‘Twas the day before Christmas, when all through the land
The nerves of the masses were stretched like a band
After finding once more that they’d left things so late,
That there’s really no chance that their day would be great.
The children are praying for Playstation 4
But the shops are all empty, the signs say ‘No more’.
For Johnny a CD, for Tilly a dress
A keyboard between them so it costs a bit less.
When on the TV there appears ‘La Nigella’
For a change it’s got nothing to do with her fella.
She’s stuffing a turkey with handfuls of cake,
And boasting how easy it all was to bake.
She’s roasting potatoes in a gallon of lard
And telling us all that this feast isn’t hard.
While there in your kitchen, you reflect with a pout,
There’s nothing prepared, not so much as a sprout.
You meant to be organised, get started quickly,
But the effort of trying just made you feel sickly.
Until with a tremor you noticed the date,
And were forced to admit that you’d left it too late!
“Now Tesco! Now, Asda! Now, Aldi and Lidl!
You’ve queued up for hours, you’re bursting to widdle!
You don’t have a turkey or stuffing or spuds!
They’ve sold out of chestnuts, there are no Christmas puds!”
As you scramble for apples, satsumas and nuts
You get the most terrible pain in the guts.
It’s not out of hunger, it’s even more shocking
You’ve yet to find gifts that will fit in a stocking.
And then, in a moment, you get an idea
So you dive in the car and zoom off to Ikea.
You stock up on Daim bars and napkins in red,
And cushions with elks on to place on the bed.
You load up on pencils and paper tape measures,
Brown paper and string like they’re all buried treasures.
There are lampshades and glassware and Lufsig and Mala.
And a yellow felt creature called Vlad the Impala.
You try not to picture the children’s sad looks
As they open their stockings and find photo hooks.
But you don’t have much choice, you resolve to be fiendish
Point out to the children that Lapland is Swedish.
At least you remembered to buy some mince pies!
Though the kids say they hate them ‘cause they’re made out of flies.
And there’s half a Swiss roll that the kids haven’t seen
And some frozen puff pastry and a full squirty cream.
As you tuck in the children you make the old threat
“If you don’t go to sleep then you know what you’ll get!
Father Christmas won’t call and then you will be sad.
It’ll be your own faults, don’t blame me or your dad!”
Then you sit in the lounge feeling shattered, not merry!
Just wondering if you should drink all the sherry.
And you turn on the Christmas lights, draped on the tree
Fall asleep to the Christmas edition of Glee.
You wake in the morning at quarter to four
As the kids come and empty their stuff on the floor.
“Just look what we got in our stockings!” they yap
And you beg for some peace “Please let mum have a nap!”
Once you’re up and about, though the presents are scrappy.
The children are playing and reasonably happy.
As you start to relax, there’s a knock at the door.
You forgot you’d invited your mother-in-law.
I had to go to the supermarket – the kids had gone and eaten the food again – and I decided to get some cheese to go with our spaghetti dinner. When you want a particular cheese, you really notice how many there are on offer, ranging from the absolutely inedible ‘plastic’ cheeses specifically designed to adorn burgers to rustically packaged Camembert that shows up with almost clockwork regularity on Come Dine With Me, accompanied by crusty bread they have bunged in the oven and pretended to bake. There were about 20 different types of Cheddar alone and I found it mildly intimidating, to be honest. And then there was the Quark. Before today, I thought that was just something I’d heard Brian Cox wittering about – the trendy physicist, rather than the versatile actor – or even an avaricious character from Star Trek. But now I know that it’s also pretend cheese.
There’s a back story to this cheese hunt. Recently, our household has been experiencing ‘birthday fortnight’; it’s like Wimbledon fortnight, in as much as it happens every summer, is ridiculously expensive and invariably ends in sweaty exhaustion. Sadly, there are no generous sponsors, no trophies and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe, but on the plus side, I don’t have to entertain any members of the royal family or maintain a pristine lawn and it isn’t narrated by John McEnroe.
It isn’t really a fortnight, to be honest – it’s very nearly three weeks – but the structure is this: my birthday happens first and is ‘celebrated’ in an understated way with shop-bought cake and the possibility of takeaway food so I don’t have to cook. When I don’t cook, that’s a treat for everyone. Ten days later, it’s my daughter’s birthday and this is taken seriously.
There are birthday traditions in this house:
- I make a cake, based on something they like at the moment and the design is a surprise, which involves me making the cake two days before the birthday so I can decorate it the following day. This also means that once the decorating starts, the birthday child has to be kept out of the kitchen, which is an extra gift to them because it absolves them of tea-making duties.
- I make a card, based on something they like at the moment and featuring the birthday person somehow in the design. The acquisition of photo-editing software made this much easier than when I used to do it using scissors and paint. This also remains a secret from the birthday person, so they aren’t allowed within sight of my laptop screen.
- I make a poster, featuring them doing something odd-looking and with a ‘humorous’ caption. This goes on the living-room wall for them to see when they get up in the morning.
- I draw and write on a couple of balloons and hang them near the bed of the person in question once they’ve gone to sleep.
They seem to like these traditions. The youngest, who has just turned 13, certainly does, although the others may be humouring me on the last one.
