Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Spice Cake

Last week (OK, last month now) we had our autumn Coastal meeting, a gathering of the WI's that are generally in the area near the coast. It was our turn to provide refreshments. We were asked to provide short bread, mince pies and fruit cake, traditional Christmas fare. Home baked goods were welcome but our President took the view that most of us were too busy and decided to provide store-bought goods. I didn't mind, but decided I would bring my fall back Christmas cake: spice cake.

To my amazement, two ladies from other WIs and a friend from our own asked me for the recipe, going on about how much they liked it. I was sure I'd typed it up for a blog post at some point, but I couldn't find it anywhere. So here is my email to them, sent the next day before I forgot. I try never to say I'll do something and then not do it.

Ladies - 

I'm sending you the spice cake recipe as promised. I hope it makes sense (I don't really follow the recipe). I'm really flattered you liked my cake. I don't consider myself much of a baker but I do enjoy having a go now and then.

Zucchini Spice Cake
Betty Crocker's Cookbook, 1987

2 cups all-purpose flour*
2 cups finely chopped zucchini (about 3 medium)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs

Heat oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease and flour rectangular pan 13x9x2 inches. Beat all ingredients on low speed, scraping bowl constantly, until blended, about 1 minute. Beat on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, 2 minutes.

Pour into pan.

Bake until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 45-50 minutes. Frost with Cream Cheese Frosting if desired.

15 servings; 265 calories per serving.

*If using self-raising flour, decrease baking soda to 1/2 teaspoon and omit salt.


That's the official recipe, but I've never followed it. I find it is quite a flexible and forgiving cake. For example, I've never made it with zucchini / courgettes, always with pureed fruit. I save my elderly-but-not-spoiled fruit in the freezer and make a large batch of these cakes as Christmas presents. Last night's cake only had one cup of sugar and no nuts. It had two large eggs and a heaping tablespoon of soya flour and a tablespoon of water to substitute for the third egg. I used a 9x9x2 inch pan and cooked the cake in my fan oven for 45 minutes, then for another 10 minutes when the initial toothpick came out wet.

Last night's cake had 1 3/4 cups of pureed cooking apples (fresh from a friend's tree) with the remainder of the 2 cups made up with pureed banana (out of my fruit bowl, not the freezer). I just use a stick blender on finely chopped fruit. I've used every kind of fresh, frozen or tinned fruit over the years. I think it is the spices that make this cake what it is, that and the high moisture content.

In addition to substituting soya flour and water for eggs (some of my cakes have had no eggs at all), you can substitute up to half the fat in most baking recipes with pureed fruit, making them a bit healthier. I never put nuts in my cakes, but sometimes substitute a cup of raisins. Nuts are expensive and not everyone likes them - or raisins for that matter. If I happen to have some fruit juice I have been known to substitute that for the water. These cakes freeze well, though of course warm from the oven is best. I normally sprinkle the top with icing sugar, I don't have much of a sweet tooth myself, but last night's cake was bare as I ran short of time. 

I've never used a mixer for these cakes, I just stir the ingredients with a fork, generally, making sure it's all well mixed. I'm sure that if one followed all the directions to the letter it would be a miraculous creation, but that's not what was served last night.

Hope your cakes turn out well!

NB*-:  Remembering that a friend was counting calories last I saw her, I calculated the number in the cake I made her for Christmas. Half of this recipe plus about a teaspoon of icing sugar came to 1372 calories.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Christmas Card

Feel free to laugh at the poor execution of my crafted Christmas card, it makes me giggle as well. Still, I like my idea and will pursue it in future.

My craft group at Linskill decided that rather than write out a dozen-plus paper cards, we would each make a card and then trade. I had an idea that went something like this:

Years ago, Lucy gave me a basket of odd items and a book wrapped in some sort of red gauzy fabric. It was a book about a dozen uses of stuff like cat litter and aluminium foil (a couple of the odd items). I wanted to stitch a message on the red sheer stuff and have a white (A4/letter size folded in half) paper insert on which to hand write my message. It would be tied together at the fold with a ribbon. 

I envisioned this new style of card where the recipient would untie it, replace the paper insert with a new message and either return the card next year or pass it on to someone else. A slightly more personal touch, save a few trees, less glitter, more recycling. (I'm guilty of glitter selection, liking a bit of glitz at the holidays; I've vowed to do better).

However, I do recognise that one of the central themes of modern Christmas traditions is Conspicuous Consumption and this is so contrary to that principle it will never fly. Still, I enjoyed trying to make this card.

Only I couldn't find the red stuff. It's here somewhere, but in a very 'Safe Place'. So I picked up a bag Meriel had given me. Someone had sewn a bunch of large sheer bags and filled them with contributions of knitted items to our knitting group. Meriel handed out the bags to several of us.

It met the sheer criteria, it already had a seam, and I happened to have two sheets of red paper in my drawer. So that was plan 2.

I made a mock up of triangles and lettering on the computer and pinned that to the inside of the bag. I cut fabric triangles to size and pinned them to the sheer fabric to align with the template underneath. So far so good.

The fabric was very slippery and shiny and in spite of being pinned the triangles shifted a bit, which is why the tree is a bit wonky. So it looks homemade.

