Camille Claudel, 1864–1943
First of all, before I satisfy what is undoubtedly burning curiosity at the subject of this post, I must say this about The Dinner Party. You remember, the one at John’s boss’s house. I cannot post about it yet. I am allowed to write a draft, and then some Reuters official will read it for signs of insubordination, replace half of it with gibberish like they used to do to too-revealing letters during World War II. I am only partly kidding. John is hot to read what I write before I post it because so many sensitive people are involved! It was quite the star-studded guest list. Oops, was I allowed to say that? Seriously, I’ll do my best, but probably not until after Avery and I get back from Scotland. We leave tomorrow night and get back Monday afternoon.
So about the cat. I’ve been sort of congratulating myself in a minor way on the unscathed condition in which we have all survived our move. John’s settled in perfectly at work, Avery is blissfully…
The race! It was the iconic I’m-a-mother-of-an-English-schoolchild experience. Remember those pictures, some 15 years ago, of Princess Diana running across a field participating in her sons’ school Sports Day? Everyone’s hair fluttering in the wind, school uniforms, laughing faces and the gray-blue London sky. That was it, on Friday. Of course King’s College came in a handy fourth out of four in all events, but it’s not all about winning, is it? Especially when you don’t.
Such a perfect afternoon. The race was to be in Battersea Park, a place I was not awfully familiar with but had a feeling was too far to walk to. It turned out, after John did some research, that the Number 137 red double-decker bus went directly from our corner on Park Lane, straight to the Park. So I armed myself with my camera and hopped on. It’s by far the best way to get around. You climb up to the top, sit yourself down in the front if you can, and watch London go by from the most perfect vantage point. We skirted Hyde Park, swung perilously around the Duke of Welllington Place, threaded our way along South Kensington, down Sloane Street (passing my doctor’s office and the cute little pharmacy on the way!) and continued south to the Albert Bridge, a doll-like confection of white, red and blue paintwork. And there I was. I walked through the park, unable as usual to decipher the extremely clear park maps that would direct me to the bandstand, when I came upon a huge gaggle of small gulls in gray and red uniforms. Instantly I knew that if I followed them I would end up at the race. They were from Kensington Prep, and there were a LOT of them. And tall? Too tall. As I began to follow them, up pulled another coach and there was the King’s College contingent. I met the formidable Mrs King the gamesmistress of whom Avery had painted such an intimidating picture. Naturally she’s about 30, jolly and a lot of fun. She and Mrs Bickley, Avery’s form teacher, and I walked along with the gulls and ended up on a huge football pitch, at the end of which were the Kensington Prep kids. Shortly after, the Garden House kids showed up in their chic standout uniforms of brightest royal blue, and after that the group from Eaton Square School, also seemingly twice as large as our children and twice in number, and with really cool uniforms as well. Our gulls in their simple navy sweats with little white polo shirts were a bit overshadowed.
At first the parents stood warily in each other’s company, recognizing each other from dropoff and pickup but not wanting to appear that most un-English of all things: friendly to someone to whom you have not been properly introduced and spent about a year gazing at from afar before speaking. But gradually our shared indignation at the odds stacked against our little children drew us together, and we chatted in a desultory random way, each of us wondering silently if it was all right to take pictures, or if the other parents would think we were stalking their children. Pretty soon though we were all taking pictures, because the scene was impossibly cute. All of the gulls huddled in their school groups at first, talking in muted tones, looking at the other groups under their lashes. But pretty soon they were loosened up by the sheer gorgeousness of the day, the pent-up excitement of the coming race, and most of all the presence of a foreign object: BOYS! From Eaton Square, I think they were. Chasing each other around and muddying up their uniforms, hitting each other over the heads with their backpacks, it was like being back at PS 234. Mrs Bickley at my elbow said elliptically, “That I don’t miss.” But they were cute, for one afternoon.
All the children began to take the practice walk around the pitch, the Form Three little ones going 900 metres, the Fours 1100 metres, and the big strong Fives went 1500 metres, all of them swinging their arms and looking innocent and athletic. Garden House gulls handily won most of the top spots in each form, including Avery’s, but the other two schools did not do badly. Avery’s Form completely spent themselves running encouragingly after the Form Three racers who went before, so that by the time it was their turn to run their race, they were exhausted! Avery came in eighth out of perhaps 20, not bad, and by the end of the day she had calculated that the had come best out of the King’s College representatives. As the prizes were announced, and the phrase “And in fourth place, King’s College,” was heard many times, Mrs Bickley said resignedly, “At least we’re consistent.” It turns out the other schools all have their own games pitches, whereas our children must walk to Regent’s Park to run. Well, then.
But the big excitement of the day was when I spotted who I was sure was the Crown Prince of Greece! I know, it’s pathetic to get so excited to see the heir to a non-existent throne, but he’s a staple of Hello! magazine and I found it quite exciting. My suspicions were confirmed when he was joined by his gorgeous, impossibly chic wife, the former Marie-Chantal Miller of the New York Millers. Unbelievably she was dressed in white Chanel trousers and jacket, on a football pitch! Prince Pavlov towered above all the other fathers, at perhaps 6 feet 4, in perfectly tailored, very European clothes that set him apart from the rather scruffier English dads. For sure there was no other Chanel on the pitch. Mrs King and Mrs Bickley thought I should take a picture of them to sell to Hello!, but even my crass American manners told me I should leave them alone. I did get one picture of them leaving, because of course they arrived just in time for their daughter’s race for Eaton Square, and left immediately after. Not for them the ride home with a sweet exhausted child on a red double-decker bus.
We all were “cheered off” as they say, with the first “hip hip HOORAY!” I have ever heard outside a Winnie the Pooh story. Home on the bus, where in Sloane Street, stuck in a traffic jam, I saw Roberto Cavalli! The hot and happening designer, who now calls Victoria Beckham his muse. Ick. He was coming out of his own store, carrying one of his own bags. Now, what could he possibly have bought?
