A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, with a Recipe for Sugar Buns.

Sugar bun. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Hunger is the most basic, the most primal, of human motivators. Hunger is what drew us out of our caves, drove us to hunt, to make tools, and build fires. Hunger has ploughed fields and raised revolutions. Hunger will get me out of a warm bed on a damp Sunday morning. Even the word, hunger, has become synonymous with ambition and determination, a steely grit.

I am deeply suspicious of a book which has no mention at all of food, or even the lack of food. A day in the life of a human being which didn’t include any food at all would be notable just for that. We all eat, and what’s more, the food  we eat, even if it’s just a plastic-wrapped ham sandwich from a garage, tells a story about who we are. When we don’t eat, because we have lost our appetite, or refuse food in protest, or choose to abstain from food, or simply can’t get sufficient food, tells a whole other story.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a book all about hunger. It’s about wanting more. It is a book which reads like the truth, perhaps because it was, in fact, first written as an honest memoir but reconfigured as fiction at the request of an editor. From its first publication in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an instant bestseller. Almost 75 years later, this book remains relevant and inspiring and an absolute must-read. It is the story of Francie Nolan, daughter of Irish and German immigrants, growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn a century ago. It is a book about the trials of emigration, even to a land of dreams. It is about the reality, the daily struggle to get by, to push forward in the crush for cheap, day-old bread, and it is about the greater battle to carve out a more satisfying existence.

Just as Oliver Twist, “desperate with hunger and reckless with misery,” held up his bowl, Francie Nolan is a girl hungry enough to gather her courage and ask the world for more.

That there is more to be had, she knows because of her mother, Katie, and her mother’s mother, Mary Rommely. It is Mary who insists that Katie read to her children, a page every day from the bible and another of Shakespeare.

“You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great – knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”

And it is Mary who, even though she can neither read nor write, appreciates the value of teaching children about fairies, elves and dwarfs, and ghosts and signs of evil and Kris Kringle.

“The child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe.”

These were women who saw the possibilities, women with enough imagination to see beyond the daily grind. But they were also practical, and brave, and relentless. They have devised dozens of ways to make a dinner from a stale loaf, Weg Geschnissen one day and fricadellen the next. They have saved pennies in tin cans and have imagined possibilities.

Where lesser women might have been content to merely put dinner on the table, Katie is committed to feeding Francie’s hunger.

“Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”

Katie wants more for her children than money. She is appalled that they might turn out like the spoilt pub-owner’s child who throws candy down the gutter rather than share it with her neighbours. She knows there must be something more than money to escaping their world.

“Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and the dirt.”

If Francie’s hunger, nursed by her mother and her grandmother, is for a bigger life, beyond the confines of working class Brooklyn, she knows instinctively that she will find it by the power of books.

There are people for whom words are almost as vital as food, people whose eyes scan constantly for things to read, people who will scavenge words wherever they can. Francie Nolan is one of those people.

“Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, timetables and the grocer’s price list.”

The library is a shabby place, and the librarian unhelpful, but Francie thinks it is beautiful. She likes the librarian’s polished desk, likes the brown bowl filled with seasonal flowers, nasturtiums that day, clean blotter and the precise stack of library cards. Everything is neat, tidy, as it should be. This is the portal to the clean, bright future.

Francie has a plan: “She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.”

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Betty Smith’s references to food are subtle and yet fundamental to undertanding Francie’s drive and willpower. The very basis of the Nolan family’s being in America is rooted in starvation. Johnny Nolan, Francie’s Papa, is of Irish stock. His people “came over from Ireland the year the potatoes gave out.” Having been spared famine, Johnny has no ambition. He is a man of little substance, “a sweet singer of sweet songs” who hands over his meagre wages but keeps his tips for booze.

Johnny’s wife, Katie, knows that he’s sweet and useless; she is not bitter but often hungry.

Johnny’s fecklessness leaves the family literally on the brink of starvation. When Katie can’t buy food she invents a game in which she and the children pretend to be arctic explorers trapped by a blizzard, eek-ing out their rations and waiting for help.

