Muriel’s Musings: The Bite

A Thank You from Muriel

a little emotional

All I can say on behalf of Jasper and myself is thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kind words regarding the untimely death (or “passing” if you are an American or spiritualist and over fond of euphemisms) of my dearest friend Winnie and her “friend”, Mr Chan.

So Many Tributes

those famous hands

There have been many letters and floral tributes the length and breadth of Perthshire as well as from the Foreign Office, the French Government and the managing director of a leading manufacturer of boucle knitting wools. For dear Winnie combined a life fighting fascism in the last Unpleasantness with a mastery of novelty knitting that was the envy of the world. As the editor said in the late edition of last week’s trade journal Cast Off  “the world will never forget her family of dinosaurs made from old school pullovers, or the unique designs for the Edinburgh Festival Production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in Fair Isle Knit, which was written by the well known Shakespearean writer, William Shakespeare”. There are many unanswered questions about the murder of Winnie and Mr Chan, mainly who did it and how was it done, but these will take time and for the sake of world peace may never be fully answered.

Life Must Go On 

the famous bicycle preserved for posterity

Life, however, has to go on and I for one cannot sit around weeping all day long and imagining I can hear the squeak of her bicycle chain, which always needed to be oiled, as she pushed it up my back passage. There is also much to attend to in the way of spring cleaning and gardening not to mention all that needs to be done as our clubs and societies wind down for the summer recess.

For we Scots must prepare ourselves for the light nights and the possibility of sunshine, something we have not seen for six months. Membership at our evening and weekend events begins to dwindle as cobwebbed garden tools are brought out from sheds and there is a desperate search for one paintbrush that was actually washed before it was put away. In preparation for spring cleaning I have put Mrs Travers on an exercise programme with Jasper and as we speak they are currently running around the play park under the guidance of former Sergeant Major Redoubt formerly of the Queen’s Own Prancing  Highlanders. I have told Mrs Travers and Jasper that they can expect fierce fighting with the assaults on “oose and stour”.

Introducing “the Bite”

a savoury bite

Perhaps as we approach the end of the winter season of meetings and soirées it might be timely for me to talk to you, as promised, about a form of hospitality we have barely touched upon in any of my famous marvellous masterclasses. Now we have often spoken about “First Breakfast”, “Second Breakfast”, “10 o’clocks”, “lunch verses dinner” , “afternoon tea”, “high tea” and the difference between dinner and suppa. As many of you are now in what I consider my advanced class it is time for you to come to grips with the much feared “Bite”. This comes is in three forms – the sweet bite, the savoury bite and  the bite proper. We shall deal with the sweet bite and bite proper as they are the ones you are most likely to encounter. I cover the savoury bite in my advanced masterclass, “Beyond Gracious Living”.

The Sweet Bite – a Recruitment Tool

Now you may well have come across the “sweet bite”, and I feel sure we have mentioned it, but just in case, as I would not want you to look anymore foolish than you already may do, let us recap. As you advance in Scottish Society (and I know it seems like a dream, but trust me under my watchful eye you will, even if at this stage it seems like reaching for the stars)  you will inevitably have morning coffee or afternoon tea with your betters such as Lady Rannoch-Moor (rhymes with dour – this is not Devon). This may well take place in a Department Store, where having ordered coffee, or tea, you will be asked  “Are you going to partake of a piece of fruit cake or do you fancy a fancy?”

fruit cake

Of course you do, but having allowed for a pregnant pause and an opportunity for you to demonstrate your greed, her Ladyship, “my dear call me Rapunzel, all my friends do. Believe it or not” pointing to her hair “this was once golden”, will say, “You go ahead if you must I cannot afford the weight and I am having lunch with the Lord Lieutenant of the County, he and Mipsie do wonders for the arts, you will know them of course.”

It Is All A Game

You will follow this with, “Of course, dear Mipsie what a magical woman, (even although you have not the foggiest idea who she is) followed by “well, nor me really; let’s just have some delicious coffee.” “Are you sure?” will be her Ladyship’s  earnest and concerned reply, coupled  with a look, suggesting she strongly believes you to be a gannet.

After you have said, “Positive Rapunzel”, she will administer the coup de grace with, a smile and a wink and summoning the waitress will say conspiratorially. “Why don’t we just be utterly naughty and share a sweet bite? Can I suggest the millionaire’s shortbread or paradise slice?”

On arrival the dissection of the sweet bite will be undertaken with great ceremony, as well as a gloved hand and an indication that being of a lower social standing and therefore, a glutton, you will have “the largest half”. Rest assured you will find yourself being invited to join a committee and, naturellement, you will pay the bill.

