Category Archives: Cooking

This Little Piggy went to Market

I settled into a routine as I had in the south.  Get up early, blog and work, join Lynn and Richard for breakfast, then work some more.   I lay on my bed under the covers to keep warm, at first wondering, “How will I ever work without a desk?” but quickly getting used to tapping away on my keyboard in a reclining state.

Whenever I glanced out the window, Dottie the cat would be in position, staring at me like she was trying to communicate some vitally important matter of possibly national interest.  I tried to get into the habit of  rousing myself once an hour and take a lap around the property.  Dottie would accompany me down the drive, but at a distance of about 10 feet, as if to say, “I’m not with you, I just happen to be walking down the drive at the same time as you.”  Lord Parker would wait for me at the gate, then tail me as I walked the circular path around the garden.  When I got to the gate on the other side that led to the river, he would watch me beseechingly with his tawny, human-like eyes, maybe thinking, “maybe this time, maybe she’ll let me come too.”

There, I did it, I anthropomorphized.  I really don’t believe that animals have thoughts, but since we humans have more thoughts than we know what to do with, I guess it’s tempting to lay some of ours on other beings.

It was better than nothing that I walked around Dunrovin half a dozen times a day.  I would like to report that I also took long, vigorous walks every afternoon as I had in Eton and Windsor.  That was my goal.  But just the opposite took place, and I may well have to check into a fat farm to work off the pounds I gained in Scotland.

I blame it on the doubles.  Lynn has two small fridges in the kitchen and two freezers full of venison and other meats Richard has harvested, plus a pantry and a wine cellar. Then there was the double cream.  I continued my personal single, double, and clotted cream festival throughout the month, pouring it over or globbing it onto pastry shells, croissants, ice cream, strawberries, muesli, and anything else that didn’t move.

The three of us ate lunch and dinner together most days.  Lynn loves to cook, is a great cook, and doesn’t stint on rich ingredients or portions.  I feel so lazy saying this, but I only prepared about six meals the whole month.  When I offered, Lynn would usually say she already had the meal planned.  When I offered to make it, she would wave me off, saying it was no trouble.  We often had a salad and veggies, but they were in addition to a leg of lamb or shepherd’s pie.  I made lasagna and moussaka, then felt it was my duty to eat all the leftovers so they wouldn’t go to waste.

My first outing was to the Huntly Farmers’ Market, held once a month in the town square.

Bread, pastries, chutneys and jams and jellies, and beautiful berries.  All good vehicles for double cream.

Have you ever been to a farmer’s market where they sell fresh fish?  I bought some langoustines for our supper.

Surprise!  There was wild game.

Then there was the paella man, a Spanish guy named Marco.  I bought a bowl then walked around while Lynn sold raffle tickets and promoted an upcoming Harry Potter children’s party.

I talked to a retired physician who, with his wife and daughter, runs a small charity which benefits local initiatives in Nepal; they invited me to a fundraiser that would involve ceili dancing.

I sat on a bench to finish my paella and the granite was so cold I let out a yelp.  A woman standing nearby immediately offered me her portable seat cushion, then we began to chat and—too late—I noticed her kiosk full of Jehovah’s Witness literature.  But she and her fellow adherents were very nice and didn’t push it.

I decided to have a wander to work off the paella and wound up at Huntly Castle.

Just another day in Scotland.

Eton, Finally

Eton, England is a small city of about 4,700 inhabitants in the county of Berkshire, England. Or as they call it, “Berks.”  As I’ve said, it’s home to Eton College, which adds another 1,200 boys to the population.

Eton is confusing to Americans.  It’s called a college but it’s what we would call a high school.  It’s an all-boys boarding school, which is an alien concept to 99% of us just as it probably is to the 99% of English people who can’t or won’t send their 13-year-old away.  It’s a public school, which we would call a private school.  It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, yet it is only the 18th oldest school in Britain.  The oldest seems to be Warwick, founded in 914.

