Monthly Archives: June 2012

Random Acts of Fun

Someone’s done it again! Dropped a silver coin in the dogs drink bowl outside my gate!

 I love it! The fun of pretending it’s a wishing well. It’s happened a few times over the years, and I always have a giggle, and love to think of someone standing there, looking at the bowl, deciding to have a bit of fun, and then dropping a fifty cent piece into the water.  It’s a deep one for thirsty dogs, and wasps, and birds who also bath in it, and make me keep changing the water. (I had no idea how dusty birds got until they began bathing in the aluminium- silver drinking bowl).

I love too, the whacky knitters who have covered the ropes and bollards in the centre of our nearest village with knitted crowns on the bollards and coloured cords twined around the ropes, all in glorious mismatched riotous colours. Hope the fun police don’t rip them off like they did the Father Christmas knitted white beards and red hats – (a numbingly huge job to make)  which the same jolly knitters prised onto the life-size male and female heads which adorn the edge of the walls of the local loos

I can also visualise the Puritans who once confiscated the diaper (or nappy depending where you live), carefully draped around a huge bronze discus player’s private parts on a statue at the entrance to an Auckland park. It must have taken the guilty students ages to climb up in the dark for this bit of dotty fun.

Just as much as I love random acts of fun, I love random acts of kindness too. Princess Diana popularised this idea, which I think she picked up from a group in California. I realised I’d been practising this form of enjoyment when I used to pop some money into expiring meters, when I worked in the city forty years ago. I never knew how the expirees of the meters felt, but I did hear of one who was informed by a grumpy warden about to pounce, that a dark-haired woman had got there first and filled his meter!

And I once had the fun of going into an Open-Home, and seeing the absent owner had a collection of pale yellow Aynsley china, with a pink orchid for a handle on each cup and jug, and tea-pot. I had one matching jug at home, unlike any in her collection, so the next time I went into town, I popped it in her letter box. When I heard from someone that the owner was in a wheel chair, it gave me double pleasure.

These I suppose are anonymous acts of kindness – if indeed they can be called kind when they give the initiator such a kick of real well-being. Sometimes, indeed, they help to ease the heart-ache we feel when we hear of some-one’s plight. The girl who used to serve me at the coffee shop left to have twins. One died at birth, and the other faced years of pain and operations, which the little family with an out- of- work partner couldn’t really afford. Since it was Christmas, I left an anonymous envelope at her place of work with some notes in it. It wasn’t enough to make much of a difference to them, but it made a difference to me.

I am always awed and thrilled when I read of people who regularly go to some desolate city area to give hot pies, or ham sandwiches or whatever, to the hungry. Not random acts of kindness, but a regular commitment and a planned act of kindness. Like the old lady who used to visit a big city park in Auckland to fill little plastic drinking bowls under various trees and hedges for the hens which used to roam and  delight generations of children. And the people who make long journeys every night to feed gatherings of hungry stray cats.

I had a friend who, wherever she went,  took a plastic bag and filled it with litter. She did it when I walked with her on a beach, and she and her husband did it staying at camp sites all over Europe.

These little everyday acts of kindness somehow satisfy the soul as much, or more, than hearing about the wonderful organisations who feed the famine-stricken in Africa and elsewhere. They are little reminders to us that we can all do something in our own backyard, including spreading some laughter and goodwill with a random act of fun. I’m hoping for another silver coin in my water bowl!

 Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Needing a quick pudding to please family or friends? Our tried and true standby is simply strawberry yogurt, cream and a handful of fresh berries or tinned fruit. We call it pink pudding.

Whip half a pint of cream until thick, add roughly the same amount of thick yogurt, which can be plain, or flavoured with the fruit you’re using. Stir them gently together, and then add the berries, or usually in our case, a drained tin of boysenberries or frozen raspberries, melted and drained. Add sugar to taste, and leave in the fridge till needed. Don’t leave too long in case the fruit sinks to the bottom. But it’s always delicious however it comes.

It can either be served in one large glass bowl, or spooned into individual glasses or bowls. A shortbread biscuit served with it, lifts it into a grander category of pudding, as do tiny hearts-ease flowers, or violets in the middle of each individual bowl. I’ve even used a large pink floppy rose in the middle of a big glass bowl of pink pudding. Looks are everything when it comes to food!

