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An Almost Perfect Christmas
By Nina Stibbe
Formats and Prices
- Hardcover $25.00
- ebook $13.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 13, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Every family has its Christmas traditions and memories, and Nina Stibbe’s is no exception. From her kitchen-phobic mother’s annual obsession with roasting the perfect turkey (an elusive dream to this day) to the quest for a perfect teacher gift (memorable for all the wrong reasons); from the tragic Christmas tree (“is it meant to look like that?”) to the acceptable formula for thank-you letters (must include Health Inquiry and Interesting Comment), Nina Stibbe captures all that is magical and maddening about the holidays.
TURKEY AND ME
I vowed from a young age to never cook a turkey, and I never have – unless you count turkey mince (which I don’t). I mentioned this early on to my partner, along with other possible deal-breakers – such as my laziness, love of dogs, and plan to have six children – and he seemed fine with it all.
Later, when I was pregnant with the first of the six children, I told him that – parent-wise – I was planning to model myself on Jill Archer, fictional matriarch from The Archers – who I’d have chosen as my own mother, if you could choose. I must’ve inadvertently mentioned this to my actual mother because ever since then she hasn’t missed an opportunity to say how awful Jill Archer is, and how badly she compares to other mothers such as Joan Crawford or Wilma Flintstone.
Some months later, one evening at the very end of October 1999, I was half listening to a tiny transistor radio when I heard Jill Archer saying to her younger fictional daughter, ‘It’s only eight weeks away, darling, you need to order your Christmas turkey as soon as possible.’
‘Did you hear that?’ I hissed, grabbing my partner by the sleeve. ‘Jill Archer just said it’s only eight weeks until Christmas.’
And I reminded him that if he wanted a turkey he’d have to buy it and cook it himself and not involve me in any way or make heavy weather of it.
I was in a maternity hospital bed at the time, surrounded by women trying to get their brand-new babies to latch on. I stopped liking fictional matriarch Jill Archer (briefly). I felt anxiety rising inside, and my partner could sense it too. The whole ward could sense it – all the brand-new babies began to cry, and those that had latched on, latched off. My own baby daughter–who hadn’t, according to the midwife, ever officially latched on–bawled and began to hate me.
‘We don’t have to have turkey,’ said my partner, ‘let’s just chill with a chop.’ And because ‘chill with a chop’ was a really hip thing to say in 1999–and all the women in the beds around me could probably feel Christmas looming, too–a quiet little cheer went up (quiet because of the babies, but loud in spirit). A competitive male at a neighbouring bed said he’d do chops, too, and then another said they might have ready-made beef Wellingtons from Waitrose. And soon not a single one of them was going to be having turkey, and a great sense of well-being descended on the ward.
Years later, my turkey-cooking phobia remains and we’ve had chops every year since–except for the year we had Dairylea sandwiches. Why am I so turkey-phobic, you might wonder. Well, it’s because I’ve seen the damage turkeys can do and the tyrannical hold they have over otherwise robust, rational people and I’ve ‘been affected’. It goes back to childhood.
My mother is not a foodie. She hates all foods and would even hate that I’ve written ‘foods’ like that – with an ‘s’. She would prefer that all meals be taken in pill form and avoids cooking at all costs and, as far as I can tell, she only eats peanuts, raw carrots and the occasional plum. But once a year, every year, she becomes possessed of a deep and profound need to serve up a roast turkey. It’s some kind of grim personal quest.
After leaving her children to survive from day to day on sugar sandwiches, and toast and Blue Band, suddenly at Christmas the turkey would appear and our mother would almost kill herself in the kitchen, trying to please it; to provide the trimmings and keep it moist, only for it to roast itself dry and then be gone from our lives for the next twelve months.
She’s not alone–many are afflicted in this way–only, in my mother’s case, it seems so unfair, her being not only food-shy but a rebel and a free spirit in everything else.
For as long as I can remember, the idea of Christmas dinner would pop into her head in early autumn, when she was supposed to put in a Christmas meats order at the local butcher. Not fully knowing who might be with us and requiring turkey on the day, and faced with a walk into the village, though, she might think ‘Oh, fuck it’ and just get one at Sainsbury’s on December 23rd with the main shop. Then, on December 23rd, not wanting a fist fight over a fresh one in the supermarket, she might opt for a frozen one from Bejam (or later, Iceland) and leave it to defrost in the downstairs toilet for not quite forty-eight hours.
Before dawn on the 25th–this was when resentment might begin to creep in – before stockings had been opened, one of my siblings or me might be dragged out of bed and forced to sit cross-legged on the toilet floor pointing a Philips hairdryer on an extension lead into the chest cavity for half an hour to finish off the defrosting.
Still in the early hours of Christmas Day – the bird more or less thawed – the cooking preparation would begin. The methods have varied over the years, all with a view to combating dryness. Moistness being the main objective and coming only slightly behind non-toxicity and hugeness.
