I adore fall. Or “autumn,” as we call it in Britain. Why not “fall”? Or equally, why “fall” in America? I love it though: I always read the same books: Body in the Belfry by Katherine Hall Page, Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (what is it with me and double-barreled names?), The Affacombe Affair by Elizabeth Lemarchand…books that celebrate the splendor, the complexity and the being-on-the-brink that is autumn. And I guess it all starts in October, really, although I start stacking up those favorite books and peeking in, the last week in September.
Tonight Avery and I made it to a new adventure: the pool associated with her school! Now, my intensely stinging eyes nothwithstanding, this place is an incredible boon. For the equivalent of $70 a year per entire family, we can swim on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Saturday and Sunday mornings, AND use the tennis courts. What a bargain, in a town that holds so few for the unwary resident.
So this afternoon I was looking up disconsolately at the streaming skylight over my kitchen, absolutely splashing with rain, and thinking, “No, thanks, no swimming today,” but…
So a week from tonight, I can hardly believe it, I will be far away in a little village in Devon all by myself, having spent my first day at my week-long writing seminar. I must confess that except for one two-night trip to Los Angeles when Avery was a baby, to try to find a published for my eventual book, I have never left home! Can that be possible? In nearly twelve years? I guess it can be possible. Of course, John often leaves home, Avery regularly leaves home. But I? As close to NEVER as you can get except for NEVER.
I don’t think of myself as a controlling person, at least in terms of controlling OTHER people. But I like to have control over myself! I never don’t know what I am going to have for dinner, or what color my sheets are (they should be only white, in my opinion), who I’ll be spending time with… all strangers! That part actually sounds like fun. Leaving behind Avery and John, not so much fun.
But surely I need to do this: a week with other food writers, being taught by published, famous food writers… and I’m packing up my comfort novels about other people who have gone off on seminar retreats and adventures. Goodness! A week with no mobile phone, no internet. It all promises to be an adventure of comic proportions.
Look at this little creature! We spent Sunday morning at the fabulous indoor swimming pool associated with Avery’s new school (with glass roof tiles that made me think of the Great London Expositions of the late 19th century!), learning how to receive swimmers on the rota system we’ve all signed up for. On the way home, this little guy emerged onto the pavement! “Save him, save him!” Avery cried, so we all tried to lure him onto a leaf to put him up in the grass above the sidewalk. Finally John said, “Hey, there’s no rabies on this island,” so I scooped the little thing up in my hands and turned him out onto the grass. As we did so, a little boy and his dad walked by. “We just let him out of our house,” they laughed. Avery was in heaven.
So as not to appear callous about the global economic situation, I must utter the words “credit crunch,” “700 billion dollar bailout,” and “global economic meltdown,” and take a drink of my cocktail for each phrase, and then never utter the words again. What I’m worried about, as my friends and I discussed today, are waiters and waitresses, cleaning ladies, florists, and local shopkeepers, not Wall Street. So I did my share today: I left a good tip at lunch with my friend Dalia, I paid my fabulous cleaning lady for the week, sent flowers to my dear husband and bought an entire boneless roast duck at the new Chinese grocery store, Oriental City, in Queensway. That, and taking care of my family, is about all I can do in a worldwide mess of such proportions that Avery’s questions at dinner (“what’s wrong with having a mortgage?” and “why does anybody in England care what happens in New York?”) are really insurmountable. Even John is stymied. But what luxury we live in, not to be panicked.
And then there’s the election! I keep thinking, “Why does anyone want an ‘ordinary person, someone I can relate to, someone like ME!’ to be president or vice president?” For heaven’s sake, the last person in the WORLD I want in the White House is someone like me! An ordinary person? Not on your life! When it comes to people cutting my body open, or flying the enormous airplaine containing me and my family, or running the country, I want EXTRAORDINARY people! The very best, the smartest, dare I say it, the most ELITE people I can get. How does anybody want everyday people in charge of such matters? Checking out my groceries, my library books, sure. But running the country? No thanks. That’s scary.
Our neighbors here in England are simply agog, and alternately completely unsurprised. “These Americans are capable of anything,” seems to be the general consensus, which is frustrating when we are living here trying to act like normal people. It is increasingly hard to explain anything happening on our erstwhile native shores!
Well. All I can do is to immerse myself in the relative sanity of my adopted land (which looks increasingly like my permanently adopted land, if current trends back “home” continue). We spent Sunday afternoon, after dropping Avery off for her afternoon of slave labor cleaning tack and scooping poop, at our friends’ Vincent and Peter’s loft eating every sort of quiche you can imagine. How does Vincent just turn out these dishes seemingly effortlessly? But he does. And there was our friend Boyd, from our Morocco adventures last year, and Mark, my art installer extraordinaire. I love it when I can introduce people to people they like. We scared ourselves looking through photography books in Vincent’s collection, like the work of Loretta Lux, who struck me an a combination of Diane Arbus, Sally Mann and… someone else really creepy. Children dressed in impossibly dated, perfect clothing, big heads, weird props. And then we repaired to three quiches: one with asparagus and fresh cherry tomatoes, one with caramelised onions, goats cheese and black olives, and one with lardons and Gruyere cheese. The most PERFECT lunch. Salad, and then Peter’s homemade ice cream: ginger and honey, and hazelnut. And conversation? We talk for hours and hours while a bit of me sits back and feels intensely grateful for their friendship, for the support I feel behind me, should I ever need it: the love of longterm friendships, people who really love you. Irreplaceable.
Thence through the gorgeous late-afternoon skies over Tower Bridge, talking to John’s mom (“I think it’s very cool to be talking to somebody who is crossing Tower Bridge!” she says gleefully), past the Savoy, past the Houses of Parliament, through Trafalgar Square… what a day.
This week I’m looking forward to a book signing by Stephen Fry! A book about his experiences in, of all places, America. And then there’s the afternoon at a certain London cathedral which shall go unnamed for reasons of privacy (ha!) where the girls of Avery’s school will meet up with the boys of the brother school in an atmosphere of unheard-of (at least in my life) splendor… And I must spend plenty of time worrying about how my family will do without me, and I without them, next week. Wish me luck.