So, as I said, it goes: my birthday, ten days later – elder daughter’s birthday. Three days after that is my father-in-law’s birthday, for which I don’t have to do anything except buy the present and the card, then wrap the present and tell my husband what we bought, so he won’t look surprised when it’s unwrapped. Since it’s almost always some DVDs, he’s unlikely to look surprised, but better safe than sorry. Four days after that, so one week after my elder daughter’s birthday, it’s my elder son’s birthday AND my younger daughter’s birthday. They are not twins. There is, in fact, 11 years between them and they were both born on a Monday. I’m considering hiring them out as proof that astrology is nonsense, since they’re very different people apart from the dry sarcasm that my children all, inexplicably, share.
You may have realised by now that the birthday traditions, as outlined above, become quite complicated when two of your offspring share a birthday, but are 11 years apart and don’t like the same things. I start making their cards and posters early so that the two days I spend, entirely in the kitchen, making and decorating cakes are not fraught with the added stress of knowing I have those jobs hanging over me as well.
But that’s not all. Two days after the double birthday is my father’s birthday. This year, he turned 90, which is quite special, so I made him a cake and a card. I didn’t sneak into his house and hang balloons by his bed, because I don’t think killing him with a heart attack is the ideal way to start his 90th birthday.
So … back to the cheese. I decided to make a cheese board, which isn’t a group of people who sit around making decisions about cheese as you might suppose, but a small selection of cheeses, arranged on a board – or a fancy tray that came with a garden candle – and accompanied by some crackers. Amongst these cheeses was a garlic roulade, which absolutely nobody wanted to eat, so I ended up sticking it in the pasta and it tasted quite nice. So that’s why I ended up in the supermarket, looking for cheese for the pasta. Which reminds me of the final birthday tradition – living on leftovers.
Nigel, I think I love you. You’re just the perfect man.
The way you know what herbs to pick,
The way you handle a pan.
Your programmes make me hungry
Even when I’ve eaten.
Your food’s so tasty looking,
Presentation can’t be beaten.
You use the freshest items,
That you’ve grown and then selected.
Your recipes are works of art,
That you’ve made and then perfected.
Your little tips and hints are great
It almost gives me hope,
Yet when I try to cook the stuff it tastes like granny’s soap.
So I sit here with my weetabix
And a cup of lukewarm tea.
And I wish that you would come round here
And make some food for me.
I don’t need home-made ice-cream,
With caramelized fruit,
I’d just love a cooked breakfast
That didn’t taste like ‘boot’.
So Nigel, can you visit?
And cook me up a treat?
Oh, just one thing, before you come,
I don’t eat fish or meat.
I know some of you have probably made the assumption that I’m a domestic goddess, which I have recently learned does NOT mean that you have the power to smite cleaners if they refuse to obey your every whim. But, and I’m trying hard to let you down very gently on this point, there’s a chance I might not be that* good at cooking. I can make things that I like. As vegetarian, I am fond of vegetables; which is handy! I love a dish of veg, roasted with garlic, pepper, olive oil, maybe a little coarse salt to finish it off. Lovely! To me! And to nobody else in my house!! So I struggle to make things they like too and end up in dullsville with baked potatoes, oven chips, pasta that isn’t allowed to have much flavour for fear of it being detectable by fussy children. If I had some skill, I could probably find something we’d all like. But I haven’t.
I can do some things in the kitchen, to be fair. I’m not entirely useless. I can balance, plank-like on my hands with my elbows dug into my hips and I’m reasonably certain that I’ve done that in a kitchen. Yes, I can definitely remember having my head right next to the fridge.
If sugar is your poison, I can help you out there, as I can make reasonable cakes in various styles and flavours and, in all modesty, I decorate them very well as only a person who longs for fine art but only has sugarpaste can. I take out my frustrated desire to be Michelangelo on a covered Madeira like nobody else I know. My sugarcraft is one of the very few things I do well and in fact, one time, I briefly came 1st, 2nd and 3rd in a cake decorating competition. When they were giving out the prizes the judge realised they were all for me and changed her mind, demoting my ‘3 Little Pigs’ cake to 4th, in favour of somebody’s ‘Where’s Wally, sitting on a globe’ cake. It was a bit embarrassing, to be honest, as much for ‘Where’s Wally Lady’ and the judge. We could see the other contestants and audience looking at each other in disbelief. The cake that came first had a painting of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane on it and was a 21st birthday cake for my nephew. He loved it and I was pretty proud of it. I came away from the competition experience with 2 books, which went on eBay, the following week because I already had them, and a couple of certificates, which I think I might accidentally have left in the books I sold on eBay because I don’t remember seeing them since. I didn’t enter any more.
I digress somewhat. My main reason for mentioning cookery in the first place is that I now have a son who is a chef and I need a favour from him. He’s only 18 but has been doing various kinds of cookery for years: GCSE, school cookery competition team (for a boys’ school they were pretty serious about their cookery) and then college and work placements, then real work so now he’s a chef. He helped me make the Easter roast, in as much as he folded some tinfoil, put it over the roasting dish and added some water. I was glad he didn’t help any more than that because he has an insatiable urge to flambé everything and I end up spending more time waving magazines at the smoke detector than I do actually getting any cooking done. Not to mention the time spent cleaning spattered fat off everything including the ceiling. BUT, you say, if you don’t want his help with cooking, what do you actually want? Well, I just want this; I bought a bag of onions and I’d really like him to chop them, bag them and freeze them for me. That way, when I next make the Pasta-à la-bland, I don’t have to run the risk of looking like I poked myself in the eye with the corner of a brillo pad repeatedly for half an hour as a dare.
(*am definitely not by any stretch of the imagination any good at cooking)