Tuesday, 25 September 2012

I am missing mushy peas

"Yorkshire caviar", a British Comfort Food

"Fish and chips without mushy peas? That's just not right!"

Seven-plus years into my life in the USA, and people are still asking me what I miss about England. Most of them are food-related, things like pork pies, Cornish pasties, The Pub, fish and chips. I miss rain; living in California's Central Valley, there's not a lot of it, even in our wet winter season. I regret leaving behind narrow streets, ancient buildings and the BBC. Some of these things I can find; Cornish pasties are available quite locally, or by frozen-mail-order. There are narrow streets and older buildings an hour's drive away, and I can put the sprinkler on for pretend rain. There is even a fish-and-chip shop in Davis, and I have eaten there, but it lacks the atmosphere of a true British experience. And most of all, it lacks comfort. It lacks mushy peas.

Serving of mushy peas - credit to Wikipedia
So what are mushy peas? Well, firstly, this is a comfort food, filling and warm. Once a staple of a poor family's diet, the dish at its simplest comprises boiled marrowfat peas, and at this level, it is, as Willie Rushton once said "the world's almost only grey food". That he said this of porridge may tell you something of the nature of the beast. Yer basic pease made in this fashion is fairly bland, and the kind of grey-green that I think a space-alien's skin should be. In fact, given this unappetising description, it's hard to imagine why it's so popular.

But popular they are. In most parts of England, a decent chippy will have them on the menu. When sold, they are green, with a texture ranging from a thick soupyness to a fairly stodgy pottage. The green colour is achieved by cheating with food colourings, the texture depends on the supplier or recipe. Most of the cheaper shops buy their supplies in tins, but (rarely, these days) some do make them in-house. If you are fortunate enough to have such an emporium close at hand, relish the fact. But do not tell me, as I will become jealous.
How Mushy Peas Are Made
The basic marrowfat pea is large, starchy and tough as old boots. Like its distant cousin the chickpea (aka garbanzo bean), it is picked when fully mature and dried, not young and juicy. Preparation begins in the same way as the garbanzo, being soaked overnight and simmered until soft enough to eat. Buying packets of pease in the supermarket is the best way forward, and ofttimes the packet will contain a tablet of bicarbonate of soda (more about that later). In some areas you may also be fortunate enough to be able to buy in bulk.
There are those, including the dreadful Jamie Oliver, who would have you make this with garden peas. Yes, you will have a pea dish, but it will lack that quality of true British "sticks-to-your-ribs" quality that is traditional. Mushy peas simply demand to be made with the correct ingredients, Mister Oliver, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. I have also seen recipes that add meat or meat broth, but in my opinion, that's more associated with pease pudding.
So let us begin. Eight ounces of pease will make for a good helping for four people. If buying them loose or in bulk, check for foreign bodies like bugs and grit, and wash them thoroughly. Place them in a bowl or pan and cover with lots of water, seriously lots. I err on the side of too much, although a pint and a half will suffice. (Time was, I'd convert to metric and whatnot, but not today.)
Now, to the baking soda. Some people add this because it does help preserve the greenness of the dish, but at a cost, in that it reduces the content of vitamin C and the B vitamins. The choice is yours; personally if I want the buggers green, I will add some food colouring, or cook up and mash some garden peas and stir them in before serving.
Once they are well-soaked, they will be plump and firm as fresh peaches, and can be cooked. Add them to a pint of water in a pan, add a little salt and bring them to the boil, then simmer for around twenty minutes, stirring every few minutes. The peas will begin to break down and in time, form a fairly thick soup, and this is where you can ring the changes and play with the texture of the dish. Adding more or less water changes the dish radically. Some people like the idea of the stodgy mass that seems to have become the norm, but as I prefer mine a little moister, I tend to leave a little more water. If I have time, and think enough about it, I take about a third out when they are still al dente, so there's an even wider textural range.
At this point, the dish is more or less ready. Some people cook it longer to create a more even texture, some people mash it up with a fork. I wait until the liquor is beginning to really thicken, and add a knob of butter and some pepper and cook for a minute or two longer. 
There is also a cheat for speeding up the preparation time, one I use with many pulses. This involves fast-boiling the pease for ten minutes, and letting them stand in that water for an hour or so. I say "or so" because unless I'm in a big hurry, I leave them for an hour and a half, but they can be left for some hours in the fridge. Then, I drain and wash the pease and cook them up.
Serving Options
As a little wertperch, I was taken to Nottingham's Goose Fair, and at the time, one of the food treats available (alongside candyfloss, toffee apples and "cocks on sticks"¹) was a bowl of mushy peas served with mint sauce. Seriously warming on a damp and chilly autumn day, and very, very popular.
There are many local serving options, such as in the Midlands and North, where a popular dish is the "pea mix" of chips smothered in peas. I've seen spoonfuls of it deep-fried in batter and served as a "pea fritter", I've had bowls of it with sprinklings of pepper and malt vinegar, and in one wonderful meal in Malham, ladled over a meat pie.
The possibilities are endless, and I admit that it's a dish I manage to miss whenever I buy fish and chips. Perhaps I need to go on a crusade to introduce the dish to every American "chippy". Wish me luck.