It goes without saying that all manner of liquids were tried out in the baking tray and various fatty meats laid over the breast. And, oven-temp-wise, my mother has tried the high-then-low, low-then-high, constant-medium and the fast blast. And, timings-wise, the quick, the slow and the very slow. And usually cooked the stuffing separately for a more even finish and crispy topping–and to prevent it preventing the bird cooking through.
For a while, influenced by something she’d read in the Observer, she’d turn the bird breast-side down. The unstable position making mid-cook basting quite perilous. The result (‘quite dry’) was not helped by its wonky, pale and unappetizing appearance. Around 1981 she started covering the (now) upturned breast with a butter-impregnated muslin cloth (or J Cloth), as recommended by her friend Lynn Horsepole–who ran a catering company and claimed to produce drippingly moist turkeys all through the year, albeit for pies and coronation turkey (a wedding staple). Lynn was a keen disciple of Fanny Cradock but never used the ‘F’ word in front of my mother because of her reputation for rebelling dramatically against shouty dictators like Fanny.
In spite of continued dryness, my mother stuck with Lynn’s (Fanny) method until the year she heard about Delia’s ‘loose foil wrap’ (everyone was talking about it, even Lynn Horsepole) and she very much took to Delia’s sympathetic, non-combative style (‘What’s ten or twenty minutes between friends on Christmas Day?’) and, although she enjoyed some psychological progress, in truth, the turkey was still dry.
A few years later, she copied the protagonist in an American novel (Anne Tyler?) and tried injecting a mix of butter and olive oil under the skin. This method required some medical training and hourly basting from 4 a.m. The turkey baster itself turned up a few times for various plot reasons (in the novel) but in real life the result was still ‘on the dry side’.
More recently still, she has followed Lynn Horsepole into a ‘cider bath’ – based on Nigella’s seasoned brining method. Everyone rejoiced at this because we all love and want to emulate Nigella whenever possible–but it required the central heating to be turned down unacceptably low for the twenty-four hours of the brining and she and my stepfather got cold feet (literally) and she went back to Delia’s steamy foil, which had given the best result (though still ‘dry-ish’).
One year, not that long ago, but before Delia, an American neighbour, Mrs Wolfe, told my mother, ‘Americans do not know the meaning of dry turkey,’ and insisted–in the American way–that she try her Kentucky-style Butterball turkey fryer, because this was the true secret to turkey moistness. My mother had been on the brink of trying it until another neighbour (a worrier) reminded my mother that Mrs Wolfe had burnt her veranda down with the fryer on Thanksgiving some years before because she hadn’t been one hundred per cent vigilant with the hot oils near so much wood. Remembering this, my mother questioned the likelihood of her own vigilance with the hot oils and decided not to risk it – not that she has a veranda to burn down, but there was the shed and some unruly shrubs.
Each year, Christmas lunchtime would begin somewhere between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. The bird – having been planned, bought, defrosted, prepared, cooked and tended to like a mare about to foal – would be heaved up on to the festive tablecloth and set down next to dishes of mash and sprouts, plus a jug of ‘gravy’. The assembled nervous diners would all wait for someone else to comment, and some brave fool would mutter ‘delicious’ or ‘so moist’ or something, and my mother would give him or her a withering look, chuck a few peanuts into her mouth and light a cigarette. The party would eat quietly until my plateless mother might pick a tiny piece off the bird and declare it, ‘Dry as a bone – as per usual.’ Then it’d be over for another year.
I often amuse myself remembering the year my granny took a small forkful of white meat and, after swilling it down with a glass of water, asked, ‘Did you baste it?’
I can laugh about the past, but in truth my phobia persists. I know this because, very recently, faced with a Norfolk Bronze turkey crown in the New Forest, I fled the scene and spoke tearfully on the phone to my stepfather from a lay-by.
I may as well explain.
We were spending Christmas at my mother-in-law’s house. We’d offered to cook our usual (lamb chops) for eight people, including guests who’d be arriving for a one o’clock Christmas lunch but leaving at four o’clock sharp for a flight. We’d been about to go shopping at the crack of dawn on Christmas Eve, when our host told us that another family member – who wouldn’t be with us on the day – had already got the shopping in and, although it wasn’t what we were expecting (chops), there was lots of it and it was in the freezer (turkey). I let out an involuntary cry and my partner did that thing with his hands – the internationally recognized sign for ‘everything’s going to be OK’ – and said, ‘Leave it with me.’
Later that day, at about 5 p.m., when Granny Kate was telling us the individual histories of the assorted owls on her Christmas tree, he interrupted. He wanted the wifi code. He’d forgotten to take the turkey out of the freezer and needed to get online, he said, to find super-quick turkey defrosting methods. I quietly and privately freaked out and drove to Ringwood – a nearby market town with good supermarket representation – chanting as I drove, ‘I fucking knew it, I fucking knew it.’ Once there, I ran from store to store, begging for any old turkey that wasn’t frozen, and I have to say the grocery staff of Ringwood really let themselves down that night.