That is as far as I got for quite a while. We learned that Bill was going to have a pacemaker (it's a week past the surgery and he's fine - downstairs Hoovering at this very moment), the washing machine broke and had to be replaced, the car broke down and wasn't worth enough to fix, my good friend was in hospital with stomach problems (if they keep in you hospital here it has to be serious), my WI needed attention, we had to do our Christmas shopping...all the usual, and then some.

The day of the craft group meeting, I saw Meriel at the knitting group that morning and told her this card might or might not happen. I also needed to do the quiz I'd promised so the ladies could experience taking a citizenship test (I should write about that some time, eh?).

When I left there (my first excursion in the new-to-us car!) I ran into another friend (and another drove past) and so was delayed getting home - not that I minded.

I figured my silver star was a dog's breakfast because the thread caught on everything. I worked on it until I decided I couldn't make it any better (and certainly not any worse) and then moved on to the words. I would come back and see what else I might do with the star if time allowed (it didn't).

I set out to stitch the lettering with embroidery thread. My initial plan was to do chain stitch with yarn, but that seemed too unwieldy. Turns out it was all unmanageable. The fabric was so sheer as to be invisble, which made placing stitches tricky. I couldn't find anything that would write on this plastic stuff. The best outcome was to lick a white dressmaking pencil (v. hygienic and I don't want to know what is in the pencil), but even then the letters were only visible with a dark backing and if you looked at it sideways to avoid the sheen which was astonishingly blinding. One can't possibly refer to the letters as embroidered - it is more that I scribbled on the fabric using thread.

I moved away from the window to sit underneath a bright lamp, hence the glare. Then I decided I just couldn't see well enough with contacts and reading glasses. My nearly blind eyesight is still the sharpest at a distance of 2 inches, even if it does put me at risk of stabbing myself in the nose. It wasn't possible to keep the background pinned to the fabric and have adequate control of the needle so at that point it all became a bit free-hand, which is why the Merry looks like it had several Christmas sherry's. 

I replaced and removed my contacts several times, I can't remember exactly why - but nothing to do with sherry or any other alcohol. I think alcohol is nearly as incompatible with crafting as it is with driving; I just don't go there.

And the reason there are tension lines that cause the fabric to drape like the skin on an old woman's thighs is because I didn't use an embroidery hoop. And perhaps because I myself was a bit tense, trying to get it done in time. 

So, it got presented in an empty Christmas card box and no doubt the recipient, a member of the Embroiderer's Guild, will be in awe of this creation. I can see Leslie shaking her head with wonder that I would dare put this forward. (Actually she's a really lovely lady and she would just smile, show me her most recent breath-taking project, offer to teach me to make beautiful things and bring me another bag of her scraps).

For all its short comings, I'm happy with my first attempt at an eco-friendly (er) Christmas card. It's no worse than my kindergarten level efforts on Paint.

Happy Christmas everyone - and Best Wishes for 2019!

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

100 Years of Food - 2000s

2000 - Chocolate

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who finds it hard to believe the 2000s are 'history'. In fact I still think the 1990s were just a few weeks ago. 

Apparently it was in the 'noughties' that everyone got excited about chocolate. In the old days Brits wanting a bit of chocolate would pick up a bar by Cadbury called Bournville that was only 35% chocolate. Turns out this chocolate bar is named for the village near Birmingham where the Cadbury family first set up business.

I'm hopeless at sweets, having grown up largely without them. If someone says something is like a Mars Bar / Bounty / Snickers, I'm really none the wiser. I have eaten any and all of these at some point, I'm sure, just not often enough to make a memory-dent in my brain. I think I can say with some certainty that I've never heard of a Bournville (I didn't even know how to spell it).

Sue had collected some higher percentage chocolate bars ranging from 70-90% cocoa solids. The dish she made for this era was  a pan of chocolate brownies with prunes (from Green and Black 70%). It was nice enough, but I'm not that fussed about chocolate. so I cut my brownie in half. I brought the other half home for Bill.

Do you remember life before we even considered the percentage of cocoa in our chocolate?

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

100 Years of Food - 1990s

Things got a lot better in the 1990s and the dish they made for this decade is one I would definitely try. Just typing this reminds me I came across in 1995. Britain was a different place then to now. My very first impressions were that the women's shoes were ugly (all black and chunky, they made me wonder if socialism meant ugly shoes); people talked about the US a lot, largely in positive terms - business models, memories of American soldiers handing out candy (mind these were ideas I picked up eavesdropping in public places); the future of the NHS and of the welfare state didn't seem in danger; no one thought anything one way or the other about membership in the European Union, though I do remember when the Euro happened and we stuck with the GBP. Never mind, that was then. This is about September 2018 when I attended a lecture/ meal at the Northumberland Federation of the Women's Institute.

The dish for the 1990s was a Thai stir-fry with prawns (I called them shrimp*). Sue reminded us to 'de-vein' these little creatures. I think along the lines of gutting fish, since that black vein is their digestive tract. I can tell you it is worth the trouble - prawn poo is sandy and muddy tasting yuck. 

Her recipe included lemon grass, red chillies, ginger, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, garlic, and coconut milk. When these are combined they made Red Curry Paste. Sue said used Blue Dragon Curry Paste instead. The stir fry included oil, grated ginger, garlic, spring onion, red pepper, mangetout  (what they call snow peas over here), prawns deveined and cut into strips (!? they must have been pretty large), simmered in coconut milk and served over rice noodles and bean sprouts. It smelled wonderful and tasted even better. 

