Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Chain of Fools

There are certain people in this world who, it seems, regardless of age, experience or a general demeanour which suggests they should know better, circulate the vile, idiotic, pester power that is the chain mail/status update.

These used to actually be on real paper (anyone else remember those?) and we would have assemblies telling us not to respond to them, but nowadays they squirm their way into your conscience by other, sneakier and harder to avoid ways, landing in your inbox, your timeline on facebook or sometimes even on your mobile phone.

What is it about human beings which makes them so receptive of these idiotic bleatings? Why are 99% of sensible adults absolutely incapable of ignoring them?

Whenever I receive such missives or accidentally stumble on one in a facebook status (usually in VERY SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS just to get the point across with maximum irritation) I immediately have to take a deep breath and try to mentally forgive the fuckwit person who has posted it and not immediately block them, which my trigger finger is impulsively itching to do.

The fact that I refuse point blank to EVER repeat or engage with any of these bullying, pointless things does not mean that:

a)    I do not care about cancer. Believe me I care, but personally I find running the race for life or buying raffle tickets for Cancer Research a much more rewarding and less twattish way of showing the same.
b)    I do not care about the armed forces. Again I very much do care and come from a services family but SHOUTING about this constantly would only give me a headache and proves absolutely zero in the grand scheme of things.
c)     I do not care about autism/downs syndrome/disabled children/whatever else has been deemed the most important and ignored issue of the day. Nonsense. I am a human being with opinions and feelings –but shouting about them and irritating people with it is not going to actually achieve anything. Other than provoking eye rolling and sighing in anyone who feels the same.

I find the obligatory emotional blackmail section the most nauseating and aggravating. Look, you blockheaded, amoebic being, I have a busy life, I work full time, I exercise, I have a lot of friends and family members who take up my spare time….you, with your pissy little playground call out of “99% of people won’t repost this in their status” (subtext – people who ignore this are evil, stupid miscreants who torture kittens for fun) clearly have too much time on your hands. But then I already knew that because you have one of these retarded status updates at least 3 times a week and also update your status to tell us vital information about what you are having for lunch (“an AMAZING cheese sandwich”) or who is featuring on daytime TV today.

Less frequently I get one of these on my mobile phone, I never even reach the bottom of the message before deleting. You can tell within the first sentence exactly what the purpose of the message is; sickeningly twee? check, self righteous? double check, more clich├ęd than a Jennifer Annison rom-com? Yep. Usually there will also be some kind of signifier about the kind of person you are (my best friends, the closest women in my life) before a call out to forward it on immediately to similar recipients or your spleen might explode and if you do forward it on the Blessed Fairy of the Cheddar Gorge will bring you good luck within 5 days. Really. Do you still believe in Father Christmas too? Seriously, have a word with yourself.

On a whole other (but intrinsically linked) level of I-want-to-repeatedly-smack-my-head-against-a-brick-wall-when-this-happens – I live in hope that a certain member of my family will one day send me an email saying something useful. Or failing that something interesting. Or maybe just something vaguely relevant to my life. But this particular email sender simply wants me to be frightened on a level usually reserved for readers of the Daily Mail and with alarming frequency wants me to believe that the country is being TAKEN OVER (shouty letters needed here unfortunately) by PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BAN CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!


I am so profusely sorry for the appalling amount of exclamation marks and shouty capitals in the above text. It hurts my eyes just writing it. But this level of scaremongering tends to be perpetuated by people who make their ‘point’ by making your eyes bleed in this way.

These type of emails always also contain the chain mail caveat of imploring you to circulate it and implying that if you do not a small goblin will sneak into your bed and sexually assault you while you sleep. 

The one I received this week was one I have seen before. A number of times. It is the ‘people are suggesting that we stop teaching about the holocaust because it offends Muslims’ version. Here is a link to a sensible site explaining the fact that this is in fact a well publicised hoax which was circulated originally in 2007 and has since been disproved but continues to be forwarded on by legions of fucktards people who, in my opinion, see it as an easy and below the radar way of being overtly racist in the name of ‘keeping our culture sacred’. What a load of utter bullshit.

