56-Up and a pineapple upside-down cake

Alene doesn’t have a TV anymore. It’s amazing, because when I first started keeping up with her, she was a real TV addict with the thing on from the minute she got up until she went to bed – and often after she went to bed. When I moved into my own flat after separating from my wife, I didn’t bother to get a TV, let alone cable or satellite. I just made myself comfortable and closed my eyes to watch Alene’s TV.

These days we amuse ourselves with the internet and listen to podcasts, and Alene sometimes checks out DVDs from the library. We were recently reminded of the Up series of films that followed a group of British youngsters from age seven to adulthood, revisiting every seven years. I remember we watched 42-Up in 1999 on either PBS or BBC America – when we were first together. We are both English and both from working-class backgrounds, so this series has charmed both of us over the years as our lives took us places we never would have imagined as seven-year-olds. Alene ended up as a college professor in the USA while I made a small fortune as a commodities broker. I grew up in the East End and can easily see myself in Tony’s life, although I would have been more disappointed at not having made it as a jockey.

We did quite a bit of baking in those days. I had never really had to do for myself – and always had a mum or wife looking after me. I could have just lived on take-out and shop-bought food, but I liked the look of the food I watched Alene make for herself, and she encouraged me to try cooking for myself.

Lemon poppyseed cake is a favorite of mine, but not always easy to find, so I had Alene look up a recipe for us to try. The trouble was, American recipes use the cup as a measure and I couldn’t find any measuring cups or spoons to buy! So at first I had to watch Alene carefully so that I could roughly eyeball a half cup of sugar in some other container. My first attempt at a lemon-poppyseed cake was surprisingly good and we ended up making one twice a week. But after a couple of years, Alene moved to Seattle and I followed her there – and we just enjoyed baked goods at coffee shops.

Allen is fond of baked goods too and when he decided to join me in this adventure, he suggested we think about what we would snack on with our coffee – because there probably wouldn’t be a Starbucks down the street. We needed an easy cake recipe that didn’t call for eggs, butter or milk. Well, as luck would have it, a volunteer at Alene’s workplace brought a cake she had made to a meeting. When she described how it’s made I told Alene to ask for the recipe, which was actually for an orange cake, but could perhaps be modified. We both bought ingredients and utensils to have a go at a lemon-poppyseed cake and it was a success! (The original recipe is posted under the main menu at the top of this page.) I was thriilled because the ingredients were all non-perishables I could have stored at the site, although I didn’t tell Alene this because I hadn’t yet told her of my plan to leave Seattle.

Yesterday, Alene found 56-Up at the library and I thought it might be nice to bake my first cake here. But Allen was wanting a pineapple upside-down cake and reminded me that we did have canned pineapple slices. So Alene agreed to give it a try. A large can of pineapple has enough juice for the batter, but the pineapple slices lining the bottom of the dish slow the cooking. It takes a further twenty minutes with the oven turned down a notch. But the end result was great!

56-Up was sweet, although we cringed at some of the remarks made by the privilged kids growing up. It’s amazing how they keep coming back despite insisting each time how they’ve disliked being involved in the project.

We’re fond of all the participants. But it’s Neil who’s touched us the most. Neil is Alene’s worst nightmare. The co-existence with me has been difficult for her and she has experienced spells of dysfunction. I think she fears ending up like Neil one day.

But Neil hasn’t been asleep at the wheel. In 56-Up he talks about happiness – and remarks that you can sometimes be happy without realizing it. Alene can suddenly wake up to happiness that she hadn’t noticed.

We wish Neil well.

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