When They're Passing Round The Coffee And The Pumpkin Pie...
12 January 2009
Today Douglas Lindsay is writing the seventh book in the Barney Thomson triology, The Final Cut. The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 16th October 2003:
"There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy, when they're passing round the coffee and the pumpkin pie..."
There's a chill in the air, the leaves are falling faster than the FTSE, and suddenly women are beginning to look at me strangely when I walk to school in the mornings in my t-shirt and shorts. It's autumn, the best of all seasons, when the summer heat is gone, before the dark depths of winter have descended. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; conspiring with him how to load and bless with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run, as John Keats wrote in 1820. Golden days. Or as DH Lawrence put it, 'I want to go South where there is no autumn. Where the cold doesn't crouch over one like a snow-leopard waiting to pounce. The heart of the North is dead, and the fingers of cold are corpse fingers.' Stick on a pair of gloves, mate, for crying out loud.
Anyway, it's pumpkin season. I don't think pumpkins are that much of a thing in Britain, or maybe they just weren't a thing in our house. For years I sang happily along to Bing and Frank and the rest of the Christmas crooners, cheerily schmoozing about passing pumpkin pie around the family, as if these occasions are ever relaxing and enjoyable, without ever knowing what pumpkin pie actually tasted like. Not until we pitched up in Africa and got some wonderful American friends, did I get to try pumpkin pie. And you know, I like pumpkin pie. It's a quality pie. A fine balance of sweet and savoury, rich cinnamony flavours, that whole nutmeggy vibe, got that ginger thing going on. A delicious pie. A little bit different, unless you've been raised on pumpkin pie, but if the normal pie of your life has been an apple pie or a mince pie or a cherry pie, then a pumpkin pie is a fine alternative. A superior pie.
We have friends here who have a pumpkin man come to their house. Now, the phrase Pumpkin Man sounds exceptionally dodgy. The Pumpkin Man. Could be a Wes Craven movie. The Pumpkin Man shows up in the dead of night and carves you family's heads into grotesque cariacatures of Hallowe'en pumpkins. Cool. Or perhaps the Pumpkin Man was some dodgy mobster in the States in the 20's. He ran illegal booze across the Canadian border, the bottles hidden inside giant hollowed-out pumpkins, until one night he was taken out in an internecine gang war just south of Niagara Falls. 'Well they blew up the Pumpkin Man in Buffalo last night...' Or maybe the Pumpkin Man is the nickname that Spud out of Bob the Builder gives himself when he goes clubbing on a Saturday night. 'Hey, Babe,' he says, in a deep voice, 'I'm the Pumpkin Man.' Which is going to work better than saying, 'My name's Spud, and I'm an annoying, stupid little twat,' in a high-pitched croak.
This pumpkin man, however, is a man who owns a large pumpkin field and drives around Belgrade dishing out 50 kilo pumpkins to foreigners who are quite happy to pay the few pennies that it costs to buy a vegetable that is bigger than the fridge that most of us have in our kitchens at home. So, this weekend we ended up with three pumpkins. An elongated baby pumpkin, a medium-sized mummy pumpkin and a gigantic daddy pumpkin. You may recall that I spent many a happy hour in the kitchen this summer carving the flesh out of enormous watermelons. There was something theraputic about watermelon carving, despite the fact that it generally took the better part of eight or nine hours to do the job properly. God, those days seem so far away, so jejune. We had been in possession of our three pumpkins for a little more than five seconds, when we were already fed up listening to the children demanding to have one of them carved into a scary face and for its innards to be transformed into pie. So we carved out the baby pumpkin. To do this and live, we had to develop a rotational 12-hours-on-12-hours-off shift system of working, so that by the early hours of Wednesday morning we had finally completed the job. Carving out pumpkins, particularly the elongated variety, is the most time-consuming job in the history of mankind. Here is an actual, genuine statistical fact: it takes longer to carve out a 50 kilo pumpkin than it took for the man to evolve from the amoeba. There may be, in the very depths of the Lakeland catalogue somewhere, an implement specifically designed to carve a pumpkin. A Pumpkin Carver they could call it. Stainless steel blade, wooden handle, only £4.99. However, during the summer when my wife was buying over 95% of the items in the Lakeland catalogue, she inadvertently passed on the Pumpkin Carver, so that when it came to carving the flipping pumpkin, we were using spoons, knives, a cake slice, forks, shovels, and a cheap plastic Beast figure which one of the kids got in a Happy Meal a few months ago. It was the longest thing that either of us has ever had to do. For four days the only time that the missus and I got to see each other was when we changed shift, when one brought the other a lunch of cold mashed potatoes and water, or when medical assistance was called upon to patch up the increasing number of blisters that covered our poor beleagured hands, like so many cancers dished out by the vengeful God of the Old Testament.
