Sunday, 30 May 2010

Vera Brittain

I read books probably more than I do anything else, except perhaps sleep.  If you use the library, this is a very frugal hobby.  I’ve really been into biographies of interesting women for a while now and, as with the television programmes I enjoy telling about, I'm going to share with you some of the fascinating women I've come to 'know'.   

Vera Brittain – (1893 – 1970). I have to confess to having selected this biography because she lived during the inter-war period about which Bill and I are enthusiastic. I did get to read a little about her clothing and hairstyle, as she was an attractive woman and rather a clothes horse in her early years. As to the style and substance of her life and her experience, it is grim, shockingly so.  When I picked up this book I'd just discovered the fictional character of Phryne Fisher.  The contrast between the fictional flapper and this serious writer couldn't be more extreme. Both characters are contemporaries of my grandmothers, who also couldn’t have been more opposite to one another, and I enjoy trying to better understand what the world was like when they were young.

Vera Brittain as an author is most known for having written Testament of Experience, a book I want to find and read. It relates her own experience as a young person during WWI. In that war she lost her fiancée, her brother, and their closest friends, the two young men she might have considered marrying after the loss of her first choice. Now an only child, and also a feminist who longed to be a writer, she fought against the expectations for a young woman of her time to claim a career. She married late and had two children, but still maintained her independence even at great cost to herself. 

Her husband’s career took him to America 6 months out of the year and in return for being separated he managed to make her bear the primary financial burden for the family, spending all his money on himself and his mistresses. He complained that Vera’s career and her causes prevented him from getting a title.  He did manage to finagle a 'Sir' soon after her death. She was prepared to ‘entertain’ but was embarrassed by his choice of guests as it revealed his ambitious social climbing. He was generally though to be pretentious, arrogant and showy. In America, he got used to being appreciated for his British-ness and expected to be just as ‘special’ when he returned home (a cautionary tale for me, no doubt).  He sounded a complete jerk.

Vera maintained her family, his father and looked after her own parents while continuing to write and do public speaking. Her very closest friend (but not in that way, she insisted) was Winifred Holtby, whose last and best known work was a book that came to us from Bill’s mother’s collection and I realized I had read, South Riding, and can recommend. This woman died at only age 37 from kidney disease. 

In the latter part of her life, Vera became a sponsor for the Peach Pledge Union and did much travel and speaking for pacifism. Her beliefs were deeply challenged with the advent of WWII and whilst many fell away from their pacifist beliefs  in the threat of Hitler’s invasion, she stuck to it  and found a new direction for her organization during war, something akin to the beliefs of the Quakers. After much consideration, Vera and George sent their children to America to keep them safe. Her views, being contrary to government policy, made her unpopular in high places and for the latter part of the second war her requests for exit visas were denied, consequently she was unable to fulfill speaking commitments abroad or to visit her children, which she found very difficult. It later transpired that no one felt her to be any serious threat, but rather these denials were traceable to a petty and spiteful civil servant, who enjoyed rather too much power, I’m thinking.

As with many of the children sent, their return to Britain was traumatic; Vera’s son in particular never seemed to have recovered from his experience. In short, he was a spoiled brat who never achieved financial independence from his mother even after marrying and producing children. He died only 8 years after his mother and, being very uncharitable, it was no great loss. His sister, was also very independent in spirit, but in a different way. She grew up and became Shirley Williams, a prominent Labour politician who eventually left the Labour Party and formed the Social Democratic Party which eventually merged with Liberal Democrats, now part of the UK's coalition government.

Vera Brittain doesn’t come across as someone I would like.  She was intensely determined to have what she wanted and she upset a lot of people.  To be fair, in order to fight against the expectations placed upon a woman in her day, she had to be quite selfish and this selfishness made her a difficult person.  Except for with Winifred, who was apparently a very understanding woman, Vera fell out with virtually every friend she ever had. She acknowledged having this difficult personality. It may have been this trait that kept her from ever being more than an author of more than mediocre acclaim; she was disappointed at never having been able to duplicate the success of Testament of Experience.   As it turned out, her public speaking skills, her clarity of thought and her faithful commitment and dedication to promulgating the ideals of pacifism gained her far more fame in the end. It wasn’t until I finished the book, and I nearly didn’t, that I came to appreciate why her biography was written. I wouldn’t have liked her, but I came to respect Vera Brittain.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Sage and Shipley

Vivien and I had another good day out last month.  We visited The Sage, a music venue on the Newcastle Gateshead riverside.  It's a peculiar silver patchwork caterpillar-looking building that I've long been curious about.  Bill and I have been to a few concerts in Newcastle and Edinburgh (the Stones and Nickelback, to name a couple), but never to The Sage.  It seems to mainly have classical and folk music performers.  We're not in the habit of looking at what's on and so by the time we spot an act we'd love to see, it's usually sold out.  That's an example of how to save money through procrastination (though it's probably really through disinterest).  One of the best things about The Sage I thought, on this visit anyhow, was the view out the window (exactly what I said about the Baltic!) 

In the corner of the arch of the Tyne Bridge, you can just see the brown and black crenellated top of the 'New Castle' (built in 1080, by Robert Curthose, son of William the Conquerer) for which the city is named.

I also snapped the Baltic, as I've talked about that before when we visited it.  

I've often thought that the Newcastle quayside is absolutely stunning.

Anyhow, we had a wander around the building, poking our noses into where ever caught our fancy, then had a very reasonably priced lunch.  

Then we got back into my car and had a very interesting drive to the Shipley Art Gallery, just under 1 mile away.  I kept making wrong turns and we had to stop to study a map to figure out how to get where we wanted to be.  It was hilarious.  We could have  walked, but it's not a great area, I didn't trust the weather and I think the walk would have been equally as interesting given the major thoroughfares there.  I've often complained that the roads in this part of the world resemble a ball of snakes and I was pleased to hear that I'm not the only one who is occasionally challenged by this.  We had a lot of laughs in that journey. 

The Shipley's exhibits (free admission) were reasonably interesting 

and we drifted through them one after another. 

