Category Archives: Memes & blogging challenges

On (not) making a meal of things…

I’ve seen a number of bloggers doing a weekly Monday post about meal planning for the week (known as “Meal Planning Monday”) and thought I’d have a go, mainly as an experiment to see whether I fancy sticking to it and to see if it saves me any effort in thinking or ambling cluelessly around the supermarket during the week.

I’ve never got into the habit of planning meals a great deal in advance, mainly because I’ve not felt the need to: I’m not responsible for feeding a horde of people on a daily basis, I manage to shop and subsist fairly cheaply as I don’t buy much convenience or “luxury” food, AND I have five supermarkets, an organic food shop, a health food shop and the local market all within 200m of where I live. I very much value the flexibility and choices that I have and don’t see compelling reasons to give them up. When I was mostly cooking for one, my substitute for daily meal planning was to cook a big pot of stuff that would last me several days; nowadays, though, I quite enjoy cooking almost every day, partly because there are more often than not two (and sometimes more) of us eating together, and partly because I find it somehow creative and therapeutic.

However, there are things about the day-by-day way I subsist that sometimes bother me. Food waste is the biggest one. While I am, on the whole, really good at using up leftovers and using as much as one can of the ingredients I buy, very perishable foods do sometimes get the better of me, for example dairy products such as cream or yoghurt: while it’s no doubt better for the waistline to use just part of a carton of cream in preparing a meal rather than a whole one, there’s no virtue whatsover in letting the other half go rancid and nasty at the back of the fridge, only to throw it out in disgust some time later. I’ve improved a lot when it comes to yoghurt, but there’s still a way to go yet…

As for fruit and veg, you can only feel smug about the “healthy” content of your shopping basket if you actually eat the stuff… I have to admit that a significant factor here is laziness and the time pressure of going shopping after work, at the last minute: a one-stop-serves-all-purposes trip to the supermarket is often all I can fit in, and the supermarket I tend to find most convenient on the way home sells a lot of its fruit and veg pre-packaged in quantities that are frequently a bit too large. I’d do better to buy hand-selected quantities elsewhere (ideally at the market, in season) for the things I find hard to use up in the bulky pre-packaged quantities – mushrooms and spinach being good examples (and frozen spinach simply isn’t the same). I also need to re-programme myself to take some fruit with me to work – I really don’t have a sweet tooth whatsover and don’t see the point of leaving space for dessert – therefore I find it really hard to get a decent amount of fruit into my diet, except perhaps in very hot weather. I do like fruit smoothies, but I seem to labour under a permanent misapprehension that they are time-consuming and messy to make (stupid, I know, but the lazy part of my mind is the most stubborn, it seems).

Better planning of meals might get me to shop better in this respect, but I’m also hoping it might help me to balance my diet more evenly. If I know I’m having meat, cheese or whatever for the evening meal, I can eat something else earlier in the day. Yesterday, though, I had cheese three times, in an example of particularly poor planning, and the fact that I also cycled nearly 60km still doesn’t excuse that lack of variety, even if it means not all of it will immediately land on my hips. I also find that if I’m feeling tired, uninspired or particularly hungry after a day that has not left much time for eating, I am more likely to go for something meat-based that may also be quite fatty. Normally I have no problem using more white / lean than red / fatty meat and having a good representation of fish and seafood, vegetarian and the occasional vegan meal on the menu, but a bit of more careful monitoring might be a good idea nevertheless.

But anyway, enough sounding off about nutrition and food use: what exactly am I going to cook this week? Here is what I’ve come up with…

Monday: Potato and courgette bake

I bought a pack of five courgettes at the weekend and still have two or three left: I’ll certainly use up two in this recipe, as well as some potatoes that are still perfectly good but have been around for a while. Ditto for a handful of wild garlic leaves: I’m going to blend them with some fresh (home-grown!) sage and a small leftover amount of ricotta to add a bit of sauce to the bake.

Tuesday: Baked chicken breasts with asparagus

There was green asparagus on special offer today and I snapped up a pack as it tends to sell out quickly. It’s great baked in a dish in the oven with a little olive oil, lemon juice and garlic (if I still have a courgette left after tonight, I’ll chuck that in as well), and I’ll simply bake the chicken breasts at the same time. I may stuff the breasts with herbs or marinate them first – I’ll see what’s available. This is a quick and easy dish that is really tasty as well as being fairly healthy (depending what you stuff the chicken breasts with!).

Wednesday: Falafel with pita bread / wraps and salad

I love pretty much anything made with or out of chickpeas, and they’re a great basis for a load of meat- and dairy-free dishes (though I certainly have nothing against combining them with those ingredients, either, and will be doing so here). I made falafel for the first time the other week, having found several recipes that appealed to me because they used tinned chickpeas (something I always have in, as opposed to the dry variety) and were done in the oven rather than fried. I think I used this recipe but added a bit of olive oil to the mixture and then simply baked them on baking parchment. To be served with pita bread or wraps, a Greek-type salad, and a mint and yoghurt sauce. At some point I’d like to find a really tasty vegan sauce as an occasional alternative to the yoghurt-based one, but I don’t like tahini, hummus is too samey as it’s made out of chick-peas, and I don’t much fancy a tomato-based sauce with them. If you have any ideas, please leave a comment!

