Our Dog the Drama Queen

Did you ever have a dog that feigned disability? We did. When growing up in India we had a cocker spaniel named Tuffy (because, my sister said, he was all black except for a white “tuff” at his throat.)

Distemper shot. When a puppy, my doctor-Dad ordered distemper vaccine from the USA and administered it to him. Something was wrong with the potion, causing Tuffy’s front legs to collapse in spasms, into his food, on the floor, attempting stairs, everywhere.

Trip to the Vet. We took him to a vet who said he’d like to keep him. The dog stayed a week, and was returned, reeking of cod liver oil, emaciated, but so so happy to see us. (Mother had paid for him to be fed, but the vet denied any knowledge of this payment). It was time, the vet said, to put him down. This was at the beginning of our summer break, and Mother decided we’d do so, if Tuffy hadn’t improved by the time we went back to school. Then Mother got to work. Every day she bathed him in warm water, and massaged his front leg muscles. Every day he got stronger. But the spasms persisted.

Learning to walk.  Meanwhile Tuffy was learning to co-ordinate his walking with the jerks, even, sometimes seeming to dance to music. That summer we took him on long walks (one a journey of 18 miles). Though tired, he was still happy, getting stronger every day.

Performance Time.  That’s when the drama began. He loved an audience, and when the room was full of guests, no matter how serious the meeting was, he’d go into his routine. The strength of the spasms would “escalate”, making him collapse to the floor at each jerk. He would seek out the most gullible person (usually a her). “How can you allow him to go on living?” she’d remonstrate. “Can’t you see what a state he’s in???” To these noises he’d completely “lose it”, crash at her feet, and roll sorrowing eyes in her direction. Whimpering mournfully he would accept stroking and talking to, while the human would shoot angry arrow-darts at my mother or one of us kids. None of our protestations could change anyone’s attitude; we were heartless cruel beasts who didn’t deserve a pet. As the guests were leaving, he’d “struggle and collapse” a few times more for dramatic effect. After they’d gone, he’d be back to his usual bouncy self, innocent as ever.

Cow Chasing.  As far as building community, Tuffy’s main job was to chase the cows from the garden. India, being a predominantly Hindu nation, believed that cows were sacred, and they were allowed to roam wherever they wished. Our (Hindu) gardener would whump them with a log to get them to leave whenever he saw them, but this was usually after Tuffy had alerted the nation with his “cow alert” bark, and the said Moo would gallup down the road. Our gardener explained that it was all right to beat them, just not kill them.

Now before you start feeling sorry for the bovine beauty, let me explain that they are indiscriminate eaters. They eat all the flowers in your garden, except marigolds.  A cow also had a good go at my mother’s night gown that was drying on the bushes, the only one she had for our six year stay in India. A friend offered her another which she kept until furlough.

India vs  Britain.  Caring for a dog in India – walks without leashes, free-roaming over the whole compound, and sometimes visiting our cook’s house – was a totally different existence to Doggy Britain. Dogs here have a much more important role in building community. They go out on walks, and wait patiently, patiently, as owners talk and talk and talk to those they meet, sometimes sighing meaningfully as they slump into lying- down position as conversation continues. But their role is important. Timid passersby who are people- shy, are free to talk to the dog. Those who are pet-less build up a relationship with others’ dogs, thus fulfilling the need of all human beings to connect with the animal world.

April is Pet Month, and I just want to honour the love and affection, between humans and their dogs. Four or five friends have recently lost their pets, and are still in grief. Others easily recall warm memories of past pets and their close bonding, friendship. Our neighbours lost their old dog – one who actually belonged to the whole street, because he was so gentle and loving that everyone felt he was theirs and always stopped to greet him. We drank a toast to Bryn that night to say farewell to a true member of our community.

Tuffy loved cookies.

 

Lemon Squares

or bars, or triangles or..

Combine 1 cup (125 gms, 4 ½ ounces) plain flour, ½ cup (115 grms, 4 ozs) butter or margarine, ¼ cup (30 gms, 1 oz) icing sugar until mixed thoroughly. Press the mixture evenly, with wet hands, into an 8” x 8” square pan, or anything around 64 square inches (420 square cms). Bake in a moderate oven for 20 minutes.

 

 

Meanwhile, beat 1 cup (180 gms, 6 ozs) granulated sugar, 2 eggs, ½ teaspoon baking powder, ¼ teaspoon salt, and the zest and the juice of 1 lemon. Pour over the baked crust and bake 20 – 25 minutes more. (I think mine was a bit overdone.)

Cool completely before cutting into desired sizes. I turned them over, and cut from the crust, with a pizza cutter.

 

            

 Mine looked like this.         But the book looked like this.  The taste is delicious

Cookies that Travel

In these days of lockdown when someone is far away but close to our heart, praise be for Her Majesty’s Postal system, working brilliantly as usual.

Bar cookies, drop cookies, and fruit cookies travel well. Brownies, of course are solid and immovable. Wrap paired cookies back-to-back in cling wrap. Fillers — shredded clean paper, Cheerios or unbuttered unsalted pop corn — should be placed at bottom of a lined box, and between layers and on top. The box should be so full that nothing jiggles when you close the lid and shake it gently. Write PERISHABLE AND FRAGILE on the outside of the package. Address according to the rules of your country’s postal service. .

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Nowruz!

Nowruz!

The Amazing Zoroastrians

Oh dear. We missed it –Persian New Year. Why, you ask, is that important to our culture here whose immediate worry is how to find hand gel, toilet paper, and tinned tomatoes in empty-shelved grocery shops, where every bit of community comfort is denied to us because we can’t hug?

