Stuff I like – April

Brooklyn Boy Bagels

As a postscript to the festival of Rosalind yesterday, this brief little missive pays homage to another beloved family institution, the Sunday bagel. We were a secular Jewish family, with only the occasional foray to synagogue for high days and holidays – chiefly to show off in our new dresses with matching hair ribbons and black patent shoes (me and my sister, that is; my parents weren’t the ribbon-wearing kind, at least, not that I was aware of).

We ate ham, bacon and pork sausages (though, oddly, never roast pork – perhaps that was just too close to the, um, bone) with as much relish as we did salt beef (corned beef), latkes and new green or sweet-and-sour cucumbers. On Sundays, uncles and aunts and cousins would often arrive for afternoon tea, so Dad would head out in the morning to the decidedly non-kosher seafood stand somewhere along the Hendon Way (a north London suburb whose only claim to fame is as home to the Metropolitan Police training college) to pick up buckets of prawns and scampi. Or perhaps smoked salmon and cream cheese, chopped liver, egg and onion, and schmaltz herring from the Stanmore deli (a suburb whose only claim to fame is that it’s at the end of the London Underground’s Jubilee Line).

And there were always bagels. Plain white, dense, chewy bagels with patent-leather crusts, which we pronounced ‘buy-gels’ – a remnant, presumably, from London’s East End cockney pronunciation. I’d never heard them pronounced ‘bay-gels’ until I moved to Australia. And certainly, the running ‘Dad joke’ that my friend Manda’s dad, Martin Block, had with his daughters as they left for school each morning: “Bye girls!”, with which they’d respond with a chorus of: “Platzels!”, certainly wouldn’t have provoked such regular hilarity had the East End lingua franca not held sway.

Anyway – at long last, I’ve found a reason to get out of bed early on a Sunday morning and go buy some bagels of my own. While the Wellington cake shop in Bondi Road has always made a fair fist of them, Michael Shafran, the Brooklyn boy of Brooklyn Boy Bagels, has nailed ’em good and proper. Chewy, shiny and probably far healthier than the ones Dad used to buy back in the day. There are even ones with caraway seeds on them, a little outré for purists, perhaps, but nicely reminiscent of the proper rye bread that our mountains of hot salt beef used to be slapped between by the (usually surly) geezers at the salt beef bar in Edgware (a suburb whose only claim to fame is that it’s at the end of the Northern Line).

So, to all my friends in the old country on the Jubilee and Northern Lines, it’s finally safe to come over and visit. All I need to track down now is some decent salt beef…

We need to talk about Rosalind

This is for my mother on her 80th birthday, because, as befits her increasingly pragmatic world view, I thought she’d appreciate me writing a little homage to her before it’s too late for her to read it.

And, by simply surviving for so bloody long, I think she deserves nothing less. Particularly as she assures me regularly how much she gets a kick out of being mentioned in my blog ravings. “My vicarious pleasure,” as she puts it.

I don’t like to tell her that I mention her in my posts because she’s such a rich source of comedic inspiration, because she might take it the wrong way.

Too late.

Rosalind takes pleasure (vicarious or otherwise) in many curious and charming ways. Shocking people is high on her bucket list. She recounts with relish her now-stock response to telemarketers’ greetings of “And how are you today, Mrs Feldman?” with “I’ve got caaancer” in pathetic, reedy tones, just to hear the embarrassed pause at the other end of the line. She says I should give it a try because it’s a handy way of getting out of signing up to a new phone plan.

She’s not lying, though. She does have cancer. But she’s not pathetic, nor reedy.

Terrifying mostly. Just ask the people whose Facebook posts she comments on, or anyone who messes with her in the supermarket car park.

She moved here from the UK four years ago, for reasons we’ve not always been clear on: according to her it was for me; according to me it was for her. Still, over this time I think we’d both agree that it’s worked out to be for the both of us; but what it’s been, we’re still not sure.
Still with me, Mudther?

