Birds of a Feather

British Birds keep “home fires burning”

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

It really wasn’t much of a fender bender. For the two ladies involved, you might even say it was providence. After the first shock, Christine Haley and Betty Lott realized they were both transplants from Great Britain, making new lives in the deep and sultry American South. The unexpected encounter led to a jolly spot of tea that very day. And cemented Haley’s resolve to form a network of kindred souls.

Seven years later, the British Birds are thriving. This fellowship of expatriates from the British Isles flock together every month to celebrate shared heritage and chat of “home.” Most of the Birds (British jargon for “girls”) hail from England; a few are from Scotland. They range in age from 22 to near 90 and gather from Columbus, Caledonia, Starkville, West Point and West Alabama.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into, did I?” laughs Haley, the group’s current president. Her earlier life in Suffolk, England, is lyrically evident. And whatever she’s gotten into, it’s obvious she — and the rest of the Birds — revel in it.

Happy chatter wrapped in British and Scottish accents resonated through hostess June Rice’s home at a recent get-together. Bustling helpers carried dish after dish to the dining area. Meetings revolve around fellowship and food, and on this day, members have prepared a feast typically found closer to the River Thames than the Tenn-Tom.

“Oh! Sweeties!” one Brit smiles, plucking a foil-wrapped chocolate from a plate on its way to the table filling with jam tarts, shortbreads and pies. There is Yorkshire pudding and a light-as-air Victoria sponge cake (Queen Victoria, of course). A miniature Scottish flag decorates a plate of Scotch eggs — hard-boiled eggs covered in sausage meat and breadcrumbs before baking. A tray holds the traditional “ploughman’s” pub lunch of bread, cheese, pickled onions, British butter and chutney, paired with a bottle of Guinness.

Nearby, friends cluster in Rice’s den that’s been draped in the Union Jack. They sip tea from pretty china cups and eagerly catch up on news, including the weather “back home.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Scottish-born Alicia Barclay shares, “Just hearing all the accents makes you feel you’re not the only one. Columbus is home to me now … but Scotland is still in my blood.”

“It’s really an informal gathering each month. Someone volunteers to host and everybody brings a dish,” explains Haley, whose Virginia-born husband, Daniel, came to Columbus Air Force Base more than a decade ago. Several of the Birds made their way across the water by way of the military.

“I married a G.I.,” says Carol Knie, who has lived in Columbus since 1983. She’s originally from the county of Middlesex in England. “Like his father before him, he came over and married.”

The Knies are a two-generation British Bird family. Carol’s daughters, Samantha Dickerson and Charlene Swedenburg, are also at the meeting. Their accents, however, are decidedly American.

“They were born in England but went to the American school there,” Knie begins, her eyes merry. “One day Samantha came in singing lyrics to a new song she’d learned, ‘Good afternoon, good afternoon …’” Knie sang. “When I heard her saying ‘aafternoon’ instead of ‘ahfternoon’, I knew I’d lost her!”

The British Birds do what they can to keep “home fires burning.” That means celebrating Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day each November with a traditional bonfire, conditions permitting. Other high occasions are Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), Scotland’s Hogmanay (New Year’s), Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) and the Queen’s birthday.

The royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011 inspired member June Payne to replicate the groom’s cake for the Birds’ next social. And all eyes, with pride, will be on the Olympic Summer Games in London July 27 through August 12.

“I think it’s the best thing this year, the Olympics in London!” bubbled 22-year-old Tara Manders, who was born in Cheltenham, England. Tara is Payne’s granddaughter. Tara’s mother, Janet Manders, is also in the British Birds, making them the group’s sole three-generation family.

“Being part of this makes you remember you’re not alone,” says Janet Manders. “You’ve always got somebody you can call on if you need it.”

Haley and Betty Lott still laugh about their serendipitous introduction over a dinged bit of auto paint in 2005. Both would surely say it was worth it. Lott and her daughter, Deborah Guist, have been loyal British Birds ever since.

“It’s a beautiful group — a bunch of fun-loving girls to be with,” Haley smiles. “And you’d better believe it, as long as we’re walking and talking, we’re going to keep it going.”

If you hail from the British Isles and are interested in knowing more about the British Birds, contact Christine Haley at 662-328-3470.


Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

BREAD AND BUTTER PUDDING

8 slices white bread
2 large handfuls dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas)
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
3 eggs
1¼ to 1½ cups milk

• Grease a large flat baking dish, 1 to 1½ inches deep
• Butter bread and cut into triangles, leaving crust on.
• Arrange half the bread in dish and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and half the fruit. Cover with a second layer of bread and repeat with sugar and fruit.
• Beat the eggs and milk and pour over the bread; let it soak 10-20 minutes.
• Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until puffed up and golden.
• Sprinkle with cinnamon or nutmeg and the last of the sugar. For an extra crispy top, place under broiler to melt sugar.
• Served with custard or vanilla ice cream.


VICTORIA SPONGE

¾ cup butter
¾ cup superfine sugar
3 eggs
1½ cups self-rising flour
Confectioners’ sugar for topping

For the filling:

cup butter
¾ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoon warm water
3 tablespoons jam

• Line with parchment and lightly grease two 7-inch round cake pans.
• Beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale and creamy.
• Beat in the eggs, one at a time, adding a tablespoon of flour with each egg. Fold in the remaining flour. Divide the mixture equally between the two pans and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes until well-risen, golden-brown and firm to touch in the center. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire cooling rack.
• To make the buttercream, soften the butter, gradually beat in the sugar and finally beat in the water.
• Spread the base of one cake with the jam, then spread the buttercream over the jam. Place the other cake, base down, on top, and press down lightly. Sprinkle a little more confectioners’ sugar on top.


JAM TARTS

8 ounces flour
4 ounces lard
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
Pinch of salt
Preserves of your choice

• Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Rub in the lard until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add water and mix to a dough. (Too much water will result in tough pastry.)
• Chill for 15 minutes before using for best results.
• Roll out dough and cut with a round cookie cutter. Place cut out dough in a tart pan. Add a spoonful of preserves to each dough round. Bake 15-20 minutes at 400 degrees.


SCOTCH EGGS

8 boiled eggs
2 pounds sausage meat
2 eggs beaten
Breadcrumbs

• Cover peeled boiled eggs in sausage meat, then dip in beaten egg and roll in breadcrumbs.
• Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until sausage is completely cooked. Cut in half and serve.