Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Christmas Cake

Before the winter flu season hit, I baked my Christmas Cake.
            In Australia, if you're properly serious about it, Christmas starts in August. For Australians - at least those of us of anglo-Christian heritage - Christmas serves the same traditional role as the USA-ian thanksgiving. This is the holiday where families gather together. Come hell or high water, howsoever far we need to travel, we do our damnedest to get back home for Christmas week.
            This is the southern hemisphere, and Christmas is held in high summer, so the celebrating is done antipodean style - picnics on a lawn, BBQs on the beach. If we do a ham or a turkey it's leavened with seafood and salads and fruit, but when it comes to dessert, we live in a cultural blind spot: we cook the way our ancestors cooked when Christmas happened under six feet of snow and food was there to build bulk and sequester body heat.
            We bake and we boil. Steamed puddings, boiled puddings, mince pies, slow-baked fruit cakes. My parents have boiled Christmas puddings in the steaming heat of the Papua New Guinean Jungle and when it comes to the Christmas Fruit Cake - the Tabubil family embraces Tradition with both arms and goes well and truly off the deep end.

In August or September you gather your fruit. A pound or two of raisins, the same of sultanas, another of currants, candied citrus peel and cherries, crystallized ginger and pineapple, glace apricots and peaches and pears and figs and oranges and kiwi-fruit and quangdongs and cantaloupe (if you can find it) all chopped into little pieces no larger than a raisin. When you have a lasagna pan overflowing with sweetly aromatic fruit, you begin to add the alcohol. Slowly, pouring and turning and stirring and resting, over the course of a week you pour in bottle of brandy - and then another. As the fruit swells, you move the overflow into another great bowl and tend to both. The house smell thick and alcoholic - 
            "Like a distillery" Mr Tabubil sniffs ardently, "but in a good way."
            When the fruit is soft and swollen, and boozy sugar syrup oozes at the bottom of the pan, you make your cake.  Butter and sugar, eggs and apricot jam, flour for mortar, and spices (nutmeg and cinnamon and allspice) to earth the heady, alcoholic notes. Stir in the fruit. Slowly. Use a wooden spoon - metal spoons bend under the awesome pressure of the mix.
            Line the largest cake tin you own (and you have hunted down this one specially) with brown paper, building it up high over the edges of the tin to buttress the towering mountain of cake batter.
It’s a solid mix - like concrete. Fill the tin and drop it on the floor from shoulder height - Bam!
The impact shakes the kitchen and, only incidentally, flattens out the air pockets in the batter.
            And then you bake. Slowly, and for hours. Last year was my first solo - I started too late in the day and baked until eleven at night - and sat up until six in the morning, high on brandy fumes.
            Cool the cake and wrap it in glad-wrap and foil and kitchen towels, and tuck it away at the bottom of a cool pantry to mature and marinate for four months or so, and by the end of December, the cake is ready to ice: a coating of jam, a layer of marzipan, rolled thin, and then - c'est voila and sacre bleu - The Royal Icing!  You see it on wedding cakes - thick and white and silky. It tastes Terrible, but it gives the cake the look, n'est-ce pas?
            In Australia, you can buy your Royal Icing in bricks in the supermarket, but elsewhere we found the packaged stuff to be unobtainable - so we made our own.
            Icing the cake was the job of a full afternoon. We'd lay old sheets on the kitchen floor, put on disposable clothes and knead sugar and egg whites and glycerin until the entire kitchen was coated in a faint sticky sheen and we were just plain unspeakable.
            And last: a wrap of tinsel or Christmas paper, and a tableaux on top - a silver mirror for a frozen lake, small plastic fir trees and skaters and sleighs with reindeer, and you have a Christmas cake - a fruit cake with the density of plutonium and an envelope of solid sugar syrup - perfect for the end of an enormous meal on a sweltering summer afternoon.

Well, we think so.

In all honor, not much of that tremendous cake is consumed on Christmas day. It's served in thin wedges - intended for delicate nibbling around a cup of tea. For the remainder of the Christmas season, every visitor to your home - however casual or fleeting - is served tea and cake, and the visit becomes an honorary one. The cake is baked for the family, and as long as it lasts - so are they.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Spring Grass

The first mown grass of spring!
            The moan of a whipper-snipper outside your window, the thick green smell of freshly cut grass - intoxicating odor! Threads of it fizz and burst inside your stomach and brain like New Years fireworks, sending you wild to climb out the window and be off - somewhere- anywhere, traveling by cartwheels and handsprings and running for miles and miles without stopping until the long fuse sizzling inside your belly burns itself out. Sometime next February.
            Or whenever the flies get too much to bear - in November sometime, probably. This is the outback, and the warm weather is waking the insects up. Yesterday I saw my first fly-swarm of the season - a boiling black cloud, buzzing fretfully against an iron fence. Smaller flying things are waking too - tiny stingless winged ants, so small that they pass right through our window screens and make pale clouds around our ceiling lights.

Mr Tabubil is not particularly fond of Australian insect-life, stingless or not.

He does not like it at ALL.

