"I consider these few minutes stolen from the working day as deep breaths of fresh air with which to refocus, take stock, get my head together. The point, and I suspect the reason why this has become such a crucial part of my day, is that I return as energised and focused as others coming home from a run." Nigel Slater
This is a dual purpose post - a rambling ponder on 'Me time' and a kind of review of on one of my two recent cookbook purchases - Nigel Slater's A Cook's Book. Which is wonderful.
The photograph above is one of several in the book which punctuate the flow, by appearing before each section. They are the work of Jenny Zarins and portray aspects of Nigel Slater's home, which ultimately convey an almost Zen or monastic-like environment. Contemplation and calm anyway. I don't think there is a single photograph of him actually cooking. The nearest to that is one of his hands pouring the tea that he is drinking in the picture above. There are a few of him writing, but mostly just fairly bare, and still photographs of his kitchen, his garden and the equipment that he uses, to cook with, to eat with and to write with. The end papers have the two photographs below, which perhaps show the two aspects of his life - cooking - although in a rather distant way - and writing. "I am a cook who writes" he states as he begins the introduction to the book. And this is the subtitle of his eponymous website too. And I have to say that this is what distinguishes him from those who merely write recipes. Which is why I buy his books, although, truth to say, his recipes are occasionally, very occasionally, disappointing.
Like I said - monastic and Zen. Calm. Very tasteful and even a tiny bit pretentious? Well not really, but I can see that it is a style that is easily mocked. I should say, by the way, that almost every recipe is also beautifully photographed - this time by Jonathan Lovekin, and using, as props, his own collection of plates, bowls, cups and glasses.
When you read a Nigel Slater cookbook you do actually read it. Each recipe and each 'chapter' is is prefaced by a mini essay that is a pleasure to read. This book is particularly contemplative, and is almost a memoir, although his much lauded book Toast, which is the story of how he came to be a 'cook who writes' is more genuinely a memoir. It contains no recipes. It must have been cathartic because of the revelations around his early childhood. This book is more generous to his memories and akin to many of ours - cooking in the kitchen with mum - that sort of thing:
"The first recipe I encountered - for a Christmas cake - belonged to my mother. Handwritten on a piece of ruled Basildon Bond notepaper, it lived in the bowl of the electric mixer that only saw light of day once a year, when I helped her make The Cake. The first cooking I did on my own was a tray of jam tarts - blackcurrant, marmalade and raspberry. The ghost of them lingers still, me standing on a stool in an attempt to reach the kitchen table, rolling out scraps of pastry into a craggy rectangle with a red-handled wooden rolling pin, pressing Mum's crinkle-edged cutters into the pale dough and filling the little tarts with jam as bright and clear as jewels. The jam boiled over and glued the tarts to the tin, but peeling off the chewy crumbs and eating them was a delight."
Such an evocative scene. Not only are you transported into his world, but you are transported into your own childhood memories as well. Well I was anyway.
Since I bought the book I have been grabbing chunks of 'Me time' in which I could be transported into his enclave of childhood memories, to food you want to rush out and cook straight away, and, for me, back to England. That daily ritual of the tea or coffee break that he describes at the top of this post, is only short - half an hour or so - but that's all the 'Me time' that it takes to refresh the spirit and to take oneself out of the daily grind. And, in my case and this particular instance, back to a host of ideas for the blog, ideas for dinner, or a desire to make a particular recipe - a cake perhaps - which might involve organising friends to come and share it.
"I am not sure when the drinking of tea and coffee became such an honoured ritual in my house - the elevation of the mundane to that of a deep and cherished pleasure - I only know that it has." Nigel Slater
"Coffee and tea are treated as essential markers in my working day - the everyday turned to a miniature celebration - during which I stop work, put the worn and much-used paraphernalia of tea and coffee - a pot, a cup, a tiny oval plate of cake or a biscuit - on an old flea-market wooden tray and move to another room. A room far away from the work in hand. It is only then, out of sight and reach of desk, hob and kitchen sink, that I can really feel the benefit of the steaming brew in my cup." Nigel Slater.
The section on the ritual of tea, which is almost at the end of the book, and the passage at the top of the page, was the stimulus to write about 'Me time' because just a few days before, in the AFR's luxury weekend magazine there had been a short article encouraging us all to take a 24 hour break on our own to recover from the strain of living in close proximity with one's family during lockdown. As this kind of article does, they had examples of individuals telling us what they had been doing, now that they were out of lockdown, and how important this had been. I have now lost the article but I remember two examples in particular. One lady had gone to a luxury spa - of course - and had done things like eating an expensive three-course meal, and flying in a hot air balloon over the countryside. The other had stayed in a luxury city hotel, dined, visited art galleries, and just sat in her luxury room high up in the hotel contemplating the world below.
They were all ladies. Of course. 'Me time' is almost always associated with women is it not? And young women at that. But surely men need 'Me time' too. I guess they might go fishing if they were featured in a luxury magazine. I'm not sure what a 'real' man - like my husband for example might do. Find a quiet spot and read a magazine, or even a novel? Go for a walk or a bike ride? Sit and talk to the dog?
I wonder who dreamt up that phrase 'Me time'. I tried to find out but couldn't. I did find however, that in America at least one of the most important requirements of a happy relationship, according to the young, is apparently designated 'Me time'. It's even more important than that other modern relationship requirement - the date night. And is it a purely modern thing anyway? We certainly didn't have either of those things when I was young - well not by name anyway. And what about my mother's generation, or all of the generations before?
