July 20, 2010

Shadows is here!

The I Hate to Cookbook, revisited

 

Years and years and years and half a lifetime ago when I had only just started this blog*, I brought up the subject of Peg Bracken’s classic of the culinary art, The I Hate to Cookbook,** as a result of having just read her obituary***.  Now I started teaching myself to cook at the relatively tender age of thirteen, and discovered I liked it, but I still have pretty much always agreed that ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’†.  And when I was thirteen life was serious and the idea of having a family to feed every day—and in the midsixties girls were growing up with the idea that that was their future:  this may be what we rebelled against, but that’s precisely because it was what was in our way—was pretty overwhelming.††  Peg Bracken was hot in those days, her recipes worked, and furthermore she was funny.†††  Hey!  It’s not all June Cleaver!‡  Pass it on!

            And, thinking back to those days, the paragraph that caught my attention in the obituary, and which I probably quoted the last time‡‡, was this:  ‘Bracken received short shrift from the first half-dozen editors, all men, whom she approached.  They neither sympathised with [her cookbook’s] subversion nor thought American women unhappy with their lot.  Similarly, when she showed the manuscript to her second husband, the writer Roderick Lull, he remarked:  “It stinks.”‡‡‡  Its value was not appreciated until she found a woman editor [boldface mine] at Harcourt Brace.’ Um-hmm.  And it sold over 3 million copies.

            My original mid-60s paperback disappeared or disintegrated long ago.  It probably went with one of my early purist purges.  But the obituary reminded me what a hoot she was, and while my diet these days is so holy it hurts§, I started trying to track down a copy of the then-out-of-print cookbook.  And found one:  yaay.  Which happened to be a reprint of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition, with an Introduction to the Introduction which begins:  ‘When they informed me that twenty-five years have elapsed since The I Hate to Cook Book appeared, I was astonished.  Only think!  Twenty-five long years, some longer than others.  Well, some of them shorter than others too, come to think of it.  But anyway, twenty-five of them, all kinds, and it just goes to show what can happen when you’re not paying attention.’

            ::Blink.::  Why does this feel so familiar?  So, I’ve spent the last two and a half years thinking ‘I should blog about this again.  Because I have found a formative influence.  When I started the blog, was I thinking, Anais Nin? §§  Virginia Woolf?§§§  May Sarton?#  No.  Clearly I aspired to the dizzyingly high standards of frittery and piffle of Peg Bracken.  And here’s the clincher:  she uses footnotes.  Yes!  Footnotes!  I admit she doesn’t use as many as I do## but she uses them in a stimulating manner. ###

            So imagine my pleasure and delight when this appeared on my Twitter feed yesterday: 

PublishersWkly The “I Hate to Cook Book” turns 50 with a new anniversary edition http://bit.ly/bGPTEG 

            Will I buy it?  Probably.  I hope they kept the Hilary Knight illustrations.  Of their time?  Sure.  But so is Bracken.  Not all of it will translate—and I wouldn’t miss it, for example, if they edit out the peanut butter and ketchup canapé spread~—but I feel that a paragraph like this is timeless:  ‘Some people, so they tell me, can’t make good pastry.  I see no reason to doubt them.  Some people can’t keep their eyes open under water, either.  We all have our mental blocks to play with.’~~ 

* * *

* That would be September 2007.  A very long time ago.  I wasn’t even ringing Stedman yet.  Well, at least not successfully. 

** I did blog about it.  I did.  But lj’s search is refusing to find it for me, and I don’t feel like wrestling with its extremely uncooperative calendar.  Thanks, lj!  I so don’t miss you! 

*** Gods, I looove the internet when it works.  Here’s the link to the one I read:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/dec/10/guardianobituaries.mainsection 

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/lifes-too-short.html   Also quoted in the Bracken obituary.  I don’t know if Shirley Conran read Peg Bracken, but I would like to think they’d have got on like a house on fire.   Or like two women who knew they had better things to do than stuff mushrooms.^ 

^ Although, yes.  I have.  I have gone through occasional phases of (pretty strictly culinary only) domestic goddesshood in which I not only read but applied chapters of cookbooks that during more stringent eras I wouldn’t have gone near.  The crucial word in that sentence however is through.  There are all kinds of things you might want to try once or twice for the experience+ even if you aren’t going to make a habit of them.  I haven’t stuffed any mushrooms since I started bell ringing, say.  And really if I’m going to be silly in the kitchen I’d rather be silly with icing and cookie cutters.  