An added frill is to melt some marshmallows in some of the fruit juice, and stir in, to make the mix firmer. But I prefer the purity of natural ingredients with no preservatives, additives etc, etc.

Food for Thought

People have to be taken as they are; there are no other ones.  Kurt Adenauer. West German Premier



Filed under animals/pets, cookery/recipes, great days, humour, life/style, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized

Top Dogs

‘I would like, to begin with, to say that though parents, husbands, children, lovers and friends are all very well, they are not dogs’. How true.

Elizabeth Von Arnim wrote this opening sentence in her autobiography. And I could well write the same. Without going back to childhood to catalogue all the doggie divinities who’ve ruled my affections, in the last forty years of my second marriage we’ve clocked up round-about fifteen or seventeen assorted dogs.

 It’s difficult to be accurate, because it depends on whether we count the dogs we had for a few weeks before realising they were going to kill the others from jealousy, or the ones who adopted us for periods, but couldn’t stay the distance or had to be reluctantly returned to the owners they’d run away from. Thinking about those ones breaks me up. I wish we’d just kept quiet when I saw one poor lab slink back to his master with his tail between his legs.

We rarely chose the dogs who shared our lives. They came to us, sometimes because they had no home, or because some-one rang and said a dog needed a home. And there always seemed to be lost dogs needing to be rescued. One day my husband came home from work to find the family in the back garden, two cavaliers and a saluki, and a Pyrenean mountain hound tied up in the front as I didn’t dare let the saluki see a rival.

So we had a number of afghans, six Cavalier King Charles spaniels, two at a time, a labrador or two, a boxer, several salukis, a borzoi, a mastiff, a mastiff boxer cross. The borzoi had been found lying on the concrete floor of a cage with a scarcely healed broken leg, the boxer-mastiff cross had been left to starve when his owner went to prison and the girl friend walked out. When found three weeks later, his black coat had bleached to pale cream, and his ribs stuck out like a concentration camp victim. The vet said he had one more day in him.

 It took months to get him back to black, and if we went out without him, we left the lights on, and a big sack of dog biscuits open by him, so he always knew there was plenty of food. The dogs who had been in happy homes, and were being “let-go” for various reasons, usually took about six months to settle in and realise that this was their new home where they were loved. The rescued dogs settled in straight away, with devoted gratitude. They knew they had been rescued and that they were only too welcome with us.

One little Cavalier King Charles who looked like a grumpy Charles the Second with his long curly black ears framing his face like the King’s wig, finally rolled over for me to tickle his tummy as he lay on my un-made bed in the sunshine, after six months. That was his turning point. Another cavalier made it clear she belonged, when after six months her previous owners came to see her, and when they left, she remained on the steps with us, and watched them get back in their car. But even the sad, badly treated, rescued dogs would often crane to look when they saw a car that looked like their previous owner’s car. What intelligence and what loyalty.

My brother’s labrador, after my brother’s three years absence overseas, when he visited the farm, didn’t wait for an invitation, but went straight out and sat in the back of the land-rover till my brother drove off with him. Who says animals don’t remember?

Two dogs are more fun than one dog, and three dogs are even more fun. On the rare occasions when we had one dog, he or she ran the house, and became top dog, so it was actually better for our self esteem to have at least two dogs. True, there’s less room on the bed, when you have two, and two lots of snores and scratching and general re-arranging can be somewhat disturbing, but I read in an English survey that we are not alone in this, and that seventy per cent of dog owners sleep with their dogs, and a surprisingly large number said they’d rather sleep with their dog than their partner!

Our last dog was a bull mastiff, the gentlest creature in the world but so strong that he pulled my husband over, and broke two ribs. He finally departed for the great kennel in the sky, leaving us with just the cat, after a life-time of living with dogs, and going to the vet and bathing and walking and brushing and feeding and de-fleaing.