No photo of the dish itself, but over here on the plate the Thai stir fry is at 6 o'clock. Which just happens to be when I start cooking dinner these days. 

*Turns out there is a difference between prawns and shrimp. They are different species, but they are cooked and taste the same.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Year of Style - December

You probably never noticed it, but it has long bugged me that my Year of Style posts were incomplete. I've no idea whatever happened to the original December post but here is the final post for that series; only seven years late.

  • Prioritise. Don't try to accomplish too much at this time of the year. Postpone what is not essential until next year.
  • Too much to do? Don't worry about everything at once. Just concentrate on the next thing on your schedule.
  • Go head, make a mess with wrapping paper. It creates a festive feeling. (Nice to have permission for the inevitable).
  • Though it's cold and windy, walk with a large easy stride. You'll stay warmer, look taller and have more fun. Don't let the weather cramp your style. (I'll think of my Grandpa exclaiming to my shivering mother about how 'fresh' the air!).
There. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, 8 December 2018


O.M.G. The last comment I published here was in the Autumn of 2016. For some reason I didn't see any more comments "awaiting moderation" for ages. I figured either no one was reading or that Blogger had changed something that made it impossible for people to comment. I couldn't figure out how to fix it, if so. I felt for a long time that I was pretty much talking to myself here, except for the occasional mention from someone in real life who said they liked something here.

I haven't made this blog a priority for some time, using it more as a journal for myself or to put things on to share with a number of people. So it has slowly cranked to a near halt.

And just now I've found a whole slew of comments dating back for a couple of years! Sorry to have ignored you all this time!

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Grandmother's Birthday

I didn't forget, I just couldn't figure out where to squeeze it in and there were no new thoughts immediately springing to mind. So this post remembering Grandmother's (good heavens, 120th) birthday is late. 

The thing is, she is never very far from my mind. When catching up with comments with Jean from Delightful Repast, I was reminded of the time Grandmother made a cherry pie and offered me a piece. I wasn't a fan of the sweet / tart filling and said no, thank you, what a shame that I couldn't just eat the crust which was my favourite part. She said something like, Well then, honey, just you go ahead and eat as much of the crust as you like. I remember the guilty but delicious feeling of breaking off the buttery, crispy edges, decorated with the tines of a fork, all the way around the pie. It was heaven. I remember it as one her best proofs that she loved me. (She could be quite cranky and critical at other times, but she treated me better than most I must admit).

Grandmother and my cousin J.J. - who just turned 50!

Just this morning Bill and I were reminiscing about the various heating systems in the houses where we had lived. He grew up dressing in the mornings in front of the gas fire in his parents' bedroom while his dad went down and got the coal fire started in the kitchen.

My parents' house had an open gas fire in the bathroom - as did both my grandparents' houses - but the rest of the house was heated by two floor furnaces, one in the hall and the other in the dining room. Mom and I both had cross-hatch marks on most of our shoes from standing on the furnaces.

I lived in two houses with central heat, but never one with central air conditioning, unless you count the swamp cooler in Salt Lake City. Our house here is heated with hot water radiators. 

I remember the floor furnace in the centre of the open plan living / dining room at Grandma and Grandpa's house (I still have the key that Grandpa used to adjust the heat). But I cannot remember how either of Grandmother's houses, on 31st and 34th Street, were heated. I know that both had gas fires under a mantle in the living rooms but I can't recall ever standing on a furnace at either house. I'll have to ask my Uncle Pat if he remembers. 

I think of Grandmother when I do my family history, when I open my wardrobe and see her brooch, when I sit on her love seat or at her dining table, when I make cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving, when I debate with myself whether to hold my tongue or speak out, when I hear hymns she used to hum, when I think I'm tired from standing all day, when I bake pies, when I consider buying shape wear, when I remember collecting pop bottles to cash in at the convenience store across from her house, when I remember tap dance lessons with Uncle Bernard, when I feel rebellious at rules applied to old ladies, when I think about how to treat myself with respect in hopes it will encourage others to be respectful as well. 

Grandmother was definitely a role model for me in both bad (she was never very smart about money) and wonderful (she was never anyone but her own true self) ways. How can I not remember her for the rest of my life - hopefully until she'd be at least 150!?

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

100 Years of Food - 1970s

Sue quoted someone called Heston Blumenthal as having said the 70s were the decade that good food forgot. She said the big things that came along were pasta dishes, powdered mashed potatoes (brand name Smash), tinned chow mein and something called Angel Delight (think Jello instant pudding mix in strawberry and banana flavours). The humble quiche was also fashionable in Britain. 

At my house we ate Kraft's macaroni and "cheese" that came in a box (4 for $1!), but not much spaghetti and meat balls. We did have powdered potatoes a lot, with loads of margarine. Mom did buy cans of chow mein and water chestnuts, instant white rice and packages of crispy noodles, but then she'd spend half a day making garlic frittered chicken from scratch and my mouth still waters at the memory. We never once had quiche at our house though. 

I'm thinking that this particular fashion didn't hit Oklahoma until the 1980s. I never attempted to make one until the early 90s, because it featured in The Tightwad Gazette. Quiche is everywhere in cafes over here in Britain, not anything fancy at all, and men eat it without worrying in the least about their masculinity. Does anyone else remember some idiotic book about 'Real Mean Don't Eat Quiche'?

I'm thinking Sue offered us several things for the 1970s, but the only one that made a photograph or my notes was the Angel Delight. Which I happen to quite like. My photo is very sad being as how I was stingy in my portions of desserts. 

