hear a lot of noise in this world about cruelty, carelessness, and outright evil. But I want you to know what sort of love and goodwill surrounded all of us, in those two days.
Mike and Lauren had us to dinner the evening of Mulder’s sickness. “Just a quick evening, to get your mind off things.” The evening spent in their tranquil garden, eating grilled mahi and corn and rhubarb crumble, watching beautiful baby Abigail growing by the minute, was absolute heaven. How lovely to be looked after.
The day of the kitties’ departure was very empty, at first. I scrubbed and sterilized and disinfected the bathroom where we’d been keeping them, just to be busy. John decided to climb the laundry room roof to investigate why the toilet was flushing slowly. David came to hold the ladder. After John’s harrowing climb up and down with a bucket full of water, braving his fear of heights, I ran in to flush. No better.
David asked innocently, “Did you try a plunger?”
The plunger did the trick. Sometimes we forget to try the simplest cure first.
Finally Avery and I decided to spend the afternoon trying to get the quintessential photograph of red pepper soup. Stopping at the farm stand for peppers, I realized I had very little cash. “How many red peppers can I buy for $3.50?” I asked. The young helper behind the counter studied me. “How many do you need?” “Four.” She put them on the scale and I watched the needle go far too high. “Whaddya know? $3.50 exactly,” she said with a wink.
The kindness of strangers.
Regina came by in the late afternoon to bring us some photos that friends had taken of Red Gate Farm when they used it for a film shoot. “It is so peaceful here, is it not?” she asked in her lilting German accent. She sat down with Avery and me to look at our efforts of the afternoon. We had finally achieved the perfect red pepper soup photo. What a triumph!
Regina sat on with us, exclaiming over the delicious images, getting hungry for her own supper. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to try vichyssoise!” she said, looking at the lovely photo. “You can!” John laughed. “There’s a batch in the fridge.” And he sent some home with her to try.
The following day we made brownies to take to the vet and his lovely staff, who asked after the kitten family and seemed pleased that they were at the clinic, and sorry for our itchy places (we don’t mind; a small price to pay for having had the kittens with us). And when we got home, dear Judy appeared with a plate of sugar cookies studded with lavender leaves, a recuperative gift for Avery and her bout with Lyme disease (which seems a lifetime ago). “I meant to make them earlier, when you were still feeling bad, but where has the summer gone?” The little cloth covering the cookies sums up Judy perfectly.
Saturday dawned fair and cool and sunny, so we decided it was time for an occasion, to divert us from our kittenless household. What better than a lobster feast? Anne, David and Kate trooped across the road to join us for our messy, gloriously delicious dinner.
4 round courgettes
1 pork sausage
1 tbsp butter
1 red pepper, minced
1 shallot, minced
4 mushrooms, minced
4 tbsps Boursin or other herby soft cheese
3 tbsps breadcrumbs
salt to taste
olive oil to drizzle
Cut the tops off the courgettes and reserve them. Scoop out the seedy insides of the courgettes and discard.
Mince the tops, and melt the butter in a saucepan. Saute the minced tops and all the other vegetables. Mix in a bowl with the cheese, breadcrumbs and salt to taste.
Spoon the mixture into the courgettes and place in a baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and bake at 425F/220C for 30 minutes.
We sat late over the delicious raspberry sorbet Anne had brought, and Judy’s lavender cookies, discussing the role of the British monarchy, John’s past political adventures as a Reaganite youngster, Avery’s hopes for her exam results this week. The candles flickered out and we were happy. We had begun with one sort of week, had suffered the traumas that come when you open up your life to needy little creatures, had been lifted up by the people we hold dear, and had come out on the other side, ready to start a new week. Who knows what this one will bring.
It’s been the most perfect summer weather, all the different bits of it.
First, of course, July sailed in on wings of intense heat and humidity, just as it should. We were grateful for the air conditioning and for the cold tap, and for filmy t-shirts and brief shorts. The hydrangea remained stubbornly green, causing me to worry as I do every summer, “What if it doesn’t blossom in time for us to see it?”