Leaving the car park in a kind of daze, I took the wrong exit off a mini roundabout and soon found myself on the outskirts of Bournemouth. I pulled into a lay-by. I was distraught, lost, miles away from home, and a couple in the Skoda Yeti parked in front of me seemed to be naked. I tried to gather my thoughts. Should we risk poisoning my dear mother-in-law, the soon-to-fly-abroad guests, an immunocompromised relative, my own dear little children, my partner and myself with a toxic bacon-lattice-topped, extra-large turkey crown? Or admit defeat and serve up parsnip and cranberry omelette (I’d bought a dozen eggs in Waitrose)? I rang my mother. She congratulated me on the dozen eggs, commiserated about the turkey and put me on to my stepfather, and he talked sense.
‘There’s nothing more you can do now, love. Leave it to Mark, it’s not the end of the world, just follow the A31 to Ringwood and get yourself back to the house.’
I heard my mother heckling in the background.
‘What’s she saying?’ I asked.
‘She says get the radio on, it’s The Archers, and you might get some turkey advice from your beloved Jill.’
‘OK,’ I said, ‘and by the time I get back, all will be well in Ambridge and the world.’
Back at the house, the tree was still twinkling in the window and the hundred owls peeped out from its branches. No one had even noticed I’d been gone. My partner was up to his elbows–performing the water defrosting method–and the turkey was well on the way to being sufficiently thawed for tomorrow’s lunch. You can look this method up (it does actually work, but the water must be cold, never warm).
I went through to the lounge where the others were watching the end credits of Sinkhole Tragedies on the True-Life Emergency Channel (my mother-in-law’s favourite).
My daughter looked up. ‘Have you been crying?’
‘I was listening to The Archers,’ I said.
‘Oh, was Jill Archer being poignant and Christmassy?’
‘No, it was Lynda Snell’s lost dog, Scruff – he’s safe and well,’ I said.
‘I don’t know what you’re on about,’ she said.
My partner called through from the turkey defrosting bay, ‘What’s happened?’
‘Lynda heard noises at the back door, and it was Scruff – he’s home!’ I called back.
‘No, I meant the sinkhole,’ he called back. ‘Did they get the bloke out?’
‘No,’ called my mother-in-law, ‘they couldn’t risk it.’
I texted my mother: ‘Jill Archer no help, but turkey is melting ok anyway, lolz. But OMG, Scruff!’
And she replied: ‘Jill Archer = fkn useless. Yes, so happy abt Scruff – hurrah!’
And I settled down to watch When Birds Attack.
You’ll be relieved to know that the turkey was fully defrosted by the early hours of Christmas Day and my partner served it up at 1 p.m. on the dot. Everyone said it was perfect and moist – and it actually was (albeit no bread sauce, only cranberry)–and no one got even slightly ill or died.
Postscript: In the early autumn of this year, my sister called with turkey news.
My mother has ordered a high-welfare bird online. It’ll be delivered to her door, in a refrigerated vehicle, ready basted and loose-foiled. She plans to cook it on Christmas Eve (an old Keith Floyd idea) and will slice and heat it on Christmas Day in a dish of wine-rich gravy on the bottom shelf of the oven.
It’s failsafe, apparently.
‘Good luck to her,’ I said.
‘You could give it a try, too,’ said my sister, ‘and stop having those awful chops that everyone hates.’
SWIM TO SANTA CLAUS: A Story
- PRAISE FOR AN ALMOST PERFECT CHRISTMAS:
- "AN ALMOST PERFECT CHRISTMAS is an introduction to Nina's England, a place filled with people named Bunny Wedgwood and sister's called Vic. It's an England where everyone loves dogs and is slightly, delightfully batty. It's an England that makes you long to spend your next Christmas there."—Ruth Reichl, New York Times Book Review
- "This book is the seasonal garnish we all need. There is no subject upon which Stibbe could not entertain"—Kate Kellaway, The Guardian
- "From the bestselling author of Love, Nina comes a hilarious ode to a Christmas season of imperfectly thawed turkeys and desserts set ablaze."—New York Post
- "Stibbe has a few words for people who love and hate Christmas in this little collection...Funny, smart, sweet, and tender, this is greater than a gift book and readable any time of year."—Booklist
"Stibbe's deadpan first-person delivery once again balances quirky charm with beady insight...Another deft helping of absurd social comedy and unconventional wisdom from a writer of singular, decidedly English gifts."
