23 November, 2007

Thanks be (to various things)

Well, as much fun as we had on Thanksgiving (more on that later), my digestion is objecting. So it's back to the alkaline/acid awareness diet for me. Consequently, I had an amazingly varied lot of foods in the bag on my shoulder walking back from the farmer's market this morning. I succumbed happily to the products of a new farm in the place, Facing Heaven, who make innovative and delicious salsas and pestos. Jeremy Green, the proprietor, has a running patter of knowledgeable and seductive information that makes it impossible not to take advantage of the 4-for-a-tenner offer. I came away with a beetroot and black bean salsa, rich with olive oil and lime juice, and a spicy harissa that Jeremy advised cutting with yogurt (which I happily did, with buffalo yogurt from Alham Wood Cheeses, simply delicious), as well as a red pepper pesto and a proper basil pesto made, he assured me, from really special basil and an English parmesan (!) from Sussex. Who knew? These choices spread in a nice organic Italian bread, along with a goats cheese with herbs and chillies from Rowan Tree Goat Farm, and a lovely cucumber from Sunnyfields, made a very nice lunch indeed.

Anyway. The run-up to Thanksgiving this year included a bizarre celebrity sighting (a double bill!) at Apostrophe in Grosvenor Street with my pal Dalia and her adorable sister Layla. First sighted: one of the blonde twins who so disappointingly didn't win "The Restaurant" with Raymond Blanc, and then, distressingly, David Gest! Strangely he looked more interested in us than we were in him, and certainly his cologne was off-putting and enough to make me even more nauseated than I already was by my not-decaf latte. I just can't do caffeine.

Well, Thanksgiving itself was lovely. I had everything completely under control until... I didn't. Partly my chaotic situation was due to the fact that the school Book Fair took place the very afternoon. Thanksgiving gets no respect here, so I wasn't surprised at the double booking, and nothing could make me miss the Book Fair. I love helping the little sprouts choose books and doling out secret pounds and pence to supplement the parental limit (strictly forbidden, that, but too bad). I had lunch in the cafeteria at school with the librarian, Mrs Palmer, and Adam (who I made fast friends with last year) and Nicola, the two book elves from Daunt Books who provide the merchandise. They are just about my favorite commercial (ish) establishment in London, completely quirky, unpredictable and justifiably proud of their shop.

Perfect slice of Thanksgiving conversation with English people: "So Kristen, is there any particular story that is associated with the first Thanksgiving?" "Well, of course, there's the story of Miles Standish, who loved Priscilla Mullins only he was too uncertain of himself to tell her so. So he enlisted the help of his friend John Alden, who unfortunately for Miles also loved Priscilla. Halfway through his proxy proposal, John came to his senses and spoke for himself, and of course it turned out Priscilla loved him too, so John won the day," I explained. Mrs Palmer laughed slightly and said, "What a typical American story." "Why? What would an Englishman have done?" I asked in amusement. Adam said promptly, "He would have hemmed and hawed and walked away leaving the woman he loved for someone else. The sort of commitment and energy that made this country great." We all laughed, but I did think it a funny commentary on the English perception of Americans: just barge in, cheat and come away with the prize. Unfortunate, but probably not so far off the mark as we'd like to think. Then there are those of us who are perfectly proud of that sort of reputation!

I also learned something, that afternoon, about the British spirit of friendship. Last year, my first with the Book Fair, Mrs Palmer and Adam were very nice to me. Very appreciative that I was there to take money, give advice, field multiplication queries from girls, etc. They were very polite, and said thank you, and I had a lovely time and came away very happy that I'd been there and that they were so pleasant and made me feel at home. However. Afternoon Number Two together had a very different feel. Adam actually said, "Can I be completely indiscreet and say how much nicer it is this year without that witchy English teacher?" I love it! That teacher was a beast to Avery, so I told him so. And Mrs Palmer was lovely and let me hide behind the desk when the one mother I cannot abide came in and clearly wanted to chat.

By the end of the afternoon, after we had dealt with all 200 girls and their needs, and I was ready to go, both Mrs Palmer and Adam said the very same thank you they'd said last year, but then they each added, "Really. Thank you." And I recognised that there is a First Encounter British level of politeness and courtesy, and it can look to an outsider who wants to fit in as a gesture of friendship. But the Second Encounter is a different thing altogether. It's as if by being there a second time, you've established yourself as a real person, like ordering chicken feet in a Chinese restaurant. It's the beginning of a real friendship, not just perfect politeness. Like the French moving from "vous" to "tu," only that takes even longer. It's only Americans, I think, who have no such boundary, no line to cross before you are treated differently. I still have to process how I feel about it all. But mostly, at the Book Fair, I was flattered beyond belief.