I want to paint a picture of Eton for you without being creepy and violating Sam’s privacy.  These are some views of the High Street from my bedroom:

Sam’s place is like the three-story building on the left.  It’s above a tailor’s shop.  Lest you think I just gave away the location of the house because there is only one tailor shop in your city of half a million people, there are seven tailor shops in Eton and neighboring Windsor to care for the uniforms the students and masters (teachers) must wear:

It would have been nice to see more of these formally-dressed men and boys flocking through the streets, but the reason Sam was going to the States for the month was the summer holidays.  A few days after I arrived, they all disappeared and were replaced by Spanish and Chinese tour groups.

The house was three stories.  Entering from the street, you came into a hallway that led to the back garden and stairs to the first and second floors (or second and third, if you’re American). There wasn’t really a back garden, just a passageway, but Sam’s wife had installed planters with geraniums to echo the window boxes which I watered every day.

There were 15 winding steps to the first storey.  Or story, as we would write it in the US.  Here there were two bedrooms, one of which was mine.  Mine!  A beautiful, spacious guest room in Eton for a month!

Fifteen more steps led to the top floor, with the master bedroom, bathroom, livingroom, and kitchen.  This was my favorite space.

I worked at the big farm table which looked out over the ball fields and the Eton science building, and I had easy access to keeping myself stoked with coffee and tea.  I felt like I was on the Great British Baking Show, except I had to write grant proposals instead of make French macaroons.

Rob’s wife has lovely taste.  She had rightly insisted on moving their refrigerator from London.  There was also a DeLonghi toaster.

I love the name SMEG.  In fact I couldn’t stop saying it in my head, so I would turn on the John Lewis radio to Radio 4, which is like NPR in the US only with more very long stories involving people whispering in meadows as they crept up on bees and recorded their buzzing.

The bathroom had several common British features that Americans find puzzling.  One: separate taps.

To wash your hands with warm water—not scalding hot or freezing cold—you have to put in the plug, mix water in the basin, then drain the sink and repeat this to rinse.

I would guess the house was Edwardian (1901-1910).  All the period features such as the fireplaces had been stripped out long ago.

Some of the windows were crooked—intentionally?

Nearby was the ubiquitous toilet brush which had to be employed on a regular basis because most British toilets … just don’t do the job the first time.

I’d encountered this shower set up before so I was prepared for it. A very high tub paired with a sheet of glass or Plexiglas that must weigh 100 pounds.  You instinctively want to grab it, but woe unto you if you do, because it swings back and forth.  Why?  I don’t know.  Then there is the shower plumbing, also a mystery.

To be fair, there are American things that make Brits wonder, such as cutting our food with the fork in our left hand, then switching to our right to actually eat.

Getting the Shaft in Shaftsbury

Shaftsbury, England.  I awoke before dawn to the sound of a car driving slowly into the gravel parking lot.  The driver got out and walked to the entrance, crunch, crunch, crunch.  I was just falling back to sleep when he or she must have gone back out to get luggage.  More crunch, crunch, crunch on top of rolling crunchiness.  Another car pulled in, more heavy rolling crunchiness.

Lynn exclaimed from the darkness on her side of the room, “Whoever thought it was a good idea to have a gravel driveway in a hotel?!”

“I know!  Well at least no invading armies are going to sneak up on us.”

“Right.” she replied drily.

There was no going back to sleep now so we went down to breakfast. I ordered kippers, which I’d had never had, and Lynn had a Full English minus the blood sausage.

Blood sausage is just what it sounds like, sausage made of blood.  I think it’s a food that’s traditional and no one really likes it but they keep it on the menu for tradition’s sake.  Most Brits I’ve mentioned it to made a horrid face.  Is it like lutefisk or gefilte fish?  No one likes either one, but people put it out once a year because it’s “tradition.”  Blood sausage is on the menu everywhere, so I don’t know, maybe lots of people love it.  What do you think?

