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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Perfect Car

For a good many years (since 2000, to be precise) I've been driving the green, Subaru Legacy Outback wagon pictured below.

The Outback is, so far as I can tell, nature's most perfect vehicle. It is big enough to haul instruments and the sound system for Boys in Hats concerts or all the gear my family takes camping. It is strong enough to pull my little sailboat. It has a roof-rack that can carry our canoe and kayak. On top of all of this, it still gets pretty good gas mileage, though I'd love to see Subaru come out with a hybrid model. Kimberly and I have loved this car. I've rather enjoyed having a car and a son who are the same model year (1996) and have joked about teaching Ian to drive in this car.

Unfortunately, cars, unlike people, do not improve with age. This past month, "the Roo" started having problems and, on a trip to Boston, overheated. A local mechanic got me back on the road in no time, but I was worried. When I got home, I put the car in the shop and Jeremy, my mechanic at Oradell Citgo, looked me in the eye and, with somber visage, intoned the words I had been dreading. It was time to replace my car.

So, the search for a new vehicle began. I've always been a bit obsessive about making choices. Back when we used to go to the video store to rent videotapes (remember doing that??) I used to feel the need to look at just about every box before picking something. Of course, the search for a new vehicle would be equally arduous.

Over Thanksgiving, when we drove to Connecticut, I looked at every vehicle we passed, wondering if it might be the perfect replacement. The Toyota Prius was too small. The Chevy Suburban was too big. The Volvo XC70 wagon was about the right size, and had all wheel drive -- I figure that, as a pastor, I need to be able to go out in just about any weather -- but was out of our price range. I went to the library and checked out several issues of Consumer Report magazine (overdue fine: $2.70) to see what "the experts" had to say. Eventually, my mind settled on two possibilities: the Honda CR-V and (surprise) a Subaru Outback. During all of this, Kimberly was very patient with me.

I went to the local Honda dealership and test-drove a CR-V, which I liked fairly well, but I knew that Kimberly would have issues with its height, as she dislikes having to climb up into vehicles. That settled, it was time to start looking for the right Subaru. After checking out several dealerships, we found the right car at Bill Kolb Subaru in Orangeburg, NY, where Ross Kelter sold us a silver and gray 2005 Outback. (If you find yourself going there, tell Ross that I sent you. There's money it it for me...)

We love out new Subaru. It has all the features of our old one, plus all of the technological advances that came along in the nine years between 1996 and 2005. Ian is particularly excited that the car has what Garrison Keillor likes to call "butt warmers" and that the back seat has headrests. Kimberly is really pleased that the car is almost exactly like our old one and feels comfortable and familiar, though I'm sure she would have been happier if it had been green. I'm happy that we've got a car that is versatile, reliable and should last us for a good many years, though I'm already wondering what the 2016 model Subarus will look like.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Quiet Week in Lake Wobegone

After all the running around of recent weeks, this past week has been blessedly quiet. The big adventure was Saturday's trip into Manhattan to attend a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion at the Town Hall Theater on West 43rd Street. Wherever we've lived, my family has been listening to the Public Radio International program on our National Public Radio affiliate (currently WNYC) and we've always wanted to go and see the production live. This year, we decided to surprise Ian with tickets.

On Saturday, we went into the city early and wandered around, stopping for hotdogs at Gray's Papaya at 37th St. and 8th Ave., then heading over to the New York Public Library on 5th Ave., where we had hoped to see the stuffed animals that belonged to Christopher Milne, which became the famous children's book characters: Winnie the Pooh, Eyore, Kanga, Tigger and Piglet.

This turned out to be something of a mistake as it seemed that everyone else in the world had the same plans, so we decided to come back another day. Ian posed atop one of the iconic marble lions, then we made our way to Bryant Park, where we watched the ice skaters for a bit and bought Ian a new winter hat at one of the holiday shops that specialized in hand-kint wool hats made in Tibet. Then, with the sun setting, it was time to make our way to the theater for the 5:45 show.

Garrison Keillor always brings together an eclectic mix of performers and Saturday's show featured fantastic performances by jazz vocalist Inga Swearingen, Metopolitan Opera tenor Raúl Melo, and crooner Michael Feinstein. (Just in case anyone out there cares, I wouldn't mind having one of Inga Swearingen's CDs show up in my Christmas stocking this year.)

Kimberly, Ian and I were particularly tickled to get to watch Fred Newman as he did the sound effects for the program. It isn't every day that one has the opportunity to listen and watch as a grown man creates the audio-illusion of a man juggling a hot toaster, a housecat and an alarm clock while jumping on a pogo stick and playing trumpet. Honestly, though, we all thought that it was pretty cool that Newman actually got paid to break real dishes, just for the sound effects.

