03 February, 2008

a busy Sunday

Let's see: why does a household with three children seem so much more...occupied than a household with one child? This is not a trick question. It's actually hard to answer, given that none of the children requires diaper changing, bottle feeding, or in fact much attention at all. It's just the necessity to keep track of and think about so many people all at once! Like a long dinner party, or a dinner party that turns into a sleepover and then lunch. I think people with multiple children are very patient and selfless people, and also have an amazing eye for safety and traffic hazards. I found myself absolutely convinced, all weekend, that cars would jump the pavement, vehicles with flashing lights and sirens appear at any moment to mow down my children, or that at the very least they'd merely be chatting away in the intersection as an unsuspecting Aston Martin took them out. Actually Avery would find that quite an acceptable method for leaving the known universe.

Then there's feeding time. Who likes what? Beverage preferences and knife skills! They were all delightful and appreciative and helpful: it's just the number of details that surprised me. Parents of only children have, granted, more peaceful dinners, but none with so much energy and giggling as a family of three girls would be. And I must say, it was very good for Avery to have as her solemn and sworn duty all weekend: keep Ellie safe and happy. She had her by the hand, marshalled her at the end of today's very crowded concert, shepherded her indoors when she fell on one of the jumps and waited until we had Ellie safely under a cashmere throw with a hot water bottle, before returning to the jumping course in the garden.

Sadly, they have gone home. I only hope their minders for the week understand what treasures they have, and no one tries to get Ellie's loose teeth out. If John cannot accomplish this, no one can, without tears and blood. For the record, I'd like to have all three girls ALL the time.

Now then: Controversy at the farmer's market! Are some of our stallholders fiddling the system? Are they selling fruit and veg that they themselves have purchased from a wholesaler's stall that morning at the crack of dawn? I confess I found this article hard to understand, or rather I couldn't see, in some situations, what the fuss was about. Take Isle of Wight Tomatoes, for example, admittedly very expensive, but with lovely people working the stall and the tomatoes always taste wonderful. Can it be true that they're merely BUYING their tomatoes from another Isle of Wight tomato purveyor and then bringing them to Marylebone to resell? And even more significantly, how much would I care if they were? As long as they are real organic tomatoes from the Isle of Wight, do I care if there was a middleman? I suppose I do, a bit. I suppose part of the farmer's market experience is feeling that you've just bought something from the person who grew it, or raised it. I think that's why I'm inclined to buy fruit and veg from a small stall rather than Sunnyfields, if I can. Sunnyfields feels that much closer to a supermarket themselves, because I know they supply the outrageously expensive Natural Kitchen up the High Street. But how pointlessly quixotic is that: surely selling to a large shop is a measure of their success? I'm really not built to work all these issues out. Oh, it's a conundrum, and a lot of trouble, just to feed one's family.

Well, I did get a mighty tasty new lettuce from Wild Country Organics called "miner's leaf", but I can't seem to find out a thing about it. There's something called "leaf miner" that is apparently the most pestilent garden pest you can imagine, but miner's leaf? Don't know. It looks like a cross between pea shoots and lamb's lettuce, and has a very nice bite to it. But the star of the show after my market trip yesterday was most definitely Vintage Lincolnshire Poacher, quite simply the most delicious cheese you will ever have toasted between two pieces of wholemeal bread. Of course real cheese conoisseurs will have it on a cheese board with the proper sort of cheese knife, but when you're feeding children, grilled cheese is the way to go. Nutty, strong, creamy and salty, it is an absolute winner.

And you can't beat Highland Sugarworks Blueberry Pancake Mix for breakfast to make any child happy. At first when I make the batter I am convinced there are no blueberries in it, but somehow they are dried so tiny that they hide in the flour (several different kinds of flour, actually) and then when the milk and oil and eggs go in, up pop the blueberries. I never obey the instructions on these bags: milk is ALWAYS better than water in any situation except swimming pools. Scrambled eggs with water? Cream is more like it.