WELL, centuries ago, the great astronomers, the Zoroastrians, decided that the Vernal Equinox would be the first day of the new year. Their expertise had no trouble calculating the exact day that Spring arrived. (After all, they later found their way to a Baby in Bethlehem 1028.22 miles away.) New world, new year, and new light. How logical is that — to celebrate when the world is new, rather than cold, dark drizzly January 1st when we are still glutted with pudding, and struggling to find meaning in all of Christmas’ 12 days?

What happens in Nowruz?

Now Ruz (New Day) in Iran is an ancient tradition kept by everyone, irrespective of any, or no belief. This is the time to celebrate Earth’s new light. And what a performance Earth puts on! Brilliant blue sky, soaring acrobatic pigeons showing off in aerial flight, clapping their wings as they do so; the soft beige hills around Tehran rich with wild tulips and grape hyacinths. Glorious!

Iran in the 70s

As the years pass, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that John and I had the privilege of being in Iran in the early 70s, and for four years to meet the Persian community. We got to see how the people themselves celebrated – thirteen days of holiday time. New clothes. Delicious food. Walks in the cool spring air, greeting each other. Picnics. Family get-togethers. Feasting and dancing. Leaping over bonfires. The traditional New Year table decorated with seven items beginning with the Farsi letter S, each with a significance for health, positivity, spirituality, or wealth. The air scented with roasting pistachios and almonds. Rumbly wooden carts trundling through streets selling corn on the cob, steamed beetroot and much more. Wonderful!

Tradition has it, they said, that a giant bull holds up the Earth on the tip of one horn. At the exact moment of the New Year, it shifts Earth to the other horn. We had a friend – a Ph.D in Physics – whose grandmother believed that she could feel the moment of that shift. (Who could say she didn’t?)

How lucky we were to have been there and witnessed it all! How rich our lives still, with the memories, and the deep friendships that endure today!

Nowruz now

This year, we’re not the only ones who missed New Year celebrations. Many in Iran did, too:

  • The hundreds who died at the funeral of a murdered trusted leader.
  • Those who died in the demonstrations against the present regime.
  • Those who are dying daily of COVID-19 (2900 at time of writing), and their grieving loved ones.
  • Those who live in a regime that suppresses their Zoroastrian DNA for singing and dancing and celebration because it smacks of Western imperialism (WHAAAAAH???).

So why should we celebrate Persian New Year, a day of new light and new beginnings? Why not? 300 million people around the world celebrate it too. Next year let’s join them. On behalf of those who can’t.

Happy Nowruz everyone.

Havij Pollo (Carrots and Rice)

Here’s a surprisingly delicious rice dish from Persia, dear friends. Ingredients are easy to find – I hope.  Unlike Persian stews, this does NOT improve with ageing. It’s best to consume it on the day of preparation. Can be adjusted for Vegans.

Cook 1½ teacups long grain rice according to instructions until al dente. Set aside. Coarsely grate 1 lb (500 gms, 3 ½ cups) of peeled carrots. If you find this boring, use the time to phone another self-sequestered soul and have a chat with the phone in your neck.

Peel and chop one onion. Heat 1 ½ tablespoons butter or oil or coconut oil in a heavy bottomed pan with lid, and fry the onion gently without browning. Add grated carrots and fry them – also gently and covered – for 10 – 12 minutes until soft. Stir once or twice during cooking. If sticking is threatened, add a bit more butter or oil. Remove lid, add 2 tablespoons sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon tomato paste (see note). Stir occasionally to remove some of the moisture.

 

 

Now, (and this is almost sacrilegious in Persian cooking) in a microwaveable casserole dish with lid, alternate layers of rice and carrots to the top.

 

 

Put sheets of paper towels on the casserole, then the lid. Microwave for 5 – 7 minutes until steaming hot. Serve quickly. [If you are Persian you would melt loads of butter in a pan before layering, add layers as above, put on a low heat for about an hour, then stand the pan on a tea towel soaked with cold water. After about 5 minutes turn the whole thing upside down and out will come a beautiful rice cake with a tasty crusty top. So they say. To date, mine don’t work.]

SERVE. With the protein of your choice. Persians would either make meatballs with ground lamb, or serve it with a roast joint of lamb. We had some cooked chicken and steamed it within the layers of rice and carrots.

Note: In all my Persian cookbooks, I have never seen the addition of tomato paste, but a Persian friend who was visiting us once insisted on it. I’ve done it ever since, and really enjoy the flavour.

 

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An Age-free Community

A strange meeting 

Although there was no one in sight in this vast empty 360- degree landscape, the footsteps were spookily audible. The air was clear, scented with wild herbs, a breath-taking change from Tehran’s pollution below. And silent! Blissfully so. Up to now. I continued my puff up this exquisite 4000 metre mountain. At last the footsteps attached themselves to a person, a tribal girl all alone, beautiful, big eyed, graceful, healthy. She caught up, said nothing, but slowed her easy pace to match mine, walking beside me in companionable silence, on this, her familiar territory.    She was easy with the silence. I was less so. Trying to get into conversation, I asked how old she was (I was still struggling with this new-to-me Farsi language.) “Mother, I do not know,” she answered. I stopped, dumfounded.   I’d never been called “mother” before, having not had children yet, and that was a shock. But even more astounding was the concept that a whole people could live, run, and manage life without knowing their ages.

What, no age limits?

Imagine that, if you can! No over 50s lunches, no school years by age, no forced retirement age, no one saying your child should walk at 18 months, no one complaining that there isn’t anyone “my age” to talk to, no one saying how “marvellous” you are because you’re taking a university degree at 80, no one announcing loudly that they’re too old to learn computers, no one to force boys to take exams at the same time as girls even though decades of psychologists say that teen boys and girls are emotionally two years apart (see? I can’t help it – I just used an ageist model!)

