My goodness, where to start? It has been five weeks since my last confession… I mean, post.
First of all, here is our Christmas-card image for those VERY few of you who are not on our list. What a beautiful girl, inside and out. She’s just home from a school history trip to Berlin, and we are happily reunited for the holidays.
Life has taken on that frenetic quality that usually crops up during the holidays. The mayhem seems to begin regularly around Halloween and not stop until about January 3, at which point we all wake up and realize that we’re completely drained of all human energy and need to lie around like slugs to recover.
For the first time ever, we three are spending Christmas on our own here in London. I am anxious not to dwell on missing the beauty and excitement that is Red Gate Farm at Christmas — shopping for a tree at Rollie and Judy’s, running up and down the basement stairs with ornament boxes, running to Jill and Joel’s to transfer to our house the enormous pile of gifts that have been accumulating at their house during…
Life has been a whirlwind here in London, with all the excitement that usually fills October (Halloween!) and early November (Avery’s birthday!). But this year of course, there have been a couple of tiny little events — oh, nothing really to speak of — that have added to the frenetic nature of the last few weeks.
Let me explain.
As many of you know, Avery’s school puts on a Christmas Fair as a fundraiser to contribute to scholarships and charity, once every two years. I used to wonder why it wasn’t every year, as it’s so much fun! Gorgeous decorations, festive food and drink, tons of stalls full of tempting gifts, Christmas carols around every corner. How celebratory! What fun!
Yes, well, that was in the halcyon days before John took over as Chairman of the Fair. Now our entire family fully understands why perhaps the Fair ought to be just once in a decade! John in particular and to some extent Avery and I too have been consumed by the Fair business for months. It will take place a week from tomorrow and if we all survive the day, you may look to your window to see if a porker is airborne. It is SO much work!
Now, four years ago in advance of the day, I fell down the steps and sprained my ankle. So I was given the stultifying job of manning the used books and DVDs stall. For FOUR HOURS. Children slept nearby on piles of coats, someone brought me a sandwich. But I never saw the Fair: the hilarious staff pantomime, the girls busking for change with their violin concerts in hallways, the gorgeous decorations. Then two years ago, I was put in charge of the entry desk. For four hours I stood in the freezing wind coming in the enormous front doors, cajoling and chivvying cheap people to part with £3 in order to get in. I never saw the Fair, just shivered in the autumnal afternoon.
This year I along with another mother am in charge of — guess what — the food! Smoked salmon sandwiches, Prosecco, cupcakes and brownies, pizza, sausages, shepherd’s pie, mulled wine! I am gathering up piles of tacky Christmas garlands, lights in the shape of cranberries, bunting and candles. In eight days it will all be over, for another two years. Rest assured I shall report all the glorious details to you!
In the meantime, of course, Halloween has come and gone.
She looks blooming here, but poor Avery was still recovering from her school trip to Sicily, which culminated in a return-travel day of food poisoning! Everyone was felled, teachers included, on a day of coach journey, airplane journey, more coach journey, finally to arrive at school in the wee hours of the morning, to picked up by me: DRIVING! Aren’t you glad you were blamelessly asleep and not out there on the road, with me. But she had had a wonderful time on the trip, until then.
And of course we carved pumpkins, or at least Avery designed pumpkins and John and I carved them!
And then before we could say boo, it was Avery’s 16th birthday. I was like peas on a hot shovel, waiting to give Avery her present: a dozen cupcakes, made by a local baker with perfect, precise, beautiful icing representing twelve of Avery’s favorite books.
John and I arranged everything at a lovely neighborhood hotel, and waited for Avery and several of her friends to walk over from school in the blustery autumnal air. It was so hard to wait! “Are you coming?” I text. “On our way!” she replies.
Would she like them? Did we choose the right books? Was it enough of a celebration for a milestone birthday? We needn’t have worried. She LOVED them. They all did. Such wonderful girls. I think we’ll be able to preserve the tops of the cupcakes somehow. I hope so.
And then the following night it was her real present: an evening at “Twelfth Night,” an all-male cast starring Mark Rylance and the heavenly, divine Stephen Fry! You must go if you can get a ticket.
And that was Avery’s birthday. How proud we are of the kind, intelligent, quirky, sophisticated, and truly lovely person she has grown into. Happy Birthday!
Election Day came. We stayed up all night! Till the final result came in! We simply could not, however, stay awake for the concession and victory speeches, which had to wait until poor Avery had slogged through her school day and I had lumbered around like a dead thing staring into space here at home. But the result was worth the wait and we have the President we love, back for Four More Years. Here’s hoping that America can keep him safe and sound for him to do his job.
The whole event, the endless summer political arguments back home, the close monitoring of the atmosphere there once we returned to London, the puzzlement of our British friends as to the lunacy of the entire process: exhausting! I cannot imagine actually surviving being a candidate, let along trying to be a candidate whilst also trying to run the United States of America. Thank goodness it’s all over, but the three of us crept around for several days after our all-nighter, feeling like dead things!
And as if all that hasn’t been enough excitement, I have had a massive bellringing adventure! As you may know from my many blitherings about bell ringing, the community of ringers in the southwest of London is close-knit and mutually supportive. We race from Fulham to Barnes to Chiswick to Richmond, practicing together when we can, ringing for each other’s services, weddings, funerals and Quarter Peals. As Hillary Clinton has said, “It takes a village!” We all depend upon each other.
So it was particularly pleasing to have an adventure together, an outing to celebrate our community of ringers. Such was our October experience at St James Garlickhythe, in the heart of the City of London, to ring the famed Jubilee Bells!
These eight gorgeous new bells were cast at Whitechapel Foundry in the months approaching Her Majesty the Queen’s Golden Jubilee this summer. They then made their way to a purpose-built tower in a warehouse in Kent, at Edenbridge, Fircroft, where they were installed and tested. From there they were transferred to the barge “Ursula Katherine” to be part of the Queen’s Jubilee Flotilla in June, where a Quarter Peal was rung on the River Thames.
The eight beauties were then taken by water to the church of St James Garlickhythe where they hang now, replacing the old 17th century bells.
Our merry band of ringers from Fulham, St Mary’s Richmond, and Barnes — some of us (myself) quite silent in intimidation and fear of ringing such venerable bells! — climbed the three dozen or so steps into the new ringing chamber on the evening of October 23, hosted by Eddie Hartley, Tower Captain at All Saints Fulham, who has also been instrumental in teaching many of us at St Mary’s Barnes to ring.
We were welcomed by Dickon Love, Captain of the Royal Jubilee Bellringers and Tower Captain at St Magnus the Martyr, as well as being responsible for the ringing of all the bells in the City of London.
He spoke to us through an ingenious trap door in the floor of the new ringing chamber (there is an old ringing floor 4 feet below the current floor, Dickon explains), encouraging us to enjoy ourselves and the bells, before shutting the door and leaving us to our adventures.
I cannot say that I covered myself in glory! The nerves were simply incredible, to have the privilege of ringing those beautiful bells. I was scared to death! A lovely ringer from Fulham took me under his wing, standing behind me to help me keep my place.
For some odd reason, the more difficult the challenge, the better I did. “Plain Hunt On Seven” is my latest hurdle, and thank goodness it went beautifully, because the sound had nowhere to hide, in those ancient walls, floating out over those ancient streets. What a beautiful experience.
With all this drama, of course I have also been in the kitchen. My beloved HandPicked Nation website continues to keep me busy, reporting from my beloved adopted country whatever foodie ideas might be entertaining. The latest? Watercress!