But first, before I tell you about any of my adventures, much less the most sublime and effortless chicken dish I invented this week, I must recommend a book to you: for anyone who loves England, whether a native or a visitor, Sarah Lyall’s AngloFiles is a must-read. She is the London correspondent for the New York Times (lucky lady!) and her observations are hilarious, ranging from what the different classes call a ladies’ room to the aristocracy’s penchant for names that are pronounced with no relation to how they’re spelled. You’ll love it. I haven’t got to any bits about food yet, but I’m sure I will.
She makes me envious, frankly. What fun to have a sort of JUSTIFIED curiosity about everything around her, and an authoritative stance from which to state her opinions! And she has opinions. It makes me wonder how her British friends feel about talking to her, but then she can often openly say she’s researching a piece. Well, hey, couldn’t I say the same? Researching for what? Well, my own education, I suppose. People are funny about being observed, analyzed and described, though, and I’d say the British are more funny about it than Americans, in general. I’m being much more open with my new friends about writing my “memoir cookbook,” and telling them pretty much frankly that everything is material! It was funny: upon leaving the school class “coffee morning” (a dreadful time of day for me to get to know people, I must confess, 8:30 a.m.), I left early to get to my first writing class, and several people said, “Oh, are you writing about us?” Maybe being totally open about it will keep me out of trouble.
Devoting more and more of my time to writing is making me much more comfortable with telling people I am a writer. My friend Vincent insists on introducing me as an “author,” which while strictly speaking true, might be a bit misleading. Having written countless words about art and art history doesn’t really have much to do with my current endeavors, which are somewhere between Dr Johnson and Mrs Beeton!
Can I digress and report the conversation I just had with the secretary of our local tennis courts? I rang them up to book a court.
“Yes, please, could I book a tennis court for 11 a.m. tomorrow, Saturday?“
“What is your membership number?” [fair enough]
I gave it.
“What day did you want?” [hadn’t I just said?]
“And what did you want to book for?“
“A tennis court!“
“Did you know what time you wanted?“
“And that was to play tennis, was it?”
Too funny. We’re booked anyway, finally.
We’ve had our first writing class with the new, smaller, privately arranged group, and it’s going to be very good. I submitted my cookbook chapter on “Vichyssoise,” and it went down very well, with some extremely helpful suggestions as to where it could be expanded. The subject came up of recurring characters: did I want to make sure that the people who would reappear were fully described, tantalizingly set out? So I must first check with everyone to make sure it’s all right that I mention them, and their recipes, if that’s part of the story.
Today is Friday, so it must be time to take Avery skating. Her old friend Jamie has been kind enough (well, her mother has!) to drive us each week, which makes a huge difference as I don’t honestly think we could get all the way there in time for the 5 p.m. lesson. I have such a love-hate relationship with that skating rink. On the one hand, it is almost unbearably sweet to see the two of them, so sophisticated in some ways, and growing up so fast, doing their little jumps and turns. On the other hand… I hate that place. It’s loud, it smells horribly of the various noxious items passed off as comestibles (a warring meld of Belgian waffles, hot dogs, pizza and coffee, just awful). The children push and shove, the acoustics are mind-bendingly uncomfortable, and both little girls have developed an attitude, unique to the skating rink, that seems to imply that we mothers are mere repositories for all their clobber, so I live in fear that I will leave behind a backpack, leg warmers, trainers, eyeglasses, not to mention my own paltry items. Ah well, we’re due for a break: their beloved teacher Nicky has got herself a two-week skating job in America! Oh joy.
Well, enough whinging. My point was to tell you about what makes living here so wonderful. But my first nice story could happen anywhere: Saturday I spent in one of my favorite ways: cooking all day long for our first really big dinner party in our new house! We decided to include everyone who had showed us hospitality in our new neighborhood, and then add a few more for good measure. The guest list was shortened by the non-appearance of the teenage members of these families. One mother explained to me, “Only our 11-year-old will be joining us; the older children will be out drinking, smoking and having sex.” And there was only a suggestion of a laugh. I don’t want to face the teenage years! Anyway, the dinner was a great success: ten adults and just Avery and her little friend Emily. But they were enough to entertain each other: they completely terrified poor Keechie by running up and down the five flights of stairs, claiming to see ghosts, to hear mysterious, unexplained wailing, to experience lights turning themselves off! Finally they settled down to edit Avery’s magnum opus, “The Adventures of Jazzy.” She is determined to write a real book this time (her drawers are filled with the pages of countless highly illustrated but extremely brief earlier attempts).
We ate everything in sight: grilled salmon marinated in lime juice, garlic, olive oil and Fox Point seasoning (a lovely blend of shallot, chive and some other mysterious flavors from Penzeys), cannellini beans in a sort of confit with olive oil, rosemary, toasted breadcrumbs and parmesan, to die for. And tomato-mozzarella towers with toasted pinenuts and lemon zest. My neighbor two doors down brought, at my request, her famous chocolate brownies. And the wine! Not being a wine drinker myself I was in a position to note with satisfaction that there were MANY empty bottles by the end of the night, and that did not come, dear readers, until 12:30 a.m. Yes, even the girls were up until that hour. The British are like the French when it comes to dinner parties, as far as I can see: everyone comes prepared to have a good time and to let their hair down. A fabulous, heart-warming evening that really cements my feelings that our new neighborhood is quite wonderful.