Of course, The Grumpy Old Men are often cantankerous, hence their moniker. Not a game goes by without temper flares, accusations of senility, references to “somebody forgot his Viagra today,” etc. Disputed calls are the norm, with balls being described as “so LAWNG,” and “not even close, you idiot.” But what we have not had until last week was this exchange.
“Whaddareya, nuts? No way that was in, John.”
“Ya think I’m blind? Of course it was in, nothing clearer, you old coot.”
Well, OK. Ya got a reputation to uphold, after all.”
“Reputation for what, exactly, Ira?”
“For bad calls.”
A racket crashes to the ground.
“I don’t have to take this s**t. I’m outta here.”
And as we tried not to look as if we were craning our necks, the old guy grabbed up his racket, zipped it into the case, and stormed off the court, out the chain-link fence, and flounced into his beige Chevy Malibu, peeling out of the parking lot with a showy spray of gravel.
I’ve been wondering ever since how on earth the other Grumpsters will patch this up. Luckily, they play with a fivesome, letting one guy sit out at a time, so they were able to continue their game that day, albeit with muted enthusiasm. Never a dull moment at the tennis court!
One of my favorite places on earth, really, with the Town Pool and Pavilion (not sure what the Pavilion is, to be honest) shining in the distance.
The kittens continue to amuse, of course, learning new tricks every day. These are useful tricks like walking, holding one’s head straight, even drinking from a water bowl (mostly sneezing at first). We had a lovely photo shoot on the picnic table, one at a time so as not to upset Mum. Here’s dear, dear Mulder. She resembles the tortie Mum the most.
The days have passed by in a stretch of absolutely nothing happening. This is lovely for adults, but perhaps a little dull for Avery. She has compensated for our utter lack of plans by taking the most gorgeous photos: of food, of the property. She can make even a plain, scrappy picket fence look like magic.
The sugar maples that grace our acres have beckoned to me every since we bought the house, begging to be immortalized, but until Avery this summer, no one has been able to capture their scale, and the sense of protection and majesty they bring to Red Gate Farm.
I love it when lunch is the highlight of the day, because absolutely nothing else has happened, or will.
Yellowfin Tuna Tartare
12 ounces/340g fresh sushi-grade yellowfin tuna, diced small
3 spring onions, minced
handful cucumber, seeds removed, diced small
zest and juice of 1 lemon
sprinkle chili flakes
1 tbsp Japanese mirin (rice wine vinegar)
1 tbsp mayonnaise
Simply mix everything together and chill thoroughly. Perfect with sourdough toast.
One of the most heartwarming bits of the summer has been the streams of visits from little girls. Kate is very keen on the kittens and can spend any amount of perfectly quiet time, just cuddling them one by one. It is a joy to hear her earnest little voice saying some variation of, “Oh, Mulder, you are so adorable. Oh, Ripley, you are so funny…” She is a doll with them, extremely gentle and patient with their baby claws and teeth, marvelling at their tiny feet.
It’s not all kitty responsibility, though. Kate, and Taylor from up the road often raid the dollhouse for an afternoon of drama. I love listening in on their conversations.
“You be the butler. He’s in love with the maid.”
Mark himself trundled down the road in his bush-clearing tractor to demolish the tall plants in Anne’s meadow, preparatory to some organic gardening. And John and Dave… fixed the mailboxes, just as I promised you they would.
Here’s how they looked at the beginning.
How the two of them labored away in the hot sun! Post hole digging, searching in vain in the barn for a suitable board on which to balance them (after a brief and wholly unanimous discussion on whether to replace the mailboxes themselves: NO!). John drove into the village for a new board, the first pressure-treated lumber ever to grace the property of Red Gate Farm. How modern!
I spent the afternoon alternately providing lemonade and chocolate milk to the girls, helping Avery with the kittens, delivering icy water to the boys, and concocting an enormous pan of lasagne and a huge bowl of freezing-cold cole slaw with poppy seed dressing. What a nice way to spend a day.
