"Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shirley Jackson

I'm mildly obsessed with artists, especially writers, who are also mothers (the Husband would probably say it's more than a mild obsession). I admire the fact that they're able to combine both roles in their lives. For example, as I write this, I'm aware that I should be going to the grocery store to pick up a couple of essential items, and that I should be putting the ingredients for dinner into the slow cooker so that when I get home tonight at 7:00 after taking Number 2 child and Number 3 child to gymnastics, there will be something ready to feed everyone with. I'm also aware that I need to plan and purchase the supplies needed for the art project I rashly agreed to organize for our Daisy Scout Troop to do at their meeting on Friday. The car needs a service and .........well..... I could go on and on and on because my to do list, like most peoples is endless. The point I'm trying to make, is that despite having grand dreams, I struggle to fit in a blog post here and there and yet a woman like Shirley Jackson managed to write lots of great books (about 9 before she died aged 48) and bring up a family. In fact, she had four children to my three.  

Shirley Jackson was an incredibly talented writer. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of the best books I've ever read. It's a creepy, macabre, claustrophobic tale that you just can't put down. The narrator is a preternatural young woman named Mary Catherine Blackwood, Merricat for short. The reader can tell there is something very wrong with her and yet, she is captivating. The book begins like this:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richared Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Wow! Powerful stuff eh? The thing I find most fascinating, is that she appears to have been a pretty normal mother. Her two works of non-fiction, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, detail her home life with her family and they are quite hilarious. How did these two opposing sides, coexist in one woman? How did she find time to write so well? Her fictional worlds are so incredibly detailed, you feel as though you are in them. Surely to write like that, her own mind must have occupied these spaces for large portions of her day. How then did she switch off and become a mum again when her kids returned from school each day? 

As a mother, she of course had her own to do lists. This is a quote from Life Among the Savages:

I believe that all women, but especially housewives tend to think in lists; I have always believed, against all opposition, that women think in logical sequence, but it was not until I came to empty the pockets of my light summer coat that year that I realized how thoroughly the housekeeping mind falls into the list pattern, how basically the idea of a series of items, following one another docilely, forms the only reasonable approach to life if you have to live it with a home and a husband and children, none of whom would dream of following one another docilely. What started me thinking about it was the little slips of paper I found in the pockets of my light summer coat, one beginning "cereal, shoes to shop, bread, cheese, peanut butter, evening paper, doz doughnuts, CALL PICTURE."

While I was writing this earlier, I couldn't quite concentrate because I kept thinking about dinner tonight and how it wasn't in the slow cooker and therefore it wasn't cooking. After writing the first paragraph,  I got up, optimistically threw some leeks, potato and stock together and closed the lid of the crock pot, crossing my fingers that when I open it up in about six hours from now, it will have miraculously turned into leek and potato soup. When I finished doing that, I looked at the clock and realized that if I didn't get a move on, I wouldn't have time run to the grocery store to get the essential items before the kids get home from school. In other words, I barely managed to put together this blog post in between my to do list. How then, did a woman like Shirley Jackson manage to put together entire, mysterious and captivating worlds in her novels in between picking up cereal and the evening paper?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Today I'm going to talk about our house. The picture above is the view from the front. It's the Hudson River which we can see as long as we manage to keep the hedges and trees and shrubbery in our garden under control - this alone is no easy undertaking.

I feel that our house and I have a slightly dysfunctional relationship. House, is like a grumpy old relative that I'm quite fond of but often get frustrated with. First of all, let me give you some background to House. House is almost 90 years old. He was born in 1925 and has a certain dapper charm left over from that era plus one or two original light fittings and features which won me over when we first came to meet him (the aforementioned view also held quite a strong pull). He's made from local stone which means he has good bone structure but he's let himself go somewhat. When we have a terrible storm and the wind blows hard, I forget about all the painting and fixing and TLC that House needs and I feel grateful for his thick stone walls and solid foundations. The roof might blow off his head but I feel pretty sure that House will remain standing whatever nature throws at us.