"Lizzie Vogel is back. Now 15, she's picked up a job at Paradise Lodge, a Leicester home for the aging that has fallen on hard times...The home provides English writer Stibbe's novel with an incredible patchwork of characters and their eccentricities, and Lizzie's observations of her family, coworkers, geriatric charges, and sundry enemies are wise, hilarious, and of an emotional frankness that's all her own...soaked through with charm."
"A comic romp about aging and belonging."
—Anderson Tepper, Vanity Fair
"Sweetness and wit from Nina Stibbe. You won't find a funnier, more original confidante than Lizzie Vogel, a teen who's taken a job in a nursing home, at first just hoping to pay for some nice shampoo but eventually sucked into a full-on farce. Truancy, elder abuse, the death of Elvis Presley--there seems to be nothing the author of Love, Nina can't play for good-natured laughs and a sneaky touch of wisdom."
—Kim Hubbard , People
"The priceless, pragmatic English youngsters who put their mother on the marriage market in last year's delightful Man at the Helm, are back and practicing their skills on a spate of new victims. In Stibbe's newest novel, Lizzie Vogel is now a teenager and hard at work in her first job at a chaotic old-age home. There, she helps a nurse find a husband (who will also operate as a 'retirement plan'). Lizzie, who finds herself feeling more at home than she's ever felt in her life, helps a cast of eccentrics save the home from a rival."
—Billy Heller, The New York Post's Required Reading
"Stibbe has a gift for summoning the high-octane low-attention-span pimplefest that is adolescence."
—Molly Young, New York Times Book Review
PRAISE FOR LOVE, NINA:
"I adored this book, and I could quote from it forever. It's real, odd, life-affirming, sharp, loving...and I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud so frequently while reading."—Nick Hornby, The Believer
- "Breezy, sophisticated, hilarious, rude, and aching with sweetness: Love, Nina might be the most charming book I've ever read."—Maria Semple, author of Where'd You Go, Bernadette
- "These letters are winning from the start...we simply like being in Ms. Stibbe's company."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
- "You'll find yourself laughing out loud but also touched by the book's depiction of family as it should be: people bound not just by blood but by shared affinities, humor and unfailing interest in hearing the answer to the question, 'How was your day?'"—Kim Hubbard, People
- "I must MOST EARNESTLY recommend Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. It's the most piss-funny thing I've read all year. I can't remember a book since Adrian Mole that so brilliantly, drily nailed day-to-day life in BRILLIANT, faux-naive prose."—Caitlin Moran, author of How to Build a Girl
- "I have never laughed so hard reading a book. Nina Stibbe's recollections of life as a London nanny are both hilarious and heartwarming."—J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine and The Engagements
- "Love, Nina is enchanting. It's one of the funniest--and oddest--books I've read in a long time.... [Stibbe's letters] are perceptive and droll, and provide a glimpse into the domestic life of a fascinating literary family."—Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal
PRAISE FOR MAN AT THE HELM:
- "Man at the Helm is a winner- a brilliant find....It is full, free, outlandish. And I can't remember a book that made me laugh more. [Stibbe] doesn't take anything seriously. Or rather, she does, and yet her eye and ear for the absurd never desert her- they are part of who she is."—The Guardian
- "Some of the most perceptive writing I've read about relationships in a while....this book is very, very funny. Stibbe has a fine eye for absurdity, and her writing has an unforced charm."—The Independent
- "[A] joyous read, full of wit and charm . . . I am already longing for Nina Stibbe's next book."—The Observer
- "Nina Stibbe's Man at the Helm is straight-up hilarious, a brilliant collage of a family in glorious ruin. Stibbe's wry, sly wit propels the novel forward at breakneck speed, but don't be fooled: underneath all the exuberance beats a surprisingly melancholy heart."—Lauren Fox, Author of Still Life with Husband and Friends Like Us
"Stibbe's astute, deadpan charm is impossible to resist."
—Kim Hubbard, People
"This densely populated coming-of-age story (for both mother and children) has retained and even expanded on Stibbe's signature antic charm...It's not too much of a stretch to conclude that Man at the Helm, with its jauntily matter-of-fact social satire, wouldn't be out of place on the same shelf as Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle.
—Alida Becker, The New York Times Book Review
"Lizzie's scheme to find a suitable match for her [mother] sparkles with humor as British as mincemeat pie."
- "Ms. Stibbe's writerly charms and her sneakily deep observations about romantic connection are on display throughout...'Man at the Helm' is densely peppered with funny lines, but even more striking is the sustained energy of the writing. In almost all the space between jokes, there remains a witty atmosphere, a playful effect sentence by sentence."—John Williams, The New York Times
"Funny and engaging...I simply hugged myself with joy reading this book, for the tale it tells, which is funny, painful, and ultimately happy, and above all for the voice, which is perfection."
—Katherine A. Powers, The Christian Science Monitor
- On Sale
- Nov 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 192 pages
- Little, Brown and Company