“Half memoir, half travel, A Yank Back to England...is an absolutely wonderful book, not only about going home again but also about love and family and tradition and the passage of the years.” —Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic (Washington Post) To see the entire quote, click here.
Deep in the garden, we found Sir Winston’s art studio. Venturing inside, we found a compact room, rather like a small cottage without a bedroom level, with paintings lining the walls. Despite the obvious contrivance of a cigar left in an ashtray and a paint-stained smock across a chair, there was one very authentic touch beside the easel: stacks and stacks of Havana cigar boxes filled with tubes of paint. Churchill’s paintings were bold, brash, energetic, exuberant South of France landscapes. To me, they all seemed to be tantalizing self-portraits, yet only partly revealing.
My recipe for Christmas mincemeat differs a bit from the traditional ones because I believe in using what is around your pantry. Basically, you'll need a combination of dried fruits-raisins, sultanas, currants, dates, figs, etc.-but, I think it matters not what kind of dried fruits you use. In the nut department, you are expected to use slivered almonds, but I used walnuts this year, and a few leftover pecan bits, with no ill effect. Same goes with the drinkie element. Brandy is traditional but I had rum and a little amaretto lying around, so I used that. Candied peel I omit altogether because, frankly, I don't like it. In short, feel free to improvise-you may even come up with a unique recipe!
For the mincemeat you will need Two large Granny Smith apples. Instead of boiling them into a mush I peel and quarter the apples and sauté them in a little butter, before chopping the apple bits up. Now finely chop a heaped cup of your chosen nuts-almonds, walnuts, pecans, or what-have-you. Then grate the rind of a lemon and orange and chop. Reserve the juice from both fruits. You'll also need a heaped teaspoon of ground spices. Choose the spices you like best; cloves, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg. My family likes lots of cinnamon, not much nutmeg. Or add some grated ginger, now there's a thought... You will also need three cups of mixed dried fruit. This year I used a cup each of raisins, sultanas, and chopped up dried apricots. Use whatever you want, or have to hand but remember, larger fruit should be chopped. Now add two cups of brown sugar and half a cup of brandy or other favored libation. Fear not about the uncooked alcohol content if, indeed, you worry about such things. The demon drink will evaporate within a few days. And besides, you'll probably cook your mincemeat in a pastry or some such before eating it, which will "cook out" the booze. Unless you're naughty like me, and spoon it right out of the jar! Yum! Yum! (I get scolded though.) Into all this stuff, grate a stick of butter. I suggest you freeze the stick first, makes life easier. If you're feeling daring or traditional, go right ahead and use 1/2 cup good quality beef fat instead, instead of butter. Whatever fat you use, don't forget to freeze it first before attempting to grate. Now combine all the ingredients and liquids in a glass bowl and mix very well but gently. The mixture should be quite stiff. The spoon should be able to stand up in the mixture unaided, but not break! If it is too thick, add a little more rum, sherry, apple juice, or other tasty liquid. Now pop the bowl in the fridge and chill at least a day before plunking this classic confection into those clever airtight jars with the metal clamps and rubber rings. Alternatively, you can go right ahead and use the mixture for mince tarts or turnovers. Prodigal Wife folds little rounds of pastry over a bit of mincemeat, wonton-style but, as you see in the photo, I just plop a spoonful of the stuff on a molded round of pastry and bake till it's all bubbly.
Try to be patient! Mincemeat improves with a little age. Try and give it a week or two. The difference is startling! This stuff will happily reside in your fridge for six months or more. But if you're like me, you'll find your mincemeat far too irresistible to last beyond the season to be jolly....and why should it? After all, a spoonful of Christmas...
Cousin Kevin writes that Santa came early this year, and that he and the charming Maxine are taking turns reading (he said "fighting over it"). You'll notice the suprisingly healthful drink next to him, but Kev says he's going to make up for that tomorrow, when he goes for a traditional English meal: A Curry. What is on our wishlist this Christmas? Many more photos like this one...
But first, Frances insisted on exploring the immediate vicinity. A quick walk before dinner. It was where I grew up, she said. She was curious. I was not. But then, maybe I was. A little. The landscape in Dagenham had no contours, except for the occasional tarmac hillock to accommodate London Transport on its bold thrust eastwards. Yet, even with its flatness, Dagenham didn’t have a big sky like Aldeburgh. It narrowed at the edges of one’s horizon, cowering in one corner and skulking in the other. And so it was with Castle Green, the vast playing fields located a few blocks from my old home. Frances and I went for a walk there, following the path I took years ago with Rex, our family dog. We headed diagonally across an empty expanse, past a muddy soccer field and the sagging narrowness of an unkempt cricket pitch. Past the brick sports building that was always locked and always reeked of pee because the local soccer players could never get to the inside toilet. Past the wooden notice board with pasted-over information of long-gone events. Nothing new to announce. Nothing I did not know about.
Vi was one of my favorite aunts. She was my mum’s younger sister but looked on first glance to be older. She had silvery gold hair spun as thin as cotton candy and set on a vivid pink skull. She had a wizened chin, rounded at the end like a small doughnut. And when she smiled, her jaws caved in thanks to ill-fitting dentures. But her eyes twinkled with the mischief of a sixteen year old. Vi quickly changed the subject back to things meteorological. “I bet the weather’s all lovely where you are, Denis, ay? Ay? In America, isn’t it, Denis? Like in the pictures, innit? Hollywood. Lovely. Love it over there, don’t you, Denis?” I had never lived in Hollywood, or in California for that matter, but when Vi thought of America, she thought of sunshine and glamour and excitement. I suppose anywhere in America was a kind of Hollywood back-lot, if you had not been there.
Standing, from L to R: Lew (Dad), Frances (Prodigal Wife), Denis (The Prodigal Tourist), and Jessie (Mum). Floating: Kate (Prodigal Daughter).
About this blog
You are reading random vignettes, deleted scenes, and other extras from and about my book, A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns. Enjoy, let me know what you think, ask questions, and thanks for your support! Cheers, The Prodigal Tourist
Years ago I shed my Cockney accent and left London's blighted East End for America. Since then, I’ve only returned to see my increasingly cantankerous parents and assorted relatives. Until my American wife comes along. She wants to tour, see the sights. No thank you. It’s not for me. But she insists, and I become a reluctant tourist in my former homeland.