25 March, 2009

of campanology and chocolate fish

But before I get to that (and a fabulous new side dish), thanks for the unprecedented number of comments on the post a week or so ago, about the recipe file that I inherited from my grandmother. How did that particular topic come to be such a magnet for interaction from so many of you? I was very pleased.

And just think, the blog wasn't even OPEN when I posted it, so who knows how many more interested cooks and granddaughters could have found it appealing, had the b**dy thing been open. I'm passing through several stages in my reaction to opening up the blog: first I was grateful. Why? To whom? Then I felt like a big fat idiot that I had reacted the way I did originally, but honestly, when someone threatens your child, un-dreamed-of facets to your personality come to the surface. Namely, "I'll do anything, perjure myself, sell my soul, close my blog? No problem!" Then I decided that feeling like an idiot was pointless because it was all over. And then anger kicked in. Anger that I had been forced into hiding, all because of one person's irrationality. Do you know what? I have four actual friends in real life, not just on a computer screen but people I have coffee with and write stories with and complain about my child with, that I met through my blog, before I closed it. And those of you who know me well know that friendship is paramount, even central, in my life. How many more friends could I have made during all those months I was underground?

Anyway, enough of that because it's a Brave New World. One task I have is going on my hands and knees to Google, Yahoo! and all the other search engines that my long-suffering husband spent many hours erasing me from, last year. I must say, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, I was a frightened filly, but now will you relist my blog?" Don't know what that entails yet. I'm loath to sit and wait for readers to come to me, and seriously annoyed at all the readers and momentum I lost during my year as a nun.

So, my original point was that something about old recipes, and my evil grandmother, struck a nerve with you. Nostalgia, childhood memories, a yearning for the old days when we were defined by being someone's granddaughter, when those ladies were still alive to torment the generation in between... Well, I am hard at work on a chapter for my book on scalloped potatoes, which for better or worse will push all the same buttons: inedible food, dire childhood memories, my mother's head on the chopping block once again for hating to cook. She assures me that she is not at all bothered by my describing her thus to you. "But if you question my interior design, I might take umbrage." Fair enough. When my scalloped potatoes chapter has taken its final shape, I'll post it.

In the meantime, life has taken on a frenetic pace lately that I don't quite understand. Normally I spend a little time scratching my head over what to write about here, but since the weekend there has been so much going on that I am only now, on Wednesday, sitting down to sort through photos and form some sentences. First up: change ringing.

Campanology, I know, is not a popular pasttime anymore. Most churches have automatic ringing, I think, and surely the art of change ringing is dying out. But I love the sound of bells, and the thought that actual people's arms are involved in ringing them in some faraway bell chamber is quite magical to me. And I love Dorothy L Sayers who loved bells. She was to my mind the greatest mystery novelist of all time, and life in the 20th century was greatly enhanced by her invention of great Golden Age detective Lord Peter Wimsey, whose finest hour may well have been in "The Nine Tailors," a murder mystery all about change ringing. Are you still with me?

So when I learned that the Dorothy L Sayers Society, of which I am a member, was awarding a prize to the Best Young Change Ringer to a 13-year-old girl in St Mary's Church, Bluntisham, Cambridgeshire, where Sayers's father had been vicar before the First World War, I knew my chance had come.

Now I know you're all thinking, "What could be more pathetically nerdy than an American in London putting a copy of 'The Nine Tailors' in her handbag and buying a ticket to Bluntisham to spend two hours in a church listening to change ringing and watching a teenager get an award from Dame Norma Major," and you're right. It is nerdy. But I mentioned my odyssey to my friend Jo, who really understands what life is about, and she said, "Anything you do because you love it and it's something you've never done before is a GOOD thing." Well put.

It was but the work of a moment to google Bluntisham and find that... it would take me forever and a day to get there. John could not drive me there because Avery had fifteen different things to do on Saturday that required transportation and hand-holding (tis the season of music exams). I blubbered about this state of affairs to my friend Annie who promptly suggested that I look up Bluntisham on a map and see what was the nearest biggish town, take a fast train to there, and then get a taxi to the church. Done. Up early Saturday, dressed in sober, church-going clothes (my vision of country tweeds), and... deep breath. Tube to Kings Cross, train to Hatfield, BUS to Huntingdon, taxi to Bluntisham. In all, three hours. Insane. But I had my copy of "The Nine Tailors" to amuse me, and the lovely Fen Country speeding by outside my windows. It is FLAT.

