Archive for August, 2008

Lecso with the Old Forester…

August 27, 2008

I had my sixth eye operation on Monday morning. Old Forester, Uncle Pista, was arriving yesterday to spend several overnights with us while he visits his old cronies from Sopron Forestry School ( at UBC) for their annual summer picnic.

Rumpole and I had spent a poor sleepless night Monday night, mainly because I had to sleep on my stomach with my head face down after the operation. This necessitated creating a structure out of pillows and towels in bed to keep my head steady and allow me to breathe at the same time. I was up every hour as my back spasmed from the unusual sleep position, and poor Rumpole was disturbed by my getting in and out of bed. Finally, I got up at 4 am to take a Tylenol and let him get a couple of hours of straight sleep. At 6:30 we drove off to Abbotsford to make the 7:30 am follow-up appointment with the surgeon, Dr. Seemore. On the drive, Rumpole asked how I was going to be able to be ready to receive Old Forester. What was I planning to feed him?

“Oh, Lecso, I think,” I told him. “These old Hungarian fellows like their traditional growlies.”

“Well, don’t over-do it, ” he grumbled, stifling a yawn. “Remember you are supposed to take it easy. And just how exactly can you cook lecso lying down?”

“Zere is a vay, vere zere is a vill, edesem,” I replied, “maybe I can invent upside-down lecso? Stranger things have happened.”

“Don’t be so bloody flippant, G. I’ll rat you out to the surgeon. He will strighten you out!”

Well, it so happened that Dr. Seemore looked at my puffed-up tomato red eye and said that I could stay upright the rest of the day. Thus he gave me permission, witnessed by Rumpole, to carry on as Domestic Goddess and make regular Lecso for us for supper. Yes!!! Just don’t run around, bend down and pick up heavy stuff. Easy peasy! I told Rumpole on the drive home that chopping vegetables and assembling them was not major labour, and that yes, before Pista arrived I’d do a little lie down and rest. Poor Rumpole had a day in the office, with demanding clients to contend with. He had had scant little sleep the night before and certainly had more important tasks to discharge than my measly putting together a simple meal.

The weekend before, we had gone to the local farmer’s market and picked up some fine yellow sweet Hungarian peppers, green peppers, ripe tomatoes, juicy onions and new nugget potatoes. Lucky had gifted us with her husband’s home-made deer pepperoni sausages – so these were slated to be the meat component of the lecso dish.

After changing and making up beds, washing and hanging out laundry, I took a couple of hours of blissful nap – and not lying face down either. By the time I awoke, my eye had turned a deep eggplant colour – not vey attractive. I looked like a victim of severe domestic abuse and wondered if Old Forester might make a sarcastic comment about why Rumpole might take pokes at me. Entertaining possible smart rejoinders to such queries, I began to wash and chop vegetables and sausage. Assembled all the different ingredients into separate bowls and laid these out like a regiment near the stove to begin assembly.

Ding Dong! The bell woke me from my mise en place engagement with the food-stuff. It was Martha at the back door, come from her dentist’s appointment to check on my operation aftermath condition.

“God! You look terrible, worse than you have after the previous operations.” She covered her eyes and peeked between her fingers at me. “Uncle Pista will think you have been severely beaten by Rumpole. You’ll have to explain that is not what happened here.”

“Gee, thanks!” I muttered as I shepherded her into the kitchen. “Come have some coffee. And why don’t you stay for dinner and a visit with Old Forester”

“I’ll take the coffee, but won’t stay for dinner if you’re making something spicy and Hungarian. What’s for dinner?”

When I mentioned “lecso” Martha demurred and made her excuses. She preferred to bring us supper on Wednesday night and get her visit in with Uncle Pista. I started assembling the Lecso while Martha caught me up on teaching gossip and stories of friends who have come back from holidaying in Cuzco, London and Berlin. She asked if I needed her to get anything for our dinner tonight. Just some wine, I thought, and maybe a baguette to sop up the lecso juices. She dank her coffee and went off shopping.

By the time Martha came back with the wine and bread, the lecso was simmering nicely and smelled heavenly.

“How hot have you made it, this time?” she asked as she unloaded her purchases.

So I gave her a spoonful, to which she commented, ” I hope Uncle Pista has a cast iron stomach!”

Well, naturally,  a cook has to make spice adjustments for seniors, as they can take only more bland spicing, versus the rip-roaring heat a younger person can stomach. Of course, Martha has the palate of a decrepit senior, even if she is in her middle 50s. Or, it could be she has English taste-buds and a preference for bland food. Old Forester, on the other hand, is a true Hungarian who loves the spices used in his beloved meals. I reassured Martha that Uncle Pista would survive my culinary ministrations, yet again. Oddly, she seemed doubtful. Go figure!

