Thursday, 17 December 2009

Have a Cracking Christmas!

If you're headed toward a place setting at an English Christmas do or holiday dinner near you, you should be chuffed (excited) to see one of these at your spot.  No, it's not an extra festive toilet paper roll.  It's not a holiday recreation of Sputnik, although the sound they make has been known to launch excitable me into orbit.  It's a Christmas cracker, a festive, dinnertime mini explosive that contains a joke or motto or riddle, a prize of debatable value, and that pesty paper crown I always get goaded into wearing.  Save me now!  It's coming directly toward my head!  Alas, for some, it's already too late.

Faithful readers will recall my firmly held assertion that hats make my head look fat.  Worse yet is when some wiseacre gets out the camera and decides to commemorate my millinery malaise.  I cannot deny that I have left many chillers in the greater Cornwall area full of soured milk. The good news is that I have successfully destroyed any photographic evidence within my possession that involves me in a paper crown. The look on my face in one instance was burned into Chumley's mind, he assures me, and was not unlike another poor, kindred spirit I've seen.

For those linguistic lovers out there, a cracker is also British English for all of the following: a dry biscuit, something that is good, an attractive woman, and a firecracker.  Chumley caught me off guard some years ago by declaring that one of the Harry Potter movies was "a cracking film."  All the American possibilities raced through my mind: poor projection and sound quality, produced by a crackpot, weird enough to be devised by people on crack? 

When I go Yankee and think cracker, my friend, the Premium Saltine, comes to mind. 

But as my Christmas gift to you, here's a word of caution: should any of my gentle English readers find themselves deep in the American South this holiday season, they should momentarily quit counting the gunracks and be mindful how they use the term "cracker."  In my mental thesaurus, ranked according to offensiveness, I think "cracker" is like "trailer trash" on steroids.  For example, asking for a Christmas cracker at the information desk of a southern-fried Wal-Mart will assuredly get you a visit with Dirty Santa, or worse, cause a throwdown on aisle 3.

As Chumley and I are about to declare ourselves festive and start exhausting others' holiday hospitality, I will be on blog hiatus until the next decade begins.  My best wishes for a crack-tastic holiday! 

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Back to Reality

One gentle reader expressed interest some time ago in my take on UK healthcare.  Using the NHS, England's socialized healthcare program, is a major learning curve for Americans living here for any length of time.  National healthcare is also a political issue back home at the moment, and I'd choose bog diving over political discussions any day.  In general, my impressions are very favorable thus far.  There are pitfalls to navigate, just as there are in the land of private insurance, but it is comforting not worrying about the bill or deductibles every time you darken the doctor's doorstep.  Pharmacies (or chemists) are much more helpful, I find, and can assist with everyday drugs that you'd have to have a doctor's prescription for in the States.  If you're a relatively healthy individual, I think it's excellent.

Should you find yourself in a medical office (surgery), here is my most valuable cultural lesson learned to date: do not pull the red string in the doctor's surgery loo, thinking it is the light switch.  Some bathrooms have pullcord light switches here, but following this instinct will lead to profound dissappointment.  The red string is actually the "I've fallen and I can't get up" alarm, and a crochety nurse will come stare at you, wondering which nearby village recently lost an idiot.  I knew better, as I have fallen victim to this trap while attending a wedding reception at a major UK military installation, but I got off easy with no uniformed guards rushing in to help burn the experience in my psyche.  My village has yet to report me missing.  But in my defense, how can one see it's red if it's pitch dark and you're afraid of falling into the toilet? 

I was most worried about my back while living here, and the experience I'd have if it ever decided to pack up again.  An old journalism professor of mine wrote an article that completely sums up how frustrating major back trauma can be.  I completed a round of physical therapy (physiotherapy) in the year before we moved, and two epidural shots and much pain later, my extruded disc was finally behaving itself.  I've taken up pilates and yoga to keep it from turning against me, and one of my yogis has recommended my new favorite book:  Back Sufferer's Bible by Sarah Key.  It's a revelation, as no one I've ever seen bothers to explain what's going on in such detail, and I crave detail.  She's the physiotherapist to Prince Charles and the Royal Family.  I adore his Duchy Originals line of groceries, so I'm sure he has the same tastes in therapists.  Just like his biscuits, Sarah Key can be crunchy compared to conventional therapy wisdom, but these wacky exercises of hers really work.  I've returned the giant swiss ball I've been using as an office chair, and instead do her stretches.  Better results and far easier to store.

With that, it's time to stretch.  And speaking of a stretch, national healthcare isn't so bad.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Move Over, Martha!

Meet my new favorite celebrity foodie, Delia Smith.  She's no revelation to the English, but for Americans, she flies much lower on radar than the potty-mouthed Gordon Ramsay or voluptuous Nigella Lawson.  She's without a gimmick: she's into old-fangled and cozy snacks, real butter, and her housecat is quite fluffy.  At least he was groomed well in her Christmas special.

I'm sure I'm not alone in losing whatever opinion I had of Martha Stewart post her stint in the pokey.  After years of cookbook writing, Delia saved up and bought herself a football team, yet wears clothes that look like they came from places regular people shop.  As I watched, she demonstrated how to make oh-so-puzzling English bread sauce.  She doused her fruit cakes with enough booze to allow them to flambe for days.  I believed Delia's confident assertion that she's never had a dry turkey, and continued viewing while suspending the Weight Watchers points count in my head. 

Emboldened by my holiday viewing, I undertook Delia's sausage rolls.   Nothing is as easy as it looks, and despite her TV demonstration of making puff pastry by grating frozen butter into a bowl, I took the easy way out and used the frozen sheets.  After what seemed like a couple hours farting around, splitting the casings off two pounds of sausage and crying over the onions I chopped, I had these meaty little marvels to show for it.  Into the freezer the majority went so they might accompany Chumley and me to our Christmas festivities where I can bake them on demand.   Thankfully, there is no button on our remote control for "baked goods on demand" or Chumley and I would have already turned to solids. 

Sausage rolls are terribly English, but it's hard not to like them unless you're not into meat or cholesterol.  I baked four as a test and offered them to Chumley as an "after-school" snack.  I felt a bit bad after chasing him away from that big stack of bacon I'd left out during the green bean segment of Thanksgiving dinner.  Hopefully, I've made both peace and meaty baked goods.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Sunrise, Sunset

The picture above could be our back garden at 8 a.m.