I saw a chiffon necklace in the shop that was tempting, but decided to try to make it instead.  I save myself from a lot of purchases with this idea.  If I ever actually manage it, I'll be sure to show you.  I nipped to the loo before we left, 

and funny if we didn't both think it was an amazing place. 

Old, but very interesting, all that wood.  Of course we laughed at ourselves there, too.  

It's always a good day out, in my book, when you get to laugh a lot.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Saved by a Post

We had a short trip to Middlewich last week.  We had dinner with and spent the night at Simon and Rhiannon's place.  Simon was waiting to hear about the employment check being run on him so he would know if he definitely got his new job (he did!).  The next day, while Bill was at his meeting in Stoke-on-Trent, I caught the train to Manchester, about 30 minutes away.  I'd intended to visit the John Rylands Library because I thought I might see an exhibition of bookbinding.  However, I failed to note the address and, strangely, never found a leaflet that mentioned the place.  

As it was, I was rather captive on Oldham Street, again.  I re-visited Affleck's.  It's changed a lot, but a few of the same shops remained.  Unlike my first visit, I found nothing that tempted, though there was plenty still to look at and admire.  I think it all takes me back to my teen years, those wacky clothes.  It's a real shame I can't find any pictures on the internet, I think their designs are quite innovative.  In fact, I'm amazed that shops like "No Angel" and "Strawberri Peach" don't have a bigger presence on the web.

Then I went down and browsed the fabric shop, Abakhans for hours, particularly the pattern books.  I keep calling this place Azkaban (as in Harry Potter, but it's not just me!  If I Google 'Azkaban' I come up with the Abakhan's shop in Liverpool.)  I managed to get out of there with only one pattern.  I have a hand full of patterns somewhere, but I haven't run across them in ages.  They probably are not the right size now, anyhow, but it would be nice to know where they are.  That's part of the reason for un-cluttering, right?

Oldham Street is also home to several of the biggest second-hand stores I've ever seen.  'Vintage' they call them; nothing charity about those stores, but when most items are £3 or so, they are tempting places.  There were at least 3 tops I was so close to buying.  Fortunately, I had just read this post by Fabulously Broke in the City. I'm sure it saved me from accruing more stuff in the midst of my un-cluttering efforts!

Speaking of un-cluttering, a bag went yesterday to the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution).  Another is ready for Mind, a charity for mental health.  'Mental health' is a phrase I try to keep at the forefront of my mind...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Crisp or Crumble?

It's rhubarb season here in England. I know, because Dorothy from the sewing group keeps bringing in large bags full of it and, unable to resist 'free food', I usually grab a handfull. In keeping with my resolution to do more baking and with a need to finish off the rest of the blackberries in the freezer before the next picking season, I started scanning cookbooks for recipes.

I was was very pleased to find a 'universal' recipe in Ella's cookbook (The Best of Good Housekeeping, 1973), in that it made suggestions for fruit to use, but whatever you have on hand could be used, barring maybe melon or something.  Universal recipes are, to my mind, one of the more frugal approaches to cooking, ie use what you already have, don't go out and buy specific ingredients.

Fruit Crumble
1 1/2 lb raw fruit (apples, plums)
3 oz. margarine
6 oz. plain flour
3 oz. caster sugar (regular granulated sugar, far as I know) 

Oven temperature:  fairly hot (400 degrees F., mark 6)

Prepared the fruit as for stewing and put it in an oven-proof dish.  Rub the fat into the flour until the mixture is the texture of fine crumbs; stir in the sugar.  Springle the mixture on top of the prepared fruit and bake in the centre of the oven for 30-40 minutes.  Alternatively, stew the fruit before putting it in the dish and bake for 20-30 minutes.  Serve with custard or cream.

1.  Add 1 level tsp. powdered cinnamon, mixed spice or ginger to the flour before rubbing in the fat.
2.  Add 2 oz. chopped crystallised ginger to the crumb mixture before sprinkling it over the prapred fruit.
3.  Add the gratted rind of an orange or lemon to the crumb mixture, etc.

I made this a while back with rhubarb and blackberries and it was nice, but a bit tart for me.  Bill like this cold.  I prefer it hot and I pour skimmed milk over it, not cream (though I do love custard...).

My Betty Crocker's Cookbook (1987) has a recipe for 

Apple Crisp
 4 cups sliced tart apples (about 4 medium)
2/3 to 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oats
1/3 cup margarine or butter, softened
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

Heat oven to 375 F.  Arrange apples in greased square pan, 8x8x2 inches.  Mix remaining ingredients; sprinkle over apples.  

Bake until topping is golden brown and apples are tender, about 30 minutes.  Serve warm and, if desired, with cream or ice cream.  6 servings; 295 calories per serving.

There are variations for apricots, cherries, peaches or pineapple.  I made this the other day with 1/2 Bramley (cooking) apples and half blackberries.

The next time I went to use up the blackberries, I discovered they were all gone and I tried an experiment (I love experiments in the kitchen!).  I used the rest of an apple from the last batch, a peelled and chopped orange and filled in the rest of the fruit allocation with rhubarb.  Then I doubled the amounts for the fat, flour and sugar for the fruit crumble.  That turned out very well, though I probably don't want to know the calorie count!  I doubt I'll be making these every week, but it's great to have another 'universal' recipe on hand!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Mad Dogs and Englishmen...and I

Frugal Scholar has all the literary expertise around here. I looked up this phrase and found that it wasn't from Kipling or his ilk, but rather from a 1932 (that era again!) song by Noel Coward. All I can tell you is what I happened last weekend when the temperature got up to a scorching (no irony intended) 75 degrees here at the coast.

I observed this behavior when I first came across, back in 1995, when there had been a particularly good summer – the last for about a decade. I was going out to the corner shop to buy a sandwich and when I returned the postage stamp of grass that was surrounded by the various hospital buildings was covered with white pasty people in various stages of disrobe. Shirts and shoes off, pants rolled up, skirts pulled up, hair pinned up, tops tucked into bras; nothing indescent, mind. We’re talking people anywhere from their 20's to their 50’s, male and female. I’d never seen anything like it; it was so….undignified. Over the years I came to completely understand the desire to get out and grab what little warmth and sunshine came my way, though I never did this sort of thing at work.