I've often said that Garrison Keillor is one of the best preachers in America, even though most people think of him simply as an entertainer. He has a knack for telling stories that illustrate a point, without most people realizing that they've even been taught anything. Over the years, I have noticed that his "News from Lake Wobegone" segment more often than not relates to the lectionary readings for the week. This past week, he touched (ever so lightly) on Advent as a season of waiting and preparation, with a message of "keep up, keep awake, keep lively," which ended up with Raúl Melo singing Gesu Bambino, which has always been one of my favorite pieces of Christmas music. What a great evening it was!

And that's the news from where the woman is strong, the man is good looking and the kid is above average.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Restaurant review: Guadalupe la Poblanita

On a recent trip through Connecticut, I specially timed my journey so I could stop for lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant: Guadalupe la Poblanita, 136 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT 06513. My family started eating at Guadalupe la Poblanita a dozen years ago, when we moved to Hamden, CT. At that time, the restaurant was located in a cramped little building with only about a half-dozen fast-food-restaurant tables, sandwiched between an auto junkyard and an ambulance barn on Middletown Avenue. All parking was on the street or, more often, on the sidewalk.

We loved the place immediately! My family were just about the only Anglos we ever saw there. The food was authentic Pueblan cuisine and everything was homemade, fresh and delicious. The homemade tortillas and guacamole were particularly good. Our favorite entrees quickly became, for Kimberly, the vegetable chile relleno and, for me the carne enchilada. Often, we would order extra tostadas or tamales or even just extra tortillas, which left us a little more than pleasantly full, but which were well worth the extra effort of having to get wheeled out to the curb. Kimberly and I could both eat for less than $20 and our infant son got all-he-could-eat rice and beans for free. Teresa, Guadalupe's daughter, waited tables and became like family to us and, though service was anything but "brisk," was always a delight.

Since my family moved away from Connecticut several years ago, Guadalupe has moved her restaurant twice, each time to a nicer location. The current (and, I would suspect, final) location is in a restaurant with plenty of space, a bar, and even a dance floor, where people could (and I expect do) have all sorts of receptions. There's ample parking (complete with security cameras). Everything is new and improved, except for the food, which could never be improved, and the decor, which still has plenty of Corona and Negro Modelo advertisements, and handwritten signs saying things like "No Shirt, Shoes or Pets Allowed." Guadalupe still uses the same menus that she used in the old place, complete with my favorite quote from Miss Piggy: "Never eat more than you can lift."

When I stopped in for lunch last week, I had the same problem I always do at Guadalupe's: I wanted to ignore Miss Piggy's advice. Reason reasserted itself, however, and I selected the tostadas, one beef and one spicy pork, along with rice and beans. Teresa was buzzing around in the background and stopped by my table to visit for a while. Guadalupe popped out of the kitchen a couple times, but the waitress was a woman I had not previously met. She was very attentive, though she seemed somwhat surprised when I asked for jalapeño peppers with my meal, but quickly brought me some.

When the tostadas arrived, they were everything I had hoped for. The tortillas were crisp, with a delightful, nutty flavor, that I have found nowhere else (and which I expect may be due to the use of real manteca for frying). The toppings were perfect, as always. The beef, which I expect is flank steak, had its usual robust flavor and the spices on the pork (which is the same pork Guadalupe serves as carne enchilada) was delightfully spicy. My server brought me plenty of guacamole, pico de gallo and homemade salsa, which made things even better. Since it was lunch time and I still had some driving to do, a tamarind flavored Jarritos soda was the perfect accompaniment to the meal.
I'm not sure when I'm going to be in New Haven next, but you can be sure that I'll definitely make a point of stopping back and enjoying some of the best Mexican food I've ever eaten.

On the Road Again... or should that be "still?"

I've been traveling a lot, lately. Actually, that's my reason for not having written anything here for the last couple weeks. It all started with a trip to Catonsville, MD, for a Central Atlantic Conference Board of Directors meeting. Almost immediately upon my return, I was off to Boston, where I visited my friend Eliza Garfield, and celebrated her birthday with her.

As a dedicated boat-geek, I had always wanted to visit "Old Ironsides," the U.S.S. Constitution, so I made a side trip to the Charlestown Navy Yard to visit the oldest commissioned warship afloat. (H.M.S. Victory, Lord Nelson's flagship at the battle of Trafalgar, is older, but is in permanent drydock.)