The taxi driver was lovely, answering all my questions about flooding (big plotline in the book), sounding exactly like the characters in the book, written some 70 years ago. "Government long ago sorted out the flooding, got us some new sluice gates..." He said flatly that I was nuts to have come so far for some bells, but gave me his business card and said, "Now when you're done, like, and you've had a cup of tea, give me a ring. HA HA." I arrived at the church with 45 minutes to spare, so I spent them in the garden of the nearby pub with a bitter lemon, looking up at the church spires and imagining myself in the novel. Then off to the ceremony.

There were perhaps 50 people in all in the church (complete with cherubim in the South Aisle, just like in the book! I was thrilled to see them). Most of them were members of the Ladies Guild of Change Ringing, whose help had been sought by the Society to find a suitable recipient for the award. And they were all dressed in track suits or jeans, as befitted ladies who were about to pull hard on massively heavy, long bell ropes. I felt slightly silly in my churchly clothes. And my camera was about seventeen times the size of their little digital jobs, but it was a once in a lifetime experience, and I wanted proper pictures. The Chairman of the Dorothy L Sayers Society spoke. The President of the Ladies Guild spoke. The Reverend of the Church spoke. Then little Chloe came forward to receive her award from yes, the wife of the former Prime Minister, Dame Norma Major (I wonder what she did to get her Dame-ness: surely just surviving being married to John Major was not enough). And what was Chloe wearing? A black cocktail dress and three-inch red heels. I am not making this up.

Then we had bells! The local ladies rang, with Chloe throwing off her shoes in order to join them. "She's a good girl, Chloe is," her mother said when I congratulated her. "She's a one for the rugger, and she will flirt with the boys, but she's a good girl, and the ringing's been great for her." The idea of a teenager with an eye for the boys, a closet full of Jimmy Choos and her heart in the belfry struck me as almost unbearably touching. I asked Chloe to sign my book, and you'd have thought she was asked for her autograph every day of the week. "Sure, no problem!" she chirped, and dotted her "i" with a smart little circle. More ringing, from anyone in the audience who was experienced. Then the churchwarden opened the steps to the bell chamber and we could climb up, gaze down at the bells, which were lovingly restored during Sayers's father's tenure as vicar. And re-dedicated a few years ago with money from our Society. One bell now bears the legend of the Dorothy L Sayers Society, which I think is lovely.

To the Church Hall for tea, which I drank alone as befits the oddity from town who came all by herself, but gradually two Society members edged over to me. "Come from far away, did you?" "London," I said. "Fan, are you?" "Oh, massive, I even named my cat Lord Peter Wimsey," I said warmly, and that did it. I was accepted. The two ladies told some stories about "gormless things Americans say" on the Yahoo! Lord Peter email group, and as I did not jump up to defend my countrymen, they dropped their guard. Out we went then into the cemetery where I was led to the gravestone of a woman called Thoday, one of the village names in the novel. Such fun to see it, as if a fictional person had come to life (well, strictly speaking, death). And I wandered around with these two English ladies and we played cemetery games: finding every association we could between the names on the gravestones and characters in mystery fiction. It was definitely a specialist sort of day. How I missed my mother! She would have dived into the game with both feet.

Then it was time to retrace my steps back to London, my head positively filled with the past, fictional and real, with a sense of wonder that a person's lifetime achievements - a row of mystery novels on a shelf - could engender such devotion and long-lasting wish to commemorate her. A link between literature before the war, and a red-haired rugby-mad bell ringer just out of childhood. Lovely.

I spent Sunday recovering from this extravaganza. And cooking the most gorgeous side dish, copied as best as I could from our local Italian delicatessen, Sundrica, near the Hammersmith Tube Station. Guess what? There's rocket in it.

Warm Chickpea Salad with Feta and Rocket
(serves 4 as a small side dish or 2 as a lunch salad)

4 tbsps olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium red onion, minced
2 tsps mild curry powder
2 soup-size cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed (about 500 grams drained weight)
juice of 1 lemon (this suits my lemon crazed family, but cut down if you like)
8 oz feta cheese, crumbled into bite-size pieces
2 cups rocket, loosely packed
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet or saucepan and fry the garlic and onion gently till soft. Add the curry powder and cook for another minute, taking care not to burn the garlic. It is essential to cook the curry to avoid the bitterness that can come from merely adding it raw, as it were, to the dish.

Add the chickpeas and the lemon juice and more olive oil if the mixture seems too dry, and cook very gently for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the feta cheese and toss well till the cheese is warmed. Tip the whole lot into a large bowl and toss with the rocket, then season and serve.


