Spring…please?

As it turns out, I was rather over-optimistic back in January when I tentatively wondered whether spring was on the way. It officially now has arrived, but there’s very little sign of any remotely spring-like weather.

Like most people, I am now officially Sick of Winter. And particularly I’m sick of my coat. We’ve had Hallow’een, Bonfire Night, Christmas, New Year, my birthday (not officially recognised as a national holiday, but significant nonetheless) and Valentine’s Day, and during that entire period every time I have set foot out of doors I’ve had to bundle myself up in my now-hated winter coat. It’s an olive green parka, which I bought three winters ago, thinking it would be practical, trendy and warm. The first and the last considerations weighing rather more than they would have done ten years ago.

It is warm, and I suppose it’s reasonably practical, but my heart sinks every time I see it. It adds about 2 stone to my hips and tummy, and then the chocolate I comfort eat to make myself feel better about looking so fat and frumpy adds another stone. And perhaps I only have myself to blame for this, but the large pockets have been distended into total shapelessness by my habit of doing the nursery drop-off without my handbag. Gloves, phone, keys, tissues, loose change, mittens, boxes of raisins, dinner money, letters from the school, bits of gravel/moss/pebbles which have taken Anna’s fancy, have all been shoved in, often simultaneously. Gazing disgustedly at my saddle-bags this weekend I instigated a rigorous clear-out, and have been carrying a bag this week, but the damage is now done.

I want it to be spring for lots of reasons – it may incentivise me to do some much-needed spring cleaning and gardening, Anna has a lovely new wardrobe of spring/summer clothes which I’m dying to dress her in, a recent blood test showed that I’m Vitamin D deficient (no bloody wonder), I’d like to feel an urge to eat salad instead of mashed potato as my go-to side dish – but mainly I just want to be able to switch to my lovely Banana Republic navy trench coat, or denim jacket, or, even, whisper it, even just a cardie. And then I want to burn my parka.

The cost of living

More and more frequently there seem to be stories on the news about how the cost of living is going up – prices of food and fuel are rising, and wages are not.

I’ve really noticed this over the last few months particularly. Our gas and electric bills are through the roof this winter – partly because of the especially cold weather, and partly because we’ve moved to a bigger house with lots of authentic Victorian features like holes in the floorboards – but mainly because energy companies are charging more and more.

I’ve also really noticed the cost of food rising. We don’t have a car, so every month I have an online supermarket delivery of lots of tinned basics like tomatoes, tuna and pulses, as well as washing powder, cleaning products etc. Then I shop for fresh fruit, veg, meat, fish and dairy on a weekly basis. That system has worked well for years, but recently I’ve noticed that where the monthly shop used to cost me around £120, it’s been creeping up and up, and hit £200 this month. Consequently, the money available to spend on fresh food is being squeezed.heinz-beans-classic

One result of this is that we are eating more and more veggie food, or I am using pulses to bulk out meat – chilli con carne contains half the mince and double the kidney beans, for example. I’ve also managed to get my husband to express pleasure at a meal based on lentils, which is a bit of a first, with this simple but yummy recipe I got from Netmums.

So, it’s not the end of the world. In fact we’re probably that bit healthier for it. We’re not loaded, but we’re sufficiently comfortable that by cutting back a bit, and moving money around we can manage perfectly well. We’re certainly not in any danger of going hungry or cold, I don’t have to worry about whether I can feed my daughter. That makes us very lucky.

However, the increases in the cost of food and fuel, which I have noticed with irritation, are nothing short of disastrous for some families. My parents, and my brother and sister-in-law, all volunteer at food banks run by their local churches. The principle behind food banks is simple – members of the public donate food, the volunteers collect and store it, and vouchers are distributed amongst professionals such as GPs, health visitors, social workers and probation officers, which they can then give to families they see who can’t afford to eat. The food bank then provides them with an emergency parcel of food, which should be enough to keep them going for a week.