Guess what? The Daily Mail actually ran a story on it in 2007 too….my god I despise the Daily Mail and all that it stands for. The sole purpose of this kind of story is to provoke unrest and stir up hatred for other races and cultures (generally anything Islam related) and I do not understand for a moment why anyone with half a brain would not see through this deplorable nonsense straight away.

Four years later and the same bloody email is still doing the rounds and landing in my inbox a couple of times a year. I despair.

Just so you know, if you circulate these kind of idiotic, bottom feeding chain mails and statuses, the government immediately places you on a list of ‘People who are too stupid to deserve to be saved when Armageddon comes’ via their big brother methods of keeping tabs on you. You should immediately circulate this piece of information to all your dim witted friends so that they too can be prepared for when Muslims/Aliens/Scientologists inevitably take over the UK and make us dress like the bay city rollers/speak Vulcan/take up extreme ironing. 99% of people will not repost this information because they have a life and an imagination of their own which does not require spoon-feeding.

I hold out hope for a day when chain mails and statuses are outlawed and it becomes fair game to add the names of circulators to a register which marks them out in society as empty headed sheep who should be avoided at all costs. A bit like the sex offenders register but without the same level of interest from the Daily Mail. That is all.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

It's A Family Affair


That one word holds so much meaning and emotion for people that it is hardly surprising to find these labelled units are rarely simple or perfect or describable things. If you know someone who claims to have a ‘perfect’ or ‘simple’ family then you know a liar.

It is often a ‘loaded’ word. One which infers what you should do, how you should behave. I do not like being told what I should do or how I should behave. I like to take the word and fit it around what it means to my life and the people I love. I do not believe in the tribal, Mitchell-esque, loyal-to-the-day-that-I-die, ostracised if I am not, model one iota. I would like to think I am intelligent enough to judge for myself what family means to me and I absolutely will not be made to feel guilty for that.

My family is absolutely, 100% dysfunctional. And I bloody love them for it because, guess what folks? It makes them human.

My central family group, the people who will invariably sit round my mothers table for a Sunday lunch and treat the place like Picadilly Circus, swanning in and out, pillaging for food and tea and begging for trousers to be turned up (or is that just me?) consists of my mom, my step-dad, two step sisters plus their significant others, my Nana, my nephew and my nephews mother. Oh, and my husband of course, who manages to cope with the eccentricities of us all, so different to his own, quieter and much smaller brood.

Only three of these people are blood related to me but it matters not a jot, I love the bones of all of them. However, when my 7 year old nephew asked me recently whether I was blood related to one of my step-sisters it suddenly became a bit tangled. He is at that age where he seeks to figure out how it all fits together. I don’t blame him for being confused; our tribe is a bit of an unorthodox jumble to say the least.

It is the one social grouping in life which we do not choose but inherit. A very close friend of mine always says ‘friends are the family we choose for ourselves’ and I think this is bang on the money. I have written extensively about friendships and how I think they should work in an earlier post and to my mind my friends are indeed the family I choose. Many of them know me much better than the majority of people I share actual DNA with and I value them as highly as members of my family. I would also add that depending on your workplace, colleagues are an additional ‘familial’ group in your life. My team at work spend more time with me than anyone else does and invariably some of them know my day to day life very well.

It stands to reason as we have no choice in the family group we are born into that some of these people you would never naturally cross paths with or choose to spend time with. This is normal. Obligations to stay in touch only mean something and work if you actually happen, purely by luck, to genuinely like the person anyway but this is not a given.

Going back to central family groups though, the ones you are deeply embedded in and actually love; your parents and siblings essentially. You may be given a place within this for free as a child but as an adult, I believe that you earn your place in a family. In the same manner you can also lose it. To keep it healthy you have to nurture it, like any relationship.

This means that when you screw up or let go or lose contact there is generally always a way back, but it takes work on both sides, forgiveness and the ability to move on and stop raking up what happened in the past. Unfortunately some people are simply not equipped to do this. In fact, some people believe holding a grudge is an Olympic sport.

What matters to me is the wellbeing of my central group. After that I have a lot of time and love for other members of my family and would always do what I can for them if they needed me, although I may not see them on a frequent basis. Then there are the members I do not really know but have nothing against and will be happily civil to. Finally there are those that I literally, teeth grittingly tolerate at events where I cannot escape. Now, be honest, you just read that and mentally identified which members of your family fitted which group. That’s fine. That’s normal.