+ Driving 1000 miles in three days on a 350cc two stroke motorcycle with no windscreen, for example.  Not sleeping (or breathing, much) for seven days while waiting to see if that English bloke was going to figure out that I was his future or not.  And stuffing mushrooms. 

††  Did you ever see Audrey Hepburn in a kitchen?  Okay, there are a couple of passing references to cordon bleu omelettes in Sabrina, but did she ever make one?  

††† Sample chapter titles:  The Leftover, or Every Family Needs a Dog^;  Potluck Suppers, or How to Bring the Water for the Lemonade;  Stealing from Knowledgeable People, or I Seen Her When She Done It But I Never Let On. 

^ Not a hellhound, clearly 

‡ Or Miss Moneypenny!  Or Nurse Chapel!  Or any other subservient, hero-fixated girlie!  You can cook and have kids or YOU CAN BE PATHETIC AND UNFULFILLED!  Having a profession DOES NOT COUNT!  Grrrrrrr. 

‡‡ But that was a long time ago, so you won’t mind. 

‡‡‡ I’m glad she divorced him.

 § Except for the tea, the chocolate and the champagne.  Thank you, gods, for this loophole in my undesired and unenjoyed salubriousness.   

§§ NO. 

§§§ NOOO. 

# NOOOOOO. 

## She wasn’t writing a daily blog, okay?  I’m sure she would have if she had been. 

### This one, for example:  ‘The recipe calls for “good mayonnaise,” a term that always makes me feel truculent as well as defensive.  What kind do they think you buy? . . .’  This reminds me of one of my favourite cookbook comments, which is nailed in my memory to Bracken, except I can’t imagine her ever telling you how to make yeast bread, protesting the standard yeast-bread instruction to cover your rising sponge ‘with a clean towel’.  You’re going to cover it with a dirty towel?  Indeed. 

~ Yeccch.  Even if it did appear in a footnote. 

~~ Or this paragraph, plus footnotes, which appears at the end:  ‘Like a love affair, a cookbook is probably easier to get into than out of.  At the end of both, sins of commission and omission loom large. . . . Is the chocolate sauce really that good?^  . . . Shouldn’t there have been some mention of brunches? ^^ . . .’ 

^ Yes. 

^^ No.

Hunger

 

The rest of this week is a Hideous Social Round.  I have a novel to finish, you guys.  Why do people have to go on holiday in the summer?  Why are novels due the ends of summers?  Why is the autumn season the one you want your new novel published in?  Why does it take a year for a book to make it through production and show up in the shops? 

            So I had a friend here for tea.  And I’m plying her with muffins and scones and tea bread and things* and she’s very appreciative and has seconds and so on and then she starts telling me that she knows that the reason I had her for tea is because I don’t know how to cook real food.**   She also reads the blog.  She says I have never posted any recipes with any redeeming social virtues whatsoever. 

            I started to get all shirty and then I thought . . . uh.  She’s probably right.  I admit I haven’t checked but . . . I don’t really want to know that I’ve never posted anything with, oh, say, chicken in it.  I thought about this all through bell ringing.***  By the time I got home again, after all that intensive thinking about food, I was ready to eat my laptop.  I am having scrambled eggs with smoked salmon instead.

            But I am going to post a recipe with chicken in it. 

            Many, many years ago, when I still ate more or less like a normal person, I bought a Shaker cookbook.  You know all those old Shaker buildings with their clean pure lines and the lovely spare leanness of their furniture?  They make up for it in the food.  It’s all cream sauces.  It’s quite extraordinary.  Just holding the book in your hands you can feel your belt getting tighter.  I love cream sauces.  Just by the way. 

            And then I went off dairy.  Frell.  So I had a fairly major cookbook clear-out and the Shaker is one of the ones that left me forever†. 