And then it was Horseman’s Sunday! Another sunny September Sunday, another blessing ceremony. This year the vicar seemed marginally less terrified on the back of the trusty steed chosen for his transport, although he never looks as if he’s having a good time. We trooped through the streets following the massive queue of horses, watched as they were individually blessed, and then… I started to sneeze. And I really have not stopped. That’s something not to love about London in the autumn. Really, really (or as my new friend Elspeth says, “rully, rully,” in the most plummy tones you can imagine) miserable. I simply could not stop, and the antihistamine I had thoughtfully brought along made not a dent. However, our social life stops for no allergies, so lunchtime found me at an outdoor table at Angelus, adjacent to the stable mews, with Vincent, Peter and John, for a lunch of unrivalled deliciousness. Of COURSE the foie gras creme brulee, quite possibly my favorite food ever. And then I had a gorgeously presented fillet of Dover sole wrapped around spinach leaves, stuffed with a lobster-scallop mousse and surrounded by little points of sugar snap peas and haricots verts. Of course I rave about this London restaurant when in point of fact I could probably get the same meal on every street in Paris. Nevertheless, it was an afternoon to savor: wonderful food, best friends, great conversation ranging from photography (of course, with John and Vincent there), to Pete’s laser eye surgery… now I’m longing to do it myself.
Finally, however, we had to admit that the afternoon was getting on and we needed to put in an appearance at the annual post-blessing gymkhana, an event of (like skating) great sweetness, but also stunning boredom. And added to that mix, the inevitable sneezing for me. Avery rode around and around on Barrie, and then Enigma, the very first of the autumn leaves in the park fell and made little pools of color. And of course I got no credit with my child for showing up, only blame that I missed her on the most important pony, or the most important game, or something! Just my luck, really.
Monday I was rewarded by doing one of my very favorite things: food shopping, and not alone! My friend Janet, visiting from Los Angeles, is the single most knowledgeable person about ethnic ingredients that I have ever met. Our Chinatown adventure had given us an appetite for more wanderings, so we met up in a sublime (but unassuming, don’t be fooled) Persian supermarket in North End Road, UR Supermarket. Numberless brands of beans, lentils, other pulses, many, many sorts of yogurt, sauces for every purpose you can imagine and a lot you cannot, spices of every description. And perhaps the best of all: a truly wonderful butcher counter with a lovely rotund little man who greeted me in French! And sold me a dozen of the best-looking lambchops you can imagine. When I got home I discovered that he had thrown in a pile of what looked at first glance like worthless bones, but grilled with a little salt and pepper, they proved of course to be ribs. Delicious.
Finally we repaired to a South Indian vegetarian restaurant in Drummond Street near Euston Station and had my first bhel-poori (a fascinating cold dish with tiny noodles, potatoes, turmeric, carrots and puffed rice!) and a bit of Janet’s dhosa, which was an enormous folded pancake-like thing stuffed with potatoes crushed with spices. A bit bland, but interestingly novel. I myself went for the buffet and had chickpeas in every guise you can imagine, poppadums and deep-fried cauliflower and courgettes. mostly it was heaven to sit and chat, about politics, husbands, cooking, cats (she is crazy about my Tacy, you might remember). Girlfriends — I’ve said it before — are the staff of life, an absolute necessity. And here is the kind of person Janet is: we had noted that the wait staff were, how to put it, unwelcoming in a fairly amusing but offputting way. Her method of dealing with this was to ask, “Are you from Bangladesh?” when our waiter came to collect our plates. He stopped in astonishment. “Yes, I am.” “Well, I love Bangladesh. Are you from [insert name of town I did not know]?” “Yes! Have you been there?” Long discussion ensued of the local gasworks and local customs, and all was well. He beamed at us, bowing us out, and Janet said, “That always works. Nearly all waiters in Indian restaurants are from Bangladesh, and since I’ve been there, it breaks the ice.”
That afternoon I fulfilled a rash promise to Avery and took her to that mecca of sweet things, Cybercandy in Garrick Street. The ground floor is simply filled to the gills with every sort of foreign (and a few English) candy you have ever heard of. Super-expensive American brands, every type of Hello Kitty dispenser that exists, Danish things and weird Japanese jellies in flavors like lychee and cucumber. She stocked up! Then we headed to the nearby Waterstone’s where she discovered to her chagrin that her latest obsession, the “Artemis Fowl” books, is not due for another volume in the series for a long time, alas. She simply devours them, thanks to our dear friend Olimpia who gave her the latest one this summer and then she worked her way up to it once we got home. I must say, our local library is wonderful, with a HUGE audiobook section, to my delight!
Now, Tuesday was a real adventure for us, and pretty spontaneous, for me. Just the night before, I got an email from my film-theatre friend Sue, telling me about a reading featuring one of my favorite new British actors, Ben Whishaw. So young, so vulnerable, so talented! He plays Sebastian Flyte in the new “Brideshead Revisited,” which I managed to miss in the US and will open here next week. So off we went, right after school, rushed to the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, and oh! It was just spectacular. If you can get tickets for any of the remaining “readings” to celebrate the 70th birthday of playwright Caryl Churchill, do so. Wallace Shawn and Miranda Richardson were also part of the cast, and it seemed unbelievable to me when Sue said afterward that they rehearse for a day and a half ONLY! Avery was the only child there, but it wasn’t inappropriate. What amused me was that the whole underlying theme of the play, “Ice Cream,” was the different ways of Americans and British. And she understood everything! She had to explain a couple of the jokes to me because they were things only a British person found funny. I am constantly amazed at the things she knows: why, for example, does she know what a “shrink” is? Where could she possibly have come across that notion? Well, we had a superb, simply superb time. At the end, the actors applauded US! Such a joy, and for twelve pounds apiece. Scarcely more than a film.
I have conquered “Lost Property”! I was a little nervous to be all on my own last week, in charge of the whole set of color-coded keys, important notebooks, tins of the rully, rully valuable stuff like an iPod, a mobile phone, a set of housekeys! Oh dear. The girls trooped in and out, some to retrieve actual apparel they had left somewhere, and some to shop at the rack of unnamed (as in, no name tape!) clothing. One girl came in and said sheepishly, “I basically leave everything I have somewhere, so I have to come in here every day.” I got to see Avery, too, waiting for her friends after her delicious lunch of rump steak with portobello mushrooms, AND a chocolate sponge. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes in her, to eat a proper meal in the middle of the day. Heavenly to see her, in her own environment, and looking so happy, too. Although, I must say, the dreaded acronym “GCSE” has entered her vocabulary, at least two years before I planned to begin thinking about them! I have forbidden her to start obsessing. Yet. I must say, the teachers are tremendously creative with their homework, and it helps. For example, this week her piano teacher set her to the task of making as many words as she could out of the letters of the scale! And then, even cooler, to PLAY the words on the piano. “Mummy, here is what ‘cabbage’ sounds like!” she said gleefully. I cheated and gave her “accede.” Ah well, a little help now and then…
I have to tell you how dumb I am: with all this dreaded credit crunch reportage in all the newspapers, every time I see the word “Darling” I wonder for a moment who on earth they’re addressing! Only to remember that Alistair Darling is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I really am dim at times.
