Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Moth in Me

Philip just did a great series of posts on things that are guaranteed to make him smile. Seven in total, spanning the course of a few weeks. He's now asked me (amongst others) to do something similar. I embrace the challenge in the hope of gaining some focus to help me disentangle my woolly thoughts. So here begins a short series:

Seven Things that Act as a Flame to My Inner Moth: One: Kitchens.

As with everything on my radar kitchens are all about the story. I've spent my entire adult life trying to recreate a sense of three kitchens from my childhood: my aunt Eileen's, that of my aunts Marge and Elsa (they were sisters widowed too young), and my mother's.

Aunt Eileen's kitchen was enormous, at least four times the size of ours, light filled with a glossy black and white checked linoleum floor, and a large central island on which stood a toaster the size of a television set. It smelt of freshly buttered thick white toast, and gardens. The French doors were always open and we used to run out, past bustling aunts and paper reading uncles, to the garden to play, often circling toaster island a few times on the way. We were never told off for running in that kitchen, there was space for everyone. It was Ella Fitzgerald.

Aunts Marge and Elsa's kitchen was smaller, so there was no space for running, but it had a table and a breakfast bar, French windows onto a balcony that overlooked busy Earl's Court Road, and smelt of coffee. It was infused with the cool blue light of London skies and had the most desirable crockery I've ever seen: sky blue bowls and mugs with various pastel coloured interiors. I loved the mug with the butter yellow interior so much aunt Elsa saved it for me to have my breakfast milk in. The coffee smelt so good I remember begging my father to let me have a sip: 'just a taste, please, please!' But I was considered too young. I would sit at the table with my milk and watch my mother. As she took her first morning sip with all of London as her backdrop (I swear she was haloed by St. Pauls and London Bridge with a red bus on it!) she seemed briefly to transform into a film star. To this day coffee represents the height of sophistication to me. Very occasionally I manage to make a cup of coffee that tastes exactly how that kitchen smelt, and rejoice.

My mother's, our, kitchen was small with no room for a table, it was all about the food. Specifically the cake. My mother loved baking so the rewards were two fold: the cake itself with all its fragrance, flavour and texture, and a relaxed, happy mummy. Baking and decorating cakes was my mother's only opportunity for creativity and she made the most of it: when she died we found hundreds of photographs documenting her trajectory: birthday cakes iced to look like baskets of flowers, ballerinas, sports cars. As well as umpteen wedding and anniversary cakes she made for friends and friends of friends.

Kitchens, then, are warm, fragrant, happy places for me. So I tend to gravitate towards them. I love the hustle and bustle of bubbling pans; of chopping, adding, tasting and serving. The languor of rubbing butter into flour with cool fingers, peeling apples for a pie, creaming sugar and butter. I love mixing bowls, rolling pins with fragments from a historical paint-chart still visible on the handles, scrubbed table tops and chopping boards and thick cotton aprons. Every element of kitchen life acts like a moon.

My own kitchen with its scuffed floor and over-stuffed cupboards is the place I escape to when I need to relax. Like my mother before me I bake for therapy. Often as I try to work out how to get a character into a room I'll find myself craving Parkin or shortbread, and will end up in my green apron spooning cream of tartar into flour. When I get back to my desk with a slice of something still warm from the oven I'll just know how to write the piece.

Last Saturday, as I was struggling with haiku, lemon drizzle cake (thanks Nick!) kept imposing itself on my thoughts. Eventually I relented and donned my apron. I had never made lemon drizzle cake before and couldn't find a recipe. After trying to tempt myself with chocolate loaf cake, and failing, I decided to make it up by augmenting Nigella Lawson's 'Buttermilk Birthday Cake' recipe. The result may not have been a traditional lemon drizzle cake but it was divine:

The fun begins with choosing a bowl.

Organising the elements.

Creaming on an aproned lap.

Alchemical egg.

Raw (I love the colour and texture of cake mix).