Unless you live in cloud cuckoo land of course where everything is perfect and everybody loves each other and lashings of ginger beer flow freely and people really say ‘golly gosh’. 

Anyway, blood means nothing unless you are lucky and I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have my step dad in my life. To say he is ‘like a father to me’ is wrong. I already have a dad and he is ace and I love him loads. My step dad gives me a ‘bonus parent’ role, one which is brilliant because you get the best bits from both a best friend and someone you are allowed to ask to fix your car and know they will do it because they love you. My parents divorcing was a blessing, both are now in happy, healthy relationships and I have two ‘bonus’ parent roles, both of whom I love. I was lucky.

My mom is an amazing person in so many ways. She is an amazing role model to me as a woman and the person I always want to run things by in my life. We can quite happily spend hours on the phone talking about anything and everything. As I get older I value this more and more. As she gets older I find myself adopting the parent role with her more and more (“you really should stop smoking/go to the doctors about that/stop reading the Daily Mail”), I can amusingly see she does the same with her mother, my beloved Nana. The three of us often sit and chew the fat, I am glad I get to do this. This mother-daughter-grand daughter relationship is precious to me but not because we are blood related – that is incidental, but it gives us the basis of a bond which we choose to embrace and enjoy.

Human nature means, however, that people naturally are not inclined to just get on. Life was not meant to be simple and the Middle East would be a fantastic holiday destination if everybody would just chill the fuck out. Really.

So…..the last few years have been difficult in our family for various reasons, mainly due to the aforementioned human nature issue. I spent the whole of 2009 and 2010 feeling like a cornered tiger protecting it’s young in relation to my parents, defending them and trying to repair damage and hurt. I had many difficult conversations with members of the family. Unfortunately the directions and solutions I hoped to achieve were impossible. On the plus side I think we could probably field a family team at the next Olympics for the Holding-a-Grudge relay. This guide suggests sensible solutions to unresolved family conflicts – unfortunately it takes both sides to make a resolution happen.

No human being is perfect. All of us make mistakes, say things we don’t mean, can be downright hurtful to the people we love and occasionally behave like complete and utter imbeciles. I know I have in the past and I am sure I will again at some point. Admitting it is easy when you put it in context, picking up the pieces and moving on and drawing a line under it is harder. And far more painful. And sometimes needs time. But it is never really a closed door until you make it so. Resolution takes a bigger, more intelligent and robust person than clinging on blindly to an accusation and clearly not everybody is that broad minded. 

And I guess this is my point. Families come in many shapes and sizes. Some are pretty conventional, some are not. All will at some point and at some level go through crises. It is highly normal for Auntie X to not be speaking to Cousin Y or some kind of variation of this equation. You get arseholes, idiots, absolute gems, comedians, good eggs, bad apples, princesses, petty thieves, dictators, diplomats and the perpetually vacant. It is sort of like the coalition government but closer to home, both in terms of the fact you didn't vote for it but ended up with it and together you are not convinced they know what they are doing.

How you make it work is entirely down to you. Stressing about it will get you nowhere. Black and white thinking will not help one jot. Holding a grudge is the greatest symptom of the narrow minded and should be avoided. And sharing blood does not determine ranks of importance, nor should it.

Tell the people you love that you love them as often as you can, spend as much time with the people that matter as possible. Tolerate those you have to and avoid the ones that cannot be tolerated and take no regrets to the grave because seriously, people, life is too short.  

Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Tale of 3 Dinner Parties

Recently I had a very close brush with reality TV. God knows what possessed me but I applied to be on Come Dine With Me in a moment of madness. This was on a random Thursday evening when I had spotted a small piece in the Telford Journal asking any interested persons to apply for a local version of the show which was looking for participants.

I love to cook, I cook a lot. I am also a pretty competitive person and figured it might be a bit of fun. What followed was a rather bizarre rollercoaster of an experience.  I submitted an online application form which took about half an hour and expected to hear no more about it. However, the following evening I spent around 2 hours on the phone to a researcher for the programme answering all the same questions again but in much more detail. The following Monday I spent another hour going through the same again. Then they arranged to come to my house and film me for a 'screen test'.