Pink stuff is Angel Delight.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

100 Years of Food - 1960s

To recognise the decade lovingly remembered as the 1960s, Sue brought up the term 'technology'. It would seem that it was in the 60s when convenience foods hit the shelves. As I recall growing up Mom wasn't using much in the way of convenience food as yet but apparently here in Britain they had just discovered kiwi fruit from the Antipodes. I just learned that this word doesn't refer to Australia/New Zealand, but is a term referring to the point on the opposite side of the planet going through the centre of the Earth. So, if you were standing in Sydney the Antipodes could mean the US (or some ocean nearby). Hmmm...

Where were we? Kiwi fruit. Sometime when I was married to H1 my in-laws gave us a Fruit of the Month club gift (from Harry and David - are they still around?). I'd never seen such lush fruit. However, the box of kiwis went to waste as I'd never encountered them before and I couldn't think of eating something so 'hairy'. My boss at work was appalled that I had let something so relative expensive rot. He brought one to work one day and peeled it for me. I was full of remorse - I still am, 30 years later.

So, back to the 1960s Britain. Apparently pavlova was also all the rage. I don't think I ever met a pavlova back home in the US. We obviously didn't keep up with the food fashions. Sue's sidekick-in-the-background, Dorothy, had a friend make the pavlova bases for us. It's not really to my taste, being whipped egg whites with sugar that's baked and crunchy. If it all goes wrong and you don't have Hersey kisses shaped mounds, crush it all up with fruit and whipped cream and call it Eton Mess. We didn't have a mess, we had pavlova with tinned peaches, kiwi and whipped cream and I quite liked the very small portion I had. On my own I would just do the fruit and cream. But I hear that was big in the 1980s, apparently, fruit and condensed milk.

I wonder if we'll look back on the 2010's and discover we followed food-fashions without realising it? 

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

100 Years of Food - 1950s

Coronation Chicken. 

I never heard of this dish until I came to Britain. I'm sure I've had a dozen or so Coronation Chicken sandwiches, chicken in some sort of spicy sauce. Not my first choice, but not unpleasant. I hadn't realised it had a history, or I might have appreciated it more. Not that Sue seemed to think the run of the mill stuff was much to do with the Proper Recipe that she used. 

Coronation Chicken at about 4 o'clock (postion, not time) served over basmati rice with peas.

Its pedigree is undeniable as it came from the cookbook written by the inventors: Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume. Funny enough, I've actually heard of Constance Spry and I somehow think of spray on oil...but her Wikipedia entry describes her path from nursing and welfare work to flower arranging.  It sort of boggles my mind as to how one makes that transition from such serious, useful work to arranging flowers but I suspect it has to do with having married better the second time around. Or perhaps after all the grimness of real life she wanted more beauty instead. So it would seem she is known first as a Florist - she eventually was florist to royalty - rather than a Cook. Reading about her almost makes we want to take an interest in flower arranging, something I've always scorned (all too achingly lady like). I may have to get my hands on her biography.

Turns out it was Hume who was the cook. She and Spry opened a school for Domestic Science (which I now as a Tightwad take very seriously) in Berkshire. Spry did the flowers for various royal functions, including the coronation of Elizabeth II and she got an OBE (an OBE for flowers, OMG), but Rosemary Hume was the Cordon Bleu chef who devised the chicken recipe and her Wikipedia entry says she should get the credit. So there. Of course Hume being French-trained initially called the dish Poulet Reine Elizabeth. The relationship between the British and the French is complicated...but of course the dish had to be given an English name.

The story Sue told was about the limitations involved in feeding masses of dignitaries following the coronation service, which would have been quite long. It had to be served cold. I'm not sure I would attempt this recipe without the actual cookbook in front of me, but my notes say whole chickens were poached in stock. The sauce included a glass of red wine, some onion, curry powder, lemon juice, sugar, oil, salt and pepper, mayonnaise, whipped cream and apricot puree. This chicken in sauce was served over basmati rice (another thing I never encountered until living in Britain), peas, cucumber cubes, herbs and French dressing made with French mustard. I can tell you that what is called French dressing over here is nothing like the stuff I grew up with in the States.

I can truthfully report Coronation Chicken is wonderful. Now I might even have to figure out Jubilee Chicken

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

100 Years of Food - 1940s

So where were we before being so rudely interrupted by Halloween? The 1940s! Which brings us Vegetable Pie. Doesn't sound wonderful does it? Let me tell you it actually is quite nice.

Of course everyone knows that there was food rationing in the time of WWII, even in the US. I still have one of Grandma and Grandpa's ration books. There was also a points system which seemingly applied to foods and to other things like clothing. It will have been an odd time, I imagine, of both fear and boredom. Fear for your life if you lived in Europe, fear for your loved ones elsewhere. Given the number of things that were rationed you could get bored eating quite plain food and waiting for some news or for the next bomb. I think it was a time that required a great deal of ingenuity. If you hadn't any of that it will have been pure suffering and tedium.

All that said, I liked the vegetable pie well enough to try making it and we have had it a couple of times. If we had more leftover veg I would make it every week, but we don't. With my present method of cooking a lot but not an enormous amount of veg for each dinner, it looks as though we might managed enough surplus - carefully putting it aside instead of mixing it in with a stir-fry the next night - to make vegetable pie every 3-4 weeks. Something to look forward to. 