Lastly, in my paean to life in London, last night Sue and I met up at the Institute of Contemporary Art in the Mall for… “Spooks: Behind the Scenes.” It was SUCH good fun! The star-studded panel included my former crush (yes, sorry, former: now he’s just a guy, sadly) Matthew Macfadyen, costar Miranda Raison, two former directors, the best writer of the best episodes Howard Brenton, just a superb panel. There were stunning clips (massively impressive on the giant screen when I’ve ever only seen them on telly or a computer screen), a Q and A. One hilarious story stands out: Matthew explained that in one episode, he had to dial a phone on the wall of a house, and to make it realistic, he dialed in his own mobile number. Some months later, his phone rang. “Is that you?” “Who is this?” “Is that Tom Quinn [the character!]?” “No, it’s not.” “I mean, is that Matthew Macfadyen?” “Yes, how did you get my number?” “Well, if you slow down the tape on last night’s episode, it’s easy!”
Laughter. He continued, “So I asked the guy if he was a nutter and I’d have to change my number, and he said no, no need.” And a guy in the audience raised his hand and said. “That was me.” Well, he’ll HAVE to change his number now, after announcing the scheme to a packed audience!
Right, the skating rink beckons, poor me. But first, the next time you find yourself in need of a dinner that cooks itself, while you’re off… watching your child skate perhaps, give this dish a try:
Slow Braised Chicken With Sour Cream, Tomatoes and Brandy
(serves 4 easily)
1 tbsp butter
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 medium roasting chicken
1 onion, roughly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans whole tomatoes
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup good brandy
salt and pepper
Butter the bottom and sides of a heavy pot with a lid and lay half the bunch of thyme on the bottom. Put the chicken BREAST-SIDE DOWN on the thyme. Scatter the onion and garlic around the chicken. Now, crush the tomatoes by hand onto a bowl and add the sour cream and brandy. Mix well. Pour over the chicken and salt and pepper the whole lot. Put the lid on tightly and braise in a very slow oven, 100 degrees celsius or 200 degrees fahrenheit, for at least three hours. You will find that the sauce is rather fatty on top when you take off the lid, so in serving, simply reach your ladle down under the surface for the less fatty bits. The fat won’t hurt you, but it looks nicer if you can leave the fat behind. I think the fat issue could be dissolved if you skinned the chicken prior to cooking, but I worry that it could dry out. I’d rather a bit of fat.
When you get home, the aroma of this dish, cooking itself without any help from you, will make your heart sing. All that’s required is that you boil a few potatoes and mash them, and saute a package of tenderstem broccoli. Perfect. And while it’s something I love about living in London, it’s also something you can love about living where YOU do.
Is your garden full of these little guys? For that matter, is your house? Mine are. Yesterday Tacy leapt, from an apparently dead sleep, to capture a spider on the wall of the dining room and wolf it down. Yuck. But better than just seeing them crawl about. My friend Toni assures me it is the season, and they’ll stop multiplying very soon. I seem to walk through the house and garden severing webs everywhere I go, and then have to wonder sickeningly if I’m carrying the web’s creator in my hair. Tacy!
Well, I am coming to the realization that my very quiet and solitary house is my present, and my future. All those lovely months of having John at home, all the happy summer weeks of having at least Avery at home, then both of them at home, have given way to my current atmosphere of “now what?” And I have not been remiss in answering the question! I shook off my doldrums and joined… The Lost Property Ladies!
Now, I am going to tell you about this with the assurance that I have no intention of mentioning the name of Avery’s school on this journal. At first I thought about just never mentioning anything that happens there, for fear of invading someone’s privacy. But now I think that would make me crazy: the gaps in the story, the longing to share with someone how marvellous the place is. So I came up with the solution that as long as I don’t divulge here what or where the school is, I can still express the wonderful details that are making us wander around lately thinking, “too good to be true, this Shangri-la…” Because it is. Too good to be true.
Last spring when I was feeling the upcoming sadness at leaving Avery’s old school there was a meeting of new parents at her NEW school, inviting us all to volunteer for something, just to help out. And I was introduced to the head of “Lost Property,” who I will call Mary. There was something warm and friendly about the way she held out her plate of walnut bread, and inquired eagerly about how excited my daughter was to start her new school, that made me ask, “Do Lost Property need any help?” To be clutched by the hand and told, “My dear, of course! And I will tell you something you don’t know: Lost Property have a superb luncheon to kick off every term, and you can come. In September.”
I nearly cried with gratitude! Somewhere to go! People to meet, and an occasional excuse to visit school and see what’s what.
Well, the first luncheon could not have come at a more opportune time: just as my dear houseguests left me on a grey Friday morning, I realized I had not much time to get myself way down south to Putney where the luncheon was happening. And of course it rained, all the way there, and of course it turned out I had WAY underestimated the distance between the tube station and the home where the lunch was to be. With John’s advice “Just take a cab” ringing in my ears, I slouched toward my destination, buying flowers for the hostess along the way, feeling sorry for myself. But not for long: the welcome of the other volunteers and the house itself made the whole day worthwhile. You could hardly get up the walk for the luxurious, overtowering trees, flowering shrubs and plants at your feet: they all bent under the rain and made you feel as if you were in a fairy story. Then I was greeted and given the task of setting one of the tables, and encountered in the dining room an enormous, fuzzy and wet Maine Coon cat! Perfect. I carried it around, looking into various rooms filled with ladies arranging a tray of lasagne, glasses of champagne, and, out in a magical conservatory positively dripping with grapes on their vines, I encountered a very friendly mother tossing a salad of her own design. I had discovered as I came in that the food contributions are on a rota, so I didn’t have to feel guilty for bringing flowers instead.