 I’m now down to looking after an elderly husband. And instead I drive him to the doctor, the dentist, the hearing aid repair people, the specialist, the optometrist. So I don’t walk as much anymore. I don’t miss the bed-time ritual of getting them to go out and pee, especially on cold rainy nights, but I miss everything else. So I have to cuddle the neighbours’ dogs, which include a black Labrador, a black and white English pointer, a little black bitsa, and a blissfully snorting bulldog, his master’s pride and joy.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

When hungry and in a hurry, there’s nothing like pasta. Any pasta. I always keep freshly grated Parmesan in the deep freeze, so in hungry emergencies all I have to do is boil some pasta, chop some parsley, and when the pasta’s cooked and drained, stir in a beaten egg with cream and parmesan, and sprinkle over parsley. The other quickie is to saute tomatoes in olive oil, add garlic and parsley if you fancy, and tip the tomatoes over the pasta with parmesan on the top. I even love pasta with just melted butter and Parmesan. Hunger is the best appetiser there is.

Food for Thought:    God, I can push the grass apart

                                    And lay my finger on Thy heart.     Edna St Vincent Millay


Filed under animals/pets, cookery/recipes, great days, humour, life/style, spiritual, Uncategorized

Present but not Tense

Leaving my monthly meeting, I drove home under the full moon. As I left the city and began to drive through empty country roads with no street lights, the moon shone whitely down on the fields and hills, so that they looked as though they slept under a frosting of snow.

 I sang various rough and ready versions of arias from La Traviata, which was still on my mind, cracking on the high notes, and missing the low ones entirely as I flew along the quiet roads . At the meditation group I’d been to, I sat next to two sisters, not twins, but so alike in spite of seven years between them, the youngest only twenty-one, that they could have been. Both beautiful, gentle and good. I was the oldest there by a good twenty years, and they were the youngest. It made me feel good just to look at them.

At the end of an hour’s driving under the moon, I walked to the edge of the cliff when I got home to watch the wide path of light across the sea. No sound but the susurrations of the waves licking against the rocks below. As I made my way down the path to the door, I eased a few ripe guavas off the over-hanging branches, and sucked their tangy sweetness, spitting out the pips.

And I awoke to the sound of the tuis, the black and turquoise song-birds with their white bow-tie bobbing at their throats, singing their sweet songs to each other in the trees around the house. In the warm winter sunshine I took my breakfast tray into the garden and sat on the garden seat, and watched and listened to six tuis in the pururi tree above me. They sucked the honey out of the pink flowers with their long curved beaks, and warbled love-songs to each other as they sprang from branch to branch.

The albertine rose which should only flower in spring is blooming riotously over the trellis arch, where it twines into the ivy and the perpetually flowering mutabilis rose. With blue ageratum sprawling around the garden beds, and deep pink cannas, pink daisies and purple pansies, the garden feels as flowery as though it’s summer instead of almost midwinter.

 To have time to stand and stare like this is one of the great compensations for that stage of life when playing tennis is a distant memory, and climbing mountains a permanent impossibility.

 When I was young I used to look at older people sitting in deck-chairs gazing out to sea, instead of racing along the beach, or plunging into the sea with shrieks of laughter. Poor old things I patronisingly thought to myself, life must be so boring. I know better now. They were probably enjoying themselves far more than I, savouring the little things in life that I was far too busy being busy to even to notice.

 Some people call this mindfulness. In his book ‘Peace is Every Step’, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a chapter called Present Moment, Wonderful Moment. And that’s how it seemed, sitting in the garden eating my toast and drinking my coffee this morning.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets means racking my brains for something quick and spoily to give my grand-daughter when she comes tomorrow to teach me how to use my computer ie, get into Facebook, and all the other wonders of social media.

 Since we’re having roast chicken tonight, I’ll keep the breasts for lunch tomorrow. I’ll make a thick parsley sauce, almost emerald green with parsley, and flavoured with some of the chicken essences and some sliced mushrooms sautéed in butter. I’ll chop the chicken breasts into small chunks and stir into the sauce. I have some emergency puff pastry vol au vents in my store cupboard, and they’ll be filled with the chicken mixture and heated up. We’ll eat them with new potatoes and salad. A quick emergency pudding will be artisan ice-cream made by the chap down the road, with meringues – another store cupboard stand-bye for grand-children, all doused in a chocolate and cointreau sauce from a gourmet bottle given to me at Christmas. That should do it!