Transactional in Nature

In short then the “sweet bite”, is a transactional and often chocolate item of a ritual nature facilitating a passage to a higher level. We can see how this develops as we examine “the bite proper.”

All is Clear to Committee Members (pronounced Membahs, so reminiscent of the Empire)

“The bite proper” will only become apparent to you once you are a committee membah. An invitation to “a wee bite” usually concerns an organisation where there are speakers such as Jasper’s Hysterical or a music or an arts society. If a speaker is coming a distance, particularly in the winter months, it is customary for one of the committee to offer “a bed for the night” and another to suggest that they “come for a wee bite at 5.30”. This might be the Chair or the Secretary or indeed the committee member who has put forward the name of the speaker. It suggests generosity especially given that the rate of remuneration is usually low or indeed non-existent and for goodness sake one does not want to deplete the funds with hotel accommodation.

Invitations to a Bite – a Study in Studied Informality

It is not necessary for the hostess to invite all the committee especially if it is large – only those particularly involved in the night in question and to provide someone interesting for the guest to talk to while the hostess is in the kitchen. No invitations are sent either in writing or by telephone. This invitation to a bite is done in passing when leaving a committee meeting or even at the fishmonger’s.

It also has to appear casual but have a slight air of desperation about it  such as, “Oh Muriel, could you and Jasper come for a bite next Wednesday before the meeting, Charles is in London and Jasper is so good with musical types”, and this will be interrupted once one moves along in the queue with “Yes Madame”, “Do you have any haddock today? Then I will have two fillets please and a boiling fowl for soup. Oh do please say yes Muriel I know nothing about Fauré.” “Of course Marjorie”, for it would be churlish to say no, and then you add, “Can I do anything, or bring anything –  a pudding perhaps? I know Wednesday is your daily woman’s day to visit the prison.” The hostess will add, “No Muriel thank you, much appreciated, everything is under control it is just going to be no fuss – a one pot affair, cheese and coffee. Perhaps if you have time you might make some of your delicious Helensburgh tablet to go with the coffee?”

Quality Not Quantity

Dusting, though mot of the damp variety

Of course I do not have time and will have to buy some and repackage it as Mrs T will be busy with damp dusting on Wednesday. Now the one pot affair is pretty standard and necessary as all the committee have to leave at 6.45pm to get to the hall, make sure the heating is on, greet guests, take the money and make sure the piano has been moved correctly. It never has been so Jasper usually is employed as a shover.

Do not, dear readers, however, be fooled into thinking the whole affair of the one pot bite is one of a casual nature. This, like most things, is highly competitive and anyway casual flair is only acquired after years of training.

Food should be warming and sustaining, but not too plentiful – no second helpings or the artiste will feel too sleepy. We once had a soprano who dozed off between Lehar numbers after a particularly good stroganoff. A bloated Merry Widow can be a disaster. It is important to serve good quality wine, but limit the quantity as there is nothing worse for the members than to arrive at the village hall, stone cold sober to find an over jolly and flushed committee and an inebriated pianist. I can recall one very bad evening with Rachmaninoff, a wobbly piano stool, a bottle of claret too many and a page turner unable to focus on anything.

Frosty Relations and Candles on the Buffet Table

All of which reminds me that last week we had our members night at The South Western Reel and Strathspey Society by way of rounding off the season. Our speaker  Lt Col. ‘Mad Mickey’  MacDonald, who was speaking about “The Role of Country Dance in Combat,” came to us for “a bite”, along with the chairman and his wife, the Minister and his wife and Lady Pentland-Firth and some old soldier she had found en route.

Lady P-F arrives for a bite

Relations between myself and the Minister are still somewhat cold after the Mulligatawny incident. I of course am of a most forgiving nature and my one pot  beef and venison casserole  with jacket potato followed by camembert and oatcakes with grapes somewhat helped to begin a defrost. The talk was excellent and the story of the Reel of the 51st written in a P.O.W. camp after capture at Dunkirk was most poignant. We went on to dance the reel with its clever interpretation of the cross of St Andrew, our patron saint, which sent out a note of defiance to the men’s’ captors.

The only tricky part of the evening was when a rather chilly Lady Pentland-Firth, (who had gone outside the hall with her friend to look at his pas-de-bas more closely) entered the side room where refreshments were laid out still wearing her coat and keeping her hands warm in her muff – lent forward for a sausage roll. She failed to see that as she removed one hand from the fur in order to reach said sausage roll in puff pastry that the other still contained in the muff was held over a candle.