Thursday: Pasta

This will probably be penne, though I haven’t decided on a sauce yet – in all likelihood it’ll be based on tinned chopped tomatoes and whatever fresh vegetables are available – I always try to put plenty of veg in pasta sauce – though possibly with tuna and anchovies, or a small amount of bacon. Whatever it is, it’ll be a fairly simple dish as Wednesday’s and Friday’s dinners will be a bit more fiddly to make.

Friday: Goan Fish Curry

I’ve written before about my love of Indian food, and I was very excited when Dave brought this recipe to my attention. Not only does it promise just the kind of curry I enjoy most – coconutty and hot – but the description talks about all kinds of variants and different ways of preparing the dish. I’m really very excited about trying this and decided that Good Friday – traditionally a fish day – was probably as good a day as any to give it a go.

I’ll probably simply do rice to go with it, plus a raita of some sort, which will use up the rest of the large pot of yoghurt I’ll be buying for Wednesday’s meal (see? I’m getting better).

Saturday: tbd

Saturdays are most frequently a day for entertaining, and as I don’t yet known what is going on, who is around or who will get to do the cooking, I’ll leave this one empty for now.

Sunday: Roast lamb or chicken

I don’t make a big deal out of Easter and definitely won’t be scoffing chocolate all day, but I like the excuse of a special holiday to do a roast dinner. M may want to be in charge of this one and he certainly does a mean roast – I’ll let him decide whether it’s to be lamb or chicken. Whichever of us is chef de cuisine for the day, I think it’s more or less a given that we’ll have the baked/roast potatoes out of the Hamlyn Herb Book (whole potatoes sliced almost through at ~3mm intervals, brushed with olive oil & sprinked with rosemary and sea salt before roasting about an hour in the oven) and something green on the side.

How do you plan your meals, and what are your main challenges when it comes to trying to make sure you’re eating a healthy and balanced diet?

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Filed under Food, Memes & blogging challenges

On my birthday

On my birthdayAnother post, another meme, but this time the topic caught my eye because I thought it was a good opportunity to dust off and expand on my knowledge of history.

The aim is to focus on the day of the year on which you were born and to talk about various events and personalities associated with that day. Click on the picture to the left to view the original post that has, in the meantime, inspired a lot of other people to write about their birthdays (links to these can be found at the bottom of the original article – is your birthday there yet?).

Note: all bullet points in this post are copied, including hyperlinks, from the Wikipedia entry for May 19, though I’ve looked at a wider range of sources for my own input.

When is your birthday?

On 19th May.

Pick three people who share your birthday and share what you know about them.

Nancy Astor is best known as the first female MP to set foot in the House of Commons, in 1919. I say “set foot” deliberately as she wasn’t the first female MP to be elected: the previous year saw the election of Constance Markievicz, but as a Sinn Fein member who refused to take the obligatory oath of allegiance to the UK monarch she was not allowed to take her seat in the Commons – not much has changed there.

Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor (source: Wikimedia)

Astor was active in the temperance movement and championed causes relating to (women’s) suffrage and education. Like most politicians, she was not without controversy – she was accused of jumping on the suffrage bandwaggon only after she had been elected, while her American birth and upper class credentials led to criticism that she was out of touch with ordinary people. Having said that, I suspect it would have been well-nigh impossible within the social structures of that time for an “ordinary” woman to have the wherewithal to enter high-level politics, though I am very happy to be corrected if this is an inaccurate view.

Astor was well known for her acerbic wit and sharp tongue. Her election slogan was “Vote for Lady Astor and your children will weigh more”. She is also quoted as saying, “I married beneath me – all women do”. My favourite Astor soundbyte, though, and one I’ve known since I was quite young, comes from an exchange with Winston Churchill:

Astor: If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.

Churchill: If I were your husband, I’d drink it.

I don’t know as much about Malcolm X as I should, so it would be pretentious to try to give the impression of writing knowledgeably about him here, when probably most people reading this know a great deal more. What strikes me, though, after writing about Nancy Astor above is that here we have a political activist who also grew up in America, though half a century later than Lady Astor and in circumstances dictated by the cards having fallen very diferently. He was not cushioned by affluence in his political aspirations, but spurred into action by hardship and suffering experienced firsthand.

I can’t think of many comedians I’ve laughed at so much and for so long as Victoria Wood. Her TV shows and other projects were very present in my life throughout my teens and most of my twenties (after which I moved to Germany), and she specialises in the kind of razor-sharp observation applied to satirizing the mundane that has always made me laugh (and probably always will).

A 2005 Channel Four poll among those working in the comedy industry ranked her 27th among the top 50 comedy acts ever – she was the highest-ranked female comedian of all, beating some stiff competition from other favourites of mine, French & Saunders and Joyce Grenfell (though I have to say I’m disappointed – though not surprised – that there were no women in the higher echelons of the poll rankings). In the meantime she has won BAFTAs and other awards for her acting and comedy shows, and has been awarded both an OBE and a CBE by the Queen.

Here is one of my favourite Victoria Wood sketches. The show is completely stolen by the fabulous Julie Walters, but it’s an unforgettable exchange.