Did you know it has more calcium than milk, more Vitamin C than oranges? And it tastes so good!
After an entire week of buying, cooking, eating and having Avery photograph more watercress than I could have imagined existed, the article has gone off. The standout recipes after all this experimenting? Well, there’s Watercress Salad with Beetroot, Ham and Stilton (delicious combination), and Watercress and Hazelnut Pesto. Peppery, intensely green, it’s my new favorite leaf. Move over, rocket! But the best dish? Visit your fishmonger, break out the deep-fryer, and give this a whirl.
Nobu-Inspired Shrimp Tempura with Creamy Spicy Sauce on Watercress
1 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, cut into bite-sized piece, or rock shrimp
about 1/2 cup tempura batter mix
enough ice-cold water to make thick batter
oil for deep-frying
several handfuls fresh watercress, washed and spun dry
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoons sea salt
couple grinds of fresh white or black pepper
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
100 ml grapeseed oil (or other very mildly flavored oil)
2 tbsps chili garlic sauce
several shakes Tabasco, to taste
juice of 1/2 lemon
fresh minced chives
First, make the sauce:
This sauce is basically a flavored homemade mayonnaise, so simply follow the procedure for mayo and add flavors to taste. Nobu’s recipe does not include Tabasco or lemon juice, but to me, shrimp without lemon is… strange! Whisk together the egg yolk, mirin, salt and pepper. Now very gradually whisk in the oil until fully emulsified. Then add the flavorings to your taste, making it as spicy as you like. Set aside at room temperature.
Heat the oil until ready to fry, then dip the shrimp in the tempura batter and fry for about a minute or until golden brown. Toss the fried shrimp in the creamy spicy sauce and serve in individual bowls, on beds of watercress, and top with chives.
This dish is simply heavenly: if you eat it straight away, the shrimp are quite a magical combination of slightly crisp and yet bathed in the spicy sauce. Of course it isn’t quite the celestial experience of paying gazillions of dollars or pounds to get it at Nobu, but there was something wonderful about being able to recreate the complex flavors, at home.
Home. It’s having to provide a haven these days with such busy times. Watch this space for reports of… the Fair! If we survive. Ho, ho, ho!
How often do you acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake, and how much time do you spend beating yourself up, imagining how you might have done it differently, feeling inadequate, feeling bad, regretful?
On the other hand, how often do you take the time, literally stop doing anything else and take the time, to admit that you’ve done something well, that you’ve set yourself a challenge and come out on the other side, that something you’ve set your mind to has been a success?
If you’re anything like me, the proportion of the first to the second is painfully high. Why is it so much easier to take blame than to take credit? Even “take credit” isn’t quite right. “Take pleasure” in a job well done, an accomplishment to feel good about?
Last week I was “graduated” from my first social work family with the divine organisation Home-Start. Since it’s an entirely confidential service for supporting families at risk, I can’t tell you anything about “my” family, nor can I show you any photos of them. So I’m going to intersperse my happy account with some lovely autumnal scenes from our village life, and leave you to imagine.
You might remember that last January, I began my training with Home-Start, a part-charitable organisation, part privately-funded, designed really to CATCH families with small children — at least one under five years of age — at risk of falling into despair. Of course despair can come in many guises: post-partum depression, multiple births without enough support, divorce, job loss, bereavement while trying to raise a family.
In this wonderful country, the government and private sector have long recognised that CATCHING problems when they are manageable, keeping them from descending into a spiral of chaos and hopelessness, saves sanity, saves families, saves money. Amazing people called “health visitors” turn up after parents with new babies leave hospital. They visit homes to assess how those new parents are coping, and they report back to GPs when they flag a problem.
And then the GPs know that the Home-Start organisation is there to help, for FREE. Home-Start’s trained volunteers kick into gear. So after my 12-week training (really gruelling and upsetting at times, with visits from professionals from the most harrowing walks of life: parole officers, spousal abuse police task forces, child abuse counsellors) I was introduced to “my family.” All I can tell you about them is that an illness had changed their lives. Every member of the household was teetering on the brink of real life-changing depression. The whole household lacked breathing space, were too upset to listen to each other, too tired to offer any sort of support to each other.
Over the course of the next five months, I visited once a week. Just once a week. For two or three hours. At first I wondered why I was there, why a friend or a babysitter wouldn’t provide the exact same function of two hours’ company and a listening ear.
As the weeks went by and the dark, short days of winter blossomed into the warm, cheerful days of spring and then summer, I watched “my family” blossom too. The hardest thing to learn was how not to cry when someone you care about is sobbing. It was desperately hard the first time. It was also hard to see family conflicts pushing and tearing people apart, and merely sit and listen. It was difficult to leave at the end of each visit when I sensed — for whatever reason — that it had been helpful for me to be there and it would be wonderful if I could just stay.
But gradually I realised that no one was crying anymore. There was a subtle shift from coming into a house of sadness to a house of recovery. People laughed! Everyone got involved in the games and play I suggested, instead of just one or two. As the days got longer, there was a palpable sense of normality and cheer returning to the family. There were cancelled appointments — wonderful! — because of new ballet lessons, new playdates. Real life was coming back.
Of course the result of this beautifully satisfying development was, for me, goodbye. I could feel it coming. My supervisor explained, “We will make this work with the family. Everyone knew you were coming in temporarily to help them through a crisis, and the crisis is over. It’s like giving a child a pet knowing that someday it will die, and that that’s part of life, saying goodbye. You did your job, and now you need to do it for another family.”
Goodbyes were said. Cards and little gifts and flowers changed hands, many, many hugs were given and received. Most wonderful of all were long talks about the journey from the dark days (“life will never be that hard again”) to the normal life the family lives now.
And what on earth did I do? I just WENT, and listened, and played. Importantly, the family felt I didn’t JUDGE. Home-Start volunteers apparently have a certain quality of serving as something different from a friend, more approaching a family member before whom the people in need don’t have to PRETEND or apologise or do anything that’s just beyond them at the time.
As soon as I cycled away into the sunset — literally! — I had to make a conscious decision not to start pulling back from feeling GOOD, from saying to myself, “How important could that have been, anyway? Don’t take yourself so seriously.” It WAS important. Why is it so much easier to blame oneself for mistakes than to feel good about success? Why should we let the blame last so much longer, wake ourselves up in the night with doubts, when the good feelings that success bring are as fleeting as a display of autumn leaves, just blowing away before we have a chance to appreciate them?
I am absolutely determined to reverse that tendency. My new school-year resolution is to take the time to feel good when I deserve it, and, I hope, to pass along that life skill to my daughter who already shows signs of inheriting my tendency to set aside taking satisfaction in favor of taking blame. She’s young enough to change. It’s really not about taking “credit” but more taking the opportunity to feel good when you HAVE done good. It’s an enormous privilege to be able to help anyone, and taking a moment to savour that should be part of our emotional menu, I think.
Speaking of change, of course, there is also change-ringing to make me happy! The bells have been particularly giving lately, all of us having fun ringing at a wedding over the weekend, enjoying the sight of the glorious chapel, dating from 1215, decorated for the festivities.
We’ve all been learning “Plain Hunt on Seven,” which means following a (to me!) complicated pattern of bells changing position, speeding up, slowing down, producing the unearthly mathematical music of bellringing. That bellchamber is one of my favorite places on earth, scene of so many scary failures, but then again so many moments of fun and achievement.