PS. The best way to have green green parsley is to plunge it into boiling water for a minute. When you take it out and chop it, it keeps its bright emerald colour.

And now some Food for Thought: A job is what we do for money; work is what we do for love. Mary Sarah Quinn


Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, humour, life/style, spiritual, The Sound of Water

Let Us Eat cake

Poor Marie Antoinette. She never said it. But she’s suffered from that blighting propaganda ever since. What she needed, and still needs, is a good spin doctor to right her wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake.

In the days when a woman’s place was in the home, and preferably in the kitchen, cake was part of that equation. I grew up in the fifties when women were still supposed to be there, and watched my stepmother struggle with the expectations around cake. Her steak and kidney puddings had to be tasted to be believed, her steak pies with perfect pastry were sumptuous, as were her heavenly steamed ginger puddings and apple pies, but cakes were not her thing.

The pinnacle of cake-makings skills back then was the Victoria sponge. A pretty boring version of cake, and now long out of favour, but back then, the classic Victoria sponge was a firm cake cooked in two tins, and glued together with raspberry jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar. Simple, but like all simple things, more difficult than it looks.

I would come home from school in the afternoon, and find my stepmother had had another go at a sponge, and was pretty down in the mouth, because as usual, it had sunk in the middle. As much as we were allowed to do, I fell on these failures, and revelled in the sunken, soggy, sweet middle – the best part of the cake, I thought. Sadly, years later, I discovered that my stepmother thought I was sending her up when I enthused about how delicious it was.

A few years later, living in Malaya, she was rescued from the kitchen by an amah who certainly didn’t bake cakes. Instead, like every other amah, she delivered a tea tray with rich tea biscuits and tiny Malayan bananas to the bedroom every day at four o’clock, to wake the dozing memsahibs from their afternoon rest in the tropical heat. With the pressure to produce the perfect sponge lifted from her shoulders, my stepmother began to be more interested in cake, and one holiday I came home from boarding school and was invited to experiment with making something called a boiled fruit cake – no creaming and beating, just a bit of mixing and boiling before baking.

So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.

The cake was simply a mix of all the ingredients and then baked. It wasn’t just soggy and sweet in the middle, it was soggy and sweet all through – just my sort of cake.

When I had my own kitchen, my ambition to eat cake was permanently at war with my determination never to get bogged down with the hard labour of creaming and beating that seemed to be involved in making a cake. But I found a temporary solution in the first months of my marriage – a cake that didn’t even have to be cooked – it was made from mostly crushed biscuit crumbs, melted butter and chocolate and finished off in the fridge. It was even a success with old school friends who’d mastered the whole baking thing, and could even do a crème brulee.

But the real break-through came when reading the old Manchester Guardian as it was called then. Highbrow though the womens’ pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat. And hidden away one day in a sensible article on cakes – nothing frivolous, just egalitarian, down to earth, common sense advice – I found the answer to cake-making. Instead of creaming the butter, or beating it with the eggs or the sugar, all we had to do was MELT the butter and stir it in.

This simple technique I applied to chocolate cakes, lemon cakes, you- name- it cakes. It ‘s carried me through a life-time of eating cake and I’ve never even considered making a Victoria sponge.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Threadbare gourmets sometimes have to break out, and there’s no point in trying to make something delicious and then economising on the ingredients, so cakes for hungry paupers still need their full quota of butter, eggs and sugar. Apples, though usually the cheapest fruit, are also one of the most delicious. So this is an apple cake, complete with melted butter.

You need two large apples peeled, 150 g melted butter, a cup of castor sugar, two large lightly beaten eggs, a teaspoon of vanilla essence, one and a half cups of SR flour.

Grease and line the cake tin. Mix the sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla, sift in the flour, and then slice the apples into the mix and stir. Tip into the cake tin, and sprinkle some caster sugar over the top. Bake in a moderate oven – about 160 degrees, for 45 to 60 minutes. Test with knitting needle or similar to check it’s cooked through, and leave in the tin to cool completely.

