j4: (southpark)
I know I only read the Guardian's Family supplement to get annoyed, really, but this Saturday's front page article is even more teeth-grindingly aggravating than most... to the extent where I'm starting to suspect (or should that be "hope"?) that it's actually a spoof. Some of it is almost too easy a target:
"I work out what's going to happen when Saffron's rounders game at one end of the county clashes with Aspen's cricket match in the other direction, and they both need picking up at the exact same time that the nanny finishes."
Oh noes! How will they cope?

But it was this bit that really made me want to punch them:
What Tony's fed up with, he says, is the assumption that because they are well-off everything is easy. They do have a nanny from 8am to 6pm weekdays. "But at 6pm she goes home and then it's just us. So on a Friday night I'll get in from work and it's literally straight into looking after the babies. There's no respite: the weekend is heavy domestic duty and then on Monday morning I'm back into work from first thing."
Wait, what? You have to literally look after the children that you paid £millions to have? That's so unfair! And, after all that, they still expect you to go into work on Monday? O cruel world! "We loved the idea of a big family," says one of these spoilt kids (the parents, that is). Evidently the reality of a big family is slightly harder to deal with.
What he would most like, he says, is for people to realise how normal their lives are. "It's not about spoilt children and designer shoes, the way some people seem to think. We're just an ordinary family, with an ordinary kitchen, an ordinary garden and ordinary goings-on."
Yeah. "Ordinary," that was just the word I was looking for.
j4: (fairy)
I only realised late last night that today would be Stir-up Sunday, so I hastily scouted around for a plausible pudding recipe; in the end I rejected the ones suggested on [livejournal.com profile] snake_soup and plumped for the one in my excellent vintage Homepride Book of Home Baking.

The Homepride Book of Home Baking is something I've seen around in the kitchen at home for so long that I was a bit confused to find that it's not something you find in every kitchen, like a sink or an oven. Of course, our current kitchen doesn't have an oven yet, but it does have the Homepride book, thanks to my sister's generosity and eBay skills (don't worry, she got herself a copy too). If you're looking for your own copy, it looks like this (published 1970, SBN 900869054 — don't be misled by later editions; they're utterly different). It goes through the basics of baking, the different methods ('rubbed-in method', 'all-in-one method') and representative recipes, and there's a troubleshooting bit at the end of each section. Each recipe is short and uncomplicated, four one-column recipes to a page, measurements given in metric and imperial ("It's the first metric book of flour cookery in Britain ... Before very long, all other cookery books will become obsolete," raves the introduction). Okay, the recipes are very 1970s, but they're also very tasty. If there has been little innovation in the field of steamed puddings and stodgy cakes in the last 40 years it's because they were just fine to start with.

So, time for pudding. Fortunately I had a pudding-basin (the plastic sort, saved from a previous shop-bought pudding, which had been used in the interim as a general tupperware and even had 'stew soup' faintly scratched into it), and even more fortunately, this morning the local Co-op had most of the requisite ingredients. The newsagent next door filled in the gap of self-raising flour, and I cycled to Tesco to try to find almonds. They didn't have any chopped or blanched almonds — a good thing, as it turned out, because it meant that I bought their much nicer organic almonds and blanched them myself. I don't think I'd ever done this before — I was resigned to using them with skins and all — but the Homepride Book's casual instruction to "Blanch almonds (see page 16)" reassured me that it'd be easy. Turns out all you do is put boiling water on them and leave them for a few minutes, after which time the almonds' skins have loosened and you can just squeeze them off. Who knew? Okay, okay, you probably all knew. Humour me.

There was a minor crisis when I discovered that the packet of suet which I'd briefly hefted and judged to be at least a third full turned out to have less than the necessary ¼lb, and the Co-op (close enough to home to encourage this sort of disorganised shopping) turned out not to stock any, but in the end I substituted finely-diced butter instead and crossed my fingers that Saint Delia would forgive me. After some wishful stirring, I ladled it into the bowl, put the boil in the big pan of water, and proceeded to steam the thing for six hours, which does not make for interesting blogging material so I'll just use it as an excuse for a bit more rambling.

There's a poem which I always think of when I think of Christmas puddings; I reproduce it here in its twee entirety:
Our Christmas pudding was made in November,
All they put in it, I quite well remember:
Currants and raisins, and sugar and spice,
Orange peel, lemon peel - everything nice
Mixed up together, and put in a pan.
"When you've stirred it," said Mother, "as much as you can,
We'll cover it over, that nothing may spoil it,
And then, in the copper, tomorrow we'll boil it."
That night, when we children were all fast asleep,
A real fairy godmother came crip-a-creep!
She wore a red cloak, and a tall steeple hat
(Though nobody saw her but Tinker, the cat!)
And out of her pocket a thimble she drew,
A button of silver, a silver horse-shoe,
And, whisp'ring a charm, in the pudding pan popped them,
Then flew up the chimney directly she dropped them;
And even old Tinker pretended he slept
(With Tinker a secret is sure to be kept!),
So nobody knew, until Christmas came round,
And there, in the pudding, these treasures we found.