So, yesterday afternoon, the kids were turfed out of school at the required time, the teachers collapsed into the usual Gelatinous Balls of Relief-Gunk, and I trudged back down the road, heading for the kitchen and a date with Mrs Beeton. If only, with every edition of 'Mrs Beeton's Book of Cookery And Household Management', you received a free gift of an actual Mrs Beeton, who could carve your pumpkin and then make the pie. The type of woman who can simultaneously do the laundry, make dinner, iron her husband's shirts, clean the kitchen and entertain sixteen children whilst having the two youngest clamped to her breasts. However, we bought our copy of Mrs Beeton after that particular promotional offer had finished.
I had foolishly conjured up a blissful image of making pumpkin pie. Bing Crosby playing serenely in the background, the smells and gentle chill of autumn drifting in through the open window, the kids happily sitting at the kitchen table, burbling away excitedly, helping whisk the eggs and quietly reading improving literature during the occasions when I had to concentrate. To be fair to the nefarious spawn, it wasn't really their fault. They were as they are. However, half a minute in, I was Evil Dad, and I'd had enough. 'When's it going to be ready? Can I help? Can I pour that in? What are you doing to the pumpkin? Is the oven hot yet? Why's the sugar brown? Why are pumpkin's orange? What's that, Daddy? When's it going to be ready? Are pumpkins and carrots the same thing? What's nutmeg? You're looking very red, Daddy, why are you red? Why are pumpkins the same colour as carrots? Why's an orange called an orange? What's the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? Why are there cracks in the pavement? Why don't you let us watch the Cartoon Network, Daddy? Can I sift the flour? What's ginger? Why is flour white? Can we lick the bowl? Can I get butter all over my fingers then run around touching the furniture? Why did the Titanic hit an iceberg? What's an iceberg? Why is an iceberg the same colour as flour? Is it nearly ready?' Aaaaarrrrggghhhhhh!!! Shut uuuuuuuuup!!! Time to start sticking you fingers in your ears and sing 'Nessum Dorma' as loudly as possible, but unfortunately, not being Mrs Beeton, it's hard to do that and make pumpkin pie at the same time. Some accommodation was required.
So, I let one of them sift the flour, let the other beat the eggs. (As usual, this allowed them both to cough profusely into the mix, but lately we've been feeding them Shwarz Italian Phlegm Seasoning, so that's not the issue that it used to be.) Dissauded them from helping to stir the steaming pot of cooking pumpkin, let them spill ginger all over the place whilst measuring out half a teaspoon. Answered their questions on why there isn't a Palestinian state, tried not to throw them to the wolves when they sat on the table and tipped the bag of flour over their heads. Eventually, as is always the case, they got bored and left me to do it. That, I believe, for the stay at home dad, is why cooking is such a great activity. You can casually drop into conversation with other mums that you're going home to bake pumpkin pie with the kids, and you can see the mums swooning and thinking, 'You're such a wonderful father, and handsome too. I wish my husband would make pumpkin pie with the kids. He's just a pig.' What they don't know, of course, is that it will involve ten minutes of rancour, shouting, arguments and bloodshed, followed by the kids making a beeline for the garden to play with heavy machinery, whilst I completely ignore them and get on with making the dinner/cooking the pie/brewing the soup/distilling the illegal homemade hootch. These days it's all about presentation over style.
An hour or so later a pumpkin pie emerged from the oven. So, you know, there are two parts to the average pumpkin pie. There's the pumpkin part, then there's the pie part. First off, the thing looked sensational. It was round, it was a pie, it screamed quality to a world desperate to hear the sound of a quality pie. Jamie Oliver could've been filmed next to this pie, he could have smiled cheekily and said "All right, darlin'," and no one would've suspected that he hadn't made it. It was a good-looking pie. The pumpkin part was delicious. The perfect blend of pumpkin, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. This was pie filling, the likes of which an uberchef, in some blissful opium-stoked hallucination, could only conceptualise. Clearly I had been blessed by the gods as I mixed the eggs and milk, before blending it into the pumpkin mixture. The choir of angels which had not sung since my resounding stone skimming triumph on Loch Fyne, burst anew from the heavens, layer upon layer of enchanting melody drowning the kitchen in wave after wave of sumptuous, God-sent inner warmth. I held my arms aloft and bathed naked in the autumnal passion of celestial beings, carried away on a magic carpet of dreams and glory, begotten of an inner majesty, a conquest where execution and substance lived up to the promise of all our yesterdays.
Unfortunately the pie part was crap. And the kids hated it anyway. Clearly I had succumbed, as William James wrote, to the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess of success. The dream was dead, I was no more a Maker of Pumpkin Pie, than I am an Astronaut or Someone Who Can Hold Down His End Of A Conversation.
Still, I have the photo of me and my pie, which can be inserted into 'Douglas Lindsay's Guide To Balkan Cuisine', available soon from Chatto & Windus, priced £15.99, and no one will be any the wiser.