While the cake is in the oven there is syrup to make.



Reward ≠ 1: the first taste.

Back at my desk and reward ≠ 2: by the time I'd finished with it the lining paper was picked clean and,

reward ≠ 3: haiku made more sense.


Kass said...

This is the most homey, yet elegant thing I have ever viewed about kitchens. Do we get to see the haiku?

Alesa Warcan said...

The kitchen bitch in her bitching kitchen!

That cake looks scrumptious!
I don't have an oven at the moment so I'm deprived of baking.
But reading this post reminds me of how much I love eating freshly baked rewards!

It was lovely reading about the kitchens in your life. Kitchens are so often the heart of homes.

Charlie said...

To me, the kitchen has always been the best room for entertaining friends: warm, unpretentious, plenty of coffee, just talking or playing a board game, freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies . . .

You've captured what Alesa said is the heart of the home.

Pat said...

To hell with the Haiku! I'd kill for a slice!
The kitchen part was pure gold - the rest was pure torture!
BTW one of my favourite plays is 'The Kitchen ' by Arnold Wesker.

Kim Ayres said...

Beautifully written; wonderfully evocative. And I now had a splodge of drool perilously close to my keyboard...

The Weaver of Grass said...

I am on a doctor-imposed diet to lose weight and am doing so quite well ------you cannot possibly know how absolutely ravishing I find the photographs of that drizzle cake!!

Mark Sanderson said...

The route to a man's heart is, as far as I'm concerned, through his stomach!

Sharon Longworth said...

A fantastic start to the 7 things posts - can't wait for the rest. The reflections about kitchens really made me think. For too many years I've viewed the kitchen as a place to spend as little time in as possible - I lost the heart for cooking after too many years of fuelling kids. If anything could make me want to start again, it would be this post - thanks Eryl.

Carole said...

Oh my word, this post makes me drool. I love the imagery. If you wouldn't mind popping a piece of cake in the mail, I would be ever so greatful.

Your mind is crazy good.

Eryl Shields said...

Kass ~ I'm doing haiku exercises at the moment: every day, for seven days, you have to write down the name of the month followed by a single word that relates to it (wind, trees, whatever) then you go outside and write ten short phrases on what you see: drainpipes stripe next door's white wall, that sort of thing. After this you have to compose ten haiku from the two first words and each one of your phrases. Along the way I'm trying to make some sense of the purpose of the form and how it may, or may not, fit my own subjects.

So, I don't really have a haiku to show you, I just have lots of random pseudo haiku. But I am beginning to feel the form.

Alesa ~ you don't have an oven? I don't think I could live without an oven!

Kitchens really are the heart of most homes, and, oddly enough, the kitchen is the one room where my bitchiness usually melts away. Until the dishes need to be washed that is.

Charlie ~ I remember longing for a proper dining room when we first got married, but when we finally got one we only used it at Christmas. That room is now my office and we have gone back to entertaining in the kitchen, it feels so much more comfortable.

You do know, don't you, that I will have to bake some chocolate chip cookies tomorrow?

Pat ~ I wish I could send you a slice but it's all eaten now, nothing lasts in this house.

I don't know that play, I'll have to google.

Kim ~ drool: what writer could ask for more?!

Weaver ~ crikey, are you? I'm sorry to hear that, and hope you meet your target soon so you can treat yourself to a small slice of something delicious. I wish I could do a post on the delights of salad without dressing for you, but I think that could be beyond me!

Mark ~ men and women aren't that different then?

Sharon ~ with all your allotment goodies you should be able to have real fun in the kitchen: think Dolce and Gabbana style mama, it does it for me!

Carole ~ one slice of lemon drizzle will be hooked to the foot of a homing pigeon first thing in the morning. Let me know if it arrives.

Alesa Warcan said...

I have an excellent gas oven but no gas at the moment. ; j
Just a matter of time.