This lady finished her task and we chatted about our children, and it was the first of many conversations I have had that go something like this: “Is your daughter enjoying school?” “Oh, she is absolutely BLOSSOMING! Thriving. How about yours?” “Just loves it.” I know there will, someday, be something that is not wonderful about this school, but for right now I breathe a sigh every day of “thank goodness this all worked out.” It feels like just the right place, and just the right group of people. I loved hearing the high flutey tones of lots of English ladies talking to each other, and the food? Gorgeous lasagne with spinach noodles, a Moroccan chicken dish with olives and preserved lemons, a lovely salad with mung beans, and very rich cheeses at the end. I had to tell my dear mother in law about the enormous tart, the size of a Wall Street Journal opened up, covered with… figs, under a shiny glaze.
So as the rain fell and the day got ever darker, we all exchanged ideas about the school, our own jobs, the schools we had come from, stories about siblings and the summer holidays. In short, what one writer I know has called “the comforting company of women.” Quite so. Then we got down to business and listened to the joys of managing Lost Property: the girls who typically lose everything they bring to school every single day, the girls who come into the Lost Property office just to… shop! The girls who explain that they think they might have left a black sweater in the theatre block last March, is this it? We all signed up for our volunteer days. And would you believe who was there? Avery’s new friend Izzy’s mother, from up the street, and our neighbor a couple of doors down! “Kristen! Do you want a ride home?” Bliss.
Today in my email box I received one of the many messages I still get from Avery’s old school in New York, announcing the celebration of the school building’s 20th birthday! And you know what? I felt only a tinge of sadness, because already I feel quite welcome at the latest school, and that things will only get nicer.
It’s nice living near to school for several reasons: while I am no longer allowed to walk her to school, I can still rescue her when things go pear-shaped, as the morning I found, in my phone voicemail, a message from her piano teacher from the evening before, announcing a meeting THAT DAY. And as I listened to it, my eyes alighted on Avery’s locker keys, besides her empty breakfast plate. It was but the work of a moment to stuff the keys in my pocket, write a note to Avery about the piano teacher, and walk to school, where I braved the extremely intimidating lady in reception (although her eyes did twinkle as I chattered through my confusing message to Avery). She divested me of the envelope full of keys, note and pocket money, and said, “I imagine we’ll be able to rescue the situation.” I stammered, “Well, these first few weeks can be hard to manage, can’t they?” For me if not for you, I realized as she merely smiled me out of the room.
And then too there’s the fun of picking her up at the end of the day, which thankfully she still likes for me to do! We nearly always walk along with her friend Molly who lives just around the corner, and I get to hear about the magnificence of the lunch, the unfairness of some scheduling conflict, get a report on the crushworthy science teacher! “Like an attentuated James MacAvoy!” Avery diagnosed. I hope I get to meet this hunky paragon at some point. And then there was a funny morning when just as the front door closed behind Avery and her walk-along friend, I heard a taxi pull up and disgorge John and his luggage. “Run and catch her up to say hi, she just left!” I said, following him out. He ran and caught them up, and I waited on the corner for him to come back and let me in. And I waited. And waited. For heaven’s sake, had he registered himself at school? Had a heart attack? Stopped for a full English breakfast? Our neighbors came by one by one and asked, “Just hanging out here on the corner, Kristen?” I laughed and said, “If I’m still here by the time you come home from work, maybe you’ll let me in.” Finally back John came, having stopped to catch up with a mother at school. Cozy.
And I have not been idle at my computer, although I’ve been rubbish at blogging. No, last week I was a good girl and went back over the blog, writing down every single recipe since I began writing in January 2006. And you know what: I have 220 recipes. Lots of them, of course, not particularly noteworthy, and some a bit repetitive, like how many variations of salmon in cream can there be? Or bean salad? But still, that strikes me as enough recipes to thoroughly dispose of any excuses for postponing REALLY writing this cookbook that’s in my head. And we had the first meeting of our new writing class last week and ironed out our plans for structure, and listened to everyone’s explanations of projects to be worked on. And our hostess’s housekeeper fed us quite the most delicious cake I have ever, ever had. And you know how I am about sweets. She has kindly given me the recipe!
Fely’s Banana and Apple Cake
(serves about 8 for tea)
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup mashed bananas
1 cup 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 180 c (350 f) for 45 minutes. Cool slightly and dust with sugar. Serve warm.
I imagine that given my child’s delight in anything sweet and fruity, this cake would make the most welcome warm breakfast food. I think I’ll try it this weekend.
So far, as far as the cookbook goes and my writing class, I’ve had just two chapters to contribute: macaroni and cheese, and Moroccan meatballs. So this week I worked on “Birthday Soup.” It’s all about vichyssoise, and boy I wish I had some right now. What I do have is a pot of chicken soup with garlic and little star noodles, in which I will poach some tiny little chicken meatballs later this afternoon. For some bizarre reason I woke up dreaming of such a soup, and then realized I had some random chicken parts in the freezer, plenty of carrots and celery, so why not?
We had our ritual September 11 anniversary dinner last week, which although a tradition, is changing. For instance, I don’t think anyone mentioned September 11 all evening. We all knew that was why we were together, but… and new friends to add to the guest list! Dear Toni, the neighbor with several cats who threw herself heart and soul into the “Episode of the Missing Tacy” last spring, came along and brought another friend from our street, Alice, who also… has five cats. So there was an unusual air of appreciation for Tacy and Wimsey, the two who normally join us on social occasions. For a cat lover, I have a strangely high proportion of friends (and husbands, if it comes to that) who are either allergic (they say) or downright uninterested in cats. So it was a pleasure to talk cats! And for whatever reason, the chicken curry went down an absolute treat, so I shall give you the super simple recipe now. It is inexpensive and takes no time and very little effort, which makes the inevitable praise and second helpings all the more satisfying.