When I went to visit the historic 44-gun frigate, I learned that "Connie" is in the middle of a major restoration project. She has been almost completely downrigged, with nothing left in her but the lower masts. All of her guns had been removed from the spar deck and the vessel had been roofed over to protect her during the replacement of her deck timbers. "Come back in two years," said the petty officer who welcomed me aboard.

Once aboard, having passed through airport-type security, I was free to wander around the spar deck for a few minutes before another petty officer called everyone together for the below-decks tour. After a quick introduction, we went below to the gun deck, where our guide -- a navy cook -- told us about the history of the vessel and discussed the food that would have been served aboard Constitution in 1787, when she was first launched: Weevily biscuits, salt "horse", dried peas, "lively" water (with all kinds of stuff growing in it), and, of course, the daily ration of grog which, in the U.S. Navy, was generally made with whiskey rather than rum. Looking aft, we could peek into the captain's cabin.

Moving down to the berth deck, I was one of the few who could stand up straight, with the overhead at almost exactly 5'6". Here, we were able to see hammocks slung as the enlisted men's would have been and we were also able to move aft and take a peek into the officers' wardroom. The tour wasn't able to go into the orlop, though I would have loved to. Afterwards, I spent a few minutes talking with the guide and hearing about how Constellation's crew actually has to train aboard the U.S.C.G. barque Eagle and aboard other A.S.T.A. training vessels, since the navy doesn't have any fully operational sailing vessels. Similarly, he told me, Constellation sometimes hosts sail training events, which leads me to wonder if there might be some way I could work my way aboard for a future event, possibly even showing some navy tar the right way to do things.

After a drive home, complete with car problems, it was time to turn right around and go back to Connecticut with my family to celebrate Thanksgiving. As we have for the last many years, we spent the holiday celebrating with Eric Anderson's family in Millbury, Massachussets, where his stepmother is pastor of the UCC church. I'm pleased that neither Kimberly nor I brought home the loser's trophy (yes, there's an actual loser's trophy) from the Anderson Family Thanksgiving Day Croquet Tournament.

We've been home since Sunday night, but things haven't slowed down at all. I've been meeting up with friends and am even getting together with my pastor to try and help him put together a confirmation program for the coming year. Tomorrow, I'm teaching my fencing class and the next day, I think, will be Christmas. At least it seems that way.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cajun Catfish Sashimi

I love Japanese food. I grew up with teriyaki steak being one of my favorite treats. Later, I became a huge fan of sushi and sashimi.

Of course, there are some kinds of fish that I like better than others. I love tekka (tuna) raw, but I prefer my salmon well-done. This past week, I prepared catfish sashimi for my family, except that it wasn't supposed to be catfish sashimi. It was really just an exceedingly unfortunate meal.

I was setting out to make blackened catfish, which is quite nice when it works out properly. Because of the large amount of smoke that is produced in cooking the fish at such high heat, I typically set up the Coleman two-burner propane camping stove and do the cooking outside. This is the stove that I set up every Christmas when I make corn fritters. I've used it to make Navajo fry bread and beignets. It is a great piece of equipment and it probably gets used more just outside our kitchen door than it ever does on actual camping trips.

The other night, though, was a problem. I was planning on making six pieces of fish, which meant that I needed to use my BIG SKILLET. Unfortunately, it was one of the first cold nights of the season, so the skillet, even with the burner cranked up to high, didn't manage to get even close to as hot as it should have gotten. To make matters worse, it is getting dark a lot earlier than I'm used to planning for and we don't have a very good light on our side porch. All of this made for a perfect storm of problems and I ended up following my recipe but the end result was undercooked fish. Yuck. Fortunately, the microwave worked well enough to finish cooking the fish in just a couple minutes, but the overall effect was disappointing.

It should have been wonderful. In the past, it has been. But I've learned my lesson: the superskillet has too much surface area to keep hot on a cold night. Next time, I'll cook the fish in two batches in a smaller skillet.
Here's the recipe I used. If you follow it (indoors, with a good exhaust fan, or outdoors on a warmer evening or with a smaller skillet), I guarantee a great meal.

Blackened Catfish
(also good with Grouper, Snapper or Redfish)

2 lbs catfish
1/2 lb unsalted butter
1/4 c lemon juice
1 T crushed red pepper flakes
1 T thyme
1 T basil
1 T black pepper

Combine all ingredients except fish and heat over low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to sit until cool.

Dip fish in butter mixture and refrigerate fish for one hour. Reserve remaining butter mixture.

If cooking indoors, remove batteries from your smoke detectors. Seriously. Don't forget to put them back in when you're done cooking.