A Terrible Smell and a Bucket of Sand

It all happened so quickly and the smell of a burning muff is a terrible thingl it was rather like a Hudson’s Bay Company ship going up in flames. Jasper threw a bucket of sand at her which largely did the trick although she said afterwards it was rather like being hit by a Saharan storm. Jasper said he couldn’t miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

As the part time fire brigade is based close by they were on site in no time and soon put out the inferno. Only the hall curtains were badly damaged and most of the buffet was destroyed. Lady P-F was remarkably unscathed apart from a few sand scratches. Her muff is a write-off but she seemed unperturbed more interested to converse with the firemen and flatter them with remarks about the effectiveness of their hoses and suggesting that they might like to do some emergency drill at her country house, just in case they were called out to another muff fire.

That sounds like Jasper and Mrs T back from the park, if the out of breath sounds are anything to go by.

Never Run in Corsets

“Jasper you need a bath off you go.”

“Why Mrs T you look exhausted you must really be out of condition, we cannot expect Grace from the Caribbean to do all the heavy work of the spring cleaning can we? Perhaps if you took that corset off you might not perspire so much, it really is not good for you to run and not wear the appropriate clothes; here let me unhook you.

“No thank you Madame; I am fine. I must go I have a crumble to make for suppa.”

“That can wait Mrs T; come over here. Jasper call Grace I need some help.”

“No really; I am fine Mrs Wylie.”

 A Secret Underneath the Corset

“Thank you Grace; now don’t struggle Mrs T, or it will be worse as  you are nearly fainting. Well Mrs T, no wonder you are so hot there is so much extra padding, rolled up underneath all this.  It looks as if you are concealing some sort of art work. Grace unroll it. What is it?”

“It looks like a knitted map Mrs Wylie.”

Goodness! It is the missing map from the Conference. Mrs Travers explain yourself –  where did you get this from? You must realise your life is in danger.”

Muriel Wylie

April 1958

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5 Responses to Muriel’s Musings: The Bite

  1. seileasdar says:

    Making a Meal of It

    Well, I thought I had got my teeth round British communal feeding conventions, but I worryingly seem to be far from it! It looks as if you not only have to watch what time of the day that shared social prandial event will happen, but also, what is going to follow it, who is there, and why you should actually turn up after all, with or without contributions. And it might be prudent to have a bite before you turn up not to starve afterwards. But now, the awkwardness of Brits at German tables makes more sense to me! Let me elaborate:

    In Germany, if you are invited to someone’s home, there will be food. They will feed you, and you eat, it’s planned and you starved yourself to have room. It happens either with a table in front of you or not. If you have a table, you have decent table settings, and you plate up yourself out of communal bowls/ trays being passed around. It is very bad manners to have someone leave your house hungry. And guests will stay for several hours around your table with several courses, solid and liquid. If you don’t have a table, it’s called a Büffée, and you eat.

    If you are invited in the morning there will be fresh rolls and eggs amongst other offerings. If you come at noon, it’s the main meal: ‘Mittag’. If you come in the afternoon, you have to make room for Kaffee/ Tee mit Kuchen, Kekse and Torte. You might be asked to leave room for the evening meal, see above.
    If you meet for an event outside your homes, you meet there, no meal beforehand!

    All this British etiquette feels rather daunting. I shall just wait and see what everyone else is doing and offer to bring a fruit pudding, called ‘Rote Grütze’. Never a bad idea, and it’ll add international je-ne-sais-quoi. You can have it with custard, Jasper will approve.

    The German Bite is solely reserved for those awkward evenings standing around in blistering high heels while looking pretty in tight dresses at social events. You have to entertain your mouth with something while you quietly observe. ‘Ein Bissen’ is never a meal, it is rather an affront to your lipstick without substance and much taste, so good for clean breath and smiles.

    Guten Appetit

  2. Moira Taylor says:

    How lucky we are to have your marvellous masterclasses to take our minds off the untimely demise of dear Winnie and her man. Sadly I fell at the first hurdle ; the sweet Bite.I’m sorry Muriel but, really, how long have you known me?Do I look like the sort of person who shares her cake?Do I? I had to have a lie down at the mere thought! And if I were to share (NEVER) it would not be half of a wee, toty thing; it would be a decent slice of cake such as is served in a marvellous establishment in Thornhill in the depths of Dumfriesshire.So I shall pass on the sweet Bite but shall come into my own vis a vis the Bite Proper.Thank you for all the handy hints about this – I shall be well prepared the next time I am cornered in the butchers whilst deliberating over the rump steak or the pun’ o’ mince.
    Goodness, Muriel you are a saint, persevering with Patience.She may be titled but she is no lady.Even with a singed muff she still has to flirt with firemen.Tsk!
    Oh what a shocking revelation! Mrs Travers wrapped in a knitted map?Were her contours well defined after all that exercise?Had she stretched the coastline out of all recognition? Has she been got at by the Russians?

