Back in the Saddle, sort of

It has been almost six months since I last wrote anything for pleasure. I am aware that that sounds like a confessional (“forgive me reader, for I have sinned…”), but the reality is that most things I love to do have been put on the back burner for personal and, in part, professional reasons. At present, writing copy and research reports for Fox & Squirrel and our clients is more important to me than writing musings on food and life and culture and my daughter; juggling a multi-pronged career amidst a husband studying an MBA at Cambridge and a rather bonkers two year-old means free time is a bit of a foreign word in my house.

But in an almost serendipitous turn of fortune, a bit of information I need to start yet another facet of this circus of a freelance working life hasn’t arrived, and while I came to Tate Britain with the hope of working in their sort of exclusive-but-not-that-exclusive members area, I have discovered their internet connection is something similar to dialup, so really, why fight it? All of a sudden, for the first time in almost six months, I have some actual free time.

Today is one of those uniquely British summertime days, when the rain is warm but torrential, and August already feels like September, with dead leaves sticking to the pavements, full of resignation that yet again, the summer is, and almost always will be, a disappointment. I have written before about the weather, but after 13 years of living through it, my main belief now is that it is the meteorological equivalent to a bad boyfriend. When it is lovely here, it is the best city in the world. The trees flicker soft light on the street, the Thames sparkles despite its silt and ancient pollution, and the city never looks more beautiful; I am deeply in love with London on these days. But when it’s bad, it’s so, so bad. It doesn’t care. It’s dismissive of your plans, your feelings; it doesn’t care that it’s July, it feels like being 15 degrees and windy. It won’t return your calls, and you’re sure it’s cheating on you… or something…

So on days like today, the British put on a brave face along with their Macs and reassure themselves that there will be an Indian summer and this is all worth it. Stiff upper lip, etc. But we probably won’t, and then we’ll slowly descend into self-pity as the days get shorter and eventually so dark than we won’t even remember what summer is like in the first place… Anyway, what was my point? Oh yes, I have some free time and I need to use said time indoors because basically it’s ridiculous outside; I might as well bloody write.

I broke my phone last week. I dropped it in a (unused) loo and basically it is completely out of commission. The screen wigged out in a way that resembled an iPhone possessed by Lucifer himself, and despite resting in rice for several days, the phone is so very dead. Initially, I took a rather philosophical view about it. How nice to not be easily contactable these days, I thought. But it’s now been a week and not having a phone is driving me crazy. It’s not because I need something to do with my hands, or zone out on Facebook, but because so much of my work is done on my phone. Bar the two days I’m in my office, the rest of my working life, which happens to be roughly full-time at present, is balanced between nap times, bed times, Sesame Street aka the Babysitter, and everything in between. Not being connected is bad for business.

Or maybe it isn’t.

A couple weeks ago, Lauren Laverne wrote a really great piece on the idea that perhaps the idea of a “work/life balance” is actually bullshit. It doesn’t really exist, and perhaps just being “good enough” is more realistic. She says embrace the crazy, and do it with the support of others. This is difficult for me. I’m not great for asking for help and really, I don’t want to be just good enough; I want to be amazing at everything (I never said I was realistic…) which is why having no connection to work when I’m not in front of my computer is stressing me out. I intrinsically feel the need to reply to emails quickly to show that I’m not just sitting around, as if I need to justify being at home with my daughter. Like I said, bullshit.

What I’ve mostly discovered is that nothing bad has happened if I haven’t replied to an email within 15 minutes. I can leave my house for two hours and not come back to a barrage of emails demanding replies. My inner cynic thinks this is because it’s August and London has been emptied of its residents, but I think the truth is more likely that no one passes judgement on me quite like I do. No one is as harsh on me like I am. I really could probably do with giving myself a break on this one in the future.

But I still want my phone back, if purely for CityMapper.

I feel like this summer has been the summer of croutons. I have discovered that making them ticks more than a few boxes: it encourages me to buy real bread, not some of this half-assed E-numbered so-called sliced bread from the supermarket; making croutons combats food waste, because real bread goes stale instead of mouldy, and such staleness creates crouton greatness; it makes me eat more soup, which is healthy and a good way to keep my energy up (according to my acupuncturist). All in all, it has been a happy discovery using up stale bread in this manner.

