Egg cozies and other essentials

The Big R has given me the gift of time and I get to spend that time on important projects such as knitting egg cozies, preserving lemons, making vanilla extract and lining drawers. Everyone knows that if you don’t line kitchen drawers within one month of moving to a new place, it’s one of those projects that realistically never gets done – unless one retires!

Let’s start with the egg cozies. Every respectable soft-boiled egg needs an egg cozy. Cozies are the little hats that keep one egg warm while the other is being eaten with toast soldiers because one never eats just a single soft-boiled egg. We have two linen cozies that match our breakfast china (yep!), and making a set for the second egg has been on my to-do list for years. We have one cozy that was probably knitted by Cedric’s mother but it’s very small, proof that everything in the last 50 years has simply got bigger. We even have some egg cups that belonged to Cedric’s parents, but our super-sized eggs perch on the opening and threaten to topple off as soon as you approach with a spoon. I replaced our egg cups recently – whopper-sized ones that fit the eggs now laid by modern chickens. The Big R means we often have time for soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. And because many Americans don’t know what I’m talking about, here are the instructions:

Bring water to boil in a medium-sized saucepan. For two people, remove four eggs from refrigerator – that’s in the U.S. In England, it’s more common not to refrigerate eggs and one can buy cute wooden egg holders to keep on the kitchen counter. In the U.S., as soon as an egg pops out, it gets shampooed. (I’m not making this up.) The soap removes the natural barrier on the egg shell, which makes the egg more susceptible to bacteria, which is why U.S. eggs are generally refrigerated. Pierce the bottom of the egg – the rounder end – with an egg piercer. These are little gadgets with a pin that pierces the shell and lets out any air so that when the air expands, it won’t crack the shell. (Again, I’m not making this up.) I often add a few shakes of bicarbonate of soda to the water. That’s an old wives’ tale but apparently if there’s a crack, it stops the egg white from seeping out. My mother always lit a match, blew it out and dropped the match into the water and I do that as well. If an egg has a faint crack, I’ll cover it with Scotch tape – that works, I promise.

Slowly lower your pricked eggs into the water, bring back to the boil and reduce heat to low simmer – that means just a few bubbles now and then. Now comes the tricky part. How long do you boil an egg? I time them for six minutes for mine and seven minutes for Cedric’s. I like my yolks very soft and he prefers them a bit firmer. It’s always a happy surprise when they are a perfect consistency. Remove from the water, place in the egg cup and pop the cozy on top. Meanwhile, you have made toast and put salt on the table. For anyone raised eating soft-boiled eggs, the next step is easy. For foreigners, it takes some practice – like many things. For example, I’m great at handling soft-boiled eggs, but I can’t use chopsticks – that’s also on my to-do list and I heard you can buy versions with a rubber band on the end to make it easier to wield them. I digress – back to the eggs. With a small teaspoon, softly crack the top of the egg and gently remove the top half-inch or so. That reveals enough egg to start. Pour some salt on the edge of the plate, place the back of the spoon on the little mound of salt, some grains should adhere to it, and break the yolk with your spoon, carefully, without letting it flood over the edge of the egg. Butter the toast and cut it into strips – those are the soldiers. Poke the soldiers into the yolk – YUM! When one finishes one egg, it’s traditional to turn the empty egg shell upside down in the egg cup and shout, “I don’t want my egg!” At which your mother will reprimand you and then you take your spoon and whack the empty shell so that it caves in. Repeat above steps with second egg.

See below for picture of one of the new egg cozies. I’ll talk more about the other projects next time, but I leave you with this little ditty, which should be sung very loud:

How does a hen know the size of an egg cup when she lays her egg?

With no egg cup beside her, nothing whatever to guide her?