Me, I love fish, so I was happy with the kippers.

The Daily Mail had this cover in regard to the Grenfell Tower fire:

I think the Queen learned some lessons in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, when she was accused of being cold.  Maybe she can give Theresa May some pointers about getting down with the people.

We walked into town to Shaftsbury Abbey, or what was left of it.

The abbey had been a regional center of power until Henry VIII had it destroyed along with all the other monasteries in the 16th Century. The piles of stones on either side are where the pillars of the nave were.

A small display inside the visitors’ centre featured a few shattered carvings, remnants of painted sculptures, and a diorama of what the abbey had looked like.  It must have been enormous and fantastically beautiful.  Henry VIII was known to appreciate beautiful things, so why destroy the abbey, down to the ground?  Why not just seize the gold candlesticks and leave the building with its gilded arches and ornate carvings?  It was a display of power, of course.  He had half a dozen of his own palaces, so a couple hundred monasteries out in the sticks were no loss.  He was a red-headed megalomaniac who loved his palaces and couldn’t stand for anyone else to … wait, why does that sound familiar?

Here are the names of some of the abbesses.

It was lunchtime  and we picked our way carefully down Gold Hill to find a pub someone had recommended.

I had one of the most memorable meals of the summer at this pub, a fish pie with turmeric.

I tried to replicate it once since I’ve been home but didn’t get it right.

Of course what goes down must come up—no, I didn’t vomit up the fish pie—we had to walk back up the hill.

We walked a few paces, stopped to take photos, then walked some more.

It’s not that we couldn’t have hiked straight up the hill without a break—really.  But it is true that a summer of fish pies and pints means I really need to get back to the gym.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe next week.

Next we visited the historical museum.  Shaftsbury was once a center for cottage industries, which just means people sat in their cottages and made things, like buttons. These are the forms and the finished buttons.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries thousands of women and children were employed making “Dorset Buttons.” The button-making machine caused these cottage industries to collapse after 1750, and the gentry “helped the unemployed workers to emigrate to Canada and Australia.” That’s one way to solve your unemployment problem.

FYI, I’m going to DC for work and won’t be blogging for a week or so.

Boeren Bonenstoofschotel on Schoenlappervinlinder

Greetings from Eton, England.  Tonight I will sleep in my 11th bed in a month.  I’ve spent the last 10 days in the southwest of England—in Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset—where the internet connections were not much better than in Ethiopia.  So I’m going back to write about some of the places I visited almost a month ago, and now that I’ve got a good connection I’ll write forward and eventually join up with the present, in Eton.

After three whirlwind days in Copenhagen and being forced to buy a second plane ticket thanks to Expedia, I arrived in the land of long words, the Netherlands.  I was so happy to see my old friend Ingrid waiting in the arrivals hall.

Ingrid and I met in 1986 at a Volunteers for Peace “work camp” in London.  I’ve written before about how she visited me in the US twice and I visited her in the Netherlands twice, including being a bridesmaid in her wedding.  The last time I saw Ingrid in person was after her son was born, about 11 years ago.  Of course we are friends on Facebook but it’s not the same.

By the time we got out of the airport parking ramp and onto the highway headed to Utrecht, where she lives, we were talking about whether god exists, the meaning of suffering, and how humanists can be as inhumane as anyone. Our conversations continued like this for the next six days.  Don’t get me wrong; we also talked about hairstyles, houses, families, health, and jobs, but I can talk to most people about those things.  It is so good to have a friend you can talk to about the big questions.

Plus, she fed me Boeren Bonenstoofschotel, a Dutch folk food, from what I understand.

The street Ingrid and her family live on is called Schoenlappervinlinder, which is named for a butterfly.  By the time you’ve pronounced the word, the butterfly would be long gone.

Here are some photos of a typical Dutch side-by-side house in what Ingrid referred to as a “suburb” of Utrecht, which felt pretty urban by American standards.

