Such is life

red and white sale illustration

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When we were trying to sell a house in Kent many years ago, the estate agent put a “sold” sign outside it when, in reality, someone had made an offer, but only an offer without much commitment. I removed the “sold” part of the sign to reveal the “for sale” part of the sign that was hidden underneath it. Then, I rang the agent, told him off for being premature about advertising our house as being sold. Also, I told him what I had done about it. He replied cheekily: “Good man”, without making any apology. This same agent had told us days after we put our house sale in his hands: “Don’t worry about it. I’ll sell it, okay. Now, you can just go out and spend the money right now.”

The agent’s somewhat infuriating, unapologetic answer regarding his sign was typical of people living in that part of Kent. If, for example, someone caused a problem, such as, for example, scratching your car or blocking you into a parking place, and then you alerted the miscreant to the problem, he (usually) or she would not apologise, but instead say cheekily: “Oh yeah?”

There are two other nonchalant responses that continue to infuriate me after complaining about something or having pointed out a serious problem. These are: “These things happen” and “such is life”.

Talking turkey

Until I was about fifteen, our family usually ate Christmas lunch at my aunt’s home with other relatives and friends. The centrepiece of the meal was often roast goose. My mother’s brother Felix used to try to entertain us youngsters with a story about Turkey Lurkey and his chums Goosey Loosey, Ducky Lucky, and Chicken Licken. He meant well, but his story, repeated annually, elicited groans from young and old alike.

One year, 1963, I was in Manhattan with my sister and parents on Christmas Day. That Christmas, I ate sirloin steak for lunch.

Many times during my late twenties and throughout my thirties, I spent Christmas in the English countryside with my PhD supervisor, his wife, and family. They served turkey for evening dinner on Christmas Day. They used to cook enormous birds capable of generously feeding twenty or more folk, yet there was never more than about ten or eleven of us around the festive table.

Everyone except me preferred white meat. One year, when I was asked my preference, I chose brown meat. My host cut off and then placed a whole turkey leg on my plate. It looked like an enormous club, such as might have been used by Fred Flintstone.

After 1994, I often spent Christmas in India. One Christmas Day, I fancied French onion soup rather than festive fare. A couple of years running, we ate Christmas lunch at Sunnies restaurant, which blazed the trail for fine dining with European food in Bangalore. The Christmas menu included the best turkeys I have ever eaten; they were juicy and very tasty. The turkeys at Sunnies were Butterballs specially imported from the USA.

Finally, I will tell you about an unusual Christmas Day ingredient, which I encountered at a place in Bangalore , which I will not name to save causing embarrassment. Several large roasted turkeys were being served at a buffet lunch. After I had enjoyed a serving of turkey, a friend of mine brought me his daughter’s plate, which contained a sizeable piece of uneaten Turkey meat and … a perfectly roasted large cockroach.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

A lady in Budapest

My PhD supervisor’s wife was fondly known as ‘Wink’. When she learnt that I was about to visit Budapest in the early 1980s, she told me the story of her friend Dora, who lived in that city.

Sometime during the war, Wink got her first job. She became a supervising chemist at High Duty Alloys, a company that had its premises on the huge Slough Trading Estate, which had been established near Slough in 1920. It was the middle of the war, and there was a great need for metal for aircraft and armaments. Everything was being melted down in order to extract vitally needed metals. Wink was involved in developing ways of improving the extraction of the highly reactive metals magnesium and aluminium from seawater. Everyone was donating whatever metal items that they could spare to help the war effort. A great number of metal cooking pots reached High Duty Alloys. Sadly, Wink related, many of these were so full of unwanted metals that separating the desirable ingredients was uneconomical; the cooking utensils had been donated in vain.

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Dora Sos in 1985 in Budapest

Soon after joining High Duty Alloys, Wink was assigned a technician. She was a Hungarian called Dora, who had been visiting the UK as the representative of a Hungarian chemical company when WW2 broke out. She was briefly interned as an ‘enemy alien’ until the authorities decided that she did not pose a security risk. When she was released, she took up the job at High Duty. Wink and Dora, who was a little older than her, became close friends. After WW2 was over, Dora was given British citizenship. However, she was getting homesick and decided to return to her home in central Budapest.