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Worms in cauliflower and other culinary delights

What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Finding HALF a worm! That was one of my mother’s favorite jokes and probably the earliest joke I remember hearing. I didn’t understand it and I know I asked where the other half had got to … even now, I don’t get subtle jokes and prefer obvious slapstick comedy. But worms were often on the menu at the Boma – feeding 500 girls three meals a day meant the odd worm was sure to be roasted or braised. School food tends to be horrible, but when there’s no option except to go hungry, you tend to eat what’s available. There are few things I won’t or can’t eat – like standing quietly in line, I learned to cope. There’s plenty I prefer not to eat – principally it’s a texture thing, like pears or fried and battered food, but I really can’t eat oysters (very allergic) and I won’t eat goosegogs, which is what we called gooseberries and even typing this, I can feel my nose wrinkle in distaste. They are greenish berries – about the size of large blueberries and are always stewed … to death, or made into jam. You don’t eat them raw. We had them for dessert, probably with custard.

Feeding time at the Boma took place in the huge dining hall. Tables seated 10 or 12 – five down each side and a teacher or prefect at the top. Tables were grouped by houses and the placement never varied. I wonder why they didn’t move us around the hall each term. Nightingale was to the right as you walked through the doors. Two monitors from each table went up to the kitchen to wheel a cart back to the table – there must have been some sort of assignment sheet. The food came in huge metal lidded containers and you didn’t know what was on the menu until it arrived. The person at the top of the table served the food and passed the plates down the table. You absolutely had to finish what was on your plate, no exceptions. If you didn’t like something, you could shout up, “No spinach, thanks,” or whatever special request. You also could request a “dirty plate” which meant the server dipped the spoon into the food and moved it round and round on the plate as evidence that food had actually touched the plate and been devoured already. When the patrolling teachers walked by, you had evidently finished your meal with relish. I don’t recall how we handled a dirty plate request if we happened to have the housemistress at our table. For lunch and dinner, we had dessert, so the monitors loaded the empty tins onto the cart, went back to the kitchen and traded them for the next course.

Many details are fuzzy but I remember the plates being heavy green plastic, definitely unbreakable. In each corner of the dining hall was a still room (like a supply room) where the monitors delivered the dirty plates after the meal. Breakfast could be bacon and eggs, porridge, sausages – anything to fill us up. Our favorite was “Continental breakfast” – rolls and milky coffee. We didn’t have that nearly often enough. One memorable breakfast was a disaster. The kitchen experimented with omelets, but when the aluminum pans came out of the oven, the eggs had turned green. Several hundred girls refused to eat anything and they never tried that again. Break was around 10 a.m. and I don’t remember anything other than sandwiches. I didn’t like dripping – which is the fat left from roasting meat. We often had Marmite, as ubiquitous as the American PB&J. It’s a yeast-based spread and the English are raised eating it. We had jam, but never PB&J – I don’t think we even had peanut butter and I didn’t know what a PB&J was until I came to live in the U.S. Lunch, the main meal, typically consisted of meat and two veg. I remember most of it was covered in gravy of varying colors. One meal was corned beef with a white sauce that I disliked. Shepherd’s Pie was OK and dessert could be yummy. We loved chocolate pie and you could hear a pin drop when everyone focused on eating as fast as possible in the hope of seconds. It was chocolate filling in a pie shell, topped with meringue. Sometimes they made a jam version, but we all preferred chocolate. Steamed treacle pudding was another favorite. I seem to recall the level of noise from 500 girls was in direct correlation to what appeared on the menu. Tea was at 4 p.m., which probably included something sweet. For break and tea, we filed in to pick up the food and ate standing in the courtyard or sitting on the grass trying not to get dive-bombed by the crows. As I’ve said before, I don’t recall it ever raining. Supper was lighter – macaroni and cheese probably. I recall we did sometimes have salad, which was also popular. We also loved baked potatoes. Before breakfast and lunch, the Head Girl said Grace, and before supper, we sang Vespers (an evening prayer) – often, Abide with Me.

