The Thrifty Fictionista Feels Nostalgic…

“Out on the islands that poke their rocky shores above the waters of Penobscot Bay, you can watch the time of the world go by, from minute to minute, hour to hour, from day to day . . .”

These are the opening lines of the Thrifty Fictionista’s favourite picture book, one I have loved since I was a child: Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder. Telling the story of a girl and her younger sister spending their summer holidays on an island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, it follows them as they explore the natural world around them. They swim, they sail, they laze in the sun — they even survive a hurricane that blows in one night.

I still love everything about that book: the beauty of the painted illustrations, the cadence of the sentences, every last carefully chosen word. I often wished, when I was little, that I could go on holidays just like the girls in the book, even though I lived on the other side of the world from Maine.

Like the girls in the book, I spent a lot of time on boats when I was a kid. My grandfather, who had served in the navy, was never one to be without some kind of seafaring craft, so my brother and I enjoyed time on a succession of yachts, one of which had sailed the Sydney to Hobart race multiple times, and later on an old Halvorsen cruiser. The sights, sounds and smells of moorings and marinas still make me happy.

What reminded me of Time of Wonder most recently, however, was something equally nostalgic, but completely unexpected. I was watching M*A*S*H with my kids (having got them hooked on that golden oldie after they had watched so many episodes of Brooklyn 99 I thought I was going to scream), and we came to the part of Series 5 when Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan gets engaged to Lt Colonel Donald Penobscott — and at the first mention of his name, there I was: right back in the middle of Penobscot Bay, exploring the Time of Wonder island and all its natural wonders.

At the moment, all I would like to do is dive between the pages of my old, battered copy of Time of Wonder and relive it all once again. Or even the shiny new copy I got for my own kids when they were old enough to read it.

But, since we’re in the process of building our house, that dear old book is somewhere in storage, along with many other treasured possessions of the paged variety. It has been hard not having my book “friends” around for the past nine or ten months, but now that build is drawing to close up stage I am itching to get my fingers on volumes I have wished for while living here in our tiny rental.

The Thrifty Fictionista could not do with out ALL her books, however — so old favourites and new have found there way up the 49 steps to our front door. Anna Karenina is here, rubbing shoulders with Lolita and Dorian Gray, and even The Once and Future King. There are books by authors whose writing I can’t live without: Helen Garner, Trent Dalton, Ed Ayres, Ursula Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantel, Anne Lamott. And there are cookbooks, of course, too, thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigella Lawson, Poh Ling Yeow and Annabel Crabb.

Before too long, however, it will be time for us to pack these few books that did wend their way up all those stairs into boxes and take them to our new house. In Time of Wonder the girl is a little bit sad about the place she’s leaving, a little bit glad about the place she’s going to. The Thrifty Fictionista, on the other hand, is a little bit impatient to get out of the place I’m leaving, and tremendously excited about the place I’m going to — not least because it will have a library.

There will be space for books, space to watch endless re-runs of M*A*S*H, space to cook and space to dream, and even space to wonder where hummingbirds go in a hurricane.

And I can’t wait.

Dinner with Nigella

Cookbooks...the joyous combination of words and food.

Cookbooks…the joy of combining words and food.

Those of you who follow this blog with any regularity will know of my Holy Trinity of First Principles: words, music and food.

These are my three main sources of nourishment, and without their sustaining, inspiring and stabilising presence in my life I would probably end up in jail or in what used to be called (in the good old days of political incorrectness) a lunatic asylum.

But those of you who know me personally will know that there’s another thing that I am slightly obsessed by — planning.  Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m one of those people who loves lists. Particularly of the old-fashioned hand-written variety, the kind that can be crossed off with flourish and flair.

I am also, I’ll confess, a bandit for spreadsheets, tables, and — more recently — menu plans. And when the menu planning mood strikes me, I find there is nothing more pleasurable than sitting down with a couple of old friends and working out what my family and I will eat for dinner for the next month.

Nigella...the original domestic goddess.

Nigella…the original domestic goddess.

Technically speaking, they’re not ‘friends’ at all, they’re cookbooks: the tried and trusted tomes I turn to when when my soul’s kitchen needs re-stocking.  But when I’m happily ensconced at the dining room table with a pile of cookbooks beside me, it begins to feel like Nigella and Jamie are my friends (obviously…after all, we’re on a first name basis here).  Similarly, the likes of Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer feel like neighbours who pop their heads over the back fence to chat about what’s growing in their veggie patches, while Yotam Ottolenghi — whose latest volume I have only recently acquired — feels like an exciting new acquaintance who I want to get to know a whole lot better.

Seriously — what’s not to love about cookbooks?  They’re where words and food collide, with delectable results.