One of the most striking things when I first lived in England for a while in 2001 was the lovely, long length of day in summer.  It was even better than visiting Minnesota, where we marveled that in the summertime, it wasn't uncommon for the neighbors to start mowing the grass at 5:30 in the morning.  Lawncare lunatics.

It's not quite the winter of my discontent, but I could use a dose of light therapy.  According to the statistics, today's sunrise was at 7:47 a.m., and sunset will be at 3:54 p.m.   Add mizzle to the equation, and it's a bit dreary.  One of my favorite songs is "Comeback (Light Therapy)" by Josh Rouse, and I finally see what he meant, living in Norway.  The bridge lyrics are stuck in my head:
I miss my seratonin
My days are going nowhere fast
I'm counting down until the longest day of the year, the winter solstice on Dec 21.  Sunrise will be at 8:04 a.m., and sunset at 3:53 p.m.  We have being this far north to thank, but luckily, the jet stream spares us from the drastic temperature swings of our fellow latitudinal dwellers.

If you've ever seen the Emma Thompson version of "Sense and Sensibility," one of my favorite characters is the Dashwood's littlest sister, Margaret.  She loved her atlas dearly, as does Chumley.  In fact, one of his pure joys in life is consulting the atlas, even though it is circa 1984 and the Balkans are all wonky.  It turns out we are almost on the 53rd parallel, roughly the same as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the Aleutian Islands, and Upper Mongolia.  Today's high is 44F here, but its a puny high of 24F in Saskatoon with snow showers.

I won't grouse too much because we are redeemed by endless summer.  On the summer solstice next June, sunrise is at 4:43 a.m., and sunset is at 9:22 p.m., although it is so slow, it will easily be very last light at 10:30 p.m.. Croquet until the cows come home!

My sunglasses are on standby.  As we are a transparent people, tanning is not an option.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Thanksgiving, Observed

As one of my most ambitious cultural experiments to date, I cooked a facsimile of Thanksgiving dinner for five all-British dining companions over the weekend.  As I have never actually dabbled in turkey myself, and now truly appreciate my mother for all the years of work she's amassed while entertaining us, it was somewhat daunting.  My mantra was, "It's just a large chicken."  Here was the menu:

Crudites with cream cheese chive dip
Fruit and nut mix
Mulled cider
Gingered cranberry pear sauce
Roast turkey breast
Turkey gravy
Honey glazed carrots
Green beans with bacon and shallots
Mashed sweet potatoes with a touch of maple syrup
Crockpot scallopped potatoes
Pillsbury croissants (what I would call crescent rolls)
Pumpkin banana mousse tart
Vanilla ice cream

As I typed that list, I suddenly realized what I had suspected all Friday and Saturday while doing as much ahead of time as I could: damn, that's a lot of food for six people.  I sent Evites and called it our "Totally Tremendous Thanksgiving."  Best not to disappoint, I thought.

I had no expectations of how the offerings would go down.  After a brief show-and-tell segment, the diners willingly queued at the sideboard.  Being somewhat of a foodie, I forgot decorum and got in line before some of my guests.  Whoops.  Overall, there were completely clean plates, both dinner and dessert.  I think the experience is best summed up in the words of the diners:

Re the fruit and nut mix:
Chumley: "What are those giant brown things in here?  They kind of look like turds. You can have those." 
Answer:  They were dates, Chumley.  Thanks for being so graphic.

Re Mulled cider:
Guest 1:  "That's quite quaffable.  What's in it?"
Answer:  Alcoholic cider, orange juice, clove, cinnamon sticks, oranges, a lemon, golden caster sugar.  Ed. note: the range of sugars here is mindboggling.

Re Gingered cranberry pear sauce:
Guest 2:  "I quite like the cranberry sauce.  It's not weird.  We have that, you know."
Guest 3:  "Guest 4 (her husband) has just dropped cranberry sauce all over the table.  Can't take him anywhere."  Ed. note:  the spot appeared next to Guest 3's water glass and while Guest 4 was still at the buffet.  I suspect a setup.

Re Roast turkey breast
Chumley: "Decent turkey, Claire."
Guests in unison (muffled): "Yes, very good."
Ed. note: documenary evidence supports these comments as none was left on plates and Guest 5 went up for seconds.

Re Turkey gravy
Guest 4 (commenting on my usage):  "We just pour it over everything."  Ed. note: he was behind me in line.  He looked hungry and is not a small man. 

Re Stuffing
Me: "I refused to roll it into little balls," commenting on the common English custom of serving balls of stuffing with a roast dinner.  Chaka Khan, man. This was Thanksgiving observed.

Re Green beans with bacon and shallots
Upon seeing a large pile of cooked bacon waiting in the kitchen, Chumley:  "Mmm.  Bacon." Starts reaching for a piece while doing Neanderthal impression until I shoo him away from meaty stack.
Guest five: "You mean shal-LOTTS!"  Ed note:  the emphasis is on the last syllable in British English. 

Re Mashed sweet potatoes with a touch of maple syrup
Guest 1: "I quite like the mash of yams, or sweet potatoes, or whatever."  Ed. note - no demerits issued for poor nomenclature.  I'm just happy they were adventurous enough to try them.

Re Crockpot scallopped potatoes
Chumley:  "Yes, they are ugly.  But they taste good."  Ed. note:  I would not make these again.  Mushrooms turned potatoes ugly brown, coupled with too much neurotic prep by me in cutting potatoes the day ahead without benefit of water submersion.  I was hoping their color would improve with cooking and soaking, but alas, no.  Rookie error.

Re Pillsbury croissants (what I would call crescent rolls)
Guest 5: "The only thing I was really surprised by in this dinner was the croissant."  Ed. note: Huh?  Scary dinner rolls jumping off the buffet at him?  Apparently, rolls with dinner were not customary to this diner.  This did not impede consuption, however.

Re Pumpkin banana mousse tart:
Chumley: "Hey.  Whoa.  I want that broken crust, please."  Ed. note: dessert was hard to cut, but crunchy faux graham cracker base is Chumley's favorite.  No luck in finding graham crackers, so had to substitute crushed digestive biscuits.  Chumley advised me away from hardcore pumpkin pie, so lighter, less squashy choice seemed well received.
Guest 5: "The crust is so crunchy!" Ed. note: Guest 5 appeared to have the same exuberance for cookie crusts as Chumley does.  He went up for seconds at dinner; otherwise, I think I might have forced another piece of tart down him.

