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Celebrating the Ordinary and things of a domestic nature: Day Six

Before Home Economics was standard fare on the Northern Ireland curriculum, there was Domestic Science. Other than Physical Education, which I skillfully avoided with a note from my mother when I “had cramps,” it was my least favorite subject in school.  It involved the planning of meals, cooking, baking, and, for a brief period, knitting. There was even some sewing, during which I learned how to finish the edges of something, presumably a blanket, with blanket stitch. I vaguely recall stitching the six letters of my name on an apron and wondering why my I had not been christened, simply, “Eve.”

In the beginning, there were no boys in Domestic Science, nor were there any girls in Woodwork, Metalwork, or the exotic-sounding Technical Studies.  Unbeknownst to me, however, there were some people who saw the fundamental unfairness of this situation. Apparently they had some clout too, because along came The Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order of 1976 which made unlawful the inequality of access for boys and girls to all areas of the curriculum. Landmark legislation, it enabled boys and girls in the same classroom, to partake of Craft, Design, and Technology, although it would be another 14 years before a National Curriculum would be implemented. For me, the “craft” component of both Domestic Science and CDT remained elusive. To be honest, two thirds of the latter course would have been beyond me unless the “craft” entailed extra-curricular knitting, which my mother would have done for me, bailing me out as she had done in Domestic Science when I had to knit purple slippers.

In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, my country was investigating ways in which to make Domestic Science and Technical Studies curricula more gender-neutral while at the same time segregating its children. Catholics and Protestants were educated in separate schools in often bitterly divided communities, until finally, a small group of Belfast parents dared to change the course of history, to force the issue, to confront aloud what happens to the heart of a country and the identity of its children when they are educated in segregated schools. Ordinary Catholics and Protestants, we already knew what happened. It was time for change, to demand an answer to questions such as this, asked in 1957 by  Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Lester Bowles Pearson:

How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other?

There is no better place to learn about one another, to learn about humanity, than in the safety of a classroom. In 1981, Lagan College became the first integrated secondary school in Northern Ireland to offer such a space for boys and girls, Catholics and Protestants. On the first day of school, under armed guard, Lagan College opened its doors to  28 children. It is different today. According to the school’s website, as of September 1, 2012, there are 1,253 students at Lagan College. It is now a 21st century school with a curriculum that includes Home Economics, the central focus of which is “the consideration of the home and family in relation to the development of the individual and society and is designed to enable students to acquire the knowledge and skills to improve the quality of life for themselves and others. During the three years, they will address the areas of Diet and Health, Family Life and Choice and Management of Resources, using a variety of teaching and learning techniques.” That sounds infinitely more important and doable than the Domestic Science of my youth, which leads me back to where I started . . .

The one thing I retained from my spell in Domestic Science was the textbook, the Hamlyn All Colour CookBook. A dust collector these days, it is of little practical use with its metric measurements. Still, I cannot bear to part with it.

When I read that Marie had baked Irish Brown Bread yesterday morning, I remembered my mother and me, poring over the pictures in the Hamlyn cookbook when it was brand new, ma delighted to find so many cakes and sweets she already knew how to make, without as much as a precise measurement, let alone a “method” like the one we had to write out in our Domestic Science notebook.

Although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and several time zones, the picture of Marie’s loaf of bread transported me back home in an instant, to “Baking Day.” She knew it would, the way a friend would know. We have never met, but we are friends nonetheless. Within this virtual home away from home, we share kindnesses, coincidences, recipes, stories about the way things used to be, and perhaps a colloquialism that few outside the country would fully appreciate. This past week, Marie has hosted a party of sorts, a global celebration of the ordinary, and lots of her friends showed up, each bearing gifts wrapped up in words and pictures, bringing to mind Patrick Kavanagh’s “bits and pieces of everyday.” Nancy and Martine shared pictures of their favorite trees, Ann-Marie a moving tale of traveling pants. Philippa shared the Tiffin box that I couldn’t wait to tell my staff about yesterday. There were flowers too, Jan’s red roses and Heliconia brought specially from Australia by Liz. Evoking a harvest home from long ago were Lori‘s fresh vegetables, my favorite Honey Crisp apples from Beth, spiced zucchini baked in a cake by Renn, and the freshly picked Irish blackberries that Marie would use for a delicious fruit crumble.