¹ A sugar confection, shaped like a cockerel. On a stick. 

Originally posted on Everything2.com

Monday, 9 April 2012

Christine's Memorial

Honouring grundoon

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again."
-- Ecclesiastes 3

Many of you have honoured a beloved one in many ways already. Some have offered words of praise, affection and love. Some prayed, many of you offered messages of support to myself and Tessie. Some have cooked meals, made generous financial gifts and paid personal visits. Some have shed tears with us, and those tears are a blessing to me. Others have shared stories and remembrances of Christine. Each of you knows who you are, what you have done, and I thank you from the bottom of a very full heart.

After Christine took her last breath, I kept the first of my promises to her.
I bathed and dressed her. I stood next to her and I sang all her names. Her birth name first, the names she was given by her parents. I honoured her parents for giving her to the world. Then I sang of her middle name, the one she adopted as a young woman from her uncle - this was a gift that he willingly shared with her, and they had a naming ceremony to grant it. I sang her online name, by which she was known to many hundreds of people in several communities, including this, her favourite. I sang my pet names for her, the names of love and admiration for the woman she became, the one I fell formany years ago. Finally I sang her spirit name, a name that honours her inner being, her connection with nature and spirit.
I called in the directions, the archetypes of Lover, Warrior, Magician, Queen. I called on the sacred masculine to give me strength and on the mother spirit, the feminine that she revered and modelled. Finally I called on the spirit of humanity, that binds all together in the human spirit and carries the torch that lights the world. She demonstrated and celebrated her humanity in so many ways; as a daughter, sister, mother, wife, not to mention a friend, colleague and citizen.
In this way I sang the story of who she was, and how she had affected the world and everyone she came into contact with. I promised her I would cut a staff for myself from the wounded apricot tree in the garden, the tree that should have died and yet lived.
I sang what I could of the song I wrote for her, until my voice cracked and I could sing no more.
She had beaten all the odds, survived for four years beyond the median. Cancer had its hold on her and yet she fought it to give yet more to Tessie and myself. This staff will be to me a symbol of her battle, her warrior nature and her great human spirit. Then I let her go.
In this way I remember you, Christine Robbins Ottaway, grundoon, my Amber Goddess, my Only Love who was also Protective Sea Otter.

Memorial Arrangements
In accordance with her wishes, I will, in due course, scatter her remains in her family's summer home on Lake Matinenda in Ontario. This was a place of magic and memory for her and all her family.
On 15th April, 2012 there will be a memorial service at Winter Creek Ranch, 18080 Road 70, California. You will be welcome to arrive before 1pm, when the service begins. It will be open to all, at the home of close family friends - the place we were married, and a place of wonderful and loving memory. There will be family and friends gathering to remember Christine and share loving support for one another.
Come if you can. Contact me for details. Bring stories, songs, prayers and love. Bring food to share afterward, but bring no flowers - there will be colour aplenty in the gardens. If you wish to honour her memory with gifts, I will pass on donations, or contact me for the organisations she wished to support.
Come, share your love for this great woman. I have other promises to keep, and I need your help to strengthen my hand.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Song For Christine

After a seven-year fight with breast cancer, Christine finally passed very peacefully at around ten to three this afternoon. I will miss her enormously. There is no apology in this - I love her still.
A Song for Christine, written 21 October, 2008
And I will sing a lullaby to you,
A song for sleep, when nothing else will do.
I love you now, as for a thousand years,
I kiss your cheek to dry away your tears.
We met by stones six thousand miles away
Talked much of love, and hoped that it would stay.
"Oh for doves wings, that I might fly to you,
And bring you love, for nothing else will do."
With hands fast tied, we stood high on the earth
Our hearts aloft, our feet bound to the turf
Whose power we took and healed a mortal wound,
Our hands were joined, our hearts were finely tuned.
You brought a ring, I left behind my land
All for you be with you and hold your hand.
You gave your heart, I gave mine in return
To share with you, a life in peace to earn.

You shared your all, your family and home
I took you up, and promised not to roam.
Our hands entwined, our hearts one woven strand
I promise now to ne'er let go your hand.
You know my words do not a poem make
And yet my heart no mortal soul can take
From you and yours, forever and a day
A thousand lives I'll give you, if I may.
I promised then that I'd spend all my life
And many more, to have you as my wife
To love you then as ever I had done
I'll sing of hope, of life and love as one.