I met Kerry for lunch on Friday in Newcastle and we sat outside to eat. Not being a smoker for the last 30 years, it’s not very often I have any use for the tables that various restaurants and pubs put outdoors, but this was one of those rare opportunities and so we took it. As we wandered back towards the Metro where we would part, we both remarked on all the skin people seemed to be showing and laughed. Kerry’s just got a job at the University of Newcastle and so she’ll be leaving the first post she got after getting her Ph.D., at the U of Durham. She’ll be able to walk the few blocks to work and she is really excited about that. I’m not sure how wonderful the job is, but she's excited as she was ready for a change and I think just getting out and finding another post has done her a world of good.

With the warm weather, I knew what would happen on Saturday at the beach, so when I went for my long run I avoided it. This was nearly to my detriment, as there were actually patches in my route with blazing sun, no shade and no breeze – completely unheard of. When I lived in the States I wouldn’t have considered wearing shorts unless the temperature was at least 85 and I have done runs in downtown OKC at lunch in 90 weather (not very smart), so I was amazed to find myself really struggling in 75 degree weather here, but struggle I did. Still, I stayed away from the beach, where there was certain to be a breeze. I managed my hour and 45 minutes, though I had to walk for parts of it.

My experience told me there would be herds, crowds, masses of people all wearing as little as possible. Towards evening the streets would be dotted with greasy paper from the fish and chip shops, pizza boxes, and other fast food litter; also the occasion puddle that results from too much alcohol and rejection of food, too charming for words. Bill returned from a trip to the store in the village and reported that it looked like it had been under siege, with long queues of people non-stop and that staff looking harried with no time to re-stock or tidy up. Food, ciggies and alcohol were all pouring out the doors and onto the beach.

Bill said there was a young man there who had ID. He was a particularly poncey gay kid and obviously proud of having ID. When a younger, stocky ‘butch’ looking boy was turned away for lack of ID, the poncey one pranced up and volunteered to buy the alcohol for him. The cashier said, nope, he would not; it was illegal. The ponce was momentarily deterred, but announced he would just buy his own, then. The cashier said, nope, he would not; she now had no way of knowing whether it was for him or for the minor. Said poncey kid threw a fit, shouting and bawling, (probably effing and blinding, as they say here) and she calmly invited him to continue expressing himself, but if he did so, she would call the police and he would learn how they viewed obtaining alcohol for minors. He left. Another reason I avoided the beach. As far as I can tell, hot summer weather brings out the worst in Brits; either that or the worst of them just happen to come to the beach, I don't know.

We celebrated the warm night by sitting out on the bench in the back yard after dinner, avoiding the hot sun at the front of the house. We went to bed at our usual 9 pm and there was music pouring into our open window. As the night sky darkened and the traffic stopped, the music seemed to get clearer and closer, though we never did figure out from where it came: the golf club, the rugby club, the café at the Metro or even across the river were all possibilities. The music was pleasant enough, but it was party music, not a lullaby so, grouchy old woman that I am, I found myself looking forward to cooler weather, though I did quite enjoy walking around in my house barefoot on Sunday.

Sure enough, Monday it never got over 65. So, back to business as usual: socks, shoes, sweater, sanity.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The French & Their Food - Part III

This is the last of three posts about a BBC programme concerning the history of France and it's food. Once again, it has some yucky ideas about what is or is not edible. Also, in following up my notes, I found other bits of interest on the internet not included in the BBC broadcast.

The show actually began with a story about Francois Mitterrand (President of France, in the 80s and early 90s). Upon learning that he was to have surgery for his prostate cancer, he held a banquet where Ortalan Buntings were served. This was illegal in France at the time, as they are an endangered species of bird.

The programme described that the birds were first drowned in brandy before being cooked; being extremely small, the birds are then served whole. The (whole) bird is put into the mouth with the head hanging out of one's lips and chewed. The programme showed the rather bizarre sight of everyone at the table wearing a large napkin hanging over their faces. This was so that God would not see the shameful thing they were doing. Shameful for killing these exquisite little birds, you understand, not the grotesque act of eating it whole. It was said that when chewing the bird one could taste its entire life – grain from this region, the pure water from that, etc., etc.

Mitterrand loved this dish so much he had two helpings, the last food he ever ate. I practically think it serves him right. I couldn’t help but wonder if the big napkin didn’t serve the function of helping someone pretend to eat, but actually throw the disgusting thing under their chair.

The programme went a long way in explaining the wealthier end of French food, food fit for a king, etc. I suppose part of showing one’s wealth is having access to exotic food. Still, much of what the French call a delicacy, many would call inedible. I still hold that keeping this wide range of possibilities in one’s diet is a psychological safety net, should a period of famine return. If I could only learn to eat snails, should my stockpiled pantry be empty, I’d be all set for winter here in England, snails being the prevailing feature of my back garden, I sometimes think.

The programme mentioned Careme a number of times, indicating he was the main influence for the development of haute cuisine as we know it today...or as rich folks do anyhow. Careme is also credited with the development of the chef's hat,

or toque blanc. I enjoyed reading about his relatively short (48 years) life as I learned that he designated the original four mother sauces; some version of the first 3 formed the backbone of my first efforts to cook. I say first 3 because I break all the rules. For one, I'm as likely to use oil or margarine instead of butter for the roux. I'm pretty sure chicken stock from a cube and skimmed milk don't figure large in French haute cuisine either, but we like the results OK. The fourth sauce is comprised of egg yolks and cream and is not likely to happen in this house very often, though I did attempt something similar to use up egg yolks left over from making angel food cake. The sauce was OK, but nowhere nearly worth the trouble. I settled on cooking the egg yolks and chopping them up for a rice dish the next time.

I also learned that 'gastronomy' is defined as 'the study of the relationship between culture and food.' Does that mean then that 'gastropubs' over here have some more erudite significance than that they serve meals? The other thing I thought interesting about Careme is that he was set a test to create a whole year’s worth of menus, without repetition, and using only seasonal produce. One could almost start to label him 'frugal', but I'm sure this is not the case. It would be interesting to see what he came up with, however.

