Thursday, January 26, 2012

Winner o' the puddin' race

So yesterday was Burns' Night, the 253rd birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet and most beloved son.  Officially her most beloved son, by the way: he beat Mel Gibson - I mean William Wallace - to be named greatest Scot of all time.

On Burns' Night, Scots get together to eat haggis (great chieftain o' the puddin' race) drink whisky, toast the immortal memory of Rab, toast one of his other great interests in life - The Lassies (ooh, he was a one!) - and recite poetry.  Or if your Supper isn't until the weekend (see above, re. whisky) at least we all have haggis for our tea.

For Scots in Scotland, this means a trip to the local High Street butcher or a trip to any chain supermarket to buy a haggis.  For Scots in California, it means digging deep into their pockets and mail ordering a McKean's haggis from Maine.  I did this last year, in a state of some trepidation having invited ten people for a Burns' Supper in my house.

Well, it was delicious, easily worth the delivery charge, light, fluffy, peppery, savoury - everything a haggis should be.  I can't recommend it enough.  If you'd asked me yesterday, though, I was ready to damn McKean's and all their works.  My haggis wasn't here.  It didn't come.  All I got in the post  was a phone bill.

Then I checked in with the undergardener and guess what?  He thought I'd ordered it and I thought he had.  This would never have happened in the good old days when men were men and women flirted with the butcher. 

So.  Early afternoon on Burns' Night, no haggis, 7000 miles from Scotland.  What to do?  I could have given up and had a burrito if I hadn't started the day with Val Mcdermid's Burns guestblog for Jungle Red Writers.  I had wept with homesickness and now needed haggis like oxygen.

And I had a recipe for it.

Traditional Scottish Recipes (Waverley Scottish Classics)

In a book with tablet on the cover - got to love that. 

So I made my own.

Sort of.

Eleanor Cowan's easy haggis calls for lamb's liver, suet, oatmeal, onions, salt and what another Scottish chef Nick Nairn calls "insane amounts of pepper".  I had oatmeal, onions, salt, and insanity and I knew I could get liver - maybe not lamb's liver (more of this later) but hey.

I knew not to even try to get suet, having hauled myself round the local meat counters last Christmas looking for suet to make mincemeat to make mince pies.  However, I thought maybe egg and breadcrumbs would have the same lightening and binding effect.  And of course I knew from the kick-off not to try the difficult haggis recipe - liver, lungs, heart, and pluck (instestine).

Back from the supermarket, with my calves' liver and a lamb chop (very untradtional but I had to get some mutton in there somehere), I fried the onion in chicken fat (considered snipping in a bit of bacon just to hit every animal in the farmyard) then followed the least hopeful seeming recipe step I've ever seen.

"Boil the liver for forty minutes".  Here's what boiling liver looks like:

Yeah, it's mostly scum.  I do have a picture of what boiled-for-forty-minutes liver looks like too, but I'm always going on about how they shouldn't put the corpses of fallen dictators on the news so in all conscience I can't post it.

And it gets worse.  After the chicken-fat onions, toasted oatmeal, illicit lamb chop and seasonings were combined, the mixture was moistened with . . . you guessed it . . . the liver water.  Yummmmmm.

And then the whole thing went in a pudding basin and boiled in a bain-marie for two hours.

I felt no great hope.  But as my co-shopping-failure said when he came home: "it smells like haggis".  And then when I undid the foil and spooned it onto a plate, I couldn't help but think: "it looks like haggis".

And fan me flat with a rinsed pluck if it didn't taste like haggis.  And pretty good haggis too.  Very good haggis, actually.  Well worth an address.  I'm now covered with glory.  Bloated,  but covered with glory and I might change my Twitter profile to novelist and haggis-maker.

For dinner tonight, of course, we'll have that other great Scottish speciality.  Leftovers.  Fried.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Stone Thumbs

They say it's going to rain today.  Finally.  For the first time since Thanksgiving Day almost two months ago.  And so I decided to get my little bit of necessary gardening done first, before writing.

Some real gardening - pruning and moving some roses, taking some pelargonium cuttings and putting the parent pelargoniums in the open ground.  The cuttings are insurance: I still don't really believe in the concept of overwintering pelargoniums outside.  I've got some cheat gardening to do too: potting up the primroses and daffs I bought at the garden centre. 

Anyway, when my hands were nipping, covered with cold mud, I suddenly found myself saying what I always used to find myself saying, gardening in winter in Galloway.  "Oh, I am stone thumbs, feet of glass", a line from one of my favourite poems: "Pruning in Frost" by Alice Oswald from The Thing in the Gap-stone Stile. (OUP,1996). 

A wave of pure happiness broke over me.  Here - let me slosh some of it over you:

Pruning in Frost

                                                          Last night, without a sound,
                                                          a ghost of a world lay down on a world,

                                                          trees like dreamwrecks
                                                          coralled with increments of frost.

                                                          Found crevices
                                                          and wound and wound
                                                          the clock-spring cobwebs.

                                                          All life's ribbon frozen mid-fling.

                                                          Oh I am
                                                          stone thumbs,
                                                          feet of glass.

                                                          Work knocks in me the winter's nail.

                                                           I can imagine
                                                           Pain, turned heron,
                                                           could fly off in a creak of wings.

                                                          And I'd be staring, like one of those
                                                          cold-holy and granite kings
                                                          getting carved into this effigy of orchard.

And the reasons the roses are moving?  The flower bed where I planted them last spring is making way for a fruit orchard.  Maybe one day next winter, I'll have trees like dreamwrecks, coralled with increments of frost.  But for now . . .