Age restrictions 

I’ve been trying to figure out why ageism is so jarring, so irritating to me. I think it’s because it makes us look at people through a frame called Date of Birth, with expectations  of what that DOB implies as to how someone thinks, believes, cares, and is interested in.   This added assumption distorts identity, doesn’t allow us to meet the real person, and in some cases, dismisses them entirely as a non person. I even heard of a ghastly situation where a committee, shortlisting candidates, started with the year they were born!

Age dominates

That lovely girl on the mountain makes me realise how age dominates everything we do, strait-jacketing our identity, who we think we are, how we look at ourselves, and how others see us.  Is it so embedded that we are evermore manacled to anno domini?

A way out!

No.

Slithering in and out of our age-restrained society, tough as grass growing through cement, is a beautiful, colourful, thread woven into our lives. If we look for it and follow its pattern there are emancipating, joy-giving age-free experiences, where the number of years has  no significance at all.

It can sneak silently almost unrecognized, into life in tiny  ways: individuals who share recipes, gardening tips, knitting patterns, household hints, computer help, tidbits that lighten living.

Or it can burst forth jubilantly when groups gather together despite age: aero-modellers, steam train enthusiasts, Extinction Rebellion, amateur jazz musicians, local drama clubs, ramblers: people with a common goal, with a focus on sharing their experiences, facing success and failure together. And just this week I’ve heard of a glorious ukulele group aged 7 to 70+ who strum, blunder, and succeed with hilarity and friendship. How wonderful!

The Secret!

So, what is the secret of this disappearing age lock? What’s the motivation that draws folk who hardly know each other into one? Answer: they are doing what the soul needs most, what the human being is hard-wired for: they are learning. And they’re doing it together.

 

 

Sheila’s Rice Crispy Crunchies

I made this for one of the most age-free groups I’ve encountered: Messy Church. It started as a “proper” church service for families – exuberantly messy with paints and paper and whoop-di-doo based on the scripture for the week. It ends with a meal. I say that it started as a family service, but everyone has such a wildly good time that all ages come along anyway, sit at the art tables and try their hand at illustrating the passage of the day, usually laughing at the results.

These crunchies are amazingly simple, because you’re not making anything, just building on others’ hard work.

Melt 4 ozs (110 gms, ½ cup) butter, 4 ozs (110 gms) good quality toffee, and 4 ozs (110 gms) marshmallows together until deliciously gooey. Then add as many cups of crispy rice cereal, as it would take to ensure all are covered with caramel sauce.

 

 

Spread in a heavily buttered roasting pan, or one with parchment paper, until evenly distributed.  A smaller pan will make thicker pieces (duh!). Cool until set. Slice into desired-size squares. Children like these, and adults remember again that they like them.

 

[Our friend Sheila made these when she and her husband took part in rehearsing and performing the York Mystery Plays. Now, there was an age-free group!].

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All of our operators are busy

All of our operators are busy right now….

(A telephone conversation I wish I could have.)

Hello automated voice? I….yes I KNOW I’m 20th in line, you told me that 12 seconds ago.

And I’ve heard about your website address. You told me that too, but you see, I am on the phone right now. If I am on the phone, there must be a reason why I don’t want to use your website, isn’t there?   It’s obvious that you secretly want me to hang up, that you think of me as a nuisance call, but let me explain. I….

Oh? 19th in line so soon? And I’m cheered to hear that you’re sorry to keep me waiting. One time is enough, not five times a minute.

As I was saying, I don’t want to use the website. I want to talk to a person. We human beings are hard-wired for connection, and these days we are constantly becoming more dis-connected. More disconnection means more addiction, more unhappi…..

I’m 16th in line already? Probably numbers 17 and 18 hung up in  frustration. We – to you – are nuisance calls, aren’t we? Otherwise why do you constantly tell me to go to the website?

I’ll tell you why I don’t.   Because a website is unhuman. And we are losing the interpersonal element in all our people- connections . Our interactions are being obliterated by technology. We need each other in order to be healthy……

Oh? 15th in the queue? There’s hope for me yet.

We’re losing our links with each other.   We are less able to read body language. It’s all right to lie. It’s all right to be unreliable –promising to show up for work or an event, and not appearing. We’ve lost the art of communication.   It used to be called politeness, but that’s just the outward evidence of a shared, deep-seated cultural understanding.

12th now, am I? And you’ve already told me about your call-back system – yet another way to get me off the phone, isn’t it? And you’ll phone me back by 7 pm today? Wonderful. It’s 11.05 am now. So what do you think we callers do…sit around eating bonbons and buffing our nails while waiting 8 hours for your return call?

Communicating is part of being human, why we talk about the weather when we meet. It has nothing to do with temperature or precipitation. It is how stranger opens up to stranger, on safe, non-threatening ground.

9th in queue? Yay – down to single figures!

Frequently asked questions? Oooh yes, I know, because you tell me so often. It’s another directive for me to hang up. I know those FAQs.   I’ve spent hours scanning through them in the past. They must be invented by your marketing department. I mean, really, how many throngs of people want to know how they can donate? No, I’ve never found the answer to my question on any FAQ. And I’m not that unusual. I  just want to speak with a human, that’s all. Make contact.

[ 37 minutes and 8 seconds later — yes really]

A human voice: “Hello, how can I help?

Me, cheerily: “Hello I’d like to change my address please.”

HV: “Sorry, we do not accept address changes over the phone. You need to go to double-you double-you double-you dot…..

Me: “Yes I know your website address. Thank you. Goodby.”

So much for human interaction.