Re Vanilla ice cream:
Me: "It's low fat... aw shit, who am I kidding?  That's like asking for a rum and diet coke.  Why bother?"

All in all, I deem it very successful and enjoyed the company of all dining companions.  Now Chumley gets to live through more of the authentic Thanksgiving experience: the recycling of the turkey.  Turkey noodle soup, anyone?

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Nevermind That Flesh Wound. How About a Nice Tea?

I've been hitting the book lately.  At least, the UK Highway Code.  Americans living in the UK have a year to drive on our US driver's license, but after the year, the party is over.  To continue the fun in our clown car, we'll need a full UK driving license. 

Getting a US license is a cakewalk compared to the rigors of UK licensure.  There's a theory test, and an accompanying hazard perception video where one sits at a touch screen and watches a scene, touching all the potential hazards that unfold.  If you pass this hurdle, you may proceed to the practical (driving test).  Most people take driving lessons, not to learn how to drive per se, but to learn how to pass this test. 

That said, I've been borrowing a friend's self-study CD, which includes a bank of actual exam questions.  See if you spot the same trend I do:

You arrive at the scene of a crash.  Soemone is bleeding badly from an arm wound.  There is nothing embedded in it.  What should you do?
1. Apply pressure over the wound and raise the arm.
2. Apply pressure over the wound and keep the arm down.
3. Dab the wound.
4. Get them a drink.

Now, consider this question:

You arrive at the scene of an accident.  It just happened and someone is injured.  Which three of the following should be given urgent priority?
1. Check their breathing is OK.
2. Clear their airway and keep it open.
3. Stop any severe bleeding.
4. Get them a warm drink.
5. Look for witnesses.
6. Take numbers of vehicles involved.

I suppose the first question's drink option could be interpreted as alcoholic and therefore appropriate for a Brit in distress, but I first inferred that this mystery drink of choice would be tea.  The examiners have dreamed up plausible and appealing English options for the multiple choice section, I see.  An American version might include "Call their personal injury attorney right away," so I am not at all offended by this more genteel option.  In fact, I can easily see an older injured person ignoring the blood and asking for an Earl Grey.  So much the better if there was a piece of cake involved.  And can I blame them?

I mentioned my amusement at the recurrent "tea option" to Chumley, who expressed no surprise whatsoever.  His exact comment was, "Claire!  Tea fixes everything!"  You'd think I'd have gotten it by now. 

I shall keep my faithful readers advised on my progress toward licensure.  And just in case, I'll keep a travel mug of tea at the ready when out motoring.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Getting Down With OAPs

In my relentless quest for beneficial daytime experiences, I decided to take a day off swimming my mile but wanted some form of exercise.  I have noted that a group of women I generally refer to as the gray-haired mafia completely book up a large number of the daytime exercise classes at our gym, but there was one opening left in this morning's aqua aerobics.  I know it is almost always booked full, so I hopped on the last slot.  An "OAP" is island lingo for Old Age Pensioner.  If you see them having tea and cake en masse in a particular venue, it generally bodes well for quality.  I applied the same analogy to aqua aerobics.

Former readers will know I am no stranger to aqua aerobics, having made the horrifying pink elephant discovery at a previous gym's version.  Apart from the urge to look away, that class itself was very good.  Just because aqua aerobics as an exercise genre is largely populated by older women does not mean the classes are feeble.  .

The instructor was a white-haired woman in reasonable shape.  Upon arrival, average age looked to be 60, but far worse was the sight of every one wearing a headband with little yellow ears attached.  I had forgotten that today is a nationwide fundraiser called Children in Need, which benefits the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London.  Their mascot is called Pudsey, and this group had taken the philanthropic spirit to a new and cheezy level.  I'm not much of a joiner when it comes to wearing hokey things - I used to struggle to put on my ID badge at work.  I also loathe hats, or anything on my head, for that matter.  But as I was the only one without ears, I succumbed to the groupthink and put a pair on.

The musical selection was a combination of remixed ABBA and every Beatles song ever written.  I didn't know it was possible to work "Eleanor Rigby" into a exercise mix, but I do now.  I very reluctantly participated, in half-gestures, when the entire class broke into "YMCA."  All in all, the class was pretty lame.  It was hard to justify going to the bother to change into a swimsuit and require a shower when I could have stayed home and learned to knit for the same calorie expenditure.  Regardless, I tried to make it as hard as possible for myself without getting too carried away and being branded "that young hooligan."  When the kegel exercises started, I knew this was pretty much a waterborne waste of time.

After class, I approached to gladly return my stupid sponge bear ears when the teacher approached me individually.  "Is this your first aqua aerobics class?" she inquired.  I immediately expected her to compliment my apparent aqua savant-ness, my perfect form, or suggest a higher intensity class.
"Oh, no," I replied.
"Well, the first rule of aqua aerobics is the gum.  Lose it!"
I was appalled, and mentally transported back to my elementary school library, where Mrs. Howsell  transformed sussing out the presence of chewing gum into a black art and issued ugly two-cent fines.  I stupidly stammered the truth - that I had forgotten it was in - but her bluntness was appalling.  I seethed and chomped even harder.  To think I had put on those stupid ears for this.  I was not thinking clearly enough to spit it out and offer it to her.

In hindsight, I don't regret my gum chewing.  I'm sure it produced my highest calorie burn of the hour.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Death by Rhubarb

Some people have irrational fears.  Some of these fears are stranger than others.  I am mostly paranoid of dogs.  Ages ago, a fellow co-worker of mine had Crock-Pot-O-Phobia, which is the fear of slow cookers.  This person would not only steer far away from Crock Pots at work potlucks, but shiver at the prospect of eating food that could have possibly been prepared in a Crock Pot.  She didn't seem to have the same phobia of electric skillets, however.  I did not probe her psyche further by taunting her with an electric wok or a fondue pot, but I assume the latter would set her off by its mere resemblance to a Crock Pot.  I called off  deeper analysis for lack of interest and made a mental note not to provoke emotional Chernobyl by bringing in my hot chilli-cheese dip in my Crockette, a Crock Pot's miniature cousin. 

