' GROW OLD ALONG WITH ME!
THE BEST IS YET TO BE,
THE LAST OF LIFE, FOR WHICH THE FIRST WAS MADE'
so wrote the poet Robert Browning, and it is my message to the DH on our 32nd wedding anniversary today.
If I hadn’t heard Melissa Bank reading from her first novel at a local bookshop some years ago, I might well have assumed she was a chick-lit writer, and that she is not. Her second book The Wonder Spot covers similar territory to The Girl’s Guide to Hunting & Fishing, and uses the same distinctive format, a series of loosely linked stories about one individual.
The Wonder Spot covers twenty years in the life of Sophie Applebaum, from schoolgirl to maturity. Sophie has a deep sense of inadequacy which is only slightly diluted by the passing of time. She lives in New York, although I feel that the word ‘lives’ is not really the right one, she clings to existence in New York would be nearer the mark, anxiously seeking a life, a career, love and friendship. Somehow she misjudges people all the time, the wrong men, the wrong friendships. As she says of herself at one point, at drinks parties she feels like a solid trying to do a liquid’s job.
Banks is a very controlled writer and a wonderful turn of phrase which makes these stories very real and very poignant, but the book doesn’t quite come together as a novel, and yet it is not a collection of short stories in the usual way. That left me as a reader feeling rather incomplete.
I was a schoolgirl in Cape Town when Dr Christiaan Barnard made medical history with the first heart transplant on a man called Louis Washansky. The newspapers were full of it, and when driving past Groote Schuur Hospital, I remember thinking how amazing and marvellous it was to live in an age where the heart of someone who had died could be used to keep another person alive.
Over the many years since then I have continued to be interested in such medical advances, and I am a regular blood donor, both here and in South Africa. I am not a luddite, nor a religious fundamentalist, or Jehovah's Witness nor do I belong any of the other groups who all set their faces firmly against blood transfusions or organ transplants for a variety of emotional and quasi-biblical reasons. If I or a member of my family needed a life-saving transplant I hope it would be possible.
Even so, I do have my sticking points. And first and foremost of these is that I consider that my body belongs to ME and to me alone. If I want to donate my liver, kidneys, corneas, skin, heart, lungs or any other bits and bobs to be used for those who might need them that is entirely up to me.
It is not up to Gordon Brown, our fuhrer, who this week said that unless people positively said otherwise, their organs should be available for transplant. The state does not own the bodies of its citizens, it cannot harvest them at will, just as it cannot haul people in off the streets and take blood from them, even when as regularly occurs there is a shortage of blood for emergency use.
I do realise that there is a shortage of organs for transplant, and that the Organ Donor Card scheme does not cover all the population. It must seem very frustrating for transplant teams to know that often, perfectly "useable" organs are buried or cremated because the deceased person had not agreed to donation; never-the-less, I think it would be very wrong to shift the legal position from an opt-in to donation scheme to an opt-out scheme. Why should the onus be on an individual to say what should be done with his or her own body or else the state will just take it. If the government are so concerned about the paucity of organs suitable for transplant, it would be better if they were to mount a really active campaign to persuade people to carry donor cards, and/or to have them asked if they would agree to be put on a donor register when they pay a visit to their GP.
I came across a strata recipe some years ago in a book on American baking, since then I have discovered that this dish has numerous variations and there are loads of different ways you can ring the changes. It seems to be served regularly at brunches and lunches in the USA, and for many families it is traditional to have it on Christmas morning for breakfast. No wonder, it is so accommodating, you prep the whole thing the night before and then just shove it in the oven next day. Everyone I've served it to loves it, and it is cheap, filling, and easy enough for a student to make. The one stipulation is you MUST use decent bread. Nothing pre-sliced or out of a packet. The local baker's white tin loaf is ideal.
SUNDAY BREAKFAST STRATA
10 thick slices good white bread, crusts removed
200g bacon or lardons
200g mushrooms, halved then sliced
1 medium large onion, peeled and chopped
8 large eggs
200g grated cheddar or similar cheese
300ml single cream
Salt and black pepper
Oil and butter for cooking
Grease a large, shallow oven-proof dish.
Cut the bread into even cubes.
In a frying pan, sauté the lardons until crisp and browning. Add the chopped onion to the pan and fry them in the fat from the lardons, adding a little oil if needed.
Remove the lardons and onion from the pan, then add a knob of butter and dash of oil to it before sautéing the mushroom pieces.
Cover the base of the oven-proof dish with a layer of bread cubes. Sprinkle half the lardons, onions and mushrooms over them. Cover them with half the grated cheese and then add another layer of bread cubes. Cover them with the remaining lardons, onions, mushrooms and cheese.
Break the eggs into a bowl, add salt and pepper and the cream. Beat them together thoroughly – an electric whisk is best for this.
Pour the egg/cream mixture evenly over the bread etc. Cover tightly with clingfilm. Then very gently push down on the mixture in the dish so that all the bread is submerged in the eggy mix. Place in the fridge and leave overnight or longer if necessary.
In the morning pre-heat the oven to 175°C. Remove the clingfilm from the strata and place in the centre of the oven to bake for 40minutes – 1 hour until puffed up and golden brown.
Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.
Great as part of a buffet, and with a green salad. Teenage boys may want to have ketchup and HP sauce with it!