Poppy Seed Slaw
1/2 head white cabbage, outer leaves removed, chopped to your liking
3 carrots, grated
2 bulbs fennel, outer leaf removed, chopped fine
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp unrefined sugar
2 tbsps sour cream
1 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsps poppy seeds
sea salt to taste
fresh black pepper
Whisk all ingredients for dressing together and toss with the cabbage, carrots and fennel. Serve ice-cold.
My lovely sister and her family arrived for our splendid lasagne dinner, to celebrate Jane’s eight-and-a-half birthday, a bit of a tradition with our two families. As my sister and I sat around gossiping, getting dinner ready and sharing a cocktail, the real drama of the day became the mailboxes. Would they, or wouldn’t they? John trotted sweatily back and forth across the road, now delving into the toolshed, now the barn, for supplies. There were occasional bursts of laughter from the construction site. I went out for another water delivery to find Dave standing bemusedly by the posts, surrounded by trailing tendrils of ivy and lilac.
“There is a reason I don’t do this for a living,” he said.
“Yes, but look at it this way: most people who DO do this stuff for a living don’t also write books. You can do BOTH.”
Finally, the moment of truth.
Avery and I solved this problem by spending a day making cheesecakes. We have come to the conclusion that even though I don’t “do” dessert, readers of our eventual cookbook will feel differently. So we experimented. Chocolate chip cheesecake? Yes, decisively.
Berry coulis? Absolutely.
(makes about two dozen)
10 oz/280g graham crackers, or digestive biscuits, crushed fine
1 stick/114g butter, melted
2 packages/500g Philadelphia cream cheese, room temperature
3 eggs, room temperature
3/4 c/95g unrefined sugar
sprinkle vanilla extract
zest of 1 lime and 1 lemon
16 oz/454g light/half-fat sour cream
2 cups mini chocolate chips
1 cup blackberries
1 cup strawberries
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup unrefined sugar
Heat oven to 350F/180C.
Mix the cookie crumbs with the melted butter with a fork, fluffing lightly. Line a muffin tin with muffin papers, then place a heaping tablespoon of the cookie mixture in each and press down with your fingers. Place in the fridge and chill while you prepare the other ingredients.
With an electric hand mixer, beat the cream cheese for a minute or so to make sure there aren’t lumps. Add the eggs one at a time, beating at a low speed between each and scraping the sides of the bowl. Add the sugar, vanilla and zests and beat for 1 minute more. Add the half-fat sour cream and beat for another minute. Do not let it get frothy.
Using a small soup ladle, fill each muffin cup nearly to the top and sprinkle mini chocolate chips on half. Place in the center of the oven and bake for about 20–25 minutes, until the cheesecakes are stiff but still jiggly. Carefully remove the paper sleeves from the muffin tray and place on a cookie sheet. Place in fridge for at least four hours.
As you bake successive batches of cheesecakes, place the berries, water and sugar in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, mashing with a potato masher, until a jammy consistency is achieved. Pass this mixture through a c0arse-ish sieve into a bowl.
When the cheesecakes are all cooked and cooled, drizzle or glaze the non-chocolatey cheesecakes with the berry coulis.
Naturally Anne and Kate came to sample them, on a rainy, cozy evening.
Yesterday Avery and I decided to spend the late afternoon at the Town Poo, as it will forever be known since the “l” fell off several years ago. When we arrived home, it was to find our lovely neighbor Regina here, chatting with Anne, who had in tow not only her own Kate but also Taylor, whose dad was watering the horses. He appeared a moment later to join David and John in much chatting about machinery and guns, and probably mailboxes. The Dads of Sanford Road, what a trio!
It was one of those afternoons where I try to appreciate it all, enjoy everyone’s conversation, store it all up for the grey London months to come. We talked about the charitable efforts to raise enough money to save the pitiful old falling-down Phillips Barn up the road. Anne is rueful. “Not even I, with all my grant-writing experience, could find any suitable hyperbole to describe that structure!”
Finally, reluctantly, we all decided it was time to move, to get up, get serious about getting children home, dinner cooked. It seemed sad to disperse, so many of my favorite people in one place.