Well, I have very little news to pass along. Avery is, as we speak, at her penultimate interview, at Francis Holland School in Sloane Square. It's not so much an interview as a morning spent in lessons at someone else's school. How tedious must that be? Then Wednesday is South Hampstead High School, and that's IT. Finally. I have a new game: thinking up pseudonyms for the school that we eventually choose. Because as I discovered with our current school, if certain types of parents find out about a certain mother's blog accurately identifying the real school, those certain parents can be predicted to freak out. So while those of you who know will know, those of you who won't won't, if that makes any sense at all.

Speaking of things not making sense, I would be ever so grateful if some British person could explain the following to me: why is the word "Magdalen" pronounced as it's spelled when it's the Mary who was devoted to Jesus, but if it's the college at Oxford it's pronounced "Maudlin"? For years I have assumed that the Oxford College was spelt the way it sounds. But then, watching "University Challenge" as I must say we do, I saw it spelt out properly, and there is was, "Magdalen." Why, one wonders? Someone please enlighten me. I am so fond of these British ways, but I like to know the reasoning if I can. If "reasoning" it be...

Oh! But I do have news, I nearly forgot. For my birthday John's giving me a week-long writing course in Devon! It doesn't come to pass until October, but it's my birthday present nonetheless. It seemed expensive to me until John pointed out that I'd spent more than that already on the various writing courses I've taken in London, the result of which has been merely to learn what I'm NOT good at writing. Well, this one is called "Food Writing," and it is run by the Arvon Foundation, a fascinating organisation led by two writers who were friends of Ted Hughes. I just read the description in the brochure: "cut off from the distractions of daily life: no friends, no family, no wifi, internet, virtually no mobile signals..." Eeek! Just writing all day long, and in the evening listening to readings by the tutors. My tutors will be Tamasin Day-Lewis (sister of Daniel, which description must make her crazy sometimes) and Orlando Murrin. Then there is a guest writer, Simon Parkes, whose function I'm not completely clear about. I'm suddenly very nervous! Why?

Well, for one thing I never leave home. And if I do, I am sensible enough to take my family with me. Second, I am addicted to email and to my blog. No computer! Eeek. Third, how on earth will I be able to pack enough books to keep me company with no family and no friends for four nights? And how will the food be? Apparently all of us on the course cook together every night, which should be good fun. What on earth is possessing me to do such a thing? What if I am the only American? Doubtless I will be. What if everyone else is a published food writer already, or restaurateur, or caterer, and I'm the only one whose sole contribution to the world of food is cooking dinner every night for a husband and one discerning 11-year-old? Waah!

Ah, well, I've paid my deposit and so I must go. And I think I have the tentative agreement of my dear mother in law to come and be cook and chief bottle washer here. Am I nuts? John leaves home, Avery leaves home, John and Avery both leave home, but I? Never. I think the last time I was away was in 1998 when I went to Los Angeles with my friend Sarah to investigate finding publishers for our book. It was for one night! Ten years ago. Well, perhaps it will be one of those opportunities people are always wittering on about, how it shows them parts of their characters they never knew they had. I have the sneaking suspicion that whatever is revealed to me belongs where it is now, hidden and unmissed. But we shall see! The good thing is that I will finally be concentrating on exactly what I want to write about: not sitcoms or films or short stories, but memoirs and food writing.

In the meantime, we are off to collect Avery from her morning spent being charming and intelligent, home for a belated lunch of bolognese, and then to school for whatever delights Monday afternoons offer. And I'm spending the afternoon making:

Slow-Cooked Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese Dressing
(serves four)

2 dozen chicken wings
1/3 cup each: maple syrup, chilli sauce, tomato juice, black treacle
2 tbsps sesame oil
juice of 1 lime
4 cloves garlic, minced
small knob ginger, peeled and minced

Mix all the marinade ingredients in a large ziplock bag and toss the wings in, making sure they are adequately coated. Set aside for as long as you like in the fridge. If you're like me and have a very crowded fridge, the bag method is best, rather than trying to find room for a large Pyrex bowl as I used to do with my satisfyingly massive American fridge (one of two in my kitchen, I weep to say). With a bag you can squish it around and make room.