Is anyone listed as being born on the same day as you (ie the same year)? If so, what do you know about them?

Without looking these guys up, I have to confess I couldn’t tell you a thing about them – I feel I should know more about the first guy as the name rings a vague bell somewhere, but as I’m dreadful with names of producers and directors I have to draw a complete blank. The second guy no doubt thought he was giving himself a scary name of the “psychosis” variety, but I find myself wanting to read it as “psittacosis” – exactly why I have a better memory for obscure avian diseases than for (probably) mainstream movie producers is a mystery to me.

— Interlude while I do a bit of googling… —

Ah, it seems that Ross Katz’ main claim to fame is that he co-produced Lost in Translation, so that provides a link of sorts to stuff that I do (translation, rather than getting lost in it). Of course, the film is not ostensibly about translation in the classical sense – something that I can remember slightly disappointed me at the time I saw it – but it does deal with quite important issues of interlinguistic and intercultural problems in a much subtler way than the usual crashing slapstick such moments tend to give rise to in mainstream cinema. So hats off to Mr Katz for his role in that.

As regards the wrestler, I now know that his actual name is the much more mellifluous (and to me, less sick-parrot-sounding) Dionicio Castellanos Torres. I have to say, though, that I can’t really bring myself to work up a knowledge of wrestling, prodigious though Señor Torres’ career seems to have been, so I will refrain from saying any more about him. What did catch my eye, though, was a brief sentence towards the end of the Wikipedia article on him: “Torres appeared in the independent documentary, 101 Reasons Not To Become A Professional Wrestler.” Oh.

List three people who died on your birthday and tell us what you know about them. 

  • 804Alcuin, English monk and scholar (b. c.735)

I studied Medieval Studies in Leeds many moons ago (though not so long ago that it was modern history at that time), and there was no escaping local lad Alcuin of York. In fact, however, though he started his illustrious career at the cathedral school in York, Alcuin spent much of his life rather further afield in continental Europe, where he was appointed as a scholar and teacher at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen. He is acknowledged as one of the key figures in the Carolingian Renaissance and led efforts to set up a standard curriculum to be followed at the Carolingian schools. The basis of this curriculum was the artes liberales divided into the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy); these subject areas remained an important educational basis well into the Renaissance period (and indeed the term “liberal arts” still exists today, albeit in a somewhat different form).

OK, this is going to be much more about reactions than historical facts. My first real encounter with Charles Ives was incredibly nerve-wracking. I was twenty, in my last year with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, and had finally reached the coveted – and veeeery exposed – position of principal flute. One of the pieces on our ambitious programme for our two-week stint of rehearsals and concerts was Ives’ Three Places in New England. It’s a comforting, tidy, unpretentious, homely (in the American sense) title that made me think of picturesque wooden houses and the placid autumnal glow of the New England fall. However, the first rehearsal was dominated by chaotic cacophony, me (and others) missing important solos due to miscounting, and an overall feel that was more akin to not knowing where one was in Old England on a Saturday night at throwing-out time.

For people like me who were far more used to the regular time signatures and broad melodic expanses that characterize the mainstream of Classical and Romantic music in a broad sense, Ives was a nightmare of cross-rhythms, syncopation, apparently random entries cued by silence, and some of the most controlled, exposed technique I’ve ever had to use. I don’t think I slept much the first week.

In any case, it was a steep learning curve, but so very worth it in the end. Out of the initial cacophony rose an intricately woven tapestry of the most amazing combination of snatches of sound – two competing marching bands playing at once, passages that you just had to associate with water, or fog, hard textures, soft textures, layer upon layer of sound, folksong against avant-garde atonal clustering, sudden caesura alongside gently metamorphosing motifs.

I think it’s one of the most amazing pieces I’ve ever heard, let alone had the privilege of playing. Do, do, please give it a listen if you have never come across it.

I was rather sad to discover that in fact two of my favourite poets died on my birthday. John Betjeman , English poet and Poet Laureate died on this day in 1984, and I could easily have written a few lines about him. However, Ogden Nash has the slight edge as he died on the very day I was born (why does that send an odd shiver down my spine?), and I came to his poetry earlier, at about the age of six. I can remember being fascinated by a poem of his that we had up on the wall at school. I know I’d recognize it if I saw it again, but unfortunately my attempts to find it have proved unsuccessful so far.

However, there is much more of value to be discovered in the anthologies of this master of humorous rhyme and wordplay, so I’ve just picked out a few lines and stanzes from here and there that particularly caught my eye and made me smile.

Nash has a refreshingly irreverent take on love poetry, for example:

A girl whose cheeks are covered with paint
Has an advantage with me over one whose ain’t.

– “Biological Reflection”

Some of what he says sounds silly but makes a very serious point:

Consider the auk;
Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

– “A Caution To Everybody”

Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads
And not the road.

– “Lather As You Go”

Nash was also a master of the ultra-short poem. I particularly like “Further Reflections on Parsley”, where the poem text is shorter than the title:

Parsley
Is gharsley.

