29 November, 2008

the great American musical (or not)

When Avery was a little, little girl, perhaps four years old, she made a brief foray into the world of ballet. All her friends were doing it, it seemed a shame to let her childhood pass by without a pink leotard and a tutu. So off she went to first the rather (very) serious Joffrey Ballet, where she was nearly kicked out for insubordination. She did not take kindly to the autocratic methods of "Miss Liz", the prissy instructor, but she kept going because her friend Annabelle was showing real talent and has continued to be a true Nutcracker ballerina as the years have gone by. But Avery? No. The lowest point came when Avery and all her friends decided to attend a dance class combining ballet and sort of modern movement, with a creature at the helm called "Miss Kimberley." Miss Kimberly had a high, grating voice like a character on the Simpsons, and a way of frantically clapping her hands as she lost control of the class, shouting ineffectually, "Dancers! Dancers!" After attending several of these classes with me, one of the other mothers turned and made poking gestures to her eyes. After class I said, "What the hell?" and she said, "I'd rather stick hot needles in my eyeballs than EVER go to that class again. Just so you know."

Well, sadly, John turns out to feel that way about the Great American Musical. Last night we saw "Carousel" at the Savoy Theatre with friends, and Avery and I were in heaven. Brought up on American musicals (not in person, not in Indianapolis, but on television and with records of all the soundtracks) I remembered all the songs and was bouncing along in a subdued way in my seat, muttering all the lyrics under my breath, when I happened to catch John's face out of the corner of my eye. A stony visage somehow combining intense boredom with sleepiness and annoyance. At intermission I said meekly, "You don't like musicals?" "I do NOT like musicals," he said flatly. "But why?" Avery asked. "Let's see: bad acting, bad American accents, endless choreography, cliched plots..." Fair enough. But that's all the stuff I LIKE.

Well, anyway, the rest of us had fun. Lots of memories of high school musicals (before High School Musical), my parents in the audience, all the behind-the-scenes romances that developed, but never with me! Alas.

Lesley Garrett was very impressive, the perfect vehicle for "You'll Never Walk Alone" which I remember clearly singing at junior high school graduation (naturally), making all the mothers cry. Afterward we walked in the typical London drizzle to the Embankment tube station which is always fun, late at night, seeing the bridge lit up and the Eye in the distance. One of those times when we remember we're living in London, not just in Shepherd's Bush. But I don't think I'll get John to any more musicals.

Thanksgiving was just lovely here, with Americanophile British friends. Our hostess Annie is a former professionally trained cook, so there was no question about her turkey turning out well, even if it was a very serious turkey indeed, as opposed to the Dolly Partonesque specimens I rebelliously insist on hauling out of the supermarket freezing compartment. No, this little guy came from my new best friend, Mr John Stenton of Stenton Family Butchers just up the street in nearby Brackenbury Village. Annie rang me up on Thanksgiving morning to ask if I wanted to come along to collect her turkey and incidentally be introduced to Mr Stenton and indeed I did. I had felt quite shy going alone. You know when people say to you, "Oh, you'll just LOVE so-and-so, everybody LOVES him and he is the best person," you feel shy? At least I do. I start thinking, "He's not going to want to meet ME if he's so all that," and so three months in my new neighborhood and I'm still buying my meat at Marks & Spencer (except for that ill-fated and now infamous attempt to secure pork from a Muslim).

Off we set, chatting all the way about the evening's menu, and there we were at Mr Stenton's. Red awning, doorway full of those fly-defying paper streamers, Mr Stenton presiding behind the counter. He is a spare, twinkling man with a strong handshake and a very firm meeting of the eye, sussing me up for any nonsense. He accepted Annie's introduction of me as a "food writer" with equanimity and pointed to the bookshelf behind him, groaning beneath the weight of the food writers and restaurateurs who he supplies with the finest Gloucester Old spot, eight-week cured hams, sausages made the night before with the thinnest of casings (mine melted, as per Mr Stenton's instruction, in hot water in less than a minute, leaving the perfect sausage meat, lovingly seasoned, to slip into the bowl, naked and ready for my stuffing).