            A few years after that another friend gave me a copy of a cookbook I think I’ve cited here before:  COUNTRY SUPPERS by Ruth Cousineau.  It’s got all kinds of winsome stuff in it.  Including a recipe that reminded me of all my lost cream-sauce darlings in the old Shaker book.  When I used still to go off the rails in a dairy direction, this is one of the recipes I would plunge toward.  And as I was pulling on a bell rope this evening†† and thinking about food, I remembered both this recipe and my promise, or threat, to post Food I Have Loved But Can No Longer Eat here.  So this is my version of Ruth Cousineau’s verson of:

 Chicken and Apples in Cream 

2 T lightly salted butter

1 large sweet onion, chopped

2 normal sized or 1 monster Bramley sour cooking apple(s), sliced

2-3T flour

few drops tamari (good soy sauce)

1 c chicken stock

½ c heavy cream

1-2 T white wine.  Make this the day after you’ve had a good bottle of white, and save the dregs. 

2 c chopped cooked chicken.  I like it in fairly large chunks with lots of sauce.  Adjust to preference. 

Heat butter in large skillet over medium heat and cook the onion, stirring occasionally, till soft and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes.  Add apples and cook, stirring occasionally, till softened, again about 10 minutes.  Sprinkle on flour and stir.  Cook a few minutes, till brown and gungy, add stock, cream and tamari.  Cook 3-5 minutes, till thick and homogenous;  then add wine.  Start with 1T and see if you like the consistency/texture.  I always want a second T.  I have been known to use 4T flour and ¼ c wine.  In which case you may want to add a little more cream.  The sauce is good over many vegetables too, if you happen to find yourself with an excess.  Add the chicken and heat through. 

* * *

 * I would kill for a piece of lardy cake.  Have I said this before?  Probably.  Lardy cake haunts my dreams.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lardy_cake   But it’s basically sugar and lard stuck together with a little flour and a few raisins http://www.fitzbillies.co.uk/uploads/257___1.jpg and a single piece of lardy cake would be my calorie ration for about a week.  I hate menopause.  I used just to have lardy cake when I met friends for tea—I used to know all the best lardy cake cafes and delis in this area—at least I had sufficient sense never to learn how to make the stuff.  A whole sheet of lardy cake . . . mind boggling.  Waistline boggling. 

**  The real reason I have people over for tea instead of supper is because I’m probably bell ringing during normal supper hours.  

*** Of course I went bell ringing, in spite of expending several hours over tea with a friend and having a novel to finish.  I have priorities.  Wednesday evening priority is bell ringing.  We were rather overwhelmed with beginners tonight, including a brand new eight year old.   Eight years old is the bottom limit:  no eight years, no ring.  As handed down by the Central Council.  This girl is about the size of a speck of dust but her mum—Marilyn—says she’s been talking about being old enough to ring for months so she had to be given a shot at it.  She was fine.  I’ve been telling Marilyn she’d be fine.  She’s a very sturdy and determined speck of dust. 

† Although it went to a good home with a friend who still ate cream sauces and I hope they’ve been very happy together. 

†† Wild Robert made me call a touch of Grandsire!  No, no!  You must be talking to some other Robin!  Blah gleb urb arrgh blah!  I’ve called I think one touch of bob doubles in my life!  —I made a mess of it of course.

The Grandness of Life

 

 I think I may be coming down with Niall’s flu.  Isn’t.  Life.  Grand. 

However, I can at least give you my eggnog recipe.   I realise eggnog is another of those divisive subjects:  there are people who are totally creeped out by the idea of ingesting raw egg;  there are people who prefer their eggnog to be a, you know, drink, as opposed to another deadly sin*.  And then there are those of us who think there isn’t any point to eggnog unless you need to serve it in shot glasses . . . with spoons, because it doesn’t actually pour very well.  I belong to the last category. 

            And somewhere out there someone will make this and love it the way I loved it back in the days I could frelling drink it, and I will therefore have Passed On The Torch.**  Yaay.

 Killer Eggnog 

6 eggs, separated.  Obviously you want eggs so fresh the hen is still only a few inches away

12T ordinary granulated sugar

1 c heavy cream

1 c light cream

1 c whole/full-fat milk

½  tsp vanilla

 Beat yolks very well with 6T sugar in a big enough bowl to hold everything.  Put whites in blender, blend till frothy;  add second 6T sugar gradually, beat till they’re starting to hold their shape.  Add heavy cream and vanilla;  blend again.  Add light cream and milk and blend one last time–but very gently, because the blender is by now very full.  Pour this slowly into the yolks and whisk like mad.  This is the moment to add booze, if you want booze.  I almost never did because I was usually serving it early in the day.  Before people knew what hit them.***  And there would be an awful lot of various booze later. 

