08 September, 2009
have you lost a rubber orca?
That's actually not a rhetorical question. That is the sort of question one can expect to ask when one devotes most of one's waking hours to Lost Property at one's daughter's school. One small rubber orca, residing in a sealed glass jar on whose bottom is stuck a note that says "My mother's quiche." Could it be a prop from a school play? Then there was the lost half an apple from last term, a thermos of what I was VASTLY relieved to find was water, but it could have been fish chowder from 1996. How about a cookie sheet? One of those turned up today. And then there's a copy of the Sun newspaper from six and a half years ago, have you lost that?
As this photograph of Avery attests, the girls at her school can be extremely charming, creatively attired, doubtless very sweet. They can also be monumentally careless with their belongings.
Of course there are more serious items to be lost as well, like one girl's entire revision (study, for us Americans) notebook for her entire year. Her name, Phoebe, was drawn in many different styles with many different colored pencils throughout its contents, but however entertaining and decorative this might have been, note to girls: a last name is even more helpful. The only further clue to her identity was the repeated message also throughout: "PHOEBE LOVES HARRY," or its alternate spelling, "PHOEBE HEARTS HARRY." Forever, mind you. We volunteers thought of asking the school secretary to post a message on the schoolwide message whiteboard. "If Phoebe-Who-Loves-Harry-Forever could please come to Lost Property to collect her revision notebook, we would be grateful."
And get this: a British passport, cancelled to be sure, was found in the pocket of a leather bomber jacket. "This is how identity theft happens," Avery said sagely, when she stopped by on her way to lunch (chicken and leek tart with puff pastry and sage sauce). Countless lacrosse sticks, mateless trainers, games skirts with and without name tapes. Fair enough. But a rubber orca and a cookie sheet? I ask you.
All this is an implacable reminder that summer is OVER. I feel that the last day is so far away now, the afternoon we waited for Avery to come home from Cornwall. I puttered around in the kitchen cooking all her favorite foods (or some of them, she has so many!): slow-braised chicken, potato pancakes with sour cream and homemade applesauce, cheesy spinach. Do you know how easy it is to make applesauce? I'll tell you. It's the only way I know of to get a child to eat four apples at one sitting.
(serves 1 child)
four tart apples (Granny Smith, Bramley are ideal)
1/2 cup apple juice or cider
1 tsp ground cinnamon
dash ground cloves
Simply peel and core the apples, then cut into small chunks. Place in a shallow, heavy saucepan and add everything else. Simmer low for perhaps 20 minutes, mashing occasionally with a potato masher. That's IT.
The beauties of this dish are many: it's good for you, it uses up skanky apples that you wouldn't offer to your near and dear raw, it's cheap, it can serve as a side dish, a pudding or a DIVINE breakfast for your child. And it makes the house smell like the best childhood memories you ever had. Even my cookery-hating mother made applesauce!
While all this cooked, I whiled away some time playing "The Rainbow Connection" on the piano and drying dishes, then I ended up in total pathetic anticipation, sitting on the brick wall outside our front garden, with one of the summer back issues of Gourmet Magazine to pretend to read while I waited, a most appreciated present from my sister! It began to sprinkle with rain, but I didn't want to go in, so on I sat under the heavy protection of the London plane trees, talking to neighbors as they walked by on serious life errands, not spending their afternoons waiting for a practically grown-up child to return home after five long days.
And so she did, return home, I mean! How happy we were to hug her, taller even than when we last saw her! Our dear friends dropped her off, dislodging seemingly much more than one family's belongings from the boot of the car to find her bulging suitcase, while she clutched her precious bag of Cornish fudge. She dragged everything in and we sat down at the kitchen table to hear all the tales of bodyboarding, surfing (really!), fighting for shower space with 8 children, going out to the best restaurant in Cornwall for the best steak-frites of her life. The secret? "These chips were TRIPLE FRIED!" I think anything that was fried three times in salty oil would be tasty, even a rubber orca. Wonderful to have her back, sharing her excitement. It always shocks me a bit when she returns home from having done something far away from us, full of stories of things we did not do with her. Running all through our evening was the realization of how she is central to our happiness. Just wonderful!
Then, one more weekend without the usual activities, so no breathless commute to the skating rink or the acting school or the riding stable. Just long hours of hanging about, reading books that had new appeal because they were HERE all summer while we were away. And we spent a nice afternoon in our old haunts in Marylebone: the world's best (possibly only?) shop devoted entirely to buttons! As I've told you before, there is nothing like the Button Queen, even in their new premises, saved from Marylebone's dominant de Walden estate's plan to tear down several Victorian buildings and build who knows what monstrosity in their place. The Estate seemed happy to evict all their other tenants, but not the Button Queen. It always seems a shame to spent a half an hour there, looking at all the ceremonial buttons, the priceless cameo and glass buttons, and then... buy a replacement for a jacket sleeve button. And that's ALL. They never seem to mind! I suppose you'd have a unique attitude toward life and human nature if you devoted your life to buttons.
Home to have early drinks with Annie's family in their cozy, ivy- and passionfruit-draped garden, gossiping, trading stories of last summer adventures, and I gave them my two current favorite books as a completely inadequate thank-you for having Avery in Cornwall. If you haven't got A Table in the Tarn yet, get it. It's the story and the recipes from my writing tutor Orlando Murrin's country house hotel in the south of France. You'll just want his life. And his food. I have cooked many recipes from this book, and you know what? They WORK. Then I gave them Risotto With Nettles, the new memoir by Anna del Conte, simply the best English writer on Italian food since Elizabeth David, and if I'm honest, I like her even better. Self-effacing and yet somehow also completely authoritative. Her reminiscences of her Italian childhood will make you very, very hungry.
Home from their lovely atmosphere to cook a quick Sunday dinner of grilled salmon and Annie's recommendation:
Olive-Oil Mashed Potatoes
4 large waxy potatoes, like Maris Piper or Yukon Gold
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tbsps butter
milk for thinning
Peel the potatoes and quarter them, then boil in salted water for about 30 minutes until completely soft, but not dissolved. Mash thoroughly with oil, butter and enough milk (or cream, if you want to lose the battle with cholesterol) to get them to the consistency you want. I myself like rather loose mashed potatoes, but some people like them quite stiff. Salt and pepper them liberally.
What I would say about this method of mashing potatoes is that it is closer to a puree than a mash, more like the French would give you in a restaurant, and they are very, very rich. A little goes a long way and this recipe may make more than you need for four.
Tonight we are recovering from an extremely hot and sunny (and therefore stinky) tennis game and awaiting grilled lamb chops for dinner. I can't be bothered to produce anything very exciting, after my trials at Lost Property. I hate to think what tomorrow will bring: I keep expecting a severed head. I'll keep you posted.