However, House can be extremely uncooperative at times. I would like to make House beautiful again and restore him to his former glory but every time I embark upon a plan for him to have a little nip here or a tuck there, House does something that stops me in my tracks and requires major disruption and hassle and never results in him actually looking any better.

For example, about three weeks ago, our very old dishwasher started to perform badly. She didn't completely give up on life but her performance became sub-par and we decided it was time to let her go. Husband and I went out and bought a new dishwasher - all shiny stainless steel inside and out and special power jet super-washing abilities. After waiting two weeks for this fabulous new appliance to be in stock and after several farce-like days where the delivery people kept insisting on giving me time slots that I told them I couldn't commit to and then turning up outside of them anyway, she finally arrived. The delivery men took one look at our kitchen and old dishwasher and promptly left without installing her. "You need a plumber for this" they told my husband and unceremoniously dumped the new girl in our dining room where she remains still in her box.

Around the same time as dishwasher packing up, the local water department told us we needed to replace our water meter as the one we had was old (it and everything else in this house). The man from the water department arrived yesterday, took one look at our meter and the shut off valve which looks like one more twist would snap it off for ever and said: "I can't shut your water off here, I'll have to find the shut off outside" and off he went. He disappeared for ages, in fact, I thought he'd given up and left but eventually he came to the back door and informed me that he thought he'd located the shut off and that it was under our driveway and that he'd need to dig it up. "You can't do that" I said. "We just had the driveway re-done last year." It cost a fortune and it's so far the only cosmetic improvement we've managed to accomplish and even that was forced on us by a very rough winter which destroyed our old driveway. "I'll just go and take another look." he said and disappeared again for ages.

When he returned, he told me he'd found the shut off. It was under the driveway and they had to dig it up to access it. "You did that without telling me first?" I asked him incredulously. "It's okay, we'll take care of it. Oh by the way, you need a plumber to replace the inside shut off valve".

The good news is that the plumber would have needed to replace the valve to shut off the water to replace the dishwasher so it's sort of timely. Unfortunately, we now also need to get the water department out again at the same time as the plumber to shut off the water outside so that the plumber can come and replace the valve inside and install the dishwasher.  Of course none of this is contributing one iota to the walls getting painted or the kitchen and bathrooms being replaced and now the driveway isn't quite as pretty as it was either.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I wish everyone would just set the bar a little lower please.

Lately I have derived much pleasure from reading this blog: I don't know how she doesn't do it.blogspot.com . It's written by a mother of three in London who gave up her career to take care of her family. She admits, horror of horror, that she regrets giving up her beloved career in TV production to become a SAHM. How refreshing I say! Although she seems to me to be a perfectly competent mother she doesn't present her family life through a rose tinted filter. She admits that it is often messy and imperfect. Her children don't always comply, her house is not always pristine, she is not always on the top of her game. Her blog reminds me very much of a book I read earlier this year: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield which was written in the 1930s. She too humorously presents her life with children as far from perfect despite the fact that she has a cook and live-in childcare! Actually I think my life would lean more heavily on the side of perfection if I had a household staff but I digress.

These ladies and their accounts of their own mothering experiences interest me because for the most part I feel I am surrounded by supermoms in both the real and cyber world. I can say quite honestly, "I don't know how they do it all." Many of the moms I come into contact with have high powered jobs as bankers, lawyers, vets, accountants etc.  You would think they might be slightly less hands on with their children but no, these same mothers volunteer at the monthly bake sales, are scout leaders, hold positions on the home school board and do extra homework with their kids. 

Just before summer, Number 2 child came home from a Brownie meeting where a yoga teacher had come to give them a lesson.  Me: "How did you get on?" Number 2 child: "Oh it was so much fun! So and so's mom baked cookies for us and she is AMAZING at yoga. You should see her. You should also bake some cookies. Why don't you do that?" 

