Someone to Poke

siblings 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings this week because of an important anniversary in our family. ‘What do you like about having siblings?’ I asked Molly the other day. ‘Having someone to tease,’ she said. ‘And when I was little there was always someone to poke on car journeys.’

Over the years there’s been a lot of research into parent-child relationships but sibling relationships have only attracted serious interest more recently. And yet they’re clearly very important. Psychologist Daniel Shaw put it well:
“Parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.”

siblings 3

There are benefits to being stuck with siblings. Constant arguments make for choppy family life so you have to negotiate. A Canadian study found that on average, siblings aged two to four years, have some kind of conflict at least once every ten minutes. As they get older the conflicts usually get less frequent—but things don’t always work out well.  Noel and Liam Gallagher are famously distanced brothers. When asked about an Oasis reunion, Noel said that “It won’t ever happen unless they do it without me,” adding modesty, “but without me it would be rubbish.”

My four children squabbled a great deal when they were little but I’m relieved to find that they get on well as adults. Past offences are mostly forgiven, though they’re not all forgotten. Molly is the youngest and once said wistfully, ‘All the accidents I had when I was little were Henry’s fault.’ She then reeled off a list of episodes that I’d pushed conveniently to the back of my mind. Suddenly they all came rushing back. The ‘being up a tree incident’ didn’t end well nor did the time he pulled her out of a bunk bed on a barge. And there was the occasion when he told her to ride ‘no hands’ on her bike as she whizzed down a hill for the very first time.

Siblings plus partners at graduation

In amongst all the falling out and making up, siblings are in a unique position to provide support when there’s family trauma. They can often appreciate what their brothers and sisters are going through in a way that no-one else is able to do. But not everyone has a sibling. Average family size is gradually shrinking and in the UK it’s increasingly common for parents to have just one child. As with all human activity people are quick to try to argue about which situation is best. But this seems pointless. Not everyone has a choice about the number of children they have and those parents who actively choose to have one child do so for their own particular pragmatic or economic reasons. And there are advantages to being an only child like getting undivided parental attention and more exposure to adults. You also learn from an early age how to be happy in your own company.

I feel as though I have a foot in both camps as my upbringing was similar to that of an only child but with some sibling benefits. My sister is twelve and a half years older than me so I didn’t get the experience of squabbling, sharing secrets, or swapping make-up. Instead she was like a second mother and had more formative influences on me than anyone else.

siblings 4

There’s been a lot of speculation about the effects of birth order ever since Adler linked this to personality in 1928. Oldest children are popularly believed to be assertive and conformist while youngest ones are rebellious and adventurous. But this is not substantiated by research findings. It’s possible that what are interpreted by parents as personality traits, are in fact an effect of age rather than of birth order. At any point in time, the older child has simply had more experience of life and so will be seen as different from their younger sibling. It’s hard to view them equally. It seems logical that birth order affects each individual within their particular family situation, but at the moment there’s no evidence to suggest that you can extrapolate this more broadly and call it a personality trait rather than a behaviour pattern.

These sibling behaviour patterns are deeply rooted. I know a family where the brother never married and the three sisters all outlived their husbands. In their seventies when they were all single once more, the four siblings went on holiday together. I was amused to hear one of their daughters recount with exasperation how they reverted to the same kinds of squabbles that they’d had as children.

sibling 2

Throughout life it’s easy to slip into old familiar roles within your family group even though you might behave quite differently in the outside world. Emma’s flatmate went to visit her younger sister who had just spent her first term at Cambridge. This younger sister was a successful student and managed her life perfectly well. But as they walked and walked and walked, the visiting older sibling eventually asked where they were going as she’d never been to Cambridge before. Her younger sister looked astonished and said, ‘I’ve no idea, I was following you.’ I can relate to that. For as long as I can remember, a defining role for me has been as a younger sister and I slot into that easily. I’ve turned to Bonnie when life has been difficult and feel fortunate that she’s always been there.

I started this post by mentioning an important family anniversary. Happy Special Birthday to Bonnie. I may be quite grown-up most of the time but just for you, I’m happy to be a little sister.