Sue showed us the leftovers she had collected throughout the week: mashed potatoes, carrots, tinned peas, cauliflower cheese and parsnips. She also had some chicken stock jelly. As people were limited to one egg per week, she made an oatmeal pastry without egg: 3/4 cup flour, 1/3 cup oatmeal, 1 oz cooking fat/butter, 1 oz. grated cheese.

This egg-less crust was amazingly tasty. I'm not much of a whizz with pastry but, so long as you don't worry how it looks, it's not very hard - just messy. I've become a fan of 'rubbing in' rather than 'cutting in'. It is much easier and faster. Mind, if you lived in the southern US I can see that the heat in your kitchen would be a challenge to overcome. Here in the North of England with my North facing kitchen, heat isn't much a problem. Still, I mixed the pastry and stuck it in the fridge while I greased my pie plate and gathered my veg. Mine included home grown runner beans, some roasted pumpkin and marrow, roasted's not a low fat dish. Which is why it tasted so good, no doubt.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018


I don't know about you, but when I think about the character Maverick I think of James Garner. I think it must have been a TV series for a while when I was a kid. Do you remember it?

Anyhow, this is about Halloween costumes for my step-son, so we'll be talking about the 1990s, not the 1950s/60s. It would seem Mel Gibson made a film using this character. I don't recall that I ever saw it, but looking over ideas for Halloween costumes and what I could produce easily and with little cost, Johnny was enthusiastic about Maverick.

As I recall, he had some slightly dressy trousers, an old cowboy hat and some boots. I think I found a white shirt and a cordouroy jacket at the thrift shop. I remember the brown vest belonged to me, Mom made it for me years before. I came up with some brown ribbon for a tie of sorts. I think his favourite part was getting to carry cards around all day. Also that the costume was comfortable.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

100 Years of Food: 1930s - Cocktails and Canapes

For food in the 1930s we were served a cocktail of 'champagne' (fizzy wine) with Angostura bitters, lemon juice and a sugar cube. It was nice enough, but I probably wouldn't bother. Then again, I had the non-alcoholic drink as I was driving. 

The canapes on the other hand, were pretty special. Sue mentioned a book called Larousse Gastronomique, which sounded terribly impressive. I go to a lot of these things to be exposed to information I'd never get elsewhere and so she just ticked that box. There were several trays of canapes. One had a small scone (biscuit in the US) base with mushroom pate and a slice of roasted mushrooms on top; others had some kind of chutney with a bit of cheese on top. Another was a small round cracker with a smear of cream cheese and a tidbit of smoked salmon. The last was a 'blini' base (like a 50 cent / 50 pence sized pancake) with anchovy pate and a green olive on top. Sue gave us a word she said was used in the '30s to describe the bases. I've tossed my notes apparently, but I think it was something like 'smidgeon'.

Pat didn't care for the anchovy paste but I liked them all pretty well. I later asked how to make mushroom pate: saute mushrooms and diced onions in butter and blend; seems simple enough. In writing this I started wondering about the difference between a canape (which should rightly have an accent mark over the e) and what my Dad used to call Horse Dovers (and yes, Mom made them for any celebratory occasion like Christmas or New Years Eve).  It would seem that canapes are finger food, meant to be eaten in one or two bits (so I wasn't being a pig) while hors d'oeuvres are often served on a plate and eaten with cutlery.

The period between the first and second world wars is one that has fascinated me since I 'discovered' it. I've written often about it here, mostly to do with authors, Bright Young Things and the flippant attitude that young people developed as a form of rebellion against their Victorian parents. There must have been nearly as much to mourn as to celebrate after the first war ended. That will have been in the 1920s. 

Then came the crash of Wall Street and the Great Depression. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and WWII began in 1939. According to this website, unemployment was quite high in Britain in the early '30s, but if you had a job your standard of living improved substantially and fewer people lived in absolute poverty than had previously been seen. So, I suppose if you had the means, cocktails and canapes make perfect sense. 

Also, serving drinks and small bits of food - ie a 'cocktail' party - was less onerous and expensive that entertaining friends with a sit down meal. The party had a set start and finish time as well. These days I expect a sit down meal might work out at a similar price to serving booze, but that's a guess; and there is always someone who doesn't know it's time to go home. My experience over the years I've been in Britain is that fewer and fewer people bother to entertain in their homes, which I find rather sad. The old fashioned potluck that I grew up with doesn't seem to ever have taken hold here. On the other hand, it may just be that people don't feel they want to share the privacy of their nests more than not wanting to spend the money to feed people. 

My view is that once a party stops being about spending time with good friends and becomes an exercise in social or professional advancement it is no longer fun. But this presentation about food through the decades was definitely fun!

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

100 Years of Food - 1928

1928 - Vinegar Loaf (no eggs)

Sue and Dorothy's vinegar loaf looked at tasted much like fruit cake, or a bread with dried fruit in it. I didn't get a recipe down, but you can search online and find several Vinegar Cake (no eggs) recipes. Most of them seem to be chocolate cakes, but this one wasn't.

I don't remember what Sue had to say about life in Britain during this year. However, I know from my British citizenship studies, 1928 was the year that saw women given the right to vote at age 21, the same age as men.