All is forgiven when Johnny returns from singing at a wedding with a feast of someone else’s leftovers.  Francie and her brother, who went to bed hungry, wake up in the middle of the night to a feast of lobster, oysters, caviar and Roquefort cheese.

‘They were so hungry that they ate everything on the table and digested it too, during the night. They could have digested nails had they been able to chew them.’

Eating all that food, it turned out, by the rules of the day and the Catholic Church, was a sin. Francie had broken the fast which should have lasted from mid-night until mass time. Keeping people hungry, of course, has always been an effective way to quell any bid for freedom. Francie learns that playing by the rules won’t get you what you want. She would gain her freedom even if she had to cheat a little, or lie once or twice and she would pay for the lies with her pride.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn details the gradual unravelling of innocence, the end of a childhood and awakening of an intelligent, determined young woman. Betty Smith peels back the veil on ordinary lives, like opening the front of an old dollhouse. She lays bare the truth of her own youth in a series of intensely detailed vignettes. The reader is left with the feeling of being trusted with a confidence; it is a sensation almost of privilege. If you one of those people who craves books and feeds on the written word, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will leave you with a warm glow of satisfaction.


Sugar Buns.

When things are good, when Papa stays sober enough to hold down a job and the Nolan family gets a stab at happiness, when they have more to eat than a variety of meals concocted from stale bread, they eat sugar buns. From their first happy married days, when they worked together on a night shift, Katie and Johnny loved arriving home to have ‘a breakfast of hot coffee and warm sweet buns.’ The piano teacher is paid in house-cleaning services, and an agreement to have coffee and a sugar bun at the end of every lesson.

When Katie feels secure, she gives Francie the five cents that might have gone to the tin can of savings and says instead,

“All right. Get the buns.”

Francie takes her time choosing four buns, the ones with the most sugar on top.

Each member of the Nolan family was allowed a cup of hot coffee from the pot. Katie considered the coffee a worthwhile indulgence. What’s more, Francie was permitted to simply cradle the warmth of her coffee, if that was what made her happy, and then throw it down the sink.

I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be to have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.’

Waste not, want not is the doctrine of those who must make do with what they have. Katie understood the value of wanting more. The sugar bun is a treat but also serves to make Francie aware of the possibilities.

“The girl felt that even if she had less than anybody in Williamsburg, somehow she had more. She was richer because she had something to waste. She ate her sugar bun slowly, reluctant to have done with its sweet taste, while the coffee got ice-cold.”

Life won’t, and can’t, be all sweet buns, but when you get one, I suggest you make a pot of good, strong coffee and take the time to relish it.

Ingredients.

1 lb (450g) strong bread flour
½ tsp salt
1 oz (30g) sugar
1 packet (7g) of easy-action dried yeast
2 oz (60g) butter
½ pint (275 ml) milk

8 oz (225g) icing or confectioner’s sugar
1 lemon

Method.

Mix the flour, sugar and salt and yeast together in a large bowl.

Melt the butter. I place it in a glass measuring jug and melt it in the microwave. Add the milk to the melted butter. The milk and butter combined should be close to blood temperature – such that you can dip your pinkie finger in and it will feel neither hot nor cold. You may need to heat it a little more to reach this point.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix to combine into a rough ball.

Turn the dough on to flour-dusted surface and knead it, stretching it away from you with the heel of your palm and drawing it back into a ball. Turn it, stretch it, pull it, push it, give it a bash…you won’t find any better therapy. Continue to knead for at least eight minutes by which time the dough should feel more elastic. It should spring back if you press your thumb into it and have a silky appearance.

Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover it with a tea-towel or, more effectively, a shower cap. Leave it in a warm place to rise for about two hours.

Now, the best part: take your risen dough and use your hands to knock the puff out of it. You don’t need to knead it again. Divide the dough into eight pieces. Take each of these pieces in turn and form them into round buns by rolling them around between your palm and the work surface. Use a tucking under action to smooth the surface of each bun.

Place the buns on an oven tray, cover them again with a cloth or cling film, and leave them in a warm place for an hour or so until you can see that they have risen up.

Brush each bun with a little milk and bake in an oven pre-heated to 200˚C for 20-25 minutes. They should have a golden colour.

