Too busy to blog

It’s true, it’s true. Everything you hear about retirees being far busier than they were before is totally true. I got a form letter from Social Security this week asking me if I anticipated earning any wages for the balance of the year. That made me laugh out loud. You have got to be kidding – I don’t have time to go out to work! There’s ginger to be candied, okra to be roasted, hummingbird feeders to be filled, seeds to be watered. And coming up there’ll be the Christmas cake to be made and that’s a whole-day production. More of that in a later blog.

Back to the ginger – what fun! It was in my week’s basket from Fresh Harvest. Who knew that fresh ginger is soft and almost pink? The stuff in the grocery store is probably three months old. I sliced it thinly and simmered it in sugar and water; lay the slices on a rack to dry; and then coated them in more sugar. It left me with a delicious syrup for ice cream or yogurt. A huge success and I have more coming in this week’s basket. The okra was interesting. I roasted it with olive oil and thyme. I wasn’t sure if I liked okra or not. Cedric pronounced it absolutely revolting, on a par with Brussels sprouts, which he has disliked since he was a child. My Southern belle neighbor said it was delicious so I’m going with her verdict.

The hummingbirds are going crazy fueling up before they migrate. I have two feeders and the hummers bicker and dive-bomb each other, squabbling like children. I wish they would learn that there’s plenty for all and they waste a lot of energy trying to prevent each other feeding. When there are two hummers at one feeder, they must be a married couple or maybe mother and baby. There are so many swooping on our porch that the other day I covered my eyes with my hand and peeped through the cracks between my fingers because one was hovering so close and staring at me that I thought it might poke me in the eye. What a marvel of engineering and a miracle of creation.

My garden plot is full of seeds in neat little rows. But there’s one problem. I carefully drew out a diagram of what I planted according to the stakes I measured out. But when I stepped back and said “ta-da” I had more rows of seeds than indicated on my diagram so something went awry somewhere and I will be getting a surprise in the fall. Within two days of planting, some seeds were already sprouting and I felt I had given birth. I know I have cabbage, kale, spinach, beets and carrots. Plus, one butternut squash that is already two inches high. And I inherited a blackberry vine that looks very healthy and hopefully will fruit soon.

And then there’s a quilt top I’m making. It’s called Gypsy Wife – you can look it up. I have a self-imposed challenge of using only scraps and fabric that I already have. For a quilter, that’s almost being mean! It’s like a jigsaw puzzle finding enough pieces to make each block. A quilt is made up of blocks that are sewn together to make the quilt top. The Gypsy Wife has 73 blocks that range from 2.5 inches to 10 inches square and 55 strips running vertically. I’ve made all the blocks and now am trying to get my head round the strips that have to continue down the quilt in consecutive rows even when there’s a block in the way. Now you understand why my blogging has taken a backseat. Gotta run – lots to do!

Three-month check-in

It’s been three months since the Big R. Three months is my metaphoric line in the sand so let’s see how I’m doing in terms of successes and failures. Failures first. NONE – just a few delays. I have not investigated piano teachers yet so learning to play the piano has moved down the list. Dress code and personal style: not exactly a failure but wearing anything except shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops and applying lipstick and mascara every day has totally fallen off the priority list. I’ve always advocated getting rid of any item of clothing that I haven’t worn for a season. That would mean discarding my entire summer wardrobe, so I’ll give that a reprieve this year.

As for successes: many, many. When I look at my to-do list, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve sorted, pruned and purged. I live in fear of being overtaken by stuff but it’s so hard to get rid of hundreds of useful plastic carrier bags. I was exceptionally brave, however, and now just have one bag of bags. One of my favorite books is My Brother’s Keeper by Marcia Davenport. It’s based on one of those sad stories that hits the news stands every so often – people, very often siblings, accumulate so much stuff that it takes over. They live in rooms filled from floor to ceiling with stuff, sometimes with tunnels giving the only access between rooms. This was another of my mother’s favorite books and I read it first when I was young and now have two copies at home (yes, I need both copies) and have reread it many times. I devour and save news articles on these incidences, which is strangely ironic as I’m just keeping hold of more stuff, albeit it newspaper cuttings. In my heart of hearts, I dread ending up like one of those sad individuals but whenever I get rid of something, I need it often 24 hours later – honest!