I wanted to pick just one longer poem to include in its entirety, and I think it has to be “Peekabo, I Almost See You”. It combines the best of Nash’s quirks with some pretty universal sentiments that I hear from my glasses-wearing friends and relatives on a regular basis:

Middle-aged life is merry, and I love to
lead it,
But there comes a day when your eyes
are all right but your arm isn’t long
enough
to hold the telephone book where you can read it,
And your friends get jocular, so you go
to the oculist,
And of all your friends he is the joculist,
So over his facetiousness let us skim,
Only noting that he has been waiting for you ever since
you said Good evening to his grandfather clock under
the impression that it was him,
And you look at his chart and it says SHRDLU QWERTYOP,
and you say Well, why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP? and he
says one set of glasses won’t do.
You need two.
One for reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and
Keats’s “Endymion” with,
And the other for walking around without saying Hello
to strange wymion with.
So you spend your time taking off your seeing glasses to put
on your reading glasses, and then remembering that your
reading glasses are upstairs or in the car,
And then you can’t find your seeing glasses again because
without them on you can’t see where they are.
Enough of such mishaps, they would try the patience of an
ox,
I prefer to forget both pairs of glasses and pass my declining
years saluting strange women and grandfather clocks.

List three notable events that took place on your birthday.

A tapestry in the Flemish style of Catherine of Aragon and her husband Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales (source: Wikimedia)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the royal family and the nobility always had an easier time of things in long past ages, while the poor struggled and starved. Occasionally you get a stark reminder, though, of the particular pressures the high-born were placed under. Catherine and Arthur were betrothed as small children, so there would not have been much scope for imagining a different existence in either of their lives; their being “married by proxy” at a young age was on the surface of it designed to strengthen the Tudor claim to the English throne, but it also ensured that the parties were under a stronger contractual obligation to one another.

It is interesting to note that Catherine and Arthur managed to correspond with each other by letter, in Latin, until late in 1501, when they were deemed old enough to actually meet and marry “in person”. When they did come face to face, however, they found communication quite difficult as they had very different pronunciations of Latin. Nor was there much of a happy ending in any other sense – just a few months after their marriage both fell seriously ill, and Catherine recovered only to find herself a widow.

At this point, Arthur’s father, Henry VII, could have been obliged to return Catherine’s dowry to her father. In the end, though, it was agreed that she would marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, Duke of York. There followed an interim of several years – Henry was too young to marry, and the idea of a union with Spain through marriage became less attractive to the King. Catherine’s future was uncertain and she was virtually kept prisoner during this time. However, when Henry senior died and his son ascended the throne, one of the first things Henry VIII did was to finally marry Catherine. The rest of this ultimately ill-fated union is well documented elsewhere.

Anne Boleyn was Catherine’s maid of honour and ultimately her “successor” as Queen, though it is certainly well known that there was an overlap between the two relationships. While Henry managed to have his marriage to Catherine annulled, this did not actually come through until a few months after he had married Anne. It was the refusal of the Pope to annul this marriage that triggered Henry’s desire to break with Rome and foreshadowed the beginnings of the Church of England. Both Catherine and Anne were important figures in English history, not least because they bore female heirs who went on to rule the country in their own right. However, both failed to produce a (surviving) male heir, and this was their ultimate downfall.

Annulment was not Henry’s weapon of choice for getting rid of his second wife after her presence came to be an obstruction to his further plans; instead, he had Anne and a group of others investigated on charges amounting to adultery, high treason and incest. She was found guilty – on unconvincing evidence, from the viewpoint of modern scholars – and was beheaded just one day after Henry announced his betrothal to his third wife, Jane Seymour. All the evidence indicates that Henry sent for her executioner, a swordsman from France, before she even went on trial.

I’m neither a republican nor a passionate royalist/monarchist, but the Commonwealth period was certainly an important caesura in English and British history. Following on from a period during which the monarch had become simply too powerful and too easily able to interfere in political life, the eventual execution of King Charles I paved the way for a period of radical political change that saw the (temporary) abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England. The country was controlled by the House of Commons and the army.

Oliver Cromwell became the new “ruler” (Lord Protector of the Commonwealth) in 1653, and he imposed military rule and ran the country with as much power as the monarch had previously held. Puritan values were imposed by law, and while most of us might applaud the abolition of “cruel” sports such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting, restrictions also affected ale-houses, theatres, and the celebration of Christmas and Easter was also suppressed. There was much political experimentation without any stable form of government or institutions emerging.

Cromwell died in 1658, and after that there was no one obvious to carry on as a convincing ruler. Few of those active in politics had real parliamentary or legal experience, and things began to crumble. Ultimately royalists were re-admitted to Parliament, and slowly the tide turned once more in favour of the monarchy. Charles II, as he would become, was summoned back to England from Holland and the monarchy was restored in 1660. Importantly, Charles agreed to continue the policy of religious toleration introduced during the Commonwealth as well as to share power with Parliament and not attempt to be an absolutist ruler as his father had done. And while the path might not always have been smooth, all of these points have continued to define the reigns of those who have followed him.

Tell us about a holiday that falls on your birthday.

St Dunstan (909 – 19 May 988) had an illustrious scholastic and ecclesiastical career, serving as the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, the Bishop of both Worcester and London, and ultimately as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was canonised in 1029 and his feast day has been celebrated ever since. I could go into the reasons for his canonisation, but there are a number of miscellaneous aspects of his life and legacy that I’m going to pick out here, just because I happened to find them rather (more) interesting.