We supplemented our meals from a tuck box, typically filled with candy and cookies, trying to make it last until the next one. We would bring our tuck boxes back from exeats (pronounced ex-eee-ats, meaning a day’s leave from a boarding school). Exeats took place once a month on a Sunday. Parents picked you up at 10 a.m. and you had to be back by 6 p.m. Half-term was the only weekend we were allowed to go home overnight. I think I ate non-stop during every exeat and brought back a huge tuck box to tide me over. There was a tuck shop, too, where one could buy Mars Bars and other delights, pocket money permitting. We existed from one meal to the next rather than from day to day. Meals and the dining room were definitely the focus of our lives. If you requested a dirty plate for lunch for any reason, you would have to fill up at supper, whether you liked what was offered or not. The food was so stodgy and heavy that every girl was overweight and we were always on a diet. One of my most painful memories is of a girl called Beatrice. We persuaded her to go on a diet. When we returned to school at the beginning of one term, we were told that Beatrice had died after her family’s house burned down. To this day, I regret that we didn’t let Beatrice eat dessert for the last few weeks of her life.

Loo rolls and other toilet tales

Of all the quaint English expressions I use, “going to the loo” always elicits the most puzzled looks from my American and Canadian friends. Once they learn the meaning, however, they adopt the phrase liberally and appreciate this charming way of announcing their intention to powder their nose or brush their hair. On the other hand, the term “rest room” doesn’t translate well and the first time I saw the sign when I was on vacation in the U.S., I was very amused. One result of the Big R is an increased number of loo rolls being used at home. If you calculate how much more time I’m at home and how many more visits to the loo, it figures I’m using two or three times as many loo rolls. It took me a while to work that one out. On a similar subject, and one close to my heart as my blog readers will know, I’m very excited because I’ve been walking an 8-month-old Havanese puppy, Bella, for a neighbor and I get to text her poop reports when we are done. Sad but true.

I’m entering my eighth week of the Big R and am on a roll. I haven’t dreamed about being late for the office or reached for my office iPhone for a while, so I think I’m cured. I also never know what day of the week it is, so I’m a true believer – and loving it!

Several readers (well, OK, two …) have expressed an interest in learning more about my school days in Nairobi, so here goes. The Kenya High School was known as the Heifer Boma: Swahili words – heifer for young cow; and boma for an enclosure for cattle at night. I don’t think any of us realized how offensive it sounded, but we were known as heifers and proud of it. There were 600 girls, 10 boarding houses of 50 girls each and two day houses – day girls were not considered human, which was probably because they went home at night and the boarders were secretly jealous. The boarding houses were brick buildings with two houses in each – one each side of a central staircase. The ground floor had a common room off the entrance hall with comfy seats and tables and separate rooms for the more senior girls to gather. The locker room was also on the ground floor – you kept your street shoes and shoe-cleaning kits in your locker. Does anyone even clean shoes now? We polished our shoes with shoe polish and a brush, followed by shining with a duster, every Saturday. You left your shoes in the locker and put on your slippers to go upstairs. The next floor had two dormitories with about 20 beds in each and the bathrooms with two showers and several baths. I remember that very few of us ever took a shower – we took baths. Matron had her office there and she doled out clean towels and sheets once a week, along with our laundry. Upstairs, the senior girls had cubicles which were considered the height of luxury and adulthood.

The boarding houses were in a semicircle round the five-acre field – a grass lawn with paths leading from each house up to the dining room and school buildings. It was quite a walk, but I never remember it raining. I talked in my last post about lining up for everything and about inspection. The hair inspection was something we didn’t question, but if your hair touched your shirt collar, you had to tie it back with an elastic band and hairpins, even if the pony tail had only three strands of hair in it. I was 11 years old when I started at the Boma and I didn’t rebel, ever. I think I only ever got one detention (you had to stay in on a Saturday or something) and I think that was a group thing where a bunch of us were talking when we shouldn’t have been. Silence was silence and there was a lot of it – silence before the bell in the morning, after lights out, at rest time, in line, in the dining room before grace – no end of deafening silence. Looking back, I can’t think how else they would have managed 600 girls.

More in another post, but loo paper has its place here, too. The school supplied Bronco brand loo paper – look it up! It’s not nice and certainly not for refined young ladies. We each brought our own supply of loo paper, which we kept in our bedside tables – I presume we kept some in our uniform pockets for use during the day. Picture each girl making her way into the bathroom carrying her precious cargo. Perhaps that’s why I use so much of it now, because I’m sure I rationed each roll carefully at the Heifer Boma.

