30 April, 2009

I'm OFF!

No, not with an empty pot: I'll tell you about that in a moment. I wanted to let you know that I'll be away until Monday evening, on an adventure! Remember my Devon retreat in October, closeted away in the fields of Sheepdip or Sheepshead, was it Sheepwash? Yes. Tucked away with 15 other aspiring food writers, writing and cooking our hearts out. And making lasting friends, as it turns out, because this weekend will see us all in sunny (we hope) Shropshire, at a reunion! All the best and brightest will gather, ingredients and chapters in hand, to cook, gossip, be lazy, read each other's pieces, maybe even write, should the inspiration take us. There will be young and brilliant Sam, effervescent Foxi Rosie, mysterious Roger, ambitious Adam, talented Louise, and many others, ready to recreate the magic of October. It seems a lifetime ago, so much has happened since.

In the run-up thereto, I have been enslaving myself at the stove, partly to fill the refrigerator for my beloved family left behind (chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, egg salad with watercress, all the comforting favorites), and concocting treats to take with me: Richard Corrigan's peerless crab and goat's cheese tart, my own warm cannellini bean salad with rosemary and parmesan. I will travel down to Bath with my cool-bag full of luscious bits and pieces, including Welsh Dragon sausages from the Giggly Pig at the farmer's market, and the latest copy of Waitrose Food Illustrated in my handbag. I'm ready for an adventure, and also for a break from my desk, my stove. All it will take is three days away and I will be more than ready to take it all up again, but a little change of scene does sound appealing. If the break is anything like October, there will be no cell phone coverage and no internet access, so I'll see you on Tuesday.

Now, to explain the soup pot. Last night we had dinner guests whose presence in our lives goes back nearly 20 years, to our first sojourn in London as newlyweds, believe it or not. Tom and Judith, the names just make me sink back into the past and those long-ago days at... their soup kitchen for homeless men on the Embankment. Every single morning, rain or shine (especially in rain, probably), there they were, outside the tube station, providing tea, coffee, rolls, Band-aids, socks, gloves and any other clothing they could lay their hands on, and, naturally, soup. John popped up out of the tube station on his way to work one day and saw the gathering of men, of all ages, sizes, states of health, being served in an atmosphere of calm and caring, and immediately offered us and our postage-stamp-sized kitchen to help. And that was the beginning of a long and happy friendship with Tom and Judith, and some very intriguing relationships with the men, who were referred to as our "customers," and treated with the utmost respect.

Talk about an adventure! Try making soup for 60, and I am not kidding that my kitchen was oppressively tiny. It reminds me of Laurie Colwin's observation about her own kitchen: "It was a good thing I was not friends with Wilt Chamberlain, because he could not have held his arms out in my kitchen." And the myriad problems were not just with space. What would the men like, what would sit well overnight (since the soup had to be delivered the day before to Judith's house where she heated it up at dawn to take down to the men), what would cool safely without contamination? Many was the night I lay awake trying to think up good and varied recipes. Once a week or so, John and I would turn up at the soup kitchen itself and help serve, and my goodness, the characters. Some were silent, some were nearly threatening, some were merely very ordinary men who found themselves on the street. And then there was Digger. Digger was a Welshman, a tiny, wizened old man who resembled nothing so much as a Christmas elf, without the pointy shoes. He had a booming voice six times the size of himself, a wealth of pretty much unbelievable but entertaining stories. And he was quite the food critic. Vichyssoise? "If you told me, lady, that I'd be eating cold potato soup out of a coffee cup at 7 in the morning, I'd have said you were crazy! But it works, lady!" He did not like meat, so I never brought chicken soup on my days. But his favorite, and the favorite of all the other men, was from a Hello! magazine recipe: tomato and fennel soup with cheesy croutons. I will test that recipe, tucked back in the recesses of my 1990s brain, and pass it along to you. It was always a winner.

Judith and I never lost touch, by letter (and recently she was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of email, by her grandchildren). But somehow it's been three years since we've been back and she and I just met up for lunch a month or so ago, and it took until last night to get her very busy husband (a solicitor who was meant to have retired LONG ago but won't give up the ghost) to dinner with us.

I had forgotten Tom's pin-striped suits and impeccable striped shirts, his habit of rising up on his toes with irrepressible energy when making a particularly strong point about the Labour government, or Nazi history, or even my chicken dish. "This is a most, most, how shall I put it, delightful and unusual way in which to eat chicken, my dear," he said, rocking back and forth. And Judith: to see her communing with Avery in their first conversation (which of them is the more intense, the more intelligent, the more serious, I would not want to have to say) made me very, very happy. Judith is full to the brim with grandsons, but I thought a nice proxy granddaughter might be nice. Avery was voluble on the subject of riding in Hyde Park, which got Tom going. "You don't mean to say, dear girl, that you are in charge of these beasts, who are quite capable of deciding they do not like you, in the park, in a position of some authority?" She loved that.

We ate and ate, and talked over each other, admiring the new-season British asparagus which I had taken the time to shave (what a fiddly and annoying job! but worth it), and Avery's contribution of Eton Mess, a lovely concoction of strawberries, broken meringues and whipped cream. Unfortunately, Avery and her friend Emily had made the pudding in a state of some anxiety over school affairs and had decided that pulverizing the meringues to a powdery dust would be "good therapy." Perhaps, but not good Eton Mess. The meringues simply dissolved in the strawberry juice! Completely disappeared.

We stayed up very, very late indeed. The first of many such evenings together, I hope. There is something irreplaceable about old, old friends, people who knew you as very young people and are happy to play the part of extra parents, admiring our exploits, our child, our house. When one's own parents are far away, one needs as many stand-ins as possible.

Well, I am afraid I must run. Because this is my life, I am expecting more dinner guests tonight, but not really. It's Emily's family, who are in reality our family, and Annie and I are indulging in a spot of that rare sport: Competitive Tart Baking. I made an extra crab tart, and Annie's bringing two: aubergine with feta, and smoked bacon with Gruyere. After which we will fall down in a pile of cholesterol, fat, and friendship. Not a bad state to be in.

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