More and more often the families referred are going hungry because they have hungry electricity meters, and feeding both simply isn’t an option. Where there are vulnerable members of the household, the very young or the very old, then keeping reasonably warm takes priority over nutrition. But that isn’t sustainable, which is where food banks can be a lifeline.

There are extensive political debates to be had over the system for welfare and benefits, and this blog is not intended to get into those issues. I do find it hard to believe, though, that there are many parents who would let their children go hungry through laziness or inertia, it seems far more likely that they have simply been left with no choice. I also find it interesting that donations to food banks, in common, in fact, with most charitable giving, come disproportionately from the poorest people in the community. Perhaps they have a more acute sense of precariousness themselves, which unlocks the Aristotelian emotions of pity and fear.

There is a temptation to see this phenomenon as something awful, but which happens to ‘other’ people. But how many of us, really, are more than a couple of paychecks from that foodbank queue?

If you lost your job tomorrow, and struggled to get another one, how easily would you be able to feed and clothe your family, to heat your house, to pay your bills, on £111 a week (for a couple), which is the maximum amount of jobseekers allowance available? Without going too ‘Thought for the Day’ on you, perhaps we should all think a little more about how we’d cope if the worst happened, and what we can do now to help those to whom it already has.

Let them eat cake

2013-03-02 19-1.53.20It was my daughter’s 4th birthday on Sunday, and in a burst of rash optimism and maternal warmth some time in January it was decided she could have a joint birthday party with her best friend, S, whose birthday happens to fall just two days after hers. I’ve always subscribed to the theory that invitees to a child’s birthday shouldn’t number more than the child’s age, and we’ve stuck to that for the previous couple of years. However, a joint guest list, a burgeoning social life from starting nursery, and a throwaway comment from Anna along the lines of “how come other children have big parties and I don’t?” led to this year working out rather differently.

After much discussion and agonising, H (S’s mum) and I got the guest list down to a theoretically manageable 21. We briefly considered, and quickly rejected, hosting in one of our houses and booked the local toy library as a venue. I’m quite old school about birthday parties. I worry that the modern trend for huge parties with catering, entertainers, specially commissioned cakes and lavish party bags will just lead to children who are jaded and spoiled by the time they hit seven. Luckily H agrees with me on that, so we were clear that we would make the food and birthday cake ourselves, that the entertainment would be traditional pass the parcel, Simon Says etc, and that the party bags would be a small toy, a balloon and a generous slice of cake but nothing more.

So far, so good. The thing is, although I’m lamentably old-fashioned on the subject of children not getting spoilt, I also totally adore my daughter, and desperately wanted her to have a special and memorable birthday, and it turns out that organising a party for that many children is a huge amount of stress and hard work. I thanked heaven many times that we’d decided to go for a joint party, because it turned out that H was a dab hand at sourcing all the necessary paraphernalia on Amazon – invitations, party bags and suitable contents, plates, napkins, balloons – all appeared as links in my inbox for approval without me having to lift a finger. She also shares my borderline obsessive-compulsive streak for organisation (in context, on my wedding day the registrar told me I was the first bride in his 20 years experience to arrive 15 minutes early), and so wasn’t too freaked out by my to-do list emails.

My main contribution was to be the cakes.  I enjoy baking, and H doesn’t, so I volunteered to make the birthday cake and fairy cakes for the party. This was in addition to Anna’s birthday cake for her family celebration which was due to take place the day before her party. What I had unfortunately forgotten was that, although I do love baking and always receive pretty positive feedback on my cakes, I am absolutely awful at decorating and presentation. And for a four year-old’s birthday cake the taste is very much of secondary importance to the aesthetic. This realisation and a dawning sense of my own inadequacies literally kept me awake at nights for weeks beforehand.

We’d considered a Peppa Pig cake, or a cat shaped cake as both children love cats, but a still, small voice of sanity stopped me in my tracks, and we opted for a simple rectangle shape, on the grounds that this would be easier to cut up for the party bags. After all, who wants to be carrying out vivisection on an anthropomorphic cat or pig during a children’s party?