The house was similar to many American homes with the exception of exceptionally steep stairs leading from one floor to another.  They all shrugged when I exclaimed over how steep they were.  There was a bike shed in the back yard to accommodate the four family bikes that they use to go to work, school, and most everywhere else except to the grocery for a big shopping load.  The attic which served as my room had home-painted Mondrian thanks to Ingrid’s husband Chris, and more English language books on the bookshelves than most American homes.

Speaking of grocery shopping, I got to go with Chris and Ingrid to a Jumbo, which is a mid level grocery chain.  The Dutch love sweets.  Stroop koeken/waffle are typically Dutch cookie or waffle “sandwiches” filled with sugar syrup.  There is every other imaginable form of cookie, cake, and candy, plus lots of breakfast sweets stuff, like sprinkles for toast and an entire Nutella section.

Eggs and milk were not refrigerated.  I guess in the US we refrigerate both because it makes them seem fresher, but it’s not necessary.  If that’s true, what a waste of energy!  If it’s not true, then there should be lot of people retching their guts out every day in the Netherlands.

We have an image in the US of how everyone in Europe eats artisanal, organic, free range food.  There is plenty of it, but they also eat junk, just like us:

This item in the deli case, “FiletAmericain Naturel,” turned out to be Steak Tartare.  Ironically, I believe you can’t buy it in the US.

Then there were the cheeses.  The Dutch love cheese at least as much as sweets, and there must have been 500 different kinds on offer. I could have taken photos of cheese all day.

Finally, this was in the magazine section.  It’s a mag for gay men, and in an American grocery—if it was even allowed—it would have a colored plastic sleeve to hide the content, a la Penthouse and Playboy.

Smoked, with a Side of Shouting

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Desra was waiting in the Shaved Duck when Lynn and I arrived. I immediately noticed that the music was deafening.  The tiles floors and tin ceiling didn’t help.  There was nothing else in the vicinity and Desra had picked the restaurant so I didn’t want to dis her choice, plus I didn’t want to be one of Those Old People who complains about loud music.

I wasn’t sure what the concept for the Shaved Duck was.  Was it code for something? “Shaved duck” suggested something vaguely naughty.

On the back of the menu it stated that the place was “a smokehouse and gathering place.”  The menu featured Slow Smoked Duck Breast, Smoked Meatloaf, and Loaded Smoked Potato Wedges, which were essentially French fries covered with pulled pork, baked beans, bacon, white cheddar cheese, and Bourbon barbeque sauce.  As is the trend, there was a fancy version of macaroni and cheese, this one topped with duck and jalapeño chili.  I was pleased to see an iceberg lettuce wedge salad on the menu, a classic that’s making a comeback.  The one at the duck added bacon and cherry tomatoes and came with ranch dressing; in my opinion it should just be really fresh, crisp iceberg lettuce with Roquefort dressing.

I had a vegetable and smoked Mozzarella sandwich, and we shared some buttermilk cornbread and crab cakes.  What I really wanted was shrimp ‘n’ grits, but my health-conscious conscience was saying I should ease back into my healthy eating habits. I keep myself on a pretty tight leash.  But I still had two days left of the vacation.  Why couldn’t I just order what I really wanted?  Sigh.

I caught up with Desra, who I hadn’t seen since we finished grad school 10 years earlier.  Her master’s degree was in Urban Planning and mine was focused on Foreign Policy. She reminded me she had run for Minneapolis City Council, which isn’t for the faint of heart.  She then led a nonprofit neighborhood association until she met her husband and moved to St. Louis a few months earlier.  Her husband taught African-American history at a community college and was working on his PhD, which I assume will get him onto the tenure track at a university.

She had a huge, blindingly brilliant diamond ring which I admired.  I sighed inwardly when she mentioned how old she was—the same age as Vince.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my son could meet such an accomplished, upbeat, beautiful bride?