This weekend was a real food fest in our house. I had got myself in the mood with spaghetti and meatballs on Wednesday evening, while Stephanie, Anna and Avery were playing. It’s such a good, made-up recipe with cottage cheese and fresh thyme, and I usually use a mixture of ground lamb, pork and beef, but dopey Marks and Sparks had only beef “mince,” and I was too ashamed to crawl over to Selfridges yet again, so I made do. Then a long-simmered simple tomato sauce with red wine, and you saute the meatballs in a skillet and then pour the sauce over them and let them jiggle for as long as they need, but at least half an hour to cook them through. Email me if you want the meatball recipe. Stephanie and Anna hung over the skillet asking to stay to dinner! Stephanie’s dad came to pick her up and we were treated to a hilarious dance recital.
Want a completely simple, cooks-itself soup idea? Roughly chop up lots of garlic, an onion, and 8 bell peppers, any color but green. Throw them in a large pot with olive oil and saute briefly. Add a good splash of brandy or madeira, and cover them all with chicken broth, then sprinkle on dried thyme, or fresh thyme leaves if you have them (not the stems, though). Simmer forever, at least an hour but as long as you like. Whizz with a hand-held blender (one of the most useful ktichen tools in my opinion, since you don’t have to cool the soup as you would before putting it through a regular blender) and pour into another pot through a strainer to get the little pepper skin bits out. Add as much cream as you like and check the seasonings, then simmer till you want to eat it. Divine, and so extremely good for you with all those peppers.
Saturday we met up with Anna’s family (minus too-cool Ashley) to go to the St. John and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital charity Easter Egg Hunt, in St. John’s Wood up north of the school. Importantly it had been billed as including a petting zoo, so Becky and I were flummoxed to arrive and find not only no eggs, but no animals. There was the weirdest system of egg-hunting: the volunteers randomly threw empty plastic eggs around on the lawn (admittedly strewn with just-bloomed crocuses, gorgeous purple and yellow), and then the children randomly picked them up and turned them in at a table piled high with boxes of the ubiquitous Cadbury’s Cream Eggs. No real eggs! Nothing in the plastic ones! And no jelly beans, which means the real Easter Bunny had not been there. And screaming toddlers, everywhere. The sky clouded over and we were all freezing! The girls were good sports, though, and just as we were despairing of salvaging the afternoon, the creatures showed up. A big goat, a pygmy goat, several rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs, and a couple of ferrets.
As we walked down the St. John’s Wood High Street after lunch, I had a longing for Thanksgiving dressing, so I turned into the Kent and Sons Butcher (“You turned into the butcher, Mommy? How disgusting,” Avery would say, since she always loves it when Nancy Drew “turns into her driveway”) and bought outrageously expensive pork and jalapeno sausages and chicken breasts for the main course. John was apoplectic at the cost, but I have to say that sausage was the best I have ever had, and it’s such an important ingredient in the dressing that it made a real difference. It smelled good even raw! With fresh sage, the torn-out insides of Italian bread, plenty of garlic, mushrooms, celery, onions, chicken broth and cream, that is simply the most divine dressing, if a lot of trouble.
Yesterday was the spring time change, so in order to get to the Marylebone Farmer’s Market before everything was sold, I was awakened at an unconsolingly early hour. Turned out it wasn’t necessary, as the market didn’t even open until 10, yippee for next weekend! We ran into my friend Diana who with her usual savoir-faire, told us which was the best of everything. “You have never tasted a carrot until you buy some from this greengrocer,” she assured me, which might matter if we ate carrots in any way except drenched in butter and brown sugar and sauteed until every ounce of nutrition has been replaced with fat. Sorry, but there it is. I learned that recipe from my darling Jeanne Grieger in Orange, New Jersey, and I will never look back. Avery acquired a tiny hyacinth plant and an even tinier something else lavender to raise on her bedroom windowsill. She and John quickly tired of the market, as normal people will do after a certain period of time, so they ran off the find a barber for John and I stayed and puttered around.
I bought a gorgeous leg of lamb, planning to give Avery leftover chicken as she objects to lamb on cuteness principles. Listen to the butcher’s address: “Layer Marney Lamb, Poultry and Game, Thorrington, Layer Marney, Colchester, Essex.” Whew! I bought several remarkable cheeses, and a just-pressed pat of butter from Simon Jones, the dairy man, and two lovely smoked herrings from Simon Long, the fishmonger. Gorgeous tomatoes from the Isle of Wight and some curious potatoes called Pink Fir Apples, only they’re potatoes. Waxy and good for salad, the greengrocer said. I confess I bought them just for the fun of typing “Pink Fir Apples,” but I imagine I can find something to do with them. As for the lamb, oh my. Even Avery was converted! I seared it all over in olive oil with salt and pepper on all surfaces as I turned it, in a heavy oven-proof pot, then put it in a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile I mixed a stick of butter with chopped garlic, a tablespoon each of Dijon mustard and soy sauce, and a tablespoon each of rosemary and fennel seeds, pounded in a plastic bag (not very successfully, a little spice grinder would have been better). Smeared half of this over the lamb, then turned the oven down to 350 for another 25-ish minutes (a 2 1/2 pound leg, bone-in). I let it sit for 10 minutes or so so all the juice wouldn’t run out when I sliced it, and melted the rest of the herb butter. I am a horrible carver, so I know I don’t get the best presentation, but with the fennel and herb butter poured over the juicy pink lamb and leftover dressing on the side, it was simply divine. Sauteed shredded brussells sprouts were my tiny gesture toward good health and austerity.
I’ve got our Scottish adventure planned! Avery and I shall take the Caledonian Sleeper train Thursday evening, leaving exotically at nearly midnight from Euston Station. We arrive first thing in the morning in Edinburgh, where we can get breakfast somewhere and explore, then then we head out to our hotel, the Castle Dalhousie just a few miles into the countryside. I dare you to go on the Castle’s website and not be instantly determined to go with us! We’ll stay until Monday afternoon and come home on the day train, so we can see the scenery go by. I am really looking forward to it. John leaves on Wednesday of this week for his Hong Kong-Shanghai-Sydney-Tokyo trip and he would much rather be coming with us. We’ll be at home then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and go to the show jumping event on Friday and Saturday!
