Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘cooking

May I Be Excused From Christmas, Please?

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This year I’ve decided to opt out of Christmas with family, but I don’t get out of buying presents or receiving them. I find the two equally dispiriting. It’s not that there isn’t anything I want, on the contrary, when your income exceeds your rent by only £20 a week, it’s easy to come up with a long list very quickly. This is what I thought of in the shower this morning: an electric blanket, Microsoft Word, an apple corer, woolly Wolford hold ups, a gymslip, a pair of winter boots, a warm winter dress, books about Bluebeard and books from Persephone press, a yarn swift, a haircut, fabric for new living room curtains, silk for French knickers and fur for stoles, a winter coat and five new sets of lingerie. If you’re looking for a theme, it’s cold. No one has seen my list, dear readers, except you, and much as you light up my life, I don’t think we’re at the stage where we exchange presents.

I will get presents, and I won’t be able to help mourning each unwanted gift. Last year my father spent forty pounds on a wooden box of tea bags for me. His girlfriend’s packages contained more tea bags (in cardboard boxes), film-themed bread mix and jewellery of purest green. Each expensive item seems like a gigantic missed opportunity to make a significant difference to my life. Yes, I know I’m being ungrateful and that a well brought up young lady would be happy to have been remembered at all, but every time a guest picks a teabag from the chest (such special teabags can’t be frittered on everyday consumption, after all), I’m reminded of the chasm of misunderstanding between my father and me, and wish at least for the lesser warmth of an electric blanket.

It goes both ways, of course, as friends and family open their presents from me this Christmas they’ll be wondering where in the house they can store them until enough time has elapsed for it to be acceptable to throw them out. In my family no points are given for effort: the year I learned that my father’s girlfriend needed new gloves and suggested knitting some, I was told in no uncertain terms that she wanted the branded ones with science woven into the fabric. The year before, when I spent all day making a gingerbread house to present to my hosts on Christmas Eve, it ended up in their bin by New Year. Since they’ve already moved from bemusement to derision of my making things, I don’t want to see what comes next. Fortunately, my friends are a little more forgiving, so I think they’re likely to be polite about my efforts, even if they don’t exactly understand why I thought they needed a jar of lemon curd for Christmas.

A lot of people tell me that Christmas is about materialism. Reading my list, and guiltily considering my ungratefulness about unwanted presents, I feel that’s true. I want of those things, not as an idle fancy, but in many cases a daily wish. That, however, is to overlook the way I’m touched when a friend buys me something I didn’t even know I wanted, because they know me better than I know myself. One friend still chides me for looking so downhearted as I thanked her for a grater which turned out to be one of the most useful items in my kitchen. I only wish I could pull of such a feat myself; I’m a rotten present-buyer.

To make it worse, the people I most need to buy for this year are the ones I hardly know. They’re the people who did my shopping, cooked me meals, cleaned my kitchen and told me repeatedly to get back into bed after I broke my collar bone. One of them was a friend’s boyfriend, a man I haven’t met before or since. And the lover, of course—how do you reconcile a low income with expressing appreciation to the person who slept on your floor and fed you painkillers when you weren’t even able to wash yourself? What present would ever manage that?

So, dearest readers, since I suspect we’re all spending the month going over and over the same dilemmas, I’m asking if you’ve come to any better conclusions than I have. Do I gaily distribute jars of lemon curd around my acquaintance, or aim to divine their true desires, as I wish others would do with me? Is it reasonable to aim for a fuller opt-out from Christmas, perhaps by moving to a hermitage by next year? Or do I need to find inner peace and come to terms with the colossal wastage of money and effort that present giving entails? Ideas on the back of a Christmas card. Meanwhile, I’ll be making curd, and adding ‘heat proof bowl’ to my secret Christmas wish list.

Written by Not an Odalisque

December 10, 2011 at 12:56 am

Doesn’t Play Well With Others

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I’ve never been sure whether I like public play. Plenty of people tie their lovers up at home; BDSMers seem to feel the need to do it in front of a crowd. They create a spectacle with imposing lumps of furniture, uncomfortable clothing made of tree sap and huge floggers.* I was introduced to the concept of public play by a round woman in a purple faux-suede suit (the matt texture of which was like the bloom on a blueberry) and her small, straggly-bearded boyfriend. I rejected the image of them stripped and spread-eagled in a tacky dungeon setting. I’m shallow. I like watching beautiful people play. Not being one of the beautiful people myself, I’ve kept to dark corners. For me, play is a personal experience, not a performance, but a reaction. I didn’t think I was the sort for letting more than one person at a time into my kink.

HH proposed inviting people around not long after he suggested birching me. I had an irrational fear of birching (now I have a rational fear of birching, but that’s not relevant here). On a scale of things to worry about, meeting friends didn’t score high against being thrashed with bits of a tree, and so I agreed without a lot of thought. As the time approached, though (and the threatened birching still hadn’t materialised) it took on different proportions. They were coming around for dinner. Wouldn’t it be nice if we played? If they met Marianne, in character? In this skimpy summer dress?