This is a lovely dish, warm and comforting, but with a sophistication that comes from the curry and rocket, a zing from the lemon and plenty of salt from the feta. Perfect with a grilled pork fillet, roast chicken, shoulder of lamb.

Monday found me at school (look, I can just SAY that and I won't get arrested! and I'm not hiding!) to volunteer for the Lost Property Sale. This is an event of mammoth proportions, requiring the efforts of at least a dozen volunteers, the muscle of both school handymen to bring tables, rolling racks. The whole Lost Property room with its smelly PE kit, mismatched trainers, countless lost cardigans, forgotten down jackets, swimming towels and lacrosse sticks had to be turned out, organized and laid out to sell. A mounting fury took over all of us at one point: "What is the matter with our children that there is an entire room full of their belongings and they don't even appear to MISS them?" I haven't even mentioned the locked cabinet full of watches, cameras, cell phones, iPods, jewelry, HOUSE KEYS and Oyster cards for the Tube. How do these children function? Do they have spares of EVERYTHING?

So Monday was the last opportunity for the girls to come by and claim their belongings without having to buy them. All the ladies I work with there are fodder for a novel someday. Peggy plucked a hair from a jacket and started to drop it in the bin when she suddenly stared at it and said, "DNA! We could find out EXACTLY who this jacket belongs to! Let's start getting samples..." And Marianne turned to me, as I was struggling to move a huge rack of sweaters to one side of the hall, put her head on one side like an inquisitive bird, and said, "Surely you are not under the impression that the rewards for Lost Property are earthly ones? No, one must wait until the next life to be thanked for these sacrifices..."

The girls ambled up, mostly on their way to or from lunch, pawed through things, made ineffective claims to items that were clearly not theirs but just looked appealing. And through it all, there was crowning glory of the sale, the mysterious five chocolate fish which appeared suddenly some weeks ago between the hymnbooks and the discarded French texts. Chocolate fish the size of, say, a screwdriver. Not Easter basket chocolate fish, but BIG ones. Where did they come from, and why on earth did someone donate them to Lost Property and not simply scoff the lot?

It was really funny to take these super-cool girls, all slung about with Abercrombie and fringey scarves, ask them, "Is there anything in particular you're looking for?" and when they shrug and giggle and say, "Not really," you say, "Are you sure you haven't lost a... chocolate fish?" Never failed to get a reaction, and some actual conversation. "They rattle when you shake them!" it was discovered. We priced them at a pound each, and I determined to get one for Avery. What is the point of being the incoming head of LP if you don't take advantage of the opportunities attached thereto?

Tuesday dawned bright and fair and the sale started at promptly noon. Pandemonium! One particular mother has a booming voice and absolutely no hesitation about making a total fool of herself in a good cause, so she ran about waving t-shirts at girls and saying plaintively, "Take me home, says the little t-shirt. I don't want to live in Lost Property anymore, I want to live with YOU, and I'm only a quid!" The hour-long sale seemed to last for about three minutes, three very loud minutes. Avery drifted in and picked up some Converse high-tops, a Gap jacket, a plaid cashmere scarf, and... a chocolate fish. Thank goodness. I stayed behind after, to learn the ropes for my eventually taking over after Easter. Another meeting at school tomorrow WITH my laptop, to receive instruction, wisdom and a dose of humility.

Today I ambled into Marylebone to have coffee with my friend Angela (she of the thinly disguised school scandal memoir in my writing class, bless her), who kindly introduced me to her neighbor, the excellent cookery writer Sybil Kapoor. Her latest book, Citrus and Spice, is a very inventive approach to structure: she chooses twelve "flavours," like citrus, ozone, verdant, smoke, and cream, to embody each month of the year. I'm not sure I like the structure, actually, which tries very hard to explain what I think is essentially an intuitive sense - what flavors go with what other flavors - in a scientific way. Yet she seems to realize this is a conundrum, because there are many instances in which she says, "For whatever reason," which I think underscores that we don't really have a definite sense of why crab goes with citrus. It just does.

So whether you agree with her approach or not, the recipes sound memorable and tempting, a good sign in a cookbook, and she is a delight. Shy, thoughtful, absolutely willing to share her expertise in publishing food writing. Quite an intimidating morning, however, leaving me to wonder if I should just sit back and let the big girls run the show. The thought of trying to penetrate all these markets where there are already quite enough talented writers is daunting to say the least.

Right, I'd better put aside my own petty life and see how Avery's coming with her English project, the life and career of Agatha Christie. I have never converted her to Dorothy L Sayers, but it's still early days. Let the bells chime.


harleybone said...

Wish I could be on all these escapades with you!

Kristen In London said...

me too, honey...