It can be a messy process, especially if, as was in my case, you’ve got more than a couple loaves to use up. I was picking up flakes of crumb off the floor for about a week after the last round. Essentially, croutons are stale bread, baked in olive oil (or butter, if you’re feeling sexy) and tossed with salt and pepper. It makes a perfect foundation for lots of earthy herbs like rosemary, thyme, parsley or oregano. I personally prefer to keep it simple and use only salt and pepper and garlic powder.

For a standard loaf of sourdough bread, I’d use about 100ml/3.5oz of olive oil, give or take, a generous amount of salt (a half of a tablespoon should be plenty) and black pepper to taste, and about a teaspoon of garlic powder – use your judgement. Cut the bread up into little 2cm/1inch chunks, crusts and all, and then toss everything together. Make sure there’s oil on every bit of bread, and add more if need be. Bake in about 180C/350F for about 15 minutes, then turn over, and bake for another 10 or so, until they become nice and golden. They’re lovely to munch on straight from the oven, but obviously go with salads and aforementioned soups.

It appears to have brighten up outside so I think I’ll risk my exit from Tate Britain and head home. If you have a chance, please take the time to visit the Barbara Hepworth exhibition here. Her sculptures are so incredibly beautiful – sumptuous in their curves, but calm, gentle, and contemplative.

Here’s to hoping that another six months don’t go by without more writing, but if they do, please note dear reader, if you exist, that it isn’t for lack of motivation, but rather I’m either too involved in other things or, as is the most likely scenario, I’ve got my face stuck in a bowl of croutons.

Much love x

An Open Letter to Stylist

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Dear Stylist,

I write in response to this week’s simplistic article on motherhood. You represent those who are unable to have children, those who have no desire to have children, and those who find having children the most fulfilling thing they’ve ever done. The thing is, you left out another group. You’ve left out a complicated group of mothers who are ambivalent over motherhood in general.

Let me explain: I am 34 years old, mother of an 18-month old little girl. I am a writer and entrepreneur, slowly forging a career for myself in between sing songs, building blocks, nap times, and nursery days. I never dreamed about how many children I’d have while growing up, and my husband and I never had a set number of kids we wanted; we just knew we wanted to give the parenting thing a try. We wanted a child, and we were lucky enough to have one.

And while I love my daughter deeply, I cannot say that I have found these first months of her life totally fulfilling. I don’t mean that there aren’t fleeting moments of joy, but rather, it is the monotony of motherhood, the repetition, the sheer eye-splintering boredom that comes on the back it, that is tricky for me and so many other women. We are intelligent women, women of substance and we try to keep some semblance of ourselves during this huge transition into motherhood. It is nigh on impossible, yet we cling to the shadow of our former selves in the hope that one day this almost unrecognisable person we now are will mesh with the elusive version from before. We love our child, or children, but they do not define us. Somehow we must make the two worlds work together.

I have no desire for more children. As my daughter gets older, I find myself enjoying her more, not pining for her as a baby. People often ask when the next one is coming along and my answer is not anytime soon. I have been told countless times that as the child grows older and independent, mothers often miss the sweetness of their little baby and subsequently decide go through the whole process again. Perhaps it is only to relive that soft flush of love that comes quietly into one’s soul in the months after your little one arrives, but to me I cannot see why anyone raising a child would want to get them to a place of more independence, only to do it again. And again. And sometimes, again.

As women we are forced to choose between our careers and family. Your article reiterates that there are only these two options: “never have children and have a life”, or “have children and put your life on hold (but don’t worry, it’ll be worth it while you’re doing it.).” But the truth is that it isn’t that simple. There are thousands of women who are trying to balance what you define as “having a life” while having kids; there are women who don’t want to spend all day singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, but feel so madly in love with their kids that they do it anyway. Often everything about motherhood doesn’t feel “worth it”, but somehow we soldier on. The real courage of motherhood lies in our abilities as mothers to admit that it isn’t fun most of the time, that we should not be expected by anyone to always think our children are the most amazing creatures. It is the courage to admit that we don’t know how we feel about it, but each day, we get up, we love our kids, and ourselves, and we make it work. For us.

