When I was asking for help with my Baking Blind tour (https://youtu.be/Fhqz-h0ESag), Jo popped up. We had last had contact nearly 40 years ago when I waved goodbye to my first naval job in Naples, Italy, and to her too as she was taking over from me. After all those years, we re-kindled our friendship when she hosted me in Virginia Beach, USA.
We first met at the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth in the UK back in 1978. We were training to become Women’s Royal Naval Service officers. There were about 12 of us on the course and we knew that not everyone would get through.
It was a typical “boot camp” atmosphere: lots of being up very early and working until midnight, spit and polishing shoes, cleaning anything that didn’t move and continually ironing all our uniforms.
It was freezing at times and we spent many frantic minutes putting on and peeling off thermal underwear, chattering with cold while getting lost on Dartmoor and wailing in the dark of tents pitched on the soggy moor. Lots of the others went running, swimming and more while I discovered the delights of the shooting range: a soft mat to lie on and an electric heater. No wonder I became an ardent shooter with both pistol and rifle. Even more amazing, I ended up shooting for the college and was the only Wren to win “colours”. But in those days, when Wrens had only been at the college for four terms, they still hadn’t adapted to having women amongst the men. So I was the proud recipient of a “colours” tie – heaven only knows when they thought I’d wear it.
Jo and I didn’t meet again until three years later when she came to take over my job with the NATO naval intelligence section in Naples. She settled in so quickly that she met and married US Navy Commander Nick while she was there – hence her move to Virginia Beach. We had whole lives to catch up when we met again all those decades later.
She invited all her friends to meet me over brunch and, despite declaring herself to be an enthusiastic non-cook, produced an excellent pumpkin bread (http://www.bakingblind.com/pumpkin%20bread.htm) that would be perfect for anyone at Halloween.
Banana bread is one of those essentials for any baker’s repertoire and here I was learning a new version with Kelly in Virginia Beach (USA) (https://youtu.be/I47dQTqhuKY).
First, I needed to better understand the American measuring system of cups. I do have them at home but have always tended to rely on my trusty talking scales which I can switch between ounces and grams. It is good to a point but doesn’t really cope with amounts of 5 grams or less – one just has to guess!
Kelly, of course, could see when her wonderfully crunchy topping and the banana bread all looked cooked. That doesn’t work for me but a careful finger can feel whether the right amount of sponginess has been reached and I also use my speaking thermometer just to check. Bread gets to about 91C and cakes a few degrees higher because of the sugar content.
You can find the banana bread recipe (and lots more) at www.bakingbllind.com.
There is also a good cups/grams/ounces conversion chart here http://dish.allrecipes.com/cup-to-gram-conversions/
Today we are commemorating the life of Fin at his funeral. He was a wonderful neighbour, friend and mentor. With all the determination he’d learned in the Royal Marines, he proved his stamina and strength by far outlasting his medical prognosis – and managed to complete his book just in time. He achieved a remarkable career as a film-maker and is, perhaps, best known for his original version of “The Railway Man” – but his version featured the real people who had shared such traumatic torture http://www.therealrailwayman.com/mike-finlason.html
In later years he was an avid champion of people seeking work in the Jobcentre – completely focussed on giving them the best service possible. As a neighbour, Fin was a stalwart of the local community and the organiser of our Catisfield Garden Trails.
He was a superb supporter of the Baking Blind project: the referee who persuaded the LightHouse team and judges that I was up to the competition; the professional film-maker who unstintingly shared his knowledge and experience, teaching Toby our videographer some key tricks of his craft; helping us shape our approach to recording that wild adventure.
Fin was a man of great enthusiasms and passion, full of humour and charm who regaled us with his life stories and own adventures. He leaves an emptiness in our community but lives on in our memories and own lives. Our thoughts are with his family.
Many Mums (and Dads) are pulled in all directions: holding down busy jobs, managing their home lives and bringing up their children. Kelly in Virginia beach (USA) is juggling even harder than most as she has to make extra adjustments for her son’s autism. But she still generously gave up some of her precious spare time to show me how to make simple but superb Asian-style lettuce cups (https://youtu.be/CvxvP0mDWR4) with Oriental green beans and rice.
When we met, Kelly was a key member of the sales team at a busy local supermarket: a friendly and familiar help to all the shoppers with specialist expertise of wines and more. Now she has moved to on-line shopping which gives her even more knowledge of the enormous range of brands and products although she misses her old customers.
Like many busy Mums, she has a great stock of family favourite recipes that are quick and easy to put together after a long day at work. But, as Kelly explained to me, she needs to take account of her son’s reactions to certain foods. In his case, anything too crunchy is difficult whereas some others with autism don’t like certain colours or want to separate the food on their plates. It sounded as if the local support and education system were giving him excellent support to gain all the social and life skills that he doesn’t learn naturally. He is improving in handling money, talking and observing. Kelly was just delighted that he can tell her what he has been doing during the day – and he is clearly excited by being able to share his experiences. It just shows that the right support is making life-changing improvements for the whole family.
