27 March, 2006

spring is coming

The race! It was the iconic I'm-a-mother-of-an-English-schoolchild experience. Remember those pictures, some 15 years ago, of Princess Diana running across a field participating in her sons' school Sports Day? Everyone's hair fluttering in the wind, school uniforms, laughing faces and the gray-blue London sky. That was it, on Friday. Of course King's College came in a handy fourth out of four in all events, but it's not all about winning, is it? Especially when you don't.

Such a perfect afternoon. The race was to be in Battersea Park, a place I was not awfully familiar with but had a feeling was too far to walk to. It turned out, after John did some research, that the Number 137 red double-decker bus went directly from our corner on Park Lane, straight to the Park. So I armed myself with my camera and hopped on. It's by far the best way to get around. You climb up to the top, sit yourself down in the front if you can, and watch London go by from the most perfect vantage point. We skirted Hyde Park, swung perilously around the Duke of Welllington Place, threaded our way along South Kensington, down Sloane Street (passing my doctor's office and the cute little pharmacy on the way!) and continued south to the Albert Bridge, a doll-like confection of white, red and blue paintwork. And there I was. I walked through the park, unable as usual to decipher the extremely clear park maps that would direct me to the bandstand, when I came upon a huge gaggle of small gulls in gray and red uniforms. Instantly I knew that if I followed them I would end up at the race. They were from Kensington Prep, and there were a LOT of them. And tall? Too tall. As I began to follow them, up pulled another coach and there was the King's College contingent. I met the formidable Mrs King the gamesmistress of whom Avery had painted such an intimidating picture. Naturally she's about 30, jolly and a lot of fun. She and Mrs Bickley, Avery's form teacher, and I walked along with the gulls and ended up on a huge football pitch, at the end of which were the Kensington Prep kids. Shortly after, the Garden House kids showed up in their chic standout uniforms of brightest royal blue, and after that the group from Eaton Square School, also seemingly twice as large as our children and twice in number, and with really cool uniforms as well. Our gulls in their simple navy sweats with little white polo shirts were a bit overshadowed.

At first the parents stood warily in each other's company, recognizing each other from dropoff and pickup but not wanting to appear that most un-English of all things: friendly to someone to whom you have not been properly introduced and spent about a year gazing at from afar before speaking. But gradually our shared indignation at the odds stacked against our little children drew us together, and we chatted in a desultory random way, each of us wondering silently if it was all right to take pictures, or if the other parents would think we were stalking their children. Pretty soon though we were all taking pictures, because the scene was impossibly cute. All of the gulls huddled in their school groups at first, talking in muted tones, looking at the other groups under their lashes. But pretty soon they were loosened up by the sheer gorgeousness of the day, the pent-up excitement of the coming race, and most of all the presence of a foreign object: BOYS! From Eaton Square, I think they were. Chasing each other around and muddying up their uniforms, hitting each other over the heads with their backpacks, it was like being back at PS 234. Mrs Bickley at my elbow said elliptically, "That I don't miss." But they were cute, for one afternoon.

All the children began to take the practice walk around the pitch, the Form Three little ones going 900 metres, the Fours 1100 metres, and the big strong Fives went 1500 metres, all of them swinging their arms and looking innocent and athletic. Garden House gulls handily won most of the top spots in each form, including Avery's, but the other two schools did not do badly. Avery's Form completely spent themselves running encouragingly after the Form Three racers who went before, so that by the time it was their turn to run their race, they were exhausted! Avery came in eighth out of perhaps 20, not bad, and by the end of the day she had calculated that the had come best out of the King's College representatives. As the prizes were announced, and the phrase "And in fourth place, King's College," was heard many times, Mrs Bickley said resignedly, "At least we're consistent." It turns out the other schools all have their own games pitches, whereas our children must walk to Regent's Park to run. Well, then.

