I'm busy writing a novel at the moment. Well, actually I'm busy writing this blog entry, and baking chocolate steamed pudding, and packing for the Mouse to go on Brownie Holiday. When not doing any of those things, I'm working, or cleaning, or shopping, or just sitting down with a cup of tea. You get the picture: I'm employing a variety of avoidance techniques and very much not writing my novel.
|A woman's work, like the next tricky chapter of my novel, is never done.|
I've been writing this novel for years, It is set in my childhood and early adulthood. When I first started writing it, the latter part of the novel was a work of contemporary fiction, if I don't crack on with it, I will have to start approaching publishers of historical fiction. That's right, folks, I started as Joanne Harris and will finish as Georgette Heyer.
|Actual childhood photograph of me.|
In case you're polite enough to wonder what it is about, it's about cooking and the healing power of a good meal, pretty much. I've shamelessly mined my own past for incidents, characters, locations and ideas and then added a lot of fictional events. I have to add that bit, as my main character finds herself guilty of 'murder by omelette' and, to the best of my knowledge, I've never killed anyone with my cooking, although my family still refer to the awful day when I served 'Avocado and Chocolate Mousse' as a nadir in my culinary adventures. It was completely inedible and I will never make it again. Nobody died though, despite the children's dramatic objections.
|Good gracious, it was vile!|
The novel begins with a description of a grandmother's kitchen, which, coincidentally, sounds very much like my own grandmother's kitchen. 'Granma,' as she was known (she almost always missed out the 'd') was a keen cook. Aged 14, she'd gone into service and, according to her, generally ruined various dishes in the kitchen of the big house where she worked. Somebody, presumably the cook, taught Granma (Phyllis, as she was then) how to cook and she gradually became a lot better at it. I'm not sure of she ever graduated from 'Daisy' to 'Mrs Patmore,' as she got married before she would have had much chance of promotion but she did later get a job as a school cook and some of my strongest memories of her are linked to the dishes she made and the way she made them. Some of my own early cookery lessons came from her, although I don't generally cook on quite the grand scale she did. I don't know whether it was as a result of a simple country childhood, livig through the War and rationing or just a general love of abundance, but Granma never cooked by halves. An ordinary Sunday tea would invole a table bursting with good things to eat and Granma's admonishments of , 'Have another - go on. Ooh, Jacqui Spratty, you don't eat enough to keep a flea alive!' It was like dining with the Berkshire equivalent of Mrs Doyle.
|Not my Grandmother.|
Christmas was when Granma really exercised her love of abundance, though. For reasons that still aren't clear to me, she always insisted we had turkey and pork or, with her talent for spoonerisms, 'Perky and tork,' often corrected to, 'Oh - Perk and torkey!'. My aunts - one of them Granma's daughter and the other married to one of Granma's sons, would join in, each vying to bring the most avant-garde stuffing, the tastiest Christmas cake or biggest gateau. We had the largest living room, so would often host dinner for the masses, which meant living off leftovers for quite some time afterwards - there was always far too much to eat in one day, or even in one week. The highlight of the Christmas dinner, however, was Granma's Christmas pudding. Huge, with several smaller versions given and stowed away - I'm fairly certain one year we had puddings from the same batch, two years running - it would be pretty much drowned in brandy and carried in like an Olympic torch much to the loud potestations of her firefighter son-in-law. I sure they'd deny it, but I'm fairly certain that's why my dad and uncles tried to recreate the most memorable scene from 'Towering Inferno' every year. Every family has their peculiar traditions: the annual torching of the Christmas puddng was one of ours.
It wasn't just the serving of the pudding that was steeped in tradition and alcohol, however. Making it was just as much a ritual. If you were at Granma’s house when the pudding was being made, you got to have a ceremonial stir and make a wish. The thing is, you weren’t allowed to wish for any old thing. Oh no! There was one particular thing you had to wish for. When one of my uncles (one of the filial pyromaniacs) was small, he had a kitten whom he adored. I remember that cat; he was a beautiful long-haired grey cat called Smoky, who either consented to be petted or totally ignored you, as he saw fit. In between times he pretty much ruined the legs of the kitchen hutch cupboard, by using them as a scratching post. When Smoky was still a kitten and my uncle still a little boy, he was asked to stir the pudding and urged to, ‘Make a wish, Neville!’ Closing his eyes tight and stirring with all his might, Neville uttered the words, ‘I wish my cat grows nice and big!’ In one of those strange quirks of family history, the wish itself became a tradition and Uncle Neville has never been allowed to forget it. For as long as I can remember, I have stirred puddings, cut cakes and blown out candles, all to the words, ‘I wish my cat grows nice and big!’ On my wedding day, I went to cut the cake, turned to face my uncle, opened my mouth to speak and all that side of the family roared with laughter, as Uncle Neville good-naturedly said, ‘Oh, shut up!’ My own children know they’d better wish for the same thing too.
|How I propose to add the finishing touches.|
Regarding the alcohol, Granma once conspiratorially informed me, ‘I always make it with Guinness, Jack Spratt.’ A lesson I dutifully committed to memory. Despite that, I’ve never actually made a Christmas pudding. There was never really any need to when Granma was around, and then my dad took over the tradition, although he did scale back the quantities somewhat. This year, my lovely neighbour, the Pink Engineer, kindly offered to make our Christmas cake, so I thought I’d give the pudding a go. I’ve borrowed Dad’s copy of his mum’s recipe book, so I can make the real thing. Good sense tells me I ought to scale back the quantities too, but a desire to make a true tribute pudding and curiosity as to just how many puddings it makes, has led me to try and attempt the full eight egg, pound of this, pound of that version. Granma made hers in an old china washstand bowl, which now resides at Uncle Neville’s (only fair, given his wish contribution) and I don’t have anything big enough to mix the pudding in. A lament of this nature, posted on Facebook brought in the loan of a brand new washing up bowl from friend and former work colleague, Thermal Girl (I hope she doesn’t mind being called that, but she’ll know why!). We agreed ‘a pudding’ as suitable payment. Pink Engineer has been offered a pud as payment for the cake, although she’s not really getting a good deal there as I’m making her supply her own pudding basin. A further pudding has been offered to my dad. Let’s hope it works!
I’ll let you know how it goes, although I’ll be relying on the comments of others since it will be full of ingredients I can’t eat. I’ve decided not to try and make it free-from this year: for my first attempt, I’m going to try and faithfully follow Granma’s recipe. If it works and I’m feeling cocky next year, well watch this space…