According to this blog vinegar (1 TBS) and baking soda (1tsp) can be used as a substitute for one egg. Who knew? I do know from the Tightwad Gazette that a heaping TBS of soya flour and a TBS of water is also a fine substitute, one I've made plenty of times in baking. All of these ingredients (vinegar, baking soda, soya flour) have many uses but, sadly, none of them replace the wonderfulness that is an egg fried over-easy (a phrase that flummoxed Bill for years).

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

100 Years of Food - 1918

My friend Pat and I got to attend a centenary celebration for Northumberland Women's Institute. Two ladies there who are apparently well known for their excellent food, Sue and Dorothy, put on an event that combined two of my most favourite subjects: Food and History. They set out to cook dishes that recognised each of the decades between 1918, which marked the birth of this WI Federation, and the present 2018.

We were given a tea/coffee upon arrival and offered our choice of biscuits/cookies. We could have either some sugar free Fruit and Nut Bars (recipe from a 2016 Sunday Times) or Ginger and Oat Biscuits (from a 1924 cookbook, Home Baking). Though the sugar free option appealed, history won out and I didn't regret it.

During the presentation I scribbled notes, as usual, and grabbed photos whenever possible. I'm so glad I did, as there were too many fabulous dishes for me to recall without help. Before I begin, you need to appreciate that for the most part two ladies (plus the help of one other on a specific dish) prepared all of these dishes for about 40-45 women in attendance. The sheer effort demonstrates a real labour of love. So let's get started!

1918 - a Pork and Suet Pudding
Sue said she had to get up at 5 am to put this on. I've heard about these steamed dishes since coming to Britain. They never crossed my path in the US. So far as I can tell this dish is strictly English cooking.

Sue made a pastry and lined a bowl with it. This was filled with a mixture of pork shoulder, onions and a some shredded suet (brand name Atara, yes, you can buy this stuff in a supermarket). I don't know if it was beef or vegetarian suet. The bowl and its contents were all wrapped in some sort of fabric and set it to steam over a pan of boiling water. I would need to explore a lot more to replicate this dish. I'm pretty sure she said the bowl couldn't touch the bottom of the pan with water. I'm not sure of the function of the fabric, other than perhaps to hold in the heat. I can tell you it was delicious.  Poor folks' food in the past was always about long slow cooking.

1918 was the year WWI ended. Many men didn't come home and quite a few that did were seriously wounded. Women had gone to work to replace the men but many returned to being homemakers when the war ended. A lot of the women of that generation never married, having lost fiances and there being a shortage of men. The good news, however, was the women in Britain were given the vote; well, some women of means who were over 30. They couldn't give all women the vote as then female voters would outnumber men. Then again, not all men could vote before 1918 either. Typically British, nothing was simple. Read more about it here.

To be continued...

Thursday, 4 October 2018

September Birthdays

It was on Thursday the 13th of September when I realised what I'd missed: my usual blog posts for commemorating the birthdays of my Grandpa, Grandma and Aunt Rita. I was rather stunned that this had happened and yet I knew why:

On the 10th (Grandpa's birthday), I went to take my Life in the UK test, part of the process of applying to be a British citizen. The test was cancelled. I found my notification of this cancellation when I returned home. I sat down and drafted a letter to the local Member of Parliament, but the significance of the date didn't get my attention.

On the 12th (Rita's birthday), I attended a Treasurers' Forum held at the Northumberland Federation on behalf of our WI's treasurer who was away on holiday. I came home and typed up my copious notes, but the date didn't ring any bells.

I remember sitting at the breakfast table remarking that it was the 13th but, thankfully, not a Friday. And that was when the penny dropped: it was Grandma's birthday

Of course the blog posts could have been written well in advance but you'll notice I've not written much here of late. Just yesterday my Uncle Pat in Ponca City messaged me on Facebook. It was 2:20 am and he wasn't sleeping, so took the opportunity to check if I knew where he might get a reasonable deal on a barrister's wig for a play he's doing soon, The Witness for the Prosecution. As part of our conversation he asked if it wasn't high time I did a blog post? That was just the nudge I needed.

What have I been doing all this time instead of blogging? I've spent weeks studying for the Life in the UK test (have a go at some of these tests yourself, see how you do). I've memorised answers to test questions such as How many miles is it from John O'Groats to Lands End; How long is the Bayeux Tapestry? How long does Diwali last? In 2011, what percentage of the population claimed the Muslim / Christian / Hindu / Buddhist / Jewish religion... My brain has completely lacked space for Where did I put my handbag? Why did I come upstairs? Where did I park the car?

I've also been trying to support our WI President so well she'll stay on for another year. I can't really talk much about what goes on behind the scenes, but it has been challenging at times. Someone kindly pointed out that by allowing myself to be given the title of Vice-President, I might be in danger of being expected to stand for President when the incumbent resigns. This is nowhere on my bucket list, not a responsibility I want, so I'm hoping if I make things as easy for her as I can, she'll stand again next year. Then I can ease myself back. I'm a worrier by nature and I don't need another thing to worry about. I'm a better lieutenant than leader.

I've been preparing for Brexit by trying to buy a little extra food each time I go shopping. I know stockpiling food is generally frowned upon here in Britain, from the times of rationing and previous world wars. However, my rationale is that food is plentiful now and supermarkets can easily restock. Also, if there are shortages in future I will be able to leave the food on the shelves for the people who didn't plan ahead. Bill was a bit flummoxed by this decision, but we've always kept a fairly deep pantry. I just suggested we enlarge it a bit, then 'shop' from the pantry while also obtaining replacements with longer sell by dates. If all goes well and there is no need, I'll be able to contribute to the local food bank. I really would prefer not to switch to a high carb diet if I don't have to.