Every now and then during the late 1940s, the British embassy in Budapest held parties and receptions for British subjects living in Hungary. One evening when Dora was on her way to attend one of these, she was prevented from entering the embassy by Hungarian police officers waiting near to its entrance. She was taken in for questioning, warned never to try to enter the embassy again, and her British passport was confiscated. Dora continued her life working in a scientific laboratory in Budapest, but under appalling conditions. Each night at the end of a day’s work, all of the laboratory notebooks had to be locked up in drawers for which she had no keys. The Stalinist authorities who ran the country at that time were terrified of espionage and sabotage. Conditions became so bad in the laboratory that Dora, who was fluent in German and English, gave up being a scientist, and became a language interpreter.

Wink told me that after a few years when Hungary’s Communist regime became a little less strict, Dora was issued with a Hungarian passport and was given permission to travel to the West for a holiday. She went to The Hague in Holland and visited the British Embassy there. She related her story to the ambassador and his staff, and after they had checked up that she had once been issued with a British passport, they issued her with a replacement for the one that had been taken from her in Budapest. She was told that she could use the British passport whenever she was out of Hungary. All that she needed to do was to enter whichever British Embassy was near her, and then arrangements would be made to issue her with another British passport. And, before returning to Hungary, she could return her British passport to the nearest embassy for safe-keeping. Thus, she was able to visit Wink in Britain on a number of occasions.

When I began making regular visits to Hungary in the early 1980s, Wink gave me Dora’s address, and I met her. We became good friends. Whenever I was in Budapest, I used to visit her in her first floor flat in a late 19th century apartment building near to Moskva Ter in Buda. She always asked me for news of Wink and her family. A chain smoker, she was also a good cook. Whenever I visited her, she would serve me generous helpings of her home-made chicken paprika. This was always accompanied by noodles that she had just prepared with freshly made dough that she extruded through a mesh straight into boiling water.

Dora told me that under Communism very few young people learnt English in Hungary. Learning Russian was compulsory. Therefore, there was a shortage of English interpreters in the country. Often, she was asked to interpret at scientific conferences. She was able to perform simultaneous translations from German into English and vice-versa. This is no mean feat for someone whose mother tongue was Hungarian. Before my visits to Budapest, I used to write to Dora and my other friends there, announcing my travel plans. On more than one occasion, Dora commissioned me to bring the latest editions of particular technical dictionaries from London to her in Budapest, where these volumes were not available. She told me that whenever she was able to travel to the West, she would buy copies of Solzhenitsyn’s works. These were strictly forbidden in Hungary. She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary from the West, she would be asked by the Hungarian customs officials whether she was carrying any of these so-called ‘solzhis’.

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In the house where Bela Bartok lived in Budapest

When I visited Budapest with my wife in about 1999, we visited the apartment house where Dora lived as I had been unable to get through to her by telephone. When we reached the door of her flat, which opened onto one of the galleries surrounding the building’s courtyard, I looked at the name on the doorbell.

It was no longer Dora’s.

The lost sausage

Sausage

While I was a PhD student, there was another person, ‘Ali’, doing research for his doctoral thesis in our lab. He was a devout Muslim from one of the Gulf States. During Ramazan, he fasted as required. This he could handle easily but abstaining from cigarettes during the hours of fasting was a trial for him.

Our PhD supervisor, whom we called ‘Doc’, and his wife both worked alongside us in the lab. They were not only first-rate scientists but also warm-hearted people. Doc’s wife played in an above average amateur philharmonic orchestra. Several times a year, the orchestra put on public concerts. These were held in halls in the area about 20 to 30 miles west of central London. Doc’s wife used to invite us students to attend these concerts if we wanted. This invitation included spending a night at her family home.

An early evening meal was always served before the concert. Often, soloists were invited to share this pre-concert repast with other guests including whichever student(s) turned up.

On one occasion, Ali and I attended one of these meals. The main course was an English (and Scottish) dish called Toad in the Hole. This consists of sausages cooked in Yorkshire Pudding batter. When the ovenproof dish containing this speciality arrived at the table, the sausages were invisible. They were all concealed beneath the surface of the steaming hot batter.

‘Doc’ mentioned that although most of the sausages were pork, in deference to Ali they had included one or two beef sausages. However, neither he, nor his wife, nor the cook could remember where in the dish they had placed the beef sausages.