Change, too, has been in the air with our diets. I’ve been pretty much wheat-free for about two months now, turning my back on bread and pasta in favor of little rice crackers, rice itself, wrapping things in lettuce! Do you have leftover ham you’d like to celebrate? Try my fabulous ham salad. Now, keep in mind that here in the UK, if you ask for ham salad you’ll get just that: ham, and salad. If you want the slightly creamy, savoury mixture we Americans happily grew up with, but in a much lighter, less gloppy version, ask for “ham mayonnaise.” More happily, make your own.
What I’ve been challenging myself to do is take dishes traditionally calling for wheat and think outside the grain box. Take Nigella Lawson’s recent mouth-watering suggestion for a pasta dish, spaghetti with olives and anchovies. Why not use the sauce as a salad dressing? I concocted a slightly different version of her sauce and my dears, with some crunchy Red Gem lettuce, rocket and tiny watercress, it was ADDICTIVE.
Olive and Anchovy Dressing
1 cup green pitted olives
4 anchovy fillets in olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 tbsp capers, rinsed if stored in salt
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1–2 cloves garlic (depending on how much you love it!)
2 large handfuls flat-leaf parsley
2 tbsps mayonnaise
enough olive oil to achieve the consistency you like: perhaps 1/2 cup
Put everything in a food processor and blend steadily until emulsified.
This past week has been happy for me as well because believe it or not, the school autumn holiday has arrived! As always, looking up in the middle of the afternoon and seeing Avery’s shining head across the room is a wonderful thing. It’s lovely to have her home to make lunch for, to listen to her various enthusiasms (the evils of trickle-down economics, the beauty of learning Russian!), to get her late-night requests for “popcorn, if it’s not too much trouble!” and to make a chocolate cake for her. She’s not wheat-free by any means! This last-minute invention got rave reviews. Try it warmed slightly with a slathering of butter, for breakfast. Avery says it’s just fine.
White and Milk Chocolate Chip Cake
2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour
3/4 cup sugar (caster)
1 tbsp baking powder
pinch of fresh-grated nutmeg
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
5 tbsps butter, melted
handful white chocolate chips or buttons
handful milk chocolate chips or buttons
Heat oven to 400F/200C. Butter and flour a loaf tin.
In a large bowl, stir together with a fork the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg and salt, combining thoroughly. In a small bowl, beat the egg. Stir in the cream, milk and butter and blend well. Stir the wet mixture into the dry, stirring only until they are combined, not overmixing.
Pour the batter into the loaf tin and sprinkle on the chocolates. Of course, you could substitute semi-sweet chocolate, or butterscotch chips. I made this cake with what I had in my pantry! Bake for about 40 minutes, checking then to see if the center has cooked. Bake until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
She’s off now, though, on her own to Sicily with her fellow Greek and Latin students, for a week. She reports a wasp-infested hotel room and sweltering temperatures, and sounds completely happy with both so far. And, “It doesn’t look like Italy!” We’ll get her back in the middle of the night on Saturday, full, one expects, of stories.
In the meantime we’re enjoying the foggy days of late October, complete with scary spiders…
Would you believe you can walk a block from our London home and enjoy this beautiful, haunting reservoir? I know that all too soon, in the next week or so, all the leaves will be stripped from the trees, but for now I am enjoying the vista.
I simply love the quiet evenings when Avery and John have gone to sleep, sitting up with a cup of lemon and cinnamon tea, a cosy mystery, an alpaca cardigan to button up around my neck in the chilly bedtime breeze. Feeling good.
I am hard put to explain what on earth has been occupying me for the last month! Here it is, October already, with Avery’s two-week half-term break coming along on Friday, when in some ways it feels we just stepped off the plane from our American summer. We have not been idle.
Of course I have been ringing! I would never have dreamed a year ago that I would be capable of ringing at a wedding, but that’s where I found myself on Saturday afternoon. As you see, it was a beautiful, sunny autumn day with blue skies and a fresh breeze in the ancient yew trees in the churchyard. The bride was Sikh, the groom English, the ceremony traditional with “I Vow to Thee My Country” and “Jerusalem” being sung with gusto. We rang the bride in, scuttled away to have cups of tea and gossip behind closed doors, then emerged again to ring her and her new husband out. It was a heavenly experience, full of excitement, team spirit and pride. We’ve been practicing like crazy, with real academic lessons complete with coloured pencils and markers.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Do at least one thing every day that scares you.” I have no problem accomplishing that! Every time I hold the rope and hear the treble ringer say, “Look to: treble’s going, she’s gone,” I am filled with a combination of fear and exultation. It certainly keeps one on one’s toes!
The best thing to do to calm down after the extreme challenge, the deep sense of accomplishment, was to take a bike ride around the peaceful village, breathing deeply of the beautiful autumnal air. How I love our little pond.
Every evening that we can, we three gather at home from our various activities — social work, the school Christmas Fair, Lost Property — and share a savoury dinner, exchanging stories of our day. A new favorite is this elaborate-looking dish, actually quite simple, and purely delicious.
Pan-Fried Chicken Stuffed with Prosciutto, Mozzarella and Spinach
4 big chicken breast fillets
4 handfuls baby spinach
1 large ball buffalo mozzarella
8 slices prosciutto
1 dozen toothpicks
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
sea salt and fresh black pepper
Slice each chicken breast horizontally, leaving one side intact. Stuff with spinach, mozzarella and prosciutto, then fold the chicken breast back together and secure with three toothpicks each. In a heavy frying pan, melt the butter with the olive oil until it finishes sputtering, then place the chicken in carefully, sprinkling with salt and pepper. Cook without disturbing on one side for about 4 minutes, then turn over and cook for another 4 minutes, basting with the hot butter and oil mixture. Continue to cook until you can see that the chicken is no longer pink inside, and feels stiff to the touch, about 10 minutes in total.
Of course, we can’t be at home together every night. We’ve been a theatre-going with a vengeance. Avery is taking a drama exam in June, one of the eleven great English traditional “GCSE” exams after which students are legally allowed to leave school, with “qualifications.” The upshot of a drama GCSE is lots of evenings out seeing plays in this city of ours which is bursting with such opportunities. She has seen “Spring Awakening,” and “Hedda Gabler,” and we as a family have seen “I Am A Camera,” the fizzy play by Christopher Isherwood that led to the novel “Goodbye To Berlin” and finally the musical “Cabaret.” Avery adores anything to do with Berlin during WWII and the play was a delight, full of over-the-top performances.
Part of the fun of seeing “I Am A Camera” was going to the Southwark Playhouse, in the shadow of the new Shard Building, around the corner from Borough Market and of course, just down the street from our new, crazy property. So of course a visit to the Playhouse means dropping in on our patch of nettly dirt. As we approached with our friends Millie and Elspeth, we heard shattering screams. “That sounds like it’s coming from our property,” I said, and Avery turned to Millie. “Welcome to my neighborhood.” We approached with trepidation, hoping we wouldn’t find a murder being committed behind the hoardings.
And this is what we found, in our front yard.
Well, that’s something that doesn’t happen in Southbury, Connecticut! We ambled away, exchanging views on how much we would have to be paid in order to bungee jump. There isn’t enough money in the world for me! That experience would take “do something every day that scares you” to an unacceptable level.
We’ve been to see the incomparable “Timon of Athens,” really my favorite Shakespeare play (I wonder why it is so rarely staged). Starring one of my favorite actors to see onstage, Simon Russell Beale, it was a real tour de force, the most topical, contemporary, happening-right-now play you can imagine. A rich philanthropist, much feted by his sycophantic friends, abruptly abandoned when his investments go south, leaving him along, homeless, bitter. Go if you can! Although the poor man broke his finger recently during the second act! But he’s back now. As we drove away from the theatre after the matinee performance, we saw him traipsing along the pavement, looking exhausted but satisfied. We honked our horn, to Avery’s undisguised embarrassment, and waved through the convertible roof at him. “Thank you, we loved it!” we screeched. “Let’s go back and get his autograph,” I suggested breathlessly. “Absolutely not!” Avery and her friend Sophie chorused. Ah, youth, so easily humiliated.
