This British-American Life’s 5 Rules of Overnight Houseguests

By alborzshawn (Welcome) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By alborzshawn (Welcome) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I have family coming to stay starting tomorrow.  Being that we are pros at hosting people after living in great places to visit, the Boffin and I have condensed this whole thing down to 5 rules that will make life simpler.

1.  If you live with someone, get on the same page and agree to the rules before anyone sets foot past the door.  Look, if your mother wore white to your wedding and clung to your ankles during your first dance, chances are, your wife is not going to think it is going to be a great idea to have your parents over for the weekend without discussing the matter with her.  I wouldn’t blame your wife, if she goes all Lysistrata on you for a month when Mom rings the doorbell.  For the record, the Boffin and I did not have this particular problem, but I know couples who have, and it isn’t pretty.

2.  While getting on the same page, remember there is nothing wrong with a person, if he or she does not like having overnight houseguests at all.  It does not make a person antisocial or weird, just a person who likes personal space.  Conversely, the person who does not like having houseguests can make it easier for the person who does by allowing them, but limiting the time for people to stay. Talk to each other.  Try to respect each others’ viewpoint.  Both of you can work it out.

3.  Enforce those rules once the guests are here.  If you agreed that you only want to host people for three days max, three days it is.  Don’t undercut your partner, and make exceptions without mutual agreement, even if Elaine wants to stay longer, and you haven’t seen her since you graduated from college.  Elaine’s voice has a cicada quality makes your husband’s innards turn to gelatin.  Partner trumps guest.

4.  The only things you need to provide your guests are clean and comfortable places to eat, sleep, sit, and poop.  Provide meals and hospitality too, but you don’t stress yourself out trying to be Martha Stewart to do that.  Forget about the pile of clothes you have to go through.  Don’t worry about the mounds of paper on the desk.  Remember they are coming to see you, and you are doing them a favor by providing them room and board.  If they are going to judge the state of your house, and give it the white glove test, tell them to get cracking, and clean it themselves.  Or they can leave, and show them the door.  Life is too short to put up with rude houseguests, and nobody is going to give you points, if you martyr yourself.

5.  If the timing and the arrangements do not work for you, be honest.  There are these wonderful places called hotels where your guests can spend money and get their own rooms.  They even have beds, showers, and toilets.  You can meet them for meals and all the fun touristy things.  It’s better to be frank than try to host people, be resentful, and cause friction.  And if they don’t understand, that’s their problem, not yours.

It’s your home, not the Hilton.  Remember, no one is going to rate you on TripAdvisor.

Locality is a Subjective Normality

“Are you local?”

Hard to answer that question.  Local like produce?  Do I live where the regional food is grown and eaten?  That would be yes.  I’m not a Child of the Corn, but I can certainly go that way with the right combination of illegal substances.

Am I originally from the area?  No.  That’s certainly obvious by the way I drive.  You can take the girl out of the Northeast, but you can’t take the Northeast out of the girl.

I miss Boston.  Maybe not the traffic though.
I miss Boston. Maybe not the traffic though.

I have a question in return.  How long do we have to live in the Chicago area to be considered locals?  I mean, I have the luxury of blending in more with my voice, but the Boffin will forever be interrogated with “Where are you from?” for the rest of his life.

The stereotypical Englishman and the Boffin's only chance of becoming an Avenger.
The stereotypical Englishman and the Boffin’s only chance of becoming an Avenger.

I mentioned in my last blog post that many people in my town are from the Chicago area and expect their children to settle close by.  I can understand this way of thinking because I grew up the same way.  Pennsylvania, my home state, is like Illinois in that it retains its native sons and daughters.  So Illinois and Pennsylvania’s definition of local is honed.

A great example I can give is the following.  I was at a gathering at our temple and the subject of locality came up with a group of women I was meeting for the first time.  A lovely young mother talked about how she wasn’t local because she grew up in a town 17 miles away.  The other women accepted this as par for the course.  At first, the snarky part of me internally wondered if this far away town had candy-paved roads and unicorn taxis with the way they were speaking.  But I looked at myself honestly, and I realized I would responded the same way too, if I stayed in my indigenous area.

But I didn’t stay.  I needed more, and I left home.  My world got bigger, and my definition of local became expanded in the process.  I married a man who grew up an ocean away from me.  Now we are willing to drive two hours one way for a good meal.  We travel the same distance as a family to pick blueberries to make our super secret special jam to give to our friends and family during the holidays.  What’s up in Wisconsin?  What’s here in Iowa?  What’s going on around us?   We have to know.  We have to investigate.  A 10-mile radius isn’t good enough.

Britons have different ideas about what is local.  First of all, we are talking about deep rooted regional and national differences based upon thousands of years of history and tradition.  An American may think this is just a country the size of an average state, but this is island of factions, and you have to pick one.  And because the island is so compressed, in a journey of a few miles, you could see factions that distinctly hate each other.  Think Yorkshire v. Lancashire.