I was having a snack in the kitchen some time back, when I offered Chumley a choice of yogurts.  To be fair, he won't touch my low-calorie ones, but instead prefers the Muller Fruit Corner, strawberry cheesecake variety if available.  In what I thought was an act of humanity, I felt like offering him all the choices available.  Our fridge contained several flavors, including rhubarb.  I did not expect what happened next.  Based on the gagging sounds, I wondered if administering the Heimlich was appropriate.  It turns out he was so perturbed at the mere thought of rhubarb, he sent himself into some sort of psychogenic epiglottal spasm.  All this for a vegetable. Based on that reaction and the glimmer of others at the mere mention of the word, we were not to speak of it again.

Rhubarb is a common flavor on the island, and lucky for me, I enjoy it.  But Chumley's extreme reaction would have been similar to what I would have done when presented with a puppy.  Had he been bitten by rhubarb as a child?  Forced to pick rhubarb in inhumane conditions?  Worked off college debt in a poorhouse that doubled as a rhubarb processing plant?  Try as I might to delve deeper, Chumley was clearly stalked by rhubarb for no apparent reason.  It was too bad, also.  I was planning on test driving a recipe for rhubarb fool.  Not only would I need epinephrine for him, but it would also give him a catchy little nickname to call me for a period no less than one week, if he could even say the word.  I would have to break up with rhubarb, or at least hide any food products it had "tainted" behind diet items in the refrigerator.  In case I ever needed Chumley repellant, I need only bind two rhubarb stalks together in a cross.  Could that be a new plot twist for the "Twilight" saga?

Just when I thought I had to stop seeing rhubarb, my birthday rolled around.  Chumley was a teenage gardener, and likes to dabble, so my presents were two peach trees and two rhubarb plants.  He even planted them for me, muttering something about how our estate (neighborhood) used to be gravel pits and he could see why.  What a guy.  I expected him to wear a clean suit, but garden gloves were adequate.  It's midway through November, and they plants are already leafing out.  I shall have to take my future rhubarb offerings to work, but for safety's sake, I'll leave my Crockette at home.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The English Excel at Remembrance

The Queen is on TV at Westminster Abbey at the moment to commemorate Armistice Day, which honors the end of World War I.  Today is also Veteran's Day in the States.  It doesn't quite have the pomp, but it is a national holiday, as my dad has the day off work.  England observes two minutes of silence at 11 a.m.... which I did.  Now I can tell you about the poppies, which came to symbolize the dead of World War I thanks to the poem, "In Flanders Fields."

People have been wearing little red, paper poppies since the middle of October, and most public places have a veteran selling them for the Royal British Legion, which is a charity that supports service personnel.  Chumley has purchased a number that I've found lying around the house.  Quite a few people out and about have been wearing them.  In fact, it would be a high crime to be seen without one if you happen to be a TV presenter.

Remembrance in general gets a bit more attention in Britain than in the U.S., which I find surprisingly refreshing.  It's made news that the last three WWI veterans living in the UK have passed away, at the ages of 108, 111, and 113.  The only British veteran left is 108 and living in Australia.  BBC is full of documentaries and programs that have a war theme.  An especially interesting one on at the moment is "Coal House at War", which takes three Welsh families and imposes the living conditions of 1944 England.  The children were carrying around little wooden boxes that I naively thought were lunch boxes, but instead they were gas masks.  A lady got fined 15 shillings for not adhering to the blackout laws.  Ouch.

I enjoy these reality shows instead of the brain rot-inducing likes of "Big Brother" and its progeny.  One of my all-time favorites was "Regency House Party," a Channel 4 series that aired on U.S. PBS in 2004.  It took eligible and prosperous young men, young women of means and without means, and assigned them a chaperone.  They also cast the roles of servants and head butler with modern people. The goal was for the chaperones to make a suitable match before a summer-long house party was over, but while adhering to the Regency rules of dating.  Call me nerdy, but I was riveted.  I even went home early from a date so I wouldn't miss an episode.  How can you go wrong with epidose synopses like these?  As the end of the party approaches old quarrels rise to surface and the chaperones fall out in spectacular style by throwing the fine china at each other.  My favorite part was when the estate hired a professional hermit to live in a hut on the property and scare people.  Genius.

In any event, I will be a bit sad to see the poppies put away, especially because they are lovely to see growing wild in the fields.  It's also nice to see such a universal respect for a worthy cause.

Monday, 9 November 2009

What Happened to This Guy?

This past week, I've been hearing the pop of the occasional backyard fireworks display in honor of Guy Fawkes Day (or Bonfire Night), which was Nov. 5.  It's an interesting holiday in that it celebrates the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a mercenary from York named Guy Fawkes (also known as Guido from his days fighting in Spain) was found on a tip in the cellars below Parliament with a smidge of gunpowder.  Maybe 36 barrels is more than a smidge. It seems the Catholic Guy and a dozen of his closest friends were tired of being put down by the Protestand Elizabeth I, and when her successor James I didn't really treat them any better, the thirteen decided that the best way of dealing with their disgruntledness was to torch Parliament altogether.  He was found thanks to a tip, and was ultimately hung, drawn, and quartered.  He managed to avoid maximum torture by taking a dive off the scaffold and breaking his neck early in the process, so he wouldn't survive the short hanging and being disemboweled alive.  How sensible. Every year at the opening of Parliament, there's a ceremonial check of the cellars just to rule out any explosives enthusiasts.

To those intrigued by turns of phrase, "guy" is an eponym - a word based on a real person.  Guy Fawkes was the original "guy."  The term "guy" used to carry more baggage than it does today.  In memory of the big boom that wasn't, children began to make and display grotesque effigies of Guy to burn on a bonfire.  In Britain, "guy" used to mean a man displaying odd dress or behavior, but the weirdo connotation was eventually lost.  Now they're burning effigies of Katie Price on their bonfires.  That's progress.

On Saturday evening, we drove by one of the largest bonfires I've seen in years, visible for at least a mile at night.  After getting worn out by thinking of the sheer number of hot dogs that fire would roast, I was trying to think of comparable celebrations. It's odd to declare a country-wide celebration dedicated to something that didn't happen.  The only failed plot in my recent memory was the attempt to blackmail David Letterman about sleeping with a number of his staff.  I'm sure to him, the mere foiling deserves a holiday.  Maybe he could bring a chiminea onstage and burn his little black book. He shouldn't get too enthused, though, or his wife could hang, draw, and quarter him for high treason.  It would get ratings, I think. 

Too bad for traditionalists - American Haloween seems to be edging out Guy.  I think I would prefer a gobstopper to a firecracker myself, but that's a matter between me and Weight Watchers.