Dunstan seems to have had a range of talents and is known to have been a scribe, an illustrator / illuminator, silversmith and musician. He is the patron saint of both silversmiths and goldsmiths, and one fascinating fact that I discovered in this connection is that hallmark years for silver and gold run not from 1 January to 31 December, but from 19 May to 18 May the next (calendar) year.

Dunstan and the Devil, by George Cruikshank (source: Wikimedia)

As is the case with many saints, there are tales of encounters between Dunstan and the Devil. In one of these he is said to have nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s hoof, causing him – unsurprisingly – much pain. The Devil protested but Dunstan stood his ground, only agreeing to remove the offending item once the Devil had promised never to enter a place that had a horseshoe attached to its lintel. It is widely believed that this is the origin of the lucky horseshoe superstition.

Finally, please tag some lovely people to carry on this meme, then link back to this post so they can find the badge and link up their post once published.

A couple of people have already asked to be tagged: they are my lovely photography friend Chis (better known online as Squonk) and my school friend Nicola, who has a fairly new blog. I’d also love to read my brother Matt‘s take on his birthday (which is coming up soon, plus maybe he’d like to be nudged into blogging again!). No obligation on any of you to continue the meme, but for anyone who feels browbeaten into inspired to do so, it would be great if you’d leave a comment with a link here so that I and other interested readers can follow it up.

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Filed under History, Memes & blogging challenges, Up close and personal

Seven times seven

Dilemma: I HAVE to write a blog post today to keep up with the at-least-one-post-a-week promise I made at the beginning of this year, but I’ve been so busy with admin, paperwork and other tasks that planning, thinking and drafting has fallen by the wayside and I now have blogger’s block. This can only mean one thing: meme to the rescue! This one (which I discovered here) struck me as worth doing, partly because I can’t spontaneously think of more than a couple of things to write for some of the categories, and also because I’ve always considered the number seven to be my lucky number…

Seven Things that Scare Me:

  • the prospect of failure
  • darkness (especially outside, e.g. in a forest at night)
  • death (though largely that of those I love, not so much my own)
  • being in an enclosed space with uncontrollably drunk people
  • the belief that science is the solution to everything
  • having to address a room full of strangers (e.g. at the beginning of term)
  • Googling ailments

Seven Things I Like:

  • rain on the roof at night when I’m tucked up in bed
  • lots of colour in my surroundings
  • tulips
  • red wine
  • sundried tomatoes
  • getting people to be interested in and more knowledgeable about language(s)
  • historical fiction and drama

Seven Random Facts About Me:

  • I don’t have a driving licence (and don’t want or feel I need one, either)
  • However, I do have lots of qualifications and awards, including a fire safety certificate, a primary school sports victrix ludorum trophy, and a Blue Peter badge
  • I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, or seen the films
  • I have always wanted to have curlier hair (but would never have a perm and dislike using curling tongs etc.)
  • I sleep on my front and find it impossible to fall asleep lying on my back
  • I never snack on chocolate
  • I am very bad at thinking of random facts about myself that might actually interest other people

Seven Things I want to Do Before I Die:

  • make sure that those I love really know what’s so special about them
  • learn to use a sewing machine properly
  • improve my French
  • paint a picture someone else could imagine hanging on their wall
  • work out how to cook the perfect curry for my tastes (and then do it often!)
  • learn not to regret the past
  • get everything organized so no one has a nightmare dealing with what I leave behind

Seven Things I Can Do Well:

  • cook
  • do word games and puzzles like crosswords, Scrabble etc.
  • remove the faff as far as possible from administrative tasks
  • worry myself into a frenzy about trivial things
  • manage money
  • plan trips etc. to optimise resources and time available
  • load the dishwasher (isn’t it sad that I take pride in this?!) 😉

Seven Things I Can’t Do But Wish I Could:

  • ski (though I’m only interested in cross-country skiing, not downhill)
  • repair computers
  • always be able to think of something to say
  • dance (properly)
  • argue convincingly
  • lay tiles
  • play the organ (as in a proper pipe organ, with pedals and multiple manuals – it is not just the same as playing the piano)

Seven Phrases I’m Known to Use:

  • “Let’s have some quiet, please!” (said invariably at the end of groupwork sessions)
  • “Hello, it’s me” (apparently all phone calls to my parents start this way)
  • “It’s OK, I’ll do it” (said not often begrudgingly, but more often because I think I’ll do a better job or would rather do that task than a more boring one)
  • “Where are my keys?” (I have never lost my keys (touch wood!), but am forever mislaying them in the moment I need to leave)
  • “Oh for *%&$’s sake!” (uttered most frequently when I’m alone in the kitchen)
  • “Give me a second” (as in five or ten minutes)
  • “I love you” (I hope I say this every day)

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Filed under Memes & blogging challenges, Up close and personal

My top 5 cookbooks

Today I’m taking inspiration from Ruth, whose post on this topic made me curious as to which cookery books I’d select from my largish collection as being my favourites. In the end the choice was quite simple – there really is only a handful of recipe books that I keep going back to again and again. So here are my five, with a brief bit of information about what makes each one  a firm favourite…

1. Good Housekeeping Cookery Book

50th Anniversary edition – published by Random House, 1998

If I had to pick just one cookery book to keep from here to eternity, I think this would be it. Unless I’m looking for something from a particular cuisine (e.g. Indian), this is invariably the place I look first for inspiration. It strikes – for me – exactly the right balance between traditional and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, manageable and challenging, healthy and tasty, text and pictures. It is mercifully free of both pretentiousness and over-simplification while including really helpful selections on buying, storing and preparing everyday foodstuffs as well as more unusual ingredients.