And just an update on the quilt show. No blue ribbon, but my quilt was a winner just by being accepted. The winning quilts were stunning and so deserving. Keep calm and quilt on!

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Guilt trip

This post is about a guilt trip not a quilt trip although I did drop off my firstborn yesterday – I left my Baltimore Album quilt at the quilt show venue. They have more than 300 quilts to hang, so it takes a few days. The show opens Wednesday night with a sneak preview for participants. I felt similarly bereft when we dropped Savannah at doggie day camp at the pet store the first time. I remember peeping out from behind the shelving where you get a good view of the playroom through a large plate glass window, except of course dogs can smell through glass so she jumped up at the window and pressed her little nose against it and made me feel worse. I’m glad they don’t have one of those video cameras like some camps do – or I would be glued to my screen ready to rescue her if another puppy was being mean. Silly me – the other dogs are are all scared of our feisty pup, who can hold her own against anything. But even though the quilt show organizer assured me they will take good care of my quilt, what happens if there’s a flood or a fire? That quilt represents hundreds of hours of work, millions of stitches and miles of thread. Maybe someone will kidnap it for ransom – now that would make it worth it.

We then went to one of our favorite French cafes. It’s one of the few places in Atlanta that has real French bread and pastries. The staff turnover is notoriously high – I don’t think we’ve ever seen the same server more than twice, which is a shame because they are always sweet and friendly – and SO young. Cedric asked me how old I thought our server was. I answered immediately, “At least 8.” I asked her – she’s 20. It was the bill that gave me the guilt trip, but not for the amount. I felt guilty when I paid, guilty when I left and I woke up this morning still feeling guilty. How could a croissant do that to me? We always order the same thing – baguettes with ham and cheese and then have a pastry. Then, we get croissants and other goodies to go. OK, the bill was hefty, but that wasn’t the issue. It was the helpful inclusion, in case you are mathematically challenged, of a suggested gratuity right there under the total. They word it, “Gratuity Example” – and they give two amounts – 18% and 20% – yep! What happened to 15%? Now, we are not talking a real French bistro in the middle of town. This is a nondescript building on the intersection of two busy roads in a suburb of Atlanta – not even downtown. There’s no ambiance or street atmosphere anywhere within sniffing distance; you can’t walk along and window shop; you park and walk across the uneven parking lot and you could be walking into a gas station. For 18 or 20%, I want sniffy French serving staff wearing long black aprons over starched white shirts, not 8-year-old girls in T-shirts and jeans; I want linen napkins, not paper; and I want tablecloths and heavy silverware. But what rubbed salt in the wound was the bill included our food AND the items we took out in paper bags, so the suggested gratuity of 20% was on every croissant, too. Now, that’s blackmail. It wasn’t the server’s fault, I know that. When I paid, and added a generous tip but only on what we had eaten at the table, I explained to her that there should be NO gratuity on bread and pastries that they load into a bag and hand to you – otherwise, it would be like paying a gratuity on a pair of shoes when you walk out of the shoe store. She looked at me like I had three heads and I saw her show another server the bill as we walked out and they both turned and glared at me. At least, with their staff turnover, she won’t be there the next time. So why do I feel so guilty?

Real time versus retirement time

Being retired is very stressful. No really! It’s been four weeks and I haven’t checked off enough items on my bucket list. For a list-person, that’s very stressful. Everyone told me that I wouldn’t know how I ever had time to go to work, and every single person was correct. But working is real time. Retirement is a different category. Parkinson’s law is alive, well and active in retirement time. At the end of the day, items on my to-do list remain unchecked, and even though I know I can do them next year, I’m beginning to feel the pressure.