Monday, 2 November 2009

A Teeny Halloweeny

If today is All Soul's day, I'm going to boldly declare that we are still within the "Halloween Trifecta" and answer an inquiry from one gentle reader:

So Claire, what do they do for our American pumpkin holiday over there across the pond?

Tread lightly, oh gentle reader, before stepping into a colonial quagmire!  I spied a provocative couple of words in your query, specifically our American. I'm afraid it is not ours to claim, but we have merely borrowed it, made it bigger, and loaded it with artificial flavors and preservatives. 

If you trust Wikipedia on the subject, then "[it is] more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain or Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)".[2] The name is derived from Old Irish and means roughly "summer's end".[2] A similar festival may have been held by the ancient Britons, corresponding to the Welsh festival of Calan Gaeaf (pronounced kalan-geyf). It is arguable that similar festivals may have been held at this time by all those people for whom Druids were the priesthood."  Those wacky Druids.  First Stonehenge, now this! 

I, too, didn't know quite what to expect, as this is my first Halloween here.  A park adjacent to our house was hosting fireworks, but that was to celebrate the upcoming Bonfire Night, which deserves a separate post once the true date rolls around.  I was able to confirm that in some parts, troops of kids in fancy dress (costumes) would be going door to door thanks to my new font of cultural enrichment, my weekly Weight Watchers meeting.

"So Claire, what will you be handing out to the trick or treaters?" the meeting leader suddenly asked me.  Since I had readily confessed to copious Cheetos consumption and still lost 5 pounds the previous week, I was an easy target.  My mind went blank.  Doh!  What was the correct answer?  Was this a trick question? I hated being wrong in class.  Must deflect with joke, I thought.  Quickly...

I spouted the first thing that came to mind.  "Six-packs and fried eggs?"

The cricket chirping silence was miserable.  I guess the Coneheads Halloween special on Saturday Night Live doesn't translate.  Ugh.

It was a safe bet that we wouldn't have many trick or treaters in our estate (neighborhood), as Chumley and I bring the average age down by about thirty years.  The most likely candidate would be our next door neighbor, who is 91.  Judging by the wafts of air coming from the house if I'm standing on her porch, her favorite treat would be a pack of smokes.  Being the childless killjoys that we are, Chumley suggested we go to dinner and a movie instead of cowering with the lights off, candy and cigarette-free.

For the record, I did bother to decorate this year with my pumpkin candy bowl (empty, thanks to WW), witch candle, realistic yet useless light-up plastic jack-o-lantern (it's got a US plug) and my miniature Halloween tree.  "It's festive!" I heard my decor-happy mother chant in my head.  I'm afraid Chumley has dragged me down a bit in festivity tolerance levels when it comes to trick or treaters.  I'm recalling the incident of Halloween 2006, when I held girlfriend status and happened to be on the phone with him during trick or treat prime time.  In the middle of the conversation, the usually mild Chumley bellowed into my ear:

"Piss off, you little scamps!"

I gasped with disgust.  "Look, you just can't treat the neighbor kids that way!"  This was a good time to take stock of our relationship.

"I gotta go, Claire."  Dead air.

He rang me back shortly, while I was already working on my "this just isn't working out" speech.  As loyal readers know, Chumley is tidy, and his comment was apparently provoked by the two giant racoons he spied dashing across his lawn, his garbage bag in their mouths.  Thank god.  It was too much to think such a young man could really be that crotchety.

As we drove to the restaurant, we spied a handful of lit jack-o-lanterns, and a few mobs of kids in costume going door-to-door.  We also saw an older group of girls, one in particular dressed as a tarty barmaid and drinking an unknown substance enthusiastically from a glass. It was barely 50F and she was mostly bare. 

"Look at that!  She's got a drink in her hand!" I mused aloud.  I'm still fascinated by the fact that public possession of alcohol is perfectly legal, for the most part.

"She would have needed a few drinks to wear that outfit," Chumley quipped.

True to their polite form, there was no aftermath to speak of around our parts.  No smashed pumpkins or egged houses.  In fact, Chumley reported that signs in the local shops said they would not be selling eggs or flour to children below a certain age in the leadup to Halloween.  It looks like the worst aftermath was the massive inconvenience for those pint-sized bakers out there.

Confidential to mom from the sugar junkie: Would you be so kind as to send candy corn in the next shipment?  I crave it, and it doesn't translate.  Another dissapointing discovery: candy apples are covered in hard, boiled sugar like giant, organic lollipops. I miss the caramel ones.  Speaking of caramel,  I also wonder how many Weight Watchers points are in the king size 100 Grand bar?  Too many to bother counting...

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Quest for Coziness

People here are burying their nuts for winter, though it hasn't come close to freezing yet.  I'm not really seeing the source of their anxiety, given that it's almost November and today's high will be 61F.  But rest assured, they think doom looms from under the drafty door.  How can I tell?  I was walking though a shopping center yesterday and happened upon the most impressive display of decorative and functional hot water bottles I've ever seen.  By my recollection, I last saw a hot water bottle sometime in the early '80s.  There must have been at least 40 different varieties for the chronically chilly to choose from.  My favorite are the faux fur sorts.
In case you think the Paris Hilton range is a bit too woofty (translated candy ass) and you need a manlier model, consider this edgy specimen, just in time for Halloween:

I'm not quite sure how most people use these.  Do they snuggle up to their skull and crossbones at night?  Are they especially handy to take the edge off that chilly car ride?  Or are they just an excuse to carry a personal hot water supply for tea at all times?  I've been assured that the level of complaints about the cold will steadily rise as the temperature drops. 

Come on now, people.  What ever happened to stiff upper lip and an extra jumper (sweater)?  Or how about a nice lap cat?  To give an example of how comparatively lovely the climate is, Chumley has just purchased a peach tree for my birthday, and the lady at the garden center assured me it would be absolutely fine in a clay pot over the winter.  Seriously!  It's practically Italy!  Back in the American midwest, the only thing we could grow over winter in pots was an icicle.

I don't think I'll be able to convince the English of how good they have it.  Even their hot water bottles get a bit chilly sometimes.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Pump it Up, But Don't Drink the Water

This past weekend, Chumley and I were fortunate enough to be invited to a splendid wedding and reception in the town Cheltenham, which is a few hours east of us in the Cotswolds.  It's a spa town with the last and best pump room of the Regency era.  Think Jane Austen.  But before I selected my empire gown, the first order of business was for me to learn how to pronounce our destination in a way that did not resemble an order at the butcher's counter.  Chumley deftly filled the role of my elocution coach.
"CHHHHHHHHHHelt - num!" I would spout after several seconds of deep thought.