And, speaking of it being the 21st of December: 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2008/dec/19/christmas?picture=340931539 

The John Calvin chocolates are pretty riveting, but be sure to click through and see the other six top picks.  If you aren’t busy gumming your fingers together with festive Christmas tape*** or removing the cat from the Christmas tree (again). 

* * *

 * The classic seven only scratches the surface, you know 

** And My Work Here Is Done.  As soon as I get the fifty-three novels I know about written.  There may be a few more I won’t notice till I clear out the backlog a little more.  But just presently I’m feeling a little pass on the torch and let me expire in peace -ish.  What I need is another glass of champagne.  The bubbles settle my stomach.  They do, you know, although I daresay ginger ale would work just as well (phooey).

*** It went extremely well with the Christmas Morning Coffeecake.  It amazes me sometimes that I lived to get old. 

 Whose idea was this?  And why did I buy it?

Comfort Food

 

It has been another . . . less than optimum . . . day. 

I woke up too early–thus the week after the clocks change–and lay there worrying* till I inadvertently fell asleep again** whereupon I overslept.

            The phone rang, and it was Asmodeus,*** who wanted to drop off my new all-in-one printer/scanner/fax, which is going to Revolutionise My Life or at least give me back a little shelf space†, and I was barely out of bed and not at my best and most brutal, and I acquiesced to this.  By the time the hellhounds and I were out caroming over the countryside I realized this was a mistake, because right at the moment the last thing I want is another new gizmo to get used to, but Asmodeus was supposed to ring me before he started, so that’s okay, I’d ring him when I got back, and tell him to wait and send Gizmo X on Monday when Computer Men are coming back anyway.  Then the hellhounds caught a grouse†† and Darkness ducked out of his harness.†††  And when we got home again, my little street was blocked by an SUV sitting in the middle of it with all its doors open while its contents stood around chatting to my over-the-road neighbours who would be very nice people except for their taste in friends, who run to SUVs and cluelessness, and who in this instance looked very startled at the impertinent fact of my existence.   

            And by the time I fought my way to my front door . . . there was Asmodeus waiting for me, standing on the top step with a Large Cardboard Box.  It’ll only take five minutes! he said.

            The first thing that happened after he left is that I couldn’t find the ‘off’ switch.

            Then I turned on a computer–any computer–and started making lists of the things that don’t work.  Some new, some old, some familiar, some strange. . . .

            I need comfort food

And, as it happens, I received this by email from b_twin_1 a few days ago: 

I gave you chocolate before but I forgot that in your time it was the 26th.

And given the issues you are having accessing the forum…. (::sigh::) 

So here’s a special risotto that includes your favourite drink: 

Champagne Risotto:  http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/6811/champagne+risotto 

            She and I share bafflement that the original poster seems to think this modest recipe would stretch to feed 20. . . . Twenty what?  Flower fairies?  Chihuahuas?  People who don’t like risotto?  Menopausal women?  She also said:  personally I don’t add cheese to risotto . . . .  which in my cheese-denied state I seized upon and said that I made non-cheese risotto myself but I’d always assumed it was Fake Risotto and, rats, if I were going to post it I’d have to figure out the quantities, because I tend to Add Stock Till It Looks Like Risotto and meanwhile could I post her Creative Use of Champagne Risotto?  Whereupon, bless her, she sent me this: 

Sure you can use it for a post.

If it makes you feel better I never put cheese in risotto while I am making it because Mum has such issues with dairy.  Sometimes I will put cheddar on it as I am serving it for myself but lately I haven’t been bothering. 

Ever had that thought when you are in a restaurant that yours is better. 

Yes.  Frequently.  It’s one of my excuses for not going out to dinner.  The best thing about going out to dinner is getting dressed up.  Now, this is a skirt, and these are shoes-that-aren’t-All-Stars.  Those of you with office jobs will not appreciate how exciting this is. 

Ahem.

I do have a Lazy Cow’s method (should it be Lazy Ewe in my case??) 

What, not even a house cow? 

 for risotto.   ;)  It involves a wodge of butter and whatever is in the pantry/fridge. 

(Following the Lazy Cow Cooking Principles) 

B-Twin-1′s Risotto without the Cheese.