Friday, January 6, 2012

A(nother) year in books

The TBR pile today

A few years ago I started keeping a note of what I read because whenever anyone asked me in a Q&A I was stumped.  It looks bad when a writer can talk about her own books without drawing breath for 20 minutes but can't remember a single book by another person. 

It looks even worse when she (i.e. me) covers the lapse by saying "I don't really read any more: so many CSIs to keep up with".  Maybe my delivery was overly deadpan but it turned out a few people believed me.  (Note to self: say boom-tssh after every joke.) 

And it wasn't even the first time that had happened.  When I started working as one of four lonely linguists in a large and cold-hearted English literature department and someone - oh, probably a specialist in renaissance poetry but I honestly don't remember - asked what I read, I said "I read the TV Guide to find out what time Star Trek's on".  This was in reference to my interview talk when I used Mr Chekov in an example sentence and they all thought it was odd that I didn't call him plain Chekov like everyone else does.

Aaaaannyway, it came back to me through the grapevine that some post-colonial drama theorist (or something) was shocked to learn that one of the new linguists watched television instead of reading.  I dunno.  You'd have thought that literary types would get irony.

So.  Here's what I read last year, with some helpful links, * against book of the month, and explanations where needed:

Christmas holidays
John Steinbeck Cannery Row*
Spring Warren Turpentine
Stephen King Full Dark, No Stars
Anita Shreve Rescue
Garrison Keillor Life Among the Lutherans

Karen Campbell Shadowplay
Julia Glass The Widower's Tale*
Jill Paton Walsh The Attenbury Emeralds
Fannie Flagg  I Still Dream of You  (yes, really)

Jonathon Franzen Freedom*
PJ Tracey Dressed to Thrill (they're back!  Yeay!)
Aline Templeton Cradle to Grave
Jenny Diski What I don't know about animals (one of my favourite writers, but not her best book.  Start with Stranger on a Train or Trying to Keep Still)

George Pellecanos The Night Gardener
Garrison Keillor Pontoon
Lisa Scottoline Lady Killer
Stella Gibbons Nightingale Wood (a delicious suprise)
Spring Warren The Quarter-acre Farm*

Eileen Rendahl Dead on Delivery
Eileen Rendahl Do me, do my roots
Ellen Gutcheon Still Missing* (from the delightful Persephone books.  How I love them.)
Frances Brody Dying in the Wool
Chris Hedges The Death of the Liberal Class
Eileen Rendahl Balancing in High Heels
Dave Eggers Zeitoun

Clare Davis Winter Range
Lisa Scottoline Save Me
John Lescroart Dead Irish
John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath*

John Lescroart The Vig
Michael Connelly 5th Witness
Annie Proulx Bird Cloud*

Oh, starting to lose reading time because of chores like going to Manhattan - poor me.

Kathleen George The Odds*
Stephen King The Tommyknockers (on a plane trip, whatever happens, I won't run out of book!)
William Landay Defending Jacob

Then I lost track completely.  In August and September  I was travelling and reading for panels, so these are not in order and I've probably missed some out:

Donna Andrews Murder with Peacocks and Cockatiels at Seven
Jess Lourey May Day and June Bug
Sandra Balzo Brewed, Crude and Tattooed and Bean there, done that
Sarah Shaber Louise's War and Simon said
PJ Parrish Dead of Winter
Gwen Mayo Circle of Dishonor
Carolyn Wall Sweeping Up Glass* (so fabulous it kept me up all night)
Clare O'Donohue Missing Persons
Russel McLean The Lost Sister
Ella Barrick Quickstep to Murder
Barbara Ehrenrich Nickel and Dimed

Esri Allbritten  The Chihuahua of the Baskervilles
Rick Hutto A Peculiar Tribe of People*
Eileen Rendahl  Vanished in the Night
Esri Allbritten A Portrait of Doreene Gray
Briggitte Aubert Death from the Woods
Rumer Godden An Episode of Sparrows
Abraham Verghese Cutting for Stone
Jess Lourey August Moon

Fiona Carnarvon Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey
Mary McDonagh Murphy Scout, Atticus and Boo
Erin Morgenstern The Night Circus
Tawni O'Dell Fragile Beasts*
Joy Fielding Kiss Mommy Goodbye (re-read)
Mary Higgins Clark  We'll Meet Again

Then life got away from me - re-reading Joy Fielding's fantastic passive-agressive characters for inspiration and then curling up inside the comfort of the Mary Higgins Clark was an early sign that it was slipping - as I tried to get my own book finished.  December was a haze of re-read chapters of Nancy Mitford, re-read pages of PG Wodehouse, snippets of Strictly Come Dancing on Youtube, Desperate Housewives DVDs, Ben Goldacre essays, Doris Day movies, Nigel Slater recipes . . . December was a blur.

So there's my 2011 in books.  A good dose of crime, a lot of books by pals - so many by Eileen Rendahl that it looks a bit like stalking.  I discovered a couple of new-to-me writers that I now look forward to reading everything by: Julia Glass and Barbara Ehrenrich.  I only gave up on one book this year - and since it was by an author no longer living I'll say which one:  Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows.  Which is not to say that I loved everything else - in a couple of cases stopping reading would have been like turning away from a train wreck while it happens - but reading bad books can be quite helpful sometimes.  Thankfully, none of the bad ones was by anyone I know.

And the year ended as it began with Stephen King, when I started 11/22/63 on Hogmanay.  Can't be bad.