Archive for the ‘family’ Category

A confluence of notable dates…

October 18, 2008

The past week has seen Canadian Thanksgiving, the Canadian national Election and my birthday, concurring within two days. It has been a busy week, and I have spent much time in the kitchen preparing foods and accompanying that, tidying up. We have kept company with friends and family in a swirl of visiting and discussion. We thanked Providence for everyone’s health and for now, ongoing economic stability. It has been largely unspoken, but during times of difficulty we all know we are going to be present to lend aid, support and encouragement to those about us in need. That is much for which to give thanks.
On Sunday the 12th, a large group of friends and family convened at Lookingforbeauty’s for the Thanksgiving feast. She and Whistler had spent time the week before, polishing the silver, and laying out the festive china. They made a big shopping trip for the turkey, ham, potatoes and vegetables and delivered the groceries for which I was to be the cook. LFB was doing the turkey, stuffing, gravy and potatoes,while I was to prepare the ham, brussel sprouts, mashed turnips and baked apples. It was an equitable split as well as a practical one since neither of us have an oven large enough to house both turkey and ham at once. After all, we were preparing food for ten people.

Came Sunday morning, seven a.m., there I was in my pajamas, trimming brussel sprouts ends and precooking them – all the while carefully following instructions from a recipe Barb had e-mailed me.
My family loves brussel sprouts, even just steamed, however, for this feast we had to have sprouts in a mustard and cheese cream sauce that could be swiftly reheated in the microwave. i was in the middle of cooking the cream sauce for this when Rumpole emerged from the bedroom and announced,
“By God, but you are noisy. Can’t you leave the cooking for later?”
“No, I couldn’t,” retorted I, “This dish has to sit in the fridge for at least five hours.”
“Well, it had better be good tasting,” he muttered, ” you know how much store Glasgow Girl sets by delicious and NOT overcooked brussel sprouts.”
He poured himself a coffee and retired to the living room couch, leaving me to thicken the cream sauce.
I grumbled under my breath. ” Hisself could at least have offered to peel and chop the two monstrous turnips. There they are sitting, large as life, hell – larger – at his breakfast place. His eyesight must be going! – Oh well…”
The cream sauce thickened after what seemed like a long time. It occurred to me why I don’t make cream sauces at all – one has to keep the milk from scorching and ruining the taste, thus it takes forever to slowly raise the heat to cause thickening. Of course, the fun part is incorporating the flavouring ingredients. For me, recipes are not absolutes and written in stone – just mere suggestions which one can alter at a whim, after tasting to concoct a newish flavour. Instead of cheddar, I used mozzarella and added more Dijon mustard than callled for. The pinch of nutmeg seemd a trifle paltry so I beefed up the amount by adding one sprinkling clockwise, then another counterclockwise to amuse myself. That’s a sort of witchy thing to do – and slaving over a steaming pot makes me feel and look like a witch, so why not indulge myself – “eye of newt, hair of dog, chicken toenail shavings and Abracadabra – we have a killer cream sauce for brussel sprouts.”

The turnips loomed in their earthy splendour on the kitchen table, next to two huge white onions.
After saucing the sprouts and putting them to cool in the fridge, I tackled the turnips. It was a Herculean task, this peeling, during which time my trusty old peeler gave up the ghost and broke into two pieces. I fished out the back-up peeler from the tool drawer and continued peeling. Rumpole came out to top up his coffee. He set down his coffee-cup next to the mountain of turnip peel while he grabbed the carafe. As he poured the coffee, I flipped a peel neatly into his cup.
“I hope you washed that turnip before you started to peel it,” he commented as he fished out the peel.
“Naturellement, mon cheri,” I cooed, whilst chipping away at the turnip.
“I don’t think there will be enought turnip for ten people,” he opined. “maybe you’d better prepare the third one too.”
“You know how few people favour turnips, my dear, they equate it with poverty food. I want to leave them begging for more.”
While dicing the turnips and the onions for over half an hour, I mulled about people we have known who cannot force themselves to choke back turnips in any form. A good friend ate turnips for over two years, almost daily, during the latter years of the Second World War in Holland. never does he let turnips pass his lips – he equates its flavour and texture with hardship. In some way, this makes sense, in his case, but turnips are a wonderful root vegie, and plentiful during our winter season in these latitudes. They keep well in storage and ar high in nutrients. What’s not to love and eat during a celebration of harvest season and of thankfulness for the earth’s bounty.

