A True Story: Finding Myself Back Where I Started

A glimpse of real life and two delicious recipes: Peruvian Lemon Spritz Cookies and Traditional Tuscan Minestrone

As I stepped down from the black cab, a shiver went through me.  It was not from the cold, though the air was crisp and my gown, slit to the thigh, and thin silk scarf provided little more than spiritual warmth.  No, it was one of recognition.  M. Lane.  I remembered the name, had felt it already when I told the cabbie where to take me. But I had not realised that where he would drop me was exactly where I had lingered so many years before.

As a pre-teen in Peru, did I know I was different?  We just are.  Conscious difference doesn’t exist.  Some school mates called me weird.  I welcomed the anonymity of the national school uniform, dark grey polyester trousers (fabric from the state, patterns from the state), plain white short sleeve white polyester pocketed shirt.  It was simple, elegant in a way, and was intended to erase class lines.  I welcomed that as I was not of a family that would afford the rich kid’s expression of wealth—through the “right” shoes.  

My father was a foot fetishist.  I didn’t know it at the time, or that his boot-licking ways would surface so spectacularly.  But in Peru, and because it was cheap, he insisted that I experience the true luxury of being a gentleman and wear bench-made shoes.  This was not the first time he had bought me special shoes.

Earlier in Italy, when I was but a wisp of a lad, he bought me a pair of suede saddle shoes, two tone, cream and chestnut, with scalloped stitching and detail on the seams.  He said they were, “dukey,” a quaint, now lost, expression, meaning to him that they looked neat.  Saddle shoes for a boy was quite the choice, fit for a fop or a dandy, but I wonder in the twilight of his consciousness whether he “knew”.

In Peru, at the shoemaker, when I asked if I could have a “slightly” higher heel, he just answered, “it’s called a Spanish heel,” and to the cobbler, that meant “yes”, so my first pair of custom shoes had 1” heels.

We were a large family of boys and girls, an odd number, which placed me squarely in the middle.  And yet, I was no middle child.  I was the youngest.  Once the youngest always the youngest.  What strikes me today, is that I was the only one who was never struck.  Manhandled, yes, but this was nothing compared to the physical and verbal abuse that was meted out to my siblings and to our mothers.  My blood mother wouldn’t take it and left, an elegant princess.  My other mother bent like a reed and settled into co-dependence.  What did I do to deserve escape from the gale?

These thoughts were swirling in my mind as the cab pulled away and I found myself standing opposite the place of my first job as a secretary.  In those days I was a Kelly Girl.  That isn’t okay anymore, so the company is called Kelly Services, but the green of the logo is still the same.  I remember my interview, and because only women ever applied, they didn’t have a separate briefing sheet for boys and girls.  It was one page.  

Nearly half of it was a stern introduction to the uniform policy: black skirt, dark tights, white shirt, black pumps, and a grey v-neck sweater.

“Do I get to wear the uniform?” I asked, the only one of us knowing it was a serious question.

“No,” she said, “in your case if you just dress as you are, that will be fine,” I was wearing black slacks, a black leather belt, black leather shoes, a white shirt, and a grey v-neck sweater.  I wanted to insist.  But I needed a job.  I didn’t say a word.

They didn’t really know what to make of me.  I was the only male present during that day’s interviews and typing test, and I suspect that it was a sea of women on every day.  I don’t think they would have hired me were it not for my blazing speed at typing.  I clocked out with 20 words per minute more than anyone else present.  Unsurprisingly, I was placed the very next day.

Where did I learn this skill?  In Peru.  Offered an “elective” that put me with the girls in Home Economics instead of with the boys in “Shop”, I was taught how to touch type and how to bake lemon spritz cookies and other tasty home-making treats.  How to remove stains from clothes.  How to sew.  More value for life in one course than perhaps all others combined.  Why are boys not given these beautiful tools?

My father never questioned my choice of elective.

“How fast can you type?” he asked, injecting a little competitive sport into it.  The answer was a low number, 30.

“The ladies in the office are amazing.  My secretary types 80 words-per-minute, but the fastest in the office can do more than 100.”

The next day at school I asked, “Ma’am, could you teach me to type 120 words-per-minute?”  She looked at me, smiled, took my hand, led me to the typewriter, and the rest of the room, its noise, activity, ceased to exist.  She showed me position, held my hands, and dictated, touching my fingers as we went when there was something off.  I belonged to her, to her words, to her teaching.  Her gift lives inside of me still.  I can feel her fingers on mine even now as I type these words.

At Kelly Girl, the typing test was a source of anxiety for the ladies present.

“Please don’t rush,” the vigilator said.  “Accuracy is more important than speed.  A flawless 30 words per minute is better than 60 with mistakes.”  Of course, to be a Kelly Girl, you had to hit 60 without mistakes.  Kelly Girls were the top of the pile.  I turned in a flawless 121.  A magical number that was the only three-digit performance on the day.  Of course there were other agencies, but I wanted to be a Kelly Girl.  And from that moment forward, I became one.

All these thoughts, memories, spilled over me, through me as I stood on M. Lane reminiscing.  The building was no longer an office as it had been, but rather a shop.  I crossed the street and stood on the glass-crete sidewalk, exactly below which I had worked so many years ago.  The sounds of clicking heels on the pavement above, the dim light filtering through and down.