Book Fair chaos over, I took up the four girls in my charge: Avery, Anna, Ellie and Sophia, and grabbed a taxi for home. They made a stab at setting up the pony jumps in the garden and playing for a bit, but this served only to make the sun set even faster than it normally does, and mostly what they accomplished was to track an enormous trail of muddy leaves through my bedroom and up the stairs. Then they did their homework while I supplied them with popcorn. "And apples!" Anna chortled. "That's what we had on our very first playdate, and now it's a tradition!" A fine one. Still, things seemed under control. I strained the turkey cooking juices and made a gorgeous gravy. I boiled the potatoes, set the table, counted out lovely linen napkins, moved the kitchen table to the living room for the children, began sauteeing the brussels sprouts in sesame oil with pine nuts and soy sauce. No problem. At 5 o'clock I panicked that there wasn't enough food and sent John out for a nice gammon joint which was actually lovely and a nice addition to the turkey. But not enough food? Ha!

I even had poured a glass of wine and brushed my hair! Set the carrots to simmering in butter and brown sugar. Well done! Then, the doorbell rang and life was never the same. Becky had brought, bless her, at least as many dishes as I had going myself! And all everyone's favorite things! Sweet potatoes with marshmallows, sweet potatoes with a crunchy pecan crust. Cheesey grated potatoes. A chocolate pie, a chess pie. And the most glorious cheese straws, just for me because I have no sweet tooth. The doorbell continued to ring as we searched frantically for horizontal real estate. Finding none, we started shoving things under tables and between bottles, just to get some space! Then we needed room for both our families' cherished dressing recipes. And it was time to mash the potatoes! Drinks, anyone? The doorbell rang again. Our friend Laurie and his wife Linda, with gorgeous flowers and Armagnac. Our friend Andrew and his wife Laura who is a high-up at Burberry, bearing Burberry gifts! My friend Susan, Sophia's mum, with wine, and gorgeous pumpkin pies requiring yet more flat surfaces. sob. John's friend Stephanie who provided a refreshing single-person air of relaxation: no cooking, no children, no worries about "school nights," etc.

But finally I just threw caution to the winds and insisted we all eat, if only to empty out the kitchen of all its lovely people. To sit happily for a couple of hours at the long dining room table with candles and the darling paper autumn leaves my mother in law sent me (all right, she sent them to Avery, but I appropriated them for my table). And just to eat and enjoy conversation! Andrew is an amazing raconteur, clever, witty, and Laura clearly grooves to her role as straight man, as well as source of a lot of appreciative laughter. Laurie and Linda, as the only English guests, seemed to get into the spirit of Competitive Eating," and we all had to be rolled away from the table. The evening was late, but Avery tumbled into bed in time to get a decent-ish sleep for Friday practice exams at school. I made a resolution: the next big party I need someone to help me in the kitchen just to stay a step ahead of, or at least in step with, the constant flow of dirty dishes and cutlery. I just don't have enough supplies to give everyone a fresh plate and fork, etc., for 15 people. Just don't. So next year I'm picturing some happy kitchen elf. I'm taking all offers under advisement! Unlimited turkey of course.

As it was, it took me until this morning, Sunday, to have the kitchen fully back to normal and the dining room table all cleared again. Sigh! It's the one holiday, too, that makes me homesick, because what you're accustomed to on Thanksgiving is family, LOTS of family. What the day is here is basically a really nice dinner party, albeit with traditional foods, and also with a little thread of resentment that your child's been in school all day and will have to go the next day too. But it was great to introduce new people to each other, and nobody got hurt. And to have had a second year with true friends, as well, is completely lovely.

Time to collect Avery at the barn this grey Sunday late afternoon. I'll leave you with the simplest hors d'oeuvre idea in the world, and you will be popular beyond your wildest dreams with your guests. And when you drop the extra two pounds of them off with your school secretary the next morning, complete with a note that says, "For the staff," you'll make a whole other group of people very happy. Happy Thanksgiving!

Mixed Nuts with Rosemary and Brown Sugar
(serves a LOT)

1 kilo mixed roasted salted nuts (cashews a MUST)
a stick (or half a cup) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped very fine, or 1 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
dash cayenne pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy large saucepan and add brown sugar. Stir until the brown sugar melts, but don't expect it to emulsify with the butter, because it won't. You'll have a nice sludge of melted sugar in the center surrounded by a butter slick, like a sunken oil tanker of the finest variety.

Add the nuts and stir thoroughly, then sprinkle with the rosemary and cayenne and stir thoroughly again. Remove from heat and let sit for awhile to cool off. Just before serving, toss thoroughly again because some sugar will stick to the bottom. These can be kept in a ziplock bag for a few days, but my advice is: indulge the temptation only once! Then be a good girl and give them away.

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