All done in under half an hour….

Ingredients:

Start with -

1 wodge of butter (oh okay, you want a measurement … about 1-2 tbs)

1 spanish onion

2 cups Arborio rice

4 cups chicken stock, hot

Herbs – I usually use parsley, oregano, garlic  (and whatever I feel like grabbing from the drawer or garden) 

Additions -

(whatever is in the fridge)

Vegetarian option = Pumpkin or Mushroom

Non-vege option = Bacon or Chicken (pre-browned or cooked) or cooked gourmet sausages (our butcher does some great gluten free pork  or lamb & rosemary ones)

Broccoli / Peas / Corn 

Method:

Take a heavy based saucepan/pan (I use a cast iron Chasseur) and toss in the finely chopped onion (and fresh garlic and bacon if that is what you are using) with the butter. 

After the onion starts to soften I add the herbs.  Then I put in the rice and swish that around a bit to heat up and get coated with butter. 

I then add the chicken stock.  All in one hit.  But it is HOT (ie. just off the boil).  Stir that all around and put the lid on the Chasseur. 

When the liquid starts to simmer I toss in all the veggies and anything else.   Then I put the lid on.   And turn the heat down very low.

I stir it maybe once or twice in the next 10 minutes or so.  It varies a little each time as to when it is “done” but it is usually about 15 minutes.  I look for it to have absorbed the liquid but still be “slippery” looking and not gluggy.  Gluggy means too much liquid or too long.  

Easy huh? ;) 

Yaay easy.  Easy is good.  I love pine nuts, so I will put slightly toasted‡ pine nuts in at the last minute in a herby risotto and–further on the lazy domestic stock front–a couple of tablespoons of hummous stirred in with your couple of tablespoons of pine nuts will totally make this a main dish, although if I’m planning on hummous I’ll probably leave the onion out.  (I use an enameled cast iron pot:  easier to clean if I get it wrong, and it sticks.

I went and had a further prowl at www.taste.com.au/recipes after this: 

http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/1662/white+chocolate+and+blackberry+muffins 

caught my eye, in the sidebar to the Champagne Risotto.  Which put me in mind of tea food, and what I could serve Mozart, Beethoven and Verdi when I have them round‡‡  So I had a look for scones: 

http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/search.php?keywords=scones&publication

And I’m a trifle old-fashioned, having learnt scones from Constance Spry and Nell Beaton–fizzy lemonade, feh–so I pass over a lot, but these look good, and very like something I make (if I can put oatmeal flakes in something, I probably will): 

http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/14592/rolled+oat+scones 

There’s also a recipe for Savoury Scones which specifies ‘tasty’ cheese.  As opposed to the other kind I guess?  ‘Another scone, vicar?  Would you like the kind with the tasty cheese or the really nasty purulent cheese?  I find that the nasty is very good for your moral probity, and if you concentrate you can get one down in two bites.’ 

* * * 

* About everything, of course.  Peter, hellhounds, me, PEGASUS, the American presidential election, the global economy, whether IE will ever stop crashing, and whether Yog-Sothoth will ever make it through the barrier between that universe and this one. 

** Thanks to being computer-bereft yesterday while Computer Men performed arcane and sorcerous acts, I’m nearly finished with Peter’s new ms, and I’m at the place when the hero has cause to return to the dark scary hidden booby-trapped maze that runs through the walls of the palace, and . . . aaaaaaaugh.  Bad dreams.  Bad.  

*** I’ve been resisting naming Head Computer Man Asmodeus, but he keeps going on about how long we’ve been together, AKA how many damned computers and associated gadgetry he’s sold me over the years because I’m too dumb and gullible to live, and I ask you, what kind of a colleague would a Hellgoddess have but a demon? 

Shelf.  Space.  Shelf!  Space!  SHEEEELF SPAAAAAAACE–! 

†† Oh gods.   

††† OH GODS.   

‡ Slightly toasted makes all the difference.  Do it.  You spread ‘em out in a single layer in a heavy saucepan or skillet–I use my little iron scrambled-eggs skillet–put it on medium heat, shake occasionally, and watch it like a normal dog watches a bowl of dog food.  It’ll go from nothing to too brown in the twinkling of a wandering eye.  But if you turn it on low it takes forever. 

‡‡ I feel that having them one at a time would be a better idea, but I’m not sure if the Time Travelling Admin will allow this.