My boss was a woman, the first of many, at a time when such was a rarity.  I found myself to them, or they found me, with a gentle ease that has flowed through my life.  Meandering at times, but with a constant flow.  My days were punctuated by tea breaks in the morning and afternoon, and 30 minutes for lunch which I invariably took across the street at an Italian sandwich shop, which was elegant, clean, and with tables, all tones of white, and miraculously, is still there.  My near-daily tuna sandwich was made in a way that came to define what l like in a tuna sandwich, and their minestrone was hearty, fresh tasting and made from scratch.

I liked my boss.  She directed me with precision.  She was a world of clean lines.  I found purpose in responding to this, a rhythm which echoed in my body then and still now.

This was my first real job, and its significance was great.  I had no money left and hadn’t eaten for a few days.  I had taken a chance in leaving the US and moving to London.  I was days away from giving up and having to turn back and admit defeat.  And so, as I stood on that spot, I thought back of how much that moment had shaped the future course of my life.  How much the decision to take typing had shaped my life.  How much my father, by sensing something different about me, had unintendedly left a garden gate open for me.  Somehow, the sweetness of all of what that job represented was carried in the idea that it was the woman in me that got it, that it was a woman’s job, and that she was there for me already, ready to take my life in the direction it needed to go.

I turned and joined the dinner that had brought me there, feeling the energy of life pulsing through me.  It was a dinner in honour of a select group of women.  An honour for me beyond belief to be an invited guest.  And as I sat next to my hostess, I felt in her all of the things that draw me forth.  Nurturing, encouraging, inspiring, but most of all, this delicate cloaking of me, of her spirit energy caressing mine, telling me that “everything is going to be okay, you’ll see.”  And yes, I felt that.  And this comes from just being.  Who is your Goddess?  Have you found her?  She is there, all around you.  Open your heart and you will find her, within you too.

Peruvian Lemon Spritz Cookies

Light and pretty, best made with a cookie press if you have one, or sliced thin from a chilled, rolled log.  They are melt-in-your mouth soft and delicious, with a bright lemon flavour.  Sure to make any domestic Goddess proud.  Shorten cooking time by two minutes for a softer cookie.  A non-stick cookie sheet or wax paper makes it difficult to get the cookies to adhere coming out of the press, which you need.  Adapted from my school recipe in Peru.

  • 300 g all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon of fine salt
  • 220 g of unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 120 g of confectioners’ powdered sugar
  • 1 large egg at room temperature
  • Zest of 1 lemon and juice of ½ a lemon
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon of lemon extract
  • Poppy seeds for decoration, optional, see below

Preheat the oven to 175°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.  Weigh the flour and sift together with the salt into a large bowl.  Weigh and measure out other ingredients.  Zest and juice the lemon.

In a large mixing bowl on medium speed, mix together the butter and the powdered sugar until it is it is fluffy and creamy like cold cream.  Continue mixing and add the egg and let whip to combine, then add zest and lemon juice and vanilla.  Stop once blended.

Fold in the flour and salt.  Fill your cookie press with the desired head and squeeze the cookies out onto an ungreased cookie sheet.  They can be spaced quite close as this dough will not spread.  If you wish, a pinch of poppy seeds on each cookie is nice flavour and colour contrast—they will stick easily to the soft dough.

Bake the cookies in the middle of the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes.  Let cool for at least 5 minutes before transferring to a cookie rack to cool completely.  Enjoy.

Traditional Tuscan Minestrone

This is just like the soup I used to eat at Paul Rothe & Son on Marylebone Lane in London.  In the same family since 1900, their soups have been sustenance to many of us over the years.

In a small quirk of life’s detail, my great-great grandparents are buried just up the road in Marylebone cemetery.  In reverse, he emigrated to the United States listing his profession as “cobbler” on the ship manifest.  Through graft and following the threads that lay before him, he achieved such success that he was able to sail back to England every summer to be with family and friends—many of whom he supported financially.  In his later years his success was such that he lived in a building he owned on Central Park South, but by chance, and in separate years, and unexpectedly, both he and his wife died on trips to London…a very profound returning home.  They were buried side by side twenty years apart.

Delicious, filling, and ever-so-good for you.  For dressing, use a fresh and delicious olive oil.

  • 200 g dried cannellini or butter beans, soaked overnight and cooked
  • 1 red onion, minced
  • 1 stick of celery, diced
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 2 large tomatoes, blanched, seeded and chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely grated on a grater
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 200 g of well-washed spinach leaves
  • 100 g of well-washed Swiss chard leaves
  • ¼ cup of virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 100 g finely grated parmigiano Reggiano for serving
  • 2 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, minced fine, for serving

Soak the dried beans overnight.  Cook as directed until tender.  If using canned beans, pour off the liquid and reserve for other uses, and skip to the next part.

Prepare your ingredients, mincing and chopping as directed.  Blanch, peel, seed, and chop into dice the tomatoes.  Sauté the onion in a tablespoon of olive oil until sweated and golden over medium heat.  Stir in the celery and carrot and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until soft, about 10 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, garlic and reduce the heat to low.  Stir together and cook for 1-2 minutes.  Add the leaves and cover, cooking until wilted, about 5 minutes.

Add the cooked beans and remaining olive oil, stir to amalgamate, and add enough water to cover by one inch.  Simmer on low heat, part covered, for an hour, adding water if needed.  Adjust with seasoning to taste.

Distribute into bowls, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with the grated cheese, and a pinch or so of the parsley.  Serve it forth.

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