We prefer fresh fruit and veg and of course one cannot stock up on those. Frozen is the next best alternative, but our freezer is quite full already. I've only bought the odd tin of corn or jar of mushrooms so far. Green veg are fairly easy to grow here and we have a good supply of kale in the ground. Bill planted some out front of our fence without mentioning the plan to me. I mentioned that someone might help themselves to these unguarded plants. He expressed the view that kale is not one of those things people who steal are likely to want. So far he's been 100% correct.

I'm really hoping that we don't end up leaving the EU. Or if we do, that the tragedy will not extend to food and medicine shortages (I can't stock up on my asthma medication, which is a little scary). I am really hoping that it will be no bigger a blip than the Millennium. Remember when people worried that all the computers would fail, unable to change the year from 1999 to 2000? Bill and I sat at the kitchen table and tried to imagine life in survivalist terms. We'd have to grow our own food, find firewood, boil river water, set traps for animal, fish the river and pick up winkles and seaweed. Bill reckoned he'd have to become a vegetarian if it meant killing and cleaning animals. I figured my childhood experience of helping my dad clean fish and my professional experience of dissecting rodents as part of the US hantavirus investigation would stand me in good stead. Part of me hoped that I would be made unemployed, forced to live without a paycheck, I hated my job so much by then. I don't wish for repercussions from Brexit, though. We'd probably be OK, but I don't want to watch the suffering of so many others less well off.

We've been foraging for blackberries and rose hips. I always seem to forget that within a day of picking I have to be washing and freezing or cooking the harvest. I don't normally use a lot of sugar and this nearly always involves an emergency trip to get some for syrup or jam. This is no different to our usual autumn. If anything we've foraged less, wanting to make space in the freezer for something other than turkey stock, blackberries and mysterious boxes of leftover something. I see a very long session of making crab apple jelly in my near future.

In addition to studying for the Life in the UK test, I've been completing the 19 page application for British citizenship. I also needed to dig out my birth certificate, all my marriage licenses and divorce papers. The application required me to remember my ex's full names, places and dates of birth. Heaven only knows why the government needs to know about men who never put foot on British soil. I was amazed that those bits of detritus remained in my brain. No wonder I can't remember the new neighbour's name.

Another thing I have not been doing besides not blogging is sewing. I've not sewed more than a button back on in months, possibly even a year. I'm quite sad about this as I still daydream about what I would like to make. It has probably been about the same length of time since I exercised regularly. I used to run but haven't, used to do pilates but quit, used to do zumba but got bored. I still walk a mile or two without any thought but often never leave the house for days. Pat, next time you're up at 2 am, nag me about those things, too, would you?

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Mom's Birthday

Inconceivable that Mom would have been 100 today. The words 'wizened' and 'frail' come to mind. I've heard it said - even just the other day - that older people benefit from having a bit of spare weight so that in the event they fall ill they will have 'something to fall back on'. Whether that is true or just an excuse, Mom never had spare weight in her life, in spite of being an excellent Southern cook. She just never seemed to eat much. Since I was a teenager I thought of her as just this side of fragile.

The other day when I was picking up around the house the thought occurred to me that perhaps had my Dad been better 'house broken' I might have grown up in a tidier home. Mind, Mom never was big on housework but she was ALL about creating beauty. Had she any hope of having a pretty house I think she would have. It's just that my Dad was spoiled rotten and never picked up after himself. I rather followed suit for more years that I care to admit until I decided I wanted to have better habits. I remember asking Mom why she never 'made' me do housework. Her reply was that she wasn't prepared to 'make' me do something she didn't want to do herself. Couldn't really argue with that. Her priority for me wasn't housework so much as homework. She was very keen for me to be educated and financially self-sufficient. I can't disagree with that either.

Mom never really saw herself as a 'housewife'. She was more a business woman (she was a photographic colourist) who happened to work from home and who also had a certain set of artistic homemaking skills that didn't necessarily include the drudgery of cleaning. I always had clean clothes, enough to eat and no one got food poisoning so I guess she did pretty well after all. 

Funny that Mom's been gone 28 years and yet she is always in my thoughts. Guess that just goes to show how very important mothers are.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Mary's Birthday

Today my Dad's birth mother, Mary, would have been ... 139!  It sounds crazy to write, but she was 39 when she had him, he was 38 when I was born and I will be 62 the end of this month.

She was born on this day in 1879 on the family farm at Cerro Gordo, in Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota. Cousin Don kindly shared this photo of the barn on that property. The barn was notable  not just for its enormous size but for its amenities. Apparently there was a ramp to the upper level so that horses and a hay wagon could go 'upstairs'. There was also a turntable to allow them to exit facing front rather than backing out. 

I mentioned last month on the blog for my Dad's birthday that I had a copy of his adoption file. The phrase that has haunted me since was from one of Mary's letters to the officialdom that removed her children from her care in 1919. Having learned that her elder son died, aged 24, by drowning she was frantic to know the whereabouts of my Dad. She says

 'my bright happy days are taken away'. 

That letter was written in 1939, when she was 60, twenty years after she lost her children and was committed to a mental institution for eight years because she had two children out of wedlock. 