Of course, the influx of KFC and McDonald’s has taken its toll on French restaurants. I’m guessing, too, that France has succumbed to the work-all-hours, live-fast, cram-it-all-in lifestyle that it didn’t seem to have yet done when I first came across. For me, part of eating well in a restaurant means taking one’s time and being served in an attractive setting, preferably without screaming children. Don't get me wrong, I do like the taste of fast food, but I guess since these eating establishments began in the US we don't need to label them basse cuisine.

The programme ended with a brief mention of the current president of France. According to them, Sarkozy is not a foodie, he actually exercises, he’s friendly with Britain and America. In short, he is almost positively un-French. However, they concluded that he was ‘modern’ and probably just what is needed to pull France into the 21st century. (Also, he has a very interesting-to-watch wife.) Whatever his 'shortcomings' as a French president, in my opinion, anything is better than a Sun King who dines all night while others starve to death.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Kitchen English - Part III

The end of the (long) story that began here.

The Cabinets.
At one point (Plan B) they were all going to be replaced because that was the only way to buy the bench from B&Q and get it fitted. After our previous difficulties finding workmen, Bill was prepared to just throw money at it. I balked because (a) there was nothing wrong with the cabinets we had and it seemed really wasteful to send them to landfill; (b) there was too much choice and I was struggling to make such a big decision; (c) the number of units on the special sale would only replace about half of the units we have. So we backed away from that idea and started over. I considered painting the cabinets, as this website says every high-end kitchen she’s seen has painted cabinets.

Painting being within our range of skills, I wouldn’t on frugal principle pay someone else to do it. However, so soon after the bathroom cabinet painting experience, I couldn’t really face it. So, they just got a clean and a polish. Some of the handles are broken and need replaced, but not all. We had at some point in the past worked out a plan for moving the handles around and getting a new subset where they would all match on one area. We even went out and bought the needed handles, but never installed them. When I find those again, this will happen. Also, there is an Ikea about 15 miles away, down at the Metro Centre. Frugal Scholar says there are nifty cabinet gadgets from Ikea that can enhance their utility.

I’ve already re-purposed a small two-tiered lazy suzan to hold bowls and saucers in one cupboard. My aim is to have every thing visible and to be able to remove anything I wish without having to shift something else to do so; this will require more culling but I’m open to gadget ideas. Inexpensive ones, of course. Any suggestions?

The Details. Having to take everything out of the cabinets was an opportunity to re-think what needed to go back in, and so we’ve shed ourselves of a few thrift-store flower vases, empty glass jars, the more ragged towels and beat-up pots and pans. We’ve also moved things around to possibly more convenient locations, but that is a work in progress. When painting above the cabinets above the stove, Bill discovered another exit for the extractor fan. It had been vented to the outside, as many are. Even when not in use, the opening flapped in the great North breeze and was another contributor to the freezing kitchen. Brits are famously enamoured with ‘fresh air’ but we decided that flap had to go.

The Finale. Finally, I’m inspired to do something with red, cream and brown patchwork. It was going to be a bag holder, but then I figured out how to move the old one indoors, so it might be a door curtain, something decorative for the buffet cabinet shelves or much-needed seat covers for the 2 sets of 2 chairs (my Grandma & Grandpa's; his Auntie Mary's? Polly's). I expect I’ll keep an eye out for things like table cloths that might coordinate as well. I’ll let you know what I end up with.

In the meantime, I need to do more baking in order to enjoy the kitchen more fully and, more importantly, to reward Bill for all his hard work!

Friday, 21 May 2010

Kitchen English - Part II

Picking up where I left off yesterday...

The Bench.
In the US, I think we call that the countertop, you sort of lose your own language over time, but over here it’s the bench (something I’d sit on in the States). We looked carefully at the choices: wood, granite and something else expensive, I forget what it was called. Wood requires more care and bother than we wanted and you can’t put anything hot on granite or the other thing. The MDF (I believe this is basically covered particle board) has come a long way from what it was when our old bench was installed. We saw more sophisticated joins and protection from water drips underneath the edges, both areas where our old bench had failed after about 15-20 years; actually not a bad lifespan for the cheap option. Another consideration was that we plan to rent this house when we move to Salt Lake City and choosing something that renters couldn’t easily destroy was a priority.

Sadly, with this sort of bench I couldn’t have the Belfast (I kept trying to call them Dublin) sink style that I love, but such is life. We opted for dark brown as it was a warm, but fairly neutral colour that would go with a lot of different paint. The man who came out to take measurements said that wood-looking benches and wood cabinets were often tricky; they didn’t look good if they didn’t match, but oddly neither did it work if they did. We were thinking wood flooring at the time and that would be even more complicated, so we chose something tile-like.

There was a glossy brown finish, but I figured it would show scratches. Turns out the non-glossy finish still shows streaks like crazy unless you dry after washing and who would have thought not showing dirt would be a problem? I practically have to use the Braille system of cleaning as the brown/black/beige camouflages most spills. Still, I like the warm colour and the change. We also got upsplashes, a new word for my vocabulary. This makes the join between the bench and the wall much neater and that was also one of my major goals for this project.

The Sink. As I said, I would love to have had a Belfast sink, but it wasn’t going to happen. My next choice would have been a double sink, like I generally have had in the US. That was going to mean major cabinet changes, so we settled for the 1½ type we already had, only larger. Most sinks here in the UK come with the metal drain board. I’m not a fan as it takes up a lot of counter space but it’s what people expect to have here and Bill thought it would be a disadvantage in terms of rental/sales options. The shape of the new sink is deeper and squarer, and the half sink is much larger and more useful. We kept the old faucet. I won’t go into the details. Bill still can’t understand what I’m getting at. Let’s just say that I have issues with British faucets and will enjoy modern plumbing and temperature control when we live in the States.