Lodestar

Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

I am recently in possession of a kitchen so large it needs an island. I am in awe of this fact, and every morning I come downstairs and get rather doe-eyed looking at it because this kitchen is my new office. Oh, the things I can cook in this space, the gadgets I can amass in such obscene amounts of storage, the natural light abundantly available for food photography…

Since we moved house, I have found myself thinking generally about kitchens and what they represent in one’s life. I realised that every single kitchen of every single place that I have lived is indelibly linked with me, and each of these has had a life and personality of its own. There is a marvellous article MFK Fisher wrote for The New Yorker in 1966 about two kitchens she lived in during the 1950s in Provence, and in a preface to this article (in one of the many compilations of her writings), she says that kitchens are a person’s “lodestar”. Fisher felt that more often than not, upon first interaction, we are unable to recognise the importance of the lodestar on our lives, but over time its purpose becomes more obvious and for her, as it has been for me, her kitchens were vital in the shaping of her life as a writer and as a person.

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Photo Credit: Roadside Pictures

One of the first things my family commented on when they came to visit me here in London 12 years ago was the size of the kitchen in the first flat I rented. No bigger than 1.5m wide walk-in closet, it was clearly designed as an afterthought in a flat where I paid the princely sum of £400 a month for a single bedroom in a shared Ground Floor Flat with two other flatmates. At the time, cooking and food were a love but not a passion, and really how could such passion evolve in a kitchen like that – dark, cramped and with virtually no counter space. And yet it was a flatmate who was obsessed with food that ignited a spark in me. There were often times I would come home and she and her boyfriend would be making Thai green curry from scratch, the house smelling like feet from all the fermented pastes and sauces. Other days she would cook some obscure recipe with odd-looking vegetables from Brixton Market, and in doing so opened my eyes to the diverse foods available in London. Because of her, for the first time I began to actively seek out new flavours.

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Photo Credit: The Bees Knees Daily

A year on, I lived in a shared 4-bedroom house in West Dulwich where the kitchen was enormous but lacked any sense of homeliness – my flatmates and I ate communal meals there, but the familial warmth was not always there. I next lived in a flat with an open-plan kitchen. It had loads of counter space and a decent sized refrigerator and freezer. Cooking began to inspire me and some wonderful meals were created there: mustard and thyme encrusted rack of lamb, a perfected version of my grandmother’s spaghetti Bolognese, peach crème brulée. And yet what was lost there was my marriage, and that kitchen saw the demise of a relationship in a raw and brutal fashion; there is nowhere to hide from each other in open-plan living.

The house I lived in with friends post-separation had a large kitchen and I swooned at its five burner hob and double oven. The best Thanksgiving turkey I ever made was done in that kitchen – so juicy it was like it had been rotisseried, the legs willingly falling away from the carcass. We had so many parties and dinners there, and it is the kitchen where I fell in love with my now husband, and I celebrated turning 30. It was there I convinced a picky friend to try salsa verde with brisket for the first time and where I made Beef Wellington for my visiting parents. I loved that kitchen for what it represented to me at the time: newfound freedom and starting over.

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht

My last kitchen, however, will have my heart forever. My husband and mine’s first place together, the kitchen was smaller than the first dank little one in Brixton, though perfectly laid out. It had almost too many electrical outlets and the cupboards were installed in considerate heights and locations. It was one step to the sink and one step back to the oven. Though storage was at a premium, I managed to find a place for everything. It is in that kitchen that I took the plunge into the world of food writing and cookery. There I achieved perfect pâte brisée and made copious quiches and tarts. I taught myself how to make choux pastry and crème anglaise, in a moderately decent stab at chocolate éclairs. I fought yearly battles over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys with my overly ambitious oven, finally winning in the last attempt much to my joy. It is the kitchen that I cooked and ate my way through my pregnancy and where in recent months, I cooked fruit and vegetables for my daughter to mush into the kitchen table and throw on the floor. Really, I feel like my life kick-started itself in that kitchen and I will always be attached to it.