Place dry cast iron skillet over high heat for 5 minutes, until skillet is very hot, nearly smoking. Place fish in skillet and cook for 2 minutes per side. (There will be lots of smoke.)

Remove fish to a platter and put remaining butter mixture in skillet and cook for a minute or so, until the butter browns. Serve fish with a drizzle of browned butter and spices.

A proud fencing dad

My son, Ian, has been fencing since he was five years old, when he begged me to start a class for him at the Pocono Family YMCA in Stroudsburg, PA. I had only been fencing for a year or so and my instructor, Bernd Weishaupt, helped me start a kinderfencing program where Ian would be able to learn the fine art of swashbuckling.

When we moved to New Jersey, Ian and I started fencing with the Modified Academy of Fencing. This has been a great experience for both of us. I have taken courses in sabre fencing and Ian has really grown a lot as a foil fencer. This fall, I started teaching again, working with the beginning foil program on Thursday nights.

Over the last few years, one of the problems that Ian and I have had is that the MAF fencing tournaments have always been scheduled on days that we couldn't participate. This year, though, things were different and both Ian and I were able to participate in foil competitions this past spring.

This past Sunday evening, MAF held its annual awards dinner and Ian and I were present to celebrate his success in the tournament, where he took first place in his age group. In addition to receiving a gold medal at the banquet, Ian also was presented with the Excalibur award, which goes to fencers who were undefeated in the entire competition.

Unfortunately, I don't have any photos to show now, but I should be getting some from Julie Kimmel, the club photographer, soon. Check back to see Ian receiving his awards (and a picture of me receiving the sportsmanship award, too).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Proposition 8 and Rainbow Flags

This monring, I received an email from a reporter from The Town News, asking about my take on the recent anti-gay state constitutional amendments passed last Tuesday and about churches flying the rainbow flag at half-mast in response.

Here is my response to her question:

While churches, as 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, are not allowed to endorse political candidates, it has long been recongnized that it is entirely appropriate for churches to engage in the political process around issues, with the civil rights movement being a classic example.

The United Church of Christ has repeatedly voiced its support of the right of same-sex couples to marry, most explicitly at our General Synod in 2005 with the resolution In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All. It is important, however, to point out that General Synod speaks to our congregations, not for our congregations. Other denominations, such as the Episcopal Church and the Metropolitan Community Church, also have long histories of supporting equal rights for LGBT people. There are also strong equality movements within other mainline Protestant churches, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Reformed Church of America, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and many others.

Those of us who see the right to marry as a basic human right are, of course, disappointed by last Tuesday's ballot initiatives that have denied that right to same-sex couples. I am particularly disappointed by the passage California's Proposition 8, which is the first time that a state has revoked the rights of its citizens after those rights had already been recognized.

Despite the passage of the anti-gay ballot initiatives, I am encouraged by the exit polls, which show that those who favored eliminating the right to marriage were, overwhelmingly, aged 65 and older, while those who supported the right for all people to marry were overwhelmingly younger voters. Additionally, Proposition 8 passed by a smaller margin than did Proposition 22 (California's original anti-gay-marriage proposition that passed in 2000 and was overturned by the California Supreme Court). This gives me hope that, with the passage of only a short period of time, intolerance based on sexual orientation will no longer be socially acceptable and that these discriminatory ballot initiatives will be reversed.

While saddened by the states that have codified discrimination, I am pleased about the recent decision of the Connecticut State Supreme Court to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry and the decision of Connecticut's voters to reject attempts to amend their state constitution to deny equal marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Flying rainbow flags at half-mast is a powerful symbol of sorrow over the discrimination that was written into law last Tuesday. I am always pleased to see churches that fly the rainbow flag as a visible symbol of the inclusion of all people in the church and I am hopeful that churches that have just started to fly the rainbow flag will continue to do so. While we mourn for a season, I look forward to the flags flying proudly at the top of their staves as churches continue speak out for justice and equality for all people.

In addition to my answer, I'd like to refer you to the pastoral letter from the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, the full-page ad that the UCC ran in three of California's largest gay community publications and an article about the ad in United Church News.

Risen from the ashes

This past week, Kimberly, Ian and I had the opportunity to eat at one of my favorite breakfast places: O'Rourke's Diner at 728 Main Street in Middletown, CT. For many years, O'Rourke's was THE place to go for breakfast in central Connecticut, that is until the tragic fire on August 31, 2006 destroyed the landmark building. With no fire insurance, it looked like O'Rourke's was down for the count, but the residents of Middletown chipped in to raise the $350,000.00 needed to rebuild and the restaurant reopened on February 11 of 2008.