I guess if you were rich, or even just very comfortably off, throughout history people have had 'Me time'. Well theoretically anyway, although there have always been societal restrictions on what one could do with free time. As to the poor - very little opportunity I am guessing. It was either work, work, work - the paid kind - or work, work, work - the unpaid kind. Everything took longer than today because there were no machines to help. And there was no light to light the night and so evenings were shorter - so no 'Me time' to read a book there. Besides you probably couldn't read - or afford a book. There were no public libraries back then.
My mother did not have a lot of 'Me time', although in some ways she had more than most as her husband was away at sea for much of the year. I think there might have been a brief period when we were at school and before she went out to work, when she would have been able to snatch a few moments to herself. When we came home from school I remember we would often find her sitting in an armchair in front of a large French window, reading a book, or even snoozing. Is snoozing 'Me time"? If the aim is to refresh and revive, then I guess it is. I actually read an amusing article in The Guardian about one of their correspondents who had unexpectedly found herself with a whole day free of company and work, and who frittered it away on trivial things. Which perhaps is why 'Me time' has to be a defined period of time that has an actual purpose.
So for 'Me time' to be possible there has to be actual time available - and honestly sometimes there is not. Or is there not? Is it possible to carve out a half hour somewhere away from the family and the daily grind? I don't know. Possibly not for many - those who live in tiny apartments with large families and very little money.
People in new relationships probably do not even desire 'Me time'. All one wants is to be with the beloved. And whilst this wanes over time, generally speaking we like to be with our partner and our family, or with friends. COVID has highlighted that basic contradiction in the human psyche - the need for satisfying relationships - not just a sexual partner - but friends and family too - even work colleagues. And yet at the same time we crave time alone. When you are with others you may actually think, because you are conversing, relating, debating, but your are not contemplating. You are not still, quiet, calm ...
Young mothers are perhaps the ones who need that time the most. Snatch every moment you can to rest and relax I recently told my new mum niece. How you rest and relax is, however, an individual thing. As Nigel Slater says - others get that rest and relaxation - that 'Me time' - in a punishing session at the gym. Others curl up with a book in a sunny spot. Yet others go for a walk, a swim, a ride. There are endless ways of relaxing and refreshing. Eating a three course dinner in a luxury hotel on one's own would not do it for me, for example. I would be feeling much too self-conscious for that. And yes, as one grows old the opportunities for 'Me time' expand, with the ultimate danger being complete 'Me time' - loneliness and isolation.
One year after the horrendous bush fires here in Victoria, I rented a house near the sea on Phillip Island for the month of February. I spent most of it alone, as David did not want to be there all that time. He visited, as did family and friends, but for most of the time I was alone. I really, really enjoyed a lot of that - not having to consult anyone else over what to do, being able to eat what I fancied without considering others, being able to watch what I liked on the television. In any number of ways it was great. But ultimately it was lonely. And that's the other thing that COVID has highlighted. There are many people, young people as well as old, who live alone, and who have been virtually in solitary confinement over all that time. Which has resulted in mental stress of a different kind to that experienced by those locked up in too close proximity with others, some of whom are not easy to live with. No - escape from others, is just as bad as total imprisonment with others. So yes, 'Me time' is important, maybe even vital, but not too much. Half an hour with a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit will do.
And here I return to Nigel Slater, who cooks as well as writes.
"Cooking - for me at least - is about making yourself something to eat and sharing food with others but is also - whisper it - about the quiet moments of joy to be had along the way.
I too find quiet moments of joy when cooking. Not always of course, sometimes there is stress and anxiety, but sometimes there is serenity, fulfilment and purpose. Alas I can find no good pictures of either myself or Nigel Slater actually cooking. Cooking with others is a different kind of joy.
And I'm sure that others find those moments of contemplation as they work on something that gives them a sense of well-being, of being in the right place and the right moment in the world. For David I think it might be building things. For my sister it's found in the garden. For those who are blessed with talent it might be dancing, playing an instrument, singing, painting, sculpting ... all those creative things I cannot do.
It's a beautiful book. If it wasn't so expensive - cook books are always expensive - I would choose it as my book group book for next year. Because it's full of stories as well as recipes.
"You could measure my life in recipes. Each one a letter to a friend, a story of something I have made for dinner, the tale of how it came to be on my table." Nigel Slater
We probably all have those tales. Perhaps we should write them down.
Here is one such story which prefaces the first thing I am going to make from this book - Pine kernel and lemon cookies
"The first pan of pine kernels went up in expensive smoke, so I watched the second batch of diminutive, creamy-white nuts as intently as a hawk might watch a family of field mice, toasting them until they were evenly pale golden in colour.
I folded some of them into a sticky, marzipan and lemon-scented biscuit dough, while the rest were used to freckle the surface once the biscuits were rolled and ready to bake.
I played around a lot with the recipe, finally adding enough egg white to allow the cookies to spread like brandy snaps on the baking sheet, their uneven surface pitted with nuts and crystals of almond paste. You could call them biscuits, because the texture is crisp, like ice, their deckled edges shattering when snapped. But the centre is softly chewy thanks to the marzipan, so cookie might be a more appropriate description. Either way, they were what we wanted with a glass of vin santo in lieu of pudding."
And I'm not really a biscuit fan, but I have some egg whites that need using, and I love the idea of marzipan and pine nuts. So once I have bought the marzipan they will be made. Tomorrow.