If there was ever any doubt that I am no poet, this should resolve the issue.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Caregiver Syndrome

Me: Why am I so tired?
Christine: Where would you like me to begin?

"Elderly caregivers are at a 63 percent higher risk of mortality than noncaregivers in the same age group"¹

"Researchers likened exhausted caregivers' stress hormone levels to those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder...caring for someone can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and a compromised immune system."²

This will not be an entirely objective thing.
Ask any caregiver. They will tell you (and Wikipedia will confirm) that they feel a wide range of emotions from exhaustion, anger, rage, and guilt. The process of providing extended care to anyone with a chronic disease is wearing. I've been providing care for Christine for seven years, beginning with her mastectomy and running through countless rounds of chemotherapy, every scan known to medical science, not to mention gamma knife surgery and whole brain radiation. I watched as she struggled with a loss of proprioception, lost mental faculties and now, in the late stages of hospice care, her mental agility and communication.
It takes a toll, this caregiving. Carers are looking after loved ones with all sorts of ailments, from cancer throughAlzheimer's Disease, degenerative disease, Multiple Sclerosis. The list goes on, and so do the symptoms. Increasingly, people are choosing to have their last days at home, or families are forced through financial need, to care for family members at home. It's a tough job, someone has to do it, and there are many known effects, both psychological and physical.
Why am I so tired, again?
It started with tiredness. I was working at that time, coming home and preparing meals, running errands, cleaning house, doing laundry. Even in the early days, when Christine was able to return to work and there was little care, it started to affect me. Once we were in the full round of treatment following her diagnosis with metastatic cancer, the tiredness crept up. I began grieving, started to imagine myself at her memorial; we started to plan it. I became riddled with guilt because clearly, I had not done enough, could not do enough. My concentration span was so short I oft fell into the trap of leaving a trail of half-done things about the house. The mostly-emptied dishwasher, the half-swept floor, the laundry basket in the hallway. Memory? You name it, I misplaced it. Keys, wallet, spectacles, shopping list and that thing that someone just told me. All gone in an instant.
I would become angry, take it out on the medical system, insurance companies and occasionally on myself and my family. I didn't go to see the doctor because I felt I was malingering.
In addition, I caught every bug going, had a constant stream of colds (pun intended) and stomach ailments. I had erratic sleep, struggled to go to bed early, had many bad, vivid dreams. My back hurt, shoulders ached, joints were stiff. Above all, I was exhausted. Damnit, I was angry with myself for being so weak.
It's real, this thing, and only now starting to be recognised, rather like PTSD a few years ago. It can affect anyone caring for family, and the causes are often the same. Caregivers seem to become martyrs to their role, sometimes even forgeting that behind the pain and suffering, is a loved one who still needs the carer to play the long-standing role of spouse, lover, offspring, brother, sister. Friend.
It's hard to be all those things, provide day-to-day support, often round the clock. I would forget to take care of myself. didn't make time for a catnap even when I was exhausted. I lost count of the cold breakfasts I rediscovered at midday, the half-cups of tea scattered around the house. Did I mention not going to see the doc? I would try to get out of the house once or twice a day to take a brisk walk or cycle ride. Once in a while I remembered and made time, to meditate or stretch. Then I would just forget to eat, get to tea-time and realise that the half-slice of breakfast toast that I'd eaten at ten-thirty comprised my entire intake for the day. Feed everyone else, then rush around being the martyr again.
Fixing the Problem by asking for Help
"Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom, and it will be a hundred times better for everyone." - Tao Te Ching
All I can say is "Thank God for friends!". Were it not for them, most meals would consist of rice, beans and maybe bacon. Cheese sandwiches. Friends brought food - someone organised a rota to bring meals two or three times a week. Friends sat with Christine and sent me out to have coffee. These days, friends come overnight and stay in the room with Christine so I get some unbroken sleep.
This weekend, several noders showed up with gifts. Gifts of food, beer, time, treats, cash. Gifts of love, companionship, conversation, sharing. Were it not for them I swear I would have folded up into skinny, dark-eyed madness weeks ago.
Thank you for friends, because otherwise caregiver syndrome might have been the death of me. I cannot imagine what it would be like on my own.
The "fix" is simply, to seek help. This was the hardest thing for me - even after starting hospice care, I would try to do everything on my own, and that simply Will Not Do. Many people offer help, so a caregiver should accept it. Lots of laundry? Ask for help. Dishes in the sink? Ask someone to do them. Errands to run? Give someone a shopping list and a handful of cash. Above all though, get professional help. See a doctor, a counsellor, talk to a nurse, a social worker, spiritual counsellor, priest, whatever you got.
When people ask "What can I do?", and they will, tell them about the pile of laundry that needs folding, or the hallway that needs sleeping. The best friends come round and, unasked, do stuff, like the woman who turned up with mop and bucket and offered to clean our bathrooms. I said "yes", and that is the fix.