Nutty Cereal Mixings

At last I found a recipe that you can eat with one hand, if you too find yourself waiting on the phone. It’s weird, and many Brits are uncertain whether to pitch in and try it, but I love it. Just making if for you will add pounds to my hips. It is wildly adapted from the sexist Betty Crocker’s Hostess Cookbook, a book so old that I’ve lost the title page so can’t tell you when it was published. I know I’ve been married for 50+ years, and it’s older than that.

Mix together: 1 cup plain Shreddies (little cereal squares, see picture), 1 cup Cheerios, 2 cups small cheese crackers, 2 cups sesame sticks or (if you can find them) small pretzel sticks, ½ lb (500 gms ish) mixed nuts or roasted unsalted peanuts, or the combination of your choice. Spread in roasting pans.

Then, melt 4 tablespoons butter or oil with 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, ½ tsp garlic salt, ½ tsp celery salt, and 2 teaspoons cumin seed. Pour over the crunchies as evenly as possible. Give them a stir.

Place in a very low oven for 30 minutes, stirring halfway through.   Cool in the pans. Store in air-tight container [I found that round tins are better than plastic].

Alternative addition: chilli powder to taste.

 

 

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Greeting Cards

Receiving  

“Faithful friends that are dear to us, gather near to us once more…” goes the cheesy Christmas song we crooned last night at the winter sing-along.  I love receiving cards and letters and news and emails, and telephone calls. I love getting them all.  I put cards up all over the house, sorted by colour, or theme, or some other random criterion that brings together my friends from all over the world into one wonderful, crazily crashing togetherness – people who have no connection with each other are suddenly cheek-to-cheek on a kitchen wall and that makes me smile with pleasure every time I pass them. It’s part of my Christmas delight.

 

 

I am still — on the seventh day of Christmas — writing cards.  My “lateness”  is not late at all. I live by the maxim that Christmas preparation can’t start until after Thanksgiving, and every day from December 24th evening until January 5th evening should be celebrated. Yes, it’s exhausting, but someone has to do it. There’s a difference between Advent (the time of preparation) and Christmas time itself.

Writing

I love writing cards by hand, feeling, just for that moment, that there is no one else in the universe but him/her and me. A special kind of community that transcends miles.    This year I’ve been especially inspired by  friend Justine who reminded me how important is the hand written message. It’s personal, directed just to one friend, cannot be hacked, can be written on lovely paper with thought and care and soon it becomes a special gift.

Sending

She’s right, you know. Her comments made me even more appreciative of our 35000-steps-a-day post person and friend, who manages to deliver mail even when our village is marooned with flooding, who respects our contact details and doesn’t accidentally broadcast personal data to the world electronically (it happened recently ),  who naturally knows where to leave post if we’re away, and is linked to thousands of other post people, all of them real human beings, who can transport my letters from here, a local shop with five feet of counter space that acts as a post office, or

here, a brick wall on a lonely road,

and even here – a box embedded in the wall of a Victorian  pub – all the way to my sister-in-law in Mississippi, or my friend in Dorrigo Australia. Now that’s pretty wonderful.  Are YOU a letter writer, too?

Let’s keep the postal systems alive.

Postbox photos gratefully taken by Ru Holden.  Thanks, Ru!  

 

Mixed Vegetable Thoran

If you’re still eating your way through humdrum leftovers, here’s a bit of Vegan crunch to perk up a menu, shamelessly adapted from The Hairy Bikers’ Great Curries (a book I value more and more). My photo doesn’t do justice to the dish. It’s really a soft golden colour. The taste reminds me of happy days learning and teaching in India, but I think it’s worth a go, even if you don’t have an India connection. Spicy? Well, that depends how much dried chilli flake you put in.

Put 3 tablespoons of dessicated (dried) coconut in a small boil. Resuscitate with 2 tablespoons water, and leave to soak. Chop ½ a savoy cabbage (curly) and a handful of kale. Grate 2 peeled carrots, slice one peeled onion finely. Heat 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a large frying pan. Add 1 tsp mustard seeds (black ones if you have them) ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, and 8 dried curry leaves (optional). Stir fry until the seeds begin to pop, then add the vegetables, dried chilli flakes (a pinch to ½ tsp) ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon turmeric. Stir fry until vegetables are tender, but maintain some crunch. Serve hot.

Note: I think I would have added a bit more turmeric.

Great News from October’s blog,  “The Kindness of Strangers”. A reader had just returned from an exhibition of art work inspired by kindness stories recounted to the artists. More exhibitions are planned for 2020. Check out www.museumofkindness.org.   And thanks to all of you who share news of the blog with others, or with me. Hooray!

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Fish!

Welcome to our new house.

When we bought our house I had no idea that its existing inhabitants would be so much trouble and cost so much.

“And here is the pond,” said Steve, the then owner. “We thought at first that we would get rid of the fish and fill it in. But then, sitting here on a summer’s evening with our gin and tonics, listening to the waterfall and watching them slide around the pond was wonderfully soothing.”

The truth dawns!

It sounded idyllic. We bought the house with the pond and followed their feeding advice for a few months. Then came the Truth. Pond water became greener and murkier until we saw no fish at all. Internet research revealed a nearby water garden willing to clean ponds. So, Dave breezed in, declared the plants too big, the water too dirty and made unkind remarks about the “scent” in the filter. He sent us an eye-watering estimate (ker-CHING!) and after deep thought we decided to go ahead.

Biting the bullet

A deposit was necessary — (ker-CHING! again) – and a date was made for them to visit when my Indiana sister Vicki and husband Jim were here, so that it could be part of the entertainment of their stay. We know how to give our visitors a good time!

