To mellow out a scary day. Sunday July 19.

My feeble excursions into the garden in these last weeks, luckily when there is less to do than at some times of the year, have been mainly to harvest and give extra water where needed (to the Astia zucchini at front in the pot, for instance. Incidentally this is a great variety for small gardens, and pots – it grows in a circle, doesn’t meander, unlike the heirloom Cocozelle, which, being stripey, is so pretty but also greedy, stealing space, ploughing into squashing and flattening all other meeker plants in its path), to tie up bunches of grapes and tomatoes to protect them from the beasts. 

Or to put that more correctly, I should say: to preserve the fruit for US. No doubt the critters see this as stealing fruit from them. And if they could tie us up in bags they would.

Talking of this relation between animals and humans, between the wild and the domesticated, or the wildness within the gates of domesticity, within urbanity, here is a most unusual and unnerving novel about species interactions: The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay. Although written before the pandemic it eerily prefigures our current situation. Set in Australia it begins on a wild life preserve just as an epidemic is striking the country and everyone is masking up. A most peculiar effect of the virus is that those who are afflicted acquire the ability to hear animals speaking. They do not speak, though, through their mouths, but meaning emanates through their bodily parts and smells and sweat. Is that meaning immediately accessible? No. And so communication is not automatic or serendipitous. The novel charts the relationship between a foul talking drinking fornicating grandmother and her kin, which gradually narrows down to a Dingo she saved as a pup. Their journey is extraordinary, slowly the tables flip as the dog cares for and guides the increasingly sick woman, but as the role of carer is adopted so too many of the attributes that come with The Carer are put into play: domination and punishment as well as patronage. Remarkably unsentimental, the novel – even through its humor – explores a larger-than-human world and casts a grim spotlight on human presumption. Although it is a very different kind of novel, it echoes Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk.

It was Helen Barnes who recommended The Animals to me and who also sent this image from Melbourne, which she described as

grevillea robina doing ikebana all by itself.

Though it’s winter in Melbourne, here summer has really arrived. It’s hot and dry, all the spice zees and all the nectarines have been eaten and the strawberries, exhausted by their own fructosity, are slowing their production.

Though there are some last gasps of strawberry magic:

And This is Jerrelle Guy’s strawberry spoon cake. The recipe popped up out of nowhere and made a beeline for my taste buds, so I made it immediately and wow is it good. Especially if you like puddings, as it’s a kind of hybrid cake-pudding.

See the curly crispy bits around the edge and the sense of sogginess it exudes

It’s a very friendly recipe, easily accommodating of variations and substitutions. I used quite a lot more strawberries and also, before popping it in the oven, poured over the top a bit of cream remaining in the fridge.

Way to go – with ice cream

The front garden is transformed from the bountiful colorful and variegated splendor of spring. Though streaks of color remain: 

between Peggy’s agapanthus and Steve’s sunflower the little frog keeps watch

and the bee works away

these photos were actually taken a few weeks ago and by now that sunflower is dusty and deadish looking but the seeds remain – for the birds.

And the fennel, sprawling and bushy now, remains for the caterpillars, but also to provide structure for other plants to grow through

Some mornings I wake early, as the sun is coming up and the air is cool and am tempted to throw on my gardening clothes and get out there; but the temptation is weak, the serpent in the garden of Eden is somnolent, and so am I and so I slither back to bed. Then, a few hours later, I rise to face the day, though by then it is too hot to work in the garden.

Breakfast, slow and lazy – minimal maybe if you are feeling slender and the day ahead looks streamlined, or extravagant and luscious if you need to be tickled into the day – breakfast always slow and lazy, this is one of the perks of an involuntary slowing down. It’s also a way of keeping the terror at bay. 

That chevre I wrote about in the last blog, well it turned up everywhere, in many guises

on toast, unsullied by any accompaniment, its creamy tartness opening your sleepy senses to the world

with honey, on fig and walnut soda bread

Through my absorption of cooking shows during the last month I discovered (among many other useful things) soda breads as a quick and easy solution for those breadless days when I have either forgotten or been too fatigued to make dough in the evening.

here’s s seedy one

And here, heaven on a stick: freshly made strawberry jam with fresh chèvre on delicious toast. The textures: crunch and slinkiness, chunkiness and sticky sweetness.

Chèvre, however, isn’t the only cheese in the world

Some days fruit and tomatoes and a few varieties of cheese – oozy and chalky alike – is all it takes for breakfast

to mellow out a scary day

and when you want nothing but simple perfection: Paul Robeson on an oat cake

Then there’s burnt cheesecake. What a revelation! Nilo baked this for us

I remember Nilo as a little kid, and his sister Sabina, at a Thanksgiving dinner, intrigued by the food and amused by the whimsy. When we are hosting Thanksgiving we usually construct a meal around a single seasonal fruit or vegetable – every drink or dish has somehow to contain or refer to the chosen item. That year it was quince. And now he is an adult, cooking and experimenting with all sorts of ingredients, spinning tradition.