Once the turnips and onions simmered in the large Dutch oven, I puttered around washing the apples and preparing the sugar and spices with which to flavour them for baking. prepared the glaze for the ham and sat down to figure out the order and timing of putting the different dishes into the oven. Rumpole came out and ordered me to take a nap, and I complied. He volunteered to begin the baking at the appropriate time.

By the time I emerged from my nap, he had already begun baking the ham and had basted it at least twice. It was then time to place the casserole of brussel sprouts into the oven, and begin to prepare the baked apples. He washed and dried the apples once again, cored them and trimmed peel from their tops. He poured lemon water over them to keep their colour and following the recipe I wrote out for him placed butter bits into each cavity and then the spiced sugar mixture. He finished by sprinkling more sugar over all the apples and closed the baking casserole. He seemed well-pleased with his effort of preparing this part of the meal.
“Make sure you tell everyone I made the baked apples,” he requested.

At the appointed time Renaissance Man appeared and Whistler arrived – together they ferried our contributions next door. Rumpole and I made our way over a little later, after changing into better duds.

The evening was full of lively talk, with ample distraction provided by Mousey who is a socialite in the bud. While everyone ate turkey, ham and all the fixings, she ate of the two main food groups – cranberry sauce and ice cream, with a tryout of artichoke hearts, right after a mouthful of cranberry sauce. She was unimpressed.

Wine flowed, and along with it humorous discussion of the American campaigning. We agreed that the US elections distracted from our own, which seemed downright colourless and humdrum in comparison. We don’t have a Sarah Palin, who seems to be a Republican “weapon of mass distraction” to provide us with unforgettable one liners and nonsensical interviews with the news media. There didn’t seem the be a definite platform from the various parties vying for our votes – just generalizations, red herrings such as talk of our health care crises which really are provincial matters. Naturally, the economy got its share of table-talk – every one of us is affected by what is going on in the economic turmoil about us all. Naturally, we hastened to reassure ourselves that our banking system operates under more rules than does that of America’s, yet unspoken and unadmitted was the fact as the fortunes of our neighbour go, so does ours follow.

Thanksgiving was a pleasant respite from pervasive anxiety surrounding us. And then there was election day, on Tuesday.

Election day coincided with my birthday. Lucky and Barb decided to bring dinnner and wine for the four of us in the evening, after which Aime and Lookingforbeauty were to join us for cake and to watch election results on the TV. Dinner was wonderful curried chicken, pakoras and samosas made of chick pea flour and vegies all prepared by Lucky’s Mom, and a fresh salad made by Barb. We studiously stayed away from discussion of politics during dinner, as each of the four of us voted differently. Aime and Lookingforbeauty arrived at 8 with a wonderful cream cake. After filling our plates with cake and our cups with tea, we gathered around the television set and anxiously watched the voting results scroll by at the bottom of the screen, while various pundits opined about the potential outcomes, the strength of the various parties’ strategies, etc.

A phone call came in, and i took it in the kitchen. It was Mousey, singing “Happy Birthday to you grandma…. you know I am on the potty – heeee!!!! giggle”.
Rumpole yelled out from the living room.
“G, your candidate came in second. The pinko bites it! Ha!” He sounded extremely cheery.