A message to the friends who read this blog – Now that my computer is behaving itself again, I’m enjoying being back on the air! I’ve had good reports on the easy bread recipe.

Leave a comment

Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, humour, life/style, Uncategorized

Blondes or Brunettes?

The slogan ‘Persil washes whiter’ was my first experience of discrimination.

There, under my affronted eight year old gaze were these huge hoardings, and on one was a  sparkling white double sheet pinned to the clothes line, and blowing in the wind, with a sparkling  blonde admiring with smug pleasure her domesticity. On the matching hoarding a grey sheet was pinned to the line with a brunette looking glum – presumably Persil thought sluts looked glum as well as dark-haired.

So I grew up feeling the injustice of assuming that because a woman had fair hair, she had other advantages. As the blondes paraded across the world’s stages, on screen and telly and magazine front covers, the feeling that gentlemen did indeed prefer blondes continued to be reinforced. And the blondes were undeniably gorgeous – sex bombs like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, would-be princesses like Grace Kelly, real ones like Diana. Even Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister was a blonde. Blondes seemed to have all the advantages, based not on gender, talent or nationality, but hair colour.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all to a brunette, was the remark of the woman who served me in the corner shop. She had always been a perfectly acceptable and slightly mousy person with light brown hair. One Monday morning after a long weekend, she stood behind the counter triumphantly blonde and beaming. I made no comment. But as the weeks went by, I asked her if she felt different now she was blonde. She looked at me with sparkling eyes – “I’ve never had so much fun in my life. I’d never go back to being dark”. I walked out gnashing my teeth.

The world’s brunettes didn’t give me much encouragement either. Jane Russell was too brazen to be taken seriously, while Jackie Kennedy, with her little girl voice, tragic destiny, and un-used opportunities to change the world in some way with all her influence and mana, was a bit of a let-down. Then there was tragic, raven-haired Queen Soraya, the beautiful Persian empress dismissed because she didn’t conceive an heir. She simply retired to the ski slopes in her large black sunglasses which became her trademark long before Jackie Kennedy learned to hide behind hers. I longed for both these women to have used all the goodwill and influence at their disposal to achieve something great.

But the times they are a-changing, and the habit ‘of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move’ and in what seems like a just re-arrangement of destiny, brunettes are now beginning to have their day in the sun. It began with the blessed Mary, the long haired Australian brunette who married the Crown Prince of Denmark, and then the also-blessed dark-haired Kate Middleton who snaffled her prince from under the noses of countless blonde society beauties.

Better still, some research has shown that brunettes tend to be paid better than blondes in the work force, as they are perceived to be more intelligent that blondes. Now we’re talking. And then there are the blonde jokes, many relayed to me by my grandsons who have more of a foot in the modern world than I. Maybe the crest of the wave was reached the day I was served with my coffee by a pretty blonde waitress. She wore a slogan on her t-shirt, which read: “Speak slowly. Genuine blonde”.  A statement which told me many things, and laid my old demons to rest.

And as the years go by, while Persil’s blondes may continue to wash whiter, their roots will only get darker. Brunettes, on the other hand, will grow old gracefully – I think! 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

It’s a bright sunny day in this corner of the Antipodes, and absolutely freezing. So I’ve the hot pot on for comforting pea and ham soup.After washing the dried peas, several handfuls or more, put them in the hotpot. Add three chopped carrots, and a hambone or pieces of bacon if you haven’t got a knuckle from the butcher. Then add a chopped onion, a couple of chopped celery sticks, one or two chopped garlic cloves, a bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cover with boiling water, and leave to bubble away for five hours or more on high, or until it’s all cooked. Fish out the bone, by which time all the meat should be falling off it. I whizz the peas and vegetables in the blender, leaving some to make the soup a bit chunky.

Before eating, stir in lots of chopped parsley, and if you like, make some croutons – good bread cubed, and fried in olive oil.  Make plenty, and freeze the rest for another cold day. You can use lentils if you haven’t got dried peas, and make sure the dried peas aren’t old, or they’ll never really soften. I sometimes use some chicken stock cubes if I use lentils in this recipe.

1 Comment

Filed under cookery/recipes, great days, humour, life/style, Uncategorized