Autumn has come to our little back garden, although it’s nothing to write home about compared to the splendor that is doubtless our Connecticut home, across the pond. One of the few compensations for Avery’s eventually going off to university will be the flexibility we have to go “home” for the fall foliage, something I really miss here in London. The trees here are muted glory, but one can find lovely ivy if one tries. Here is the house adjacent to St Nicholas, where I ring in Chiswick.
Are you a fan of David Sedaris? I will try not to judge you harshly if you say no, but truly he is one of those writers I would walk over hot coals for, just to hear him read aloud. Of course, in reality, all one must do is buy a ticket. At the lovely Cadogan Hall in Chelsea, we settled into our second-row seats for a heavenly 90 minutes or so of laughing out loud, watching his wry, shy smile when we applauded. He is a genius.
“I preferred my villains to be evil and stay that way, to act like Dracula rather than Frankenstein’s monster, who ruined everything by handing that peasant girl a flower. He sort of made up for it by drowning her a few minutes later, but, stil, you couldn’t look at him the same way again.” (When You Are Engulfed in Flames”)
How wonderful it would be to have his talent for poking fun at himself, for sending up his insane family members, his painful childhood, his misadventures in love. How wonderful to see the world through his eyes, with every miserable or embarrassing experience only fodder for another fabulous book. “When I moved to Paris, I couldn’t figure out the genders of any of the nouns. I was so afraid I’d call the pork tenderloin a ‘he’ when it was a ‘she’ that I took to buying everything in multiples, because the plural is so much easier. I brought home my pair of pork tenderloins and placed them in the refrigerator, next to the shelf on which resided my two DVD players and my two irons.”
You just haven’t lived until you’ve heard David read aloud about the taxidermied owl he bought for his boyfriend for Valentine’s Day. If you ever get a chance to hear him, go.
Of course, life wouldn’t be complete these days without our quotidien allotment of fighting over the upcoming election. It turns out that three people who actually agree on almost everything political can still find something to argue about, virtually every evening at dinner. It’s getting tiring. But we’ve voted. The absentee ballot was tremendously impressive and exciting.
What will the upcoming month bring then, the next busy four weeks? Well, tomorrow I will say goodbye to my little social-work family for the last time. I am in complete denial about how this will feel. I know it was the goal of my work — to help them, to accompany them on their journey from instability to stability, from tears to happiness. It is totally normal to say goodbye. But I don’t want to.
Then there will be Halloween, and Avery’s 16th birthday. Watch this space for more of our world, banal and thrilling in turns.
September in London. Life has resumed that frantic “Who’s coming to dinner tonight?”, “When did I say we were going to that play?” and “Did I mention I won’t be home until 5 tomorrow because of drama?” and “Can you help me carry the banquet table to the kitchen for 30 volunteer ladies to come to lunch tomorrow?” quality. Every morning my email inbox is filled with suggestions of meeting times for Lost Property, for the school Christmas Fair, the church Christmas Fair, for visits to my Home-Start social work family, for special bellringing practices and ringing for extra services, for weddings.
Sometimes we have to put away the computers, set aside the homework, switch the phones to “silent” and gather around the table for a bowl of restorative comfort. I promise you will never make or eat anything more sustaining, more inspiring, more savoury, than this soup, the recipe for which has made its way to my lovely foodwriting site, HandPicked Nation. Chicken meatballs in a magical herby broth!
Everything interesting and busy in our lives pales, however, in comparison with our big news: we are the proud owners of a… plot of dirt. Well, a plot of nettles. A plot of dirty nettles in a place where Shakespeare walked from home to his office at the Globe Theatre. A plot of land 300 yards from the Thames where in 43 AD the Romans landed and built a port city. I am not making this up.
After three years’ work looking for a place to renovate, John has succeeded in going one step farther. We’re starting literally on the ground. With an ancient wall and ancient gravestones to respect, as we build our house.
Of course the road will be long. Believe it or not, we’ve bought this dirty plot with absolutely no permission to build anything on it. That will be the first hurdle. There will be many, many people breathing down our necks to say “No way! We want to keep this piece of dirt empty!” And then if and when we get permission to build something, there will be a lot of intrusive interest in WHAT we build. Should it fit into the landscape, or stand out? Actually that’s an odd question because London is the kind of city where you can find one of just about everything just by looking around you. Within shouting distance of our new possession are a huge glass office building, a Victorian school, a marvel of 1960s municipal architecture and a giant hole in the ground about to be filled with an enormous apartment building.
And, because it’s fuzzy, enrivonmentally sensitive London, our backyard will be a huge, eternally protected herb garden.
Avery is incensed, in a completely sweet way, because she’s being forced to live out her teenage years in our West London bucolic village. Boo! “How is it that JUST when I get ready to go to university, you guys will be moving into this totally cool East London heaven?” is her refrain. Oh, well, she can visit.
Nico, the security guard whose job for the last 23 years (he was hired the year we were married!) has been to go over to the plot with his flashlight at dawn and dusk, is over the moon. “May I ask what you plan to… DO with it?” he asked delicately. “Live in it!” He’s very excited for us.
We brought home the key to our padlock, feeling like children who’ve been given a treehouse. John is beside himself with joy, overflowing with ideas about materials, light, making sure we have enough blank walls for the art installations we had to leave in storage in New Jersey when we moved here. All I want is a porcelain sink! And room for my books.
So John’s life now has gone from obsessing over finding a place, obsessing over the strategy necessary to buy the place, into overdrive on what the place will eventually BE. To this exciting end, he is meeting all the time with architects to explain his vision for our eventual house. Meanwhile we’ll be applying for permits, begging the indulgence of various public officials, getting to know the neighborhood. I have already staked out the beautiful market nearby, and the enormous church with TWELVE BELLS where I will be ringing, eventually. We anticipate moving date in 2016.
Because I am at heart a dark Scandinavian just waiting for the sky to fall, I really don’t believe any of it. I imagine the city will make us give it back, or never let us put down a brick. Or I’ll be hit by a bus before we get to move in. But luckily my better half is happy Italian and Irish, and he might just pull me along, as a partner on an amazing journey.
Watch this space! Literally.
I’m sitting here on my sofa contemplating the passing of summer — school starts tomorrow — and the attendant ratcheting-up of all the cares of ordinary life that come with the end of the holidays. Since the chief result of contemplating all these things is a wretched stomach-ache, I have armed myself with a cup of ginger tea and a cat, and the stack of Hello! magazines that awaited me upon my return. As did… the rain.
I cannot complain, because I have a cleaning lady who left everything totally perfect (OK, the t-shirts folded like the Gap and arranged by color are slightly creepy), and a husband who was more than happy to make chicken soup with my special tender almost-dumpling meatballs, for my recovery. Sofa-bound as I am today, I’ve finished all my Lost Property tasks — rotas, name tags, labels for the boxes — and will go in tomorrow to make sure things are ready for the inevitable onslaught of girls with Lost Stuff.
We have left Red Gate Farm (and all the joys and tensions that exist there!) behind. The gate is closed until Christmas.