O'Rourke's has been rebuilt in the same style as before the fire, as a classic, tin-fronted diner from the 1940s and Brian O'Rourke, chef and nephew of the original owner, continues to serve up delightful (if slightly pricey when compared to more plebian diners) breakfasts and lunches.

When my family went to O'Rourke's at 11:00 on Friday morning, we stood in line on the sidewalk for several minutes before getting a table. Once ensconced in a booth, we spent some time pondering over the offerings before finally settling on our choices. Kimberly, who was forced to eat eggs every morning as a child and hated them, even doused in ketchup, had a bit of a challenge, since most of the breakfast options at O'Rourke's involve eggs. She ended up getting blueberry pancakes with fruit syrup and clotted cream.

My son and I are both happy ovivores and found ourselves almost overwhelmed by the number or unusual combinations that Chef Brian's menu offered to us. Ian, who is usually very happy with a standard diner breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and homefries, realized that this was no time for the "usual" and opted for the "Dubliner" breakfast, consisting of a corned-beef hash omelette with Irish bacon and a side of fingerling potatoes with Irish soda bread and jam. I couldn't resist the special of the day, the "surf and turf" breakfast that consisted of a crawfish frittata and duck hash. (There was also a "surf and surf" option, with the frittata being accompanied by salmon cakes, but I'm a sucker for duck.)

While we waited for breakfast to arrive, our server brought us samples of fresh bakedgoods and they were all delightful, but we had no intention of filling up before getting to our meals. After only a short wait, our breakfasts arrived and they were ever bit as good as we had hoped.

Kimberly's pancakes were delicous, though a bit sweet for her liking, almost like dessert. The fruit sauce had whole raspberries in it and the dish was topped with a generous dollop of clotted cream.

Ian enjoyed his "Dubliner" breakfast, noting that the omelette was good and devouring the potatoes, though he grudgingly let me try a bite of one of them. He liked the hamlike Irish bacon, but was too full to try the soda-bread toast, which I managed to snag off of his plate before our server cleared the table.

Several of the staff at O'Rourke's had highly praised the duck hash, and they were right. It was well-seasoned and had plenty of duck breast meat, along with chunks of beef, potatoes, carrot, broccoli rabe and turnip. Still, I found the real treasure of my breakfast to be the crawfish frittata. It was rich and flavorful, with just the right seasoning to highlight the flavor of the crawfish tails that made up a generous portion of the dish.

My wife and I "accidentally" ended up back at O'Rourke's for brunch on Saturday, too, when we tried to go to the Tibetan restaurant down the block and found that it had closed. Back at O'Rourke's, Kimberly had the Irish bangers and homefries while I ordered the Cajun Firecracker omelet. Again, we were both pleased with the food and the service. This time, our server went out of his way to suggest condiments to improve our meal. (Who ever thought that horseradish sauce would make andouille sausage taste even better??)

We're glad to see that O'Rourke's is back in business and are looking forward to trying even more of Chef Brian's inspired creations next time.

Whizzing through Connecticut


After a whirlwind four-day trip to Connecticut, my family and I are home and (sort of) recovered. We went up on Thursday morning, stopping in New Haven for lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, Guadalupe La Poblanita (Yum!!!). After eating ourselves silly, we went to the Atticus Bookstore Cafe, where we did some shopping and got some coffee for an afternoon pick-me-up. Then it was on to the Yale Center for British Art, where we spent a pleasant hour, with Kimberly looking at portraits and me immersing myself in the maritime art on the fourth floor. Ian, on the other hand, was ready to move along on our journey.

Next, it was on to Portland, CT, where we were staying with our friend, Eric Anderson, the other Boy in Hat. The main purpose of our visit, ostensibly, was for a Boys in Hats concert at the Oxford United Church of Christ, where Eric was interim pastor several years ago, so Eric and I managed to work a bit of rehearsal time in on Friday, then it was off to a 20th Anniversary of Ordination party for Peter Allen. I've known Peter, at least a little bit, since I was his parent's pastor at the The Congregational Church of Green's Farms in Westport, CT, back in 1999-2000.

Saturday was the big day for the concert and Eric and I spent the afternoon finalizing our set list, then we convoyed out to Oxford and set up for the concert. We were still setting up the sound system when the crowd started to arrive and the first folks in were a half-dozen folks from the Congregational Church of Naugatuck, where I had served from 1997-1999. This group of folks (pictured at right) have been fans for years, but this time things were a bit different, as they were all wearing ID badges with a Boys In Hats photo on them and reading "Official Groupie, Naugatuck Chapter." The concert went well. Eric has been very busy writing songs in the past year and we had four of his songs as part of our program.