The poor old Wedding-Guest

 

The new web site was supposed to have been turned on by tonight at midnight and . . . doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.*  So I was going to post my FAQ answer to this question:

 

Q: What do you do with your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?

 

. . . as an explanation why the web site wasn’t going to get turned on by tonight at midnight (Blog/Webmom can only set up what I send her), and I did know this particular answer was kind of long, even in a FAQ full of rather long answers, but I’ve just copied and pasted it now and it’s . . . uh . . .

 It’s nine pages long. 

I’m not sure, can you get arrested for this kind of excessive behaviour?  I am reminded of the poor old Wedding-Guest:

 

He holds him with his glittering eye—

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath his will.

 

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone: 

He cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner

 

. . . For about 200 stanzas.

 

Me Mariner.  You Jan—I mean Wedding-Guest.

 

So, hey, I’m going to get two entries out of it.  Tonight.  Tomorrow.  Having tomorrow more or less off will give me a little more time to get on with the rest of the FAQ.**

 

I admit that a lot of the following will look pretty familiar.  You can read me ranting about Not Enough Time and Doing Too Much nearly every flapdoodling day here on the blog, and furthermore all I’ve done is rewrite the out of date bits of the old FAQ answer.  But for anyone goofy enough to have read the old, shorter FAQ answer all the way through, the changes may prove instructive.  Somewhat depending on your definition of ‘instructive.’

 

* * *

 

Enter this answer at your own risk.  In fact it would be quite a good idea, before you come one word farther in, to leave a letter propped on the mantelpiece telling your nearest and dearest where to come looking for you if you get lost.  Not only do I do too much, I like talking about it. 

 

So the basic deal is, I don’t have any spare time, probably because I don’t have hobbies, I have obsessions. I don’t much like the word ‘hobby’ — as soon as you call something a ‘hobby’ it seems to me it loses all substance, all value, and becomes just something that sucks up some hours. Eating chocolate chip cookies or (re)watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a hobby (not simultaneously however: the human nervous system can only bear so much stimulation); cooking and gardening and bell-ringing and riding horses and playing the piano and practising homeopathy — and reading — are something else. (I’ve even been known to embroider pillow-cases and shirt- and cushion-fronts.) But can you have more than one, say, avocation? That sounds a little pretentious. So does Personal Enrichment Programme.  I do a lot of stuff with my time besides write books. A lot of the voluntary stuff (ie paying bills or going to the dentist are both necessary I suppose but not what I would call voluntary) also… feeds me. Feeds the person I am, which includes the writer who writes books and has a web site with a FAQ, and now an endlessly hungry blog.

 

(The last time I updated this, the list of obsessions included running and fencing:  if I have to choose, I’ll take homeopathy and the piano over running and fencing.  But I don’t have to like making these exclusionary choices.   My fencing teacher now lives in Burma or Singapore or some other exotic elsewhere, which helps, although I’m sure there’s a fencing club around here.   And I still have fantasies of running again—aside from every Sunday morning on the way to service ring at the church—although even if the ME let me, my knees probably wouldn’t.)

 

I feel however that my main problem isn’t that I’m an obsessive, it’s that the stupid day refuses to be any longer than twenty-four hours, week after week and year after year.  (What are our scientists doing, that they haven’t knocked a hole in this wall yet?)  There are quite a few other things I would be obsessive about too if someone would invent the tesseract soon, please. Photography. Rose breeding (as opposed to just growing phalanxes of the things). I’d probably breed carnivorous plants too, just because they are weird and fascinating. I have several waterproof cachepots of carnivorous plants big enough to take on house flies—the tallest sarracenia is as long as my arm, with pitcher-mouths as big around as a 50p piece, and a bright lime green—and one of my favourite sounds is that of trapped flies buzzing furiously in the throats of my beautiful pitcher plants as I walk past the kitchen window sill at the cottage.  I’m an ‘all critters are siblings’ wuss about most things—yes, of course I fish spiders out of the bath—but houseflies, mosquitoes (and rats) are the enemy. I rotate my carnivores, so none has to stay indoors too long.  They’re sun lovers.  (I also have a Venus flytrap so small it probably has to ask the pansies it usually sits next to for help when it tackles a gnat.  But it’s three years old and still producing infinitesimal fringed dumpling-shaped traps, so it’s eating something.)           

