23 Feb 2011

The 2nd Bottle of Wine Argument

J Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon:
at 14% a good contender for the
2nd Bottle of Wine Argument
You’ve shared and enjoyed a good bottle of wine and you don’t really need any more to drink but...  hey, you're feeling good, relaxed, you could sit here all night chatting, so why not order or open another?

It’s usually half way through the second bottle that the accumulative effect of the alcohol makes one of you brave, rash or stupid enough to bring up something that would better be discussed in a more sober condition. A straightening of the spine, a narrowing of the eyes… if you listened carefully you’d probably hear knives sharpening themselves close by.  But you’re both blind and deaf to the signs of danger and you charge ahead.


NOT the 2nd Bottle of Wine Argument...
just the 2nd bottle of wine
Of course, the second bottle of wine isn’t always guaranteed to invoke an argument, but I have met a lot of couples who identify with it. My own most volatile experience of the phenomenon, which was compounded by a particularly dodgy moussaka (bad food always makes me grumpy), took place at an open-air restaurant in Heraklion, Crete and peaked when Tony said, ‘That's not an opinion!’ and I stood up, hurled the napkin holder across the table at him, and stormed off into the dark streets hoping I could remember where the hotel was. I did.

And, breathe…

I suppose all that's necessary is a moment of reflection  as one of you  pops the second cork. You could remind yourselves, silently, to keep the conversation light, and consider avoiding the following topics. But in my experience true clarity is a rare thing at the end of a first bottle, and it seems that once you enter ‘the valley of death’ there’s nothing you can do except to keep on riding until one of you falls off your horse.


Things to Steer Clear Of:
  • criticising the other one’s children
  • any comments or suggestions that the other one’s family members might be irresponsible, selfish or immature
  • any self-improvement tips
  • starting a sentence with 'It's probably not the best time to say this but...'
  • telling a woman not to get emotional
  • telling a man, ‘look who’s getting emotional now’
I could go on… but perhaps someone else can carry on with the list?


Writing Prompts
  1. Write about a time you said something then wished you could take it back.
  2. Write about a family argument.
  3. Free write starting with the phrase You were wrong about…


16 Feb 2011

Teapot, Bakestone, Starlight

They belonged to my maternal grandmother, Alice James, who was born in 1909 and lived until she was 93. A teapot and its standing plate, a sugar bowl and two jugs, one for milk, the other for cream. Or perhaps the larger one for hot water and the smaller for milk? 'Yes,' my mother says, who remembers them in her childhood home, 'that would make sense.'

My paternal grandmother, Catherine Rees, died in 1959 when I was 8 months old. I have no memory of her but I have the bakestone, or planc as we say in Welsh, she would have cooked her welshcakes on.


My mother emails to say that Aunty Beryl-next door has died. We always called her that, not to mix her up with our ‘real’ Aunty Beryl, my father’s sister-in-law, who lived in Llanelli.

Aunty Beryl-next door hasn’t lived there for a while now. A widow, she moved a few years ago into sheltered accommodation then later, after breaking her hip, into more permanent care. But she was there before I was born. I never knew life without Aunty Beryl-next door, and Uncle Dennis, and their daughter, Ann.

Ann was born six weeks after me. We grew up together. We had mud tea parties. I tied her to the Chrome Avenue street sign once and left her there.


St David's Day, 1st March 1964. Left to right:
Lynne Rees, Shan Rees, Mandy Monks, Kathryn Monks, Ann Hartshorn

One overcast afternoon, when Aunty Beryl was out, we painted our nails with Shocking Pink nail varnish that we found in her kitchen drawer and, when we couldn't find any nail varnish remover, we used a potato peeler to scrape off the brightly coloured evidence of our guilt along with the top layers of our nails.

When we look at the night sky we are looking at the past, at light that has taken up to a thousand light years to reach us, from a star that might have already ceased to exist.

Teapots and bakestones. The memories we replay. They shine as brightly too.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about the neighbours you had as a child.
  • Write about a time when you felt guilty.
  • Write about a very faint memory. Write about what you don't remember. 


9 Feb 2011

Broken Cornets and Home-made Ice-cream

It is dusk. There are three of us, standing on the kerb in Chrome Avenue, looking up through the sliding window of the pink Tonibell van. One of us asks if he has any broken cornets to give away. We don’t have any money for ice cream. He might have said no, or he might have said, give me your hand and I’ll tell you. Which we will not do. Because we know him.

It doesn’t make sense for an ice-cream van to be doing its rounds at that time. Perhaps my memory has invented dusk for its dramatic effect, that uncertain place between the assurance of afternoon and evening, for the way our faces would have been illuminated by the van’s interior light. But perhaps he was there, at the end of his round, at the beginning of darkness.

