24 May, 2007

Step Away From the Stove

At least, that's what my friend Amy is trying to tell me. Enough recipe testing, dinner parties, luncheon parties. Get your mind around something... intellectual, they say. (Isn't this a gorgeous photograph? It's by an artist called Frank Tschakert, really talented.) Anyway, I made a good stab at using my brain at the school Book Fair on Tuesday, I must say. It was a funny coincidence: Avery and I had run over to the wonderful Daunt Bookshop on Saturday, just for a good browse, always a good thing. Somehow we ended up at the till with a stack of books, several for her, two for me (new facsimile reprints of Agatha Christie classics, in replicas of the original dust jackets, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Hercule Poirot's emergence on the mystery scene, what fun), and several for sweet Baby Jane at home in Connecticut (sadly, not a baby anymore). The fellow behind the till was not at all covertly monitoring our conversation, which went something like this. "How are we going to explain this to Daddy? We always end up with such a... stack." "Well, some are for you, some are for me, and some are gifts, and anyway, it's always good to spend money on books." "That's right, it's not as if it were fashion things that will be SO 2007 in about a week, or some fancy roast that will just disappear. It's BOOKS." The fellow laughed, and said, "That's the spirit. And I'll throw in a nice canvas Daunt bag, too, to make your purchases even more justifiable."

It was such a nice mother-daughter moment, a real shopping spree and a real conversation, with an actual person, not a little child to be taken care of (as lovely as they are). We walked out, feeling pleased with ourselves and a little naughty. Avery remarked, "It's nice to be helped by someone who really likes his job." So when I turned up at school to help with the Book Fair, the two staff members from Daunt explained the different tables of books for different ages, and listened to Mrs D and me chatting about the PGL trip, and the complaints about school lunch. They were two lovely people, the girl, Trina, heavily pregnant and the fellow, Adam, kind and observant. It wasn't until mid-afternoon that I realised the fellow was our friend from the weekend shopping trip! I told him what fun we had had, and he said, "Now I remember you! I thought at the time how nice it was to see a parent inculcating proper values in her child." "Spending money, you mean?" "Precisely! On books, that is."

So the afternoon progressed as all Book Fairs do, with mystified Form Three gulls trying to get their minds around the prices of books and the relationship between that information and the money they held in their hot little hands. "Mrs Curran, I have 4 pounds and 3 pence. Can I buy this book?" "Yes, it's only 3.99, Libby, you have enough money." "But I have 4 pounds 3 pence," she said, clearly not happy with the unmatching nature of the two amounts. "You'll get a penny back, and then you will have four pence." "But I want to spend it ALL." And then so happy to give her change to a classmate, never mind that it didn't make any difference. It reminded me so clearly of the last Book Fair at PS 234 in New York, when little Isabella was quite desperate to spend her last dime. "But, sweetheart, there isn't anything you can buy for a dime. Look at your lovely pile of books, though. You can take your dime home." "No, I want to spend EVERYTHING!" she wailed. She must have come back to the till four or five times, imploring us to find something she could buy for her dime. Finally I had a brainwave. "I thought of something you can buy with your dime, Isabella," I said, and gave her two nickels. Her sigh of relief was so wonderful. "At last! I spent it all."

Then the Form Fives came, a little more sophisticated about their money but still needing supplementary pounds here and there. "You can find Avery tomorrow and give the money to her," I assured them. And they needed help deciding between Joan Aiken and Philippa Pearce, between Anthony Horowitz and Eva Ibbotson. I had no idea that Anthony Horowitz wrote, in addition to all the children's novels and the television series "Foyles War," the first episode of Midsomer Murders, and a dozen Poirot screenplays, including "Evil Under the Sun," filmed on Burgh Island where we just had our romantic holiday! What would it be like to be that talented?

Then the super-sophisticated Form Sixes sauntered in, secure in the knowledge that they have passed their senior schools exams, their futures are set, and they can devote the remainder of the school year to finding new and cool ways to tie their PE sweaters around their waists and shoulders. Maximum bargaining, borrowing, lending, and a polite disregard for anything we adults, including the English teacher might recommend. So funny to be 11 and so, so clever.

Well, other than that day of intellect, I haven't made much headway in being smart. Emily and I think we will make a trip to a gallery in Great Titchfield Street to see some curated student art, which from the description online includes some sculpture made from Hoover fluff, a real must-see, I have to say. I can't be too snooty, however, once having shown a quilt made of human hair in my own gallery. I don't feel much like being intellectual. Maybe it's spring fever, or maybe it's the endless house-hunting getting me down, or feeling like I'm just sort of good at lots of things, but not really, really good at anything in particular. I'm feeling a bit lackadaisical. Yesterday's school Spring Festival of Thanksgiving at All Souls church was a lovely event, very uplifting and sweet, and so hard to believe it's been a year already since Avery's first King's College Festival. Where does the time go, she asks originally. I really am dull today!

Well, John has gone off to look at yet another house. Tomorrow, Islington beckons, although I really do think it's too far away. When I say that, everyone suggests helpfully that we look at an entirely new set of schools for Avery, all in the northeast corner of London, instead of the southwest corner I had got my mind sort of comfortably around. Maybe that's what's getting me down. The constant aura of uncertainty! At least today I'm having lunch with Becky, always a calming, cheering influence. Maybe she can get me out of my funk. And keep me away from the stove for one more afternoon! But in the meantime, do try the side dish we had last night. Then, I promise to stop cooking, at least until our... luncheon party on Sunday.

Scalloped Potatoes
(serves four generously)

6 medium potatoes, a waxy variety like Charlotte, peeled and sliced thin
1 cup light cream, plus 1/2 cup skim milk, mixed
salt and pepper

Spray a square glass baking dish generously with nonstick spray and cover the bottom with sliced potatoes, fanned out so they overlap slightly. Pour over the cream mixture just to cover, and add salt and pepper. Layer more potatoes and pour over cream until the potatoes are finished. Salt and pepper the top and bake at 400 for about an hour, stirring occasionally so that the potatoes on top do not dry out, but taking care not to break the potatoes up. In the last 15 minutes, all the top to brown nicely. You may also add garlic in between two of the potato layers or add breadcrumbs and butter, or cheese to the top at the last 15 minutes (I may not because my daughter is a scalloped potato purist). Delicious with braised pork chops and sauteed red pepper strips.

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