For me, the test of a good cookery book is whether most of the recipes are such that, if they were to appear in a magazine, you would cut them out and keep them. I can open this book at any page and immediately find something delicious.

As a result, it’s extremely difficult to pick out a favourite recipe or two, but the rabbit casserole with red wine and sherry and the filo pastries with feta and herb filling are certainly a couple that I’ve made quite often.

2. The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook

(German edition: Vegetarische Küche)

Originally published by Konemann UK, 1997

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat a lot of food that is, plus I have several friends who don’t eat meat. Given that it’s not healthy to eat meat every day in any case, I get exasperated at people who either think it’s not a proper meal if it doesn’t contain meat, or whose world order disintegrates if it turns out that one of their dinner guests is vegetarian.

The back story to this recipe book is that M and I originally bought it as a gift for a friend who was finding it hard to find inspiring things to cook for his vegetarian partner and had developed an “awkward” tendency to diss vegetarian food. Sensing that a gentle nudge in the right direction was needed, we chose carefully, wanting to avoid anything that was too reminiscent of his “rabbit food and lentils” stereotype of vegetarian food and looking instead for something that fitted in with his own tastes.

This book ticked all the right boxes – modern, fresh ideas with plenty of Mediterranean influences as well as forays into Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines: exactly the kinds of things our friend loves to cook (and so do we, which is why we ended up buying a second copy of the book). There is also an excellent section on nutrition at the front of the book, which is well worth a read in itself and is certainly not restricted to vegetarians in its scope.

This being a very recent addition to the cookbook shelves, I haven’t actually made any of the recipes yet but have already pored over it for hours working up quite an appetite. I love the look (and the imagined flavour) of the hummus with beetroot, there’s a great-sounding carrot lasagne (yes, really!), and I can’t wait to try some of the savoury scones, muffins and polenta recipes.

3. 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi

(German edition: Indische Currys)

originally published by Kyle Cathie, 2004

Funnily enough, this book was a gift from the friend mentioned above, and although I already possessed several Indian cookery books (including The Curry Cookbook, a throwback to my student days…), this one quickly became my favourite.

It’s an almost ritualistic book – each recipe is prefaced by an interesting explanation of any unusual features and about the part of India and/or cultural milieu the dish comes from, and Panjabi cuts no corners in the preparation of each: no ready-made spice mixes, purees or pastes are used, and whole spices form the starting point for almost all the recipes.

The detailed introduction is a real culinary eye-opener and adds considerably to this ritualistic feel, explaining – among other things – the philosophy of Indian cuisine, the impact that the method and order of preparing / adding your spices has on the flavour of the dish (dry-roasting, frying in oil, when to add liquid etc.), the importance of balancing ingredients such as ginger and garlic (the former raises blood pressure, while the latter lowers is), and different ways of using and combining ingredients.

My favourite recipes from this book are the lamb madras, chicken dopiaza, and aubergine curry. The most surprisingly delicious one has to be the watermelon curry, which I thought would be awful but actually works really well.

4. Backen! (= Baking!)

(only available in German, as far as I know)

published by Gräfe & Unzer, 2005

I don’t bake much as I find it quite scary, and the reason I find it scary is probably that I don’t bake much. Nevertheless, I thought it was important to have a good staple cookery book for baked goods so that I couldn’t use the lack of a suitable book as a further reason not to wield the hand-mixer. And this is the one I settled on.

Its 450-odd pages are jam-packed with recipes, usefully subdivided into common or garden cakes, cakes with fresh fruit, gateaux (Torten), muffins and pastries, biscuits and cookies, bread, pizza and savouries, with the odd but welcome addition of a final – and very detailed – section on coffee and tea. Most sections are further divided according to what kind of pastry, dough or cake mixture  (the word Teig covers all of these) forms the basis for the recipe – Rührteig, Mürbteig, Hefeteig, Blätterteig, Brandteig, Plunderteig, Sauerteig, Quark-Öl-Teig or whatever.

I have a friend who is a very proficient baker, and she dislikes this book as it doesn’t have any pictures. “I want to see how it’ll look when it’s finished!” she protests. Given that the stuff I bake only rarely comes out looking as it’s supposed to, I hardly feel that I need see this as a disadvantage. While pretty pictures can be appetizing and nice to look at, there’s nothing I dislike more than cookery books where more than 50% of the entire book consists of pictures. This book contains 888 recipes, and that’s the reason why I bought it.

My occasional forays into baking have seen me make several of the savouries in this book – they’re fantastic for parties, picnics or feeding a crowd in other situations – and there’s a rather fabulous baked cherry ricotta cheesecake with an amarettini base and almond topping. Yum!

