Category Archives: grandma

V for Vegetarian

“But what do you eat…?”
“…er…. food…?”

In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about  meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.

It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.

Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food

1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them

These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).

But there’s more to my dislike than that.  There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.

2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)

Well -ish.

There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good.  Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages.  (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).

Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.

3 – Tribute dishes

These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.

This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).

This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.

4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?

A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six  people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.

I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.

5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.

There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.

Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.

The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat.  It’s not missing – it’s irrelevant.

I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.

How to plan a Vegetarian main course

The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice),  pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”

Some rants  – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu

While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime.  Goats Cheese Tart,  Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.

What not to serve a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Goats cheese on roast veg, with roast veg – how to sadden the heart of a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.

But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour),  it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.

I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.

About being a Vegetarian

I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.

I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.

I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.

They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).

So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy.  I don’t know when I last ate meat.  I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food’: it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.

A series of small epiphanies



For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.

I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via if you’d like to discuss dates.

The problem of Stuff

My problem is not acquiring too many things. My problem is to do with getting rid of the things I already have.  As a result I am surrounded by Stuff which fails William Morris’s test that I either know it to be useful or believe it to be beautiful.  I keep stuff only because I find it too agitating to throw it away.

The one I share my hoard with bought a copy of this book the other day and we read it with separate feelings of awkwardness and unease.

My particular epiphany was that I feel an obligation to dispose of things responsibly.  I cannot blithely throw something away unless it is useless and biodegradable.  I have to reuse, reduce recycle, in every way I can.  

This is inhibiting.  Yesterday in an effort of self-liberation I threw away a perfectly reusable jiffy bag. (I have boxes of the buggers upstairs on a shelf, waiting for the moment I need them).  I don’t mind throwing away the bio-degradeable kraft paper outer, but the bubble-wrap inner makes me feel uneasy. Why can’t jiffy bags be filled with paper waste any more?  Note the tense of that sentence: it makes me feel uneasy now, even though I threw it away yesterday.  Yes, it was worse at the time, but the agitation remains. We should not fill landfill with plastic bubble-wrap.  We certainly should not fill our seas with things that we use once and which then bob around for hundreds of years, killing marine animals for generations to come.

Although this is not quite a compulsion for me, it’s more than a moral imperative which I can comfortably ignore.  Every time I went to a beach the last time we were on holiday, I ended up filling  bin bags with rubbish.  I am shocked and horrified by the amount of trash blowing in the wind.

But it’s not just about preferring recycling to landfill. It’s avoiding waste in the first place.  My Grandmother could Not Abide Waste. She and my Ma raised me, and both were adults during WWII and both had a pack-rat sense of scarcity. Both kept things “in case they were useful”, like the jiffy bag. And both would be horrified by the idea that two people can fill one wheelie bin in a week.

So the only way I can dispose of something in good working order is by making sure someone else gets to use it.  Freecycle saved my sanity the last time I moved house.   Before Freecycle I had a “jumble sale box”.  (I remember picking over it once to make sure any erotica I was giving to the Village Hall did not have my name in it. Small village, small world). I take things to Charity Shops, give them to friends, give them to volunteer groups and charities.  Plastic toys upset me hugely; why can’t they still be made of wood? I’ve had three bags of  toys in my shed for four months waiting for me to take them to a charity which cleans them and gives them to impoverished children.

I do feel a sense of relief having read the book. I stand by my logic (we should be far more careful with plastics, we shouldn’t waste landfill on things that still work), but I now know my agitation is unusual.  It’s helped me throw things away rather than keep them, like the jiffy bag, and it is energising my attempt to find new owners for the things that are too good to bin.

The next thing is to strengthen my resolve to get rid of family things and things I’ve been given.  Not sapphires.  I am keeping those.

Where was my grandmother…

Where was my grandmother… on the night of Sunday 2 April, 1911?  She wasn’t at home with her parents and sisters, which is a surprise because she was only 13.

I know she wasn’t at home because I’ve just looked her up on the 1911 Census. An alluring and expensive way of spending an evening. I’m a huge fan of the National Archives (their podcasts are exceptional) and they have done a superb job with the census site.  I hate to think how long it took and how much it cost to transcribe those millions of lines of scrawly manuscript.  So I really cannot begrudge them their money.  I’d have happily spent an evening cyber-stalking my ancestors if I could have done it for free, and the seven quid I spent has enabled me to turn turn up some mysteries.  I think I may have just discovered an expensive new hobby.

Three things are odd about the census transcript for my great-grandfather’s household.  

  • They weren’t living where I thought they were.   They certainly owned the house on the hill both before and after 1911, so why wasn’t the family there at the time?
  • Then their youngest daughter is shown as being 26 years old in 1911.  I’m almost certain she was two or three years younger than grandma, not 13 years older.  
  • And finally, as I mentioned,  my grandmother and her brother were away from home that night.   

It turns out she was at school, and the jpeg of the entry for the school showed me a couple of other interesting things. 