I channelled my anxiety into the meal. We solved the conundrum of what dish satisfies a carnivore and a vegetarian. We obtained ingredients. If you’ve read my last post you’ll know how I feel about supermarkets. You’ll understand that being taken by a top to an Asda on a Saturday afternoon is close to my limits. I’d rather take the dreaded birching any day. Happily panic-attack free we made it home and HH was kind enough to distract me from worry with more immediate humiliations. When he showed me the dress I was to wear and went off to set the table, though, I had to admit that a proportion of my nervousness wasn’t about food.

I don’t know how long I waited. I know that I spent a lot of time trying to arrange my neckline so that it didn’t reveal my bra. I undid my work within seconds by tugging at the skirt hem in an attempt at a more modest length. I applied make-up and then worried that Mr. Hartley may not suspend disbelief about Marianne’s unlikely use of cosmetics. I went out onto the landing to see if I could hear any conversation from downstairs and thought about creeping down to listen at the door, but it wasn’t worth risking given the creakiness of the stairs. I attempted to convince myself of my own nonchalance by picking up a book. Now and again I turned a page, but I couldn’t tell you what I read.

Mr. Hartley called me. I went downstairs and opened the door onto silence.

Two new people were on the sofa. Everyone was formally dressed and stiffly seated. I felt chilly and awkward in my little dress. I stood self-consciously during introductions and finally asked if I could sit in the only remaining chair, in the farthest corner of the room.

Had I been behaving myself, the guests wanted to know. I tried not to shuffle in my seat as they talked about me, and, in the elastic silences, I asked questions about their journey and the weather. My attempts at conversation fell like stones and I was reduced to staring at my lap. Mr. Hartley regularly reprimanded me for not sitting up straight, and charged me with fidgeting, which was nearly impossible to avoid, under the circumstances. From the start I did my best to be good. I don’t think I stood a chance.

The conversation turned, and inexorably returned, to my behaviour and previous punishments. I tried to give the right answers: Yes, I’d been punished. No, I’d rather not show you the marks. I’m sure you’re not interested in them. Now that Mr. Hartley’s looking at me like that I will show you the marks. Are you done yet? Say you’re done.

They asked me to explain the reason for my latest punishment. I was embarrassed to think that two strangers were imagining me with my knickers around my ankles, wriggling over Mr. Hartley’s lap. I simply couldn’t tell them what the spanking was for. Disobedience, yes, but what if they asked what order I’d disobeyed? I’m not telling you, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell them.

“It’s complicated,” I began, but apparently they thought it should be very simple. Looking pleadingly at Mr. Hartley didn’t have the effect of getting him to do the talking for me. I floundered and then, thinking that admitting something—anything—would probably appease them, I chose my most excusable crime, and confessed, in fragments, to borrowing some library books on an unofficial, long-term loan, and accidentally spilling some ink. They reinterpreted it as thieving and criminal damage.

I was sent to stand facing the wall with my hands on my head. I was horribly conscious of how my hemline rose as I lifted my arms. As they discussed me I couldn’t help peering around every now and again. Mr. Hartley kept telling me to stand up straight. I’d never noticed I wasn’t. When the adults had satisfied themselves with declaring that I was wilful and insolent I was sent to get a strap. On my return I was asked why I was to be punished. Apparently, “because you feel I haven’t shown proper respect,” wasn’t the right answer.

Bending over the sofa while Mr. And Mrs. Madison watched was excruciating. Mr. Hartley handed the strap to his friend. I didn’t want him to see my face, so I hid it against the sofa. Of course, when you’re crying out and wriggling away from the burning wield on your bottom, you stop caring quite so much about whether anyone can see your expression.

I was instructed that I was to count the strokes and promise to show respect after each one. As the early ones came down, I gritted my teeth through the pain and, as it subsided, recited my little mantra. Mrs. Madison said that she didn’t think my tone reflected any great regret. What could I do about my voice? I wasn’t being deliberately insolent. After the next stroke, as soon as I could, with the pain still blooming, I gasped it out. Apparently I sounded much more contrite. I continued forcing the words out as early as I could, so that the pain in my voice would cover whatever it was they interpreted as insolence.

It did end. I was allowed to escape to my room and choose a skirt that went all the way down to my ankles. I went back to a room of lovely people who gave me hugs and smiles. Then, very happily, I took a glass of wine and went to hide in the kitchen. It seems safer to stay out of the way when there are guests.

*On Saturday I saw a man use a sword almost the length of his leg to inflict a couple of light scratches on a girl. A butterknife would have done the job.

Written by Not an Odalisque

October 19, 2010 at 4:49 pm

A Feminist Domestic Goddess?

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The last few days of my life have been unrelentingly domestic. Nine guests were staying at my house for a friend’s hen party, so I cleaned the house from top to bottom, kneaded brioche, made beds and counted towels. They’ve gone now, leaving me with a big pile of laundry and instructions to get on with decorating the wedding cake.

