Those moments and people that often find their way into my stories.
Today was to have been the start of our annual autumn writing retreat, a week-long escape I and as many as a dozen other authors look forward to.
For the first time in the twenty-one years since we began running these events, our retreat has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Not a huge catastrophe in the greater scheme of things but I'm going to miss the group energy, shared discussions, and brainstorming sessions we held each night. (Not to mention the laughs!)
So in honour of our missed reunion I'd like to share my recipe for Cheese Onion Bread which I make every time we go on retreat and which has become somewhat of a tradition.
To the authors who were signed up to come this year, make up a batch and, as you eat it, pretend you're sitting in the hall at Trinity. And since we're all social distancing anyway, make this a week to get as much writing done as you would have there.
We'll be together in spirit!
Cheese Onion Bread (1 loaf)
1 1/2 cup warm milk
1 tbsp. dry yeast
2 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. salt
1 cup tasty (cheddar) cheese, grated
1/2 cup spring onion, finely chopped
whole wheat flour
Whisk milk and egg together. Stir in yeast and honey, and allow to stand until yeast dissolves.
Add enough whole wheat flour to form a thick batter and stir 100 times.
Cover and let rise for 50 minutes in a warm place. (At Trinity I set it beside the wood stove!)
Stir in salt, cheese and onion. Add enough flour to make a dough (Sorry, I've made this recipe so many times I don't know the exact measurement but it's roughly about 1/2 kg (1lb) or 4 cups total - including what you put in to make the batter)
Knead dough until 'earlobe' consistency. (About 10 mins)
Return to an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 30 mins.
Punch down and let rise a further 20 mins.
Shape into a cob and allow to rise on an oiled baking tray as oven heats to at 180C/350F.
Bake 50 mins or until loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining and the white cedar trees that line the drive of our rural property were all in bloom, scenting the air with their delicate fragrance.
‘Ah, smell that,’ I said to my husband as we set off for our morning walk. ‘Isn’t it lovely.’
In typical fashion Michael grunted. ‘Hunh. I don’t smell anything.’
I stifled a sigh.
One thing I’ve noticed since becoming a writer is that it changes the way you experience life. The majority of people, men in particular, walk through their days with blinders on, never appreciating what’s around them.
But we writers are different, a separate breed. Constantly taking in the little things, those resonant details that others miss, storing them away to use in our stories.
Poor Michael, I thought. If only he’d train himself as I have. To be more observant. To be more aware. Maybe I could show him all he was missing.
‘Wait here,’ I said, and turned to stride over to the nearest tree.
I reached up, snagged the lowest branch and broke off a cluster of flowers. Clutching the posy, I marched back and thrust it beneath his nose. ‘There. Can you smell it now?’
He seemed bemused. An odd sort of smile on his lips as he stood gazing down at me. Finally he answered. ‘Yeah. I guess.’
I stood triumphant for all of two seconds. Until I noticed my knee felt wet. A sensation rapidly spreading down my leg and into my shoe.
This eagle-eyed writer had failed to notice her husband had paused, not to anticipate her return, but to relieve himself against the nearest tree.
The house is looking festive, filled with a sense of anticipation. There’s a basket of apples scenting my kitchen, pumpkins and vegetables cover the counters, and all my big platters and serving bowls are sitting out ready to be filled with traditional Thanksgiving fare.
The kids will be arriving this afternoon, ready to gather wood for the bon fire, prepare the shed for the influx of guests, set the huge table (for 22 this year!), and stoke up the wood stove ready for Sunday.
As American-born parents, Michael and I wanted to give our kids a taste of U.S. tradition. Apart from Christmas (which Australians celebrate in any case) the biggest holiday for us was Thanksgiving and before our children were even born we were keeping the tradition alive in our new home.
It didn’t feel right celebrating Thanksgiving in Australia on the same day they do it in the States. I had a hard enough time adjusting to Christmas without snow so I wanted to keep to the appropriate season.
As luck would have it, South Australia has a long weekend in early winter – the Queen’s Birthday, in the middle of June. So that has become our family’s traditional Thanksgiving holiday.
When we first moved onto our farm and the kids were young, we actually combined this day with Halloween. Back then I had a massive vegetable garden and grew mountains of pumpkins every year. On our Thanksgiving day, after the traditional turkey dinner, a hay ride around the property and dessert and coffee, the kids would all gather round the picnic table and carve some Jack O Lanterns. (When I say ‘kids’ it was most of the grown-ups as well, as everyone wanted to be in on the fun.)
By the time they’d finished, dusk was falling and it was time to light the bon fire. Michael’s pyromaniac friends would get it going, and when the flames had died to the point we could get within fifty feet of it, everyone would pull up a chair and settle in with a port, beer or glass of cider.
That’s when we’d light the Jack O Lanterns, arranging them around on the ground, up in trees, lighting the pathway down to the house. We’d sit in mellow appreciation, digesting our meal, with those laughing, ghoulish, grinning faces shining back at us.
These days I don’t have the vegetable garden (one of the downsides of a bad back) but the rest of the day is still the same: food, drink and plenty of laughs.
We love sharing this tradition with our Australian friends and like to think they have fond memories of the many times we've celebrated it together.
What traditions has your family invented or transplanted to a different country?
As a writer I’m familiar with the 3 act structure as it pertains to novel, theatre and film writing. But it occurs to me a similar structure exists in the art of gourmet cooking, especially among passionate amateur chefs.
Act One is the drama of buying the ingredients. This involves a day (or at least several hours) flitting from one market to the next, examining, fondling and (most importantly) sniffing produce. It requires lengthy questioning of market staff (while other customers line up waiting to be served), debating the merits of one fish gut paste over another, and standing in aisles bemoaning to anyone within earshot, ‘If only I could find that beetroot jerky I bought in Florence that time…’
Act Two is the drama of preparing the meal. This again involves hours of intense labor – chopping, grating, mashing, pulping, dirtying every pot and utensil in the house and covering every inch of counter space in a swill reminiscent of industrial waste.
Like the second act of any good play, this stage involves numerous setbacks and complications. It involves lengthy delays, bouts of swearing and frequent updates on the estimated meal time.
As the hour draws closer to the final act and the tension in the kitchen becomes unbearable, dinner quests retire to the living room (or deck or porch – anywhere away from the harried chef) to mop up the last speck of liver pate and fantasize about peanut butter sandwiches.
Finally, after hours of waiting, (long after anyone’s normal dinner time) the greatly anticipated moment arrives. But just when you think you can sit down and enjoy the meal there is one last Act to this sintilating drama: the meal must be thoroughly analyzed.
This involves the chef reliving the entire experience of creation and sharing any nuance his diners might have missed (or sought to escape).
Again that elusive beetroot jerky gets a mention as the missing ingredient that would’ve elevated this disappointing effort to truly gastronomic heights. For no chef is ever happy with what their efforts. No matter how many compliments or murmurs of delight they get from their dinners, they sink ever deeper into a depression that lasts at least for the rest of the evening and often till they start planning their next diner party.
Having said all this (with tongue in cheek as I dearly love my cooking friends) I can clearly see that, on a different level, this is exactly what I go through when writing a novel. Like the chef I hunt for ingredients (characters and ideas), spent hours preparing (writing) my project and am often in a foul mood while I’m doing it. And when it’s finally done I analyze (edit) from start to finish and am rarely satisfied with the results.
So really I’m just another passion chef preparing a meal I hope people will like. The only difference I can see is that I don't have to starve while I’m doing it.