If Mousey had not made me giggle, I think I would have burst into tears. As the nation wide results rolled in, I understood we were in for more of the same secretive style of governance that has characterized this minority government. It saddened me that voter turnout was at a record low; people may feel hopeless in effecting change, yet by not turning out to cast a vote have engineered a maintenance of the status quo with which they may feel dissatisfaction. I am angered at the millions of dollars wasted on an un-needed election. And I worry that the scrambling to stabilize faltering economic systems diverts attention and action from the complex of problems facing all societies – ecological devastation, food supply failure, water supply paucity and inevitable social upheaval.

As the Chinese curse goes – “may you live in interesting times”, yes it has come true. We do live in “interesting times”. My birthday wish is for more uneventful times, but I’m afraid, that is not to be realized. On the other hand, there is still much for which to be thankful.

Making a virtue out of necessity…

September 14, 2008

Last evening, over a meal of chicken paprikas, broccoli, salad, french bread, lubricated with glasses of red wine, old friend Diana, her daughter Deborah, Rumpole and I were discussing the virtues of housekeeping. This is a sore point for Rumpole, mainly because he is frustrated with pointing out to me daily the festoons of spiderwebs on ceiling edges and corners (very Miss Havisham, I prefer to believe) and bits of detritus of contrasting tone on the patterned Indian rugs in the living room ( all of which I cannot at all see these days, so there seems to be no discernible difference, to my eyes at least, before and after vaccuuming – the rug surfaces look exactly the same to me).

Rumpole was quick to announce to these lady friends that he is trying to inveigle me into accepting the services of a house-cleaner. All to no avail, because back some twenty-five years ago, I had succumbed to his pressures to get in a house-keeping service and it did not work out at all well. I, then, spent three days cleaning up the whole house before the cleaning-lady was to arrive. There was no way anyone else should have to sully their hands with our piggish leavings, so it behooved me to clean up in readiness of household help. I was so exhausted after that experiment and so surprised at how quickly the cleaning lady passed through two floors of our house, that I pointed out to Rumpole that the whole exercise was not cost effective. She had made thirty dollars, and I was exhaused and sans shekels.

Deborah cast me a conciliatory glance as she launched into her recent experience with a cleaning service. She and her husband Mardon, both working full time, decided to hire some household help. The woman came in and spent three hours licking clean their upstairs bathroom and didn’t get anything else done. And the bathroom was passing clean, before she had begun her travails. The net result was that Deborah and Mardon were reluctant to make use of their bathroom for the next week, lest they besmirch the operating-room level of cleanliness. Talk about the loo becoming a shrine!

Poor Rumpole had no rejoinder. Really, what could he say? If I got our living area rugs so clean that I would not permit access to that room to anyone, that would negate the use of that room. I would not permit Jessica, the dog, to wipe clean her Scottie beard on the rug, nor allow The General to groom himself at his favourite corner and leave big clumps of hair and the inevitable coughed up hairball, and definitely not leave Rupole free to deposit his gum-wrappers in tight little balls on the floor around his end of the love-seat. Imagine harrassing those three to clean up after themselves? I’d rather stick needles into my eye!

There must be a “Better Homes and Gardens” gene that is missing on my DNA strands. But Rumpole has it in spades. Only he is missing the gene that causes him to do something about cleaning other than complaining.

His favourite mantra is: “My mother was such a good housekeeper that one could eat off her floors and out of her toilet.”

To which my reply is: “Go right ahead , my dear. I dare you to do that.”

Oddly, he has never taken me up on that suggestion. He is persistent though, trying to elevate necessity into a virtue. So far, after thirty odd years of marriage and living together, I have resisted his exhortations to virtuousness. The fatal flaw? That darn missing gene.

Lecso – a seasonal vegetable stew…

September 1, 2008

The kind lady at diamondsandrust requested this recipe. Here it is for her, along with some background information of how this became one of the foods for me which celebrate seasonal bounty and memory.

