A male preserve?
IT was only a folk tale, I suppose, that story about the king who was so over-exercised by some catastrophic eventuality that he swore he'd never smile again - and didn't.
I was very taken with this as a child. I even tried it once or twice, but then something irresistibly risible would occur and my face-freezing resolve would thaw with sudden uncontrollability.
Pretty silly, really, even to try - especially with smiles: To put a stopper on that commodity (unless it is the cosmetic, assumed variety) is to deprive the environment of useful sunlight.
It is not hard, of course, to think of any number of facial expressions, not to mention their corollaries in terms of actions and inventions, whose decisive cessation might benefit the world more constructively. Among these, however, I do not include my mother's marmalade. Yes, there is a connection: She resolved long long ago, kinglike, never to make marmalade again - and she hasn't. This gloomy ultimatum is more than a shame, since the last marmalade she made (so many moons ago that it has almost become a folk tale in itself) was quite remarkable.
I have been put in mind of this because, as I write, the annual marmalade-making season is once again on us. It is a season. And it is a particularly short one. It depends on the supply of sour, or, as the cookbooks euphemize it, ''bitter,'' oranges from Seville (where Velazquez came from). This motley-looking species of citrus fruit arrives on our British shores not long after the new year and hangs around in our shops for little more than three weeks. If you are an enthusiast, comme moi, for the real thing, and feel with some justice that no factory-manufacturer has ever managed to market an orange marmalade half as tangy, as vigorous, as mouthwateringly suffused with acerbity as can be produced at home, then alertness is called for - or else the oranges have come and gone, and another entire year of limp-flavored, too-sweet, sugar-watery shop ''marmalade'' has to be faced. . . . It is an awful price to pay for momentary inattention.
In our marriage, it is the man who makes the marmalade, and I must say he does a thundering good job of it. Actually, of course, true orange marmalade is a rather male preserve: Its earliest popularity, back in the first part of the 18th century, was among the undergraduates at Oxford, a rugged lot no doubt, who ate it for breakfast and who calledit (with paradoxical foppishness) ''squish.'' It belongs, one feels, along with such robustly virile forms of food as horseradish, English mustard, ''Gentleman's Relish,'' chili con carne, and haggis. Like the latter, indeed, it originated in that land of pithy cuisine north of Hadrian's Wall, Scotland.
''Story has it,'' writes Theodora Fitzgibbon, ''that a ship from Spain took refuge from a storm in Dundee harbour, carrying a large cargo of Seville oranges. These were bought in quantity, very cheaply, by James Keiller, who later found that owing to their bitterness he was unable to sell them. His ingenious wife, Janet, not wishing to waste the fruit, made them into a jam, or conserve, little realizing that it would achieve world fame and that her descendants would be making it today.''
Before I am accused of chauvinism, I will naturally admit it has not escaped my attention that it was Janet and not James who actually put together the original marmalade. I know nothing more about Janet. But she would, I feel sure, have disdained any notion of fragile sweetness - or how could she have had what it takes to dream up the decided rigors of marmalade? She couldn't have sent forth at the same time both sweet jelly and bitter. Anyway, the real moral of the story has nothing to do with the sexes, it is the triumph of creativity over disaster. As the adage says, one man's shipwreck is another man's or woman's money-for-jam.
Which brings me back, somewhat circuitously, to the maternal marmalade of yesteryear. It, like the Spanish ship, was also the victim of a storm. Two storms, in fact, because before my mother decided on the final embargo, she produced two batches of marmalade, and on both occasions there was a thunderstorm. In retrospect I can't help thinking that this climatological coincidence was a little odd. Mostly, thunder and lightning is a summery thing in Britain, rather than wintry. There it was, however. The pan of juice and pith and peel and molten sugar was dancing and spitting on the cooker, and outside darkness, electricity, and downpour besmirched the world.
On neither occasion did the concoction in the pan turn into marmalade as it had been previously known. Basically, it crystallized. It was superb (I thought): In the tart, orange-gold liquescence were suspended not only numerous chips of succulent peel but a myriad of tiny, delectable, crunchy chunks of sugar, magical as stars. Jars full of this remarkable confection lined the pantry shelves and made a considerable impression on my young palate.
But the adults, and especially my mother, thought it an abject failure. She blamed the unwitting thunderstorms. She blamed herself. And she vowed, as aforementioned, that never would she attempt marmalade again. Ever.
If she were an ingenious Scot, she'd have known better. She would have renamed her invention and sold it by the cartload to some adventurous group of college freshmen. And then she would have smiled.