—Charlotte Druitt Cole
I only know it because we had to learn it in the Elocution classes that I (briefly) attended at one primary school. I don't recall any training in diction (though the teacher's name was Mrs Dixon — my dad thought this was hilarious and then had to explain the joke, which is how I learned the word 'diction'), but I do recall having to learn a poem every week, first writing it out in our best handwriting and illustrating it, and then reciting it before the rest of the class.

The thing is, though, I don't actually have any memory of making Christmas puddings at home; I'm not sure we ever did, and we certainly never made them in November. We made Christmas cake (always made to this recipe), and stirring it was certainly an occasion; but as far as I can remember it was usually only a few days before Christmas. My mum would ice the cake, ruffling the royal icing into snow-like peaks with a knife, and then my sister and I would add every plastic cake-decoration we owned, until it looked like an explosion at Santa's grotto. My mum only once made her Christmas cake in advance; when we unwrapped it from its foil to ice it, we found that it had gone mouldy. She blamed the organic (and hence, supposedly, preservative-free) dried fruit. Thereafter we went back to making Christmas cake just before Christmas, or even just after — okay, then we called it 'New Year cake' instead, but it was the same cake. Nobody ever felt like eating cake after Christmas dinner anyway.

So, the moral I derive from this story is that you can't store your cake and eat it, and you can't eat your cake and pudding. Only kidding — there isn't really a moral! There are just a handful of key techniques, and a selection of good recipes, and some tasty ingredients, and occasional long periods of waiting, and things you do again year after year because they work, and all these things are just rattling around in a box of terrible analogies like the little plastic cake decorations in the biscuit-tin on the top shelf that I had to stand on a chair (or, if nobody was looking, on the kitchen unit) to get to.
j4: (badgers)
A tasty, easy, relatively quick & reasonably nutritious meal based on cheap stuff from the Co-op and storecupboard stuff:

Take 4 salmon steaks and put them in an ovenable dish with 1 fennel bulb (sliced), some crushed garlic, some of a lemon (juice squeezed over the fish and squeezed-out skins thrown in as well) and about half a pint of stock (half a veggie oxo cube). Stick it in the oven for 25 minutes at 180°C. Serve with green beans and couscous.

We drank: Cairn o'Mohr Autumn Oak Leaf wine.

A few notes about prices and availability, for posterity/interest/whatever:

The salmon steaks were £5 for the pack in the Co-op. I was sort of intending it to be enough to do for another day (or maybe for my lunch tomorrow) but we were both hungry and before we knew it we'd eaten the lot (omnomnomnom). Fennel was half price (49p) and green beans were reduced to 99p for the pack (I used about half of them), though I only realised later that they were from Kenya so a bit of a bad move on the food-miles front there. Couscous was in the cupboard and I can't remember how much it cost but it lasts forever and goes with everything. Garlic and oxo are things I always have in; I had to buy the lemon (I wish lemons lasted longer; I do freeze lemon slices for drinks, maybe I should freeze half-lemons for throwing in soups and fish stuff).

I'd forgotten we had the wine, but I found it when I was looking for some white wine & today was definitely autumnal. It was quite strong, dry in flavour but not in feel (if you see what I mean) and while it probably wasn't the best thing for that meal it was certainly tasty.

And some general related rambling:

We had salmon a bit like this when my mum and I went to visit Mémé and Pépé (my grandma and grandad) last week, only with onion instead of the fennel, and potatoes and various salads as accompaniment. That's Mémé's idea of a small quick lunch. (She loves salmon and often cooks it for us when we visit; when I was younger I remember she sometimes used to do a whole salmon with prawns and lettuce around the outside. It was amazing, display food but delicious as well.) After lunch Pépé was reminiscing about how when they were first married, Mémé had made a different meal every single night for a year ("bah, it was only really for the first 6 months", she chipped in). That was in 1950. I don't think I could make a different meal every night for a month without resorting to recipe books (unless you count "pasta and X", for every sensible value of X, as different meals), and I don't have rationing to contend with.

I don't aspire to being able to cook fancy food or invent innovative combinations of ingredients; all I really want to be able to do is what my parents and my grandmother did before me and still do now: make tasty and healthy food with which to feed a family. I'm still learning, slowly.
j4: (disco)
World, say hello to [livejournal.com profile] camellia_uk. She rocks!
j4: (kanji)

On Saturday I travelled to Oxford with [livejournal.com profile] addedentry, to visit [livejournal.com profile] smallbeds and Kate, and to go (with them) to [livejournal.com profile] truecatachresis's flatwarming. Okay, that's only four people, but all the other people we met there can count as the fifth between them. No offence. I tried to introduce [livejournal.com profile] addedentry to [livejournal.com profile] cleanskies, but I barely know her myself, and wine made me misquote her username. Only by one letter, but the social damage was already done. I think [livejournal.com profile] addedentry would benefit from someone more popular than me to introduce him into exciting new social circles.


