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?