5. Farmhouse Kitchen

published by Yorkshire Television, 1975

This is a 1970s cookery book based on the Yorkshire TV series of the same name. It has a glorious naffness to it as a result, but also some hidden jewels that are priceless – please bear with me while I explain.

As the name suggests, the emphasis is on traditional cooking, and as I’m someone who’s interested in the history of food and its part in culture, that’s something I’m all for preserving. Many of the recipes are submitted by viewers from all over the country, so there is a lot in terms of regional variety. There are some pretty odd sounding concoctions in part (there is one recipe called “Love in disguise” which seems to be stuffed sheep’s hearts, and a “Thatched house pie” that requires “1 dressed pigeon”(??) as its main ingredient), including some of those inimitable 1970s attempts at crossover cuisine: sausages in sweet and sour sauce, anyone?

Many of the recipes still bear the signs of postwar thrift – using cheaper cuts of meat, making the most of leftovers, preserving food – and reveal skills and a standard of nutritional value many people struggle to keep up with today. It’s good to have a book like this in the house, to remind you of what home economics really is about.

Despite the oddness of some of the recipes, there are some really reliable ones for traditional favourites such as Yorkshire parkin, old-fashioned puddings (pineapple upside-down pudding – yay!) and a whole range of good, wholesome comfort food. I’m also determined to try some of the pickles and chutneys, maybe even the wine recipes.

The best thing about this book, though, is the fact that it belonged to my grandmother, and I kept it mainly because here and there in between the pages there are scraps of paper she’d scribbled her own recipe memos on (some of these pre-date the book, including one for home made “pietsa” (her spelling was actually very good, but pizza was simply not so common in Britain back then)), or newspaper cuttings, leaflets and so on. The value of the book itself only became apparent to me later.

Snippets from Grandma's cookery book

If you are interested in seeing what other people picked as their top 5 cookbooks, you can find out here.

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On the (sometimes dubious) merits of being a university language teacher

There’s been an internet meme in circulation recently, most prominently on Facebook, that – like a great many of its sort – raised a faint smile the first couple of times you saw it but grew increasingly inane and irritating the more (non-)variations on the theme popped up.

It is my (certainly very dubious) pleasure to announce that said meme is the inspiration for today’s post.

The meme looked at different professions and various people’s preconceptions of said professions, varying from the general public to one’s family and friends, and extending to superiors or subordinates in some cases. Among the professional groups I saw represented were journalists, graphic designers and doctors. You get the idea (and probably enough of a taste of the ennui) just by looking at those three examples: various contrasting exotic / risqué / misinformed / ridiculous / overblown images of a given profession are contrasted with “What I really do” – humdrum paperwork or other admin work (in most cases). The best of the rather more cynical takes on it – and one which saves me saying any more on the meme itself, I think – was this one here.

But anyway, the whole episode got me thinking of some of the odd, irritating or misconceived reactions I’ve had from people regarding the work I do, so I thought I’d gather a few of them here.

It starts when people ask for a job title. Speaking in German (which is what I do most of the time outside work), I might describe myself as a “Dozentin für English” (i.e. lecturer in English, as one might say in Britain). On mentioning this in one recent conversation, the response was (and I’ll paraphrase in English for the sake of brevity) an interested “Ah! Literature or linguistics?” My response: “Language, actually”. Their reponse: “Oh. Just language”. You get the picture (and I’ll return to the “just language” issue later).

Within the university hierarchy, the full-time foreign language instructors are often known collectively as Lektoren. Confusingly, though, to most people outside (and even to quite a number within) this sphere, Lektoren are people who work as proofreaders or copy-editors for a publishing house. So it’s not a good idea to use this term unless someone introduces it themselves. In any case, though, in recent years, universities seem to have stopped calling their language staff Lektoren in any case, and we now carry the rather fancy-sounding title Lehrkräfte für besondere Aufgaben. While Lehrkräfte is a fairly dry, neutral and unequivocal term for people who teach, the für besondere Aufgaben bit is potentially rather entertaining, meaning “for special purposes” and opening up a plethora of possibilities I might have put into my “What I wish I did” part of a meme for my profession. Understandably, perhaps, it’s not a term I drop into conversation, though …unless as a joke.

Once I have negotiated my way around the job title bit, we move on to the “What people think I do” part of the conversation. A lot of people will think back to their experience of learning languages at school – which was often quite some time ago – which means that this usually computes to yesteryear-tinted remembrances of learning by rote, vocabulary tests, tortuous, antiquated textbooks and half-remembered useless phrases of the la plume de ma tante variety. If I’m extra lucky, whoever it is I am talking to will switch into their half-remembered English schoolbook phrases at this point in the conversation; others will regale me with tales of the conversation class they and their friend took “just for fun” a few years ago and will express great envy that (as they see it) I can earn money just by chatting to people: “You have a funny job!” they say (actually, they mean “fun”).

And in actual fact, it IS a fun job (and sometimes a funny one, too, in either sense of the word). But it wouldn’t be fun or funny at all if I had to teach conversation classes, stick to a particular textbook or check that everyone had learned their irregular verbs off by heart. However, as with so many things in life, it is fairly inevitable that people will base their interpretation of what I do on their own experience that comes closest.