Since 1999 [livejournal.com profile] truecatachresis had been hanging on to a bagful of things which he believed to be mine, which I had apparently left when I moved out of our Marston-based seven-person student commune.
> inv
Your knapsack contains:

Unopened junk mail
Chinese-style folded paper wall-hanging
small ladies' wallet (new, empty)
alphabet fridge magnets
The junk mail was opened and mostly thrown away, the rest has accompanied me back to Cambridge. The wallet is, I am fairly sure, not mine; unless perhaps it was cheap or came free with something and I was tempted to keep it. It's possible. The wall-hanging features trees, or perhaps birds, and calligraphy; the lettering is so pictorial that you are tempted to try to read meaning into the shapes of the wildlife. There used to be another matching wall-hanging, blue where this one is red, each 99p from Booksale, both equivalent defence against the magnolia woodchip.

The fridge magnets used to say "FOOD TRANSFER PROTOCOL" where they held the takeaway pizza menus to the boiler, and "AXAXAXAS MLO" (with multiplication signs pressed into service against the deficiencies of ordinary English letter-distribution) across the top of the lesser of two fridges.


Saturday morning's shift at Oxfam was unremarkable, except for acquiring some Famous Five hardbacks which I can hopefully re-sell at a profit on eBay. Apart from that, the usual; books were moved from one area of the shop to another, and Roger demonstrated his peculiar gift for the excluded middle:
me: "What shall I price these [modern paperback novels] at?"
R: "Oh ... £4.99."
me: [surprised] "£4.99? They're a bit on the tatty side..."
R: "Well, throw them away, then."
I priced them at £2.99 in the end and put them on the shelves. No, before anybody whinges about Oxfam's prices, I don't actually think 3 quid is an unreasonable amount to give to charity in exchange for a book that would be 7 or 8 quid new and is only a bit worn on the outside from having been read before. Some people buy books because the shiny covers will set off their Ikea furniture nicely: Borders and Waterstones cater more than adequately to their needs. Other people buy books because all those funny black marks inside tell them something interesting.

Lingering in Oxford on Sunday afternoon allowed us to visit the QI Bookshop, which organises the books within its single circular room according to oblique thematic principles, rather like (not remotely coincidentally) the section headings in this post. It is a bookshop for browsing, and we browsed.


To the bewilderment of J-P and Kate, Owen and I took bongos to Ian's party, where three other sets of bongos were already plugged in to the Gamecube. Four-way Donkey Konga madness proved even more fun than the one- or two-way variants we'd already experienced, though I was a little concerned for the health of my bongos after watching one over-enthusiastic participant. (My plea for him to be a little more careful fell on deaf ears; it reminded me of why I normally play computer games selfishly, on my own, and why I refrain from lending many books: other people don't give a damn if they break things that don't belong to them.) When we weren't playing, we stopped for a moment to watch the four lines of rhythms and coloured patterns weaving in and out of each other like maypole dancers.

And it snowed this morning, because the seasons have their own rhythms. Nearly every year, snow in January comes as a total surprise -- completely out of the blue (or the grey) -- to the rail networks and the road-gritting lorries. It surprised me, but only because I hadn't realised it was that cold until my fingers went numb in the 3 minutes it took me to de-ice the car windscreen. Driving in the snow feels like playing some kind of space-based videogame; I pilot my small craft along the ribbon of tarmac and the snowflakes stream past like light, like years.


J-P and Kate have a tiny prism hanging on their window, which is caused to spin by a small solar-powered motor. It fills the room with rainbows, unlike Owen's mirrorball, which only fills the room with specks of light. Near the mirrorball these are small, focused, clear squares; further away they are more blurry, more indistinct, their light softer, their corners fading into the walls. Similarly, the rainbows vary from tiny nuggets of vivid, intense colour to vast, diffuse, swathes. Sometimes I saw a rainbow creep over a face or a hand while its owner was talking.

This morning I looked in the mirror and saw a person I did not know. Whether it was a trick of the light or a trick of the mind I don't know, but I have aged overnight, and my eyes are shadowed, and while my hairstyle makes me look slightly like Virginia Woolf (provided I don't open my mouth) this only serves to make me check my pockets for rocks.

My dad had a seizure on Saturday, the second in about 15 years. The last time it happened he was mowing the lawn on a hot summer's day, and said that the last thing he remembered seeing was sunlight coming through the fence in sharp flashes. He's been tested and tested for epilepsy, but all the ECGs have returned negative, though apparently there's a history of epilepsy in the family. This time he claims it was just that he was dehydrated and full of adrenalin as he started broadcasting his new radio show, titled "If she's eclectic...". He says he's fine now, and he's probably right, though I swear he'll be saying that at his own funeral. Still, I wouldn't want to stop him living in order to keep him alive.

This morning's snow has melted, and the sky has finally brightened. Don't tell me this picture is beautiful, don't tell me it makes you ache, don't tell me it makes you remember, for I'll have no sympathy; just for once I would like to see something that didn't mean anything. The sun flashes its beams through the trees. Every picture has its shadows, and it has some source of light.

May 2017

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