And so now I sit in my new kitchen, looking at its expansive surfaces and empty shelves and think of the possibilities in front of me. Already I have made Judith Rodgers’ roast chicken here. I’ve baked banana muffins and cooked potato rösti for my daughter. This latest of muses seems to be hinting that great things are afoot and whether that means I will finally master puff pastry or something else, either way this kitchen has already began to create memories and in its own way, as have all the others, weave itself into my story. But for now, back to work…

To Judy Rodgers, Too Little Too Late

ImageIt was a disaster. Six free-range, organic chickens, reared by an ethically sound producer in the California sunshine had been overcooked. It felt disrespectful. These small birds had given up their relatively contented lives to feed us and we, I, had roasted them to a state that was so parched, the breast meat was difficult to swallow. They had been intended to feed twenty people for a family reunion, in a menu lovingly considered and prepared by my favourite aunt. A well-worn copy of the Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers had been bookmarked and it was my responsibility to roast them.

Rodgers died in December of cancer. I’d like to say that my historical food knowledge is so that I had actually heard of her that sunny weekend in October. But I hadn’t. Aside from the Zuni Café often being mentioned in the same sentence as Chez Panisse when my aunt and I spoke about Bay Area cuisine, I had no idea that she was of the same calibre as Alice Waters when it came to the California Food Revolution in the 1980s. But when the news hit, and her importance to the culinary tradition clicked into place, I realised I had had no clue, as I watched my aunt, mother and sister-in-law brine these birds two months prior, that I was going to be in charge of delivering on Rodgers’ most famous recipe.

She outlines three main points to consider when roasting a chicken. First, the size: 1.2-1.5kgs (2 3/4 to 3 1/2lbs) is key. The birds are small and are completely perfect for quick roasting at high heat. The second is the bird is a fryer, as opposed to a roaster, which tends to be much larger. The littler birds are often used for their parts and are usually overlooked for roasting because of their size. Finally, salting the chicken 24-hours in advance. I’ve always considered brining to be something overly complicated for some reason, and was perhaps a bit intimidated by the idea. But when Rodgers described the process, all of a sudden I understood. The point is to get your food to be “tasty all the way through”.

She explains, “…salt helps dissolve some of the proteins within and around the muscle fibres that would otherwise resist chewing…Initially, salt does draw moisture from cells – whence the widely accepted belief that it dries food out. However, the quiet trauma of osmosis is temporary. With time, the cells reabsorb moisture in reverse osmosis. When they do, that moisture is seasoned with salt.” Ah-hah.

In the end, I was too generous with our roasting timings, calculated around multiple chickens instead of the one mentioned in the recipe. A different aunt, with a deep-rooted and irrational fear of salmonella, convinced me to allow more time than my instincts told me, and when we took the little golden bodies out of the oven, I knew we’d gone too far. Needless to say, when the party of twenty sat down to eat there was a quiet disappointment in the air. We are a family who likes food. We like to eat it, talk about it, think about it, worry about it, but that evening no one said a word for the first five minutes. The only person to comment was my cousin, my dear aunt’s son. In his quiet and aloof manner, he confirmed the unfortunate truth; the meat was dry and juiceless. It was tragic. She and I both lost sleep over it.

Once back in the UK and armed with a photocopy of my aunt’s cookbook, I penitently set about to roast another chicken. I found a beautiful small one from Dugard & Daughters, the lovely butchers in Herne Hill, SW London, and set about salting the little thing 24-hours in advance, studiously reading and rereading Rodgers’ instructions for roasting. My oven is notoriously over ambitious. I have lost battles to it several times over my Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys, so this time I was going to err on the side of caution. The chicken was seared in a hot cast iron dish on the stovetop, then flipped over and roasted at 250C (475F) for 30 minutes, then back on its bottom at 210C (450F) for another 15. The result was a thing of glory. The brined chicken was juicy, flavourful and succulent. The skin is crispy, salty but not overly so; the meat tasted more of itself, all the way through. Simple, effective, this method is foolproof if you know your bird and you know your oven.

With such a late introduction into Judy Rodgers’ style, I can’t help but feel like I’ve arrived at a party an hour after everyone’s left. To become so well known for something as simple as a roast chicken shows a love of technique and an attention to detail that is entirely refreshing. As Alice Waters says, “it is a fundamental fact that no cook, however creative and capable, can produce a dish of quality any higher than that of the ingredients.” Indeed. But respect those ingredients as well. Knowing the best method of preparation is crucial, and yet, that isn’t everything. The learning curve continues, but one thing is for sure: I will never roast another chicken longer than an hour, and I must always listen to my instincts.