The Pantry. This is a small closet that takes up the space under the stairs. Years ago, I had Bill add shelves, particularly one under the small window, which I’ve always thought a neat little architectural touch, if useless. Who needs a window in a closet? I suppose it does provide some light during the day. The neighbours stack cereal boxes or cleaning products against the glass in their pantry windows. I’ve arranged a row of blue glass bottles in mine, so it looks cute from the outside. Bill thinks that’ of my more endearing qualities, I’m sure. Anyhow, this shelf under the window has been useful so long as we had a short, canister type Hoover. Actually, it was a Dyson, but Brits don’t say ‘vacuum cleaner’, they say ‘Hoover’. I hated that last one and we got an upright, which I don’t understand much better, but can use it in a pinch. Bill tends to do the vacuuming and dusting around here, bless him, as he has the lower tolerance threshold. We took out that shelf so that the upright Dyson can live in there, along with the broom which has previously lived in the back porch or the garage, which was a nuisance. I’ve moved the plastic container for plastic bags and the recycling bucket into the pantry as well. It will save me opening the back door into the un-heated porch in winter time another contribution to a warmer kitchen.

One more part to follow...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Kitchen English - Part I

Plan A: Fix what’s broken.
Plan B: Re-do the whole kitchen because that’s the only way B&Q will do the fitting.
Plan C: Fortunately, found some people (The Kitchen Centre; I recommend them highly) who would fit what was needed and let us do what we were able, so we went back to Plan A, plus a little updating.

The Paint. The main driver for the whole project, actually, was the cracked plaster around the power point next to the stove. I was tired of carefully aligning the crock full of tall utensils in front of that mess when we expected company. Because the kitchen has always felt really cold, and with good reason we discovered, I thought about matching the walls to the red light fixtures and heating up the place with a bit of hot colour, a distinct change from the white and cream palette that was there before. Painting was my main contribution to the project besides moving stuff and dealing with workmen. Bill did everything else. I know you’ll agree he is a wonderful man.

The Floor. The east end of the kitchen was originally a scullery, with a sink for scrubbing veg and a back door that originally faced out onto the street to a gap in the brick wall that surrounded the garden. When I bought the house there was linoleum in the scullery end and carpet in the breakfasting end and we replaced it with like a couple of times. Bill wanted a single floor covering this time. We started with the idea of wood, then tiles, but ended up with a tile-looking snap- together flooring. I thought Bill chose brilliantly, gold-beige tiles, some with vaguely red/orange in them. The room felt much larger when the flooring went down.

We discovered a vast black empty space under the wood floor when Bill replaced The Radiator, as the house is built on a hill and the ground below the kitchen falls away steeply. It wasn’t a nice wood floor, whoever did that ‘reno’ for the scullery went the cheap route. (‘Reno’ is a word I learned here. I thought it was just a place in Nevada.) The gaps in the floor let the North wind off the North Sea come into my kitchen, particularly under the cabinets as there was no floor covering for the wood planks under them. That explained a lot. Bill put an insulating layer down under the cabinets while he was dealing with the visible floor.

The Oven & the Hob. Most of my experience in the US is that this is a single appliance. Not so here. I’d learned in my old job that gas fires emit nitrogen dioxide and this is an irritant for asthmatics. I’d thought about replacing the stove top with electric for some time, but as I’ve no intention of losing my gas fires in the living and dining rooms, it didn’t seem viable to use health as the excuse. Turns out that in replacing The Bench they’d have to remove the gas ‘hob’, what Brits call the stove top, which sounds to me like something even shorter out of Tolkein. Health and safety regulations have changed since the cabinets were installed and the fitters couldn’t legally replace the gas hob without moving the cabinets to a higher position. I can barely reach the shelves as it is, never mind the expense and the mess, so this was an argument in favour of an electric hob. However, the new hob needed its own electrical wiring. While we were at it, Bill had the electrician replace the fuse box under the stairs with a modern version and that involved carpets and flooring being ripped up (and replaced) upstairs as well. Not as bad as it sounds, but more chaos invasion of privacy. The stove was also replaced as the old one had problems with the glass front and the rubber gasket. To be continued...

P.S. There are some 'before' pictures here.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Teddy Bears' Picnic

You know, it’s a small world. Vivien and I discovered the other day that we are going on vacation on the same day to the same country, Italy. Various of her family and friends are going to be at the same cities where their cruise ship will dock more or less when they will be, just by accident.

We were talking about our fall back plans should volcanic ash interfere with our flights. They will drive to Southampton instead of fly to catch their boat. We will abandon Italy altogether and get the ferry over to Amsterdam and see where we want to go by train, probably starting with Belgium. We’ve been on the ferry several times to go to Europe and Hollanders often come over here. I met two ladies at the bottom of my street when I was out for a run the other day, just off the ferry and seeking directions to their B&B. OK, so western Europe’s not really that big.

Anyhow, I read a lot about the 1920s and 30’s and I come across the same names, which is to be expected. Not long ago I read a biography of Vera Brittain, of whom I’d never heard. Then there was a TV programme about her with Jo Brand narrating. I visited a friend who recommended Sara Peretsky's Warshawski novels; Vivien has the collection to loan me. I read Peretsky's and Greenwood’s novels, they mention characters or events from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayer’s novels. The people at the bookbinding group are talking about the setting of Dorothy L. Sayer’s novels. OK, Sayers is making a comeback here, I gather. Vera Brittain is a bigger name here than I’d appreciated. Petrowsky’s novels are widely read. These aren’t huge coincidences, though they seemed to all come at about the same time.

What really struck me as strange was that one day I happened to look up Caroline Bessette Kennedy on the internet, to look at pictures and read about her. Living over here in England I missed most of the hoo-ha about her. Her and JFK Jr’s deaths are another on the list of things I heard about in passing over here that I didn’t experience in the same way I would have had I lived in the US.

My surfing took me to an interview with Carole Radziwill, widow of JFK’s cousin, Anthony Radziwill. Her husband died at the age of 40 just weeks after John & Caroline, from cancer. Carole was talking with Oprah about the family. She said John was always good at dramatic moments, 'made for the big moment'. That when his cousin was thought to be near death, he came to visit and sat with his cousin, talking. They reminisced and John began to sing the Teddy Bear Picnic song to his cousin. Apparently, Jackie had sung this song to her son and nephew even as late as when they were 12 and 13, to remind them that they weren’t all that grown up yet. I’d never heard of the song and figured it was something about New York or rich people or something…

I swear I didn’t say a thing about this to Bill, but that very night as we were about to go to sleep he reached over to set the alarm on his mobile phone for 6 am and, in a (not uncommon) moment of silliness, began to sing a song about teddy bears in the woods having a picnic. Apparently he grew up with it as well. Having just discovered the song that day then to have Bill singing it at bedtime was, I thought, rather a larger coincidence!