On Sunday morning, I was back at Oxford to preach, followed by a giving a presentation on Amistad's Atlantic Freedom Tour. After having lunch with the confirmation class, Kimberly drove us home, while I dozed in the passenger seat. Fortunately, I don't have to go out of town again until... well... Friday.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The best kind of pirates!

I am a fortunate man in many ways. Being married to a morning person who is also a reader who out-voraciouses (if you'll let me coin the phrase) me means that I often wake to find interesting tidbits in my email's inbox.

Kimberly has been sending me articles about pirates lately. She's sent me articles about real-life Somali pirates who have been raiding shipping in the Gulf of Aden. She has sent me an article about the controversy between historically accurate pirate reenactors and Jack Sparrow want-to-bes. I assume that sending me these pirate-related articles is a not-so-subtle attempt to keep my feet on terra firma instead of being out on the high seas, making her a schooner widow. Either that or she's trying to suggest that I turn in my clerical collar and stole for a cutlass and a brace of pistols, a trade-in that would almost certainly improve my family's bottom line.

This morning, though, Kimberly hadn't bothered to email the article du jour, but had simply left it up on the computer screen so I'd see it the minute I walked into the office. How could I miss such a photo?

The article, from the Arkansas Times, wasn't so much about pirates as it was about a creative response to bigotry. The pirates in question are "Pastafarians," adherents of the tongue-in-cheek "religious" group who worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Church of the FSM was originally started as a humorous response to the Kansas School Board's decision to teach creationism alongside evolution under the guise of "Intelligent Design." Pastafarians insisted, in the interests of the state not supporting one particular religion, that THEIR version of the creation story be taught alongside the Judeo-Christian version.

The article that Kimberly had left for me was how the Pastafarians in Little Rock, Arkansas, had creatively rallied against the religiously-inspired hatred espoused by the members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and its pastor, Fred Phelps. Westboro Baptist Church, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is monitored by the Anti Defamation League, has become famous for picketing funerals of AIDS victims and military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The church's websites, and (and, no, I'm not going to give you live links for them!), are full of vile hatred targeted at gays, Jews, blacks, liberals, the U.S. Military.

I first encountered Phelps, who is a disbarred attorney, back in the early 1990s when I was a seminary student in Missouri. He and his congregation, which is mostly composed of his family members, were picketing the Missouri Baptist Convention's annual meeting (because Southern Baptists aren't conservative enough for him!). I made the zealously youthful mistake of trying to engage him in dialogue and nearly got maced for my trouble. He's such a sweet guy...

The Pastafarians, however, seem to have figured out how to beat Phelps at his own game. Clad in piratical costume (one of the "requirements" for true Pastafarians), they waved their own signs declaring "God Hates Shrimp" and "God Hates Poly-Cotton Blends," citing the Book of Leviticus as their proof texts. By citing the same set of Biblical texts that Phelps cites to condemn homosexuality, the Pastafarians managed to successfully point out how Phelps (who was probably wearing a poly-cotton shirt) ignores the context of Biblical texts and how he centers his hate speech around his own personal prejudices.

Three cheers, along with a "Yo ho ho" and a couple bottles of rum for the Pastafarians for so creatively (and effectively!) standing up against hate!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Donkeys, Elephants and Pandas. Oh my!

Election day is almost here and I'm definitely going to the polls to vote for my favorite candidates. I hope they win, but I'm also genuinely looking forward to having the whole thing over and done with. As a former Political Science major, though, I've got to admit that I'm always interested in the political process and the ways that candidates represent themselves to the public.

This morning, as I was returning home from church, I drove past an interesting thing: a giant inflatable panda holding a campaign sign. "A panda?" I asked myself, "Did I see that right?" Donkeys and elephants are no surprise, but what polical party uses a panda? Thoughts began to whiz through my brain. I whipped around the block and pulled out my cell phone for a quick picture, just so you would know that I'm wasn't hallucinating.

Sitting at the stop sign, I saw that this was the campaign headquarters for three borough council hopefuls who, it turns out, are Republicans. "Why, then, the panda?" I continued to wonder. Perhaps, because Dumont is a solidly "blue" town, these candidates didn't want to use the elephant out of concern that it might alienate democrats who might vote for them. Maybe, because the candidates are styling themselves as reformers, they didn't want to depict themselves as too closely allied with the party that has held the U.S. Presidency for the last eight years.