Martha took her leave and advised me to ice my eye and put up my feet before Uncle Pista and Rumpole arrived for dinner. I complied and took a load off.

Old Forester arrived before Rumpole did. He looked  natty and handsome in one of his well-pressed forestry service green shirts. He had the scabbard of his pocket knife attached to his belt, and complained of having left the knife at the recycling station in Logan Lake where he last used the knife to slice apart some cardboard boxes he was recycling. He is tending to be more forgetful these days. I promised to take him today to a local sport store to buy a replacement knife.

He made some Hungarian witticisms, of an understated sort, about my appearance. “You have looked better! But I smell that looks have nothing to do with your cooking prowess. Is that Lecso I smell?” He rubbed his gnarled hands together in anticipation. “Oh, I see, you have provided the nectar of the Gods for accompaniment. Well, we shall have a fine evening of debauchery. Yours is the only house where I can have my after dinner cigarette without having to go outside by myself.”

I hugged him, bade him welcome and set a cup of coffee in front of him at the kitchen table. He told me some wonderful stories about his recent adventures while we waited for Rumpole to arrive home for a supper of lecso.

That is what I need for my recuperation from operations – the company of good friends and family. I am going to thoroughly enjoy this brief visit from my old uncle. There is always good conversation and laughter at our table, interesting complaints to air and discuss,  and observations about the state of the world to share. Such pleasure!

Mozart, Mousey and me…

August 21, 2008

Mozart is probably revolving in his grave, what with his ethereal music being recently used to entertain a two year old. He had no idea, really, that his Marriage of Figaro might provide a lip-synching miming oppportunity, accompanied by invented costumes, for a grandmother and grand-daughter duo.

Well, I thought, nothing ventured, etc.. It occurred to me that babysitting Mousey has given me grand occasion for embarking on unorthodox play, or at least play which painlessly introduces forms of music to a young child which in some adults of my acquaintance causes pained expressions and demands to turn the music down. Think Opera, and then think Rumpole and Glasgow Girl. They both concur that listening to Opera is akin to torturing cats in a back alley in the dead of night. Somehow, trying to develop an appreciation for such an art form in my delightful grand-daughter is such a deliciously subversive idea. Why, I can already imagine her as a teen-ager, playing deafeningly loud recordings of The Magic Flute, or The Tales of Hoffman whilst singing along in passable pitch and with great passion while her mother, Glasgow Girl, cowers in chagrin in the bathroom with the shower going full blast to drown out the wonderful music. Ooh, the delightful frisson of a possibility!

Mousey is used to me arriving with my purse and the black bag which she anticipates looking into to see what new thing I have brought to show her. On this particular day, it was loaded with long scarves that would completely swathe her little person and The Marriage of Figaro CD that I like to play and sing along to whenever I am alone at home. It doesn’t matter whether the singer is a soprano, mezzo, tenor or baritone, I tackle all the songs with great vigour.  I like the idea of such power lurking in the depths of my black bag!

As soon as Mousey saw my black bag she made a grab for it, pulled the scarves out with flourish and immediately cast them aside, but brought the CD into the light and looked at me with a quizzical expression. “Pooh and Tigger?” she questioned.

“Oh, no.” I said with a stage whisper. “It’s Mozart. Just wait till you hear it.”

“Yeah, just wait till I’m gone before you play it, ” announced Glasgow Girl. “can’t stand listening to that screechy stuff.” She made hurried motions to put on her work shoes, kissed the Mouse, grabbed her purse and made her getaway.

I put the CD in the machine, grabbed a long scarf and dressed Mousey in it. Took her little pillow from her bedroom and tied it on top of my head with another scarf and brought the opossum mom hand-puppet and her baby into the living room. Possie, the mom, was my prop. The baby possum was the Mouse’s. We sat on the floor and listened as the opening strains of the music wafted through the room.

Mousey immediately began to bob her head in time with the music. She tapped her toes. She moved the baby opossum toward Possey in my hand with mincing motions, very Mozartian and playful. When the first aria arrived, I mimed the song, lip-synching  and craning my neck and head with exaggerated drama toward Mousey and then toward Possie who I engaged in dramatic accompaniment. Keeping with the Music, the Mouse made rhythmic motions with her hand puppet and with her mouth.

We got up off the floor and danced around, weaving and flowing with the music; stepped with exaggerated care keeping with the crisp qaulity of sound. In the more melodic portions, we subsided onto the floor and kept the beat with the hand-puppets. Mousey is remarkable in that she shows great love of music and has a way of activating her little body with sound. At times, she listens with great acuteness, her brown button eyes take on a faraway look. She tilts her head as if she let the music inside it and it courses through  first her head, and then through the rest of her little body. Then she moves in automatic accord with the rising and falling sound. This is so magical to see, such an unselfconscious and honest response.