Last but not least, tonight is John’s boss’s work dinner party that’s been in the hopper for months. I’m going to wear the gorgeous Vince black velvet jacket that my mother-in-law gave me, and I was going to wear with it a short black skirt. But guess what? I wound up going to Selfridges and up to the designer women’s wear section, and I bought a little pair of the fashionable longish shorts that everyone’s wearing on the catwalk. At its worst this style is a terrible idea, but these are by Chloe, a nice sort of taupey-goldy really subtle tweed, just above knee length. The saleslady assures me that with my jacket, black tights and black high heels I will be the latest word in fashion. I doubt that, but it has to be cooler than all black. I also got some yummy face cream at a place called Biotherm, and I finally replaced my empty bottle of Hermes perfume that has traveled sadly here with me from New York. I hope I will do John credit! I’ve never before been to a dinner party where you’re provided, via email, with resumes for all the guests. Except me of course. It’s a pretty heady mix of investment banking executives, hedge fund managers, minor members of the British aristocracy. And us. I can’t decide who I’m going as: former gallery owner and professor, cookbook writer, or just plain at-home mother. To go as a former self seems a bit depressing, but to go as something you’re only planning to be… that’s iffy as well. Probably best to go with what I know. Too bad I can’t bring Avery in my pocket.
Well, today’s the big 900-metre Cross-Country Race for which the girls of Avery’s school have been preparing for weeks. I might have mentioned: there were tryouts, and the top five girls in each form were chosen to represent King’s College in their best style against two schools: the dreaded Garden House School who so roundly trounced Avery’s netball team last month, and Kensington Prep about whom nothing is really known. Well, Avery has a huge grudge against Garden House to begin with because when we were applying to schools for her, Garden House wouldn’t even let her apply. Too full up with far cooler children, was the general attitude it seemed. So added to that was the pernicious defeat in netball, and let me tell you, those girls had better watch out today.
Avery of course had no interest in representing her school; she merely ran as fast as she could and came in sixth. She was hugely relieved to find that she had missed being in the running, so to speak, by just one gull. However, one gull turned out not to be able to fulfill her duties (naughty pictures of her found on the internet? we don’t know), and Avery had to step up, to her dismay. So many a pickup at school has been punctuated with complaints about training: how tired her legs are, how Miss King didn’t even run with them, she just walked across Regent’s Park as they ran all the way around, and met them on the other side. And she had candy! The injustice. Anyway, today’s the day, in Battersea Park, so I and some other mothers shall go cheer them on. Of course it’s raining. However.
Lovely playdate with Kelly and Anna here this week. Finally the garden got some use! And tomorrow is a big festive early Easter party, to benefit a children’s charity, at a hospital garden in St. John’s Wood, with a petting zoo! Should be fun. I’ll bring my camera. I’ve been busy this week planning Avery’s and my spring break trip to Sheffield, in Yorkshire, to see the British Open Show Jumping Championships! Horses running through rings of fire, people doing somersaults on their backs, who knows what else in addition to the real event, the show jumping. Royal Girl Zara Phillips will be competing! I’d love to see somebody I recognize from Hello! magazine. Then I’ve got to get hotel reservations and train tickets for our trip to Scotland that week as well. We have to entertain ourselves while John visits every major Asian city, a real bummer in terms of timing, of course. But the sleeper train to Edinburgh! John and I did that 15 years ago, as newlyweds, on our mammoth castle-hopping trip to Scotland, and it will be fun to take Fifi with me this time… what fun! And I think it will be lambing season in the heathery hills.
Oh, it’s such fun to live here. I know I am tiresome on the subject of Selfridges Food Hall, but it really is a mecca, a dream come true, and a Pandora’s box of temptation all at the same time. There’s a simile I’m thinking of… it’s like when you go on an austerity campaign and for a good two months or so, you buy only house brand tinned tuna. Canned tuna to you across the pond, sorry. Then, you find yourself in Fairway, in good old Harlem (homesick for a moment! thinking of the incomparable finds to be had there, not to mention an awfully nice view of New Jersey), and, lurking in aisle 4, is a huge display of “Tonna di Sicilia all’olio d’olive”, hey, it’s only $4 a can, and look at the pretty font! You’re doomed. Well, all it took was one innocent trip to buy my spareribs over the weekend and now, suddenly, I simply had to have a salt beef sandwich from Selfridges for lunch. So off I went, armed with my copy of the laugh-out-loud cookbook by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, “The Prawn Cocktail Years,” and a hearty appetite. I mean, a girl has to eat.
I ordered my savoury and luscious-looking half sandwich (so civilized, the half sandwich, a perfect solution to a lack of dining companion), with a completely inadequate coleslaw salad on the side, awful, simply drenched in salad cream. Better just left in the bowl. However, the salt beef is good enough to make “The Railway Bar” in the Food Hall a destination. A lovely man called Calvin behind the counter said, handing me my wine glass, “That’s a great cookbook, I used to work for him at Bibendum.” “Did you? What was he like?” I asked, fascinated by the possibility of food world gossip. “Oh, a lovely funny man, but after seven years I had had enough of shellfish. I opened an average of 7000 oysters a week.” Having tried, 15 years ago, to shuck enough oysters for one measly Christmas Eve stew, I was truly impressed. “My copy’s signed, though,” he said, and I quickly leafed through to find MY signed title page (the book was a Christmas gift from my foody London friend Carla years ago, and hiding in it was a note from her thanking me for the picture books I sent her son!), so it was a standoff. I sat down and was just taking my first bite when a manager sort of person came round asking if everything was all right, so I asked what I had always wondered, “What is salt beef when it’s in America?” We debated the possibility that it was pastrami, but no, The Railway Bar offers pastrami as well. This nice man, Alex, brought me a sample of it, and we decided that where pastrami is peppered and possibility cured in a vinegar bath, salt beef is just that, salt-cured. Delicious with plenty of yellow mustard and rye bread. Not quite Katz Deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but pretty good, and the best I’m going to get until I get up enough energy to go to Golders Green on the Northern Line (Alex drew me a map on my receipt) to the Jewish district.
I rang up the Press Office at Selfridges to get permission to take a picture of the salt beef, but “Roz” was away from her desk or on another line, so I gave up and took these pictures of the outside. I’m not sure who the flowing-garmented figure is, but it’s certainly a landmark in Oxford Street.