I have to admit that I don't know anything substantative about any of the Dumont First candidates or, for that matter, about their opponents. I am entirely ignorant of the local politics in Dumont. I couldn't care less who wins those borough council seats. Still, that panda bothered me. As I drove home, I began to free-associate.
  1. Pandas come from China, so maybe the Dumont First people were trying to suggest that the Chinese government was endorsing them. Probably not.

  2. Pandas are an endangered species. Could it be that the Dumont First group is trying to say that environmental protection is at the top of their agenda. I kind of doubt it.

  3. One of the Olympic mascots was a panda, so maybe they were using a panda to carry some of the Olympic spirit to their campaign. Could be.
  4. Maybe the campaign folks wanted to have a big, tacky inflatable thing on their lawn to attract attention, but weren't able to find much that wasn't an obvious Halloween or Christmas decoration. Bingo!

Then I began playing word games and that's where the panda poo really hit the fan, so to speak. Maybe this unfortunate political mascot wasn't a panda bear at all, but a "pander bear." Perhaps the group's slogan was "We'll panda to your special interest." Of course, no politican would actually be so brazen as to actually use a slogan like that -- even if it were true!

Still, the whole thing got me thinking. Symbols shouldn't be chosen lightly. Even though Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the United States' national bird, the bald eagle won out. The industrious beaver is Canada's national symbol. Russia has the bear. England's symbol is the lion. India uses a tiger. Even mythological creatures are represented by Scotland's unicorn and China's dragon. Those are all good choices.

Political party mascots should be chosen carefully, too. The origins of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant lay with political cartoonist Thomas Nast, rather than with the parties, themelves, but they are sturdy symbols. Teddy Roosevelt chose the bull moose as his party's symbol. The Libertarians use a penguin and the Independence Party of Missouri have a buffalo.

If I were to pick a mascot for a political party, what would I pick? I can think of a whole bunch of really bad choices: a weasel; a raccoon, with its bandit's mask; a flounder; a snake? My problem, though, is that I don't think I could find giant, inflatable varieties to put up in front of my campaign headquarters. I might end up with something like Snoopy flying his doghouse, but I certainly wouldn't pick a panda.

Autumn means apples

With Autumn upon us, my thoughts have turned to the ingredients of the season. I've been cooking pork roasts, making beef stew, chili, and other heartier fare. With the days getting shorter, I've also been getting a bit nostalgic, remembering the change of seasons when Kimberly and I lived in Connecticut.

When the first autumn of our married life rolled around, Kimberly and I went apple picking and, of course, that involved buying plenty of freshly pressed apple cider. We drank cider until you could just about see the delicious, rich, thick, brown liquid sloshing around in our eyes . All fall, we would buy locally produced cider in the grocery store, drinking it straight or mulled it and drinking it hot.

All that cider put me in mind of a vacation that my family had taken to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, back when I was a teenager. One of the fond memories of that trip was buying cider from an Amish family that were selling it at a roadside stand. We were staying in a pop-up camper that had a tiny refrigerator, so the cider never got refrigerated as it would have if we had been at home. A couple days after we had purchased the cider, the plastic jugs containing it had gotten a bit distended from carbon dioxide given off by the wee beasties that were doing their divinely ordained work of fermentation. When we drank that cider, it was extra-crisp and delightfully fizzy. (For those of you who might be shaking your heads and saying "tisk, tisk," at the notion of a teenage boy drinking this cider, the alcohol content was also very low, probably less than one percent.)

Anyhow, during that New England fall when Kimberly and I were newlyweds, I decided to make some hard cider, adding a bit of yeast to one of the cider jugs and replacing the screw-cap with a balloon, so that I could monitor the level of fermentation and allow the gas to escape. Each day, the balloon would magically inflate and each night, I would let the carbon dioxide to escape, until, one day, the process stopped. The alcohol content was high enough and/or the sugar content was low enough that the yeast just gave up and died. Now, I had hard cider that was worth the name.
I filtered the cider through an old t-shirt and put the clear, amber liquid back in a clean jug, but the process was only partway finished. During the colonial era, hard cider was often distilled into applejack by the process of freeze distilling, rather than by the better-known evaporation method. In freeze distilling, the water in the hard cider freezes before then alcohol, so the spirit can be drained off. Fortunately, the weather was cooperating that the temperatures had dropped below freezing, so I wrote my name and apartment number on the jug with a sharpie marker and set it outside to freeze during the night.

In the morning, I went out and found just what I had hoped for: slush at the top of the jug, with liquid below. I brought the jug in, poked a hole in the bottom with a knife, and caught the liquor in another container. With great anticipation, I tasted the applejack. It was definitely appley and certainly had a kick, but the flavor was a bit off, probably because I had used regular bread yeast instead of a brewer's or winemaker's yeast. The rest of the applejack went down the sink and I never got around to trying to make it again.