I like to think of myself as a feminist, but on days like this I don’t look much like one. Other indicators include my frilly pink apron, hand knitted jumpers and home-made handbags. I buy pink patterned cupcake cases and boil my own strawberry jam. Last week I made my own butter. Yesterday I spent hours sewing half a dress.

Can I be a feminist and still impersonate a 1950s housewife? I’m not sure. The obvious recourse is to consent. Unlike women of the past, my generation has the freedom to do as we please, I’m told, so whatever course we take results from an “empowered choice.” I think that argument is insulting. What were women before the sexual revolution? Mindless automatons? Do we make our choices free of any constraint today? Of course not. We live in a culture and it can be very difficult to defy gendered expectations, as I can verify after getting into a cold sweat about revealing my unshaven legs. Seventy percent of women won’t leave the house without make up. That isn’t free choice, that’s fear. Conforming to a gender role can’t be excused with the word empowerment, and the best way I can describe the impulse to do so is “Stockholm Syndrome.”

That said, there is a key difference between the apron I wear and the one my grandmother did. Hers was more practical and donned earlier in the morning. I doubt she had “Riots not diets” cross-stitched onto one of the pockets. My apron, you see, is singularly unsuited to actual cooking. It covers little of my body and can’t be washed at high temperatures, so I have to be careful not to get it too dirty. But that’s ok because keeping flour off me is a secondary role; I’m not sure whether its primary role is prettiness or to make an ironic comment on aprons.

An apron you can’t get dirty. A signifier of feminine domestic servitude which incites riots. This is a garment which calls itself into question. Furthermore, with its pink cotton and black lace combination, it invokes all sorts of naughty garments you don’t normally wear in the kitchen (unless you have a sturdy work surface), and that brings together two feminine roles to compare and contrast. In other words, my apron is subversive, it reveals the inherent absurdity of the feminine roles by overemphasising them and recombining them in new ways. So, surely, I can remain a feminist by being kitsch in the kitchen.

Well, that’s what I thought. The idea is to play with gender roles, in the knowledge that I can’t fully escape them, I can have a bit of ironic fun. Not everyone recognises what I’m doing, but I don’t intend on worrying about that. A lot of people have no idea what I’m on about even when I put it into words.

As time goes by, though, I begin to question it. That began when I discovered Cath Kidston. She’s the one doing all the chintz and paisley patterned bags women started carrying lately, in pink and pastel shades. Her shops are like temples to a bygone era. She sells fabric and sewing patterns, but in case you can’t be bothered to sew she also sells ready-made items. Her first product was a patterned ironing board cover, but the home wares have expanded to include such items as egg cosies and floral patterned radios. You know, the necessities.

Don’t get me wrong, this is my kind of shop, but it did get me thinking. The radio will set you back £200, the egg cosies are £5 each. Like my apron, they represent domesticity rather than really engage with it. After all, if you can afford £38 for the sewing basket you’re probably not making your own dresses to avoid Primark’s steep prices, and the person who pays £5 for a scrubbing brush can probably also afford a dishwasher.

All this is fine, after all people spend their money on far sillier things than decorative scrubbing brushes, but I do think it interesting that the lifestyle my grandmothers were desperate to escape, one of cooking, cleaning, sewing and washing, has been recast as a product they could never have afforded. Playing is fine, and fresh brioche for breakfast is really very nice, but where is the impulse coming from?

I’m inclined to blame Nigella. She made domesticity unspeakably sexy, pulling off an inspired fusion of mother and whore with every lick of her chocolate covered fingers. I think she’s great. But not remotely feminist. I suspect that, no matter how much quality time I spend with my Kenwood Chef, I’m never going to have the sexual appeal of Nigella Lawson. I may learn to make very good cakes, but at the end of that, I have cake, not sex. That is, to be fair, a very good consolation.

If some of Nigella’s appeal lies in motherhood, the reason I participate in the cult of domesticity must, surely, lead back to my own mother. The mother who made my third birthday cake in the shape of my teddy bear, to my great delight. The mother who sewed me a princess dress from pure gold fabric, on the machine I use today. Putting on my pink apron, am I trying to be the woman I remember, nostalgically, from the sunny days of my childhood?

If I am, I’m doing it wrong. You see, the last time my mother used the sewing machine was when I was five. My father tells me that my third birthday cake looked perfect, but was almost inedible. I don’t remember her making another cake after that. She bought them from the shop.

In one conversation with my father, the world came crashing down. I’d always assumed that my mother had the ability to bake and sew, to help me make Easter gardens and Nativity Play costumes, but had been too busy, delegating to my father, to sweatshops and bakeries, out of necessity. It turns out that I was wrong. The only thing worse than my mother’s attempts with the sewing machine, apparently, were my mother’s attempts in the kitchen. On the other hand, she was rather good at public sector finance.

So who am I trying to be? The mother who never existed? A pale shadow of Nigella Lawson? Am I trapped in a mode of patriarchy I didn’t even know was there? Or am I truly using the freedoms second wave feminists fought for? I’ll have plenty of time to think about it this afternoon as I wash sheets and make rhubarb jam.

Written by Not an Odalisque

June 16, 2010 at 10:49 am