 

I’d take up sailing again.  (The tesseract has to bring a larger bank balance with it.) I’d have learnt to work on the MG myself, instead of girding my loins to sell her (sob).   I’d like more time for drawing—I’d like any time for drawing—and I’d like the excuse to buy some new watercolours;  I suspect the last lot have shrivelled up solid. I might conceivably take French lessons, since it’s French I theoretically learnt in school, and I am deeply embarrassed at being another of these self-centred English speakers who don’t feel they have to learn anybody else’s language. But I’ve never gotten very far doing anything on guilt and good intentions alone, so I’d have to turn out to like it, and I can’t do grammar and conjugations (shuuudder) in my own language.

 

I’d like to finish learning to knit. I’d like to learn to make clothes, with buttonholes and zippers and belt loops and all those exciting things, but my inherited sewing machine was previously owned by someone who did know how, and I was so demoralised knowing it despised me that I gave it away when we left the old house to someone with whom I hope it has a rich and happy relationship. I’d like to be able to make an origami crane that didn’t fall over. (Origami is very obsessive.) I’d like to learn pottery-making and silver-smithing and how to polish and set stones. I’d like to learn blacksmithing—swordsmithing!—and farriery, but my back wouldn’t take it even if my tesseract would.  And I would ride every day.  Twice a day.  I would start doing yoga again.  Once upon a long-ago time I could do headstands and the splits (not together).  I could also do a Sun Salutation that didn’t change every time I did it because I kept forgetting how it went. 

 

I would certainly read more. A lot more.

 

However I am taking piano lessons again.  I wasn’t going to.  I absolutely wasn’t going to.  The piano wasn’t just on but was indestructibly welded, with auxiliary bolts, onto the ‘I’m not going to get round to it this life, it’ll have to be the next life’ list.  (The list itself is made out of case-hardened steel, to make it both highly resistant to tampering, and utterly impervious to sad, bitter tears.)  When we moved out of the old house I gave my baby grand piano to a local school with a pang more of lost dreams and opportunities than of any practical reality.  I even thought I was more or less resigned to not having a piano around the place any more, reminding me that I’m not playing it. 

 

Then I started bell ringing again, because what is now my home tower is a relatively short stone’s throw from my cottage, and I’d lasted about six weeks after the house move, listening to the bells, before I was on the phone to the tower secretary asking if they’d take a recidivist ex-beginner.  I’d had to give bell-ringing up when the ME knocked me down and sat on me, and one of the things that’s never quite come right again is a tendency to RSI.  Starting bell ringing again made my hands hurt.  I’m just not going to sit around squeezing a tennis ball, which is one of those physiotherapeutic clichés.  (Boooooooooooring.  I know.  I did it after I broke my hand.)  Hmm, I thought, piano players have strong hands.  So I went out and bought a cheap electric keyboard and started playing scales.  One thing led to another.  I’m now the insufferably proud owner of an 1897 Steinway upright, and composing, gods help me, which wasn’t even on the long life list.

 

I’d take voice lessons again if I could find a teacher with a fabulous enough sense of humour to take me on:  that really was on the long list (with the drawing, the knitting, the French, the fencing . . . ) but it has developed a certain painful irony lately.  My favoured form of composing is setting poems or reworking folk songs, which involve, you know, words.  (The word proclivity carries through apparently.)  And both my piano teacher and my husband insist that if I’m going to write songs I have to sing as well as play them.  There’s perhaps some excuse for my piano teacher, who is a self-confessed sadist anyway, but the poems I’m setting tend to be Peter’s, and he should have a sufficient sense of self-preservation to say Okay, if you must set them, very well, but for pity’s sake don’t sing them.

 

Sigh.