While the buns cool, mix the icing sugar with enough lemon juice to make a fairly stiff paste. This should take the juice of half a lemon, maybe a little more. Spread this icing over the buns and allow it to harden.

While you wait, make the coffee.

Sweet Buns. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

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A Light Breeze, Rising Slowly.

“The inclusion of peas also seems to stop the wind, the other sort, not the one that rattles down the chimney.”

That’s Nigel Slater, in his new book, The Christmas Chronicles, writing about his recipe for Jerusalem artichoke and pea soup. I’ve heard, of course, of the explosively flatulent effects of the Jerusalem artichoke but I had never even seen one, let alone eaten one, so I didn’t fully appreciate how significant the inclusion of peas might, or might not, be. Still, Slater’s doggedly honest writing really hit a nerve in me, not just this recipe but his writing in general, and I resolved to set forth on a search for the infamous root.

Then, would you credit it, on the very same day (last Saturday), I was picking up a bottle of organic wine in the farm shop (how fantastically middle class is that statement?) at Ballymaloe Cookery School (yes, very fancy) when I discovered they had the aforementioned artichokes for sale (well, naturally). The stars were aligned, my friends,IMG_0057

and my bowels were in for a shock.

No, Mr. Slater, the peas did not alleviate the situation, or if they did, God help the soul who went without them. Dear Lord, I was so full of gas my ears popped.

I suppose I ought to mention that the soup was delicious. Everyone agreed it was yummy, and then quietly removed themselves to private (well-ventilated) spaces.

I’m left with two tubers which I held back from the soup pot with the intention of planting them. They are, by all accounts, ridiculously easy to grow. I can’t decide, now, what to do with them. Has anyone any advice? Is there a secret I don’t know? Maybe I should just raffle them off on Instagram? (WIN!! Farty tubers!! Tag your friends!!…)

Let me try to redeem myself somewhat from that unseemly interlude:

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That blue Le Creuset pot was a wedding present, making it twenty years old. I used to use it for making casseroles until the family out-grew it and I had to buy a bigger pot (not Le Creuset, sadly, more the industrial catering variety). The lovely blue pot, then, fell out of use for years and years which was a source of genuine regret. I would move it about from shelf to dusty shelf with a mixture of affection and irritation.

About eighteen months ago, I discovered The Common Loaf from Riot Rye and set about becoming the sort of person who has a sourdough starter living at the back of her fridge (I do!) and makes real, really good, bread. I think I’m about three-quarters of the way there. In other words, my bread turns out to be really good about 75% of the time. The two things that make the greatest difference, I think, are time (it really needs at least twenty-four hours rising, there’s just no way to cheat on that) and the blue Le Creuset pot.

The pot gets pre-heated in the oven, the dough goes in, and when I lift the lid an hour later I get this:

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I’m experimenting at the moment with a recipe for walnut bread. It’s a long story but the shortest version of it is that, when I was in Paris, I bought a booklet of recipes for things to make with leftovers of Poilâne’s walnut bread. (Here is an article from The New Yorker about Poilâne, if such things interest you, and here is a video in which Julia Child visits Poilâne and bakes bread.)IMG_0096

Now I have managed to make myself some very good walnut bread. Yeay!It might not be from Poilâne but listen, short of moving to Paris, what are my options ?IMG_0119

However, the chance of there being leftovers is slim to nill. And, could there possibly be any better use for them than buttery toast?IMG_0147

I’m 160 pages in to The Break by Marian Keyes. I’m totally hooked…need more toast…

Hope you’re having a good week,
Lynda.

PS. There is NO LIGHT at all coming from the sky these days and my photos look miserable. A set of fairy lights (three euros twenty-six) is the most cost effective lighting solution I can come up with.

Cookbooks Tried and Tested: Rory O’Connell’s Cook Well, Eat Well.

Sicilian Cassata Cake. Rory O'Connell.

For the sake of full disclosure, let me remind you all that I live in Cork and that Rory O’Connell is a local food hero. I am, in this case, a biased reviewer. Fortunately, his book lived up to expectations…and then some.