Anyway, it all became rather scarily real and I was about to go on holiday to Italy. Work was particularly busy and stressful and I learned from scouring internet forums that being involved in CDWM as a contestant was rather taxing indeed. Apparently, due to the continuity and filming of such a show, the dinner parties which we see and which seem to last a normal length of time actually end up being mammoth affairs, often lasting into the early hours of the morning due to re-takes and editing. This is why they keep telling you as you go through the interview stages that they 'recommend' you take the entire week off although it is 'not compulsory'.

I reckon I might have actually had a nervous breakdown had I got on the show trying to juggle four incredibly long nights with very little sleep and a full working week where we had a project resubmission going on. It is definitely a blessing I think that I did not get to the final 4. 

Anyway, in tribute to this, as we sat in Bologna one evening sharing a bottle of very tasty Chianti, my husband suggested that we should have our own version of the show. Sod the prize money and the incredibly long nights of tedium with strangers, we would recreate the competitive element and have some bloody good dinners without the stress. So, we decided to rope in my brother in law and cleared diaries for 3 Saturdays in a row. 

I have been taking photos all the way through so I can now share with you what happened on 3 rather fun and sometimes challenging nights of food, wine and 'entertainment'. The prize, by the way, is dinner at a restaurant of the winners choice, paid for by the other two.The only rules were that it had to be 3 courses, all dishes you had not cooked for the others before and there must also be entertainment after dinner.

I went first and served blue cheese stuffed mushrooms, tuna steak on a bed of roasted salsa and pecan pie. Here are some pics of my dishes on the night:

Portobello mushroom stuffed with blue cheese, quorn pieces and breadcrumbs. 

Pan seared tuna steak on a roasted vegetable salsa with courgette salad on top. 

Pecan pie with vanilla ice cream.

My menu went surprisingly well in the preparation, I made the pastry for the pecan pie first, early on the Saturday, to make sure I had enough time to remake it if necessary. Thankfully I did not need to, I used a Jamie Oliver recipe for this pie, including the pastry base and it was pretty good (if I do say so myself) although weirdly the pecan mix did not set properly until the following day when it had been in the fridge. It tasted pretty good though.

One thing I did learn during this experience is that pecan nuts are VERY expensive. I needed 450g for my recipe and that was TEN WHOLE POUNDS. Shocking.

The roasted salsa which the tuna steak was sat on was also cooked in advance, it was tomatoes, peppers and red onions roasted until blackened and the skins pulled off then blitzed with chillis, garlic, coriander and lime juice. It was very zingy and tasty if a little overpowering. I really liked it though and despite this being chilled and the tuna steak being cooked it went really nicely together. This recipe was from Jamie's America along with the pecan pie.

I forgot to take any photos of my entertainment but I can assure you it was amazeballs. Well, I thought it was anyway. I went old school and bought a bingo machine from Argos for £6 and then bought a range of 'prizes' (haribo, hotel chocolat goodies) and we spent an hour or so pretending we were in Benidorm in a godawful resort hotel. It was fun. I think.

Anyway, the brother in law (we shall call him 'G') was next and I knew that being absolutely obsessed with quality and detail this was bound to be an incredibly over analysed clever menu. He did not disappoint and cooked peppers stuffed with fennel, a roasted butternut squash lasagne and a baked coffee liquor cheesecake.

Here are the photos of his dishes:

Roasted peppers stuffed with fennel. 

Roasted butternut squash lasagne 

 Baked coffee liquor cheesecake with cocoa dusted almonds

I have to say that veggie lasagne was frickin awesome and is definitely one I will be making in the future. G had chosen to cook a vegetarian menu rather than catering for the awkward pairing of one pescatarian and one none fish eater (I do eat tuna steak because it does not taste like fish but it is the only thing I will eat that swims and I had already cooked that).  The butternut squash having been pre-roasted it was very sweet and the whole dish was incredibly tasty. This was my favourite course from his menu.

Unfortunately I had a very nasty experience with pernod when I was about 18 which to this day means the smell of aniseed makes me want to vomit, I had never tried fennel before but it smells and tastes distinctly of this nemesis flavour and as a result I was not overly keen on this dish.