Line a baking dish with aluminum foil and bake the wings in a slow-ish oven (325f, 160c, about) for at least an hour and a half. You can turn your oven even lower and cook them longer. Turn at least once. Serve with:

Blue Cheese Dressing
(serves lots)

1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 cup homemade mayonnaise (recipe below)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
dash garlic powder
dash salt
dash black pepper
3 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

Mix all ingredients well with a whisk, then fold in crumbled blue cheese. Chill.


Homemade Mayonnaise
(makes one cup)

1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp salt
pinch cayenne
pinch white pepper
pinch dry mustard
juice of half lemon
1 cup olive oil

With a wire whisk, beat egg yolk with salt, cayenne, pepper and mustard until thick and yellow as a lemon. Then add half the lemon juice slowly and beat again. Now, one drop at a time for about a minute, add olive oil. Then after the first minute, a steady but TINY stream of oil will do, whisking constantly until the oil is used up. Now whisk in remaining lemon juice slowly. Chill, and enjoy. And ask yourself: how do they get commercial mayo to be so... white? Doesn't make sense. One of those life mysteries.


Well, I have to tell you Avery got back from her interview this morning and it was a very revealing little conversation they had with her. Thumbs down on this school, I'd say. Avery says she went into the interview speaking English as opposed to American as she'd been talking with a gaggle of English girls beforehand, and that's usually what happens. So the interviewing creature asked her if she had been a pupil at King's College back when it was under another name, and she answered, "No, I moved from New York just two years ago." "Oh. I did not realise you were an American." Pause while Avery declines to elaborate on the lady's statement. So then she asked Avery, "Do you find that people tend to have... different opinions about Americans than they do about people from other countries?" "What on earth did you find to say about that?" I asked in amazement. "Well," Avery said, "I didn't want to say that British people think Americans are fat and ignorant, so I just said that it depended upon the individual person one meets." Well done! "But she didn't stop there, with what I thought was a very diplomatic answer!" she wailed. "The lady said, 'Well, when people DO judge Americans differently, what do you think they think?', so I said, "I suppose some people think Americans are not as well informed as they might be," and that was all I could think of!" Poor child.

I don't think this is the school for us. What a question, or set of questions, to ask! It certainly gives an indication of the sort of social environment she'd be up against, doesn't it? I think she did extraordinarily well, not defensive, not silly, not pretending she didn't understand the undercurrent. But yuck. I am not, as you know, one to flag-wave mindlessly about my erstwhile home, but I will go out on a limb and say that the only people who should make snap judgments about Americans are... Americans themselves!


Anonymous said...

Regarding Magdalen Oxford, I believe the founding statutes in the mid 15th century gave instructions that the pronunciation should be 'Maudlin'. However, the two colleges in question - Magdalen (Oxford) and Magdalene (Cambridge) are both historically pronounced ‘maudlin’. The word maudlin shares the same root as Magdalen(e): (from SOED)

maudlin n. [(O)Fr. Madeleine f. eccl.L Magdalena: see MAGDALEN. In branch II f. the adj.]
1 = MAGDALEN 1. MEL16.b A penitent resembling Mary Magdalen. Cf. MAGDALEN 2. EM17.
maudlin a.E16. [f. the n., w. allus. to pictures of the Magdalen weeping.]
1 Tearful and emotional as a result of drink.

I haven't seen or heard a more robust or definitive explanation, although many resound around the halls of these colleges. Most of which, I suspect, are for the ears of freshmen, and the amusement of the Dons. I daresay there's some interesting research to be done to get to the bottom of this question.

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