For a kid’s song it’s a bit creepy, I think. Have a listen here. Did you already know about this song (from 1908/1932)?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The French and Their Food - Part II

This is the second part of the information presented in the BBC programme which I started writing about here.

The narrator said he didn’t think it was the poor who benefited from the French revolution in 1789 so much as the middle classes. They were now top dog: the merchants, the lawyers, etc. They had money to spend and this was when the French restaurant was born.

By the way, the word restaurant comes from the French verb restaurer, meaning "to restore". Perhaps American restaurants, with their increasingly absurd portions should consider that the French verb 'a farcir' (to stuff) is also the source of 'farce'...but I digress.

Les Halles must have been an interesting place, originally a huge market in the centre of Paris. If you’ve only ever been in an American supermarket, wonderful places though they unquestionably are, you’ve missed out on the experience of a European market, with all the individual stalls each selling their own individual speciality. I always think it is a special tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit. Markets are really fun, not to mention fascinating and often extremely frugal. Anyhow, the programme described this giant market that was main source of food for Parisian restaurants. Most business was conducted at night as restaurateurs prepared for business in the early morning hours. It was a sort of underground society. They also mentioned that must have stunk – all that meat and produce and the less than hygienic conditions back then! According to Wikipedia, the original LesHalles was torn down in 1971 and is now an underground shopping mall.

The narrator then visited Lyon, which he said was the gastronomic capital of France. Mind, I didn’t care for many of the dishes they described, but the conversations – with subtitles – with the chefs were entertaining. The chefs aren’t a shy and retiring lot, though who would be with a galaxy of Michelin stars? Bill and I did a cycling holiday in France once. Given the quality of the bikes, etc., we thought it was a bit on the pricey side, until we realised we were staying in hotels that all had Michelin chefs. I easily consumed about a million more calories than I burned on that trip!

Apparently the Michelin man who sells automobile tires is the same one who grants restaurant stars; I think I’d assumed it was a coincidence about the name. The programme said this came about after the development of the motor car, of course. It started as an advertising gimmick to get people out and about to restaurants in the country by car. The original Michelin guide recommended brandy or beer to help the driver fight fatigue!

According to this TV programme, France’s cuisine was actually broadened with the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1870 (and they didn't mean the zoo menu). Losing that territory to Germany resulting in bringing beer, sausages and other German delicacies into the French diet. Also, the concept of a brasserie (French for brewery!) was developed, an eating establishment that was slightly more upscale than a bistro.

Similarly, the influx of Algerians in the 1960s brought North African food, particularly couscous, to France. A foremost Algerian chef, a woman whose name I didn't get, stated that if one ate the food of another culture, one understood that culture better. I like the idea she expresses, but I’m not sure that having eaten steak tartare (and all the while wondering if I was actually eating beef, though whatever it was it tasted fine, thank you) gave me any real insight into French culture. Losing my passport in Paris and going to the police department showed me a lot, however. Bill’s visit with me to the U.S. Embassy in Paris gave him a major cultural experience as well! I shall have to write about that very exciting day some time.

Back to the subject of restaurants and culture, there is a particular restaurant Bill and I love in Monmartre, the name of which I could not for the life of me remember, but he managed to find it on the internet, bless him! It is the Restaurant Chartier at 7 Rue du Faubourg.

We first went there with the running club back in 1996 when we all did the Paris to Versailles race. A couple of years later, Bill and I had spent a week in Paris and we went back to Restaurant Chartier for dinner. I still remember when the whole room seemed to grow quieter.

A slim, older woman in a suit and heels with a fur stole over her shoulders walked in and went to a table at the rear. It seemed to me that every single person in the restaurant watched her. I'm guessing she was in her 60's. She looked like something out of a 1940s war movie. It was partly her clothes, but mostly her walk: slow, elegant, graceful. She had such an air of mystery, but also of confidence, one wanted to go sit with her and hear what she had to say. I wanted to know about her life, where she lived, what she had done, what she carried in her purse. It was at that point that I understood why French culture appreciates ‘women of a certain age’.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Frugality and Fitness

I wrote yesterday about the climbing ladder into the loft. It dawned on me that I've been climbing another kind of ladder, this one maybe even slower, but that's OK.

I stumbled on this when reading The Simple Dollar. He, Trent Hamm, talked about this website. It sounded interesting so I downloaded the chart (it doesn't make a lot of sense on its own, so if you're interested, go visit the link):

Rung Bend Sit up Leg lift Push up Steps Count

1 2 3 4 2 105 1 30
2 3 4 5 3 140 1 65
3 4 6 6 3 170 2 20
4 6 7 8 4 200 2 50
5 7 9 9 5 225 3 0
6 8 10 10 6 255 3 30
7 10 11 12 7 280 3 55
8 12 13 14 8 305 4 5
9 14 15 16 9 325 4 25
10 16 16 18 11 350 4 50
11 18 18 20 12 370 4 70
12 20 20 22 13 390 5 15
13 23 21 25 15 405 5 30
14 25 23 27 16 425 5 50
15 28 25 30 18 440 5 65

I had a go last year sometime, but it fell through after not very long. I found the running, oddly enough, was what put me off. To put it bluntly, if I was going to run and do jumping jacks, I needed to be wearing a running bra; and if I had to change clothes to do something that was only going to take 15 minutes, I couldn't be bothered. As I already run something like 15-20 miles a week, I decided not to worry about that part, but to concentrate on the other exercises.

I have no noticable upper body strength! However, if I want to be able to carry the things I want and have the muscle to stand erect, shoulders back and all that, I need to get some.

I used to be the queen of stomach crunches; Bill remembers when I did about 200 a day. Then I got really obsessed with running, lost a bunch of weight and had no tummy to speak of. When I didn't have anything I needed to hold in, I lost my motivation to do all those crunches! So now I'm finding sit ups a bit of a challenge.