I often think of how much I enjoy the circle of friends and family who make up our community at Red Gate Farm and how much MORE I would enjoy it all if I didn’t feel I was in a constant perilous state of having to say goodbye to them all again. It’s not normal for relationships to be so fraught with impending separation. We see our precious neighbors across the road only when they manage to get up from the city for a frantic weekend away from their real lives. There is never enough time to say everything we want to say.
Our darling farmer boy Rollie managed only one afternoon with us. I found it incredibly touching to contemplate this third Rollie in our lives, and mourned the fact that we never got a chance to see him with his dad and his grandfather. “At Christmas,” we say, as we always do, hoping that somehow everything will be complete then. Of course, at Christmas, we’ll say, “Oh, it’ll get done in the summertime.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, in a perverse way, to spend so much time with my nieces that I got sick of them, as so many of my friends get tired of family? That will never happen in this lifetime. Jane will have changed so much by the time I see her in four months. We had one last dinner party under a quarter moon, and I got to hear her confidences. I will never forget our funniest conversation this summer.
Jane: “What’s for dinner, Aunt Kristen?”
Me: “Spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread and asparagus.”
Jane: “That menu sounds rather promising.”
We managed to get one lunch at our precious Laurel Diner with Big Rollie and Judy, chattering over all the things that will happen on our property while we are away, knowing that their experienced, benevolent, caretaking eyes will watch it all and keep us posted. We’re having the stone wall repaired!
We swallowed hard at the bill, but it’s been years in the making, damage from snow and rain. We owe it to the house. How exciting it will be come back at Christmas to find it all beautifully restored. “A lifetime warranty,” the Serbian stonemason Tony assured me. “Whose lifetime, yours or mine?” I joked, but he replied seriously, “Way after both of us, honey.“
Even the wildlife has to be abandoned! John’s finches will be very sad when the food runs out.
Jessamy the cat has gone back to Manhattan, after a successful few weeks at camp. I’m surprised there is any screen LEFT in the door after all her concerted efforts to join us on the terrace! How wonderful she is and how unbelievable that any person could simply have thrown her away, as a kitten, to turn up at a shelter and be rescued by Avery.
Perhaps my most lasting memory of the summer is an unexpected one: the fun I have had getting to know Avery again. The pressures of the London school year are not kind to a mother and daughter’s attempts to share anything but dinner. She works so hard, spends so much time physically away from home and mentally in some other sphere, that I had forgotten the complete and total luxury of having her around all the time, to enjoy.
I know it isn’t realistic to expect to have her all to myself as I used to when she was little. So much of the growing-up process is bit negative, I find: children seem to go from being rather burdensome creatures constantly wanting to be washed and fed and taken places (places I never wanted to go, like horse rings and skating rinks) to being independent people you never get to see enough of, and it seems to happen overnight! How unfair, I sometimes think, that the more interesting she gets, the less I get of her. Alas.
But this summer, I discovered that there is another side to the coin. Somewhere along the line, a result of her constant reading and discussing and theorizing (and a wealth of inherited family lore, it has to be said!), she has become the best conversational companion I can imagine. How extraordinary when your child turns out to know so much more than you do on so many, many subjects! As loathsome as I have found the summer obsession with politics to be, watching her hold more than her own in every conversation gives me a great deal of pleasure, and dare I say it… pride. She has become an remarkable young woman — overnight, it would seem. And an amazing photographer, to produce a photo of me that I actually like.
I am hoping to be able to hold that wisdom with me, during this upcoming school year that will end in June with 11 — eleven! — wretched exams. Avery is still in there, more so than ever, and I hope we’ll be able to find each other now and then.
The end of the holiday had come. With one last look at the hydrangea, now in full August blossom, it was time to say goodbye.
Four months. We have four months in London to accomplish a great deal. I have my social-work family to meet up with again, and plenty of lacrosse boots to reunite with their hapless owners. John has the school Christmas Fair to run (single-handedly, it sometimes sounds). Avery and I have made a good start on “The Cookbook,” with my recipes and stories and her photographs, but we have to cook, photograph and eat our way through about 40 more dishes before we’re ready to approach a publisher. We’ll all be the size of houses!
And then we’ll be back at Red Gate Farm at Christmas for another season, another set of adventures. And me with a thicker skin, I like to think, not quite so inclined to think it’s the end of the world to say goodbye.
It’s Tuesday of our last week in America, and all is quiet at Red Gate Farm. The aviary that is John’s birdfeeder camp is simply flying with finches, cardinals, and other winged things I’m too much of a city girl to be able to name. The chipmunks run to and fro, filling their cheeks with sunflower seeds and peanuts (but turning up their little black noses at the unripe peach I first offered to Avery). Squirrels rustle around in the maple branches overhead, racing from their enormous nest to leap into the adjoining tree, dangle precariously from its branches, and finally leap to the woodshed roof.
Actually, amidst all this bucolic charm is the intermittent whine and choking of John’s weed-whacker, and a slow, cumbersome tractor driven by Rollie up the dusty road. I can hear Young Rollie up in the meadow, haying busily. Country noises, really.
It’s the beginning of the end. The temperature has dropped a bit so you want a sweater in the mornings. I’m starting to think about what I buy at the grocery so I use up all the bits and pieces in the fridge before we fly away on Sunday. But I’ve got the pantry well-stocked, just in case there’s a last minute hurricane. (But that would be crazy, wouldn’t it?)
As much as I adore all our busy social butterfly life every summer, I am content right now to be facing five days of just the three of us. There will be time for some lazy pool afternoons, another trip to the library, devotion to “Days of Our Lives,” even a couple of naps. The tennis court beckons.
Everyone can fend for himself or herself for lunch: a big pot of vichyssoise, a three-cheese panini, a bowl of red cabbage slaw. It will be quiet, and even perhaps a little boring. Just the ticket to get us in the mood for London life once more.
Last night saw us in New York for dinner with Avery’s oldest friend, Cici, and her family. These two girls met as babes in arms and were inseparable until we moved to London when they were nine. They still have a marvellous time together, now grown up.
We met at their work-in-progress loft, which is always a bittersweet experience for me, as it is where we spent September 11, 2001, watching events unfold. We stood in the bloomy evening last night, on the roof where we watched it all happen. The memories never quite go away, but it is exciting to see the future unfolding, way downtown.
We tucked into deep-fried calamari with a spicy mayo at Estancia 460, a cute little Argentinian bistro in dear old Tribeca. Such fun to catch up on real estate projects, art ambitions, new schools, to reminisce about gallery days and little-girl days.
But of course the most recent excitement was my mother’s birthday weekend! She opted to keep it quiet and simple this year, just the family, and while we have always loved the big bashes of past summers, it was vastly relaxing to know I would have just the tribe around. Great timing, because I’d been bellringing at the Kent School in the morning (taking dear Judy with me as a curious visitor!), which was as always — with ten bells! — hugely intimidating and yet wonderful.
Dropping Judy off at their farm afterward, I could not help but admire the corn crop, especially given the devastation and sad waste of the midwestern efforts this droughty summer.
It was a relief to mosey slowly up our road knowing there were not 30–40 people to be fed that evening! Just the family. There was time to tie yellow balloons everywhere in the late-afternoon light.
I know I can be tiresome on the subject of “the blue of the sky, the red of the barns, the green of the grass…” but there really was something magical about the colors, the stillness of the afternoon, the anticipation of a family-filled day.
And what a feast! All Mom’s favorite foods: devilled eggs, of course, of which I can never seem to make enough!