I  hadn’t realized she was originally from New Orleans, so Lynn and I talked about that—or rather shouted.  I described our visit to the civil rights museum, which she hadn’t visited yet. We talked about real estate prices in St. Louis vs. Minneapolis.  Desra was job hunting and seemed positive she would find something soon.

The duck was packed, and there was a raucous group near us with one woman who kept braying loudly, “Har, Har, HAR!”  Do restaurants crank up the volume to create a festive atmosphere?  Or maybe they want us to hurry up and leave so they can turn more tables?

Sometimes if I am on my own turf I will ask a server to lower the volume.  But again, I didn’t want to be an old fogey.  I also began to worry that maybe I had some early hearing loss.

Much of the conversation touched on race issues.  All the subjects above—from a recent Minneapolis electoral race to real estate to the higher education system.  This brought us to the question of fraternities and sororities.

“Yes,” asked Lynn, leaning forward to make herself heard, “We don’t have them in the UK.  What’s their origin?  Were they designed to exclude black students?”

I could hear one out of five words Desra said.  She hadn’t belonged to a sorority, but there were certainly black sororities and fraternities, so the Greek system wasn’t inherently racist, but of course it depended on the campus.

We exited the restaurant Desra exclaimed, “I can’t believe how loud it was in there!  I feel like I’m deaf now!”

Special Sauce, Special Spice

This is the latest in a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

You may be wondering about the food in New Orleans.  Well let me give you a tip.  A coworker who is a foodie had visited the city a month before I was there.  Her advice had been: “There are a million restaurants, and if you’re walking around all day in the sun, you can get really hungry and then you end up walking into whatever restaurant doesn’t have a line, and you can get crappy food, or great food.”  So her advice was to make time to research places to eat and have a couple on our list every day for those hungry moments.

We didn’t do that, and so we had some crappy food and some great food.  If you like deep-fried everything, you would love New Orleans, because that’s easy to find. Deep fried seafood—no texture anymore, so you can’t even tell what it was—and something called a Po’ Boy, which is a basically a submarine sandwich with beef but also comes filled with fried sea food.  Then of course there are the French fries, deep fried mushrooms, deep fried green beans … you get the picture.  The New Orleans signature sweet is a Beignet, which is a deep-fried pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar.  And just in case all the deep fried stuff doesn’t provide enough lubrication to grease your swallows, everything was accompanied by oily sauces.

Bad Fish Beignet

My son, Vince, who has been a cook for many years, says that if food is deep fried by a competent cook—and this means submerged quickly into very hot oil—it’s not very greasy at all.  That’s not the kind of deep fried food we had. The kind we had was the kind where the first bite is delicious because you’ve waited so long to eat, and then all the bites after that just taste like grease.  My stomach feels queasy just thinking about it.

To accompany all this unnaturally brown food, New Orleans offers up unnaturally colored drinks. These seem to contain mostly sugar and food coloring, with a splash of bottom-shelf alcohol.

red drink Green Drinks

But there was also good food, which I define as simple and tasty, which we found by accident about 50% of the time.  I’m a seafood lover who lives in the middle of the North American continent, so I don’t often have shrimp or scallops that weren’t frozen and defrosted.

But here we were so near to the Gulf of Mexico.  This meal below satisfied; the fish is Redfish, which I’d never heard of.  It’s blackened, which is a southern cooking technique using Cajun spices; the butter gives the fish a blackened appearance and trust me, it is delicious.

Good Fish

There were crawfish boils everywhere. For 10 bucks you could gorge yourself on a peel ‘n’ eat platter of them.

Crawfish boil

When I was a kid I used to catch what we called cray fish in the Mississippi River, but the river was so polluted then we couldn’t eat our catch.

There was a wonderful food hall across the street from our B&B which had stalls serving Vietnamese, Thai, and local dishes, and this is where we had our best meals.  My favorite was a curried crawfish dish.

