Friday 2 April 2021

The Dining-room


A blessed Good Friday to everyone. A bowl of hot cross bun dough is proving in the dining-room. Taking a tip from cookery genius Elizabeth David, I gave it a first proving overnight, so that the buns will be ready earlier today. David's advice is for bread, so I don't know what the end result will taste like. I'm hopeful. 

As a Good Friday penance, I will go out when the buns are baked and weed the lawn. Well, part of the lawn. But for now I want to think about dining, or rather dining rooms, especially the wonderful box of a room that was my childhood dining room. 

Someone told me recently that there are three altars in a marriage: the altar at church, the bed, and the table. When Lent began, Benedict Ambrose and I gave up our slothful habit of eating supper while watching a film. If you came from a family like mine, you may be shocked that we had fallen into such a habit. Alas. However, cheer up because every evening of Lent (save yesterday, when B.A. was at Mass and I was working), I cleared off the dining room table and we had a civilised, conversational supper, lately followed by a game of whist. 

Nowadays priests and psychologists suggest that families all sit down together for a communal meal at least once a week. When I was a child, my family had a communal meal at least once a day. Breakfasts for children of school age were in the kitchen, where my mother stuffed us with food: porridge (or, in hotter months, Cheerios), eggs, bacon or sausage, toast, orange juice. We positively rolled out the door (at exactly 8 AM) on our way to the school bus stop. However, she didn't eat with us, and my father was still comfortably in bed. 

Thus, the real communal meal, on weekdays, was supper--called dinner--always eaten in the dining-room. On weekends, there were two parents-and-children meals: brunch and dinner. I associate Saturday mornings with waffles and Sunday mornings with pancakes--the two things my father knew how to make--and brunch was eaten in the dining-room, too. Oooh---I just smelled coffee there. Waking up on a Saturday or Sunday, there was coffee in the air and my brother Nulli playing the piano. I think, however, that eventually Saturday brunch was abolished, thanks to a hectic schedule of ice hockey practise, ballet, etc. However, it still exists in our memories, which I image my mother hoped for. Should I ever find myself languishing in prison, I will keep my spirits up by taking refreshing holidays in the past. 

The dining room had been added to the house--which itself had once been a bungalow--by its former owner and, I think, creator. It was on the north-west corner of the house and had tall windows along the west and north sides. These were covered, at night, by thick woollen curtains of the most 1970s blue and orange tartan you ever saw. My mother made them, and when I discovered after I moved to Scotland that they were meant to be an approximation of the family tartan, I laughed heartily. 

I believe there was a blue wall-to-wall carpet, upon which many a pea or carrot square was dropped and into which they were trodden. In the middle of the room was a big shiny wooden dining room table, six smart wooden chairs, and usually a baby's high chair of painted wood. On the east wall of the dining room, there was a china cabinet with fancy plates and small glass ornaments. (I was rather more interested in the small glass ornaments at the time.) Above it was a long picture rail of some sort, on which stood a collection of fancy French mustard pots. There was also a doorless cupboard built into the wall on the south side, which held pewter tankards and christening mags. The whole dining room was lined with 1970s wood panelling, so it really was like a wooden box with windows. I think now it was a treasure box, for that is where all we children were civilised and educated with our parents' values and occasionally introduced to visiting scholars who were usually bearded but occasionally members of the Chinese Communist Party. 

I bring up the CCP members with glee because my parents thought it was amusing that these poor foreign students, survivors of the one-child policy, were probably for the first time in their lives sitting down to eat at a table with four or five children who were all siblings. Eventually one of them stayed in Canada and named his first child Canada Freedom. At any rate, eating with us may have been an education for them, too. If you really want to know a foreign place, sitting down for a family dinner is key. 

But actually what I remember best about the dining room is birthdays, birthday parties and birthday cake. This may be because the memories have been boosted by memories of photographs. That said, my strongest memories of the dining-room in the Historical House also involve parties. On the other extreme, I also remember surreptitiously feeding bits of "Spanish steak" to the cat because I loathed Spanish steak and did not know, in fact, that I could ever like beef until in my twenties I accidentally ordered filet mignon in a restaurant. So top points to my 20- and-30-something mother on cake, but not for beef. The cat may have disagreed, of course.

Curiously, I remember gifts from only one birthday dinner in that dining-room. These were very essential gifts, however, as they included a safe disguised as a book, a delicate coral-coloured rosary, and Prayer Book for Young Catholics by Fr. Robert Fox. Alas the safe and the rosary were soon broken, but Fox's book remained and as Fox was a crypto-trad (and as were, I now realise, my favourite parish priests), I was also a crypto-trad without knowing it. I was also a crypto-trad without practising it, as Family Rosary was not a thing in our house, presumably because my mother was a 1969 convert and the rosary was right out of fashion. However, another influential gift I received at some point was Fr. Lovasik's Heroines of God, so I was thoroughly indoctrinated and discovering the TLM was like returning to the barely-grasped, but essentially family, home of one's infancy.  

I can't remember what Good Friday meals were like then, which is probably a good thing. But that might not be fair, for I do recall hot cross buns from the supermarket, toasted with butter. I did not at the time like the candied fruit, but I did (for some odd reason) like the crunchy flour-and-water cross on top. 

Well, the buns have finished proving for the third time, so I must go turn on the oven. I was about to say that it is sad that I am not making memories for children myself, but this would have been foolish, for presumably our younger relations and friends will remember at least a few of my presents and jokes, and my writing students will no doubt recall my more colourful remarks. I hope one day my Polish Godling will be sent to me for English immersion in the summers, and then I will ply her with good Scottish cooking, so she can tell her own children that it is not true what they say about the British. 

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