Granted, there were a number of exploratory visits here before she made her massive leap of faith to live here permanently – not all of them pretty – to test the waters. And plenty of prodigal returns by me over the course of 20-odd years, too, of equal intensity – each fraught with the anticipation of arrival, the brevity of the visit, the dread of departure.

This has been her biggest, bravest adventure, despite the fact that, rather than living it large in a chic, minimalist apartment in Potts Point, as she’d have liked, she’s living it safe in a little Jewish retirement village full of tiny, attention-deficit deaf ladies in Rose Bay. “The village of the damned,” she calls it. But her flat is still perfectly Rosalind – chic, minimalist and embellished with her own and others’ paintings and artfully arranged miscellanea.

We’ve had a few adventures of our own, she and I, not least the fire and brimstone of our love-hate relationship through my early teens. But I’m comfortable enough in my skin to admit now that, yes, Mummy Dearest, I’m sure I deserved you throwing that wooden tennis racket holder at me; just as my sister, Belinda, deserved the jug of orange juice being poured over her at the dinner table. We were always a family of sudden, incandescent rage, as well as violent affection (being chased up the stairs as little’uns, screaming with gleeful terror at her threats of bottom-biting).

We’re from the era of the Good Hard Smack. Hasn’t done me any harm, has it? Well, nothing that you can actually see.

Our first expedition as adults (of sorts) was when we were both newly single: she after 24 years of marriage and two children; me after three years of de facto-ness and one small dog called Eric. We travelled to Rethymno in Crete, where my freshly minted London flatmate had booked us a ‘room’ at a place dubbed ‘Rent Rooms Michael’. I use the word advisedly, as our abode was more like a scene out of Midnight Express, only with (albeit grubby) soft furnishings. We made the best of it, walking gingerly in tiptoe over the grimy floor, then booking out the next morning to flee by hire car to Agia Galini. I was designated driver – as I’ve been on our adventures ever since, despite her still-formidable driving skills – my first time in a manual right-hand-drive along a highway that would occasionally yawn into a pothole the size of a putting green.

It was her first trip ‘roughing it’. Our 1960s middle-class family summer fortnights had been spent at good hotels on the Continent, with pools and beach lounges and cheeky waiters. Hell, Dad had to get some sort of break for the grinding decades of work in the rag trade he hated so much.

Much later, I took her to Paris for a long weekend – a very hot long weekend (I’d walk in the sunshine; she’d walk in the shade – “sorted”). We did a runner from a snooty, touristy café after we’d sat with our pre-dinner drinks there being choked by car fumes and deafened by car horns, and didn’t really fancy staying for the touristy meal we’d ordered. We raced off, shrieking with laughter, across the Place de la Concorde, with a garçon in bemused pursuit (we’d left money for the drinks, so he didn’t try too hard).

That became our Thelma & Louise moment (without the cliff, obviously). It was when she could still race, more or less.

Nowadays, we move at a slower pace – she, pain-racked from her “bloody, bloody, bloody” arthritis, with the aid of her father’s sawn-off walking stick; me, anxiously trying to curb my stride without appearing to do so. Still shrieking with laughter, but.

Doing a runner just isn’t an option anymore, although we’ve been tempted on a few occasions at our many coffees and lunches in the worst cafés in town – any town. I have this knack for picking ’em. It’s my food-writing curse.

We’re also from the era of Things Matching, an era she has clung to like a limpet, and one which, despite all my rebellious attempts to extricate myself from it, still lingers with a heavenwards-rolling-eyed, guilt-inducing nag in the dim recesses of my sartorial decision-making.

Indeed, so dedicated a matcher was my mother, that in the 1960s, when Gossard Wonderbras made their buxom debut, she would dye them along with her knickers into matching sets – lemon, mocha, turquoise, lilac and god knows what other colours besides. She and my father, something of a dandy himself, had the dubious honour of being among the first to stock these saucy undergarments in their mod boutique in London’s Bayswater. She was also the first in the known universe beyond the Paris catwalks to wear a herringbone maxi-coat. Bless her matching cotton socks.