But it’s amazing to have time at my disposal and unless we actually have some place to be at a certain time, time is now fluid. The days are a blur. Someone sent me a picture of a retirement clock divided into days of the week instead of hours of the day and said that’s the only alarm clock I will now need. We are so defined by the time of the day. At boarding school in Nairobi, time was told by the ringing of a bell. I’m sure I had a watch, but I doubt I ever looked at it. We were woken at 6:30 a.m. by the matron ringing the bell – a big brass bell with a handle as long as her arm. There were 10 boarding houses and two houses for day girls. Your house defined your allegiance. Fifty girls from second formers (first years – I don’t know why there was no first form) to sixth formers – lower and upper sixth, belonged to a house named after famous women, such as Baden Powell (wife of Robert – I’m glad I wasn’t in that house – reminder of THAT dog!), Beale (Dorothea), Darling (Grace) and Nightingale (Florence). I was in Nightingale. There were two dormitories with 20 beds each; seniors got a cubicle with a curtain on the top floor – don’t worry, you could still hear the bell up there. We stripped our beds to let them air, washed and dressed in school uniform – white shirt with short sleeves that we rolled up higher, grey woolen pleated skirts (in Sub-Saharan Africa), neckties, and white socks. Downstairs we went to put on our outside brown lace-up shoes and filed past the prefect who checked that our shoes were clean, our nails short and not polished and that our hair did not touch our shirt collar. If it did, it had to be pulled into a pony tail – even if that pony tail was a half-inch long. Then we lined up and waited for the next bell. In line, we were not allowed to talk or fidget. I remember asking once why we had to keep so still and the matron said it was to teach us self control. Years later, in a line at a bus stop in London, when we all waited and waited for a No. 9 bus that never came, a man turned to me and said, “You are so still – you haven’t fidgeted once.” Ha – matron was right! When the bell rang, we filed up from our houses over the five-acre field (a grassy area) and into the dining hall. More on the food and descriptions of 600 girls eating a meal in 30 minutes in another post. We returned to our houses to make our beds, which had by this time been nicely aired – with hospital corners. To make a hospital corner, you pull the sheet up at right angles and turn it back down and then tuck it in. Matron would check those hospital corners and if they weren’t done correctly, you would find your bed stripped. I still make the bed with hospital corners. The rest of the day was one bell after another – assembly, start of classes, break, lunch, rest time (where we had to go back to our houses and lie on our beds), afternoon classes, tea, activities, time to bathe and change for supper (yes, we changed into dresses – another post to come), study time, back to the house and then the final bell to go to bed before lights out. One bell after another, and it started over the next day and the next.

I don’t think I actually thought about measured time before we got a microwave in the 1980s. The first microwaves were huge and had a knob you turned for minutes and seconds – not digital like today’s versions. I recall then specifically noticing the passage of a minute or 90 seconds. Now, with all our devices, we measure time more frequently than we realize. Because I have so much time, I spent some of it this week measuring how much time I take to perform my nightly dental ablutions – I know, sad huh? I used to have an electric toothbrush that timed four 30-second segments so you could be sure you brushed upper and lower, inside and out for exactly 30 seconds each. When my toothbrush died, I didn’t bother to replace it, but I now time myself using my iPhone stopwatch. And I use the time to balance on one leg. This isn’t an original idea – I read it in the New York Times. The writer recommended standing on one leg when you brush your teeth to strengthen your balance muscles. But changing from one leg to the other in 30-second increments IS my idea. It’s actually amazing how you improve over time. So, the other night, I decided to keep the stopwatch going because it’s not just brushing that we have to do, according to our hygienists – right? There’s the gum pick thing that you poke between every tooth and wiggle around to get every last bit of whatever stuck between your teeth. And then floss up and down back and forth. Then the Listerine – everyone at the office knew when I had been in the ladies room at lunchtime because I use Listerine every time I brush my teeth. So that gets swilled around for several seconds (I might time that separately one day.) Well, it takes 6 minutes and 40 seconds every single night – I’m not going to add that up to calculate how many years I will have spent on dental ablutions by the time I don’t have the strength to raise my brush any more. But by that time, my balance will be absolutely perfect. Gotta go brush my teeth. And in my pink nightie and one leg raised delicately, I know I look just like a flamingo.