A Mixed Diet


Photo: Guillaume Tell

Earlier this week I spent half an hour trudging through my online supermarket order and thinking about the advice on eating a varied diet. As I dutifully included a multi-coloured assortment of fruit and vegetables, protein and so on, I wondered, not for the first time, why human food has to be so complicated and take up so much time. There’s the shopping, the planning, the cooking, the serving, clearing up the spills, cleaning the fridge—it seems a great deal of effort. After all, cats seem quite happy with cat food, cows eat grass, and reindeer warble flies survive perfectly well on reindeer tissue.

cow grass

Indeed, not only do most animals have a narrow diet, but a varied one can be positively harmful. During the Second World War it was difficult to source the right food for zoo animals and the sea lions in Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo were fed strips of beef soaked in cod liver oil. They were unable to digest this unaccustomed food and died of stomach ulcers. But the opposite applies to humans as too much of one thing is clearly not good. I recently discovered some rather nice apricot biscuits. The first was delicious. The second was pleasant, if a bit greedy. The third made me feel thoroughly sick and now I never want to see an apricot biscuit again.

sea lion

And so, back to the subject of food shopping which can be so repetitive and tedious. I regularly get stuck in a rut with day-to-day catering and wish I could just order a hundredweight of hay to get my family through the week. That way there would be no decisions to be made. But I do enjoy cooking for special meals and celebrations and I suppose that if I had a family of elephants then I’d miss out on all of that.hay

If I missed out on all of that then I’d also have missed out on a recent food-related treat. I’ve known for some time that the food writer, Elizabeth David is credited with transforming British attitudes to eating after the Second World War, but I was curious to find out more. So when I wrote my list of sixty treats she got a mention. ‘Cook three recipes from each chapter of an Elizabeth David book’ seemed a good way to explore her influence and ideas.

Things change, though, and since making the list five years ago, I’ve given up eating meat. I decided to forgo the pleasures of her classic books ‘French Country Cooking’ and ‘Italian Food’ in case they instructed me to pluck a pigeon, jug a wild hare or boil, breadcrumb and grill a pig’s trotter.  Instead I chose to focus my interest on ‘Elizabeth David on Vegetables’. This is a compilation of vegetable recipes and food writing taken from a number of her books. It includes chapters on soup, pasta, main courses, and small vegetable dishes, as well as the unexpected inclusion of chapters on bread and puddings.elizabeth david on vegetables

Her first volume, A Book of Mediterranean Food, was published in 1950. She wrote of sun-drenched, honest, peasant dishes which must have seemed so vibrant to a country that was still under the grey thumb of post-war rationing. Wartime recipe books included instructions on crow boiled in suet and how to create a pie from sparrows, whilst marzipan had become a ‘delicacy’ concocted from mashed haricot beans and a splash of almond essence. It’s hard to imagine a week in which I don’t use olive oil, aubergines, avocado, courgette, garlic, yogurt or basil but when Elizabeth David first started writing, these ingredients were largely unavailable. It was partly thanks to her influence, that they appeared in the shops. She died in 1992 and one obituarist observed that she had done more to change British middle-class life, than any poet, dramatist or novelist of the time.aubergine

So, as the treat progressed I selected and cooked my way through twenty-four recipes, and with her impeccable reputation I expected to be roundly wowed. But I was surprised. There were only two that I thought outstanding. These were truly wonderful, though, and I’ve already returned to them again and again. One is her mushroom risotto which is absolutely perfect. I’ve struggled in the past to get enough flavour into a risotto but this manages it with a simple and cheap list of ingredients: olive oil, stock, mushrooms, onion, Italian rice and garlic. It works every time and is creamy, comforting and easy. The other big discovery from the book is her sweet pepper and watercress salad. Again, simple with just a shallot, half a bunch of watercress and a fleshy red pepper. It’s lightly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and a pinch of sugar, but the revelation is that the shallot is sliced paper-thin and the red pepper is cut into matchstick strips. The end result is beautifully balanced and so much more elegant than my usual sling-it-all-in affair.

tomatoes and garlic

There was also a fresh tomato pasta sauce; a gratin made from grated courgettes; a Normandy apple tart sprinkled towards the end of its oven-time with buttery apple juices and a little sugar, and a cold dish of mushrooms cooked with coriander seeds. All were good and I’ll probably make them again. But I was disappointed with the other dishes. The orange ice cream was horrid and the green vegetable risotto was dull. Maybe some tastes change over time.

I’m not completely won over but I am glad to have made her acquaintance, and like so many of these treats, this one has changed me. I find myself opting more for straightforward good-quality ingredients and letting them stand alone, when I once would have reached unthinkingly for a stock cube or a splash of instant flavouring. My interest in cooking has been invigorated once more—and with that good news, my family is saved from hay, hay and hay for a little longer.

elephant baby