And so we come to today, her 80th birthday (although she’s a little miffed because, in fact, we should be celebrating it on Sunday, in keeping with her Northern Hemisphere origins).

“Whatevs,” as she would say. Yes, really. And “totes amazeballs”. She is the latest early adopter of the modern vernacular – texting in strangulated abbreviations I struggle to comprehend, commenting on Facebook with often bewildering abandon, forwarding un-PC email jokes, Skyping with her wig off when she lost all her hair.

She is a rapier wit and a wily wordsmith, a consummate piss-taker, a jaded TV and film reviewer, an evil mimic, a cryptic crossworder and stalwart friend, no matter what she says about you behind your back.

She is my most fearsome critic and fierce defender. She is my hair-monitor, my travel companion, my coffee mate, my eye-catcher in awkward social situations, my blog censor, my eagle-eyed proofreader and my clothes-shopping regulator.

I just wish that we could grow old and cranky together. It just won’t be the same without her.

So this is for you, Mum, with my love.

And sorry, in anticipation, for any typos.

Skimming the surface

The infinitely more riveting glacial drama of Sealy Tarn, Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand

I’ve an elephant in my room, and it has long, straight, silver-grey hair with a middle parting, and a thick southern US of A drawl. It is but one among many. They are living in Paradise and, apart from the silver-haired one, they all like to gambol naked together in the freezing waters of New Zealand’s South Island. They are the conceit of someone else with long, straight silver-grey hair, someone who has been, on occasion, something of a hero; someone who should, if I may be so bold, get a grip.

But as I watch Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and have to listen without snorting with laughter – or worse, gagging – to lines such as, “I’m going to love you forever; we’re going to walk through the valley of death with a rainbow over us,” yay verily, I do fear evil, and that my Campion-lovin’ days are numbered. Truth be told, they took a hammering with A Portrait of a Lady, and barely held steady at In the Cut. Thanks, Mark Ruffallo.

I imagine a group of creatives putting their heads together. “Okay, guys, cinema has died hard. It’s all about HBO and the slow-release mini-series. Look at how long they’ve dragged Mad Men out for. Give me your best shot. Jane, baby, what have you got for me?”

The whiteboard is wiped down and the brainstorming begins:
– diminutive cars driving through vast, jaw-droppingly beautiful, yet terrifyingly alienating landscapes
– a desolate outpost town clinging to the edge of civilisation, whose redneck inhabitants play dangerous games of darts at the pub
– a bunch of emotionally damaged women who like to get naked, pat horses and pay cash for swift and meaningless sex with the town rednecks, while living in brightly painted shipping containers by a large and very cold lake surrounded by imposing mountains
– an albino girl
– a po-faced female shaman figure known only by her initials, with long, straight grey hair, whom the damaged women make tea for, and who, in return, lights more than one cigarette at a time and shares them around, along with densely opaque nuggets of wisdom
– David Wenham
– a much younger, po-faced female with a pudding-basin haircut and good skin, originally from said desolate outpost town who’s escaped this barren yet eternally majestically backdropped hell-hole to work in Sydney for years, only to return with an accent that’s more Elle Macpherson (post London migration) crossed with Zsa Zsa Gabor than Janet Frame
– a craggy, shouty Scottish git with long, stringy hair who’s not Billy Connolly, lairding it over a couple of surly bastard sons and a handful of large dogs and one small fluffy one
– a pregnant teenager who walks into a lake and walks out again, then disappears
– tattoos

But why Elisabeth Moss? Why? And which voice coach is responsible for that travesty of an accent? And why hasn’t someone thought to slap Ms Moss out of her coma yet?

Go back to Mad Men, Elisabeth, for pity’s sake. It’s slow, god knows, but the script makes some semblance of sense, and you’re good at your American accent, and no one watching it can be in any doubt that it’s not a comedy, even if it doesn’t have mountains.