It was remarkable how long she was able to engage with the music, for the duration of the CD. She seemd to like the baritone passages which had a booming quality. During the soprano bits she became somewhat languid and danced around making gentle swooping movements with her arms. In moments of drama, she’d come up to me, bring her face close and lip-synch with emphasis punctuating with the baby opossum hand-puppet.

By the end of the recording, I was quite pooped out. Mousey was relaxed and alert. “Moosick finished,” she said in her quiet voice. We lay on the floor with our feet propped on the seat of the couch and covered ourselves with our scarves. She had brought a book over and we read and talked quietly. The opossum puppets lay beside us, now forgotten, or temporarily put aside.

“Would you like me to leave you the music? So you can listen to it whenever you want?” I asked her after we had finished reading.

“Yes, pwease. I like it!” Mousey said with enthusiasm.

Mozart would be pleased, I like to think. He is continuing to delight yet another generation. What a pay-off for a composer – long life for his “moosick”.

Plum tree…

August 17, 2008

It is always at this time of year that I’m on the lookout for Italian plums, or, prune plums, at the fruit and vegetable stands. Forever, August is imprinted in my memory as the season of plums, for which fruit I had early developed a passionate favoritism. It may have been because Anyu always took care to partake of this seasonal delight. During Augusts in early years in Hungary, plum soup and plum dumplings were favourite family meal items. For sure, Ildiko and I were very aware of seasonal ripening of our favourite fruits and vegetables, mainly because we coursed freely through the local countryside and kept a keen eye out for the setting and ripening of various fruits. These we would forage from freely, when the appropriate time came, climbing into trees, and settling on branches to chow down on fruit like our primate forebears. It seems that, if memory serves me at all, most of what we ate then were fruits and vegetables. Whether the offering grew in ditches, abandoned or manicured orchards, it did not escape our rapacious and experimental appetites.

When we first bought this house seven years ago, our immediate neighbour had a small prune plum tree which struggled to stay alive on our fence line. It generously bent its branches into our side yard, and I delighted in taking from it several handfuls of ripe plums. From these I’d make plum dumplings for a treat for Rumpole and Renaissance Man. I had no accurate recipe for the dumpling dough, but had watched how over the years Anyu had made the dough by combining handfuls of ingredients – mashed potatoes, flour, salt and beaten eggs. She had wrapped halves of prune plum in discs of the dough, added a sprinkle of sugar and then sealed the little packages, which she would cook in a cauldron of boiling water. When the dough globes rose to the surface, they were cooked through. Drained, then smothered in fired breadcrumbs then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, these made a heavenly feast. No August is complete, without several occasions of feasting on prune-plum dumplings, even if the plums come from a farm stand. My neighbour took out his plum tree three years ago, and since then I have been purchasing the plums rather than pulling them, warm and dusty from their stems on the tree.

Last week, I decided to remedy this situation and bought a gangly, juvenile, Italian plum tree from a local nursery. It is a spindly, leggy tree and won’t bear fruit for at least four more years. I don’t care; the idea of being able to harvest at least some fruit from my own tree is so satisfying. In four or so years, Mousey will be six years old and just getting her tree-climbing legs. She will probably also love to harvest the plums. Lord knows as a suburban child she is isolated from the sources of the food she eats. Even having the two small blueberry shrubs we do , she is able to gather the fruit by herself, and know directly where the fruit she so adores comes from – not the grocery store, but from spindly bushes in grandma’s back yard and other such places.

As soon as prune plums become locally available, I shall prepare a feast of Hungarian plum dumplings for all of us – and then show her that the young tree in my front yard will soon be providing the delicious fruit, year in, year out, God and the weather willing.

Gift giving and Gift wrapping…

August 5, 2008

June and July have been the gift giving season for us. Several family members and friends have had birthdays; this involves gift giving, and the inevitable gift-wrapping that accompanies it. This year for the Junior Rumpole family, Renaissance Man, Glasgow Girl and Mousey the gifts involved artisan-made or artist-made ones. Why not support the creative community, I figured.

The giving of gifts necessitates camouflaging them with wrappings to make them a ‘production’ of a present, to add glamour and mystery to what may in the end turn out to be an ugly pair of socks a recipient might only use to dust ceiling corners in perpetuity. There have been volumes of books published which are devoted to the fine craft of wrapping presents. The whole procedure becomes a painful chore to which proles, like yours truly, carry a life-long deep-seated antipathy, never being interested in developing refinements, which, when considered in seriousness, border on the frivolous, excessive and wasteful. Conventions of gift presentation carry with them a whiff of the bourgeois.  Ever conscious of my ‘pinko’ characteristics, I have made many attempts to down-play gift-wrappings, by giving presents which are awkward to box, bag or otherwise wrap.