In post WorldWar ll Hungary, in my early formative years, all of the food acquired and prepared by my mother, Anyu, was dependent on seasonal harvests, her putting by food in early fall and then obtaining staples whenever they became available. We never saw canned or frozen processed foods, as are so commonly available here in North America these days, nor any exotic foodstuffs which are the norm for North Americans to consume and which daily arrive to us from afar.

Thus, tomato and pepper harvest time was cause for celebration and for feasting. We ate these fruits raw and cooked, when they became plentiful. Lecso was the stew, made from onions, peppers and tomatoes, either incorporating Hungarian sausage or not as desired, that when served hot or cold with langos ( fried bread) or accompanied by scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes made the eater feel as satisfied as a king or queen.

I have made lecso for over forty years now, every year in August and September, ever since I obtained my first frying pan and learned how to moderate heat while cooking. Eating this food makes me feel ageless – it condenses time, stirs memory and provides immeasurable sensory pleasure. Our son, Renaissance Man, is wild about eating lecso this time of year. This is truly odd, because for so many years of his life he refused to eat raw tomatoes. And yet, the tomatoes stewed in this dish are to his taste.

There are as many variations on the lecso recipe as are cooks. It is the principle of combining sweet onions, tomatoes and peppers, in that order and adding powdered sweet and hot paprika, as desired to taste at the time of sweating the onions to transparency. Before adding the chopped tomatoes and peppers, one can slice along the diagonal Hungarian sausage, or Bratwurst, or garlic sausage, add or not finely diced garlic, as desired. Once the tomatoes and peppers are added the heat under the pot is reduced to low, and the whole melange allowed to simmer and stew into a softened stuff for ont to two hours. Of course, the cook must taste this concoction and adjust for salt and pepper during the stewing process.

I like using yellow Hungarian banana peppers along with sweet green peppers for lecso. In my own way of preparing this dish, I allow for equal amounts of peppers, onions and tomatoes, because I love oniony stews. This is a matter of preference and is what makes it wonderful to eat this dish at other people’s tables to see what variations they have teased out of those principal ingredients. There is something delightful of setting to eat from such a dish and engaging in discussion about how a particular cook acquired a resulting taste, and then deconstructing the recipe with partisan vigour, a table. Add a small glass of wine to leaven the discussion and watch the engaging fireworks.

The recent lecso I made for us when Old Forester, Uncle Pista, was visiting included Deer pepperoni sausage. On a whim, I chopped up and added one green chili pepper to the stew. We ate the lecso for dinner one evening, and as accompaniment for scrambled eggs for breakfast, the next morning.

I need to make lecso for Renaissance Man, this week. For him, I plan to make fry bread – langos – as accompaniment. Fry bread is made in many cultures around the world. The leavened kind we Hungarians call langos is exactly the same fry bread I ate in the Taos pueblo thirteen years ago – same foodstuff different part of the world. Growing food, harvesting it,  preparing it and feasting from it is a universal activity which makes us consider our similarities rather than our differences. Celebrate this as you celebrate the season’s bounties.

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.

Tennis Bat?

June 17, 2008

The month of June in the Central Interior of British Columbia is always a beautiful month. It comes on, tender green and warm, after a period of many months of snow and a month or so of muddy snow-melt. The wild-flowers – Indian paintbrush, orange hawk-weed, wild columbine, blue lupin and daisy – bloom in profusion in the woods and fields. In the lambent light of summery dusk, the bats flit about gorging themselves on the burgeoning flying insect populations.

June was also a month when young Renaissance Man, teenaged, back 20 or so years ago, pestered me daily to take him and his friends on tennis-playing excursions in the late afternoons and early evenings. These young bush-apes didn’t have proper tennis vocabulary nor comportment. They called tennis racquets ‘tennis bats’ and hit the courts in a weird assortment of ragged cut-off jeans and hideous patterned tee-shirts. They loped and goofed about while rallying. They also spent considerable time outside the tennis court fencing, beating about the bushes for balls they carelssly lofted over the fence in their enthusiastic abandon. They were exuberant, loud and completely entertaining to spend teaching the finer points of the game.