Friends, who by definition know me much better, tend to develop a much more accurate impression of what I do, though there are persistent surprises here, too… The science-faculty people who just can’t place you because you’re not a professor or a junior professor or a postdoc or a technician – you just don’t fit into their neatly compartmentalized world view. Or the people who, on hearing that you’ve had “a productive day” in the post-semester marking phase, make bright, well-meant enquiries as to whether that means you got through all your exams for all your courses in that one day.

Colleagues from other parts of the department can also occasionally be a law unto themselves. Though I would like to stress that I have had largely very positive experiences over the years, there sometimes arises a feeling that the language section plays a somewhat ancillary role to the big pillars of literature, linguistics and cultural studies. While linguistics is Sprachwissenschaft (literally, the science of language), we are Sprachpraxis (literally, the practice of language), and to some minds we might therefore be nicht wissenschaftlich – a term which could be interpreted as “not scientific” or “not academic”, neither of which has a particularly positive ring to it. In fact someone recently came up to me during a departmental function and asked, somewhat awkwardly, “Don’t you sometimes wish you taught … you know … something with content?” Just where do you start to answer a question like that? (I was evasive, not wanting to get into a philosophical discussion, let alone a rant.)

The content we cover in our courses spans areas covered by literature (e.g. text structure, style, genre, interpretation), linguistics (e.g. pragmatics, syntax, phonology) AND cultural studies (e.g. translation issues, intercultural communication, culture in Britain / the USA etc.), but I think at the end of the day it may be only us and our students that are entirely aware of this.

Most of our students come to us with the express intention of becoming secondary school teachers of English, so why anyone should see language as being “ancillary” in that connection is beyond my comprehension. Watching students’ own changing perceptions of the role and responsibilities of a language teacher is, however, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Many of them come to us having done well at school on the basis of getting stuff right, but it can come as a surprise to them to discover that just being good at English isn’t going to get them to the top of the tree in their professional life. In our grammar courses, for example, they quickly have to get used to a further step in the thought process: “OK, correct answer, but why is solution x more appropriate than solution y”. They grumble and squirm at first, but gradually they learn to use the tools of the trade to explain and analyse what is going on, so that later on in their course of studies you can have really quite subtle and nuanced discussions about the effect of changing this or that word or tense or syntactic pattern.

Watching students make this progress not just in their own language competence (which can itself be quite dramatic, especially if they spend a year abroad) but also in their analytical, intercultural and didactic skills, has to be the biggest perk of this job, and every case in which we can do anything to help to foster or encourage someone’s interest in the system of language as a vehicle for communication and cultural interchange, as the raw material of literature and linguistics, has to be seen as a worthwhile venture.

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Filed under Memes & blogging challenges, Up close and personal, Work stuff

Fillers for Friday the 13th

Of the many memes available out there – most of which I choose to avoid – the “Friday filler” or “Friday fill-in” seems one of the more enduring ones. You get given a series of statements, with blanks, and the text in bold is what you have filled in. I found this week’s Friday Fill-In here.

1. When I looked out the window this morning it struck me just how dirty it was, as the sun was shining on it at a rather unflattering angle (I was very pleased to see the sun, though!).

2. A bacon sandwich without HP sauce doesn’t make sense to me.

3. Remind me to put the Christmas tree out for collection on Monday morning. We are going to perform the death-defying feat of dropping it out of the french windows (on the 3rd floor, though with one of us down on the street to alert any would-be passers-by) to avoid spreading needles through the whole house.

4. Making yummy meals out of leftovers is something I love to do!

5. TP is text-speak for a type of Native American tent(?) – really I have no idea!*

6. I cleaned the refrigerator recently and I found a block of gouda (still unopened and fresh), and some broccoli from before Christmas (not so fresh).

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I’m looking forward to beers with crazy Americans, tomorrow my plans include cycling up the hill to my friend’s house for dinner and Sunday, I want to chill, get some work done and deal with the tree.

* I’m intrigued: what would YOU fill in for this item?

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Iron Blogger 2012

Well, with my last update having been over eight months ago, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I’ve not been doing too well at this blogging lark over the last while. This is, however, about to change (I hope).

Today I saw this announcement by fellow Freiburg blogger Jochen that he was starting an “Iron Blogger” challenge for local bloggers (see his blog entry for how it works). He’d mentioned it a week or two ago on Twitter and I’d already decided that it might be the right thing for me, as a weekly entry on a subject of my choice seems a much more doable project at present than something daily or restricted to a topic or medium I might not always feel very enthusiastic about (e.g. photography or memes).

I know it’ll be a challenge for me all the same, but I’m going to try to get away from the feeling of obligation to write lengthy, complicated and/or erudite stuff, and I hope that this will in fact enable me to say more about a wider range of things that interest me (and, I hope, you).

I’m also optimistic that it’ll bring a few other Freiburg bloggers out of the woodwork – I can think of several who’ve let their blogs lie fallow of late, and several more who I’d love to see taking this up as a new challenge.

So: watch this space, and I’ll be back again very soon…

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