Post-Partum Impressions

2013-11-29 11.34.01A friend suggested that I give some retrospective thoughts about my life since having our daughter as a way to tie up the last two pieces for this blog. I, for one, am looking forward to getting back to writing about food, but there is something to be said about giving birth and experiencing these first five months of my daughter’s life, so kindly indulge me for one last time. 

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I ended up avoiding induction. I went into labour the day I was scheduled to be induced, as if the little one made the decision to help me out and spare me an unnatural birth experience. Labour and Child Birth are completely indescribable. The associated fear that accompanies the excitement of the last weeks of pregnancy is not unfounded, but retrospectively, I feel it isn’t as awful as everyone says, and that isn’t just hormones talking. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never screamed so much in my life. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. So much so that I swore to the doctors, midwives, and anyone else who’d listen that I am never doing “that” again (a knowing smile was normally all I got in response). And whilst each woman’s experience is unique, my overarching impression is that it is all entirely doable, and there is no need to fear it.

Some key points to remember about childbirth: mainly, your body knows what it’s doing, as does the baby, so it really is just best to go with it and avoid being precious or scared about anything. You won’t give a shit about being naked in public, legs akimbo, arse in the air. You won’t care what you say, the sounds you make, the way you move your body. All dignity goes out the window and you couldn’t care less. Your mind is intact for the most part, but your body calls the shots. Often problems arise when the mind tries to take over so best leave them to separate, as they ultimately do. For me, the way childbirth is portrayed in the media is that the woman becomes totally irrational was false. I never swore at anyone. I never shouted at my Other Half blaming him for my condition, but I did scream. A lot. Screams that were almost otherworldly and in retrospect, quite bovine.

How do I feel about it all now? Of course, the pain has lessened in my mind (only a bit…) and said with knowing bias, our little girl is the most amazing creature I have ever set eyes on. But truthfully, motherhood is intense, emotionally and physically. Bouts with anaemia and extreme physical fatigue, unparalleled lack of sleep and an exhausting, insatiable hunger due to breastfeeding meant it has been a long haul to get to the point where I even have the energy to write, let alone think properly. I struggled a bit for the first few weeks to really bond with this little stranger, and to be honest, that feeling is more common than we’re lead to believe. The warm fuzzies you’re expected to feel straight away are not always there in the beginning. But it does come, and now she is the greatest thing I have ever done.

I won’t bore you with discussions of epic poos or whether breastfeeding really is best, but know this, the old adage is true: nothing will ever prepare you for having a child. Once the hormonally-charged fog clears and you’re left with the reality that this little person relies on you wholly, the terror of the unknown magnifies itself tenfold every day. But, choosing to step back, and see that in the scheme of life these moments are fleeting, does make it easier. She will only be this small for a handful of months, and the lack of sleep, being covered in sick and drool (my god, the drool…) will be a flicker in her story. It is intense, it is scary, it is emotionally draining, it is exhausting, but it is worth it.

With that, I desperately need a nap, so goodbye until January. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.

An Update…

Roughly a month ago I was certain that by this point I would not be pregnant anymore. But, as many things in life tend to be, the final days of this pregnancy have been entirely unpredictable and I am now ten days overdue, with an induction date set for two days’ time. It will be almost five weeks since I last wrote anything and went on maternity leave, assuming that I’d have a nice chubby, pink baby by now.