  3. Matthew Bate says:

    ‪The wait for posterity, Panglossian utility, and informative foundation garments. ‬

    ‪Yes, it is sad that Winnie has joined the choir invisible in the manner of a Norwegian blue which has ceased to be. The fact that she did so while saving humanity from fascism makes her death all the more tragic. I would like to offer my deepest condolences. I will do so in person. ‬

    ‪Perhaps a statue in Parliament Square?‬

    ‪Perhaps the perfect life is to be found in combining the quotidian with the conceptual. Fighting fascism while knitting, defending the wrongly accused while mowing the lawn, signing online petitions while releasing otters into the wild…‬

    ‪May I suggest that Mrs. Travers exercise programme be organised so that her activities result in her doing more than not a lot?‬

    ‪Does ‘store’ rhyme with door or doer? We have a right to know.‬

    ‪I believe coffee to be the most effective of aids to the reducing diet, unless it is corrected by the addition of a drop of Scotland’s finest. Even then. Liqueurs?‬

    ‪I would have spoken at many events had I been offered a bed for the night. I might even have made a career of it. I’m not sure about accepting an invitation for ‘a bite’ though. I’m more conventional than I appear in my LinkedIn profile. I know a little about Fauré though…‬

    ‪I have long favoured one-pot meals, especially now I live alone. It’s not worth the washing-up.‬

    ‪Every evening with Rachmaninoff is a bad evening.‬

    ‪I can only sympathise with Lady P-F, having once mistaken a bottle of lavatory cleaner for a sample bottle and caused the most intimate of fires. It took the intervention of many kindly medical professionals before I was once again able to support a towel with confidence.‬

    ‪I may have been able to support a crocheted map, and I have the perfect place for microfilm. ‬

    ‪Mx‬

  4. Louise Lewis (Lady from the right side of Carlisle) says:

    Chérie Muriel,

    Trying times indeed, Mu dwaaling, since poor, dear Winnie and Mr Chan were gathered to God in the most mysterious circumstances and in a goat-herders hut in the Alps no less! In fact, one has thought of you often – indeed with each emergency snorter one has partaken. One is averse to yodelling of any sort à ce moment, naturellement.

    One must say though, dwaaling, one does RAWTHER like the sound of the Queen’s Own Prancing Highlanders…..such a shame that neither Sebastian nor Dimitri are there to assist with your new exercise programme. They’ve certainly got the legs for prancing in kilts and that lovely Sergeant Major Redoubt seems like ever such a nice boy. It’s a pity he wasn’t on hand to extinguish Lady P-F’s burning muff during the ill-timed ‘sausage roll savoury bite’ incident! One is certain he’d have insisted she kept it well tucked in.

    Anyway, dwaaling, one digresses……there you are reconsidering the notion of ‘bites’ of all shapes and sizes for the nation when the shock discovery is revealed that Mrs T has been concealing the missing knitted map in her corset! One thinks the only way forward is for her to be fully de-briefed by the Handsome Stranger!

    “Jeeves, the Brandy! One feels a tableau vivant coming on!”

    Yours fussing in Fair Isle,
    Lulu xxxx

  5. Patty C says:

    “…“sweet bite”, is a transactional and often chocolate item of a ritual nature facilitating a passage to a higher level. “

    As HH of the M&J Fan CLub (à travers l’étang), I have oft been the beneficiary of Mu’s insightful, cogent and quite to-the-point musings—usually those of a decorative or a decorum nature.

    Initially resisting tassels and tiebacks (Oh, Pioneers!), etc., I have paid close attention to certain topics and followed her sound advice, most especially en re: the brooch. (“The Brooch: What is it…Really? A Bauble or a Political Statement & Call for Action & Reform” was my paper presented to the Roanoke Chapter during last Spring’s luncheon & Hike to the Roanoke Star…commencing from the elegant jardins of my friend Maureen whose property abuts the “Star Trail” aka “Little Sunny.”)

    Now where was I? Ah, bien sûr, the chocolat quote above. The transactional nature, in all its transcendent glory!, of chocolat has largely been a conversation betwixt moi and moi même! Perhaps in the future I can extend the transactional quality of chocolate, the sweet bite, to include others. Or not.

    Onward & upward, via highs and lows, some of them chocolate-induced) I, remain,

    Ever-devoted,
    Patty C

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