How much of these decisions were concerning the welfare of the children and how much it concerned upholding the morals of the middle-class Lutheran society, that of her background, I may never know. I am, however, awaiting receipt of what I think will be the last of the documentation from officialdom, about the Bethany Home for unwed mothers into which I understand she and her children were initially taken. 

I can't for one moment regret the grandparents who adopted my Dad and helped raise me. On the other hand, this woman who had such a painful life intrigues me. I wonder how much I might have inherited from her, what I might have learned from her, had things been different. I can't know any of that of course, but what I can do is to honour her memory and to uncover as much about her as possible.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

My Dad's Birthday

Goodness, my Dad would have been 100 years old today! I'm fairly certain he wouldn't have enjoyed it much. He always made it clear to me that he valued the quality of his life over longevity. I see the sense in this but I'm not sure I would say the same. Perhaps I'll hold his view if and when my health is such that it interferes with enjoying myself.

Working with the volunteer lawyer over this past year, he was able to obtain a copy of my Dad's adoption records from the courts. It is a surreal experience reading the letters my Grandma B wrote asking to adopt a child, written in her familiar handwriting. I found it amusing that she initially asked for a little girl. Mom always led me to believe they were disappointed that I wasn't born a boy, as Grandpa and my Dad were the last of their surname, at least going back several generations. They asked for a healthy, bright looking child between one month and one year of age. They asked on 4 December 1918 and received on 24 Mar 1919, only a few days after my Dad, his brother and his birth mother, Mary, were brought to the Bethany Home.  Grandma's letters are lovely to read, with hope and happiness - tinged with a bit of anxiety, that's how she was - over the course of the adoption procedure.

The terms of the adoption are rather strange. They had 90 days to return the child (at their expense) if dissatisfied with the product (my word). The Minnesota State Public School (at which my Dad was never actually a ward) could take him back anytime until he was 18 years old.  They were agreeing to keep him until his 18th birthday, 

'maintaining, educating, and treating him properly and kindly as a member of the family, to provide him with suitable and sufficient clothing for week days and for attending public religious worship and with suitable food and other necessaries in health and sickness; to have him taught the occupation of (blank completed with) something useful and the branches usually taught in the common schools, causing him to attend the public school where he resides, fully complying with the compulsory school laws of Minnesota.'

At the expiration of the agreement (the 18th birthday presumably), they were to 

'furnish said child with two good suits of clothes, and will pay for the benefit of said child on the order of the Superintendent of said school, the sum of   $75 ($50 for a girl) and if said child shall not remain in his family the full term of said indenture, he will pay pro rata for the time he does remain, such pro rata to be paid promptly when this indenture is terminated.'

I'm not sure I follow all this, but it does sound as though my Dad was considered indentured rather than 'adopted'. That said, it was early days in the history of legal adoption and they may have been finding their way. I know from my visit to the Owatonna State School that children could be either 'fostered' - which was definitely a form of indentured servitude for many of them - or they could be adopted, which may in some cases not have been a permanent arrangement.   It was certainly a permanent arrangement with my Grandparents and the letters that follow are full of joy (from Grandma) and satisfaction (from the school). My dad is a 'fine boy' who is 'developing splendidly under their care'. 

Then comes October 1939 and a letter from my Dad's birth mother, Marit/Mary. He is now 21 years old. She is distraught as the people who adopted/fostered her elder son, Albert, have contacted her to tell her he has died at the age of 24 years, drowned in the Mississippi River. I cannot really imagine what possessed them to contact her. I've tried to find a good motive in their actions and the closest I can come is 'Just thought we'd let you know you needn't worry about Albert any more. He's dead.' Can you put a better face on it?

In her letter, Mary feels they failed him in their care and is frightened for the well being of her younger son. It seems clear that her children were taken off her, she didn't relinquish them. Considering that women in the US didn't have a vote until 1922, I'm not terribly surprised that she had little recourse once the State was interested in her situation. She and her children were apparently taken into the Bethany Home, her children were sent to the Public School (Albert) or their new home (my Dad) and she was committed to a State institution for the feeble minded on the basis that she'd had two children out of wedlock. Her letter is rambling and she references the kidnapping of the child of aviator Charles Lindbergh, which occurred in 1932. On the other hand, she spells better than Grandma B...

There is another letter from her, then another letter written on her behalf by a family friend at the Lutheran Seminary and a final document in the file recording Mary's visit to the State School on 3 Jan 1957.  I was chilled when I read the date, as I was 7 months old then, my Dad was 38. Mary was 78 years old, drawing old age benefit.  She is described as a 'most unhappy person and has a considerable dislike of all "welfare agencies". Small wonder, that. Mary couldn't understand since her child had reached majority why she could not be made known to him. Of course the adoption system didn't work that way.

They sent her away with the assurance that should he get in touch, they would help make the connection between her and her son. This never happened as my Dad was never told he was adopted. I'm in little doubt that my dad had a better life with my Grandparents than he would have had in the family of a single mom with a potential mental handicap. Her family doesn't seem to have supported her very much and so far as I can tell she made her way alone in the world as much as she could. I also believe she loved her children as much as any mother could and I think her story is among the saddest I've come across.

I'm waiting for records about her case from the Bethany Home. I'm also looking through DNA matches to find a paternal grandfather. My guess is that Albert never had children and perhaps he and my Dad were the only children of said grandfather, so it will be a long reach back with no name to hunt. But I have a couple of leads on which I'm working...