‘Doc’ was not only highly intelligent, but was also extremely practical. For example, he was a competent plumber and mechanic as well as a superbly skilled biologist. Often, he used to say: “I wonder why they waste time teaching children Latin and Greek. They should be teaching them plumbing and carpentry.” I digress. Doc’s solution to the problem of detecting the beef sausages kindly added for Ali, who did not eat pork, was as follows. Using a big knife, he cut grid lines across and through the meat-containing batter. Then, he lifted each of the resulting cubes of the Toad and examined the cross-sections of the sausages that his knife had cut through. Because the beef sausages were redder in cross-section than the pork, he was able to serve Ali his religiously acceptable food.

It was very thoughtful of Doc and his wife to think of Ali’s dietary restrictions, and to deal with the problem the way they did. This was typical of the couple’s great kindness. The devout Ali was gracious enough to eat his specially prepared portion of the dish without complaining that the pork and beef had been cooked together.

 

To see a recipe, one of many, for Toad in the Hole, click HERE

Garlic and parsley

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My late mother was a good cook. I know that you will think that often children praise their mother’s cooking however awful it is. In the case of my mother, her cooking was praised by many people, who still remember her skills in the kitchen many years after her demise at an early age. My mother was a keen disciple of the pioneering food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce Mediterranean cuisine to the British. Many recipes from the Mediterranean involve the use of garlic and parsley.

Although my mother did not permit my sister and me to cook in her kitchen, we were ordered to be in the kitchen with her either to keep her company and/or to do the washing-up. Our presence in the kitchen and proximity to a skilled cook engendered a life-long love of cooking in both my sister and me. When my mother died, I took over her kitchen and learned, by trial and error, how to cook. My sister did the same and ran a restaurant successfully for quite a few years.

Many of the dishes I cooked, and still make, contained copious amounts of garlic. This was not a problem until I qualified as a dentist, and moved to a practice in Kent, about 80 kilometres from London in distance, although it felt much further culturally and in many other ways.

Friends have often asked me whether the mouths that I treated emitted bad smells. The short answer is that although they might be malodorous occasionally, the dentist rarely smells them while treating the patient. However, the converse is true for the patient. In modern practice, the patient is often almost horizontal on the treatment chair. He or she can easily smell the dentist’s breath.

Soon after I began practising in Kent, I lived in local rented accommodation. I cooked for myself in the evenings, often preparing dishes with large amounts of delicious garlic.

One morning, Mrs G, a late middle-aged woman, attended my surgery. Soon after I had lowered the chair to a semi-reclined position, I commenced working on her teeth. In those days, the early 1980s, dentists did not routinely wear surgical gloves, nor did they wear facemasks. A paper facemask such as became ‘de rigueur’ after the beginning of the AIDs (HIV) epidemic, would not have prevented what was to occur after I began treating Mrs G.

After I had been at work for about a minute, Mrs G swept her hand in front of her mouth, and exclaimed: “Ooooh, Mr Yamey, you’ve been eating garlic.” I apologised, and from that day onwards I never ate garlic on a day before I was due to work.  

After I had been in practice for about twelve years, I began working in inner London instead of ‘extra-terrestrial’ Kent. My patients in London came from all over the world, and most of them ate at least as much garlic as I do. The garlic restriction that I exercised in Kent became unnecessary.

Parsley was another problem I faced when I first arrived in Kent. I used to buy my lunch at the local Tesco supermarket. Many of its employees were patients in the practice where I worked. In addition to sandwiches and potato crisps, I enjoyed eating something containing chocolate with my midday meal. Many was the time when the lady at the check-out till would hold my Mars bar or Crunchie up in the air, and then shout at the top of her voice: “Look what the dentist is eating.” I digress.

One summer’s day, I needed some parsley for something I wanted to cook. I entered the local Tesco and asked an assistant where this herb was kept in the shop. Surprised by my request, she answered: “Sorry, love, we only get that in at Christmas.” I was shocked. Only an hour and a half’s drive away in London, parsley was available throughout the year. The Medway Towns, where I worked, were trapped in a 1950’s time-warp when I first arrived there. By the early 1990s, when I shifted to London, the area was emerging gradually into the present.