I hear angels singing as I stuff extra pillows onto the top shelf of our new linen closet. I stack a few towels further down – things that had previously been housed in an ugly wicker trunk at the foot of our bed. Our collection is small – remnants, really, from wedding gifts twenty years ago in August. But now, what was once my husband’s fly-fishing storage closet has been renovated for linens, and it’s time to celebrate. To re-stock. To invest in us.
The bare shelves are crying out for a special set of sheets, sadly lost in one of our moves. They were Italian cotton and soft, very soft. I bought them at Harrods on a 50% off sale. It was a spontaneous purchase, one that I never would have made if it wasn’t for that woman who walked into Books for Cooks that day.
Lots of American ‘work widows’ used to walk into Books for Cooks, the cookbook shop where I worked when I lived in London. They had a certain look – tidy, conservative outfits. Tod’s loafers on their feet, a fat diamond on the ring finger. Their husbands worked in the city for American banks while they were left alone, without work permits, and not much to do but wander. Books for Cooks – with aromas wafting from the cafe in the back or the cooking school upstairs, a line-up of cakes on the counter and 10,000 cookbooks to flip through on the squishy red sofa – was the perfect destination. We answered their cooking questions, we signed them up for classes. Some became regulars and friends. But no one had asked us to make a ‘house call’ before.
She had been in the shop for a while, flipping through books in the American section. Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, Joy of Cooking. We asked her if we could help her find something. No, she said. Then added, shyly, actually, could you help me with something else? My husband rushes out the door in the morning, he doesn’t even have a cup of coffee. Could one of you please come over – I’ll pay you – and teach me how to make coffee? Maybe then he’ll linger a bit.
I was volunteered to go because:
- I was Canadian and would ‘connect’ the best to her
- I had a day off that week
- I knew how to make American coffee, surely
I had no idea how to make coffee. I was only two years into my own marriage, still navigating blindly through our own ups, downs and burgeoning coffee addictions. But we did drink coffee on the weekends together, coffee that he made in his specific way:
place the bodum on a scale and add exactly 54g of ground coffee
add boiling water 3 cm from the top
after 5 minutes, if the plunge provides resistance, you’d done well
So on my day off, armed with my husband’s system and extra scribbled notes from cookbooks on how to make coffee in every vessel, I bicycled south to her apartment ‘just beside Harrods.’
We made coffee in her cold kitchen, the kind once designed for kitchen staff. We also made a pot of soup using peas from her freezer, an onion, butter and coffee cream. We made chocolate chip cookies from ingredients in her pantry and ate them with coffee. By then, her kitchen was warm.
Warm is all I know. I learned it from my mother. She warmed up our kitchen with her bread, her baking, her heart. I knew it wasn’t the answer to marriage; warmth is only experienced when another leans in to receive it. You can’t make someone lean in. But you can fill yourself with a sense of purpose, with flavour, with joy, and when this happens, warmth radiates and invites others to come a little closer. I couldn’t articulate this at the time, but I understood the answer wasn’t so much a recipe, but a feeling.
She paid me four crisp twenty pound notes at the end of the morning, more than a few days work at the shop. As she handed me the money, she asked me what I was going to do with it. I shrugged and told her I’d probably spend it on groceries. No! She cried with sudden conviction. You should go to Harrods and buy beautiful sheets. They’re having a sale. Go treat yourself, with something someone else can also enjoy.
Those sheets were the best £80 I had ever spent. They were especially nice on Sunday mornings with a newspaper and a cup of 54g bodum coffee in hand.
PS I think it’s Ina Garten’s cookbook The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (published in 1999) that outlines how to make the perfect cup of coffee in many different vessels. But more recently Ina has revealed her secret to the perfect cup – take a look here.
PPS – please send any towel and sheets shopping tips my way. I, in exchange, will send you my best chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Speaking of linens… I’ve been using these little cotton bags to store my washed and dried greens. The cotton soaks up extra moisture and keeps greens fresh for at least a week. The bags came with sheet sets for my kids, and for a long time they lived in my tea towel drawer, taking up space. But then I read that Sarah Wilson uses pillow cases to store her greens, so hey, why not these? Washing and drying greens as soon as I get home from the market is one of my top tips in life. It allows me to flow into meals without pause. It creates ‘thank you Lindsay’ moments. Try it and let me know how it goes.