Sunday, December 31, 2017

Holiday Recap

I hope you all had a peaceful and happy holiday. Ours was quite nice, with all four kids at home and my sister and her husband to visit. The tree didn't catch on fire (always good) and it didn't plague us with allergens like it did last year. I had numerous difficulties with the cookie baking this year - even threw an entire batch of macarons into the trash because they were inedible. Still, when all was said and done, we had a few decent cookies.

Our neighbor gave us this enormous turnip and Brigid carved a face into it.

Me and my sister on Christmas Eve

There was much hilarity on Christmas Eve and after a dinner of gnocchi, homemade sauce, and cookies, we carried on our tradition of the Christmas Pyramid. This activity started years ago when "camera phones" were the new and exciting thing and we engaged in a game of photographic one-upmanship with relatives in Buffalo. Our last stunt with the camera - to form a human pyramid - was such a success, we continued to do it every year.

From top to bottom, above: me, Grace, my sister Margaret, Brigid, Ian, Seamus. Margaret's husband off to the left and Jon took the picture.

Two sets of sisters

The Christmas tamales came off well with only one tiny meltdown on my part. Tamales are a LOT of work. I knew that, but I didn't take into account how much more work they are when you are also making appetizers and desserts. The thing that saved us is that I made the fillings and mole sauces ahead of time. We had two types of tamales: chicken with a pumpkin mole and mushroom/goat cheese with mole verde. Of the two, we all preferred the mushroom. I made meatballs and a bean dip with tortilla chips for everyone to snack on while I did the tamales. In the end, it wasn't "I" I got quite a bit of help from the kids. Grace took care of serving the appetizers and getting wine for everyone and Seamus and Brigid figured out how to efficiently assemble the tamales on the island, while I worked at the counter. The cookbooks always insist that tamale making is a many-person project and they are right.

I was supposed to make a jicama/red cabbage salad, but I was so tired of cooking that I just threw the shredded cabbage into a bowl with a little lime juice and mayo. For dessert we had Smitten Kitchen's German chocolate cake, as well as a gluten free stained glass cake made from gelled fruit juice and whipped cream.

And now the tree is down and Christmas is over for another year. 

Phoebe is wondering why we had to take the tree down.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Tamale rehearsal and a new house project

I realized that despite the insanity of Christmas, December would be unbearable without it. Imagine how unspeakably dreary it would be, with all this darkness and no frantic busyness or holiday lights to mitigate it. You could argue that it only delays the dreariness until January, but by then, the light is perceptibly creeping back.

Anyway, I made a strong start with my Christmas shopping, validated by my shocking credit card balance. Also, I'm sick to death of the traditional Christmas dinner of roast meat and sides. This year, I'm making tamales for Christmas dinner. I have never made them before, but I made a practice attempt last weekend. It was a disaster, but I think I learned enough from the dry run to achieve decent tamales for Christmas. And anyway, the disaster tamales were delicious. They just looked terrible. Tip: if the recipe calls for stone ground masa, don't substitute instant. (In my defense, instant was the only form available in our local stores.) I'm going to invest in a tamale steamer. They cost $18 at our local Mexican market, and it will double as a canning pot. The dry run involved a Bon Appetit magazine hack that had you prop the tamales on a giant wad of tin foil, which worked, but is too precarious for an undertaking as important as Christmas dinner.

In other news, I've started a new house project. I'm going to take the weedy mess pictured below and turn it into a brick path. This is the side of our house. It's really supposed to be a dirt path to the back yard, bordered on either side by flowers, but it is an endless task to keep the path weeded. Also, we have a huge pile of leftover bricks from when we built the front patio. I haven't made much progress, what with rain and cold weather and a broken wheelbarrow. I hope I'll be able to amuse you with my foray into DIY masonry and ditch digging.

It's back-breaking work. The soil itself is dense, red clay. If I had a kiln, I could just make my own bricks. Not even being facetious. So stay tuned, but don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

O. Douglas

I had the good fortune to obtain and read several books by the Scottish author O. Douglas, so I thought I'd do a little profile of her novels. She writes in the vein of the great female British writers of comfort lit. Douglas' novels are less farcical than, say Angela Thirkell's, have less substance than Barbara Pym, and are not as edgy as Margery Sharp's, but are enjoyable in their own right.

O. Douglas is the pen name of Scottish writer Anna Buchan (1877 - 1948). Her brother was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and also governor of Canada.  (I had no idea.) I recently read four of her novels and each one was delightful. One thing common to all her novels is attention to the houses of her characters and how they are decorated. And they all have such lovely houses. She must have had an interest in interior design.

This is the edition I bought on Amazon. The original dust jacket pictured below.

First up, Olivia in India, which is a very short novel about an young English woman spending the cold season in India, which was apparently a thing that wealthy young ladies did in the early 20th century. It's written as letters home to Olivia's fiance in England and is a lighthearted and funny account of a pleasant time in India. There's hardly any conflict to speak of, other than everyday annoyances, a welcome respite from real life problems.

My copy didn't have its dust jacket, but here's a picture of it.

Pink Sugar is about Kirsty Gilmour, a young woman who has been living under the thumb of a querulous stepmother. When the stepmother dies, Kirsty is finally free to do what she wants, which is to move to Scotland and rent a beautiful house in the country where she impulsively decides to shelter a family of young children whose mother has just died. Kirsty is lovely and rich and perennially cheerful, and so incurs resentment from some of the people in her new town. It's that edge, the resentment, the difficult lives of Kirsty's new neighbors that keep Pink Sugar from being a Pollyanna. It's a light, entertaining, comfortable read. 

The Proper Place is about the aristocratic Rutherford family - Lady Jane, her daughter Nicole and niece Barbara who find themselves in financial difficulties after the death of Lady Jane's husband and must sell the family estate and move to a small fishing village in Scotland. The Rutherford estate is purchased by a Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, a mere Glasgow merchant and his wife, who feel it's time they were in possession of a country house. Here's where snobbery could take over, but it doesn't. Angela Thirkell would have mocked the Jacksons, but O. Douglas portrays them as likable and sensible (though Mrs. Jackson has regrettable taste in furnishings and paint colors). Meanwhile, Lady Jane, Nicole, and Barbara become involved with the people of their new community. Like Pink Sugar, The Proper Place has just enough seriousness to save it from being a Pollyanna, indeed, there's a heartbreaking occurrence at the end.

The Day of Small Things is a sequel to The Proper Place. I was glad to get my hands on it, because after the sad ending of The Proper Place, I wanted to know what happened next. The story continues in the same vein, with the doings of the Jacksons and the Rutherfords, although their circumstances have changed somewhat and Barbara turns out to be not very likable - a fact freely admitted by the narrator and the book's characters. 

Also, back in 2014, I read The House that is Our Own by O. Douglas and you can read my review here. I didn't enjoy it as much as these others. There are still quite a few O. Douglas books that I haven't read yet, and I'm going to continue to seek them out. Have any of you read any O. Douglas? If you did, let me know your thoughts.

One note, O. Douglas' books aren't easy to find in the US. None were at my local library and I had to buy them from Amazon UK, which has very reasonable prices and shipping rates. (Actually, Olivia in India came from a seller in the US, but it's one of those dreadful editions that's like a xerox of the original.