I thought I had done everything right. I was sure I’d been clever enough in my actions and would smugly be able to avoid induction. I truly believed I could outsmart Nature; a laughable presumption I now know. I’ve drank raspberry leaf tea since 34 weeks, I’ve done tonnes of yoga, I’ve eaten (fairly) well, despite my insane love of pork pies and chocolate milk. I’ve swam, I’ve gone for epic walks, I’ve eaten spicy food, I’ve done acupuncture, I’ve had three rather invasive manipulation procedures (I’ll leave the details out. This is still technically a food blog after all…) and yet, this baby has it’s own agenda for it’s arrival. Up until yesterday, I have been frustrated with these final days; I felt like the prescience I had to prepare myself physically meant that I didn’t deserve to be this late. I’ve been genuinely irritated with this little person-to-be for their seeming lack of compliance. I’ve have resented it because I’m enormous and uncomfortable, and my body hurts; I can’t even see my ankle bones anymore due to the swelling of my feet. The subsequent guilt I then felt for unfairly blaming someone with no knowledge of their own existence for actions outside of their control is obvious. I cringe at my response. I miss my body and it being mine alone, but that isn’t this baby’s fault. After all, it didn’t ask to be born.

I almost wonder if because I’ve put pressure on myself to have this baby sooner, it is Nature’s rather backhanded way of reminding me that things like this cannot be rushed. These events have their own timescales which stay unknown. Hundreds of years of scientific advancement and knowledge of the human body, and they still cannot work out what causes a woman to go into labour. It is completely unpredictable. At first, this irked me, but now…

Unknowns, whilst scary, are also exciting.

I am hopeful and resigned.

And now we have an end date anyway: two days to go. Now we know, the pressure is off. Of course, I’m concerned that the birth will now be this long and drawn out process from which we’ll both end up traumatised, but in the end, all of it is a total unknown and it does nothing beneficial to worry. The next two days are an opportunity to get into the correct headspace for Wednesday. I’m going to visit the LS Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain. I’m going to make a huge batch of chocolate chip cookies. I’m going to meditate and do some yoga, and take advantage of the calm before this inevitable yet still unpredictable storm.

Some Final Thoughts on Pregnancy

Scan_20 weeks_croppedI am writing this from bed. Propped up on pillows is the most comfortable of positions for me these days as I’m larger and more awkward than I’ve felt in my entire life. I wrote many months ago about the first stages of pregnancy and how from a food perspective my life was thrown into disarray. I spent subsequent months with a voracious appetite and few cravings, which was a pity as I thought my love of food would incite some hilarious combinations. I did develop a heartfelt adoration of mini-Melton Mowbray pork pies and chocolate milk, but sadly craved little else of anything more bizarre. Now I am almost 3 weeks til my due date and as space has become as issue internally, I’m still eating normally, although now it is smaller portions with greater regularity.

As pregnancies go, I know it has been a good one. Despite a bit of morning sickness in weeks 10-14, I have had little by way of the dreaded “minor pregnancy ailments”, which in fact are not all that minor. I have been lucky that my side effects have been short-lived and comparatively mild, but labelling the burning felt in your ribcage as it expands, the continuous dull ache in your back and hips, and random painful bouts of acid reflux and heartburn as “minor ailments” seems to trivialise the serious discomfort I was mostly spared but from which many others suffer acutely. Conflate this with putting on more weight than you would expect to do in your lifetime, insomnia, bizarre cravings, losing not only your waistline but your view of your feet and it is any wonder women continue to do this pregnancy malarkey. I’m equally suspicious of the women who come across all kumbaya and Earth Mother-y about pregnancy. They are deluding themselves; pregnancy sucks a bit…and I’m one of the ones who has had it pretty good.

I have been looking forward to not being pregnant since I was about 6 months gone. Not that it hasn’t been fun having a bump and showing it off, but the reality is that it is been one-sided affair so far; all investment on my part and little return so far (although am sure that will change). Of course, I will admit I want to eat Stilton and get squiffy again, but in truth I really just want my body back. I have essentially been living with another person stuck to me for almost a year and it isn’t unreasonable to say that I think we are both looking forward to having our individual space (I can only assume the baby feels the same way. It’s quite easy to interpret sharp kicks to my ribs as a way of expressing his or her desire for a bit more room as well).

And yet, despite everything, it would be an understatement to say we’re just excited to meet this person now. In fact we are bordering on twitchy with impatience. We have spent almost 9 months speculating as to who this little person, boy or girl, is going to be, how we are going to be as parents, and what it all means to our life together. The nursery is ready, the flat is ready, we are ready, and I waddle slowly towards D-Day. This will be my last post for a few months whilst we get to grips with the upheaval of parenting. Wish us luck and goodbye for now…