Hopkinson and Bareham are worth the price of admission to their cookbooks. Their first collaboration, “Roast Chicken and Other Stories,” won every award known to the cookery world and is an absolute must-read on a grey London afternoon when you don’t know what to cook. But this one I read over lunch is really subtle, very appealing. Their contention is that the British own a rare talent for creating a perfectly good dish, making it a classic, and then running it into the ground. They begin, of course, with the staple of all English menus, the prawn cocktail. Now, my sister aside (who has a sad history with prawns, but we needn’t go there) every right-minded person without a shellfish allergy loves a good “shrimp” cocktail. But they can be so BAD. “Freshly boiled prawns from the British seaside are rare today, which is a pity, so the next best thing is whole cooked prawns. They will often have been frozen but their quality, once shelled and decapitated, is surprisingly good. Frankly, if you wish to use those tasteless, bulk-frozen little commas, then you have only yourself to blame.”
The recipe for beef consomme, however, reminds me why I dropped my obsession, some years ago, with consomme. There’s something about this sentence that just pricks my culinary balloon: “When the first signs of froth and scum appear, and the clarification mulch begins to solidify, a trickle of stock will appear through it.” This is where my “somebody gut this fish for me” tendency kicks into high gear and I want to go to McDonalds. I guess there’s a reason I never went to cooking school. I do want to talk to someone about potted shrimp. Would you believe this cookbook actually contains a recipe that involves boiling trotters for stock (yes, they’re actually pigs’ feet, trotting along), and then picking out the boiled meat and potting it under aspic? It’s a wonder the English have survived this long.
So Avery is out with her beloved Katie right now, going to Madame Tussaud’s and the London Planetarium! They’re just a ten-minute walk from school and Katie will have her trusty London A to Z (the indispensable map book of London, don’t forget to say “zed” instead of the crass American “zee”). Avery’s friend Anna came over yesterday and in the cab taking her home, they invented a surprisingly intelligent, if eventually mind-bendingly annoying, game. They said every French word they could think of (I was amazed there were so many!) only they pronounced them with a phonetic English pronunciation. So poor “vendredi” came out sounding like an Indy 500 driver, “ven-dretti”, and “je suis” was “gee soo-is”. I have to admit it was funny. Considering that the King’s College children are taught by the felicitously-monikered but markedly NOT French lady “Mademoiselle… Stanway,” they’re not doing too badly. Hey, it beats studying with the Spanish teacher, “Senorita…O’Malley.” I’m not making this up.
And in case you were wondering what’s up with my finding an actual occupation for myself, I’ve put my name out in an email to a film production company to intern for them! My erstwhile-acting friends Anne and David at Stillmeadow Farm in Connecticut assure me this is the way to get my proverbial foot in the door. The advertised post is for one full day, possibly more, a week, doing who knows what. I wonder if I could offer to come more days, but for fewer hours? Not sure how much babysitting help I want. It’s probably easier to get Avery an agent and become a stage mother. I’m sure I’m qualified for that.
Our weekend was blissfully uneventful. We had booked a new babysitter for Friday evening and my Lifestyle Consultant had got reservations for us at the Savoy Grill. However. During the course of Friday I did get my boiler fixed (the lame porter Iain even brought me flowers to apologize for my trauma) but not before I had a complete nervous breakdown. Get this: John called me when he got to the office to see if the repair guys had come yet, and of course they had not, and I just absolutely lost it. Honestly I was near to tears, what with being cold and dirty, and for some reason my mobile phone wouldn’t charge and a DVD was stuck in the player so I couldn’t even lose myself in some fictional world. Well, I hung up tearfully and went off to make beds, feeling sorry for myself. Sometime later I heard the front door slam. Scary! Who knows who has a key to my flat. I came upstairs stealthily, lurking around corners on tiptoe, when I saw John! “You did not sound like you wanted to spend the day alone,” the dear man said. “That’s what partners are for.” Well!
I realized I did not have the heart to go out for a killer dinner; what a waste to pay a babysitter and swallow a solid-gold dinner when I was just too tired. So we canceled everything, and I went to fetch Avery at her playdate with Jade. They looked angelic in their matching uniforms and Nina, the Russian nanny, reported that they had done their homework and had dinner. This is a very typical setup, I have found, in the better families of London. The children are fed by the nanny at 5 o’clock or some such hour, and the parents come home and have their own dinner separately, the children being tucked up in bed with a nice sedative or whatever so as not to cause any stress in the household. As we walked home from Marylebone in the frosty twilight, I said contentedly, “Well, it looks like you had a nice time.” Silence. “Didn’t you?” “Well, Mummy, I just don’t think I’m sophisticated enough to play with Jade. She seems like a, sort of a teenager and I’m just a little nine year old.”
I said, “I think you’re sophisticated in your own way, but what about Jade seemed so old?” Avery hesitated. “She… she… talked about… IT.” “It?” “You know, THAT subject. She had Barbie and Ken doing some things that I know are definitely not appropriate for my age.” Oh dear! I diagnosed some older stepsisters somewhere in the background. “Well, let’s have Jade to play at our house sometime, just as a return favor, and we’ll see what she gets up to when there aren’t any Barbies.” Although the prospect of their playing with Avery’s many horse models does not inspire confidence, as far as husbandry (animal or otherwise) goes.
We got home to the most luscious pork spareribs in the world. I had gone all out and shopped at Selfridge’s Food Hall, a truly divine experience, and had bought a huge rack of Gloucester Old Pot (sometimes called Old Spot, I don’t know which is truly correct) ribs, a superior, beyond organic type of pork that the butcher assured me was of even higher quality than free range.
I marinated them in a mixture of random things pulled from the pantry shelf: molasses, honey, Lyle’s golden syrup, soy sauce, Japanese mirin (a sort of rice wine), and the leftovers of last night’s mustardy salad dressing. I mixed this all up in a bowl and poured it over the ribs, and then they slow-roasted in a low oven, perhaps 300 degrees, for nearly three hours, being turned twice and swirled around on the marinade in the dish. Don’t forget to line your baking dish with foil, and then you just ball it up and throw it away when you’re finished, and the dish is clean underneath (a must with these sticky marinades and long cooking times). With these ribs we had sinfully rich mashed potatoes (nothing beats a combination of creme fraiche and single English cream) and steamed artichokes. Have I ever in my life steamed artichokes without letting them boil dry and burning the hell out of the bottom of the pan? I don’t think so. It never seems to hurt them but it makes cleanup really annoying. But a delicious comfort dinner on a cold night, and it basically cooked itself.
