15 October, 2008

Day Three

Actually, while there was obviously a Day Three, we didn't recognize it as such. I think that during the first two days, we were all so overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility we had for being there that there wasn't much chance to count up the days. Does that make any kind of sense? It was fairly gruelling to get through the first two days, being willing to strip off the armor of pride, sensitivity, you name it: all the aspects of one's writing personality that have to be the first things to go, if you're going to learn anything.

So on the third day, we were faced with a tremendous challenge. The night before had been the first dinner we were responsible for: not I, but four of my mates. And our tutor Tamasin had scotched the planned mackerel (thank you, God, I don't like mackerel) for salmon. Fair enough. Only the only available salmon was farmed, and let me tell you, Tamasin cannot say enough, strongly enough, about the evils of farmed salmon. I think it's like veal that's been raised in little lightless boxes and fed God knows what, so that the unhappiness of the little beasts is a central part of the flavor of the meat. So the salmon was fighting a losing battle to begin with, poor thing.

Then there was Jack. To give him credit, he was the only professional chef among us, and he had STANDARDS. And then there's the complexity of ego in a kitchen: who is in charge, whose wishes are ultimately respected, who gives orders and who follows them. Solitary as I am in my kitchen 99 days out of 100, these are all issues that hold little weight with me. I have the dubious distinction of being completely in charge, but the only creatures around to give orders to would be the cats. So I have the honor of ordering the menu, doing the shopping, creating all over the place, serving, and clearing up. Not much ego fighting available in that scenario. I had no idea.

Chefs get sarky about their kitchens! And dare I say it, men are really silly about the drama and the hierarchy of cooking. The times I had a man in that kitchen come to the sink where I was invariably scrubbing out a pot, and casually throw a skillet or bowl in the sink ("my" sink? not really!), saying absolutely nothing but clearly expecting I'd wash up! I can't count the number of times. Last night after dinner, John handed me a particularly vile skillet and said, "That needs to soak," and I had to laugh. "That is the CLASSIC line to come from any man in any kitchen! 'Soaking' is a pure euphemism for 'if I let it lie there long enough, some woman will scrub it for me'!" The look on his face was priceless: it was as if I had uncovered one of the great secrets of the battles between the sexes. I'm reminded of Grace Kelly's saying to Celeste Holm in "High Society", "Aren't men wonderful?" And Celeste replies drily, "The little dears."

But I digress. My point is that the salmon dinner was felt by Jack to be an unmitigated disaster. The salmon was overcooked, the potatoes not timed properly, the only good thing about the entire dinner was a dish of warm sauteed cucumbers with parsley and butter, and THAT had been Tamasin's creation. So there was a lot of unhappy skulking about going on, a lot of mutterings. I myself was simply so happy to eat something someone else cooked for me that I could not bring myself to argue. Clearly I do not possess the killer chef gene.

So Day Three saw us in the barn, ready to write. And the assignment? Write a restaurant review of the previous night's dinner. Oh dear. So we all got down to it. I became so involved in the elaborate fantasy I wove around the restaurant having been closed down for months only to reopen in a flurry of publicity and excitement that I frankly ran out of time before I could describe the food properly! Always one to weave a story rather than get down to the business of criticizing someone... Anyway, it came time for us to read out our pieces (mine was received in precisely the uninterested silence it deserved), and we went round the room hearing everyone's reactions to the salmon, the potatoes, the cucumbers. Everyone was kind. Fair enough. We came to Jack himself, the chef in question, and for some reason he looked completely furious. He looked around and said, "Just for the record, I hope you listen to your tastebuds and don't tell yourselves lies when you eat," and then read out HIS review, which was unaccountably of a Thai place in Islington. Hmmm...

Of course it turned out later that he was out of the room when the brief was given, and didn't know we had been assigned to write about HIS MEAL. Imagine his reaction when absolutely EVERYONE chose to write about HIS MEAL. He must have been apoplectic, poor man. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, he regained his sang froid. But can you imagine?

That afternoon I tried really hard to rewrite my two pieces that had been so thoroughly, let's see, GONE OVER by our hard-working tutors. From my perspective as a former professor, I can assure that it is no picnic to have to read the various highly-charged outpourings of students' pens. We each of us obviously feels deserving of the most thoughtful scrutiny! It can be tempting to say general things, to say supportive but ultimately meaningless things, just to get it over. Not these two. To a person, each of us felt we'd been well and truly read, analyzed, corrected, contextualized. To be sure, it's not easy to be on the receiving end of so much high-powered attention. And it must be kept in mind while one is (well, all right, I am) trying to absorb the commentary: these people are hotly admired professional writers with extremely high standards. So a little quiet weeping into one's jumper sleeve is only to be expected, isn't it? After all, they know good writing, and they know rubbish, and they were only too ready to divide up one's writing into those two categories. If one was lucky enough to have anything in the former, that is. Sigh.

One of my happiest memories of Day Three? Lounging around on the rather dodgy sofas in the barn, just before cocktail time, rewriting my pieces in a desultory sort of way, Edward reading, or perhaps not even reading, "In Defence of Food," Roger propping up my camera on a roll of paper towel, taking endless (and endlessly boring) photographs of me to try to get the light metre right, Charlie across the room working on his bullet points for his tutorials with Tamasin and Orlando... pure peace. Day Three, late afternoon, when you know you've accomplished about all you will get done on that day, you've recovered from Days One and Two, you know you're over halfway there, and the sense that you should hug it all close is beginning to steal over you. When I realized that I had wasted a huge amount of emotional energy dreading going! Only to have it all be quite wonderful. Then, as so often happens, the calm was made that much more so when Orlando came sweeping in and sat himself down at the massive grand piano in the corner of the room and began playing sort of 1970s Top 40 claptrap, all the beloved songs of my piano-playing childhood from music books with titles like "Music to Love By," Bee-Gees, the Captain and Toni Tenille, but also Ivor Novello and NOel Coward...

The atmosphere was positively catlike in its restful luxury. Never to be repeated. And all the more interesting and precious for that.

Then in swept the the magnificent Simon Parkes from the Food Programme on Radio 4 swept in in all his 6 foot 4 splendor, to speak to us after dinner about his career in broadcasting. That voice! Like melted chocolate. He has the demeanor of a Stephen Fry, in a way: larger than life, but more dapper, and with an expansive gesture now and then to match his voice. He read aloud from his new book about India, The Calcutta Kitchen, mesmerising us all, under the ridiculous heaters suspended from the roof of the barn (we'll all probably die precisely 1 hour and fifteen minutes earlier than we would have done without the hideous fug coming out of those things).

Isn't it funny how I have had virtually nothing to say about food? That's partly down to the rather pathetic nature of what we were offered to eat, but partly as well a result of the students' identities being primarily writers, and secondarily as food writers. Which is as Tamasin assured us it should be: it's about the quality of the writing.

Well, I'm off on this nasty rainy day to collect Avery. She's had a major life triumph: last evening, at the school pool where we were splashing around before dinner, she learned to dive. After probably 8 long years of trying, being frightened, being annoyed with me because diving is one of my few true skills, suddenly last night it all came together. The little sprite is so proud of herself she could bust, and so we will be back at the pool on Thursday evening to make sure it wasn't all a dream. Dear girl. And tomorrow... Day Four. Which had its own drama, to be sure.

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