A rectangle seems pretty simple, but I still managed to get stressed out, and needed several frantic conversations with my mum, a borrowed cake tin and mathematical calculations I haven’t used since school to get the right sized tin matched with the correct quantities of cake mixture.

Last Friday, two days before the party and a day before our family celebration, was D Day. Or C Day, I suppose. Luckily my parents were down for the weekend, and so I was able to delegate all responsibility for my daughter to them, while I turned my kitchen into a cake factory. It was also handy having my dad around because, as neither H nor I have a car, he was able to take us to Sainsbury’s to stock up on enormous quantities of hummus, olives, hula hoops, cocktail sausages and chocolate finger biscuits, which were the specific culinary requirements of the birthday boy and girl.

I was most nervous about the main birthday cake for the party, so I started with that, and it all went well. My biggest mixing bowl was just about big enough, and my geometrical calculations regarding mixture and tins had not let me down. So far, so good. I felt a little buoyed with what, it turned out, was false confidence and decided to get on with the fairy cakes while the birthday cake cooled. And so I did. Unfortunately, the sad, squat little patties which emerged from the oven a little while later were about as far from the Magnolia Bakery ideal as it is possible to get. I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong – I must bake a batch of cupcakes at least once a week, surely I could do it in my sleep? A little detective work uncovered the source of the problem. With a classic illustration of more haste, less speed, I’d grabbed a new packet of flour and chosen plain instead of self-raising. Agonisingly, by the time I made this discovery, I’d also made the family birthday cake, and that was now in the oven. I’d used the same packet of flour, and so had an agonising 40 minute wait to see if the baking powder I’d included in that recipe would rescue the situation or not.

Luckily it did, and that cake rose like a dream. However, I still had flat failures for fairy cakes. I decided to see if they looked any better once iced. It only took a couple of rounds with a piping bag and the first few cakes to confirm that, if anything, they looked worse. I was now running short of time, patience, and, crucially, butter.

I dashed to the local shop to replenish supplies, came back, made another batch of cakes, this time checking the flour with paranoid intensity, put the failed cakes in the freezer (the next few people to come to dinner chez moi can expect trifle for pudding!), and started to extract the main birthday cake from the tin. Unfortunately, in all the cupcake-induced woe I’d left it far too long in the tin, and it broke into several pieces on removal. I really was despairing by this time, but my parents convinced me that with enough icing slathered over the top, no-one would ever know. They also came up with the brilliant idea of freezing the cake for 24 hours, and icing it frozen so that it would be less crumby and more manageable to work with.

The family birthday cake and the cupcakes gave me no further trouble, but the nice dinner I’d planned for my parents, husband and myself that night was a casualty, and we ended up with a thrown-together pasta and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.

I was semi-hysterical at the thought of icing the cake, but luckily my husband remained completely calm and kept my worst nervous excesses in check. He also made himself very useful cutting out star-shapes, balloon shapes, number 4s, and letters for the birthday boy and girl’s names from coloured icing. I ran amok with a bowl of fondant icing and then several tubes of Smarties, which, combined with the icing cut outs, managed to create a cake which looked reasonably acceptable. Phew. Now it was only the party itself to get through.

And that went fine. Hardly any tears, lots of excited laughter, mostly empty plates – you can’t really ask for more. We did a very hasty clean-up of the hall, and then came home for Anna and S to play together while their exhausted parents collapsed with a much-needed caffeine fix. Later we opened Anna’s presents with her, played with some of her new games, and read some of her new books. Happily all the excitement meant that she was in bed and asleep by 6.30pm, and so I could sprint to the fridge for one of the most eagerly anticipated glasses of wine I have ever enjoyed, and spent the rest of the evening getting increasingly tipsy and emotional with the ‘do you remember this time four years’ ago’ anecdotes.

I think that maybe her fifth birthday celebration can consist of a couple of friends coming round for tea.