But the big excitement of the day was when I spotted who I was sure was the Crown Prince of Greece! I know, it's pathetic to get so excited to see the heir to a non-existent throne, but he's a staple of Hello! magazine and I found it quite exciting. My suspicions were confirmed when he was joined by his gorgeous, impossibly chic wife, the former Marie-Chantal Miller of the New York Millers. Unbelievably she was dressed in white Chanel trousers and jacket, on a football pitch! Prince Pavlov towered above all the other fathers, at perhaps 6 feet 4, in perfectly tailored, very European clothes that set him apart from the rather scruffier English dads. For sure there was no other Chanel on the pitch. Mrs King and Mrs Bickley thought I should take a picture of them to sell to Hello!, but even my crass American manners told me I should leave them alone. I did get one picture of them leaving, because of course they arrived just in time for their daughter's race for Eaton Square, and left immediately after. Not for them the ride home with a sweet exhausted child on a red double-decker bus.

We all were "cheered off" as they say, with the first "hip hip HOORAY!" I have ever heard outside a Winnie the Pooh story. Home on the bus, where in Sloane Street, stuck in a traffic jam, I saw Roberto Cavalli! The hot and happening designer, who now calls Victoria Beckham his muse. Ick. He was coming out of his own store, carrying one of his own bags. Now, what could he possibly have bought?

This weekend was a real food fest in our house. I had got myself in the mood with spaghetti and meatballs on Wednesday evening, while Stephanie, Anna and Avery were playing. It's such a good, made-up recipe with cottage cheese and fresh thyme, and I usually use a mixture of ground lamb, pork and beef, but dopey Marks and Sparks had only beef "mince," and I was too ashamed to crawl over to Selfridges yet again, so I made do. Then a long-simmered simple tomato sauce with red wine, and you saute the meatballs in a skillet and then pour the sauce over them and let them jiggle for as long as they need, but at least half an hour to cook them through. Email me if you want the meatball recipe. Stephanie and Anna hung over the skillet asking to stay to dinner! Stephanie's dad came to pick her up and we were treated to a hilarious dance recital.

Want a completely simple, cooks-itself soup idea? Roughly chop up lots of garlic, an onion, and 8 bell peppers, any color but green. Throw them in a large pot with olive oil and saute briefly. Add a good splash of brandy or madeira, and cover them all with chicken broth, then sprinkle on dried thyme, or fresh thyme leaves if you have them (not the stems, though). Simmer forever, at least an hour but as long as you like. Whizz with a hand-held blender (one of the most useful ktichen tools in my opinion, since you don't have to cool the soup as you would before putting it through a regular blender) and pour into another pot through a strainer to get the little pepper skin bits out. Add as much cream as you like and check the seasonings, then simmer till you want to eat it. Divine, and so extremely good for you with all those peppers.

Saturday we met up with Anna's family (minus too-cool Ashley) to go to the St. John and St. Elizabeth's Hospital charity Easter Egg Hunt, in St. John's Wood up north of the school. Importantly it had been billed as including a petting zoo, so Becky and I were flummoxed to arrive and find not only no eggs, but no animals. There was the weirdest system of egg-hunting: the volunteers randomly threw empty plastic eggs around on the lawn (admittedly strewn with just-bloomed crocuses, gorgeous purple and yellow), and then the children randomly picked them up and turned them in at a table piled high with boxes of the ubiquitous Cadbury's Cream Eggs. No real eggs! Nothing in the plastic ones! And no jelly beans, which means the real Easter Bunny had not been there. And screaming toddlers, everywhere. The sky clouded over and we were all freezing! The girls were good sports, though, and just as we were despairing of salvaging the afternoon, the creatures showed up. A big goat, a pygmy goat, several rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs, and a couple of ferrets.

As we walked down the St. John's Wood High Street after lunch, I had a longing for Thanksgiving dressing, so I turned into the Kent and Sons Butcher ("You turned into the butcher, Mommy? How disgusting," Avery would say, since she always loves it when Nancy Drew "turns into her driveway") and bought outrageously expensive pork and jalapeno sausages and chicken breasts for the main course. John was apoplectic at the cost, but I have to say that sausage was the best I have ever had, and it's such an important ingredient in the dressing that it made a real difference. It smelled good even raw! With fresh sage, the torn-out insides of Italian bread, plenty of garlic, mushrooms, celery, onions, chicken broth and cream, that is simply the most divine dressing, if a lot of trouble.