Secondly, getting from one place to another is not the easiest of tasks, especially if you are driving.  This is not a country with an open highway system, so a trip of 60 miles can feel like an arduous journey with its stops, starts, roundabouts, and narrow roads to motorways back to narrow roads.  And to the Americans, be grateful for the prices you pay for gasoline (petrol).  Today, the average price is $0.77 per liter in the U.S..  In the U.K., it is $1.83.   So train trips, bike rides, and short car trips are the way to go, and it does alter your thinking about what local is.

The hell that is the Magic Roundabout in Swindon.   I wanted a T-shirt after I did this.
The hell that is the Magic Roundabout in Swindon. I wanted a T-shirt after I did this.

Regardless of where you are, the beauty about it is that there is no right or wrong definition.  Local is what you want it to be and what works for you.

Maybe it isn’t a hard question to answer.

Yes, I am local.  And loca.  And I am very happy to be.

I just won’t end up like this.

This British-American Life in the Kitchen – Cottage Pie

What is not to love about ground beef (beef mince) in a flavorful savory sauce topped with mashed potato, baked in the oven until the top is nicely browned and crusty? Actually, if you are vegetarian/vegan, lots. I understand. But to the omnivores out there, it’s hard to argue how this dish would not hit all sorts of happy places in your brain, if it is done right.

Now, to the Americans, you are looking at what I am describing and going, “Oh, shepherd’s pie!” And I am going to tell you to stop calling it that right now. Cease immediately. Shepherd’s pie is made with ground lamb and only ground lamb. This label makes sense, since, excuse me while I shout, SHEPHERDS DO NOT HERD COWS. This is the kind of thing that makes the Britons think we only learned to walk upright last week.

My late cat, Pandora, would be giving you the Smug Look of Derision, if you keep this up.
My late cat, Pandora, would be giving you the Smug Look of Derision, if you keep this kind of stupidity up.

For those who are new to making cottage pie, this is my American modification of the BBC Good Food recipe.  (And if you want some gastroporn, feel free to explore the rest of the site too)

Cottage Pie – The American Modification

Ingredients

For the beef and veg

3 tbsp olive oil

2 lbs ground beef

2 small onions, finely diced

3 large carrots, diced

2 celery sticks, diced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tbsp plain flour or 1 tbsp of corn starch or potato starch

1 tbsp tomato paste

Large glass of red wine (optional)

Several glasses of red wine for the cook (optional or mandatory.  I won’t argue.)

24 oz. (3 cups) of beef stock

1 tbsp of Worcestershire sauce

Few thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

For the mashed potatoes

2 lbs potatoes, peeled and sliced

8 oz (1 cup) of milk

2 tbsp of butter

8 oz grated extra sharp cheddar cheese

Freshly grated nutmeg

  1. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large saucepan and fry the ground beef until browned. Remove beef from the pan.  Put the rest of the oil into the pan, add the vegetables and cook on a gentle heat until soft, about 20 mins. Add the garlic, flour/starch and tomato paste, increase the heat and cook for a few mins, then return the beef to the pan. Pour over the wine, if using, and boil to reduce it slightly before adding the stock, Worcestershire sauce and herbs. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 45 mins. By this time the gravy should be thick and coating the meat. Check after about 30 mins – if a lot of liquid remains, increase the heat slightly to reduce the gravy a little. Season well, then discard the bay leaves and thyme stalks.
  2. Meanwhile, make the mashed potatoes. In a large saucepan, cover the potatoes in salted cold water, bring to the boil and simmer until tender. Drain well, then allow to steam-dry for a few mins. Mash well with the milk, butter, and three-quarters of the cheese, then season with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper.
  3. Spoon meat into a 9″ x 13″ dish. Pipe or spoon on the mash to cover. Sprinkle on the remaining cheese. Heat oven to a 400°F and cook 30-35 mins, or until the topping is golden.  If the topping is not browning adequately, you can set your oven on to “broil” for a few minutes to finish off the dish.  Just keep a close eye on your oven.

Do I use this recipe to the letter? Honestly? No. It’s at a point where the Boffin and I use the “Throw Whatever We Have Around the House into It” Method of making cottage pie. I can give you some hints that can help.

TIPS:

  • Whenever we make mashed potatoes, we always make extra and freeze them for this occasion.
  • Keep bags of your frozen pea and carrot mix or your favorite mixed vegetables on hand.
  • Don’t be afraid to add other herbs or seasonings in.  We like to add ketchup, oregano, and HP sauce to ours.  We also make up our own herb blends and throw them in.  It’s your dish.  Have fun with it.
  • To make the cottage pie kosher, omit the milk, butter, and cheese from the mash and add parve margarine, kosher salt, pepper, and beef stock to give the potatoes flavor.
  • Place a cookie sheet underneath when baking the pie.  Sometimes the dish has a tendency to drip, and this saves on the messes.

In summary, I think this dish is the closest to American meatloaf in the sense that every household seems to have its own recipe; it evokes comfort and wholesomeness when it is made well; and the leftovers are better than the fresh meal.  It’s affordable.  It freezes well.  It’s a kid pleaser, especially by working the vegetables into the meat mixture, as the Sprog would attest.  It’s very simple to make.  So give it a go, and maybe you can start to see the loveliness that is British cuisine.