On Sunday mornings a different sort of breakfast, when Jeffrey delivers endless variations on the humble egg. Here he lets the Persian tomato rice star.

This came as a gift from Nilo’s Dad, Brian, and Parastou. She knows I love her rice, particularly the burnt crispy bits.

This is what it looked like when it arrived

oops, slight mishap as it was unmolded

but somehow the mishap makes more evident the contrast of crispy exterior and fluffy inside. It lasted us through many meals.

Part of me feels fraudulent, being the recipient of such generosity, when I am not so ill or bereft of food. But a much larger part of me feels pure delight when these unexpectedly rich tokens of friendship appear, dishes so lovingly prepared, dishes I would not make myself. I have been very drained going through this initial phase of the one-year treatment for the return of the chronic lymphocytic leukemia, particularly since most of last year was taken up with treatment for lung cancer. It sometimes seems never ending just like Covid-19. And now I’m about to embark on the next phase, adding in the next drug which for the first 5 weeks involves an intensive blood testing regime (lots of trips to the hospital), and a low potassium diet for the whole year. No potato, avocado, oranges, white beans and countless other things. Millions of people manage this diet as it’s what people on dialysis have to opt for, so I dare so I will too, though it will test my imaginative limits. Hopefully I can keep up the colorful pics! In the next week, before D Day, I plan to gorge on all the forbidden foods. This morning for breakfast: egg and bacon accompanied by utterly delicious fried potatoes with tarragon and rosemary left over from last night’s dinner. Jeffrey eventually revealed the secret ingredient that secured that deliciousness: duck fat!

One day the whole Alsidnawi family turned up, all in their masks and bearing beautiful flowers, a bottle of Holy water from the Holy Land, and a complex perfumed dish of stewed okra that Merfet knows I crave, as well as her distinctive Syrian rice with vermicelli.

But the greatest gift was to see them all, albeit at a distance. Huda calls regularly but I miss her and her sisters and parents. Neither J nor I have family in this country, but they have become kin. To actually share a physical space of laughter, even if muffled by masks, is amazingly energizing.

That round squash on the plate is my attempt to instantiate a childhood memory from Zimbabwe. We called them cricket ball marrows for obvious reasons, but such a name does not exist in the seed catalogues of today. These are called Eight Ball and I’m guessing they are a hybrid development of those childhood squash. We would eat them boiled, cut in half and filled with butter, salt and pepper. Describing them brings the taste to my lips! Eight ball are pretty nice but not as nutty and the squash are not as fleshy. But this might be about memory and the tricks it plays. Do any of my Zim friends remember these squash?

Thank you too to Doris for the mujadara; Marivi for the whimsical concoction, looked like a chocolate cake until you cut into it and it was bright orange – a carrot cake covered in ganash; Nancy for flowers and Lesley R for the marvelous Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.

It is with some sadness that I end today. Two deaths: an old friend in Australia, Tom O’Regan, and the other a person I did not know personally but who has been an inspiration, a public figure so impressive in his dedicated “staying with the trouble”: the great John Lewis. May his legacy live on, and guide us in the days ahead.

6 thoughts on “To mellow out a scary day. Sunday July 19.

  1. Thanks for the book recs! Am sending lots of love as you move intotthrough this next course of treatment. xxoo

  2. Wish I was there eating all that with you. We are locked down again here. It’s a battle. Good luck with the next round of treatment. Love to the Alsidnawis.

  3. Food, flowers — everything looks beautiful. Those cheesecakes are all the rage (for good reason) here in Melbourne where they’re often labelled Basque cheesecakes. Yum. It’s funny you mention those squash with butter; my partner spent his childhood in South Africa and often talks about these amazing squash he ate with butter and salt and pepper as a child. He loves to treat the sweet white zucchini my mum grows the same way, but says they are not the same as the squash he grew up with. Sending you love and luck for the next phase of treatment x

  4. Leslie, You are a marvel. You use words like a chef uses spicy ingredients—“eating something luscious and extravagant if you need to be tickled into the day…” So enjoy “talking” with you via these posts—your mind-brain is fertile as are your senses, and I thank you for taking time to feel your senses, appreciate them, and express those impressions to us. Thanks. Blessings on this peculiar month ahead❤️ B Bolton-Brown

  5. We used to call ed the round squash, gem squash. I loved them with butter melting in the middle as achild. The ones we get here aren’t the same – orange, fibrous and dry things. I agree with Alexia above, steamed zucchini are a bit like them in taste and texture.
    Thanks for making me salivate at strawberry spoon cake but can’t access the recipe without a NYT subs. It’s ok, I can enjoy the imagining of the taste! Enjoy the weekend. Love xxx.

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