Yesterday was the spring time change, so in order to get to the Marylebone Farmer's Market before everything was sold, I was awakened at an unconsolingly early hour. Turned out it wasn't necessary, as the market didn't even open until 10, yippee for next weekend! We ran into my friend Diana who with her usual savoir-faire, told us which was the best of everything. "You have never tasted a carrot until you buy some from this greengrocer," she assured me, which might matter if we ate carrots in any way except drenched in butter and brown sugar and sauteed until every ounce of nutrition has been replaced with fat. Sorry, but there it is. I learned that recipe from my darling Jeanne Grieger in Orange, New Jersey, and I will never look back. Avery acquired a tiny hyacinth plant and an even tinier something else lavender to raise on her bedroom windowsill. She and John quickly tired of the market, as normal people will do after a certain period of time, so they ran off the find a barber for John and I stayed and puttered around.

I bought a gorgeous leg of lamb, planning to give Avery leftover chicken as she objects to lamb on cuteness principles. Listen to the butcher's address: "Layer Marney Lamb, Poultry and Game, Thorrington, Layer Marney, Colchester, Essex." Whew! I bought several remarkable cheeses, and a just-pressed pat of butter from Simon Jones, the dairy man, and two lovely smoked herrings from Simon Long, the fishmonger. Gorgeous tomatoes from the Isle of Wight and some curious potatoes called Pink Fir Apples, only they're potatoes. Waxy and good for salad, the greengrocer said. I confess I bought them just for the fun of typing "Pink Fir Apples," but I imagine I can find something to do with them. As for the lamb, oh my. Even Avery was converted! I seared it all over in olive oil with salt and pepper on all surfaces as I turned it, in a heavy oven-proof pot, then put it in a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile I mixed a stick of butter with chopped garlic, a tablespoon each of Dijon mustard and soy sauce, and a tablespoon each of rosemary and fennel seeds, pounded in a plastic bag (not very successfully, a little spice grinder would have been better). Smeared half of this over the lamb, then turned the oven down to 350 for another 25-ish minutes (a 2 1/2 pound leg, bone-in). I let it sit for 10 minutes or so so all the juice wouldn't run out when I sliced it, and melted the rest of the herb butter. I am a horrible carver, so I know I don't get the best presentation, but with the fennel and herb butter poured over the juicy pink lamb and leftover dressing on the side, it was simply divine. Sauteed shredded brussells sprouts were my tiny gesture toward good health and austerity.

I've got our Scottish adventure planned! Avery and I shall take the Caledonian Sleeper train Thursday evening, leaving exotically at nearly midnight from Euston Station. We arrive first thing in the morning in Edinburgh, where we can get breakfast somewhere and explore, then then we head out to our hotel, the Castle Dalhousie just a few miles into the countryside. I dare you to go on the Castle's website and not be instantly determined to go with us! We'll stay until Monday afternoon and come home on the day train, so we can see the scenery go by. I am really looking forward to it. John leaves on Wednesday of this week for his Hong Kong-Shanghai-Sydney-Tokyo trip and he would much rather be coming with us. We'll be at home then Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and go to the show jumping event on Friday and Saturday!

Last but not least, tonight is John's boss's work dinner party that's been in the hopper for months. I'm going to wear the gorgeous Vince black velvet jacket that my mother-in-law gave me, and I was going to wear with it a short black skirt. But guess what? I wound up going to Selfridges and up to the designer women's wear section, and I bought a little pair of the fashionable longish shorts that everyone's wearing on the catwalk. At its worst this style is a terrible idea, but these are by Chloe, a nice sort of taupey-goldy really subtle tweed, just above knee length. The saleslady assures me that with my jacket, black tights and black high heels I will be the latest word in fashion. I doubt that, but it has to be cooler than all black. I also got some yummy face cream at a place called Biotherm, and I finally replaced my empty bottle of Hermes perfume that has traveled sadly here with me from New York. I hope I will do John credit! I've never before been to a dinner party where you're provided, via email, with resumes for all the guests. Except me of course. It's a pretty heady mix of investment banking executives, hedge fund managers, minor members of the British aristocracy. And us. I can't decide who I'm going as: former gallery owner and professor, cookbook writer, or just plain at-home mother. To go as a former self seems a bit depressing, but to go as something you're only planning to be... that's iffy as well. Probably best to go with what I know. Too bad I can't bring Avery in my pocket.

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