  • Her 15 and 16 year old classmates had their marital status recorded, which looks decidedly odd in the middle of a list of school-girls.   The choices were “Single, Married, Widower or Widow” which is quaint in itself.  
  • One of her classmates had the same name as my godmother – so I find myself wondering if our grandmothers were school-fellows.

It would be expensively easy to click “buy more credits” again and again and five mysteries for a fiver isn’t bad going really.  But I’ll resist and savour the unknowingness.   Though I might get in touch with siblings and cousins to see what they think.

Things, and when to Get Rid of them

William Morris claimed that you should have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.  I know he was rebelling against the suffocating sentimentality of the Victorians, but even so I think that you should also have things which remind you of people or places that you’ve loved, otherwise you might as well live in a show-home.  But Morris’s point is a good one, well made. You certainly should not have things made in Chinese sweat-shops out of metallised plastic which are hideous and pointless and which you keep for a month, but that is a different subject for a different day.  This post is about Getting Rid of Things.

Three years ago I was living in temporary accommodation with everything I owned in storage except my laptop, some clothes, books and kitchen knives.  (Why are other peoples’ kitchen knives impossible to use?  It’s not even as if mine are sharp.  But they can tell who’s using them, you know).  I was tempted to get the storage company to send the lot to auction and to take myself off to Ikea with the profits and start again from minimalist scratch.  I missed none of it.  Not a jot, not a tittle.  But of course when it arrived I unpacked it all and couldn’t bring myself to throw any of it away.  Ho no.

In part it’s brainwashing by two generations of frugal and determined women who convinced me that waste is wicked.  But you have to worry about the sanity of someone who thinks that keeping the salad drawer from a long gone fridge is a way of avoiding waste.  Behold that lunatic.  These days of course disposing of anything in landfill is irresponsibly feckless, so I still tend to store rubbish rather than throwing it away.

It was also drummed in to my head that it was rude to dispose of a gift.  For years I had a badly made clock about 9″ high, shaped like a long-case (grandfather) clock.  It was red and painted with white flowers.  I loathed it from the day my godmother gave it to me, but I kept it for decades because it would be rude to throw it away. It still affects me.  The women I bought my house from gave me a picture of the valley taken in the 19th century which their deceased brother had acquired at some time.  Can I get rid of it?  Can I heck.  I’m thinking of framing the wretched thing.

Then there’s the Great Book Debate.  Iris Murdoch, I think, kept every book she had ever owned.  On the one hand I can see that would become a fascinating record of one’s intellectual journey, but on the other hand it strikes me as self-indulgent narcissism.  I’m simply not interested in the same things now as I was 20 years ago.   And then there’s the matter of space.  Where would I keep them all?

The internet continues to change my attitude to books. A couple of days ago picked over the books I keep in the kitchen which tend to be about food and sex (on the basis that they are both appetites of the flesh).   I had assumed, in Morris’s terms, that they were useful, so I was surprised to find that I only intend to keep about half a dozen cookery books.  These are the ones which were given to me by women who loved me who are now long dead and a few which are more social documents than cookery books, for example Mrs Beeton and a book of recipes and anecdotes from post-War rural France.  If I want your actual recipes, then the internet is nearer and quicker than a recipe book.

But still there’s this terrible tyranny of Things. ‘Keep it’, my Grandmother used to say, ‘you’ll never know when you’ll need it’.  Indeed.  But if you have too many Things then that strategy backfires: today I discovered that I’ve got a whizzy spinning bowl which gets the water off washed lettuce leaves.  Only the other day I was thinking ‘I need a whizzy spinning bowl to get the water off these lettuce leaves, but where would I keep it?’.  I’d kept the one I’d already got for so long and buried it so deep, that I’d no idea I’d got the bloody thing.

Right.  That’s me blogged.  I need to load up the car and then I’m off to the charity shop  and the tip.

The Privilege meme

I picked this up from the Singing Librarian, and decided that it was an interesting quiz to do.

It was devised by PhD students at Indiana State University – Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, and Stacy Ploskonka. If you participate, they ask that you please acknowledge their copyright.

My parents were what’s now termed asset rich and cash poor. We lived surprisingly frugally in a great big house so we looked flash on little cash, and it’s left me slightly uneasy about privilege ever since. That, and the combination of being raised by women who spoke like Celia Johnson while growing up surrounded by the inverted snobbery of the 60s and 70s. I notice that today’s young hackerati are perfectly comfortable describing themselves as “middle class kids”, but I still feel slightly embarrassed and uneasy about it.

1. Father went to college.
2. Father finished college.

Sandhurst counts, presumably.

3. Mother went to college.
4. Mother finished college.

She was told she hadn’t studied hard enough to return for her second year, which left her with no good argument to put for me when I… Oh, never mind.

5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.

Well, my sister’s a solicitor and I’m stepping out with a doctor.  Oh, and my father-in-law was a university lecturer. I have to conclude that we’re as professional and middle class as all get out. So, despite the Americanisms, yeah, I guess.