There has just about never been a time when I couldn't bend over a touch my toes, mainly because I have relatively short legs! Well, and flexibility seems to be my natural gift. I start each of my bends by stretching upwards and bending back just a bit (thankfully I have no back problems). I remember Bill talking about little old ladies who had lost the ability to fix their own hair: they couldn't reach and hold their arms up above their heads anymore. I don't want that to happen to me anytime soon!

The idea is to spend at least 4 days on each rung, more if needed. I've been averaging about 6-7 days on each, just to be sure I'm not pushing myself too hard. I can manage the bends easily enough, and the leg lifts and sit ups are do-able. It's the push-ups that hold me back! I wouldn't even swear that I have good form, but I'm pleased as anything to be 'up' to 4 of them; paltry I know, but definitely progress.

I can do all of the exercises in my PJ's, my jeans or my running kits, and it takes so little time that it's hardly any bother at all, but I feel really pleased with myself when I've done it. Almost best of all -- after feeling fitter -- is no gym membership, no special clothes or equipment....a frugal exercise if ever there was one!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Frugality and Clutter

I decided some time ago that my parents were packrats because they grew up during the Depression. Seemed as good an explanation as any. Then again, lots of other people who grew up then didn't become packrats. Growing up in that time didn't make my Dad careful with money. I suspect living with my Dad is what made my Mom so financially cautious. I didn't grow up during the Depression, but I'm a packrat. Not, thankfully, on the same level as either of my parents, but certainly leaning in that direction.

For quite a while now, I've been thinking about how to improve on the clutter around here. Bill is good about helping me keep the downstairs tidy and helping get the other public areas ready for company. But I always have things I don't know where to put, because the place I would normally put them is already full of other stuff. Assuming that one's house is not completely chaotic, like my parents', this means one either has a full-to-the-seams attic or basement, a designated 'junk room', a rented storage unit or some combination thereof.

Bill rolls in the floor laughing whenever he looks over my shoulder to find me reading Unclutterer or when he comes across the several books I've bought on the subject. He never saw Mom and Dad's houses, so perhaps he doesn't really appreciate that it could be much worse! However, my eye is on the highest of goals: a place for everything, NO junk room and only useful, seasonal things in the loft.

Like many people I have bought lots of stuff I didn't need, didn't really want, can't use but can't seem to get rid of. Being an only child and a very sentimental person in an ever-dwindling family, I seem to wind up with things that belonged originally to someone else. Except that now I'm working on it. Last weekend I took down all the boxes of clothing I could find from the loft and went through them. I filled the boot of my car with clothes and shoes to give away; I filled another box with textiles to be recycyled (even charity shops have their standards). Whoever opens these bags will think they've taken a trip down memory lane to the 1980's at least!

No, I didn't get rid of it all, I just made myself look at it and make a decision. I shopped before I got too tired, as I didn't want to made choices I would later regret. I plan to do this every season and hopefully to cull a bit more each time. I took things down and put them back up myself, so I know where and what is there.

I know I hang onto things because they belonged to my Mom or my Aunt Rita. I hang on to things because I was young and thin when I could wear them. I keep things because I spent a foolish amount of money and can't face not getting value from them. Part of me is half-way convinced that I've spent all the money I ever need to for certain items. The chore now is just to be disciplined or creative enough to use them up, but of course it doesn't work that way. Clothes get so out of date they are embarrassing to wear; shoes wear out; things break and I don't have the skill to fix them -- not that the manufacturer ever intended them to be repaired!

I should live long enough or have so much creative energy to undertake even a small portion of the 'crafty' projects I've put away. I could make a fortune on eBay, but for the fact that it takes ages to list an item properly and much of the stuff I've hoarded probably isn't worth listing. Charity shops would be much cheaper sources, particularly as that is where I got quite a bit of it myself.

There are small things that remind me how much I burden myself with stuff. You know, when you spend lots of time looking for things, or go buy something you already have because you can't find one you have. When you start resenting the amount of time you spend organising and moving stuff around. I find a little of that is fun; too much is a waste of my remaining life. How many times have you ironed something and then crammed it into a too-full closet only to have to iron it again? So many little things like this I've lived with all my life and so they didn't make much of an impact. Then came the bigger triggers that really started shifting my thinking.

When I moved to England from the US, my job paid my moving expenses. One day, we'll be ready to move to Salt Lake City and we will have to pay to move our possessions. Am I really going to pay money to move old magazines, clothes I can't wear or craft supplies I haven't used?

I finally went to a lawyer last year and wrote a will. It was a chore, but it took a weight off my shoulders. I now know what will happen to my estate when I'm gone and that was such a relief. Only it made me aware that someday someone will have the task of sifting through my collection of stuff. That's not a chore I would wish on anyone. My biggest fear as that truly valuable items could end up in a landfill because it was all so overwhelming and they just gave up.

Another awakening came when Bill finally put more lights in the loft, something we've needed for ages. When I first went up the ladder and could actually see how vast that space was and how full, it frightened me. I felt myself get a little numb with the thought that Bill (a psychiatric nurse) had well and truly brought his work home. I'm just another of his patients... I had a similar sensation when reading about the psychology of hoarding, via RealDelia. Part of me didn't want to read that, and I took it as a signal that it would be a good idea to persevere!

On the more positive side, somewhere on the Oprah website there was something about uncluttering that said to imagine how you would want the space to look instead. How would I rather use my box room? I can think of several ways, but any of them will require taking everything out to make space to re-arrange what's there and it certainly can't all go back in! That's the next project.

It's the hope of one day having a grown-up's house that keeps me reading blogs like Struggling to be Stylish and Nesting Place. I mean, I'm only going to be 54 at the end of the month, I still have time to grow up, right? Well, to grow, anyhow...

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Fabric Cards

I made the last of the sewing ladies' birthday cards last month. They were for two Joan's, both with birthdays on 30 April, both who worked at the sewing factory, but different as chalk and cheese (as they say over here). I made the 2nd Joan-card in a non-stop rush, all in one day, so I know how long a card like this takes me, all going smoothly: 6 hours.