Most intriguingly, Mr Stenton is quite, quite invested in the notion that Americans would, if they could, care more about the provenance and quality of the foodstuffs they buy. His daughter has recently married an American, and what's more, a Floridian and as such a "real" American as opposed to a New Yorker or Californian who, let's face it, could be ANYBODY. His son-in-law's father came recently for a visit to see exactly who produced the guy his beloved princess is shacking up with, and spent quite a lot of time in Mr Stenton's establishment, marvelling over his wares. "I pointed to the photograph of the cows on my wall, and then to the side of beef hanging in the back, and then I showed him these steaks that have hung for 45 days, and he was amazed. He's a surgeon, see. And he said, 'Things are going to have to change in America.' But look at this..." and as if by sleight of hand, Mr Stenton produces of all things a brochure from Ponderosa. "All you eat, breakfast buffet, $3.99. Who's going to want to cook when you can get all that for $3.99? The fact that it's all rubbish isn't going to bother anybody." Such a typical British reaction to most things American: they're bemused and half-admiring, but at rock bottom completely disgusted.

Then I was off to Kensington to meet my friend Dalia who injects me with sort of weekly doses of "Live life to the full! Get out of the loop! Embrace even suffering because it means you're alive!" She is a beautiful girl, which makes it fun to hang out with her, and she is an absolute walking advertisement for energy. Her black eyes sparkle and she runs her hands through her long, thick dark hair and when she laughs you just cannot help laughing, as it's as likely as not she's laughing at you and your silly pretensions and hesitation about... life. With Dalia, you cannot be hesitant.

More food shopping for the evening's festivities ensued, this time at Whole Foods where I succeed in finding buttermilk but not cornmeal for my Thanksgiving cornbread, requested by Annie. Ah well, it was but the work of a moment to discover that to almost everyone, cornmeal is just cheap polenta, and certainly my lovely local Frenchy delicatessen runs to polenta.

Thanksgiving itself was just perfect. Bobble-headed paper turkeys, autumn leaves and candles adorned the table in Annie's warm and open kitchen. The turkey was very nice, if a little spare from an American's point of view, obsessed as I am not with the dinner turkey but the prospect of turkey leftovers. There was a casserole of sweet potato with walnuts and honey, I brought an enormous saucepan of really creamy mashed potatoes, there were green beans and Brussels sprouts and my stuffing. And the most delightful children: Avery and her dear friend Emily, plus Emily's older sister Georgina and brother Sam, and three boys from Annie's best friend's family, so at least Avery for once had her pick of nice, acceptable, even entertaining and intelligent boys. Perhaps we can arrange for a once-weekly session or so, to dispel her natural scorn.

Since then, let's see, I've been reading, and writing. And reading and writing. I have become addicted to food writing. One book I can recommend whole-heartedly, and not just as food writing but as really touching autobiography, is Tamasin Day-Lewis's Where Shall We Go For Dinner? I looked forward to reading this especially because Tamasin read aloud from it to us during our Devon food-writing adventure, and in doing so she transformed herself from familiar, ranting tutor, a real person, into an actress to rival her brother Daniel Day-Lewis. She read a passage about the death of her father, the British poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, very affecting. In the end, the whole premise of the book is a bit sad: it chronicles her love affair with both an American cheese purveyor from New York, and with America itself, and it turns out that after the publication of the book, he left her. Ouch. What an awful ending. But the book is beautifully written, evocative of every flavor you can imagine, full of wondrous and improbably complex recipes. A good ride.

I cannot on the other hand recommend Daisy Garnett's Cooking Lessons. This book had been touted to me by many people as "just what you're trying to write," so I suppose we were doomed to be a match not made in heaven. I learned as a professor, long ago, never to point out to students the similarities between two paintings because automatically they would then see only the differences. I think that's in part what happened to me with Garnett. While it's true her book is based on anecdotes from her life and then includes recipes, I balked at the recipes being nearly exclusively taken from other cookbooks: of course she credits them, but that seems a bit lazy to me. And there were repetitive anecdotes, several typos (someone "leant" her a book?) and other distracting mistakes that were irritating. She is a journalist and the book reads that way. Maybe it will be your cup of tea, but it wasn't mine.

Then I devoted a day to Richard Mabey's The Full English Cassoulet, and it was one of those books that would benefit from being spaced over several days. He's evangelical, not to say a bit cracked, on the subject of eating off the land (gathering everything under the sun, a book about which practice made him famous with Food For Free), but also about such earnest and worthy aims as "making do," in sort of Depression way (using absolutely everything, recycling ingredients for a stock that sits on the back burner of the stove every day for weeks, churning butter on a bicycle wheel, seriously). It's a hoot, really, and while I admire a lot of what he says about seasonality (and he is evangelical on that subject as well), I cannot claim to aspire to living in that way. I have to admit it: I'm evangelical about almost NOTHING.