Perfect Party Chicken Curry
(serves 10 and then some)
3 tbsps vegetable oil
1 tbsp each: curry powder, ras el hanout, turmeric ground cumin, ground coriander
8 cloves garlic, minced
4 onions, minced
10 chicken breast fillets, cut in bite-size pieces
6 colored peppers: I mixed red, yellow and orange, cut in bite-size pieces
2 soup-size cans coconut milk
salt and pepper to taste
In a very large skillet or paella pan, heat the oil. Add the spices and cook until bubbling well. This step is very important. Do not think you can add the spices at any old time, although an adjustment of a bit more as you taste is all right. These spices release their flavors and at the same time cook off their bitterness but only if you cook them in the oil first.
Add the garlic, onions and chicken and cook, stirring well, until the chicken is nearly cooked. Add the peppers and stir until well-coated. Pour over the coconut milk, taking care to shake the unopened cans first to blend. Now, turn down the heat and bubble very low until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, about 10 minutes. Obviously, do not taste the sauce until this point! But now taste away and begin adding salt. It will require quite a bit. Add pepper to taste. Serve with steamed basmati rice. LOVELY.
The fragrance of this curry cooking as everyone opens the front door will make instant converts of anyone who says meekly, “I don’t really like Indian cooking.” And of course you can make it spicy if you are feeding people who like spicy: just as much chilli pepper flakes or powder as you like.
Well, Saturday found us dropping off Avery at her first acting class, and then Sunday to the stable to greet the horses after their summer lounging in Surrey on the farm. Sadly, old, old Bunny went to his reward over the summer. I think it is extremely healthy that the instructors and barn owner are open with the girls about ponies’ dying, being put down by the vet when their time comes, and that it’s not a tragedy or something they can’t talk about. Very good. John and I had planned to have lunch at Angelus, the superb French place by the stable, but all the lovely outdoor tables were taken, and we simply could not sit inside on one of the rare fine London days, so we ended up at Chez Kristoff, on our corner, shivering because the sun was behind the building! Why was it imperative that we have lunch on that particular day? Because it was the 25th anniversary of our first date, that’s why. There you go. And we had divine steak tartare and quite the best mussels mariniere AND the best frites! We will be back.
Monday I had a total adventure! Has it ever happened to you: that you had a perfectly good opportunity to have a friend, who happened to live next door to you, but you didn’t take advantage of the chance until, say, the person decided to move to LA? That’s what happened to me with my friend Janet. There she was, next door, hosting Tacy on regular visits through the living room windows, but did I ever do anything to make friends with her? No, not until she and her husband stopped by to tell us they were moving. Then for some reason we went out to lunch together, and over several dishes of unbearably spicy Thai food in Uxbridge Road, proceeded to make fast friends. Then she moved away. So when she emailed to say she was coming for a visit (apparently the car-yoga-sunshine culture of LA is making her crazy and in need of some traffic, grey skies and pessimism, as only London can offer), we immediately made a plan. To go to Chinatown! Where I had never been.
And you must. Go, that is. You would simply not believe you were in the Western world at all, at all. We met in Leicester Square, and then roamed all around Gerrard Street, Macclesfield Street, the quaintly named Horse and Dolphin Yard. Janet is an old habituee of the area and knew where the best place to get my sprouts would be, the finest sesame oil, the most exotic spicy bean sauces. My bags were so heavy! Thinking that her hotel would not appreciate her arriving with an entire deep-fried duckling, she let me do the honors on that one. “At least it’s not oily at all,” she laughed as the paper bag immediately soaked through, to be put into a plastic one. Still, even when I tied the top, it was quite a fragrant companion in the bus on the way home!
I bought garlic shoots, aged soy sauce the quality of balsamic vinegar, bags of rice and bean sprouts. Black bean sauce and chilli oil. We ended up starving at a fantastic restaurant called Haozhan, at 8 Gerrard Street, and I had my first tofu. And, I’m sorry to say, my last, although I think it was as good as tofu gets. Lightly fried, topped with a seared scallop and spinach paste and red caviar… I think if I was going to like tofu, that would have been the dish. Unfortunately the qualities I didn’t like were the things that make it tofu. As in, slimy. Gooey. But I could see the point of the dish. More to the point for me was the light-as-a-feather softshell crabs, in a crunch cream-cracker batter. Oh, if I could produce THAT at home! But I never will, I know. And another scallop dish that I really could produce at home: a silky and light oyster sauce with sauteed scallops, asparagus tips and green onions. Go, you’ll be glad to have a destination when you’ve shopped till you drop.
Her husband joined us for tea, and then we made one last pilgrimage to the Japan Centre in Piccadilly, where I bought the cutest thing: empty tea bags! For bouquet garni, in my Indian biryani. I have, I am ashamed to say, sacrificed several little tea handkerchiefs in the making of this dish, because the cloves stain the linen and I can never get it out. Now I have little disposable fillable tea bags. Happy! I also bought two different kinds of very thin-sliced beef, one called “shabushabu beef” and one called “sukiyai beef,” although they look identical. I do not really know the difference, but my plan is, tomorrow evening, to marinate them in soy, sesame, garlic and ginger and then wrap them around asparagus tips, put them on skewers and grill them. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Today I am forced to keep myself out of trouble and accomplishing things for even longer than usual: Thursdays are the coveted “Gymnastics and Trampoline After-School Club” days, and can you imagine anyone more deserving of a spot on an official trampoline club than Avery? Does everyone else spend all summer practicing? I’ll be glad to get the report. Every day after school brings me a slightly more grownup, more articulate, more energetic person home with me: I’m astonished at the words she chooses to tell me things! Of course right now I can’t think of any, that’s what I get for failing to blog for so long. But I will try to remember and write some down, for “prosperity’s sake,” as my college roommate used to say.