AH yes the dreaded dishes... Doubly hideous for tall people. Most sinks force me to bend over to do dishes. Yechk. : j

The Unbearable Banishment said...

I almost licked my screen.

My mother had a big, old, wooden claw-foot table in the kitchen. I think we spent more time sitting around that table than we did in the living room. Such is the way with many Italian families. When my mom passed away last spring, my sister took the table. Now, when we visit her house, we sit around the same table and yammer. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Liz said...

That cake looks good but, oh my, I love those bowls.

The Pollinatrix said...

I am completely with you on kitchens, and YUM YUM YUM - that cake made me drool.

I am also quite envious of your bowls. Mine are all plastic.

nick said...

So the idea of lemon drizzle cake took root, huh? That lemon drizzle cake looks delicious. Our cake is actually Jenny's recipe, I expect it's much the same except that she doesn't use eggs and she adds some soya milk.

Our new house has a huge kitchen-diner, much cosier than our previous house which only had a small kitchen and a separate dining room. Kitchens can often be the cosiest room in the house, as you say because of the culinary hustle and bustle.

Philip said...

excellent first one eryl. Love the inner moth thing too. I'm a kitchen person too. Give me a some fresh food and a radio and I'm happy for hours.

Anonymous said...

Your passion radiates out into my kitchen.

You make me want to eat my computer.

Dave King said...

Kitchens are indeed, warm fragrant places - yours more than most, I imagine.

Eryl Shields said...

Alesa ~ you have, for the first time, made me think of my shortness as an advantage, of sorts. I'd still rather be tall and have a dishwasher though!

UB ~ I wish I had room for a big table in my kitchen, mine can seat six at a push. There is little better than sitting round a big table with family. I love that your sister has inherited the table along with your mother's cooking skills, I don't know what happened to my childhood table, which was in the dining room. I do have my mother-in-law's old dining table in my office, it's rather fine mahogany and wouldn't hold up to kitchen scrubbing even if I could get it in there.

Liz ~ you are a woman after my own heart: I've been collecting bowls for years. The bottom one was my mother's and the bowl she mixed all our birthday cakes in. I love it so much I wrote a poem about it when she died.

Polli ~ all my bowls, except the one I inherited from my mother, have been bought at junk shops and flea markets for pennies. The top two in the photo were brought back from France years ago. It feels quite shameful that they spend most of their time in a dark cupboard.

Nick ~ I like to think I am an autonomous individual with the power of free will, but, yes, I am ridiculously open to such suggestion.

I can't imagine a cake working without eggs, I'll have to try it some day.

I'd love a huge kitchen diner, in fact I have often fantasised about knocking all the walls down and having nothing but a kitchen on this floor with a ginormous table, but I'd lose my office and probably render the house unsalable!

Philip ~ thank you, there are a few things that seem to exert a pull on me, and this seems like a good opportunity to explore why.

Jenny ~ sausages are much better for your teeth!

Eryl Shields said...

Dave ~ not always, but I try my best!

Golden West said...

What a delicious piece of writing, Eryl! Thanks for taking me along to the kitchens of your youth - loved it!

Lulu LaBonne said...

Kitchens really are the heart of a home aren't they? I too bake for therapy - that drizzle looks divine.

Great bowls!

Eryl Shields said...

Golden ~ you are most welcome, glad you enjoyed the trip!

Lulu ~ all the nicest people seem to bake for therapy, I've noticed.

Bowls are such useful things, and as pretty ones can double up as serving dishes I've rather indulged over the years.

Titus said...

This is just a wow from start to finish. The two kitchens I grew up in loom large in my memory too.
I can remember us all (7) sitting round it when the newspaper headline was "The King is Dead" (Elvis).
Boys go back on 26th. When am I coming over?

Titus said...

The "it" above is a huge round wooden table. Bit tired.

Eryl Shields said...

I'm glad you clarified that 'it' all sorts of images came to me for the few seconds it took to get to your second comment.