Cookbooks are also packed with beautiful photographs, enticing recipes and, more frequently in this age of the celebrity chef, introductory pieces that allow the author’s passion for creating delicious food with locally sourced, seasonal produce to shine through. I suspect I find Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver particularly accessible because their cookbooks read like the television scripts they no doubt once were, and I can hear their voices in my head as I read the (sometimes pithy, occasionally rambling) comments that preface each of the recipes in their books. They don’t just make me feel hungry, they make me want to cook.

Jamie: what's not to love about this guy?

Jamie: what’s not to love about this guy?

I am equally inspired by food memoirs, especially Ruth Reichl’s widely-acclaimed trilogy of her lifelong journey with food. In my opinion, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the TableComfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise are all well worth a read. Novels that include recipes for dishes cooked by the characters also fill me with joy — but I suspect that may be the topic of another blogpost altogether.

To be honest, I think I’m a better cook when I’ve sat down with my culinary ‘friends’, or even when I’ve simply been side-tracked by a recipe when I’m looking for something else entirely.  I know I’m definitely more willing to try new things in the kitchen afterwards, despite the fact that I have been known to tune out the kids clamouring for their evening meal over the top of the television blaring the Octonauts theme just because my attention has been entirely captured by a new way of cooking with chorizos…or artichokes…or tangellos…or any number of other ingredients.

It's pretty simple, really...

It’s pretty simple, really…

And, notwithstanding such lapses of maternal attention, my kids are developing a great relationship with food, not doubt partly because I am interested in what I am cooking for them and because I willingly express my love for fresh, local produce. They are eager to try new dishes and to have a crack at cooking too, and are particular fans of purple carrots, pomegranates and many other fruits and vegetables I had never heard of when I was a child.

Needless to say, I’m running out of space in my kitchen for all my cookbooks, much to my chagrin. Even so, I find it hard resist the siren song of a new volume culinary inspiration, despite my lack of cupboard space and my husband’s (probably well-founded) dismay.

But I do know this: sticking to my First Principles is good for my health — mentally, physically, and spiritually — and, by extension, it is good for my family’s health too. So my argument (and believe me, I’m sticking to it) is this: if I splurge ever now and then on a cookbook, everybody benefits.

And besides, if my habit of making friends with cookbooks continues, I’m sure we could renovate the kitchen…

Fudge and the Foo Fighters

My nerves have been a little jangled lately.

Perhaps it’s the slightly manic time of year.  Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop have been veering wildly — and not always simultaneously — from being whingey and tired to such dizzying heights of raucous excitement (provoked, no doubt, by the impending arrival of a certain Mr S Claus) that I have already instituted a household-wide ban on the consumption of candy canes.  The Bloke is trying to get it all done before the office shuts down over the holidays, all while contending with the whirl of Christmas parties that is now in full (and sometimes drunken) swing.  I’ve been making and revising endless lists and menus and timetables in preparation for hosting The Big Day for the second year running thanks to my brother’s late-running house renovations, and trying to recall exactly where I have stashed all those presents…

Or maybe it’s the weather.  The drooping humidity.  The cracking thunderstorms that have rolled through from the west every day or night for the past week, jarring me out of sweaty slumber into an electrified state of high alert: will the kids sleep through, despite the sky being filled with such incandescent light and percussive rage?  I suspect I greeted the southerly change that finally blew in so sweetly yesterday evening with more reverence than I’ve shown to just about anything else since the season of Advent began.

And then I realised that in the midst of all the atmospheric disarray and my attempts to wrangle organisation from impending chaos, to keep two children provided with proper nourishment and uninterrupted sleep, and to assist a husband who — with his business partner fighting cancer since February — has experienced one of the most challenging years of his career, that I had completely overlooked something that, for me, is really important: I had forgotten to write.

So here I am again.  Showing up on the page.

Making sure that today, I have gone back to my First Principles: words, music, food.  To pay homage to my own holy trinity of creative pursuits and their sustaining presence in my life.

I made chocolate walnut fudge while listening to the Foo Fighters’ fifth album, In Your Honour.  It seemed like an appropriate soundtrack to my seeking refuge in what Nigella Lawson calls “the solace of stirring”.  After all, making fudge is a calming, mellowing, meditative process — even if I did, perhaps perversely, choose to play the heavier of the album’s two CDs while the sugar slowly caramelised in the saucepan.  (Watching an episode of Sonic Highways recently I was startled to realise that after all these years The Bloke is still coming to terms with the fact that he married a girl whose musical tastes could be best described as disparate, and who genuinely likes it loud.)

Dave GrohlAnd so, this afternoon, my kitchen became my cathedral.  I stirred and sang along with Dave Grohl to “The Last Song” and sorted through my thoughts before sitting down here at the keyboard:

This is the sound
The here and the now
You got to talk the talk, the talk, the talk
To get it all out…

The jangling has gone, and I’m grateful.  Not just because I finally went back to how I roll.

I remembered to let it rock too.