Rory O’Connell’s first book, Master It, won the prestigious André Simon Food Book Award in 2013. It is, in essence, a concise cookery course with sections devoted to various techniques: stocks and soups, pan-frying, casserole-roasting, hot puddings, a few cakes, and so on. In his second book, Cook Well, Eat Well, O’Connell continues in the role of teacher but this time presents his recipes in a series of separate menus.

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Each menu contains three courses, a starter, a complementary main course and something sweet to close. The meals are arranged according to the seasons and for each season there is one vegetarian meal. O’Connell takes seasonal cooking as his starting point …Click here to read on.

Heartburn, Bread Pudding and October Books.

Nora Ephron's Heartburn. Bread Pudding.

Nora Ephron‘s Heartburn made me laugh and made me cook. I built my October Cooking the Books column around her recipe for bread pudding. Read more by clicking here. Trust me, this one is worth it.Nora Ephron's Heartburn. Bread Pudding.

I get a particular satisfaction out of reading books in the appropriate season and it is all the sweeter when I can match reading material to the month at hand. Am I alone?

The Hunt For Red October. Tom Clancy

I compiled a list of October books, strictly those which have October in the title. You can read that by clicking here.

I would write more for you but I’ve used up all my time on France (that sounds better if you sing it to the tune of This Charming Man); 9,000 words –I’ve made it to Midday on Saturday. I can’t stop now, I’m committed to it.

Bisous,
Lynda.

 

Books for Francophiles.

Shakespeare and Company

I bet you’re wondering how the write-up of My Weekend in Paris is going. Très lentement, I believe, is the phrase. I’m up to 5000 words and I haven’t got through dinner on Friday night. C’est fou!.

While you wait, I thought I might catch you up on what I’ve been reading. You’ll notice a francophile theme. In fact, the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a preponderance of books set in France in recent months.

Coeurs a la Creme and Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

I compiled a list of great love stories set in France which you can find HERE. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an old favourite, and certainly bore a second reading but my most beloved on that last has to be A Tale of Two Cities. Is it the best of books or the worst of books? I’ve never found anyone who loves it as much as I do. I think it’s one of the most romantic stories ever told but then, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for a bit of unrequited love. I happened across an ancient copy, in French, in the library of Shakespeare and Company which seemed to me like it could have magical powers. It seemed to weigh more in my hands than the weight of the pages. Does that make sense?

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Back in August, I followed Hemingway to Paris in this article about A Moveable Feast, complete with a fine recipe ( if I do say so myself) for crabe mexicaine, a dish which Hem and Hadley had as a great treat after a big win at the races. If you missed that, it’s HERE.

Beatrice Colin’s To Capture What We Cannot Keep was my holiday reading. I couldn’t resist the beautiful cover. My review is HERE.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep. Beatrice Colin

I’ve spent this past week with my head stuck in the glorious, inspiring and very moving history of Shakespeare and Company– The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Here’s a tip if you’re contemplating Christmas gift shopping: buy it from the Shakepeare and Company, online, and they will add the legendary shop stamp for you along with customising your gift in the sweetest ways.

Anyway, we made a pretty picture, the family glued to Bake-Off while I sat in the corner with tears streaming down my face. Ethan Hawke made me cry, not for the first time. He can write.

Shakespeare and Company

I stole an hour extra in bed this morning to begin Julia Child’s My Life in France. Already, I adore it. From page one it is warm and funny and self-effacing and fascinating and lovely.

With Julia’s voice in my head, the day has been spent cooking. I’m testing/reviewing Rory O’Connell’s new book– by golly, we are eating well!

Sicilian Cassata Cake. Rory O'Connell.

There’s a slice of Sicilian Cassata cake with my name on it waiting patiently so I will bid you adieu and a good weekend,

Lynda.

But now in September the garden has cooled…

But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.   Robert Finch.

To be honest with you, the garden has broken loose of my feeble attempts to keep it under control. Our Irish summer lived up to its damp reputation and my mind has been occupied with indoor projects (the room!). I can never manage to keep both inside and outside of the house the way I’d like to. They seem to require two different, mutually exclusive, states of mind. Or, maybe I’m just lazy.