Why, once, I decided to gift my younger sister, Margaret, with a lilac shrub. This item is rather challenging to camouflage. Rather than festoon it with wrappings of hideous patterned gift wrap paper, I chose to go ‘au naturel’, as in “what you see me dragging in is what you get so be prepared to do a superlative bit of acting and look absolutely surprised AND delighted”. Once I had arrived at Margaret’s house,  wrestled the shrub out from the car’s back seat, fluffed it up a bit to negate the dishevelment it had suffered during a twenty mile drive, I presented it to her with a flourish from behind my back ( as if she missed identifying the shrub as it poked out around my blocky body). Ta Daa! Surprise!!! Margaret can give Meryl Streep a run for her money as an actress, she faked surprise and pleasure so well. And the lilac has grown to monstrous proportions in the intervening years. It has given her scented blooms for her vases, or for her afternoons out sipping tea in its magnificent shade. And no gift wrap had been wasted or sent to the land-fill.

I was thinking back on this while considering exactly how I was going to ready the Junior Rumpole gifts for this year’s presentations. Renaissance Man’s gift of a silk-screen print by Anarchist Artist of the ‘Battle of Seattle’ was a cinch to prepare. I slipped it into a huge archival plastic envelope, one of those I use to store large drawings, rolled it into a large tube and wrapped a strip of fine drawing paper around its middle. A small tidy snick of tape to secure the paper strip, and it was good to go. Renaissance Man shares with me a mania for collecting art works on paper, so he will make good use of the archival plastic envelope for his own storage purposes. He didn’t seem crest-fallen in receiving a gift so casually presented. Score: proles

Glasgow Girl has enough residual bourgeoise tendencies to want a somewhat more fussy presentation. Eage to oblige, I scratched my grey head while considering solutions. Her gift, of a pottery serving-bowl, was a tad too small to place inside a flowery pillowcase and enclose with a length of ribbon from my sewing stash. Of course, I could have stuffed the pillow-case with shredded bills from the paper shredder, to disguise the contours of the gift, however it did not seem appropriate to accompany such a lovely present with slivers of paper bearing hidden evidence of my family finances, so, instead, I opted to use furoshiki.

For those unfamiliar with this term, using furoshiki involves wrapping and carrying objects inside a knotted, square, patterned cloth of cotton, rayon, or silk. I have long admired Japanese craft, aesthetics, and their national tendency to marry practicality with beauty. This seemed a perfect solution. I remembered that somewhere in the distant reaches of my bedroom closet was a box full of new, never used silk and wool scarves that I had recieved over the years as gifts. You don’t know what to get a man as a present? heck! Buy him socks – he always needs them. For women the equivalent of socks-for-all-occasions of gift giving must be scarves? However, for me, once I became aware that my idol, Isadora Duncan, had met her untimely and dramatic end by being choked to death when her long scarf wrapped around the wheels of her Bugatti, scarves had lost their lustre and glamour. Into the closet box all scarves were relegated, and some were real beauties.

So, out came the box of scarves, from which I selected a delicate orange and yellow silk one with sketchy flowers. I wrapped the pottery dish in several layers of newspaper,ensuring the wrapping had square corners, placed that bundle kitty-corner onto the silk square and alternately square-knotted opposite corners, leaving a lovely four-square petal of cloth at the top. It is possible to carry this package securely and without disturbing the decorative top by slipping fingers through the top knot. Glagow girl was delighted when she received this bundle.

“How on earth do you come up with these ideas?” she asked. “This looks too elegant to open.”

“Oh, the internet,” I said, modestly casting down my eyes, “but, do open it and see what’s inside.”

She opened the knots and unveiled her present. Then she asked what she should do with the scarf, as she, herself, didn’t wear them.

“Well, you can keep it, and use it to wrap a gift for someone else. That scarf should get around some!”

“You know, I have a huge stash of scarves, that just keeps growing yearly,” she commented. “This is such a perfect use for them.”

I ended up doing a same kind of wrapping for Mousey’s birthday present of mother and baby opossum hand puppets. She happily unwrapped her gift, and then toted it off home in her scarf furoshiki.

The other day when Jeanie was here for dinner, after we polished off a bottle of wine, I showed her how wine bottles can be wrapped singly or in pairs for gift-giving. She practiced furoshiki wrapping bottles on the coffee table and pronounced her results ‘brilliant’. She was going to drag out her collection of scarves, once she got home, and practice on all kinds of things to wrap up.

I feel I have been doing my level best, in an underground sort of way, to kill off custom for Hallmark and other purveyors of gift-wrappings. While I have never watched Martha Stewart’s shows and learned of those  modes of presentation which she pronounced “Good Things” this one might be right up her alley as a purveyor of domestic niceties.  Furoshiki – a good custom to practice.