The cheesecake was utterly divine but incredibly heavy, as a result of which I did not finish my slice, I dread to think how many calories were in that. Top marks for effort though, it was hard to believe he had never made a cheesecake before.

Entertainment on this evening was rather amusing and unexpected. After dinner we were presented with a potters wheel and a lump of clay each. An hour of swearing and trying to shape a pot followed but it was quite messy, liberated fun. Following this the dining room table was converted into a table tennis table for a winner-stays-on tournament, needless to say this was a bit too much activity for me with a belly full of cheesecake but it was a good idea.

Finally, last night was Stu's night and he approached it in his usual devil may care attitude, completely chilled out, preparing most of it on the evening before and generally winging it with no recipes whatsoever. This was very foolish brave in my opinion and I watched with interest as he desecrated my kitchen. His menu was tomato soup with homemade bread, beef wellington (!!) and 'a mash up of tasty nice' was billed as the dessert....rightio then....

Tomato soup and homemade bread 

This is the whole wellington when first sliced open. 

Wellington, roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes and spinach. 

A very unhinged dessert....

Having completely winged it, Stu did not really decide what his pudding was until he started to assemble it on the plate. This complete ignorance of any kind of convention is one of the reasons I love him. Unfortunately I did not love this dessert. We had on the plate, a layer of melted mars bar, a cookie cutter sized piece of cheesecake base, home flavoured pomegranate ice cream and a meringue nest. It was sort of like an eton mess. If Lady Gaga had made it.

His soup was delicious though and the wellington, despite some timing issues (again due to totally winging it) was very nice. Instead of pate he had wrapped the substantial piece of fillet steak (£27 worth) in a layer of finely chopped chestnut mushrooms cooked off in a white wine sauce and then wrapped the whole thing in prosciutto before adding the pastry. Mighty impressive. Unfortunately due to the timing issue it had to go back in the oven and that meant when we finally ate it the potatoes were cold.

Entertainment was Mario Kart on the wii, which had been bought specially for this evening. It was lots of fun, I am continually surprised at how much juvenile fun we get out of that console. 

So, time for scoring, we had sealed our scores from the previous evenings in envelopes and so we had no idea how anyone had done until after the scoring last night.....results were as follows....

3rd with 13.5 points - Stu
2nd with 15 points - me
1st with 17 points - G.

And there you have it. We are going to do this again mid-winter so it will be interesting to see what approach we all take next time, in the meantime G will be deciding where we go for a meal, early signs are that it will be tapas in Shrewsbury.

This was a really enjoyable and interesting experience and I am so glad I did this with people I love rather than random strangers. Next time 1st place will be mine!


Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Boy With the Quorn in His Side

I am a proud child of the 80s and 90s and I would like to declare my utter adoration of the entire back catalogue of The Smiths before I go any further with this post (which is bound to rattle a few cages).

In fact I would go so far as to say that ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ is in my all time top 5 songs and quite possibly will be played at my funeral when I get round to writing the playlist (and yes, there will indeed be a playlist and if it’s not adhered to I promise I will haunt you). It is that powerful a song that having just typed the name it is playing on repeat on the jukebox in my head. It is brilliant. Fact.

I also do have a penchant for Morrissey’s solo stuff, but not to quite the same degree and I also share a genuine interest in both his and the band’s story and history. The amount of people they have influenced is in equal parts impressive and astounding. So, forgive the pun, but what is my beef with Morrissey?

Well, the thing is that he is what I like to call a ‘Militant Vegetarian’. Or an ‘Evangelical Vegetarian’. In much the same way as those nutters in the deep south of America make us roll our eyes and sigh at their deeply rooted, completely unshakable ‘belief’, so Morrissey evokes the same reaction in me about this. And I am a staunch advocate of vegetarianism, as anyone who follows my other blog, The Quorn Supremacy, would be aware.

Firstly I would like to set my stall out about my own beliefs because they are not as simple as you might think. Also, I still get bafflingly prehistoric reaction to my veggie blog from ‘The Meatheads’ who are, in effect, Morrissey’s polar opposites. Frankly, I find it disappointing in 2011 to still encounter such daft, regressive, attitudes from seemingly intelligent people, but believe me, it happens. And on a startlingly regular basis too.