Included in that memory are the details of all the other times he stopped in our street. He wore a pink nylon coat. His thin, black hair was smooth against his scalp. His face was plump and red and always seemed to be sweating.

When he hands down our 99s, a cone of soft, whipped ice-cream with a Cadbury’s Chocolate Flake, or we hold out our hands for any change, he presses his fingertips into our palms, lingering there even as we pull away. He leans forward, folding his arms on the edge of the window. He speaks quietly. ‘Come here, let me tell you something,’ he says when we're not buying and have no need to get closer.

And we do not tell our mothers. Because it’s not that we fear him exactly. After all, he’s not a stranger we should refuse sweets from. But we know something is wrong. What we don’t know is how to explain it. Or whose fault it is.

It wasn’t my fault

I remember saying that so often as a kid. But ‘fault’ is difficult to understand. If I tell my mother about the man we stumbled across in the sand dunes on Aberavon Beach, the one lying on his side with his knees pulled up to his chest, whose moans make us back silently down the grassy dune, then I might not be allowed to go and play there again. And whose fault will that be? His for being there? Or mine for telling?

Do what you’re told.

French people don't really
walk like this.
I was generally a good girl, out of fear more than anything else. And I still have a tendency to do what I’m told. Passage obligatoire pour pietons the sign reads just past the service station this morning, directing pedestrians to the other side of Boulevard Marechal Leclerc, away from the road-works. I cross over but then notice half a dozen other people ignoring the sign and barrelling ahead on the rough pavement. But it’s nicer this side of the road, next to the sea. A dozen or so gulls are bobbing on the surface of the water like those yellow plastic ducks you get at the fair. Sometimes doing what you’re told works to your advantage.

For years I never thought about making ice-cream because I didn’t have an ice-cream maker. I believed the people who told me that I’d never get rid of all the ice crystals no matter how much I whisked it before it set.

Sometimes, changing what we think, or how we think about it, can be down to one person saying something so obvious that we wonder why we never thought about it ourselves. David Lebovitz, author of The Sweet Life in Paris, said: People have been making ice-cream far longer than the invention of electricity.

His words combined with Michael Ruhlman’s suggestion, in The Elements of Cooking, for crème anglaise: Freeze it and it’s vanilla ice-cream convinced me, and so, cream, vanilla, sugar, egg yolks, a few brisk whisks and an overnighter in the freezer later, I had Vanilla ice-cream you would charge through road-works, barricades and any number of gendarmes to reach.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about a secret you had as a child.
  2. Write about a time when you didn’t do what you were told.
  3. Write about someone who changed the way you thought about something, or has changed the way you look at the world.
Home-made Vanilla Ice-cream

400ml of single cream
1 tsp of vanilla seeds (I buy these cute jars of gousses de vanille because I can't often find fresh vanilla pods around here)
75gr castor sugar
6 egg yolks
• First thing, set up an ice bath: one bowl (big enough to hold more than a litre) that can sit inside a bigger bowl containing lots of ice and cold water.
• Whisk half the sugar with the egg yolks until they’re thick and pale.
• Heat the cream with the remaining sugar until it’s hot but not boiling.
• Add a little of the hot liquid to the egg. Stir and add a little more. This is to ‘temper’ the eggs, or to get them used to a little heat before you mix it all together, otherwise you’ll end up with sweet scrambled eggs.
• Add the egg mixture to the hot cream and stir over a low heat until it thickens. You want a ‘blanket over the back of a wooden spoon’ effect, not thin like hot milk, not thick like hollandaise. (Thanks again, Michael Ruhlman.)
• Pour the custard into the bowl sitting in the ice bath and place them both in freezer to chill quickly.
• After 45 minutes, whisk briskly until it’s lovely and smooth, get rid of the ice bath and and return the ice-cream to the freezer.
• Repeat the 45 minutes/whisking pattern twice more, pour into a tightly sealable plastic container and re-freeze.
• Go to bed and dream of ice-cream for breakfast.

p.s. I really wanted to make Grand Marnier ice-cream and added 2 tbsp to the warm custard before putting it in the freezer. It tasted quite strong at that point but when it was frozen I couldn’t taste it at all. I’ve since learned that alcohol stops the mixture from freezing which is perhaps why I didn’t get any ice-crystals, but I like my alcohol to do a little more than that. So next time I’ll try doubling it for extra oomph.



8 Feb 2011

I won a Stylish Blogger Award...

... from the inspiring Angela Hirst at the good soup. I've been following Angela's blog since I first started The Hungry Writer project in October 2010. She's a cook, writer, researcher and teacher who completed her PhD, Eating the Other, Levinas's Ethical Encounter, in 2005. She says this about herself :

I love to write. It feels like dragging myself out of bed from a very very deep sleep each time I do it, but once I start, I don’t want to stop.