One lovely summer evening, we returned to the homestead after an energetic couple of hours on the courts. Mike, Renaissance Man’s buddy and sidekick came with us for after game snacks and juice. They hauled the tennis equipment from the Landcruiser into the house while I made for the kitchen to prepare their victuals. They slumped down on the living room couches, exhausted, waiting for their treats to be delivered to them. The French doors to the back of the property were wide open. We could hear Rumpole making yard-work noises outside. The dogs were nowhere to be seen, obviously keeping a watch on Rumpole’s doings out in the yard.

I delivered drinks and snacks to the boys in the living room. While I was bending over, depositing the tray on the coffee table, something flew by the region of my head. Turning to take a look, I noted a flappping black thing, mid-air, heading from the living room into the kitchen. Started making incoherent shrieks, much to the boys’ amusement.

“Look, a bat,” commented a laconic Mike.

Renaissance Man ran out to the front entry, brought back two tennis racquets, one of which he tossed to Mike and chortled, “Tennis bat. lets play.”

The boys ran around the main floor swinging with the racquets at the poor bat. It managed to not get hit in mid-air, but was labouring with panicked flits to avoid getting pasted. Finally, the poor beastie landed on the mullion of one of the French doors and clung on there, hyperventilating and trembling.

“Don’t you guys dare to hit it!  Don’t touch it! Leave it alone!” I screamed while trying to wrap my long hair in a kitchen towel. The idea of a bat flying into my flying long hair was frightening. Eeeeek!

The commotion caused Rumpole to come into the house. “What are you guys all so exercised about? Calm down, everyone.” We were milling around the living room, boys brandishing tennis racquets, all excited, me moaning and wringing my hands.

“A bat flew into the house,” announced RM. “Mike and I were using our “tennis bats” to get it to leave.”

“Yeah! That’s a good one – get it? Tennis bat?” chortled goofy Mike.

“Poor bat,” commented Rumpole as he inspected the terrified bat on the door. ” All this screaming and mad flailing with the racquets has him completely panicked.” He went off to the bathroom, came back with a large bath towel, wrapped the bat inside and took the bundle out to the back deck. There he loosely arranged the towel to allow the bat ease of escape. I slammed shut the French doors. Through the glass we watched as the bat made his awkward climb from inside the towel, righted itself and flew off toward the sfety of the big pine behind the house. Rumpole came back inside and chided us for giving the bat a scare.

Ever since then, whenever Renaissance Man and I play tennis together, all I have to do is waggle my eyebrows meaningfully, and say “tennis bat”. We both break down in instant and helpless laughter. Somehow, Rumpole finds it difficult to share in this form of humour. He loves bats; hates tennis.

History of wine appreciation…

June 9, 2008

One of the incidents I was curious about at an early age was in exactly what manner I came into this world. During the early years, Anyu held to the myth that a stork dropped me off onto the apartment balcony one October dawn. She doggedly held to this version until she finally relented (I was 12 years old) and gave an interesting report of my birth at home in the marriage bed. She had been attended by a midwife, Apu and a friend who was a gynecologist. Anyu took great pains to report that neither Apu, not the gynecologist assisted at the birth because they were both blind drunk on home-made wine. When I uttered my first crying comment while being held upside down by the midwife, Apu was passed out on the bed beside Anyu. The gynecologist was picking out some folk songs on the grand piano in the corner of the room, oblivious to Anyu’s grunting ( and likely, swearing using the rich vulgarities available in the Hungarian language) Apparently they didn’t bother to offer her any of the wine! What this story did for me was to introduce me to the importance of wine in our family. It also served as a keen reminder to never give birth to a child at home.