Goodness, what a whirlwind we’ve been in for the past week. No sooner had we settled into our post-summer routine than it was… the first day of Avery’s new school. And of course in the tradition of all first days, John was able to produce his magical plate of cinnamon toast, albeit challenged by the number of curly letters this year! We tried to imagine a school that would provide a good acronym for cinnamon toast: something like Williams House Triptych. But in any case, although Avery said she was nervous, and certainly I was for her, she managed to wolf down the entire plate of toast as well as all the strawberries and a nice pile of prosciutto. She is definitely having a growth spurt: she’s eating everything in sight. Plus, to get ahead of my story, the lunch at the new school is SUPERB! She is very sparkly at pickup every day, having ingested actual food between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Walking her to school was a nice social adventure! We were picked up by Elsie, who lives above us in a nearby street, and then we went on to find Holly who is across the first big road to cross (thankfully there’s a zebra crossing which people seem to observe), then to get Sophia at the top of the next big intersection. The actual dropoff was a total anti-climax: barely a kiss and she was up the big front steps and gone. All of us, mothers and John, sighed. “Well, that’s that.” So everyone dispersed: people to work, Elsie’s mom Annie and me to walk along toward home, chatting as best I can at 8:15 in the morning which isn’t saying much. And Annie is of course an incredible morning person, filled with verve and fizz and conversation; what a waste, for her to be saddled with ME! But I did listen with attention to her tale of a nearby indoor pool in which I might swim, with her, at some later date (and later time of day, I pray). I turned in at our gate feeling that I’d dodged a bullet: Avery was safely at school and I had met nice people, and nothing terrible had happened.
I must explain something. About me and first days, and school dropoff. Although I am getting much better about the anniversary this year, I must say that the first full day of Avery’s kindergarten experience was September 11, 2001. I am toying with the idea of someday writing this down, all that happened to us that day, but suffice to say that I spent the whole summer before her kindergarten fearing irrationally that something terrible would happen to her if I left her at school. All summer. Everyone was extremely frustrated with me, that I couldn’t enjoy the idea of her being at school all day, independent and happy, no, I had to make it into a drama all about ME. And then I left her at school, about six blocks from the World Trade Center, and that’s when it happened.
Believe it or not, I spent quite a lot of time afterward thinking about what was, to me, the obvious connection between leaving Avery at school and that terrible tragedy. I really did connect them. And in the intervening years I have struggled every super-blue-sky-day not to panic, and certainly every school first-day dropoff (and to a minor extent every dropoff, period), not to panic.
But you know what? It gets better. I was really pretty good about leaving her at the new school, and I was also absolutely saved by the arrival, shortly after school dropoff, of my houseguests for the week: Bob, the lovely minister who married us, and his dear wife Ann. Bob has turned 80 this year, and retired after 52 years of teaching theology, philosophy and religion at my alma mater. He married us! Lo these nearly 20 years ago. And goodness, I was glad to open my door to them and welcome them into our abode for the week.
Oh my did we chat! They settled into the guest room and then came down to the kitchen to sit and chat. Hours later we realized we were starving! It was but the work of a moment to find bean and lentil salad in the fridge, toss in some of the grilled shrimp we’d had for dinner the night before. And slice some tomatoes and mushrooms and toss them in balsamic vinegar and chilli oil, and put Brie and goat’s cheese on a plate with some Ryvita. Voila, lunch! I will tell you now: if you have bean and lentil salad, you have lunch. Throw in anything leftover from dinner: sliced cold beef, pork or roast chicken, shrimp, scallops, anything. If you need some extra flavor, add a minced clove of garlic and some lemon zest. Done. And you’ve cleaned out your fridge.
Several more hours of catching up, and I realized I had lived through the entire horrible First Day of School and had given Avery scarcely a thought! How lovely. I ran off to get her and Bob and Ann relaxed at home, enjoying the break in the rain. And can I report, dear readers: Avery had a MARVELLOUS, wonderful, glorious day. “The second best day of my life, and I’m not even being fair: I can’t count the day of the school play!” I felt so grateful to get her back, hear all of her enthusiastic account of, guess what most of all: the FOOD. Actually food, to be eaten! “There was steak, with mushrooms, and CHOCOLATE CAKE, with warm vanilla sauce!” There’s a big difference between a growing girl who’s spent the whole day using up her admittedly lovely breakfast, and one who’s been well and truly fed five hours later. LOVELY. A huge sigh of relief to have her with me, happy, happy. And FULL. More than that, the girls were NICE to her. And the teachers lovely and supportive, the buildings full of potential for exciting getting-losts. Altogether, a heartwarming day!
Home for slow-braised chicken with root vegetables, simply the best cooks-itself dinner ever. And here’s a hint: braise the chicken breast DOWN. That way, the breast, which tends to dry out, cooks entirely submerged in white wine-laced chicken broth. Just lovely. John came home and the conversation, which had been sort of catch-uppy about what’s happened at college since we were there, turned political, philosophical, theological, you name it! It’s been a long time since my brain was tuned that high. Discussions of Niebuhr and Tillich (both of whom featured in our wedding ceremony!), abortion rights and creationism, narrative theology and utilitarianism. Avery’s head went back and forth as at a tennis match! Glorious.
The following day found us at.. St Paul’s Cathedral. I’ve never, embarrassingly, been. But now Avery is at her new school, I felt we should go, and it was well worth the visit. Gorgeous mosaics, statues, tombstones. Just lovely. We climbed to the “Whispering Gallery,” some 250 steps, and sat for Bob’s lecture on the saints pictured in the gallery and the “gnostics” who interpreted them. And then would you believe Bob climbed the further 200-some steps to the very top! Ann and I did not follow! A nice lunch and then I was off home… they came back later to join Avery and me in the kitchen, and for Bob to ask a million questions about the works they had seen in the permanent collection of the Tate Modern, across the Millennium Bridge from the Cathedral. I had to put my brain back into art history land, away from recipes, pre-teen book plots, London friends, Connecticut friends and family… into that place where, in 1992, I was the King of my own world, knowledgeable about everything I could have wanted to understand about post-structuralism, deconstructionism, you name it! To go back and reach into that book list, idea list, comparative mindset… oh it was a stretch!