Saturday I was given a Day of Luxury! I slept late and was greeted with a plate of very perfect scrambled eggs with sour cream, the eggs having been a total indulgence from my food frenzy at Selfridge’s. “Mabel Pearman’s Burford Browns” they were, the brownest shells, embossed with some very Englishy rearing griffin, the yolks as yellow as the sun, all served up with toast soldiers and a cup of tea. Plus something to drink called Oranapplgina which was Avery’s own invention. It all came with a very impressive menu in a fancy font, which I have saved in my underwear drawer, under my “smalls,” as the English say. After breakfast we did nothing. Or rather I did laundry. Just before dinner-preparation time the phone rang and it was Anna, asking Avery to come spend the night! So I got her through a lightning-fast shower and we sped to Harley House where I dumped her, protesting to Becky that she had enough on her plate without a sleepover date, but she was on her way out to see “The Producers” with her houseguests. A whirlwind of gaiety.
Yesterday we saw “The Pink Panther” and it was truly ridiculous, but we found ourselves laughing anyway. Steve Martin is just funny no matter what he does, and Emily Mortimer was adorable as his little French secretary. A long walk home via John Lewis department store where we bought very dull things like a food processor and a coat rack and a spray bottle for long-suffering Dorrie’s ironing duties.
I’m going to spend the day honing my new skill: adding hot links to this blog! As you may have noticed in this post, you can now click on various words (just the colored ones, sorry) and be sent to exciting websites where you can virtually visit our after-school snack haunts, read the menu of favorite restaurants, see the hotel where Avery and I will spend our Scottish Highland spring break (that will have to wait till I know where we’re staying!), even order bookshelves just like mine! Be sure to comment on the blog post, or email me, if you want me to add a link. This is getting serious, this blog stuff.
Hmm, since I don’t know your answer I’ll go for my system: we have no heat or hot water! No, your cursor didn’t accidentally send you back to last week, or to last month. Nope, it’s happened again. But let’s skip right from that and the fact that I am completely sweaty and stinky from shelving all my books, and Avery’s hands are beyond inky, but no one can take a bath. Really, we’ll skip right from that to the good news which is… which is… see? I can’t remember. No, now I do: my bookshelves are filled! The flip side of that is the fact that there is still a box of my books to be shelved, plus four boxes of Avery’s books. I think the only solution is a quick trip to John Lewis over the weekend and see what we can just take home with us in the way of a piece of shelving furniture, if anything. London furniture stores delight in that dreaded phrase, “lead time.” It could easily be eight weeks, but let’s not think about that.
I found so many things I forgot I had! Excellent mysteries, although I’m ashamed to say how many duplicate copies I have (“I really need to read ‘The 4:50 From Paddington’ and I can’t find my copy! Quick one-click stop on Amazon”), a copy of my own dissertation! and other treasures. I cry every time I read “Under a Wing,” the Lindbergh daughter Reeve’s stunning memoir of her father), and then there were all my childhood Nancy Drews. Avery is right now running up and down the stairs with piles of books she forgot she had, happy as a clam.
Listen to what we’re having for dinner and put it in your memory for the night you can’t bear to go out to the grocery because it’s sleeting and you have no heat and hot water. No, don’t put it under that nasty memory. It’s just totally easy. Place a whole stick of butter in a heavy pot, throw in several sliced cloves of garlic and an onion that you’ve cut in half and sliced roughly. Add two large cans (not the cans, I mean the contents) of peeled plum tomatoes, a splash of cheap red wine and a good two tablespoons of Italian seasoning. Now put it on a simmer and go away. Look at your filled bookshelves and gloat. Come back every 15 minutes or so to stir, and burst the tomatoes with your spoon. After 45 minutes it’s ready, but it can also sit there, for close to two hours, really low heat, if it needs to while your husband walks in and goes apoplectic over the non-existent boiler. Grrr. Boil some spaghetti during the last ten minutes, make sure you’ve got some grated cheese, pecorino of parmesan, and you’re done. With this we’re having a variation on the salad I talked about last, this one chunks of tomato and avocado, with a dressing I think is a pretty good imitation of the weird steakhouse one from yesterday. Three parts olive oil to one part any kind of vinegar and one part dijon mustard, plus a quarter teaspoon curry powder and a quarter teaspoon ground cumin, plus some salt and pepper. And a blueberry coffee cake of my own design, with a sunken gooey center that Avery loves.
I’m dropping with tiredness!
Have you ever gutted a lemon sole? It’s very off-putting and icky. However, all the slaving did result in an incredibly tasty dish that also marked a milestone in our domestic sphere: John ate fish! Next time, though, I will ask the fishmonger to fillet the little guys for me because I was really out of my depth. The recipe came from Mitchell Tonks’s fabulous cookbook “The Fishmonger’s Cookbook,” so in all fairness I went to his fish shop (doesn’t he look incredibly cheery?), “FishWorks” in the Marylebone High Street where I had such a memorable lunch early on in our stay here, to get the fish. Unhappily I left this task until after I picked Avery up from school, so she had to come along, and she was not happy at the fishy smell, nor at the sight of the many different whole fishes, a little too up close and personal for her refined tastes.
So the recipe called for dredging the fish in flour, shaking off the excess, and frying it gently in lots of butter, about 6 minutes per side, then you take the fish out of the frying pan, keep them warm, add more butter to the pan and some fresh parsley, and pour it over the fish. I chose lemon sole because it’s such a mild flavor that it couldn’t scare John too much. Absolutely drop-dead delicious, simple, perfectly fresh and light. The whole process was rather nerve-wracking, though, so fillets from now on.
I have bookshelves! The people FINALLY came today, after many missed phone calls, lost emails, inflated prices and other mishaps. I read with my gulls this morning and came home to find a nice team of three elves working away, and within two hours I had a whole wall of lovely, empty shelves that are removable and able to be mixed and matched in any way I like, wherever we move next (heaven forfend). So now all I have to do (!) is move the 30-odd boxes of books from my study across the hall to the living room, and shelve them all, then break down the boxes for the recyclers who conveniently come on Thursday evening. I have gone so far as to empty two boxes and decided to skip alphabetizing for now, just to get them on the shelves. So far I’ve separated non-fiction from fiction, and cookbooks from everything else, and I think that will be the extent of my organization. You’ll
know I’ve gone over the edge when I dewey-decimal them all.