Give me some dates, I'm almost always here week-days.

rochambeau said...

Dear Eryl,
Your kitchen memories are magical and make me smile too.
I like that you love to bake, that you are a Kitchen Bitch.
I especially hearing about your mothers talents and how your mother was.
AND your Auntie Elieens kitchen. WOW. I'll have to send to a photo of a drawing that reminds me of her kitchen.

You have a terrific sense of humor too. Wouldn't your son flip if you made him a Barbie cake?

I'm toasting my coffee cup to you this morning.

Happy Haikuing!


ps my mom thinks your cake looks delish too.

Eryl Shields said...

Delighted to have made you smile, Constance, the haiku aren't going quite as well as the baking, but I guess I've been baking for thirty years and only haikuing for a week or so.

I think if I made Bob a barbie cake he'd give me one of his looks, but eat it anyway.

Maggie May said...

Glad to have found your blog, making me laugh and feel wistful ( and hungry ) all at once.

Meri said...

That post is simply divine! And now I understand a bit why you named your blog as you did. (And feel free to have another look before bedtime . . . sweet dreams!)

Eryl Shields said...

Maggie ~ nice to meet you.

Meri ~ I will certainly do that, thanks.

Leni Qinan said...

What a beautiful essay on your most loved kitchens! Mothers' kitchens are always warm and cosy... I ued to do my homework there when I was little, while my mom cooked dinner...
I should try baking as a therapy. Any therapy that can cure heart scars...

Tim, Lisa, Trenton, and Grant said...


angryparsnip said...

Sorry am so late and none of my Comments are being published ? ? ?
I almost cried, well I did, reading this post... I could see my Mum in every word...
Lovely writing and beautiful photos !

cheers, parsnip

The World According To Me said...

What a heart warmimg post. They do say the kitchen is the heart of most peoples homes.
I love kitchens too. In particular my parents kitchen. It's huge and homely and full of lovely bright things. When there are family get togethers it's the kitchen we all love sitting in, eating cake after cake, after cake!
And I'm loving the look of your cake!

rochambeau said...

Hey Eryl,
I forgot to ask you. What did you mean:
Ella Fitzgerald? Her music? her style?

Hows your kitchen today? Yesterday I made pizza dough. I've decided it's the best therapy for my recovering wrist. I'm going on a bread phase.


Eryl Shields said...

Leni ~ heart scars, oh no! Anything's worth trying and for me baking would definitely be top of the list. If you can get lost in it for a while, maybe be taken right back to your mother's kitchen, it may well work.

Tim et al ~ thank you.

Parsnip ~ you can be as late as you need, the door is always open for you. I've been having comment problems too.

I hope it was a good cry you had. There seems to be a universal mother quality that we all recognise, which is rather comforting.

World ~ kitchens, I'm beginning to think, are where it's at!

Constance ~ by Ella Fitzgerald I think I meant it had perfect tone: style and function in complete symbiosis.

Mary Witzl said...

That really is lovely. I'm a kitchen person myself, and I often bake for therapy -- and for a happy family. The person I yearn to find is one who washes dishes for therapy and loves good food. I've only met one man like this and he was gay and taken, but I swear we were kitchen soul-mates.

I've got a sink full of dirty dishes, no inclination to wash them myself, and two girls, each of who insists it's the other's turn.

But after reading this, I think I'll do my own lemon drizzle cake tonight!

Eryl Shields said...

Did you do one, Mary, a good lemon drizzle cake is a fine thing?

I must come over, I reckon I could do someone else's dishes for therapy and I love good food!

popdisorder said...


Some Chilean Woman said...

Now that's what an egg yolk should look like! Here in Utah eggs are tiny and the yolk is a very light yellow. No bueno.

Eryl said...

Popdisorder ~ I'll happily make you one if you ever come this way.

Some Chilean Woman ~ most of the eggs sold here are pale and flabby too, we have to pay extra for eggs that deserve the name and I find it's well worth it.