Not long before that was a card for Hazel, who is so naive that I wonder how she survives in the world but who also manages to have a wicked sense of humour.

I like making these cards, but I'm tired of doing more or less the same thing repeatedly. I mainly started them because I wanted to use the lovely scraps of fabric they gave me; the more cards I made, the more fabric I got! I used the same rule I use for most of my crafts: I can use only what I already have, I cannot go out about buy a bunch of stuff. I cycled through the whole list of ladies and was faced with starting again before I had any new ideas, so I caved and bought paper cards. I found a booth at the fleamarket that sold handmade cards for 60 pence each, including the envelopes. I bought a year's worth and plan to go back for more!

Dorothy asked me if I'd made Margaret's card and I said not. Paper simply doesn't inspire me and though I really admire people who can make cards well, it's not a skill I wish to develop. It's lovely to be able to say 'No' to something for once! I'm also saying 'No' to making fabric cards, at least until I come up with another idea that I like...

Have you seen any designs for greeting cards made from fabric that you can link me to?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Bookbinding Update

This is to continue on the topic I sort of started here, where I was making the decision about attending bookbinding classes. They aren't really classes, per se, more gatherings of people with a range of skills. Money goes to the man who organises it all depending upon whether one is working on their own project or mending a book belonging to the Lit Phil library. When I finished my beginner's project, making two small

notebooks, I'd intended to move onto the Lit Phil books and save myself £8 per visit, but Bill

produced a stack of elderly, ragged books from our shelves and so I thought I'd try mending my Grandma's cookbook.

Derek asked if I minded being thrown in the deep end, and since I've found it all reasonably do-able thus far, I said 'Not at all'. So he set me to work with a needle and a discarded end paper selected to match my paper as closely as possible with respect to colour, texture and grain. My task

was to carefully trace the ragged edge, scoring the paper that was to form the new edge of the crumbled page. I then pulled this scored edge apart and lined it up with said page. Then I tore a piece of lens paper to create a ragged edge and laid this over the join (in some places, a gap, due to my limited skill) between the old and new edges. I brushed paste over the paper and left it to dry. I'll find out what happens next tomorrow! As you can see, Derek is also frugally minded, using old transformers as weights, and we save lots of scraps for later use.

My beginner's books aren't perfect, but I'm pleased with them.

You can see the difference between a machine stamped label and one stamped using individual letters, like little branding irons.

Mind, the total cost of attending the class so far means that these booklets cost £81 each. I wouldn't necessarily have paid anyone to save Grandma's cookbook, but I'll factor that into the sum when it's done. I'm just hoping I get some Christmas presents out of this class!

How do you decide whether a hobby is worth the expense?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The French and Their Food - Part I

This is another post about a programme we watched a few weeks ago on BBC's iPlayer. It’s been a few weeks since I drafted this and I didn’t think to note the name of the programme, but never mind. I will long remember the content and, if I write this up at all well, perhaps so will you. Mind, some of it is a bit gory, so be warned!

So, what is it about the French and their food? Apparently it all began with Louis the 14th (1638-1715), the Sun King, whom the programme quoted as having said ‘I AM The State’ (Wikipedia says this is historically inaccurate). He is also the builder of Versailles, not exactly a humble undertaking. The size of this man’s ego is difficult to actually comprehend.

Apparently he formed the habit of eating dinner, a vast number of courses all exquisitely prepared, in front of his court where they could all watch him eat with wonder and awe. Image was all, in his book. This took him from night into the wee hours of the next day to do. It was all about ‘Look at me. Look how well I eat.’ This BBC programme said that this was when and where the benchmark was first set, requiring that French food be fit for a king.

Of course there was a steep divide between the royalty and the peasants. The latter lived on watery vegetable soup with, on a good day, a lump of pig fat; in hard times they ate rats. In fact, there was a premium paid for brewery rats; after all, they ate grain, more desirable than your average sewer rat. I know someone who has eaten guinea pig, but never met anyone who admitted to consuming rat; how far a jump would that be?

Fast forward to Louis the 16th (1754-1793) and his wife Marie Antoinette. She didn’t actually say ‘Let them eat cake’. It was brioche she was suggesting (sort of a sugary bread) and it was a practical idea in that it takes less flour to make brioche than bread. However, in the heat of a revolution no one wanted to give her any credit and ‘Let them eat cake’ was held as the perfect example of how stupid the upper classes were and how heartless about the conditions of the poor.

They were to a large extent a heartless lot, mind. There was a tale of Louis XIV's chef, Francois Vatel, who had made his reputation feeding the Sun King these amazing meals. Louis decided to have a banquet for ‘2000 of his nearest and dearest friends’ as it were. It was to be on a Friday, when there had to be fish; even the aristocracy had to bow to the church. The fish had to come some long distance from the sea and if the weather were bad it might not arrive. The chef, thinking it hadn’t and his reputation was in tatters not to mention that his boss would be upset, committed suicide, slicing his femoral artery with a kitchen knife. Ironically, the fish did arrive very shortly thereafter. The guests had their feast and comments all around were how delicious it was, shame about the chef, but you know those artistic types… You can read a bit more about the Chef Vatel here.

Under Napoleon III (1808-1873), France lived very well. Then came the German invasion. During the 1870 Seige of Paris, starvation was again a very real problem. Except for at one particular restaurant, Voison, on the rue Saint Honore, where there was a zoo involved.

I read a historical novel once (Burning Paris, by Nicholas Blincoe) that included this business, so it was the second time I'd come across the story. Monkey brains, elephant soup and kangaroo were all on the menu. (Well, some people eat kangaroo today, don’t they?)

According to the programme, there was a story which circulated of a woman whose two children had died of starvation and she was soon to follow, so she cooked them and ate for a few weeks. She was discovered and carted off to prison but the neighbours moved in and made soup from the bones. I don’t know if the story is true, but perhaps it is possible. (Though I read recently that the Donner party probably didn’t actually resort to cannibalism after all).

My point is, most of us have no idea about real hunger. I’m pretty certain in saying that about people who sit at computers in their homes. To have that recurring problem of starvation in one’s history it’s no wonder that a nation could become obsessed with food.