Yesterday I collapsed after school dropoff and simply took a nap, in the guest room, thankfully taking the precaution of pulling down the window shades, because I was awakened by the sound of the porter’s voice seemingly in my ear, and he was just outside the window attending to some business of rubbish, so I got up, and my friend Becky called to invite me to lunch at a really weird but strangely appealing place in Marylebone Lane, Le Relais de Venise, where the only thing on the menu (so there really isn’t a menu, just a terse announcement of what you’re about to eat) is steak frites. That’s it. In “a secret sauce,” which I diagnosed as a not-so-secret mustard vinaigrette with, I think, a hint of curry powder. And the same sauce as a salad dressing. Huge, unmanageable portions, admittedly gorgeous frites, and we had fun.
It is really hard for me to believe that since then we have had Halloween in New York, a mammoth last-gasp birthday party for 60, Thanksgiving at Red Gate Farm, John’s last work dinner for 50-some, sold our apartment, had movers to dismantle our lives, Christmas in Connecticut, the move here, and have nearly completely settled into entirely new lives. New house, new cleaning lady, new babysitter, scores of friends, new doctor, school, office, bookshelves! What a whirlwind it’s been. No wonder I needed a nap.
Well, boxes beckon, so I’m off. After school I’ve been dispatched by John to an unbelievable establishment called The Button Queen, to replace the several hundred buttons he’s missing from various suits. I’ll take my camera. Tomorrow night we have a date night, at the Savoy Grill where my Lifestyle Consultant has managed to book us a table. Oh, and her name turned out to be… Sarah Hornbuckle. I am not making that up.
I feel like I need a vacation from my weekend! Yesterday we walked over four miles after dropping Avery off just past Holland Park, at her new friend Sophia’s gorgeous house (more on that later), and then when I went to fetch her I decided to get on the phone to my mama and walk all the way there. Today if I were not surrounded by cleaning lady and electrician checking all our bits and pieces, I would be flat out on the sofa with a hot water bottle and a kitty. It could still happen, when everyone abandons me.
And Avery’s been invited to play at Jade’s house on Friday! How nice. Her glamourous mum approached me at dropoff this morning, never my favorite time of day to chat but oh well, and said, “How would Friday be? Right, good. Sorted. Lovely. Bye!” and I felt like I’d been hit by a steamroller. Unlike at PS 234, no one here has yet learned that I should never be asked to make plans at 8:15 in the morning because there’s such a significant chance that I will not remember a thing I said I would do. But here, now I’ve a record of our plans. Don’t let me forget.
class=“mobile-post”>Made a salad last night that I want you all to try (except my mother who thinks avocados taste like modeling clay). Very simple and pretty, in fact pretty enough to post a picture of it finished on my kitchen counter last evening, before John demolished most of it even before dinner began. I just managed to salvage a few mouthfuls for myself. You run your knife all around an avocado, lengthwise, and then twist it so as to separate the two halves (one will contain the pit). Then run your knife down the inside of the non-pit half of the avocado, again
lengthwise, in thin slices, and turn the avocado half inside out, like you would a mango if you’ve ever watched Hercule Poirot prepare a mango. If you haven’t, just trust me, that’s how you do it. Pull off the slices, even if some of them break, and fan them out on a plate. Then slice a ball of mozzarella nice and thick and intersperse with the avocado. Then halve tiny cherry tomatoes, and scatter them across the salad. Sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and dot with spoonsful of pesto, sprinkle with salt, and you’re done. Hide from husband if you want any for yourself.
There was some sort of parade (or protest? they all look alike) that shut down Park Lane yesterday morning, thus effectively trapping us in Mayfair, but alas we had to get to Kensington to take Avery to Sophia’s, so we hopped in a taxi and for the price of a nice lunch out got her to her playdate.
Sophia’s mum Susan greeted us on the steps of their big, elegant house (inside a wrought-iron gate and across a courtyard, so civilized). The inner foyer is tiled in a sort of Italianate, well-worn and colorful pattern, and the walls lined with Susan’s collection of mid-century modern art, the mantelpiece of the hallway fireplace lined with invitations to art exhibitions and weddings. One card said, just like you read in a book, something like “Mrs Annabelle Westacott, At Home.” I’ve always wanted a card like that, just to announce that I’m At Home. High ceilings, layered rugs, flower arrangements, the walls hung salon-style with art from floor to ceiling. An installation of twelve Man Ray watercolours, “Evolution of a Cactus,” which of course I have TAUGHT to people but never seen in person. Susan is a docent at the Royal Academy of Art and clearly passionate about her subject in a way that I admire but don’t exactly share anymore, having made the colossal symbolic gesture of leaving all my art history books in storage in New Jersey.
Avery immediately followed Sophia up the mammoth staircase, followed by their black labrador, Diva, so Susan gave us a tour of the five-storey house complete with two kitchens, a garden, a terrace and a roof deck, bookshelves throughout (making me terribly envious and impatient for my own). At some point her husband Claus joined us, a somewhat older German man with the indefinable aura of the sophisticated European financier: sort of pumpkin-colored corduroy trousers, a red sweater, blue shirt, and thinning hair floating across the top of his head, horn-rimmed spectacles and highly-polished loafers. He approached us and held out his hand, which John met with his own, HOWEVER Claus reached right past him to ME in a gesture of old-world elegance that I found quite charming! Then he allowed John to shake his hand, saying something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry to have been delayed, matters of consultations about contemporary German art, you know.” Not something that normally calls me to the phone on a given Sunday afternoon, but there you have it. He and John immediately got down to the ever-popular game of “investment bankers I have known,” settling down to one Arthur Winther, about whom I heard a lot in maybe 1988 but haven’t thought of since; he was enough to bond the two men in stories of “swaps” and discussions of various currencies and the old days of rogue banking. John said, “I remember when Goldman Sachs was suffering some bad numbers and Arthur just couldn’t stand it, called a meeting and stood there, slamming his fists down on the table and shouting, “We must focus on… EVERYTHING!” This so took me back to the old heady days when Goldman Sachs ruled the world, complete with its own emergency blood supply in Moscow (I remember my little access card in my wallet, lo these many years ago).