Home-Fried Chicken Tenders
6 chicken breast fillets
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup Old Bay Seasoning (or any spice blend you like)
1/4 cup light cream
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, seasoned if you like (I like Fox Point)
enough oil/lard to fill your deep fat fryer
Trim the chicken completely of any fat or membranes. Cut against the grain in three long slices. Shake up the chicken in the mixture of flour and Old Bay. At this point you can leave the tenders in the fridge while you prepare other dishes.
When you are ready to cook, heat up your oil and at the last minute, shake the tenders one more time to coat thoroughly, then beat the egg and cream in a shallow bowl and dip the tenders in it. Quickly transfer the tenders to the breadcrumbs (also in a shallow bowl) and coat them. Fry for about three minutes.
I served these with a mixture of mayonnaise, Key Lime juice and chilli sauce. Even the kids ate it all!
Of course, it wouldn’t be Mom’s birthday without scallops in bacon.
Angels on Horseback
2 tbsps olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
18 large sea scallops
9 pieces streaky (American) bacon, cut in half
Cook the bacon at 350F/180C until some fat has been rendered but bacon is still pliable. Drain on paper towel.
Mix olive oil and lemon juice and toss the scallops in it. Shake dry, then wrap each scallop in 1/2 piece of bacon and secure with two toothpicks. Grill over medium heat for four minutes, then turn over and grill for four further minutes.
There were baked mushrooms stuffed with a mixture of white crabmeat and Boursin (oo0h, crisp and savoury), and another dish I can never make enough of: tomato and mozzarella salad with fresh pesto.
No party for my mother would be complete with the traditional cake brought by Jill and Joel. “Happy Birthday, Mona.” A beautiful evening.
How we all missed Dad during the festivities, this second year when he could not be with us. It takes a special brand of courage for my mother to carry on having fun, looking forward to her party, travelling all the way to Connecticut to be with us all, laughing with her granddaughters, blowing out her candles. She came with a stack of photos she had found of little Dad, cherished by his parents, now long dead. It was a comfort to think of the cycle of life.
I know nothing in the world would please our father more than knowing that in his absence, his three children are looking out for Mom. There was never anyone who could make life feel safer than my father could, much as John’s father could. How lucky we all were to have their protective arms around us for as long as we did.
And that was our party. Quiet, peaceful (well, there WAS Molly’s cartoon voice floating on the breeze).
All together, one of those delicious days you wish could go on forever. All over for another year. We love you, Mom.
Here I sit on my sunny terrace, feasting my eyes on this gorgeous crop of tomatoes, a gift from old friends with a fabulous garden, and destined for tomato mozzarella salad tomorrow. The lawn is shimmering in the mid-August heat, green from just enough rain, which falls conveniently at night, leaving us with day after day of warm calm.
Calm! That makes me laugh, because the only thing calm about our summer IS the weather. It’s the usual revolving door here, welcoming guests who find Red Gate Farm’s particular brand of peace an antidote to the rigors of daily life.
John’s sister Cathy and niece Ellen were our latest visitors this week, come to bask in the sun, chat, share our table, visit our library, carry a book out to the terrace to read. But as Ellen said, “I bring my book out here, but then I just want to BE here, and look around, and feel the passage of time.” Cathy was happy to do just that.
They were happy to take a break from all the bouncing to set the table for a celebratory dinner with Rollie and Judy, and to rescue a Jessamy who has once again discovered how to slip out the back screen door.
We were so busy passing trays of home-fried chicken tenders, sweet corn and cheesy eggplant stew, and laughing over the crazy Christmas tree stand stories that Rollie and Judy always tell, that I forgot to take any pictures of our party! Avery caught one of the eggplant, though, garlicky and savoury with fresh thyme and mozzarella.
We took a trip up the hill to visit Young Rollie’s beehives, where Ellen was promptly stung, but she was enchanted with them anyway.
When Cathy went into the city for a business trip, the rest of us suited up for an afternoon at Quassy, the local amusement and water park, with whom I have a love-hate relationship. I love the old-fashioned atmosphere, the hot dogs, the view over the lake, glistening under a blinking blue and gray sky, the ancient carousel.
Through it all, we watched the closing ceremonies of the Olympics — the highlight being Eric Idle and “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life”! And we went for ice cream in Quincy the Land Rover, who has had an overhaul and now (sort of) always starts when we want him to. We argued politics with the crazy ladies standing outside the library on Primary Day, piled every vegetable in the world on homemade pizzas, read aloud from our various favorite books, and breathed in the heavy summer air.
We went to the pool and swam underwater races with Ellen, champion competitor for her high school team. John and I went to the hardware store to get the grill’s propane tank filled up. In a totally typical Connecticut negotiation, John asked the clerk if he thought it was a good idea to have an “extra propane tank.”
“Ayuh, always good to have an extra tank. Never know when you’re gonna run out.”
“Well, great. We’ll take one.”
“That’ll be $40.”
“Oh, no, propane will be another $15. You wanted propane, too, did you?”
No, what we REALLY wanted was an EMPTY extra propane tank. Because it’s always good to have an EXTRA empty propane tank.
Finally Cathy and Ellen had to go home, and because it is against our religion to sit still for more than seventeen minutes at a time, we hopped in the car and headed up to New York State to visit our old friends Chris and Marla, and their beautiful kids Aidan and Helena, at their big white farmhouse.
How Avery laughed over old photo albums of us with 90s hair and clothes, each of us about 20 pounds lighter and with no gray hair! “You guys were so COOL! Big parties with people in black tie and bathtubs full of bottles of champagne…” her voice trails off, clearly reluctant to confront the dull old people we are now!
We exchanged news about what we’re all up to, eating all the pickled vegetables Marla has been putting up — kohlrabi! brilliant — while the kids bounced around, Helena looking exactly like a tiny Marla.
Olimpia is one of the most brilliant cooks I know — helped by being Italian through and through, and she gave us falling-apart beef ribs in a rich gravy, with a side dish of a really intriguing pasta, which we cooked together. The noodles are cooked in wine and stock, like risotto rice.
Olimpia’s Green Vegetable Campanelle
(serves about 6–8)
3 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1 large bunch asparagus, cut in 2-inch pieces
3/4 cup baby peas
pinch chopped mint (optional)
1 cup dry white wine
vegetable or chicken stock (about 4 cups, enough to fully cook the noodles)
1 pound campanelle noodles (bell-shaped!)
1 cup grated Parmesan
Heat the oil until shimmering. Wash the white and light green parts of the leeks and cut them in 1/2 inch slices. Add to the oil and cook until very soft and browned. Add garlic and asparagus and peas, plus mint if using, and stir well. Remove to a bowl.
In the remaining oil, stir the dry pasta until coated. Add the wine all at once, and cook until wine is absorbed by noodles. Add the stock one cup at a time, stirring in between until the noodles are completely cooked. Add the cheese and stir well, then add the vegetables and stir well.. Serve hot.
We took Olimpia’s fresh panna cotta out to the terrace surrounded by dense woods and chatted, catching up on all our news since we last saw them at my mother’s birthday party, a year ago. We remembered all the other times we had cooked and eaten together, in our New York apartment, in our London houses. Since Tony has 3/4 of a mile of stone walls, on each side of his driveway, we sought his opinion about our poor old wall by the meadow, desperately needing repair. I think we’ll end up getting the stonemason out here in the fall to do it while we’re away. “Don’t look at me!” Tony said, even though he has all the coolest tractors, backhoes, chainsaws that a man could want.
We had a lovely afternoon.
Today, we are recovering, spending a quiet day just the three of us, watching the chipmunks cavort in their never-ending quest for peanuts. They have gotten completely insatiable, and if the glass is not kept full, they take on a sinister, predatory appearance, and I realize we are totally, WAY outnumbered. One actually jumped up on my lap, at which point I realized that until now, I had always thought it would be kind of cute to have a chipmunk on my lap.