Of late, Marie has been experimenting with recipes, trying to recapture the distinct taste of her mother’s brown bread. As the unmistakable smells of baking fill her kitchen, I imagine Marie longing for an ordinary day, just like one she would have enjoyed when her mother was alive and healthy; a day when her mother would effortlessly produce those apple tarts, scones, and brown bread without consulting a recipe book or weighing a single ingredient.

I have not seen my mother for a while, but we talk on the phone or Skype frequently. Sometimes every day. Today, I called her with questions about baking. Before she went back to work, she recollected, Friday was Baking Day. Like her mother before her, she did not measure, but she somehow timed everything so that by the end of the day, before daddy came home from work, the square biscuit tins left over from Christmas and assorted Tupperware containers were lined with greaseproof paper and filled to their brims with caramel fingers, melting moments, fudge cakes, shortbread, and butterfly buns.  For Sunday desert, we had a choice of apple tart, Pavlova, Trifle, a Victoria Sponge, or a Swiss Roll. Honestly, I am surprised we still have teeth.

While she had actually copied down many of these recipes, which I stuck inside a book for future reference, ma never took much notice of them. She did, however, take one precaution while baking and that was to give my brother and me advance warning not to slam the backdoor as we were wont to do, if she had a fruitcake in the oven. As Marie reminded me, “You don’t bang the door or the fruit cake will collapse in the oven!”

I have to admit, that throughout this day, I have resisted the urge to Google this fact. I want to believe it is something only Irish mammies say.

In her kitchen in Ireland, Marie’s baking continues. In her own words: “Guess what I have in the oven right now? A traditional fruit cake – am using Jenny Bristow’s recipe..was she on TV when you were home? Her shows were on UTV and my Mum loved her recipes..I bought her a cook book of JB which I now have!”

My mother loves Jenny Bristow, otherwise known as Ireland’s Good Food Ambassador. She first appeared on UTV around the same time I left for America, when Brian Baird, my favorite college professor, was still reading the news, My mother has been a fan all these years. To illustrate again the smallness of our world, on the shelf beside my Hamlyn book is a collection of recipes that was once compiled as a fundraiser for St. Swithin’s Church in Magherafelt, the town where my father grew up.

There is no date on the aptly entitled “Aspire to Good Cookery,” but it made me smile to see that Jenny Bristow had written the Foreword, and I think this will make Marie smile too.

I even felt somewhat validated to read that even Jenny thought some of the recipes might require “a little more effort” and that occasionally we would have to forego the counting of calories. 
Out of interest, I consulted the index, hoping to find Jenny Bristow’s fruitcake recipe. Not that I will be baking it anytime soon. It is “baking day” here only in that it is going to be a ridiculous 107 degrees and humid.
Her recipe had not made it into this particular book. No matter, my mother would know the recipe, right?  While I listened on the other end of the line, pen in hand, here’s what she shared with me, verbatim:

“Well now, you just put your ingredients in, boil them, and then let them cool. Add your egg and your flour, put in your margarine, sugar, and water or two cups of black tea, all your cherries, raisins, and sultanas. Be you careful when you bring it to the boil. Let it cool and then throw in two or three eggs. Stir it all up and put it into your loaf tin. That’s your boiled cake.”  

Should I want to make a fruit cake instead of a boiled cake, she elaborated thus: “Now for a fruit cake, you just cream your butter and sugar in the mixer until they are nice and fluffy. Put in your eggs and your flour and all your fruit. Stir it all up and throw it in the oven. It will take longer to cook than the boiled cake. Use a slower oven.”

I am none the wiser, and I think it would be fair to say that my Domestic Science teacher would have dismissed my mother’s Fruit Cake “method” as highly unsatisfactory without the obligatory list of ingredients and numbered directions that included the weighing of things.

Still, if this were a fruit cake throw-down with Bobby Flay on the Food TV Network, my mother would win hands-down. Every time.