Susan and I discussed art history, and the incredibly tiny world that makes her the godmother of the children of the couple who developed our loft building on Franklin Street. Got that? The girls made a whirlwind appearance to ask if 1) they could jump on Sophia’s bed, and 2) they could try on Susan’s shoes. Permission was granted for both requests. We looked out at the beautiful, manicured garden, graced with a trampoline, and I asked if they had nice neighbors, since they are, as they say in London real-estate-speak, “overlooked.” “Oh, they’re lovely,” Susan said, “even if the frogs from their pond do tend to make their way rather too frequently over our hedge. Yesterday I had to fling two of them back over, and they were attached to each other at the time, in that way that creatures do when springtime arrives, you know. But I had to
get to them before Diva did, you see.”
Susan herself is absolutely beautiful in the way of a Ralph Lauren model, perfect bone structure, a loosely gathered ponytail with elegant strands escaping, a simple shawl-collared cashmere cardigan, and discreet Reinstein Ross jewelry (another nice bonding point for us; shared jewelry designers will do that for you). She ushered us out the door and we headed over to South Ken for lunch. Of course on the way we ran into one of John’s colleagues, a gorgeous and athletic woman called Mary whom I was glad I hadn’t known existed until then: how does he work surrounded by these people? I refrained from asking if she was going to be on his mammoth Asian odyssey in a couple of weeks. I don’t want to know.
We got a table at the Bibendum Oyster Bar in our old haunt, the
Michelin Building in the Fulham Road.
I don’t know why I love that place, I never really enjoy the food, but there you go. It’s the ambience. We had curried parsnip soup, good but too thick I thought, and then I succumbed to the temptation of a classic English dish I have always read about but never eaten: potted shrimps. The idea is one of a very sort of English confit, a way of preserving food in the days before adequate refrigeration. The shrimps (tiny tiny things, must ask at which point shrimps come to be called prawns; it seems to be a size thing, but I’ll have to find out) are placed in a little pot, hence the name, and then covered with melted butter, which then, I hate to use the word, congeals and forms a sort of seal. It never occurred to me, when reading about Lord Peter Wimsey eating potted shrimps, that they actually are served congealed. Now I know, and it’s one of those instances where the bad things people say about English food are entirely deserved. What a weird thing to eat. Traditional garnishes of marinated cucumbers, cornichons and toast points. Whew, it was hard going. John looked at me smugly over his perfect bowl of Caesar salad and inquired how my shrimps were, declined to share and clearly had his own opinions of people who order things because they appear on the menus in murder mysteries written 70 years ago. Fair enough. But we shared a nice South African sauvignon blanc, had a wander through the rug section of Conran’s, realized for the fifteenth time that we have never measured the living room and therefore cannot buy a rug, and walked home. John took a nap and I had my mammoth walk back to get Fifi.
Well, the electrician has finally left. Can I justify a quick little lie-down on the sofa? So tempting.
I can’t believe I forgot to tell you about her! My Lifestyle Consultant, yes you read correctly. Would you believe I don’t even
know her name? She was merely introduced to me with the above title, by some chick from Grosvenor Estates, our faceless landlord, yesterday in the midst of all the chaos. Doorbell rings, I trip over various plumbing items and narrowly miss knocking down the art installer walking with screws in his mouth, and there, on my doorstep, are two very dressed-up English ladies, one with a little cardy buttoned up over her little Peter Pan blouse and the other all muffled in one of those coats with the furry trim all around the collar and straight down to the hem. “Is this a bad time?” the Grosvenor lady asked, and I almost burst out laughing. Seeing as how I probably smelled bad from no hot water for a week, and had been out in the rain about twelve times and looked like a wet dog, not to mention the absolute mess the entire flat was in… “No! Of course not, come right in.”
“Well, Mrs Curran, we are here merely to offer our Invitation To An Easier Life,” Furry Lady said, and her words virtually hung in the air like a conversation balloon; to punctuate her speech she held out a little cream-colored booklet bound with a green ribbon bow and bearing those very words, along with “Be Inspired To Make the Most of Our Service.” “I suppose to get our conversation started, I should ask you what pops into your head when you read this booklet, what little item, however insignificant, presents itself as something that would truly enhance your life, Mrs Curran?” “Well, you could start with heat. Or hot water, either one,” I said, and they wilted visibly. So the Grosvenor Gady went off to solve all my plumbing problems from her desk, while Concierge Lady and I sat on the sofa in the living room surrounded by all Mark’s paraphernalia, and I tried to think of ways to Enhance My Life through a concierge service. Did you know that expert assistance with all aspects of life is only a phone call away? They are willing to “tailor a bespoke service” around me and my household. All this without hot water! Amazing. They can arrange to have beautiful flowers delivered to your home weekly, find a regular (not an irregular, by any means) dog walker, and “source a coach for your golf swing, your tennis strokes, or your yoga poses.” But my personal favorite has to be their earnest offer to “ensure the fridge is stocked when you return to London after a weekend away.” Now that’s service. How about the liquor cupboard? That’s what I really needed yesterday, a nice stiff shot of aquavit and a jump in the snow.
Night nannies! Personal shoppers! They’ll book a massage for your visiting mother-in-law! And the testimonials in the little booklet. “Who would have thought that I would order my car like a pizza: a single phone call, a look at the options you sent, and a few days later the car is delivered, fully insured and ready to go. How much easier can life get?”
I racked my brains trying to think up stuff to get them to do. Aside from informing them that “source” is not, has never been, and will never be, a VERB.
I do think I might take her up on the offer to get somebody to go
shopping with me for something to wear to John’s boss’s upcoming dinner party for twelve of his closest underlings. Actually I have no idea who else is going. All I know is his assistant emailed me a really warm and fuzzy query about food allergies, and I said, “Tongue.” But I do have to find something to wear, and all the stores
scare me. Concierge Lady assures me that I don’t look anywhere near 51 and it shouldn’t be hard to find something suitable, so maybe me and my shadow will mosey on over to Fenwick’s on Bond Street next week and pick up a little number. And when I get home I expect a full fridge.
Oh, it’s ON! I can take a shower for the first time since Monday!! Cold soapy washcloths have not been very satisfying I must say, or is
that TMI? Would you believe that we suffer all week, then John walks in the door from New York and three hours later everything is fixed? I seem to remember he was away the last time the boiler went? And the cooktop? Grrr. But how wonderful to take a shower this evening!