I’ve posted already about knitting egg cozies. I’ve also made preserved lemons. Scrub lemons (Meyer are best), quarter them but not all the way, stuff with salt and place in a jar; squeeze more lemons to cover with juice and leave for several weeks. I’ve been using them to perk up salads and they are delicious with roasted vegetables. Just use the rind after rinsing off the salt. I have homemade vanilla extract maturing. Take vanilla pods, cut them lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place those and the pods in a jar of vodka. When I bought the vodka, I made sure everyone heard I was using it for cooking … I could see their expressions: Yeah, right!! That will be ready in another week or so. I’m making another quilt, but this time just out of scraps and fabric that I have. It’s harder than I thought it would be as often there’s not quite enough of one fabric for the block I planned to make. I’ve also used up almost all of my bobbin thread – quilters will understand this. When you sew, you wind a bobbin with the same thread you plan to use in the sewing machine, meaning you end up with many, many bobbins of assorted thread that just sit there over the years. What a sense of accomplishment to see all those empty bobbins in the box!

I’ve always enjoyed baking and it’s lovely to be able to bake bread any day of the week and not just at the weekend. I bought a beautiful cast iron shortbread pan so each piece has a different pattern, including a flower, hummingbird, thistle and beehive. Shortbread is easy – 2 sticks of butter creamed with 1 cup confectioner’s sugar; add 2 cups plain flour. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes or so. I’m turning into a cooking blogger!

Another success is my weekly farm produce delivery. I didn’t have to wait for retirement as they will leave the box at the door, but I wanted to be home to take delivery each Thursday if possible. The box comes from Fresh Harvest and I love what they are doing for the farming community. They have a lot of different box options and it’s very flexible. You can put a hold on delivery for a few weeks, or skip a week. And each week when they tell you what will be in your box, you have the option to customize and swap products. The produce is so fresh that it lasts much longer than supermarket produce. Even after a week, the lettuce is still crisp, although we usually finish everything within a week. I’m especially enjoying the fairy eggplant, tomatoes and mini watermelon this week. I got a bag of hot peppers and those are pickling in the fridge as I wasn’t sure what else to do with them. It’s fun to open the box because when Thursday rolls around, I’ve forgotten what’s coming, so every Thursday is like Christmas morning. The best part is Willis, who delivers. He’s 6 foot 9 inches of Georgia farm boy with tousled red hair drawn up in a man bun. He has to duck to get in the door and I think he finds me and my accent as fascinating as I find him. He knows I’ll be waiting on the porch and he waves when he gets out of his delivery truck. My heart melts!

Overall ranking for the Big R: A PLUS! The one question that people ask me when I tell them I recently retired is: What’s the best thing about retirement? My answer remains: Not having to wake up with the alarm each morning. It was definitely worth waiting for and I’m still reveling in the luxury of coffee in bed each morning, reading my latest book, and with Savannah snuggled up against my knees. If it was up to her, we’d stay in bed until noon. Now, that’s a plan – who’s gonna stop me?

Where’s a juicy dead bug when I need one?

I’m sharing the porch with a porch mate – he (she?) is a a handsome lizard with a fluorescent blue tail. He’s not very long – maybe three inches nose to tail tip. You know that if you grab the tail, it will come off, don’t you. And grow again. I spent a lot of time as a child trying, and sometimes succeeding, in stepping on a lizard’s tail. That and chasing crabs on the beach – the secret to crab catching is to remember that they run sideways, not forwards or backwards. The lizard lives in the bricks and comes out through the cracks. This morning, I noticed him running along the window ledge when I was drinking my coffee on the porch. When he ran back to his lair, I’m sure he had a bug in his mouth. I was disappointed that I must have looked away the moment he caught the bug. So, now was my chance to do some scientific research. I could see his nose and flickering tongue in the crack. So I interrupt myself, tear myself away from coffee and newspaper and search the porch for a bug, preferably dead, so that I can pick it up. I find a bug and it is dead as can be – so dead it is practically desiccated and the only way I know it’s some sort of beetle is because it has little legs, poor thing. I place it on the window sill and sit back down to wait. And I wait. I see the flickering tongue. I push the bug a little closer to the crack. No deal. Hmmm, maybe he’s a smart lizard. I see him coming out of another crack closer to the floor. So I flick the bug onto the floor. Then I go back inside to do something domestic – transfer the laundry into the drier or something. When I come out, THE BUG HAS GONE! Now, I know it could have been blown over the railing by the wind, but I don’t think so – it’s still with no wind. I’ve missed the action again. So I go back to hunting for another bug – moving flower pots and watering cans. I guess the porch is cleaner than I thought, but eventually I find something that looks like a bug and I start over. I place the bug near the first crack and stare for a long time and don’t dare blink. Nothing. He must be sleeping off the meal. I’ll try again tomorrow – yep, I obviously have too much time on my hands.

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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