 

My first serious discovery of life outside books had been horses and horseback riding, when I was nine years old and living in Japan where my military father was posted. (Of course I’d been reading about horses for years.) I took my first riding lessons from some Japanese ex-cavalrymen who had set up a riding school for us occupying round eyes; in hindsight I wonder about this, since this was the very early sixties and WWII wasn’t all that long ago, but at the time it all seemed friendly enough, at least until your horse refused the fence again because he knew you weren’t so sure about it yourself, whereupon the air got, I think, pretty blue, but since it was in Japanese you didn’t know for sure. The ex-cavalrymen belonged to the ‘put them on a horse and make them jump things until they fall off and then put them back on and make them do it again’ school of learning to ride, which was exciting, but rather alarming, and I was a nervy, easily frightened child. Obstinate (I did keep getting back on) but nervy and easily frightened. (I am a nervy, easily frightened, obstinate adult). I do still have a blown-up photo poster of me at eleven jumping a horse named Shadow over a decent sized fence — which is to say I am somewhere on top of him and he is going over the fence and my hands could have released better and my hard hat is sitting on the back of my head and wouldn’t have done me much good if I’d fallen off — which proves I got that far anyway. I didn’t actually learn to ride until twenty years later, taking dressage lessons, but that’s another story.

 

I hesitate to mention this because after years of stumbling into philosophical and/or financial holes and making wrong choices I feel rather superstitious about it, but I am presently riding at a very nice yard indeed, with nice normal (well, not too normal) people and a terrific owner who also gives riding lessons.  Deep in the Hampshire countryside too, so if you don’t feel like schooling that day you can just go out on a hack.  Divine.  This is what all those pony books when I read when I was a kid were about (no, not the BLACK STALLION, but all the Monica Edwards and Pullein-Thompsons), and here I am in one at last.

 

I started cooking pretty young too. I have always liked to eat, and once you figure out how, you can have exactly what you want by making it yourself (one of my better memories of an extremely unpleasant adolescence is making cakes and pies to Saturday morning cartoons), and you may find that half the fun is diddling around with a series of recipes till you achieve your aim via your own adaptations and evolving marginal commentary. Although despite the Betty Crockers and Joys of Cooking and Julia Childs and Delia Smiths and so on it still seems to me there’s a huge credibility gap between the pages of most cookbooks and the hasn’t-a-clue, um, boil water?, learner. Knead your bread till it’s the texture of an ear lobe? A vivid image but not one I can recommend as practical. Bread making books go on too much about kneading anyway. (They can’t all be in the pay of the bread-making machine industry.) Almost nobody points out that if you let your sponge do most of the work you don’t have to. (Although I actually enjoy beating the bejeezus out of bread dough. It’s an excellent counterpoint to long hours at your desk.) I love baking generally. My husband and I observe a strict turn and turn about in the bread making but all the cookies and desserts and puddings and sweets are my territory (he does usually make the Christmas pudding but then I’m busy making acres of Christmas cookies and moaning).

 

Gardening was an accident of circumstance. The last summer I lived in Maine it had sort of semi occurred to me that there was, you know, um, earth out there and I could probably grow something in it. My little house was pretty heavily shaded by lilac hedges and an enormous maple tree, and the soil was the standard Maine granite bedrock with a few crumbly bits on top to mislead the unwary, but it still could be done. I put in a few snapdragons and carnations, bought from the straggly on-sale table at the local garden centre, and watched in fascination while it took them really quite a surprisingly long time to die. Maybe I was on to something here. Then Peter, my gardening-mad husband, happened unexpectedly, and I found myself plonked down over here in southern England in the middle of a two-and-a-quarter-acre southern English jungle. The longer version of this story is somewhere else on this web site — the essay on how I wrote Rose Daughter [link to come], which is a longer version of the afterword in the book itself (both leave out the fact that Peter’s first fiance’s gift to me was a pair of secateurs, so his protests about my not having to take on gardening to please him may perhaps be viewed with a certain benign suspicion) — but the point is, there I was, sink or swim. I swam.

 

I’m still swimming, although we left the old house and the two and a quarter acres several years ago.  Peter suddenly began feeling his age, and decided that his idea of growing old gracefully was living within walking distance of the shops.  So we moved into town, into (ahem) a range of little houses with little gardens.  I’m now conducting a scientific experiment in growing the optimum number of roses in the minimum amount of space.  (Pots as a layering device.)

 

As you will have gathered by now I am a dilettante obsessive, which is probably the worst kind. I didn’t need any more interesting occupations to bore my friends and loved ones with (Peter, so far as I can tell, cannot be bored with conversation about gardening and gardens, although I’m still trying) but my butterfly mind will keep flapping.

 

To Be Continued . . .

 

* * *

 

*Soon though!  Soon!  Really!

 

** Tonight I’m going to play hooky and compose something. 

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