Social occasions in the family home, mostly involving Apu playing chamber music with his cronies, were usually lubricated by wine contained in large jugs. As well, cigarettes, of the roll-your-own variety, were consumed in huge quantities and added atmosphere to these musicales. A story Anyu liked to repeat, in order to demonstrate what kinds of shenanigans Ildiko and I got up to as toddlers, was this. After a particularly energetic practice, Anyu and Apu walked the departing musicians out into the vestibule, there exchanging protracted goodbyes. When they returned to the salon to begin clearing up, there were Ildiko and me eating cigarette butts and finishing off any wine left in glasses and gallon jugs. That must have been the seminal experience which started me off on a life-time appreciation of red wines, and a liking of smoking cigarettes. There is nothing like starting young, particularly in developing vices.

Apu had a great liking for red wine. Usually after hours in the surgery, and before late dinner, he attended at the local wine and beer cellar to play cards and unwind with the neighbourhood men. Anyu was far too busy attempting to make flavourful meals with the poor supplies available in post-war Hungary. When it was almost time for dinner, she’d dispatch Ildiko and me to the tavern to bring Apu home. Of course, the tavern was a fascinating place, and we’d bug the tavern-keeper to show us how to decant wine and beer from the barrels. While practicing this none too feminine skill, we imbibed quantities of wine and beer, and then would hang about watching the men play cards and help them cheat, sing songs with them and pester them with bad jokes. Usually, upon our noisy return to the apartment, we’d find Anyu irritated and fuming, and our dinner getting cold. But after evenings of bringing Apu home from the tavern, we fell to sleep readily, oblivious to the irate exchanges between Anyu and Apu out in the salon.

Apu continued our lessons in wine appreciation during summers. He loved to visit the various wineries on the north shore of Lake Balaton. Usually we spent one summer week at Siofok resorts on Lake Balaton’s south shore, getting there by the family car, a DKW, barely cobbled together and wheezing along the pocked roads of the Pannonia hills. A big part of getting to the resort was the afternoon we spent going from one winery to the next. Apu just had to sample the latest vintages and discuss with the vintners the finer points of wine-making. This irritated Anyu no end, especially since Apu’s mood gradually improved the closer we got to Siofok. On the drive between wineries he told us funny stories, and sang silly songs.

By the time we arrived in the children’s resort in Siofok, where we were dropped off and left in the care of rather well-meaning but dull and officious caregivers, Apu was in full glorious baritone, and Anyu was glaring out the car window in silence. I had decided during these experiences that wineries were fun places to visit. There were all kinds of fresh fruits to pick from trees and shrubs, and the welcoming hosts had plenty of good bread and cheese to feed on. And playing hide and seek in the rows of grapes was entertaining.

Later on, when I was in Art School and still living at home, Apu took it upon himself to practice wine-making. Ildiko was at university then, studying genetics, and had vials of fruit flies in cold storage in our refrigerator. As Apu’s wine fermented in the basement, an infestation of fruit flies took residence in every space in the basement, including my basement bedroom. My bedroom also smelled like a distillery. Once, when Ildiko had improperly knocked out her fruit flies at Lab, and instead of being unconscious when she opened their vials so she could sex them, they flew off in all directions. This accident necessitated that she star her fruit-fly breeding program from the beginning. As she recounted this while at dinner with the family, Anyu helpfully suggested they repair to the basement and trap some of the resident fruit-flies for the new experiment. This suggestion provoked Ildiko to partake of several glasses of wine at dinner, in order to assuage her depression. After dinner, during a spirited round or two of canasta over another carafe of home-made red, we all forgot about the experiment failure, and even tolerated the irritating flitting of  home-bred fruit flies in and out of our wine-glasses and downed the drowned ones along with the wine. Apu perhaps reasoned that nubile young daughters would be kept out of trouble if they did their drinking at home, rather than out in the wily and seductive world? This drinking of home-made brew resulted in me really disliking receiving bottles of home-brewed wines as gifts. Often they taste as foul as Apu’s vintages used to; with some interesting variations in flavour, most of them unpleasant, bitter, corky or vinegary.