The day itself

Along came Martin, Pond Man, and Kirsty, Helper and Electrician in a normal sized van. Like Mary Poppins’ satchel, he pulled out more from that van than it could possible have held, but did. First came the holding tank he filled it with our dirty pond water. More equipment followed, then he and Kirsty pulled on boots that went up to their armpits.

HOW MANY ?????

Then – and here we saw his talent for dealing with fish – he netted and gently laid each one into the tank. I stood beside, counting the numbers as fast as I could. 47 in all.

Mirror carp with leaves

When Martin brought out a fifteen-inch mirror carp, much distressed, he held it until it calmed down as he said, “steady boy, steady”, and the fish, soothed, settled down at once. “ I don’t know how to tell males from females so I call them all ‘boy’” he said. “Fish can live two hours out of water as long as they are kept wet. “

Fish Sludge (don’t try to say that quickly)

THEN came the sludge at the pond bottom. Kirsty carried multitudinous buckets of it, pouring it underneath the trees and bushes of our garden. “The plants love it” she said.

Non-human audience

Among the people watchers we were privileged to have a little robin who would not be intimidated by human beings klunking about, and looked for bugs as the water was drained.

 

We also discovered a frog. It didn’t matter how far into the garden Kirsty deposited it, it found its way back immediately. I bet if you blindfolded it, turned it around three times, it would still be at the pond edge in seconds.

I think we’ll call him Kaiser Bill

A job well done — no fish died.

Soon all was clean and new, the water treated with something from a bottle (ker-CHING!) Kirsty then took over, fitting a new filter and UV light (ker-CHING!)  ker-CHING!) the holes in the pond liner patched by Martin (another ker-CHING!) and all was well.

Uh-oh now what?

Now we could see our beautiful fish very clearly. The only thing is, so could a heron, known to clear a pond of fish in one visit. Me: “I’ll buy a plastic heron to scare them away,” Martin: “Oh no, don’t do that. Another heron will see it, come down to mate with it, and eat the fish. ”

Will it ever end?

I smugly announced that I already had enough fish food to get them through to next year, but I was wrong. When we later brought the water sample to the shop, Dave said, “Winter food – you give them wheat germ and garlic” (yes really) “and we just happened to have a supply for only £11.80” (ker-CHING!). “Oh”, he added, “and here’s the bill for the remaining payment for pond cleaning.” (ker-CHING!)

We turned to leave quickly, but Dave called after us: “And soon you must buy some plants for cover (ker-CHING! yet again).

Expensive G&T

Sigh. Well, at least a waterlily will make the frog happy. But that summertime gin and tonic is rapidly fading into the distance.

Photographs kindly supplied by Indiana sister Vicki Harris and gratefully received!

 My Fidget Pie

Imagine that you’re in an airplane flying above the clouds. All is fluffy and indistinguishable. Suddenly the clouds break and you see beloved Terra Firma below. That’s what this pie is all about.  The break in this ridiculouly fluffy pastry reveals vegetables, ham and apples in a cider sauce.  Sometimes called Huntingdon Fidget, sometimes Shropshire Fidget, but my adaptations will make it unrecognizable by citizens of either county. It was one of the menus – along with Turkish meatballs – I was going to make for my sister, but she didn’t stay long enough to eat everything I wanted her to.

Amounts differ depending on the pie dish you are using. Be sure it has a substantial rim.

Peel and chop one onion, one carrot, one stalk of celery (use potato peeler to shave off the annoying strings along the back before chopping). Saute gently in butter with a dash of oil. Add two small potatoes peeled and diced once these vegetables are tender. Cook until the potatoes are almost tender. Add 2 cups cubed fully cooked good quality ham. Slowly mix ½ cup dry cider with 2 tablespoons flour in a cup, ensuring there are no lumps, then add it to the ingredients in the frying pan. Stir until thickened. Set aside.

Place 3 peeled cored and diced apples in the bottom of the pie pan. Add the contents of the frying pan and mix well.

Roll out one packet puff pastry until it will generously cover the top of your pie. Then take strips of pie dough and place it in a continuous circle pressed to the rim. Wet the rim with water. Now carefully lay the pie crust on top, and gently press the top into the wet strips around the pan. Cut a big X in the middle of the pie, and fold back the triangles this makes. Brush throroughly with a beaten egg..

Bake in a moderate oven (around 375 degrees) for 55 minutes until gloriously brown and bubbly. To serve: cut a wedge through the crust, and remove. Then spoon out the contents underneath and place the crust on top.

Vegetarian option: Omit ham and add soaked sliced  and sauteed dried porcini mushrooms,

 

 

 

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The Kindness of Strangers…..

And how a Saboteur saved my Husband’s life

 

We’ve just come back from a month’s holiday zig-zagging across America to see as many of my relatives as possible, and it was a time wrapped in beauty, new vision and a lot of love. Throughout all the travelling and flight changes and bewildered wandering through airports, we had a great deal of help from strangers – giving directions, carrying our too-heavy luggage, offering places to sit, and just being great people We never knew their names and we will probably never see them again, but they sweetened our journey considerably.

We also heard much of the work of common citizens doing their best to help the dis-possessed, endangering their own reputations to bring support to those in trouble. We heard of those leaving water and food in No Man’s Land in the South, the conductor standing up for the innocent Hispanic-looking couple whisked off the train and arrested near the Canadian border in the North, the actor offering workshops to raise money for those needing legal aid in the West, the singer performing self-composed songs of welcome to any newcomers who might feel rejected. . These stories encouraged me to understand that there is still a conscience for good, for justice, and liberty for all in a troubled country.

May their courage be strengthened in this time of dangerous suppression.  The kindness of strangers.