From the sublime to the… sous vide

When I Am Pregnant, Anish Kapoor, 1992

And so, on April Fool’s Day (the latest this fool could possibly leave it to drag a reluctant husband away from the ritual Easter lawn-mow), we finally made it to the Museum of Contemporary Art to wallow in the wonders of the Anish Kapoor exhibition. Our expedition started well – a free, legal park (oh frabjous day!) just up the road, and a queue of only a handful of people – families mostly – with all manner of cool kids dressed exactly like their hipster parents.

First, a quick sortie to walk around Kapoor’s wonderful Sky Mirror, whose majestic, mercurial charms my mother and I had enjoyed earlier this past summer (though, apparently, from the wrong angle). We’d not realised that, in fact, it was best seen reflecting the sky and not the dour, static sandstone walls of the MCA, allthough, I still love the image I took of us both tucked into the massive porch of the museum, mother and daughter in miniature (and not dressed in any way alike, as it happens).

Back inside among the ever-increasing throng, we were, like everyone else around us, bedazzled and bewitched by all the shiny (and unshiny – sorry, but I can’t find the right word to describe some of the ‘anti-reflective’ exhibits that drew us deep into their inky darkness) things to play with – Kapoor’s art making artists of us all (or at least, insatiable photographers). And amid all that hilarity, all that brilliant, brittle, hall-of-mirrors fairground folderol, the serene, sensual beauty of a simple, perfectly smooth, matte-white-painted bump protruding from a wall, gently forming and reforming as you walked up to and around it, and, ultimately, disappearing when you viewed it from front on. Peace at last.

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like…

Which brings me somewhat clunkily to the ambivalent art of vacuum-pack cooking.

It proved a creative old Easter break, to be sure, with much experimenting to be done for work’s sake. This largely entailed (at least to start with) relieving large kitchen appliances of their cumbersome cardboard packaging (and trying to find somewhere to store it all for safekeeping without incurring the resident recycler’s wrath), then concentrating for long enough to decode the manufacturer’s instruction manual. I was testing the efficacy of a newly minted home sous vide machine.

Yes, this is what my life has come to. Curses upon the Blumenthals, the Trotters, the Adriàs and the kingdom of MasterChef for creating aspirational domestic cuisine. It hasn’t improved the skills of anyone on My Kitchen Rules, has it? If you want the sort of food you get in restaurants, why not just eat in a f#*%king restaurant? God knows, they need the business, people.

Ahem… It actually worked very well, this sous vide machine, once I’d worked out which end of the open plastic bag to stick into the vacuum-sealer (this being, blog-buddies, a separate, and equally well-packaged appliance, with no mean benchtop footprint of its own). Thankfully, the lawn-mowing was well out of the way by the time I got to that stage, so my life partner was able to lend a hand, and not a little encouragement, through my travails.

Thank goodness someone in our household is of a technical bent. Which is why he loved the Kapoor exhibition as much as I did, in his own architecture-y way. He just couldn’t understand why the MCA’s brand new wing appeared to have been built only to house stairs and the toilets.

Nine hours later, and after much anxious peering through the condensation on the lid, my plastic pouches were ready to fish out of their bain-marie-by-any-other-name. By this time we – and the sous vide machine – had an audience. A very patient audience, it must be said, who had been waiting quite some time to dine (I’d meant to sous vide overnight, but was so tired from the day’s anxious preparation and cardboard storing that I’d forgotten to turn the damn thing on).

And, despite all misgivings, the lamb turned out rather well once it was released from its packaging’s plasticky embrace. The patient audience improved things further by chucking it on the barbie to caramelise the outside a bit.

Dessert, however, was another matter entirely. Two cake mixes for the testing, which proved a cinch to make – line cake tin, pour dry contents into a bowl, add eggs, oil and water and stir. Pour mixture into cake tin. Bake.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Heston.

The result was moist and toothsome, though the texture bore little resemblance to cake as we know it, and I doubt I would repeat the experience.

But please come back soon, Anish Kapoor. I’m missing you already.