Poop report

I’ve got a theme going here. Cedric has morphed from chief dog walker to chief cuddlier. And I’ve become chief dog walker and chief poop reporter. We have turned into the quintessential canine hover parents – something I swore would never happen. In Nairobi, the house next door was owned by the American embassy and my parents always befriended the neighbors and even stayed in touch with several of them when they left after their tours of duty. I was great friends with the daughter of one couple – we were the same age and went to the same school. Her mother was very glamorous and there was a full-length portrait of her in their entrance hall. The word on the street was her father was CIA and everyone said to be careful because they thought the house was bugged. I’m not sure I understood, but it sounded very exciting. Another couple arrived for their tour with two poodles. This was the first time I’d seen dogs treated like children. We always had dogs, starting with Blackie, a daschund when I was probably no more than 4 or 5. We loved our dogs and treated them well. They were allowed in the house but slept in the kitchen. Dog treats back then, in Nairobi anyway, were one brand – Vetzyme, yeast tablets in a glass jar with a green lid. Dogs got one, maybe two, each day and a cookie before they went to bed and I’m sure they were people cookies and not dog bikkies. Fast forward to today. Savannah has a whole shelf in the kitchen with assorted dog treats depending on the time of day and whether she’s been a particularly good girl. This dog goes from treat to treat. Every day is Christmas for Savannah. And in Cedric’s closet, another shelf hosts more treats in case – perish the thought – we run out of her favorite. But back to the American poodles. They were coddled and cosseted and dressed up and fussed over and talked to like children and I remember thinking I would never treat a dog like a child – ha ha!

Blackie was followed by various other dogs including a smooth haired fox terrier called BP, named for Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. My parents adopted BP from some people leaving the area. BP is the only dog I have ever hated. He was mean and he hated me back. One day, he buried a small stuffed dog that my parents gave me when I had my tonsils out and I loved that little toy. My mother salvaged him and cleaned him up but his tail didn’t survive. I still have that stuffed dog. I also had a glossy, black pet rabbit called Flicka. One day, I wanted to give her cage a good clean. I put Flicka in a temporary box while her cage dried. My parents had to gently break the news that Flicka had escaped her box and run away. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that my mother let slip one day that BP had got her. Even typing this, I can feel my blood pressure rise with hatred! BP was a pedigree, though, and my mother showed him at the local dog show, using hair spray to make the hair on the end of his tail stand up straight and talcum powder to whiten a couple of dingy patches. My parents were very involved with dog shows and I even won the children’s handling class at one show. But BP colored my feelings for smooth haired fox terriers and they remain my least favorite breed.

But back to the theme – I can’t believe that every time I come back from walking Savannah, I actually give Cedric a complete breakdown of her business. How sad is that? Before I retire this theme, here’s an interesting fact – an estimated 1,000 tons of dog poop is produced by Britain’s 8 million dogs every day, according to the Keep Britain Tidy group. They are concerned that owners pick up the poop in plastic bags and when they can’t find a garbage bin, they dump the bags, which is bad for the environment. The Forestry Commission has produced a poem in an attempt to spread the message about the stick and flick method. I’m not kidding – please read on. It includes the lines, “If your dog should do a plop, take a while and make a stop. Just find a stick and flick it wide into the undergrowth at the side. If your dog should do a do, you don’t want it on your shoe, find a stick, pick a spot, flick into the bushes so it can rot.” Several times a day, I hear myself say, “Only in America.” Today, it’s, “Only in England.” Woof.

Canine bodily functions

Now that I’ve got your attention, be warned: This post is about dog poop – yep! You know the adage that women in public restrooms only wash their hands if there is another woman in there, presumably taking note of personal hygiene behavior. I think that’s urban myth, myself. Well, I have another one for you – I think dog owners only pick up poop if there is an audience. I am tempted, when walking Savannah along the winding driveway of our complex, to leave her poop where it plops. It’s never on the sidewalk, only on the pine straw or in the brush. And no one would know. I am aware, however, that I am very dramatic with the green plastic poop bag when a car is passing or people are walking by. I wave it madly to make sure everyone sees that I’m being a good citizen and neighbor and picking up poop. Actually, my rule is: If I can reach it, I pick it up. If I have to crawl through the undergrowth on Savannah’s level, I let it mature into manure. I’d love to live in a complex where they take swabs to identify each resident dog’s DNA, test unwanted gifts and publish owners’ names on a wall of shame. That would clean up our complex in a hurry. Not that the little face below does anything like poop.

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