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?