And it reminded me again of a family story from World War II when my husband was a little baby, and an incendiary device landed on their house in Sheffield, Yorkshire. These were designed to drop quietly, and ignite at touchdown, bursting into a raging fire that could consume wooden buildings and others made of combustible material. Such devices were commonly used in Warsaw, Dresden, London, and other places, usually coupled with more explosive devices to kill rescuers and firefighters who came to the civilians’ aid.

But this device did not ignite. Some saboteur had emptied out the incendiary filling and taped the access points to turn it into an innocent tube with tail fins. John’s Dad used the end bit as a mold for lead fishing weights.

We will never know who those saboteurs were, and what happened to them.  November is the month of Remembrance. High on my list of thanks will be those people in World War II, who saved the family of the man I married years later. And special thanks, too, to all those whose acts of kindness still work for justice and hospitality today.

Pizza with Meat Crust

I’ve been thinking about carbs, and how some of you may want to entertain carb-free guests. Here’s a recipe that can be adapted for such an occasion. It originally came from a 1973 Gourmet magazine, but over the years (decades even!) I’ve twiddled and added to it. Sometimes it makes a lot of juice, which is delicious. I normally pour it on top of the pizza when serving it.

In a food processor combine 420 gms (1 lb) ground (minced) beef, turkey, chicken, or a combination, an egg – optional, and 4 – 5 tablespoons bread crumbs or ground almonds, a chopped onion, a garlic clove, 1 tsp salt, ¼ tsp pepper, and ½ teaspoon fennel seeds. Mix well, ensuring that all is finely ground and well- integrated. If mixture is stiff add a little stock of your choice or tomato juice.

This is your crust. Press the mixture into a 9 inch pie pan (I sometimes use a cast iron frying pan) to form a shell. Bake in a pre-heated moderate oven (375 degrees) for 15 minutes. If using fatty meat, pour off any fat that has accumulated.

Place in the shell fried sliced mushrooms, and/or drained cottage cheese, and sprinkle with dried basil, parsley, and oregano, and ½ teaspoon crushed dried red pepper. On top of the filling, spread drained chopped tomatoes. Layer sliced mozzarella cheese on top, and other cheeses of choice, then top with grated parmesan cheese.

Bake for 20 more minutes, and serve it in wedges.

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Doors — more humiliation

 

Doors –  and More Humiliation!

One thing about building a community is its individual welcome, and DOORS are part of that welcome.  I love the wreaths that my Indiana sister puts on her front door, that change according to the season, how attractive and friendly they are.  When I arrived in England as a bride I was very confused.  People had perfectly good front doors but they bunged them tightly with draft excluders and made everyone go around to the back.  This usually meant struggling through a car port and around to the kitchen door.  Strange, I thought, when the front door was easily accessible – and welcoming –both from inside and outside the home.

 

Some of the newer houses had no visible door at all, hidden behind a barrier wall which you had to slither around sideways for entrance. To me, they looked grim and foreboding.    I talked to my friend about this and he replied, “It’s a great idea!  You don’t have to stand in the rain waiting for someone to answer the door.”  Despite the new learning, and a consideration for visitors,  I still couldn’t/ didn’t want to live in a house that wasn’t opened widely to anyone who rang our doorbell.

I even saw a university building with no front door on the main street.  What kind of welcome was THAT to a nervously new student arriving for the first time?

 

But I had a lot to learn.  I still cringe with embarrassment over an incident that took place when we first moved to England.  A group of women invited me to join them for an afternoon concert at the Albert Hall (WOW! The great Albert Hall! Little ole ME in this fabulous place!  I am not worthy!).  Excited to be in the great city of London, I found my way through biting cold, wind and rain, a little late.  I looked up in awe.  There it was, in all its grandeur, round and stunning, with many glass doors at the top of steps, each door attended by a gorgeously impressively uniformed man.   NO WAY would my shabby clothes fit, in this marvelous iconic structure!  With a deep breath I mounted the steps.  As I neared the top, the attendant put his gloved hand on the door handle.  “Nope. He obviously doesn’t want me to go in that one,” I thought and circled the building looking for a door that would allow access.  Feeling even shabbier, I tried all of them around the building, and got the same response.   Why?  Perhaps they didn’t want the music interrupted.  Perhaps I wasn’t well-dressed enough.  Perhaps they didn’t allow latecomers to enter.  I didn’t know.

So I went home.  Back to my little village in Bedfordshire.  Had I not been so intimidated by grandeur and the history of the building, had I actually mounted the steps to the top, I would have discovered that an elegant attendant was actually waiting to OPEN it for me, not to keep me out.

 

Just an interesting and different way to cook meat

or fish, or chicken, or shrimp, or tofu, or mushrooms…….

When I got engaged, the school staff in India where I was teaching gave me a surprise shower, piled high with beautiful hand crafted gifts made locally,  I marveled at the skills of fabric, wood, and copper, and still have most of them today.  Each person also gave me a 3 x 5 card of one of their favourite dishes, all of which went into my treasured recipe box.

Here is a simple recipe from someone called “Carol” whose memory has unfortunately disappeared into time’s mist.  God bless Carol — her card is still in constant use, stained and yellowed with age, a permanent memorial to someone I now can’t place.  With joy and thanks I pass it on to all of you out there. May it open many doors to your own creativity.

Sauce

Fry  plenty of garlic and onions in a heavy pan with oil. When tender, add several tins of chopped tomatoes enough to cover the protein you will be adding later..  Pour in several tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, to taste, several tablespoons brown sugar , a couple of chopped peppers, and some cut up fruit: (tinned pineapple, peeled and chopped apple or pear).  Season well with salt, pepper, paprika, and an optional pinch of red pepper flakes.