Bob asked earnestly, “I understand the notion of Modernism, Kristen, and Post-Modernism in theology, but what function does Post-Modernism serve in the history of art?” And somehow I was able to explain this, and to recognize the art they had seen from his descriptions, and provide names and titles (his eyesight doesn’t permit the reading of museum wall text), and some interpretation. “‘Oh, Kristen, where ARE you?’ I kept asking myself,” Bob mourned. I wish I had been there! One of those times when one’s arms are stretched in different directions. “I haven’t been able to tell you everything about my day,” Avery whispered, and then John was home wanting to talk about the election… !! We finally sat down to grilled salmon, bean salad, roast beets… and more discussions, this time of racism in the 1960s in my college sorority, the careers of all my former professors. Just wonderful.
Thursday saw us at Westminster Abbey, in the pouring rain! I had never properly been there before, either, just a brief visit two years ago at Christmas when Avery’s school sang there. And I can tell you, I have a good piece of advice for any possible future visitors: do your research ahead of your visit and find out what YOU want to see. Because it’s HUGE. We did the tour guide, the audio thingy, and while I was fascinated by the mosaic floor restoration at the Great Altar, and then music of the Boys’ Choir, I could not have cared less about all the royal graves. And then I came upon what I cared about most: Poets’ Corner. Not just poets, but all sorts of artistic types, both buried there and merely remembered there: Avery’s darling Anthony Trollope, Dickens, Olivier, Auden, T.S. Eliot, Jane Austen, you name it! Very exciting, although Bob felt it followed a cult of the dead person almost TOO far. He’s very inclined to be dismissive of such slavish followings. Little does he know how many slavish followers he will have when he meets his reward. He can’t stop us.
A nice sandwich lunch across Whitehall from the Foreign and Home Offices, and I got to hear the story of their meeting: at a Yale-Smith dance… 57 years ago! Just lovely.
Home to get Avery and to put together the Chicken Biryani and cheesy spinach for dinner, and to hear more from Avery about this shangri-la that is school, and most specifically the CLOTHING the girls wear. “I know you’ll think it’s superficial of me, Mommy, to care about their clothes, but after all these years of uniforms, clothes can be very revealing of a person’s personality!” So much fun to hear her going on and on about this or that girl and her tights, skirts, t-shirts, hairdos… and the classwork sounds OK, too! Avery ended up in a bath while we watched the McCain VP choice speech. In shocked silence. Goodness. I shouldn’t say more.
We did laugh over Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” take on Joe Biden’s VP speech. Biden had told, in his usual folksy way, the story of his nightly train-ride home, through the small towns, with the houses all lit up on the sides of the tracks, and his imagining their conversations, around their kitchen tables. “How are we going to pay the mortgage?” “How are we going to manage sending Johnny to college?” And Jon Stewart added to this, “Why do we have to live so close to the train tracks?” his voice trailing off in a Doppler effect. Avery has repeated that SO many times. But seriously, what one earth is happening to this election? It’s very odd being here and being expected by our British friends to explain what on EARTH Americans are thinking. It’s certainly not something I can begin to elucidate.
On Friday morning we had one more talky breakfast together, talking about parenthood, childhood testing, the future of our university, their upcoming biking trip from Bruges to Amsterdam! I hated to see them go. Enormous hugs and assurances that we will not let very much time go by before seeing each other again… and they were off, pulling their luggage behind them with their bike helmets snicked onto their suitcases. Remarkable people. I’m so glad Avery spent time with them. And… he taught Avery to crawl, right on the floor of the Philosophy Department offices, these 11 years ago. He reminds me of John’s dad: stalwart, trustworthy, strong, righteous and gentle.
Dinner tonight was, I must say, just the three of us, and I say modestly, totally spectacular. Give it a try.
Pan-Seared Scallops with Bacon, Beetroot and Rocket
4 medium beetroots, roasted 1 1/2 hours at 400 degrees, peeled and sliced
2 tbsps olive oil
16 large scallops, roeless
8 rashers (slices) back bacon (Giggly Pig, preferably!), trimmed and sliced thin
1 bunch green (salad) onions, sliced thin, both white and green parts
1 bag rocket leaves
dressing: whisk everything together
3 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 tbsp Japanese mirin or other vinegar (if regular vinegar, use less lemon juice)
1 tbsp grain mustard
1 tbsp creme fraiche
juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, finely minced
pinch ground pepper
First: arrange sliced beetroot on a large plate.
Next, heat the 2 tbsps olive oil in a large stickproof skillet. Cook the scallops on one side for 1 minute, then turn over and cook to your liking: another minute for seared, slightly longer for well-cooked. Remove to a plate.
Now add the bacon to the same skillet and cook till cooked through and slightly colored. Add the spring onions and cook till soft. Remove to a medium bowl.
Now to assemble: toss the rocket in a little of the dressing and arrange on top of beetroot. Then arrange the scallops over the rocket and toss over the lentils. Now toss the bacon and spring onions in the rest of the dressing and pour over the scallops. LOVELY!
I can’t tell you how good this was. And we had it with:
1 medium head cauliflower, separated into florets
1/2 stick butter
cream to taste
salt and pepper
In a large saucepan cover the cauliflower with water and season with salt. Bring to a boil and boil high for 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly. With a hand blender, blend with butter and as much cream as you need to get the consistency you want: less for thick, more for creamier. Season to taste.
This puree COMPLETELY cancels out any purpose mashed potatoes have, in my opinion! I have never eaten it before, but I read somewhere that cauliflower was the perfect partner for scallops, and it’s true.
OK, enough food and whatever. Back to… the weather. How many adjectives can the British weather people come up with to describe the rain? Lately it’s been… intermittent, pervasive, pernicious, everpresent, drowning… it’s too much! I know it sounds like a joke, and I adore my adopted land, but it really does… rain all the time. Good thing we have sunshine in our souls. Oh, wait, that’s the Republicans. But maybe they’ll share.