[Des fleurs, April 2009.]
I was talking with a friend the other day as we’re wont to do, and somehow during the course of it we came up with a great idea: writing about writers with whom you’d like to cook, have a drink or slice of cake, or go for a walk in the high mountains. I love this idea as I’m often caught up in imagining what it might be like to have met some of my heroes — long-dead now — and share a conversation, cup of tea, or, if we’re being honest, a glass of whisky. I think I shall make it a semi-regular writing exercise …
Lately my days have been bookended by tea. I’ve been waking up earlier than usual — the light comes in bright and clear ’round 6 a.m. or so to my white-walled bedroom and though I don’t get up quite then it’s fairly soon after — and ‘treating’ myself to a morning. It’s just about an hour, but I make a cup of Typhoo (which I swear feels like it’s taking the enamel off my teeth if I let it brew too long; time to seek out the Red Rose!), turn on the classical station (full of facts before 7, including that one day this week in 1881 someone made the first ever
ice cream sundae), and do whatever I please (sometimes write, sometimes sit in my blue chair and look out the window, sometimes listen to the birds singing cheerfully on) before I leave for work. At night I do something very similar though minus the caffeinated-tea part and the end result is delicious bed rather than the walk to the bus.
Last night for example I came home late after a pretty long day. I had a beer, ate dinner and read a little, and then made myself a cup of tea. I let it steep strong (rooibos, of course, so it wouldn’t keep me up) while I listened to the wind toss around the trees outside. When my eyes started to droop I slipped a teaspoon of sugar and a drip of milk into my cuppa’, pulled on my wool socks, and took myself off to bed to sip and read a bit until lights out.
Sometimes, swear to anything out there, it’s the littlest of little things that make me extraordinarily happy.
So anyway: last weekend I was up in Sebastopol and on Saturday afternoon I was looking at the old books from way back still kicking around the bookshelf. I’ve weeded out a lot but it’s funny and a little poignant to look at what’s still there: all the ‘Little House’ books, some French novels held over from my A.P. class my last year of high school, books about horses. And of course — of course — the Anne of Green Gables books, every single one.
Oh Anne! You of the wild imagination and runaway spirit and penchant for getting into scrapes! You who wrote dreamy sonnets about the moon sailing away over the fields near the sea and wept bitter tears when the white-blossomed tree in the yard was cut down! How many of us knew we were her? I certainly saw so much of myself in her sparkling eyes and romantic ideas, and the rest of me that was not wished I had more of her bright personality and impetuous spontaneity. I could re-read those books once a year for the rest of my life and perhaps I will; sometimes I can’t wait to have a daughter or two to whom to read them aloud. The enduring sweetness of these books, the first of which was published in 1908, still appeals to so many.
And as I adored Anne Shirley I adore even more the woman who wrote her. I can’t ever think that a writer doesn’t put bits of herself into characters and because I am a voracious reader I usually have to find out all about the creators of the fictional people I have come to ‘know’ so well. So once, years ago, I went to the Mt. Pleasant library in my DC neighborhood and ferreted out the first volume of L.M. Montgomery’s journals. Ever since then I’ve wished so to have met her.
I imagine old Lucy Maude and I sitting on her wraparound porch in late afternoon in August with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Actually, she probably wouldn’t be that old; I think she’d be about my age (or a little older) and newly married. We’d already have gone for a ramble in the woods and a wander through her garden (she giving me tips about the best place to plant beets), and gone all over the clean-shining house with its worn and gleaming wood floors. Then: the kitchen, plain but large, where we’d discussed important things such as the right kind of cake to serve at a party. The sun would drop lower over the sea, the air warm and sweet, a breeze just hinting at autumn.
She’d ask, How about a glass of wine before sunset? because we’d have finished the tea and anyway in the blue hour you don’t really want tea anymore. I’d look at her sideways because I always knew she was a girl after my own heart and we’d take our glasses down to the shore to watch the light spread pink and gold over the fields of her beloved P.E.I. Later we’d make dinner: roasted potatoes, I think, with green beans from the garden thrown in for the last 10 minutes; a great pile of new greens and cherry tomatoes; spinach sauteed with butter and cream. We’d sit long around the table and eat good bread and talk about writing and home.
This cake I’ve been baking lately — adapted from the Art and Soul of Baking — is something I know she would’ve liked. It’s simple and not-too-sweet and is the perfect thing to make with all the stone fruit that’s just coming into season. I like it with apricots especially, but plums too are delicious and just tart enough to contrast beautifully against the melted brown sugar in which they’re placed. Probably it would be best with whipped cream though I haven’t yet tried it; mostly I’ve been eating it as a post-breakfast snack washed down with lots of coffee.
We may have even baked this cake together, L.M. and I, while we talked of ships and fairies, poetry and prose — tea and kindred spirits, too.
p.s.: A few tid-bits:
Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake, from the Art and Soul of Baking
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
5 to 6 plums, sliced, or 6-8 apricots
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
For topping, melt butter and sugar in a saucepan, whisking to melt the sugar. In a 9-inch springform pan pour in the butter. Arrange the plum slices on top of the butter-sugar mixture.
For cake, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla. Sift the dry ingredients together and add to wet, alternating with the milk. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until firm but not dry. Fold into the cake batter.
Spoon the batter gently on top of the plums in the prepared pan. Put in oven and bake about 25 minutes, until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let rest in pan 30 minutes before removing.