"No, no, you're attacking it," he would reply, trying to stifle the giggles inevitably elicited when those folksy Americans try pronouncing localities with no less than five silent letters.  I just laugh at Welsh, by the way.  "Try again."

Soon, I began saying CHELT-num as an impromptu curse word around the house.  I couldn't seem to edit out the rage.  After months of random CHELT-nums in the car, during dinner, and whispered at the movies, I got a "very good!" from Chumley and the feeling that I just might have it down.

I have now been to five English weddings, including my own.  By no means am I expert, but I would consider myself a well-practiced observer.  I associate English weddings with hats.  I myself avoid hats as I just know they make my head look fat.  On others, however, they can be quite slimming - especially when the size of the hat virtually dwarfs its wearer.  I also enjoy donning a clean suit and going on fascinator watch.  A fascinator is basically a small spaceship that has run into a bird of some sort on its way to earth, eventually touching down on a woman's head.  They are appropriate for weddings and horse races.  They do serve their intended purpose - I do find them fascinating, especially when several women are wearing them in close orbit.  I would not be surprised to find crop circles at the salad bar. To be honest, as with a close alien encounter, they freak me out. 

The reception was held at the Pittville Pump Rooms, a depressing sounding but truly magnificent venue built in 1825.  For your reference, Jane Austen died in 1817, so the style of the architecture would have been similar to where they've filmed movie versions of many of her novels.  Cheltenham was a spa town that grew fashionable after the locals noticed a flock of pidgeons that hung out at a particular spring-fed puddle seemed to live long and prosper.  This was in the eighteenth century, so it couldn't have been the stray chip that sustains them today.  People began to "take the waters," and ultimately, Mr. Pitt of Pittville fame built his Pump Room after George III visited in 1888 and really got the place hopping.  Thanks to the building code equivalent of Botox, the Pump Room and the entire town are in a remarkable state of preservation.

Despite the opportunity to be authentic, I eschewed the empire waist gown concept but still remained on Mr. Darcy-watch.  No lambchop sideburns, but a lovely roast beef dinner instead.  English wedding cake is traditionally a fruit cake surrounded by a layer of marzipan and fondant icing, and I managed to breathe deeply and wedge a piece down.  I was not so keen, however, to partake of the spa water, the Pump Room's raison d'etre, but a hideous surprise for those in the know.

Back in the days I was young and enthusiastic, I visited the Pump Room at Bath.  I was bowled over by the Roman Spa, and my joy continued into the Pump Room dining area, where a dandy dressed in Regency garb taunted me with a glass of water drawn from the hot springs, full of "43 vitamins and minerals."  At the bargain tourist rate of two pounds per glass (insert sardonic wit here) I was swept up by the fancy fish fountain dispenser and sudden thirst.  I coughed up the money, but then choked on the water that tasted like a warm, rotten egg.  I avoided a public spit take and, in fact, drained my glass out of spite.  It was probably a good thing that I sat alone on the bus ride home.  The fury and fumes would have been overwhelming.

The Pittville Pump Room still has its operational and recently refurbished pump house, or more simply hot water tap in an ornate marble closet.  I was much too occupied with the delicious mulled wine being served instead, which was clearly kept well away from the spa water. 

My lessons learned are that some wedding truths are universal.  A drunk person will attempt to engage you in conversation.  You may be trapped by a close talker.  In fact, these people may be one in the same.  Bad kids may run amuck, albeit breifly. Most importantly, there will be cake, Darcy or no Darcy.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Chew on This

I was reading a local interest magazine when I learned that our city has been chosen as one of 15 local areas to take part in the Keep Britain Tidy Chewing Gum Action campaign.  (For my non-UK readers, the word "tidy" gets used a lot in England.  It is certainly a very desirable state of being, especially for Chumley.)  To be clear, no one like sitting or stepping in gum.  But one man's defacement is another man's art - the picture at right is considered a piece of "folk art" in Charleston, South Carolina.  Yes, I can see a lot of tenderness and TMJ went into this work.  The value of the Dubble Bubble used alone has to be $10 or so.

Someone must have alerted the local authorities I have arrived.  It is not a rumor - I am indeed the 1981 Illinois State Fair Bubble Yum Bubble Gum bubble blowing champion.  I was not yet six years of age at the time -- use the term "prodigy" if you must.  I later expanded my oeuvre/carnie skills to blowing a bubble within a bubble within a bubble.  Like the Olympics, once that feat was achieved, where else was there to go?

Thanks to training by my tidy mother, I have always thrown my gum away in bins (the trash), or swallowed it if desperate. I only once used it to deface property.  I'm specifically recalling the ordeal around age 6 where I fell asleep with gum in my mouth.  My mother woke me in the morning and discovered, much to her horror, a massive gob firmly embedded in my long, flowing hair that had also won the 1981 Illinois State Fair prize for longest ponytail in age group.  Let my readers glean that gum chewing and hair growing are not necessarily good hobbies to pursue in tandem.  After what I recall as a major flap involving moaning, hand-wringing, and the desperate but ineffectual use of peanut butter and ice cubes, she schlepped me over to my grandma's to see if the kid oracle might have the solution.  Nope.  I had a major hunk of hair missing for a few months, but I don't seem to recall minding.  It didn't interfere with my gum chewing schedule.

Our local city is concerned with a number of "gum hot spots."  The amount of gum in these areas will be measured and cleaned over the next three months.  I pity the poor soul who gets that job assignment.  Is his official title "Council Gobstopper?" Do they measure by ruler, or merely by volume of waddage?  Lest you think I am joking, the official website is

I believe I have a solution.  My mother combined her love of cute arts and crafts and tidiness by buying me what is known as a gum parker.  My first one had a little baseball mitt in glazed ceramic, dutifully displayed on my dresser.  When full, the gob of gum saved looked like a colorful baseball in the mitt, or in my case a basketball.  I tended to chew as much as my mouth could hold.  I upgraded years later to the model below, which our moving man recently unearthed in our kitchenware.  Isn't that where you would keep your gum parker?  The man seemed stumped, but that could have been his expression for grossed out.