I love it when people cut through the romantic illusions of what makes a writer and tell it as it is. And I love writers who love to cook and eat!

Because blogging is all about learning and sharing The Stylish Blogger Award requires me to pass on the award to 15 other blogs I admire (and because, as Angela says, my blog stands at the edge of an almost dimensionless sea of food blogs there will be a few blogs that are rather more loosely linked to food) and to share 7 things about myself. So: 
  1. I hated to eat when I was small. I used to sit in front of my dinner plate for hours, staring at it, unable to comprehend the process of moving such a pile of food from there to me.
  2. I have dodgy pheromones. I attract cats, children under 7 and old men over 70.
  3. The first time I tried an oyster, in 1988, was before I knew you could chew them. I tipped one into my mouth at the Toronto Oyster Festival and it was so big it took two swallows to shift it from mouth to stomach. I still shiver at the memory.
  4. I met my husband on a blind date. We got engaged 20 days later and married 23 years later.
  5. I have children by proxy - step-grandchildren, nieces and nephews, a great-neice and nephew - and I like that situation very much.
  6. I cooked my first 3 course meal from Robert Carrier's weekly recipe magazines. I've never seived so much stuff in my life!
  7. Most days when I wake up I ask myself, What's for breakfast? or Shall I stay in bed and read?

Some of the blogs below are Very Well Known and really do not need any endorsement from me but they have all inspired me in very different ways and I wanted to acknowledge them:

Rhona McAdam's Iambic Cafe. Rhona's a writer and an eater who believes we should spend at least as much time learning where our food comes from as poets do placing commas. She can be a little scary at times but the world needs people who give us a shake and make us really look at things.

Christina Wenger's A Thinking Stomach and her linked Recipe blog. She also grows her own food. An inspiration.

Anita Breland's Anita's Feast where food meets travel. She says: My mother still wonders how I developed such a food-centric outlook. After all, she reminded me recently, “For your entire childhood, you wouldn’t even eat your peas!” Yep, I've been there too!

The English Kitchen that proves that the UK has some very fine food, and that's written by a Canadian, who quotes Baudelaire at the top of her blog. Food, poetry... what more can a Hungry Writer ask for?

Suzan Colón whose book, Cherries in Winter, I found and read and adored while on holiday in Florida in January. An absorbing story of food, family, love and honesty.

Jamie Schler's Life's a Feast blog. Her latest recipe combined panna cotta and Grand Marnier. If I knew where she lived I'd buy the house next door.

David Leite's blog on Leite's Culinaria. He's so funny, and forget about buying the house next door, I'd rent his understairs cupboard to eat some of the food he talks about.

The perfect fried egg
Shannalee's (pronounced like Shauna-lee) Food Loves Writing, a literary food blog about food and everything else. What isn't there to like?! Shannalee also likes a good fried egg on toast and so do I, as this photo proves.

Monica Bhide's A Life of Spice whose latest post, Dare to be Different, talks about writing what you care about, not just about what you know.

And here are my remaining Stylish Blogger Awards that are more loosely, but still sincerely, related to food:

Deborah Lawrenson is a British novelist and journalist who lives in the UK and Provence. Apparently, one critic complained about an excess of food references in her novel, The Art of Falling. How weird can you get?!

Tamar Yoseloff's Invective Against Swans is a diet of poetry and art. She is one of those rare people who loves to eat as much, and as often, as I do.

Patricia Debney started her Waving and Drowning blog after her son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Patricia's a friend and I know how her life, the whole family's life, was turned upside down and inside out by the changes this diagnosis insisted upon. Food here is a very different animal, it both saves and threatens, and her posts are smart and inspiring.

Clare Grant's Three Beautiful Things because food, unsurprisingly, is often one of her beautiful things, and occasionally sneaks in as a minor character too.

And here come The Rules if you'd like to continue paying this forward:
  • Acknowledge who gave you the award, that's ME
  • Tell your readers 7 things about yourself
  • Pass on the award to 15 food blogging loves (you can stretch that rule, as I have, or even change it)
  • Tell the award recipients you’ve done it

2 Feb 2011

Anyone peckish? Food for thought.

Lise, the main character in the novel I’m currently reading, doesn’t seem to be that interested in food. So far she’s had ‘a cold supper’, has slept though one dinner and only commented on passing the bread and salt at another. She took a single piece of melon from a ‘breakfast buffet’ and sat at the kitchen table drinking wine one night and forgot about a freshly caught fish poaching to oblivion on the stove behind her. Maybe she sees eating as a necessary part of her days but not something that deserves too much attention. Maybe she’s too much in love to think about eating, or too busy adjusting to the emotional challenges of a new life, both of which are happening in alternating sections of the book.