Last night I caught him with the vacuum cleaner again - vacuuming tiny insects right out of the air.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I'll Huff and I'll Puff and - and....I'll, ah... Um.

I am developing my very own Teacher Voice. It's a good one.  Like a Bad Russian Accent in a Bond movie, my Voice is built up around a total lack of upward inflection-  flat and leaden and expressionless and telling you that this is how the world simply - very very simply - IS. There is no appeal, no exception, no explanation, no second chances.
Sometimes it even works.

But mostly it doesn't.
Like this:
"MOVE AWAY from the color printer, Robert. STOP TRYING to unscrew the lid.  NOW, please.  NOW.  Despite my use of the word 'PLEASE', this was not a request.  You are going to put your hand down, and move away from the printer and you have three seconds in which to do it or I'm writing you up in your diary.
Yes, I am very scarey.  Thank you Robert.

Oh, why THANK you, Robert.

NOW put down that filing drawerRobert.  Take that filing drawer off off your head, PLEASE. Notice, again, my use of the word 'Please'. Despite appearances, it is actually a threat, delivered with a great deal of menace. Oh yes. BELIEVE me.

Why, THANK you, Robert. How very kind. Now take your hand OFF OF MARK'S COMPUTER AND SIT DOWN in THAT CHAIR AND PICK UP YOUR MATHS BOOK -

At this point the Maths book is pitched, with a fair degree of accuracy, at the blackboard - or another student's head, losing half of its pages either way, and Robert is staring at me with his arms crossed, sneering, begging for me to try something.

I'm not trained for this. I'm an architect.  Clients send us passive-aggressive emails and refuse to pay filing fees.  They don't throw things.  And if they do, you can fire 'em.  I can't even give these kids a detention.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I Am a Petri Dish

One is obliged to suffer in silence when operatic sopranos massacre bush songs, because there's a number of particularly nasty flus working their way around town, and in the past eight weeks, I've had all of 'em.

Last week I had three at once.  As I shivered through one, and coughed technicolor through another, I pressed my face deep into a nebulizer mask, sucked greedily at the bronchii-dilating gasses, and felt very sorry for myself.
"I haven't been this sick since high school."  I moaned.  The sound echoed weirdly inside the mask and, being higher on the albuterol than a 747 at cruising altitude, I stopped breathing to giggle.   Thick white steam curled out of the vent holes in the mask and twined up into my hair, and I thought about what I'd said.

"Hah."  I grunted.  The smoke jetted out sideways and I giggled again.
I've been out of high school for 12 years.  Any sort of immunity I had to seasonal flus is long gone - and now I'm back at high school as a teacher.
I've had pinkeye six times this year.  Every damn bug floating loose in that hot-pot petri dish of germs and hormones is latching on to my under-exercised immune system like limpet mines on a unguarded merchant fleet.

Everyone at work is being exquisitely kind, and when I call croakingly to say "Yet Again" they tut soothingly and tell me inspiring stories of everything they endured back when they started working in the school system.

Through a near-terminal  addiction to soap and water and anti-bacterial hand gels, I've been fending off the gastro bug that's been plowing through the senior class.   It worked all the way up until last Monday.   Just after I got out of a week's quarantine for suspected Whooping Cough. 

My co-workers really are VERY kind indeed.  And if I make it through all this, I won't catch another flu for YEARS.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

            "Tie me Kaaaangarooooo Dauown Spooooorrrrrrrt-!"
Cognitive dissonance is sitting in a Doctor's waiting room and listening to a recording of Australian Bush Songs being sung by a classically trained European Soprano.  With a full hundred and ten piece classical orchestra keeping up with her. 
            It's not quite sacrilegious, but it is eye-poppingly absurd. 
            "Giiiive me a hooowmmmm amooong the Guhm Treeees!" the woman sang, through a throat of molten gold and a hundred silver violins.  This was just plain dreadful* but then - then - the CD went completely insane.  Molten trills and curlicues and heart-stoppingly sustained loooong notes do not do any sort of reasonable justice to Waltzing Matilda.  The simple harmonies of sheep-rustlers rasping dirges next to dusty billabongs owe nothing - absolutely nothing - to french horns and oboes and their rusty pathos does not ring extra true when a conductor breaks out in sopranos and kettle drums. It’s like a Polynesian hula dancer trying to interpret Tibetan throat singing with coconuts.

            "So we tanned his Haiiiiide when he daiiiide Clyyyyydddd 
            - and That’s! It! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaangiiing in the 

* To orient those readers unfamiliar with the Australian Bush Music tradition, "Gimme a home among the Gum trees" is traditionally played on a  bent banjo with the strings held on by sheeting nails, and sung by an antique shearer who has just walked his way from Dubbo to Gundagai in high summer with one pair of cracked boots,  a rusted tin kettle, a woolen bedroll six generations older than he is, and six tins of fosters beer to sustain him.  He has swallowed sixteen hundred pints of dust and thirty seven hundred thousand flies and when he settled down for the night at the one watercourse he met in the whole journey, a bunyip tried to eat him.  And found the banjo more nourishing.