There are two dishes associated with the south: Jumbalaya and Gumbo.  Gumbo is a spicy stew with southern vegetables like okra and peppers and with chicken, crawfish, shrimp and/or Andouille, a pork sausage that’s a New Orleans staple.  Jambalaya is a rice dish with similar ingredients.  Both are pick-and-choose kind of recipes; there’s no “right” way to make them—it’s about the spice.

I don’t eat pork.  If I had been in Minnesota, there would have been vegan and vegetarian and gluten-free and artisanal options available, but this was New Orleans.  Every iteration of Gumbo and Jambalaya contained Andouille, so I never tried either dish.  And in case you think I’m kidding about the artisanal gumbo, a week after I came home Vince and I ate out and by chance walked into a southern-style restaurant, at which I was able to order gumbo with vegan Andouille.

Hedgehogs, Mice, and Echidnas, Oh My

I pride myself on writing realistically about life. You can count on me to tell the truth as I know it, to question everything, and to imagine the worst case scenario. I don’t know why the Pentagon hasn’t called me yet to offer me a disaster-planning job.

But that doesn’t mean I’m depressed, or even “unhappy”—the more generic term. Being a highly-analytical thinker has its rewards. I notice and think about things that other people do not. There’s often absurd fodder for laughs. Sometimes I’m the only one laughing, but that’s okay, right?

There was an article in the Sunday paper about a study that debunked the popular myth that “happy” people are healthier and live longer. Yes! My friend who works in an old folks home—or whatever they’ve been rebranded as now—has always said, “There are plenty of miserable, crabby 90 year olds. And they’ve always been that way, because their kids tell me they have.”

About five years ago, I kicked the depression that had dogged me all my life. Since then I have felt mostly contentment, punctuated with the normal situationally-appropriate emotions. I felt angry when my landlord raised my rent $300 a month, which forced me to move. I was stressed when I moved again three months later so Vince could live with me. I was anxious when Vince was in solitary confinement. I cried for everything my sister and her kids went through when she had cancer. I felt awe hiking in Petra, in the Jordanian desert, and nervous about crossing over into the Palestinian territories. I felt powerless rage when I was banned from visiting Vince. I had a blast with my friends in Berlin. I’ve been bored at work. I was proud when Vince led his squad at his graduation from boot camp. I am excited at the prospect of remodeling my kitchen.

Hey, I guess I just wrote my Christmas letter!  What a year it’s been.

None of it lasts. Some people figure this out somehow, much earlier in life than I did. Emotions come and go. The pleasant and the unpleasant, they’re all fleeting. So enjoy the nice ones while they last and know that the bad ones will dissipate. Don’t panic if you feel blue once in a while. Don’t latch on to the negative feelings or thoughts. If the blues don’t go away for weeks, of course, seek professional help.

In the last week I’ve had some really good times with people I love.

Yesterday I took my mother to tour the Purcell Cutts House, a prairie-style home build in 1913 and owned by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This is the living room:

Purcell Cutts

The guide explained that the simple, serene style was in part a reaction to the chaos of the age. The architect was from Chicago, which was the industrial center of the U.S. Meat packing and other industries attracted droves of immigrants and African Americans from the south. There wasn’t enough housing, and the water and sewer systems weren’t up to par. There were no child labor laws, workers’ compensation, welfare, or social security.

So architects brought nature and art inside. Obviously this was not a house that could be produced on a mass scale. The immigrants and African Americans still lived in poorly-heated hovels. But at least this one architect could escape all that and find sanctuary at home!

Last weekend, I hosted a cookie-baking party for Vince and his cousins.

Hannukah HedgehogsTaisei n me

They’re not pretty, but we had fun. Strangely, Vince and I had prepared enough dough to yield 16 dozen cookies but only nine dozen made it to the final stage. Hmmm…or should I say, Mmmmm….cookie dough?

So enjoy the moments that contain things you love. In my case: design, craftsmanship, nature, history. Kids, creativity, and cookie dough.