6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers.
7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home.
8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home.

Had more than 5,000 books in my childhood home, though I doubt it was up to 50,000. As Scout says in To Kill a Mockingbird: “I did not love to read; you do not love to breathe”.

9. Were read children’s books by a parent.

Until I was over 18, graduating from Winnie the Pooh through to Jane Austin.  One of the formative experiences of my life.

10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18.

Private lessons I assume – my parents very sweetly paid for piano lessons and riding lessons.  Pigs were more likely to fly than I was ever likely to play the piano, and ponies and pony-girls just intimidated me, so it was a lovely gesture but a complete waste.

11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18.

No.  The failure of the piano lessons and riding lessons probably put them off.

12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively.

I don’t know what or who “people who dress and talk like me” are, and I never watch tv anyway.  Um. My family could have stepped out of an Agatha Christie in many respects (those Celia Johnson voices) or Morse, or the Midsummer Murders even. Is being a murderer with be-a-u-tifully en-unc-i-at-ed vowels a positive representation or a negative one?  You decide.

13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18.

No freaking way.  Credit cards for teenagers?  No. Absolutely not. My parents had more than enough problems preventing their own costs from turning into debts to give us little debt-lets of our own.

14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs.
15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs.

Local Education Authority Grant.  I didn’t realise at the time how lucky I was.

16. Went to a private high school.

Er.  Yes. It was pants though. A very nice school for the sweet but unintellectual daughters of doctors. Loathed it. Still get flashbacks.

17. Went to summer camp.

Mmm. Opera camp. Just typing it makes me blink in amazement.

18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18.


19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels.

Do guest-houses and pubs in English and Scottish seaside towns count as “hotels”?  They do, don’t they.  In fact my parents were pretty frugal with regards to summer holidays, and we tended to lig off family and friends who lived nearer the coast than we did.

20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18.

Hah! No. None of it was.  It was either second hand (school uniforms) hand-me downs (I had two big sisters) or home made.

21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them.

Surely a 10 year old Fiat 127 doesn’t count?

22. There was original art in your house when you were a child.

But all painted by relatives. Pretty good, some of it, though.

23. You and your family lived in a single-family house.

I’m not sure what this means.  We were a three generation household, grandparents, parents and kids.

24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home.


25. You had your own room as a child.


26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18.
27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course

28. Had your own TV in your room in high school.

I can remember being shocked by people who had TVs in their rooms at uni.

29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college.

30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16.

I’d never even been abroad before I was 16. In fact the first time I went to Europe I was 28 or so and married.

31. Went on a cruise with your family.
32. Went on more than one cruise with your family.

33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up.

Oddly enough, they didn’t, but that was more a matter of their own philistinism than anything else.  I think it was “educational” and so they delegated it to the school to do that. My Ma read a lot of pretty middle-brow stuff, and that was it.

34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

I remember once, aged 5, being held in front of an open internal door and being told that I could feel the heat coming out of the room (I couldn’t) and that I should learn to shut doors. I also remember having baths by candlelight because of a mixture of powercuts and fuel prices.  I remember frost on the inside of the windows, though that was only one winter. I do remember lying in bed for an hour because it was too cold for me to want to get up. I may not have known how much the bills were, but I was very aware that fuel costs money, and still am.  I cannot leave a light on in an empty room to this day.

So 16 yeses out of 34.  I was raised and educated with middle class values but my parents were surprisingly uncultured: lots of books, but no trips to the theatre, art galleries, museums or concerts.  Privately educated, but definitely on the cheap.   There wasn’t, as I said, a lot of spare cash to go round.  However, I am irredeemably middle class. I’m nervous around plumbers and comfortable with lawyers, and I guess that proves it completely.

Oh well.


Lady Doctor by John WoodwarkI bought a pair of trousers yesterday which were very nearly comfortable.

This is streets ahead of any trouser-wearing experience I have had for two or three years. I have, as Luther so graphically explained, “a wide fundament to sit upon”, but that’s not the problem when I buy trousers.

The problem is that the clothing manufacturers are more than happy to cut six inches off the length of a pair of trousers at the waist while pretending it’s down to customer demand. This is ludicrous. It’s a collusion between cost-cutting manufacturers and a fashion industry run largely by gay men who are disgusted by any kind of feminine curve. As my grandmother would have said “I am the customer, and I demand waisted trousers”.

It’s hard to think what I have in common with gang-obsessed American teenage boys who like the jailhouse look, other than a shared need for oxygen. I certainly don’t like having to hitch my trousers up all the frigging time when I have a perfectly good waist that – with another 6″ of cloth – they could have been cut to sit upon.

I think the last time I bought a pair of comfortable trousers was in late 2000. Seven years.

Enough already.

I couldn’t resist re-offering you this painting by John Woodwark. Alas, my bottom is nowhere near as wonderful as hers. Is it just me, or doesn’t this painting just make you want to bite it?