I know I should shudder at the thought of buying strawberries in Britain in December. I know it. But if they smell good through the package, and Avery wants to eat them, I buy them. Of course it's more fun (I'm not really sure it's more delicious, but then there's my non-evangelical nature again) to buy asparagus in enormous, gluttony-inspiring bundles at the farmer's market in June, when you can choose between fat, medium and thin... but just the same, last week I had a marvellous salad of steamed asparagus, beetroot, mozzarella and rocket, and the asparagus was lovely. Full of flavor, firm, very green. Where did it come from? I really don't know, and I recognize that I am a lesser person for that. But there you go.

No, give me Nigel Slater's Toast any day of the week. Of course there are things Nigel Slater is evangelical about, in other books. (I have a clear memory of his saying in The Kitchen Diaries something along the lines of "I count a day lost when I do not have at least a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt.") But in "Toast" he is a pure raconteur. How on earth does he remember his childhood in such detail? The many times his parents tried to make him drink milk ("They tried chocolate and strawberry, but the only thing that changed was the color of my vomit"), the way his mother's Christmas cake tasted, what his stepmother wore on a picnic, the color of the kitchen curtains, it's endless. The book is nothing more or less than a series of generally unconnected vignettes about the space of his life between about age 8 to 14, during which time his father grows pink begonias and scares him to death with red-faced shouting, his gardener is sacked for undressing casually in front of little Nigel, he internalizes his stepmother's recipe for lemon meringue pie by stealth (since she won't share her kitchen). It's a wonderful ride.

Now I'm onto Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Henderson runs St John restaurant in Shoreditch (John's been but I have not), a restaurant where the diner is expected to be able to stomach absolutely ANY part of the animal: snout to tail. I appreciate the notion that if we're going to eat any part of the animal, we should be able to eat ANY part, and I do think the modern obsession with wrapping up pristine, boneless, fatless, skinless parcels of someone's flesh in plastic is too far from the reality of meat. I do love to go into a butcher's shop where part of a real animal is hanging up in the back and I can see it being appreciated, taken apart, offered to me as part of something real. But ears and snouts? Testicles and hearts? Stomach linings? I know I am silly to be squeamish and probably what I need is just to be served some of these things in the best possible way and I would overcome my nerves. I'm looking forward to the book.

In the meantime our London writing class has really been heating up. We've decided that the most rewarding thing to do is to get together without the tutor and simply set ourselves exercises. It's imitating what we did in Devon, and to great results. Last Friday, all of us soaked to the skin from the relentless London rain, we all gathered at Gigi's house to write about... an object in the room. I wrote about a picture frame, and found the story turning rather darker than anything else I've written. Then my friend Venetia reached into a basket full of paper scraps and pulled out the first line of a short story, and we were to turn it into a story of our own. For the first time, I found myself writing from a man's point of view. I don't know who the man will turn out to be, but the line was "I once knew a girl who sat apart at the party, down on the floor." My character turned out to be madly attracted to this girl, although he already knew enough about her to know that he should turn away. I wonder what he knew? Time will tell...

Herbed Cornbread
(serves 12)

2 cups yellow cornmeal (or polenta)
1 cup plain flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried marjoram (I used 1 tbsp fresh chopped)
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup butter, chilled, cut into 1/2 pieces
1 1/2 cup buttermilk
3 eggs

Mix all dry ingredients in food processor. Cut in the butter by turning on processor and adding butter pieces one at a time, letting them incorporate themselves into the dry ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Add dry mixture to wet and mix well. Turn into a buttered 9x9 dish and bake at 400F for 30 minutes.


A Work in Progress said...

Have you found that there is any difference in the baking powder here vs. in the US? Someone told me it was different (less potent over here), but I am not certain this is true.

Kristen In London said...

oh NO! Say it isn't so. The last thing I need is something annoying like this to discourage me yet again from baking. Here's a thought: for my Christmas present, coming early, my husband is giving me a day at home with a professional chef and she's going to teach me 1) to bake bread, and 2) to make fresh pasta. I will ask her. Also, we could google it...

Anna said...

The baking powder in the UK is less potent than the American version. The American version is" double acting" as it says in small print across the can. Double the UK brand and you should be fine. You might be able to procure some American baking powder at a specialty store like Partridges in Kensington.

Kristen, the Thanksgiving meal sounded lovely. We missed being with your family this year. I missed the girls singing in Latin, performing silly plays, your gorgeous food and your companionship. Love, Becky

Kristen In London said...

Oh, Becky we missed YOU! Let's talk very soon. Catching up isn't quite the same, though. Love you.