If using cubed meat (pork, beef, chicken, spareribs) add to the sauce now.

Cook until the sauce is spicy and saucy.

If using fish, prawns, fried tofu, chunk vegetables, add after the sauce is thick and well cooked, so that your themed dish isn’t overdone.

We have served this with grated cheese, or crushed tortilla chips, or cream or yogurt.  Try out a few of your own favourites.  Goes well with baked potatoes or rice, quinoa, or noodles.

(Unnecessary additional note:)

I was unaware that during the party shower for me, one member sat in the background, writing each thing I said – the idea was that this would be what I would also say on my wedding night.  I had no idea that a bunch of tired overworked missionaries were capable of such eye-wiping, breath-gasping hilarity.

 

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Come for Coffee and Dessert

Fifty years of marriage!

This year we celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary and ooooh my! What I have learned living in Britain! How naïve and stupid I was when a bride! Having lived most of my life in countries where the language had to be learned from scratch, I thought being married to an Englishman was going to be a dawdle, because they spoke English, didn’t they? No. Not my understanding of the word. Husband’s grandmother understood me, because she watched Westerns, like Bonanza!. I was slower to understand her Yorkshire accent. I had thought that there were only two dialects in Great Britain – Cockney and BBC English. See what I mean – naïve as they come. I did ask someone once, “how come such a ditsy little country has so many accents?” The reply was, “the amazing thing is that we actually understand each other. At one time we were a whole lot of kingdoms warring against each other.”

Examples of comprehending the new/old language.

I learned

  • That an airing cupboard is the most airless place in the house.
  • That to boil a kettle meant the water in the kettle.
  • That to go for an Indian, or a Chinese was not to join a racist lynching mob, but to book for a rather delicious restaurant meal.
  • That Cheddar Cheese has a gorge named after it.
  • That you never ever, EVER, EVER break queue (standing in line.) In fact, you don’t exist on this earth, until it’s your turn.
  • That a scotch egg was not the product of some monstrous hen up north, or eggs poached in whiskey, but one wrapped in sausage meat before baking.
  • That an English swede is not the product of intermarriage, but a locally grown rutabaga or yellow turnip.
  • That Southampton is nowhere near Northampton, that Watford is miles from Watford Gap, that Bedford College was in London and Warwick University is not in Warwick, that Southgate is in the north of London, that there is a Norfolk and a Suffolk, and  there’s a Sussex but no Norsex, and that none of this needs to be explained to a foreigner.
  • That “not too shabby” means pretty good really, and that if a Bedfordshire person answers to “how are you?” with “not too bad” you know that he is in the peak of health and wealth.
  • That pavement is a sidewalk because long ago sidewalks were paved and the roads were not.

Still learning

And there is more to learn. My most recent discovery is that  John O’Gaunt came from Ghent in Belgium. However, I’m still not sure what the definition of “tea” is – a brew? Cake and sandwiches? A full meal? And when I ask, the answer is always, “aaaahhh” and a peer into the middle distance. Speaking of tea, there is something upper class about putting milk in after you’ve poured the tea, and working class if you put the milk in first — or is it the other way around?

Coffee and dessert…really?

People didn’t understand me, either. One time I asked friends around for Coffee and Dessert. This was common in the town where I taught in northern New York State. We’d invite people over for mini-celebrations – a birthday, election results, or to meet a friend from out of town. It didn’t cost much to put on such an event, and provided a chance to be together.

Oh dear. When I tried it in Bedfordshire, the response was uncomfortable, or curiously bewildering. One guest was irritated. “Surely you can find something for first course!” she said, inspecting the kitchen for signs of a hidden lasagna.

Trying again 

So it was with hesitancy that I tried it again, inviting our choir  for a mid-summer sing-along, with coffee and dessert. This time it worked beautifully. The members were delighted to re-meet during the choir’s summer’s hiatus. Not only did no one search for the meat course, but they brought desserts themselves. A jubilantly happy singing session followed (still in good voice! ) and a fabulous selection of tasty dishes to ooh and aah over. Wow! What an evening!

Hot Fudge Pudding

This is probably my oldest recipe still in constant use. When I was 13 and going to an international school in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, the Home Economics teacher asked us each to bring a box for recipe cards. This meant taking a 20 – 30 minute walk to the bazaar to ask the carpenter to make one. ;(There were no cars in these hills then – you either walked or were carried, and this included the grand piano in the auditorium.)  I still have my box. It has travelled all over the world with me. When I first got it, I used to cut out recipes from my American Girl magazine, and stick them on the cards. This is one of them.

Find yourself a cup that measures 8 fl ounces [250ml] Use this for all the volume measurements. Mix 1 cup plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¾ cup granulated sugar, and 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. Add ½ cup of milk, 2 tablespoons melted butter, and a cup of chopped pecans. Mix well. Spread in a well-greased 8” x 8” pan. Mix ¾ cup brown sugar with ¼ cup more cocoa. Sprinkle evenly on top of the raw batter.

Now here is the sloshy bit. It is best done as near to a preheated oven (350 or 180) as you can, preferably on the rack on which it will bake. Then pour 1 ¾ – 2 cups boiling water all over the batter, gently slide it into the oven and close the door. Bake for 40 – 45 minutes. The hot water seeps through the batter as it cooks, leaving a rich gooey chocolate sauce under a brownie-like top. Serve warm preferably with cream or ice cream. Note: the pictured pudding was made with gluten-free flour and didn’t contain nuts.

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God Bless the Red Cross

I wasn’t expecting his reaction and it hit me like a blow to the head.