Small Girl’s outdoor café has been invaded by nasturtiums. I’ve suggested she call on The Doctor for a solution but she has, rather inventively I thought, taken to selling nasturtium sushi rolls. The kick you get from eating nasturtium seeds is very similar to wasabi; she could be on to something.IMG_9078 (2)

Despite the weather, we’ve had huge satisfaction from the edible end of our garden. Husband’s elephant garlic, aside from giving me a near-concussion, has provided endless amusement. Incredibly, the advice for using this is to add exactly the same number of cloves as you would of regular garlic. The flavour is sweeter and less pungent and the garlic breath, we think, less noxious. It’s hard to tell , since we are all eating it. At the other end, unfortunately, there seems to be a payback in pungent gaseous emissions. IMG_8816 (2)

The fruit trees are coming on. We had four dozen, or so, delicious apples. There were, I swear, seven perfect cherries but the birds picked us clean. Gah.

Our pear tree has us flummoxed. It’s growing at a great rate and rapidly approaching some overhead lines that we, stupidly, failed to notice when we planted it. However, it produced only a handful of pears, half of which were blown off in a storm.

This was the only one to reach the kitchen, hard as a bullet and free from juice. I don’t mind, I don’t really like pears anyway.

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Figs. I thought I didn’t like figs. That’s clearly because I’d never had a fresh fig, straight from the tree. I was flabbergasted. There must be some fragile flavour components that deteriorate quite quickly in figs because these, honestly, were fragrant and delicious. We had about thirty from our five-year-old tree. It’s a Brown Turkey. We followed advice to plant it in a big pot with a hole made in the bottom and sunk into the ground because figs like their roots to be restrained. IMG_8702

AND, we have olives, can you believe it? IMG_9108

There are still a few crops to harvest. The girls forage for raspberries, blackberries and fairy strawberries when they come in from school. We’ve planted some winter salad and beetroot. I’m sharing the kale with the butterflies. What harm?IMG_9155

There will be turnips.IMG_9207

Also, there will be oca, and plenty of it. I think it will be ready to eat around November and my fingers are crossed that we will like it because it is a pretty plant and spectacularly easy to grow. I’ve heard it described as something that looks like a potato and tastes like a lemon. Regardless, the combination of oca and rampant nasturtiums is making a neglected corner look rather lush.IMG_9211

I’m not brilliant at getting plant combinations right. I think it takes tremendous knowledge, forethought and skill to put the right plants together and keep beds looking good through the seasons. Nevertheless, I’ve had some happy accidents that, truly, make my heart skip a beat. It is these gifts of loveliness that make you believe in an all-knowing Mother Nature. The Verbena bonariensis seems to look good wherever it grows but particularly vibrant against the weeping cotoneaster.IMG_9203

When we had narry a plant, a friend gave me a plastic bag filled with Japanese anenome seedlings which she had weeded out of her own garden and promised would soon fill up mine. I have to admit that I don’t really like the plant part, the leaves are too grey and thuggish. Every year since, I have decided to dig them out and then, when the flowers have finally come, changed my mind. I think they look especially lovely coming through this crab apple tree.IMG_9170

If I could only have one tree, it would be a crab apple tree.

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I went out early this morning, to gather photos and my thoughts. I have made an effort not to look at the garden as another list of jobs to be done. It will never be perfect. It will never be finished.

It is simply the space outside my back door where I go to breathe deeply, to look for small wonders, to indulge my inner farmer,IMG_9157

to see beauty in the everyday, every day.IMG_9160

Dew-drops…IMG_9171

Pollen…IMG_9191

Sweet-peas, still…IMG_9100

Giant, ugly, brutish, prickly teasels, back-lit by the sun’s rays reflecting off apples…IMG_9179

Fallen petals caught by rhubarb leaves…IMG_8620

Tired, ragged butterfly taking one more leap onwards…IMG_8624

Wishing you a lovely weekend.
Lynda.

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A Review and a Recipe.

IMG_8572Refuge resonates with a ring of truth. Dina Nayeri reveals her own story, her own experience as an expatriate, her own insight into the life of Iranian refugees seeking shelter in Europe, and all under the wispy veil of two words, inserted in a tiny font, between the title and her name: ‘a novel.’

To read my review, and discover a really easy-peasy but very yummy recipe, CLICK HERE.