When I read the words ‘breakfast buffet’ my mouth waters just thinking about what they might suggest: soft pastries, yoghurt and honey, a plate of fresh fruit, cold meats and cheese, eggs, bacon, sausage… well, okay, she’s in Mexico so perhaps less of the eggs and bacon, but what about breakfast burritos or tamales, or huevos rancheros – fried eggs, salsa and soft corn tortillas? I’d never be able to slide away with just a slice of melon.

Available at
The Book Depository
I did think my luck was going to change when Lise took her best friend to his favourite restaurant but there wasn’t even a sniff of a pre-prandial olive before she told him she was leaving her husband. I know, I know… but a girl still has to eat!

(Don’t be alarmed. I'm not giving away the plot; the reader knows at the opening of the first chapter that Lise is on her own.)

And please don't get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s a weak novel because of the paucity of food. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. It is so sensual it makes me shiver in places; I can’t wait to pick it up every evening. And I’m transported by the author’s descriptions of landscapes and seascapes that are so freshly and precisely observed:

The quiet, along with the altitude, gives the impression of standing in the sky. Indeed, each time Lise moves from shelter to outdoors she feels overwhelmed by the moody expanse of sky, dwarfing the land like a torn sheet billowed over a green penny.

The seascape was composed of simple elements: a headland cutting into the water like a great stone plow and a sunrise, shattered as if the sky had been struck by a similar blade.

It’s a beautiful book about confronting the past and telling stories. Read it for yourself.

Of course, food not playing a significant role says far more about me that it does about Lise. And I have no doubt that Sarah Stonich would have deliberately chosen the concrete detail she needed as vehicles for her ideas and themes. But I also wonder how much of our own pleasures and preferences we consciously or unconsciously add to our writing?

Paper edition out of print
but available as an E-book
There’s a lot of eating and drinking in my novel, The Oven House. Food is a necessary comfort after a lover leaves (again, I'm not giving anything away here):

And she makes herself eat. But not raw, cold food. It has to be cooked and hot. She lights the rings on the narrow gas stove and warms a bottle of red at the side – a good Rioja or an estate bottled Shiraz… She poaches salmon, warms green pesto sauce with olive oil, and serves it on a bed of rocket, or she sautés slivers of chicken breast with rosemary and garlic, toasts slices of ciabatta under the grill… After the second glass of wine her head and belly are warm, relaxed, and she is convinced she can get through this. And as long as she’s doing something, and being kind to herself, perhaps the days won’t scrape by so painfully.

In Messages, written with Sarah Salway, the theme of food is one of the most common, recurring again and again throughout the 300 pieces. All kinds of food, including chocolate, bread and chips, as well as kitchens, cafes, and dinner parties suggest desire, loss, resentment, self-love, adventure, competition and much, much more. And this predilection for the culinary appears to have been shared equally between us.

I was always aware that water, in all its forms, was an over-riding theme in my poetry, but looking through Learning How to Fall again I’m surprised how often the sense of taste is invoked: I can taste salt on you…, tasting the rain…, he is every dish/ she’s ever wanted and she is/ every mouth waiting to be fed.

Perhaps we all look back at our lives and try to make sense of things, to identify what has made us and what has brought us to where we are now. And maybe we find patterns because we’re consciously looking for them, because we want the journeys we’ve taken to have meaning. If there’s no order, no form, how can there be any sense?

Would I be working on 'The Hungry Writer' pieces if I hadn’t written the novel, the poems, hadn’t started that collaboration with Sarah back in 2005? Did the desire to write about food emerge and develop gradually over the years or have I always been unconsciously engaged with it at some level?

I'm pretty sure I wasn’t concerned with food when I started writing around 1990. A lot of my early poems and stories revolved around lonely, old men! And my first published short story, which appeared in 'The People’s Friend', was about a lonely, old man recovering from a stroke. I don't know what Freud would make of that early, and, I suspect, rather self-indulgent, obsession!

Although, I remember now that Mr Jack did have an allotment – carrots, spinach, potatoes. There’s a good soup there. And double-baked jacket potatoes. Spinach for eggs Florentine.

And look what’s advertised on the front cover of that January 19th, 1991 issue:


A sign?! Nah... the chances are that every woman's magazine published that week had a cookery feature on the front cover. But it's fun to make maps of our lives and look at where different threads cross. And isn't map-making what we do when we write our stories? We start with a blank page, mark one phase of a journey, add another and aim for a destination, whether we know where we're going or not.

Hungry Writing Prompts

Choose one of your passions, or obsessions, and make a retrospective map of how and where it began and how it has travelled through your life. Invent or imagine a future for it. What will you and your passion be doing 20 years from now?

or

If you don’t feel you have any particular passion or obsession, although I suspect there might be one or two lurking somewhere, choose something that feels particularly alien to you and invent its journey through your life. E.g. I was 10 when I discovered the beauty of slugs…