In sum, I think personal gum parkers are the answer.  It would save quite a few man hours currently devoted to all this unauthorized parking.

To be fair, Chumley abhors my gum parker and everything it stands for.  Nevermind him.  And I thought he was all for recycling?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Instant Korma's Going to Get You

Hello again, fair readers.  After a regretable week's absence from the blog, I join you once more with a shiny, new Packard Bell and a renewed sense of computing reliability.  Our new PC is black, which is appropriate considering we mourn our old Compaq.  We have held the funeral, but have yet to dispose of the body.  This whole situation has the trappings of Jacko's demise.  We're not sure when the results of the post-mortem will be released.  We remember the Compaq with both nostalgia for its brilliant moments (creating UK-sized passport photos out of our own flattering pictures) and bewilderment with its strange behavior in its last days.  All it wanted to do was sleep.  I don't believe any charges will be pressed against its incompetent medical staff, however.

As promised, I thought I would give my impressions of recently joined English Weight Watchers.  I have no experience with American Weight Watchers, but of another "fat club" instead, so perhaps there are culturally significant differences to discuss.

My meeting is held in an old stately manor house converted to a Best Western Hotel.  I had to mind my head on an original stone, gothic arch as I trekked to the meeting room.  They had less to eat in those days, so perhaps the atmosphere is supportive from a historical point of view.  I doubt there was a concept such as "low-fat" in the 17th century.  Maybe they got activity points from lively games of croquet on the grounds, which are a sprawling 20 acres.

My entire reason for joining is to pound the brakes on steady weight gain accelleration (as aggravated by the foods discussed in prior postings).  I haven't mentioned my unsettling hobby of finding very tasty ready meals (mostly Indian) in the marked-down bins at Tesco and hording them in the freezer for future Chumley-friendly dinners.  Indeed, instant korma has gotten me up a few pounds.  Enter gothic dieting.

My first meeting was a good experience, especially after I pinpointed the source a soft but steady crunching noise.  I had heard the place had a ghost or two, but the meeting was not advertised as "scare your way thin."  Everyone in the meeting was crunching bags of crisps and chips after they had weighed in.  Our astute leader was selling them at a little kiosk in the back of the room, which could be viewed both as entrapment for the perennially hungry and a brilliant stroke of business acumen.  I did wonder if this activity was a bit counterproductive.  They were eating with gusto.

I am happy to report success so far, despite snarfing an entire box of diet chocolate covered toffee bars procured from the "crack shack" at last week's meeting.  The entire box was 7 1/2 points, and I was trying to blend with the natives by partaking of their weight loss rituals.  I have valid sociological reasons for such snarfing.

Post script confidential to J and ST:  I lost 5 pounds despite eating the entire bag of Cheetos you sent.  They were my lunch one day, and I have never been so happy to be covered in fake neon cheese powder.  Wotsits here just aren't the same.  I am forever in your debt.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

I've Got a Nut on a String

I should have known something was brewing.  The usually mild Chumley had made a habit out of scouring the grounds under horse chestnut trees lately, looking for conkers (buckeyes in American.)  Like a large child, he would silently sidle up to me and hand me a conker, smile wryly, and then carry on his business.  "But we have nuts at home," I protested.  "No, you're here with me at the moment," he would reply.  I was thoroughly confused.  Did he want me to put it in my purse?  Was it mine, or was I merely the custodian?  Were we to keep these as offerings to the mystical killer squirrels that might cross our path later?

All was made clear when we attended the World Conker Championships in a miniscule village called Ashton last weekend.  It was held in a large field, and the first thing we saw upon arrival was a massive conker on a string, suspended from a crane.  Conkers is actually a game, where the participants select nuts that have been drilled and strung through out of a nutbag.  The object of the game is to take turns wailing on your opponent's stationary nut on a string.  The first person to crack the other person's nut wins.

Conkers fans are not a subdued bunch, by any means.  It's common to coalesce conker talent into teams, and to dress your team members in the most unusual costumes possible.  One team came as the many looks of Michael Jackson.  I watched Michael from the "Bad" album go to town on some poor kid in neon yellow leggings.  Despite the chilly autumn weather, I spied one team of men in thin capes and stripey Speedo underwear.  As the competition wore on, their nuts were devastated.

In this safety-first country, I am sometimes surprised at what passes for a good idea.  They had a miniature mechanical bull meant for children to be flung from.  A succession of children lined up for the privilege, only to be tossed off and reduced to tears afterwards.  Had they not just seen the precedent set by their fellow youth?  Luckily, they were located very nearby the hot chocolate booth.  One sugary drink and a trip to the bouncy castle later, they were back in the saddle.

We have a small collection of conkers on our dining room table, thanks to Chumley's trolling efforts.  We might have enough to launch our own miniature tournament.  If you ask Chumley, there's no need to adjudicate who is the nuttiest. 

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

English Culinary Haiku

Just to ensure my fair readers don't tire of nonstop narrative, I've decided to branch out with a few little creative works I can use during the performance art segment of my first Weight Watcher's meeting on Thursday. (Don't they have a performance art segment?  I can see the downsides: most artists in this school would pick baking as their chosen medium.) I digress.

Diet shot to hell
Granary bread is toasting
Toffee's just like crack


Custard on the hob
Feeling like a giant blob
Gym clothes way too tight

That's it.  I'm afraid the gravy train of good living has crashed, and I've got to climb back on the first wagon I find, to mix transportation metaphors.  I've been to a weight loss group (I called it "Fat Club") back in the States, so I'm interested to see how the vibe is different.  My last experience was high in entertainment value: stories of slip-ups on sliders at Burger King, confessions of emotional baking, and laments about how lardy one felt after consuming an entire pound of grapes.  (OK, that last one was me, and grapes were on the program.) 

I'll keep you posted.  Until then, I'm looking for a word that rhymes with "shortcrust pastry."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

When One Door Closes, a Flesh Wound Opens

It was late at night and all I wanted was to go to sleep as quickly as possible.  I didn't bother to turn on another set of lights after flicking the kitchen light off.  After a sufficient amount of time, I knew how to navigate in the dark down a hallway to get to the bedroom.  Or so I thought.  The sound my lethargic body made colliding with an unexpected closed door was a cringe-inducing thud, followed by some expletive I couldn't catch on its way out. 

Chumley was at it again.