During the Arab-Israeli war, we were hastened unceremoniously from Egypt, (where I’d been teaching at a mission school), onto a German freighter, one of the last vessels to leave the country with fleeing, or expelled foreigners. The ship had pulled away from the dock in Alexandria and took three days to get to Cyprus. Since it was a freighter, and we refugees were sleeping in the holds that usually stored their freight, the cuisine on board was sparse. In fact it was sandwiches three times a day. But it was that dark German bread that really tastes good. However, after sandwiches nine times in a row and nothing else, the charm began to wear off.

We didn’t do much talking during those three days, each of us wrapped in our own bereavements and fears as we stared at horizonless water. I had noticed that one man in shorts and a faded shirt had been escorted by police up the gang way and shoved brutally into the ship. He had no shoe laces, and only carried a small wooden box. It turned out that he was the only Englishman on board, and since he had been hitch-hiking around the country, was presumed to be a spy and was taken from prison and thrust onto this ship with us. He had absolutely nothing but this box. Out of politeness no one asked what was in it.

We arrived in Cyprus in the dark, ten or eleven o’clock. And there, waiting for us, without a word of English but with a huge casserole, was a team of Red Cross workers. Ohhhh that casserole! I cannot remember at all what was in it, but the warmth, the nourishment, the surprise enchanted us magnificently. With no common language we did our best to express heartfelt delight and thanks to these beautiful people.

The next stage was a plane to carry us over the Alps to Rome. It was a strange vehicle, because the seats were lined up on either side of the plane. At about two a.m. we all took a seat, two rows facing each other across the fusilage. From the back of the plane a Red Cross worker handed the edge of a blanket to the person beside her, who handed it to the person beside him who handed….you get the idea. It turned out that this blanket extended the whole length of the plane, one on each side. Once all was in place, the vehicle took off with “I-think-I-can” effort. It sounded like a John Deere tractor in the sky, that whooped and dropped and rose over the air currents from the mountainous terrain below. No one dared to be sick. When grey cold daylight filtered in through the windows, we thought we could hold on. At about 6 a.m. we landed in Rome. There, loving and caring, was the Red Cross, once again. Towels, soap, toothbrushes, breakfast with hot coffee and cognac were oohed and ahhhed over, they seemed like the most precious things anyone could give us. How did they know what exactly we would need to restore us? We once again gestured and bowed our thanks to these lovely people whom we could not understand.

Then back into the plane headed for Munich. Here, the Red Cross and the German press were waiting. As we staggered out, summer-clad, into the cold, rainy morning, sleep-starved, disheveled and bewildered, each of us was greeted with a hug and soothing incomprehensible words from the Red Cross workers. It was such a beautiful thing to do. To this day my heart is warm with their memory.

We refugees were soon sorted into nationalities. The Germans were in one group, getting Red Cross help, received by relatives, and telling their stories to the press.

An elegant stretch limousine with liveried chauffeur turned up at the docks to take the single Englishman away to his embassy.

We, the three Americans, had no one. Eventually, with a bit of difficulty (we had no money to pay for a call) the US Consulate was contacted. They then referred us to the US military. “We heard you were coming,” they said. Two hours later, maybe three, we were picked up and taken to accommodation at the military base. The freedom of fear was exhilarating. It is surprising how exhausting it is to live in constant terror. Americans! My own people! I was on home ground!

Only I wasn’t. The place was buzzing with military testosterone – each young soldier eager to “get out there” and shoot the Egyptians, people I loved and who had loved me, people whose beauty was embedded in their very ancient sophisticated culture. . The burly commanding officer wanted to interview us individually. After taking details, it was then that his response struck me like a blow. He threw down his pen and said, “You Gentiles should stay at home and MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!!!!!”

I was stunned into silence. I’d been so beautifully cared for all the way here by people with whom I couldn’t communicate, but who served and nourished me nevertheless. And ;now this sudden  unexpected attack.  This was the first – and only – time in my life that someone challenged my faith. I think of  the refugees today who at last make it to our shores, I wonder how they cope?

The recipe for this blog just has to be a casserole. This is probably the easiest and most favourite in our family, with happy taste memories that weave into our own traditions. It is unfortunately called

Shipwreck

“Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon,” says the Dalai Lama, and this dish is made for play.

Peel and slice vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onions, celery* peppers, and zucchini. Add them in layers to a buttered casserole dish, with tinned chopped tomatoes, and 400 gms (1 lb) minced (ground) beef. Somewhere in the middle of the dish add 2 – 4 tablespoons raw rice and continue layering. Season each with salt, pepper, paprika, oregano and/or tarragon (or both in alternate layers.) Add a half a cup of boiling water, seal well by placing foil between the dish and the lid.

Place in a low oven, 150C or 300 F and check it for juiciness after two hours. If drying out, add more boiling water or 1 cup of cream. Cook for 20 minutes more while you prepare buttered seasoned bread crumbs with parmesan cheese. Sprinkle on top. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes more, without lid, until bread crumbs are browned. Depending on the size and depth of your casserole dish, it may not take the full three hours to cook.

Whew! This took longer to write than it did to prepare!

*Note on celery. Our family enjoys it better if the stringy back is shaved off with a potato peeler.

 

Children’s Shipwreck. A mother writes that her  family (including three children) eat “every scrap of this”: Use a can of condensed tomato soup and boiling water instead of cream. Season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Vegetabless: onions, potatoes, uncooked rice, celery, carrots.

Vegetarian Shipwreck.  Don’t use the meat, of course. Start and end with slices of fresh tomatoes. An ancient Gourmet Magazine suggests lathering two tablespoons of melted butter on each layer, but I have found that a bit too rich….either that or I was heavy-handed with the butter.

Happy 5th Birthday to this blog!  Thanks to all you wonderful faithful readers!  Have a look at past posts.

Judy

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