I too like yoga. During term time while the kids are at school, I sometimes manage to squeeze in a class maybe once a week at a push. I am far from amazing at it. How many classes would I need to take to be amazing at it I wonder? How does a mother of three with a high powered full time job who rarely misses a volunteer opportunity or school thing also manage to practice yoga and bake cookies. Please tell me, how, how, how?

I do know that some of these mothers don't sleep much because they have told me as much. I'm also pretty sure that while I am on my sofa relaxing and watching Project Runway after my kids have gone to bed that many of them are still answering emails and presumably baking cookies. I just wish they'd all set the bar a bit lower so that both they and mortal mothers such as myself can get 7 hours sleep a night and not feel guilty about it!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In my kitchen lately

This week I gave wontons a go again. I'd actually forgotten that I'd made something like this before but then the blog reminded me. I have Gwyneth Paltrow to thank for this recipe although I don't as a general rule thank her for much. The last time I attempted a recipe from her latest cookbook,  'It's All Good' it was anything but good and I ended up feeling completely inadequate because try as I might, I could not coax her millet felafel recipe into a felafel shape. It insisted on maintaining its status as a bowl of mushy millet with seasonings. I quite clearly remember thinking as I made it,  I bet it always turns into a felafel when Gwynnie is making it and then closed the book up, returned it to my shelf and silently vowed never to put myself through that again.

However, time heals and I completely forgot about how inadequate Gwynnie's book with its beautiful pictures of Gwyneth and her beautiful children eating beautiful healthy food including intact felafel, outside, in beautiful weather, made me feel and I rashly attempted another recipe, this time for veggie dumplings.  I realized that it would be totally unreasonable of me to presume that I could possibly make both the contents and wrappers for the dumplings from scratch - I mean, yes, I would attempt this if it were someone else's recipe but I suspect that to get Gwyneth's recipes to work from start to finish, you need that certain magic that Gwyneth has been blessed with and I and most other mortals have not. So I took a short cut. Now I know that Gwyneth would never do such a thing but Gwyneth as we all know, is in a league of her own (although in all fairness to her - she did say it was okay to use store bought wrappers - I don't really believe she ever would but she did gave her blessing to people like me who are not quite as gifted). I used store bought wonton wrappers to make the dumplings and I didn't add some (many) of the ingredients she recommended for the filling. For example, I felt I could live without quinoa in them especially as that would involve another pot and apparently she only eats Perfectly Cooked Quinoa which I pretty much knew I wouldn't end up with despite all my best efforts.

Okay in the interest of full disclosure, I also didn't steam them in a bamboo steamer. I baked them in the oven. I'm not sure Ms. Paltrow would approve. Actually I'm not even sure it would be reasonable to claim that I made her veggie dumplings as I think the only common denominator between hers and mine was tofu.

Having said that, despite many missing ingredients and not making homemade gluten-free dumpling wrappers these turned out pretty well and I got an "I love these" from my son which considering they contained tofu and cabbage and were completely devoid of meat, was a pretty incredible thing to hear. Hmm, maybe Ms. Paltrow is onto something.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Happy 2014

The other evening I was tucking into Portobello Mushroom Cashew Cheese Burgers, recipe courtesy of this beautiful blog, whilst my family ate some breaded chicken which I had prepared for them. I wanted to scream with joy about the fantastic experience my taste buds were enjoying but decided to keep it to myself. My love of mushrooms in all their forms is not shared with any of my immediate family and the mere mention of cashew cheese would probably send them running for the hills. The thing is I felt guilty. It is my usual dilemma. I have been vegetarian for 25 years and during that time I have never once felt nostalgic about meat. I've only felt good about my choice. My health, weight, skin, energy levels all improved when I gave up eating meat. Nowadays we are being bombarded with the message that a predominantly plant based diet is good for you and more and more high profile people are switching to vegetarian and vegan diets and making a lot of noise about it which is great. However, when my children were small, I decided not to enforce vegetarianism on them but rather to try to educate them about healthy eating and to let them make their own dietary decisions when they are ready.