I am not vegetarian. My husband is pescatarian, meaning he eats only fish and no meat. I hate fish and am allergic to shellfish (you can imagine what a joy we are to have for dinner!) and so the compromise we make on a pretty much daily basis is that we eat mainly vegetarian at home. As a result of this I have become quite adept at vegetarian cooking and very interested in it (hence the blog).

In addition to this I also believe that it is better for the environment and for human beings in general to eat more vegetarian food in their diet and to these ends I actively encourage people to try it out and realise that it can be equally tasty, nutritious and enjoyable as a cuisine. There is more about the environmental impact of meat eating here and also about the ‘Meat Free Monday’ campaign which I wholeheartedly support. You do not need to look very far to find extensive reporting on the dangers of eating too much red and processed meat and here is a recent report on evidence from the World Cancer Research Fund and a thoughtful response from food critic Jay Rayner.

I am not for one moment suggesting that a full vegetarian diet is ‘better’ than one which includes meat. Neither am I inducing anyone to entirely give up their fleshy treats - I love a good steak as much as the next woman. What I am suggesting is that as a race, humans need to stop living in the 50s where ‘meat and two veg’ was the accepted staple meal. We are blessed with so many options now that it is not only regressive but completely bewildering why so many people cannot even contemplate a meal as being complete without meat in it.

I believe that people would lead a healthier life with a more balanced and less meat focussed diet. I should also point out that when you don’t eat meat all the time you enjoy it so much more when you do.

So, that’s where I stand on the whole thing. I still have to justify my viewpoint quite frequently and with some people, especially those from older generations, I accept that the idea of a meal without meat strikes them as substandard and always will do. But people who have an interest in their health coupled with the intelligence to make an informed decision should not rule out vegetarian meals as part of a normal, balanced diet (or in fact a fully vegetarian diet).

Whilst I quietly persevere with this belief and increase my own library of articles on the same; Morrissey, bless him, is ranting in the corner like a renegade, one man offence generator. His most recent assertion was to liken the recent atrocities in Norway to McDonalds’ and KFC’s treatment of animals for meat. Yes. Really. He has also quite famously got into hot water during various interviews when he has made statements which are either ill considered or overtly confrontational (or both?). A famous example referred to Chinese people as a ‘sub species’, again referring to their treatment of animals. I really do not think this brand of daft racism (the sort I might expect to see from someone either far older or far less intelligent than this man) helps his cause.

I guess the saddest thing is that Morrissey could be such a strong figurehead for promoting a vegetarian lifestyle and indeed I do think in the earlier years (before he seemed to stop engaging his brain before his mouth) actions like calling an album ‘Meat is Murder’ highlighted a lifestyle which at the time was struggling for positive role models. It is a real shame that when I think now of ‘famous vegetarians’ the two which spring to mind are Morrissey and (whiner extraordinaire) Heather Mills. I never would have wanted to group them together but for a multitude of unfortunate reasons that’s where they now sit. Hung by their own petards.   

Of course, anyone who dares to criticise Morrissey will face a barrage of abuse from his legions of sycophantic fans. As a cultural icon, it is not surprising that Morrissey is so revered but it does sometimes amaze me the lengths people will go to to excuse his behaviour in the name of being his 'fans'. I do think that when you have been lauded as some kind of god for most of your adult life, the tendency is always going to be there to start believing that you can get away with anything. 

Anyway, this blog post was not intended as a rant, merely a sad observation that a man I grew up admiring so very much for his music can sometimes, truth be told, be a bit of an arse. Separating the man from the music does not lessen my appreciation of the latter, but it is sad that someone so intrinsically linked with a cause close to my heart continually manages to come out with such unbelievably ill timed comments. 

Vegetarian cooking is something I will continue to do and to blog about; despite the doubters, critics and continual neanderthal berating from some quarters. It is a topic which makes me think about the human spirit and fear of change, two things which I find fascinating and which are clearly linked. 

If you read this today and it made you consider a vegetarian meal for a change then that is fantastic, if not, well thanks for reading anyway. Life is all about being open to new ideas in my experience and I am certain that this subject will continue to provoke opinion from all quarters. 

Right, off for a bacon sandwich then....