For those of you who might ever live in an English house, let me substitute my pain for yours by filling you in on a quirky yet important factoid.  English houses have many doors, and their inhabitants aren't afraid to use them.

I'll explain.  This little domestic issue between us started back in the States, when we got married and I moved to his 1920's era house, complete with a few more doors than most American homes had.  There, the doors were nice and hollow, so they made a cheery ball-cracking-a-baseball-bat sound when my forehead hit them in the middle of the night.  He explained that English homes have radiators, and it's helpful to close doors to keep the heat in.  I reminded him that his American house had a furnace and forced-air heat, so no door closures were necessary.  I inspected the toes on my right foot for broken bones and forgot the matter...

Until last night. English homes have doors that separate every major room, as well as hallways.  Yes, I think closing them makes a difference when the radiators are on, but not enough to risk being body-checked at 1:30 am when I get up and forget Chumley has been on rounds.  I'm sure he would appreciate an advent calendar with all the doors permanently closed.  I reported my injuries to his complaint desk, but it was closed, too. 

Monday, 5 October 2009

Tatoo, Too Much

There I was, fiddling with my floatie belt in a somewhat geriatric-populated water aerobics class when I spied a large, dark pink splotch on the shoulder blade of a woman who had acquired a certain patina, shall we say.  She looked 70 if she was a day, so I pitied the poor soul, who had probably undergone an unpleasant laser treatment or skin biopsy for an affliction ending in "oma."   The instructor called out to paddle into a circle formation during the last minute of "Disco Inferno," and I found myself bobbing behind the "oma."  Imagine my surprise to find that upon closer scrutiny, her affliction was a recently inked pink elephant that took up far too much real estate on her left shoulder blade.  I looked away, but not in time.  She sloshed on and splashed me in the face with her floaty water dumbell.  At least I was blinded and spared from further visual assault.

I cannot help but notice the prevalence and social acceptance of tatoos in the UK.  They don't carry nearly the stigma of the docks as they do in the U.S.  My gentle readers by now can figure out by now that of the two schools of thought on tatoos, I am firmly enrolled in Anti Tramp Stamp U.  Not only are they permanent signs of a temporary fancy, but what sounds like a fine idea in youth after a few drinks in time turns into a shapeless blob.  I mean the tatoo, not its wearer.  I met a gentleman just yesterday who looked perilously close to retirement, but the tatoos all up and down his forearms should have retired years ago.  One blob looked like a ladies handbag.  Could he have foreseen or wanted that effect?  There is probably a course in psychological training where one can interpret deep issues by staring into amoebic tatoos on pensioners.

I knew a girl in college who was particularly proud of a small Kermit the Frog she had gotten tatooed just above her hip bone.  Aside from the subject matter, it was at least in a place not visible, and small.  Women with tatoos that I've personally observed seem obsessed with showing the world their poor judgement.  A girl pouring drinks at a pub turned to get a bottle as I noticed she had prominently displayed bat wings tatooed on her back.  Aren't there easier and cheaper ways to look like Satan's minions?

In sum, down with tramp stamps, regardless of your nationality.  If this is the land of the tea cozy, why can't some gran knit a tatoo cozy?  I know it won't be the lady sporting the pink elephant.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Lizzie, Get Your Gun

As the days turn a bit colder, or "fresher" as the BBC weatherpeople like to say, so begins my first experience with radiators and Cox's Orange Pippin.  I'm afraid the former came with our house, but we purchased a small Mercedes full of these fine apples at Sandringham, the royal family's Christmas hangout and modest hunting lodge. 

Perhaps I should just come clean with all of my dear readers right away: I am a fruit fiend with no desire to seek therapy. While others may have ventured to Sandringham for the lovely gardens or opportunity to tour yet another royal residence, my main purpose in making the trek was to load my vehicle with as many pippins from the Royal Orchards as it could hold.  If my aunt once filled a Buick with shoes when moving house, surely a few hundred apples through the back hatch would be a Victoria sponge cakewalk.   It would not do to confess this mission to Chumley right away, as he would have perceived it as a terrorist plot and labeled me as crazier than I already am, if that's even possible.

Under the guise of me as a mild-mannered foreign tourist, we embarked.  First things first, though.  I was at the wheel when I saw the signs for royal pick your own.  (Do the royals pick their own?) After leaving a small dust cloud as I aggressively turned off the main road, I ambled down the sandy lane surrounded by woods, following the "PYO" signs like a fox, and feeling the adrenaline rush at the prospect of so much fruit in one place.  To my utter devastation, the orchards were closed until 1 p.m., and it was only 11:30.  I felt like Clark W. Griswald marooned at Wallyworld.  After throttling the steering wheel in disappointed rage, I suppose we had to take the house tour until the loading dock opened.  Based on his alarmed reaction, I think Chumley was starting to catch on.

Sandringham the house is not an overly large royal home -- a mere drop in the fountain compared to Buckingham Palace.  A large array of Asian armor and various pointy metal objects were artfully splayed across many walls, and Chumley noticed that he did not find the deadly objects to be particularly well secured.  Motivated once more by our fear of Interpol, we decided this theory was best left untested. 

We arrived in a room devoted to the display of many guns under glass, as well as artistic renderings of the Queen holding up a pheasant she'd recently shot.  Her expression was particularly happy, much happier than the group shots of her and the house's staff from 1979.  Granted, if I were wearing that much polyester, I'd find it hard to smile, too.

The culumnation of the house's sporty theme was in a separate museum, which devoted a wing to the exotic game trophies of kings past.  I couldn't help but look into the glass eyes of various mounted stuffed heads and wonder if they were on remote controls for use around Haloween.  Some of the lions were stuffed in particularly rageful poses, which I recognized from my experience earlier that day at the empty orchard car park.

We found an obliging garden shop with pre-bagged orchard apples, and I whimpered enough to get Chumley to buy me the economy bag plus one for good measure.  Of course, I was expected to keep up my end of the bargain, and in thanksgiving, promptly baked a blackberry and apple crumble, with a smattering of custard.  As I've decided to be truthful, I might as well confess that I'm not making crumble at all, but the more American apple crisp topping with oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs.  An American friend commented to me, and rightly so, that all the pub crumbles she's tried have been rather dry. I can't help but agree, as I got the urge to dig through one memorable specimen with a garden spade instead of my dessert spoon.  When concealed with the magical condiment of Ambrosia low-fat Devon custard, my ruse is complete.

So far, this conspiracy has remained undetected.