Having said that, it's definitely time for me to gently nudge my family towards a more plant based diet and to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy, so this morning, before preparing my shopping list for the week, I flicked through some cookbooks and online resources and tried to hunt down some vegetarian recipes which will really please them and make them want more. I've done this before and  usually a meatless dinner is met with complaints. It's extremely difficult to find vegetarian recipes which skip the ingredients my kids and husband vehemently dislike which include beans, cheese and mushrooms as mentioned above. I'd also like to avoid fake meat substitutes. It's challenging but I'll let you know how I get on.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Winter scarf in Liberty Print

A little while ago, my mother-in-law very kindly sent me an exquisite piece of Liberty fabric. It would have made a beautiful skirt for summer but as it was December and I was dying to get this gorgeous textile onto my body, I decided to make it into a winter scarf instead. I backed the fabric with some black wool that I had left over from another project and the result is a very warm and elegant scarf. Unfortunately, the winter has been so mild this year that I've barely had the need to wear it. In fact, if I'd gone ahead and made a lightweight skirt, I probably would have worn it more than the scarf by now. I'm not complaining. I've made no secret of my distaste for the winter months although I am a little freaked out by the strangeness of it all. Having said that, the temperatures do seem to be dropping again so I shall be pulling out my scarf and reveling in the luxury of it for the next few days at least.

I'm still trying to eat vegan. It's funny, I thought that as I'm already a vegetarian, being vegan would be quite easy for me but for some reason I'm finding it rather challenging. I shall stick with it though. I'm having lots of fun trying out new recipes to keep me motivated and the excuse to indulge in things like these very yummy peanut butter cups from Alicia Silverstone's, 'The Kind Diet' (recipe here) makes it all seem worthwhile somehow.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Vegetarian Sushi

About seven years ago, I bought a sushi mat in Chinatown thinking I couldn't live without one. This week I got it out for the first time when I became overwhelmed by an urge to make vegetarian sushi. I used a recipe from Rose Eliot's 'New Vegetarian Cooking' which is a book that I have owned for about ten years. I've looked at the sushi recipe hundreds of times but always moved on because the first words of the recipe are "These are quite a lot of trouble to make...."

Now that I've finally got around to making them, I can't believe how simple they are to pull together. I would say that they are quite a lot of trouble to make compared to scrambled eggs on toast but otherwise really not that much trouble at all. I'm guessing that the key to ensuring that all goes well is that the rice needs to be the right consistency i.e. sticky because that's the glue that holds it all together. I used Japanese sushi rice, followed the directions on the packet and then followed Rose Eliot's instructions to add 2 Tbs of rice vinegar; 2 Tbs of mirin and 1 tsp of salt to the cooked rice and that combination resulted in perfect rice. For the fillings I used strips of peppers which you need to broil and skin and slices of avocado. Once you have your rice and fillings ready, you roll them up in a piece of pre-toasted nori seaweed and voila, you have a lovely sushi roll. I'm not even sure that the mat is an essential. I think you could probably use a cloth just as effectively. There are some useful vegetarian sushi recipes here including this one which looks interesting.

I pulled these together whilst also cooking dinner for my family who wouldn't touch seaweed with a barge pole. However, the rolls were so pretty that the girls showed a lot of interest in them so next time I make this (which will be soon, I'm not waiting seven years again) I'm going to get them to help and then try it because I think they would actually like the sushi if they gave it a go.

One of the reasons for my overwhelming urge to try out new recipes lately is that I've been flirting with the idea of becoming vegan. I haven't eaten meat for over twenty years so it's not a huge leap just a deepening of that commitment I suppose. I don't think I could be a one hundred percent vegan for ever but I'm certainly going to try to limit my intake of dairy and eggs for a while.