Two weeks from today, Avery will be back at school. I will be slaving away at Lost Property, John will be hard at work on the school Christmas Fair. For now we’ll take a deep breath and enjoy these last days of August peace.
Life – at least, MY life – is made up of a cast of characters. Some walk onto the stage to provide drama, to advance the plot. Some are inserted to give the main character (me) a problem to solve, a crisis to handle. Some just want to have a seat at the dinner table and contribute to the conversation. Some wander onstage to provide the nuisance quotient, like the chipmunks at Red Gate Farm, after you’ve fed them innumerable peanuts. They eat a hole through your shed door in search of more.
But my favorites among the cast are the dramatis personae who make you want to watch the play, for the play to last longer, maybe even to see it a second time. They are the life enhancers, and happily in the past week my life has been full of them.
Last Saturday, we drove up our quiet country road after dinner with my sister’s family to find about three hundred cars parked along the shoulder. “Somebody’s having a party,” John remarked and it wasn’t hard to see who it was: the family with all the teenagers, whose driveway contained about another six hundred cars. I felt the knell of doom.
Just as John had gone to sleep that night and his mother and Avery and I were puttering around in the desultory way of people who know it’s bedtime but don’t want to give up the fight. There was a knock on the door. I thought I was hearing things and did nothing. Then I heard it again, and thinking it was someone from across the road with a toddler-related emergency, I opened the door, to find a very handsome teenage boy on the step.
“I’m really sorry, but I just reversed into your driveway and took out part of your fence,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t want to just drive away. I’m really sorry.” John’s mom assessed the situation and decided that a man was required, so poor John stumbled downstairs to handle things. “Why don’t you give us your details on this card, and we’ll deal with it in the morning?”
While the boy wrote down his name, address and phone numbers, I tried to judge whether or not he had been drinking, and decided I couldn’t. He wasn’t lurching around or belching or weaving, and seemed perfectly able to wield a pen. “You are really a responsible person to take the decision to tell us what happened,” I said sincerely. “It would have been so easy just to drive away.”
“Oh, there wasn’t any question of that,” he said, and I let him out the front door.
In the morning it was clear we weren’t going to be able to throw a couple of nails at it and solve the problem.
Before we could even begin to worry, the dad called and came over to assess the damage. “I’m a shop teacher,” he said, “so this is no problem to fix. Something Tyler and I can do together. Help him take it seriously. We’ll be over in the morning.” And they were.
Within two hours, the section of the fence he’d driven into looked far healthier than the rest of the dilapidated structure.
“Gee, I wish you’d run over a MUCH larger section!” I said. “That’s a really mature, responsible way to handle the situation, and you should be proud of Tyler, and what a great job you’ve done as a parent.” The dad took this in stride. “Well, he’s off to college next month and it’s a nice feeling to know he can step up to an unpleasant situation, and do the right thing.”
The state of the world might not be as grim as it sometimes looks, with people like Tyler and his dad out there.
Of course, an evening with my nieces Jane and Molly convinces you of that.
Then, there’s our neighbor friend Mark, who pastures his horses in the meadow that stretches behind our house. Out of the goodness of his heart, he rode over on his big bush-whacking tractor one impossibly hot and humid afternoon, to try to rescue our stone wall from maurauding climbing weeds. Here’s before.
I took him an icy bottle of water and we chatted about the fierce desire of all green plants to take over the universe. The next day, John put on every long garment he could find to fine-tune the job, trying desperately to avoid the plentiful poison ivy.
And the next day our Land Trust friends brought over an even more serious machine for John to play with.
Over the next few days, he became obsessed with clearing every scrap of brush and tree that even LOOKED like it was in the wrong place.
Meanwhile, neighbor Kate and I did cartwheels together, in the Olympic spirit.
And Kate discovered, as only someone very small can, a treasure in the ancient steps up to our house. How have we lived here for eight years and never noticed a kitty print?
How glorious the meadow looked that day, steaming gently under the blazing August sun.
Lunch with Alyssa! It’s one of my favorite scenes in my life play, each summer. She makes me feel cooler, more interesting and infinitely more optimistic, just by being with her. And to add to the fun, she brought Ivy into the mix of our friendship. Ivy, who hired me to write for her beautiful, peerless magazine, “Vintage.”
We met at a totally funky Russian restaurant, Mari Vanna, where all the salads came in cut-glass parfait dishes and the bathroom was papered with back issues of “Pravda,” overlaid with graffiti. We ate dumplings stuffed with everything under the sun – potatoes, mushrooms, sour cherries! - and paper-thin slices of eggplant stuffed with we have no idea what. “I didn’t want to ask,” Alyssa said. “If you don’t know, you just eat it.” We drank beetroot-infused vodka and lukewarm coffee and solved all the problems of the cultural world.
There is nothing in the world like an old friend – someone who knew you when your child was a baby, who lived right alongside you during the aftermath of September 11, who brought her new baby to visit your fledgling art gallery, whose daughter was the stalwart mainstay of your child’s birthday party guests.
And Ivy… she is a true cultural visionary, a person who looks around her with intensely creative eyes, spanning the worlds of food, design, literature, travel, and sees how they can all be brought together under one cover. The next issue of “Vintage” is just around the corner!
Together they helped me survive my slight anxiety over having simply LEFT my only child on a New York City sidewalk with a vague set of instructions on how to find the subway and get downtown on it! We have to let Avery do these things, after all.
On the way back up to Red Gate Farm, we stopped off on the Upper West Side to pick up Jessamy, kitten of the world from two summers ago, now happily the petted daughter of our friends Alice and Connie. It didn’t take Jessamy very long to remember Avery.
What a beautiful child she is.
Finally, it was time for a trip down memory lane, for me… in my long-ago, misspent early middle age, I was a gallery owner in New York City. Now, as any gallery person will tell you, the best AND worst things about the work are the artists! My dears, the egos! The necessary hand-holding, the need to stay completely sober while listening to a lady tell you about her paintings whose medium is a mixture of human ashes and her own breast milk.
I am not making this up.
But every once in awhile, my space was graced by people of humor, perspective and genuine brilliance and spirit. And among these were Staci and Craig, husband and wife, painting team and among the most generous people I will ever meet. How my heart broke when I moved to London and had to leave them behind…
And here, seven years later, they have re-invented themselves as the brains behind my beloved food-writing gig, HandPicked Nation! On Thursday, they arrived with Tomiko, the best editor I’ve ever worked with. (And Lulu the dog.)
The table looked lovely, though I say it myself. Avery and I set it together.
Vichyssoise served in my new plummy cabbage bowls!
Piles of pork ribs with my secret rub…
Three bean and pepper salad, tomato and mozzarella salad with pine nuts, lemon zest and red onion. It turns out that bean salad is much prettier to photograph before you dress it, so Avery went to work. These guys have been incredibly appreciative of her efforts and she gets credit on the website – thank you!
I was so busy laughing at Craig’s dry humor that I forgot to write down anything he said, and so busy eating that I never got a decent photo of us all. But in bits and pieces, yes!
In the thick, hot, sticky air, Craig filmed me being interviewed by Staci. How daft I sounded I will not know until the clip is aired on HandPicked, but I’ll be brave and give you the link when it happens.
Staci remembered when she first met Avery. “There she was, five years old, at the gallery. She introduced herself and then said, ‘Would you like to see the basement? The space is quite usable.’” Poor Avery, her childhood blighted by an art gallery. Avery and Tomiko bonded on the subject of Doctor Who, and Avery and Craig on the subject of the Leica camera, which is inching away from being John’s as the days go by, and toward being Avery’s.