Yesterday was entirely given over to the hanging of art. I had completely forgotten what we brought with us, and had kind of got used to living with blank, impersonal walls. Even when I went around to the stacks of framed things piled against the living room walls and placed them where they should go, I did not get the little frisson of “ah, I remember you” that I got once everything was hung. The art installer was one Mark Williams, a conceptual post-Pop artist (his words, not mine!) who is a friend of our would-be/will-be shelf elf, Tessa. Tessa, after fits of bill inflation and lost email replies, has come through, we think, and the shelving for the living room Wall of Books is due to be installed on Thursday next. I am very, very excited for that, having completely exhausted my capacity to reread even Mary Wesley’s delicious “Not That Sort of Girl” one more time.
Something artsy about Tessa suggested to me that she might know an installer, and sure enough, Mark, whose kind of pitiful but sweet invoice was headed “Decorating Concepts,” arrived early this week to take stock of what he needed in the way of materials, and then came
yesterday and spent the entire day, 10–8, hanging art. I ran around after him holding up the end of the measuring tape, making little pencil marks at the tops of things, and standing around a lot looking quizzical and making judgments about the height of something, “sight lines” as we used to say in the gallery business, and arguing with Mark about feminismin the art world. Meanwhile, a grand succession of lame electricians, plumbers, porters and whatever else paraded up and down the steps to the boiler room, scaring Keechie to death, tracking in mud since of course it was p***ing rain all day on top of everything else. Everything else being my FACE which mysteriously turned bright red and incredibly itchy overnight! I cannot fathom what I’ve done to it, and I can’t say it’s better or worse today, but really odd. I think it’s fate getting back at me for pretending that John’s face cream was mine so as to get the prescription renewed. I was tripping all over myself lying to the doctor when I called her to find out what she thought was wrong with me, had to call John in New York to find out what symptoms “I” had that made “my” medicine necessary. Really, it was one of those days.
By five o’clock when the last plumber announced that he could do no more for the patient and it would probably be the middle of next week when the water came back on, I was about ready to spit. In the middle of all this I went to school pickup and fetched Avery and her new friend Sophia, taking time to chat with Ava’s mother Jill about Avery’s horseback riding, since Jill wants to get her daughter back in the saddle. After a few comments from me about Trent Park, Jill laughed and said, “I have to tell you you’re not selling me on this concept.” I have got to get a better attitude about the whole endeavor, clearly. Sally and I chatted about our traveling husbands, and Amy commiserated over my boiler, and I realized HEY! I have friends!
Pickup is, while not the social whirlwind that PS 234 was, getting to be friendly and chatty. A big improvement, although it would be John’s worst nightmare. He always claims to be so shy and retiring, but no one really believes him.
I took the kids to Villandry, and sat with them listening to their inane conversation, half in English accents and half not. They had enormous helpings of ice cream, served in big fluted crispy cookie bowls with a luscious-looking raspberry coulis drizzled about, and topped with a spun-sugar sort of butterfly wing, which of course they each had to drape over their shoulders, putting paid to their already-skanky Thursday uniform cardigans. I confided in them about my face, and they each solemnly felt my cheeks and agreed that I was quite hot, but insisted that a very, very pink face was quite fashionable.
The sky, which had lightened up for me to walk to school, simply let loose during the crucial five minutes when we waited for a cab to roll by, so we were completely soaked by the time we got home. Mark was in full form, with lots to say about Janis Joplin, was she a genius for writing that one great song or a loser for writing 100 more songs that sounded just like it, and did I have Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits CD, and he was going out for a fag and would come straightaway back. The boy rolls his own cigarettes, yum.
Once at home Avery and Sophia ate their weight in popcorn and at least four apples and then repaired to the lower level where I did not, unfortunately, follow them, until it was too late and the whole enormous box of dressup shoes and clothes that I hoped Avery would forget about if I hid it under the guest bed, had emerged in all its glory. They did look really funny draped in scarves and Victorian hats, tripping along in little plastic stiletto heels. Susan came for Sophia at 6 and was pressed into service to judge the height of the
last installation, the huge red Kate Teale. She also came up with the name and address of a framer, for the big Duston Spear whose plexi split in shipping. Mark had, incredibly, been able to repair the two
Amanda Guests that came loose from the threads they hung from. The little blue Makoto Fujimura, his lovely gift to me after his last show, hangs in the foyer, and the Michael Myers photogravure of the
Woolworth Building is over the dining table. The pair of small Kathleen Kuckas hang by the window overlooking the garden, and lots of Avery photographs downstairs. She was very happy to get her Ulfert Wilke drawing back up over her bed. That calligraphic drawing was a gift from her Iowa grandparents just after she was born, since she would stop crying every time she saw their piece by that artist! A magical baby-calmer, it has hung over her bed in all four of her homes.
Susan dragged Sophia out the door, over her protests, “You’re not my mummy, I want to live here,” only half in jest, and we arranged for Avery to go to them for Sunday lunch. I can’t wait to see where they live, some gorgeous place in Kensington, I think. When Sophia walked into our flat she looked around carefully and said, “You have a lovely flat.” Can you imagine the composure? I hope Avery will remember all her manners. Mark left, in a hail of postcards inviting me to his
show, the monoprints of brassieres dipped in ink (right up my street, as the English would say). I’m just grateful he didn’t ask me to review the show. Although that could still be coming. Avery and I went around the corner for a pizza and a salad, and unfortunately she brought along her latest obsession, little tiny flocked animals called Sylvanians. In America I remember they were called Calico Critters, but no matter, the nomenclature cannot mask the cloying cuteness of these little things, all dressed inexplicably in aprons and overalls. I heard in mind-numbing detail over dinner that you can get foxes, badgers, bunnies, cats, and they come in twins or triplets, sitting or standing, and some can even move their legs! Calgon take me away.
My reward at the end of the day was watching the director’s commentary (MY new obsession) of the BBC drama “Perfect Strangers,” which aired in America as “Almost Strangers.” Great fun, and the director Stephen Poliakoff, a truly great dramatic talent, made the observation that the English are divided into two groups: those who try to hide everything, and those who try to seek out everything. An interesting possibility.
TGIF! A well husband returned from his trip, heat and hot water, a clean house since Dorrie is just finishing up, and a nice quiet weekend planned! We’re giving Trent Park Equestrian Centre another try on Saturday.