During University years, there was a wine drought in my life.  The need to eat won out over any desire to drink wine. So there is a lapse in increasing wine appreciation, for which I made up for amply, much later. Twenty years later, to be precise, after Renaissance Man had left home to pursue his studies at university. Rumpole and I were abruptly alone together. We decided to take a road trip to California upon the suggestion of friends who had just come back from a holiday in the Napa Valley.

We consulted maps and studied the possibilities. A mid-life romantic revisiting of San Francisco and its environs was in order. The Napa valley, being close-by fit into our plans. Off we took in the family car, bearing cooking equipment, including pots and pans, camp-stove, dishes and silver, even wine-glasses along with our cooler, duds and camera equipment.  The plan was to eat picnic dinners and lunches in state and city parks along the way, like a couple of gypsies. We provisioned from a variety of sources along the road, and had a wonderful time  doing experimental cooking and eating outdoors

In the Napa Valley, we decided to set up base camp at an inexpensive motel in Sonoma, a rather quaint town at the Southern end of the Napa Valley. From here we forayed out daily for three days, driving North and visiting wineries. At the end of each day we returned to home base in Sonoma to recoup for the next day’s adventures.

The first day, we visited one winery before noon and tasted all their reds, sniffing roasted coffee beans between small glass-fuls, swishing our mouths out with water and nibbling cheese. By the time we were finished touring that particular winery, I was a bit fatigued and needed to nap in the car. Rumpole took off from the parking lot and went in among the grapevines to take photos while I slept off the wine. Afterward, we drove to two more wineries where Rumpole prevailed upon me to sample some whites – chardonnays, gewurtztraminers, etc.. Having had a skewed exposure to only reds, I found the whites somewhat perfumy and unpalatable, but bravely drank down my portions, which then I followed up with sampling any reds that were on offer. Soon we stopped to prepare our evening meal, which was a bit of a production as we were both slightly inebriated. Meal prep was a bit of a gong show, but we did manage to make a presentable pilaf, salad and steak. Good thing we ate, too, because neither of us remembered how we got back to the Sonoma motel at dusk.

The following morning, slightly hungover, we marvelled at just how much a punch those many small sips of wine during the previous day had packed. We vowed to eat constantly on the second day between visits to wineries, and only to sample one or two of the wines available. That decision was a smart one, as we grew increasingly critical of the Wine-Tasting Experience – the ersatz chateaux constructions, the fake snobbery of the wine-tasting rituals, the almost Disney-Land grooming of the whole Napa Valley where conspicuous consumption was the order of the day.

On the third day, we loaded up the car with all our stuff, signed out of the motel, and decided that once we got to the North end of the valley we’d keep going and drive on homeward. We were thoroughly wined out and decided to find the local cheese-makers, of which there were plenty. Wine and cheese are naturally paired – animal fats with vegetable astringent – a pairing made in gourmet heaven. We had bought a number of bottles of red wine. We therefore had to buy a requisite number of delicious cheeses with which these could be paired.

This trip had pretty well done me for a lifetime of wine-tasting. I still like red wine. In fact, last night, after  I had babysat Mousey, Glasgow Girl and I sat on her veranda and sipped a nice glass of ordinary red.

I know the foregoing reads very much like a toned-down A.A. drunkalogue – a sort of “How I came to like the Demon Drink.” But, I confess, I do like to drink a nice glass of red wine, and have come to an appreciation of doing so while disliking drinking to excess. Oh, and bring on the cheese – of any sort, colour, flavour, scent.


Some maternal bindings

June 4, 2008

Wrap her in

admonitions, cautions,


Say to her, “You mustn’t


believe what your eyes see,

your ears hear,

your skin feel,

your mind comprehend.”

Tell her, “Black

is white; night

is day; right

is often wrong.”

Wrap her in

uncertainty, confusion,

negation of her


Preserve her

from autonomy.

Make her live through you.


She is your child.


GM, June 2008