Their ambitions for the website are so exciting! I love being given the chance to put a frame, a set of words, around my cooking experiences and pop them up on the web for posterity. They, like Ivy and Vintage, have vision. I can only sit back and admire.
What fun we had.
Red Gate Farm sizzles in the August heat as I size up my summer play, full to the brim with my favorite characters.
Whew, it’s hot! Our tennis games are sweaty affairs where we quit when we’ve run out of cold water to drink. The Grumpy Old Men at the tennis court outdo themselves with querulous complaint. “Ira, what in the world is wrong with you? That shot was so LAWNG.” “Sheldon, when I say SERVE, I mean over the g*****d net! Are you blind?” “That was certainly not 30 15, that was 30 30.” Central casting. But hey: they’re out there, arguing their way through yet another match.
The air hangs heavy over Red Gate Farm, coaxing the blossoms from the hydrangea tree, finally. Every July we wring our hands, saying, “It’s never THIS late before they bloom! What’s wrong?” and then in August, right on cue, they bloom.
Shots ring out across the back meadow as Tricia pursues the coyotes (she plans on a coat when she gets nine of them, and I just hope she succeeds before they eat up any more of the bunnies running around. She’s more worried about her baby son in his backyard pool). Not to mention these little guys who people our terrace. We feed them shamelessly, watching them carry their booty to their secret homes.
All the usual suspects are accounted for this summer, in our little community, with the beloved addition of Mike and Lauren’s new baby, Abigail. She can, as the late, great novelist Laurie Colwin said, be judged by adult standards of beauty.
These are the sort of people who, two months before the birth of their first child, travel out of state to adopt a rescue dog to shower love on. Noel seems to realize that she has fallen into the pot of jam, with her new family.
Mike will always hold a special place in our hearts because he fell in love with and adopted Avery’s foster kitten Jessica, several summers ago. He is, predictably, an amazing dad.
It was heartwarming to visit them at home several days later, and to see Jessica reunited with her rescuer, both of them quite grown up now.
Of course we’ve been tooling around in Quincy, the 1967 Land Rover who is John’s pride and joy. He takes us to the ice cream stand down our country road, the most American place you can ever imagine.
Quincy is showing his age, however. One sultry afternoon, John and I dropped Avery and Rosemary off at our beloved local library, saying we’d be “right back.” We stopped at the car repair place to schedule a checkup for Quincy and went to the grocery store for lobsters, emerging to find that Quincy had had enough and would not start. HOW I wish I had had my camera that afternoon, because two rather alarmingly tatooed and slightly dicey looking men emerged from a car with Massachusetts plates and approached us. “Hey, what a cool ride. Havin’ trouble, are ya?”
Whereupon they put their backs into the awesome job of pushing Quincy across the parking lot trying to surprise him into starting. They produced jumper cables. No luck. “No way this baby’s staaatin’,” averred one guy (with skulls all up and down his arms and a heart surrounding the words “Marissa” and “Konnylynn”). “Starter’s toast.” We shook hands. “Our good deed for the day, anyway,” they smiled and drove away. I can’t believe we didn’t think to give them a twenty. It took AAA to start the car.
July wouldn’t be complete without a visit from our local Great Blue Heron, who flies across from Anne’s pond across the road to land on our barn roof.
From the roof, after surveying all his domain, he sails into our pond, to eat as many of our minnows as he can.
Jill and her family have been to visit, one memorably thundery afternoon (Jane does not do thunder, so we had to offer lots of Olympic coverage to distract her). Luckily we made it to the swimming pool before the heavens opened, and then came home to congregate in the kitchen (as everyone seems to do no matter what house I’m in), setting up Avery’s childhood dollhouse for Jane and Molly to rediscover. We measured everyone, as usual. Molly is far too small for her name to appear anywhere near Avery’s, this summer!
And Jane’s requested spaghetti and meatballs for dinner! I don’t know what story I was telling here, but it must have had a great punchline.
This week saw us on our twice-yearly trip up to Washington, Connecticut, to pop into our favorite bookstore. We detoured to our friend Judy’s brother’s farmstand, high on the hilltop overlooking the valley, where we were lucky enough to find Judy herself and have a visit, plus stock up on beets, peaches, corn and lettuce.
Onward to the Hickory Stick, one of those magical bookshops where you find books you would never have dreamed of, and feel good about buying them. Take that, Amazon!
We went on to Litchfield for our traditional trip to my favorite woollens shop, R. Derwin, where I fully intended to give myself and Avery new cashmere sweaters, as we do every summer. But my GOODNESS! What has happened to the prices? Recession, what recession? All we could afford were sweaters on the “damaged” rack, with little moth-holes peppered about. Those will fit right into my wardrobe in London where everything has a hole!
This summer has also, of course, been taken over by the Olympics. John streams coverage live from the BBC until they close up for the day, then we turn to NBC for the evenings. Oh, the Opening Ceremony: daft! so British! the Queen arriving in a helicopter, dozens of Mary Poppins floating in with black umbrellas, and Kenneth Branagh in mutton chop sideburns quoting from Calaban? Only in England! During the Parade of Nations, Avery mused, “St. Vincent and the Grenadines? Sounds like a rock band.”
Avery’s sense of humor has brought many a shout of laughter from us all this summer. High on my list was her reply to my moaning about the demise of the American Soap Opera industry (I was raised on “Days of Our Lives.”). “It’s just a shame when ANY industry goes under,” I soapboxed. “All those jobs lost, all the passion for it dissolved. No industry should suffer that fate.” Pause. Avery: “Well, there IS human trafficking.”
She is the best.
One impossibly steamy afternoon, we acquired a generator. After last summer’s debacle with Hurricane Irene and six days with no electricity or water (well water), we determined never to live through that again. So our very romantic wedding anniversary and Christmas gift to each other was this baby.
Throughout it all, Rosemary and I have been cooking, cooking, cooking. What a joy it is to have company in the kitchen! She and I have been at this, our favorite activity, for going on 30 years now, and we have the routine down pat. She chops the garlic, the shallots, the mint, the basil — whatever requires precision and dedication! I try to keep track of getting everything to the table on time. Fried haddock, BBQ chicken wings, ENDLESS bean salads, slaws and roasted vegetables, chicken burgers, roasted salmon, BLTs, you name it. Corn on the cob nearly every night!
And the special treat without which no summer would be complete: Maine lobster.
Avery was a reluctant photographer on this occasion, not relishing being quite so close to the food chain. As Kim Kardashian said, “Lobsters are the only food we kill before we eat them.” Hmmm… whatever, they were delicious, steamed and served with a spicy aioli.
(one lobster per two people)
lobsters (steamed and chilled)
minced white onion
mayonnaise, chili sauce and lemon juice to taste
top-split hot dog rolls
Simply take your lobster apart: tail and claws. I know there is meat in the rest of it, but I don’t ever know how to find it (except sucking on the legs!). Wash the tail thoroughly to remove any green goo. Chop the meat into the size bites you like and mix with the celery, onion and dressing ingredients. Pile generously into the rolls and sprinkle with chives.
Yesterday found us at the town pool (forever to be known as the Town Poo, when the “L” fell off the sign last summer), on a truly perfect, American pool day. There was a camp there, so shouts of “Marco… Polo…” drifted across the water, as they have for centuries in pools just like this one. “Don’t run!” the supermodel lifeguards screech.” “Don’t hang on the ladder!”