Do try this recipe – my original caution about the lettuce cups was completely mistaken: they were wonderful. http://www.bakingblind.com/kelly%20lettuce%20wraps%20vb.htm
Next time, Kelly’s banana bread …
The Avoca restaurant in Powerscourt in Ireland http://powerscourt.com/shop-dine/avoca-terrace-cafe has trans-Atlantic fans. Wendy in Virginia Beach, USA, was waxing lyrical about their delicious food, elegantly served and the memories it evokes. See how she has taken their hearty mushroom soup and given it the deluxe treatment with her personal touches https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbxlJ1OkAMw
In front of a crowd of increasingly noisy on-lookers, we chopped and stirred, sauted and liquidised to turn the simplest ingredients in to a dish that her husband, Stuart, can’t resist. And Wendy said that she didn’t even notice that I couldn’t see.
This was another example of the international influences on cooking in America. Essentially, a country full of migrants from across the globe who bring and share their own cultural and culinary histories. A rich and heady mix.
Working with NATO, both Wendy and her former Royal Navy husband reminded me of my own naval career. About 40 years ago, I too was working in NATO but in Naples, Italy, and managed to persuade others that I knew something about military intelligence. It was far more interesting than paper-pushing especially when the first Soviet aircraft carrier (Kiev) came through the Mediterranean from the Black sea. Ships and aircraft from every country possible were scrambled to observe the phenomenon, take photos and track her activities – hugely exciting and impressive. It was still the time of the Cold War when even very junior officers like me were aware of international risk and tension. We felt we were making our small contribution towards peace and stability: minor pawns in a very massive game. And it did give me my first chance to visit America: an international conference on the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, close to Virginia Beach – and so life circles around again.
From this cooking session, the smell was of Ireland: wheaten soda bread crisp and hot from the oven. For Wendy, the memories were even stronger as we paid tribute to her aunt. See how we made this famous bread in minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH22ASjEeYs) and there’s a simple way to create the essential buttermilk without buying it specially.
The last time I’d cooked in Wendy’s Virginia Beach kitchen we had been madly busy producing a celebration lunch for all the women who had served in the British navy before moving to the USA. This time was more relaxed: I had the chance to talk to Wendy, enjoy her superb house and learn new recipes.
The wheaten bread was especially poignant for her: it was a legacy from her Aunt Maureen who had only recently died. Wendy was even wearing a much beloved and elderly Irish linen apron displaying symbols from the Book of Kells – another gift from her aunt and reminder of her own Celtic heritage. I hope that Aunt Maureen would have been proud of the tribute paid her and how she has contributed to the Baking Blind world tour.
I’ve often heard about soda bread and how it can be the perfect quick solution when the cupboard is bare – but have never had ready access to the buttermilk that makes it possible. Thanks to Wendy, I can now share an easy solution.
And, being a messy cook myself, I was wildly impressed that Wendy was ready to knead bread wearing most of her jewellery. But then she’s a woman of style and flare who can turn her hand to domesticity but still look ready for her high-powered job with NATO.
Next week, we will be making another traditional Irish recipe to sit alongside the bread on any supper table.
I am living proof that many people under-estimate what blind people can do.
Research published today by the Royal National Institute of Blind People found that “half of UK adults think that people with sight loss struggle to find and hold down a job, yet more than a quarter would not feel comfortable with a boss who was blind or partially sighted.”
I was still a serving Royal Navy Commander when I started losing my sight but carried on working in uniform even when I needed my white cane. I went on to start my own business helping other disabled people to get back to work – and I think that I’ve been a pretty good boss too. I’ve held Board level Government public appointments and more. There are many other people with sight-loss or other disabilities who have loads of skills and experience who can succeed at work – we just need the chance.
Through my company (Disability Dynamics Ltd) our training model emphasises that positive attitudes are the easiest, cheapest and most successful way of making life better for disabled people. Too often, people have been distracted by getting information in to Braille, lifts and ramps or writing an equality policy. All of that is useful but, first, start seeing us as people rather than focussing on our health or impairments.
I used my Holman prize of $25,000 towards my Baking Blind adventure aiming to change attitudes. Some of my co-cooks were obviously nervous about having a blind person in their kitchen but, as soon as they realised that we were just two people with the same enthusiasm, they forgot that I couldn’t see. My use of video and global travels also challenge other common misconceptions revealed by the RNIB research: “31 per cent of people think that people with sight loss can’t enjoy TV and film, whereas almost a fifth of people think that they cannot travel the world. 37 per cent of those surveyed believe people with sight loss cannot play football whilst 28 per cent did not think that blind and partially sighted people can enjoy reading books.” I confess that I can’t play football but when I have the time, I read a book every two days and also enjoy flower arranging, designing buildings and metalwork with pewter. I don’t think that I’m very different from many other blind people it is just that others expect so little from us.
You can follow my Baking Blind tour on YouTube and at http://www.bakingblind.com and my training model is in Understanding Disability at www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk. The Holman prize is run by San Francisco’s LightHouse organisation that supports blind and visually impaired people. The prize celebrates James Holman, another officer who was blinded while serving in the Royal Navy but 200 years ago.