Fast forward to the present.

Just a few weeks ago, my family went apple picking at Prospect Hill Orchards in Milton, NY. It was a warm, sunny day and we quickly filled our buckets with enough apples for our family plus several buckets full of apples for my wife to give away at the Shade Tree Commission's table at the borough's "River Edge Day." We drank apple cider and enjoyed cider doughnuts before coming back home.

When I began planning the menu for the week, I knew that I wanted to cook with some of our fresh-picked apples. Having gotten somewhat tired of the salmon and potatoes recipe that is one of our regular grocery-night dinners, I decided to reprise a French fish recipe that I haven't made in years.

The recipe couldn't be easier and tastes great with flaky-yet-crisp fish and tangy-sweet apples:

French Fish with Apples
4 firm white fish fillets (I used tilapia, which worked well. Sole is too flimsy.)
6 apples of your favorite variety (I used six different kinds, just on principle.)
2 eggs, beaten
flour for dredging
4-6T butter
panko (Japanese bread crumbs) for dredging
juice of one lemon
2T apple brandy (Calvados is typical. I used Laird's Applejack, which made in New Jersey and is the original colonial era producer of the product.)

Peel and core the apples. In a large skillet, melt 2-3T butter over medium heat. Add apples and cook, turning occasionally, until apples begin to brown, approximately 15 minutes. Transfer pan to warm oven.

Rinse and pat dry the fish fillets. In second skillet, melt 2-3T butter over medium-high heat. Add salt and pepper, to taste, to flour and dredge fish filets in mixture, then in egg, then in panko. Place in pan and cook for 4-5 minutes, until fish is mostly cooked. Turn and cook for a few minutes more until fish is done.

Remove apples from oven and mix in lemon juice and brandy. Spoon apples over fish and serve immediately.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I've written two articles in the current issue of The Living Pulpit magazine. The first one, "Misery for Sale: Human Trafficking Then and Now," reflects on the legacy of the international slave trade and its parallels to the modern-day human trafficking, with reference to my experiences while on my sabbatical with the Freedom Schooner Amistad in Sierra Leone. The second, "Looking at Leadership and the Law," is an examination of the lectionary texts for the month of October. My apologies for not getting the link posted earlier.

Gearing up for a Boys in Hats concert

Boys in Hats, the folk duo of which I am half, is gearing up for a performance at the Oxford United Church of Christ (Congregational) in Oxford, CT on Saturday, November 8. This is something of a reunion tour for us, as we played at Oxford back in the mid 1990s, back when Eric Anderson, my musical partner in crime, was interim pastor of that church.

Of course, we'll be playing lots of the "favorites" that have made us so popular with our groupies, but we're also going to be playing several new songs, most of which have been written by Eric over this past year. I've always been impressed with his ability to write songs, a talent that I simply do not share, though I've done my share of editing lyrics.

This past Friday night, Eric came to New Jersey and we spent much of the day on Saturday practicing these new pieces. Tomorrow, I'm heading up to Connecticut to resume rehearsal and, hopefully, we'll get all the kinks worked out before the concert. It is a good thing that we aren't getting paid by the mile, though, or Oxford UCC would go broke because of all of the back-and-forth driving we're doing!

In addition to performing on Saturday night, I'm scheduled to preach at Oxford UCC on Sunday morning AND to give a presentation on Amistad in the afternoon. It is going to be a busy weekend, but I'm really looking forward to it. It'll be great to be back in my old stomping grounds, catching up with old friends.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sailing with Amistad in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race

On Monday, October 13, I rejoined the crew of the Freedom Schooner Amistad in Baltimore, Maryland, for the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. On my first night aboard, several schooner crews were invited to a party aboard Mystic Whaler, with Capt. John Eginton serving up an unending supply of oysters, both raw and grilled.

The days leading up to the race were largely spent in preparation, with the crew doing a lot of maintenance on the boat, particularly working on the brightwork. As the docks in Baltimore's inner harbor filled up with dozens of other schooners, the Fell's Point area took on the flavor of a family reunion and even a first timer like me found it easy to make new friends.

Among my new friends were the crew of the schooner Liberty, sailing out of Jersey City. I was walking along the quayside, looking for a place to get some crab cakes when Philip du Plessis, Liberty's owner, invited me aboard for dinner. While aboard, Philip and his wife Sharon told me about how they had only recently purchased Liberty and were still building their charter business with the help of their friend and captain, Bill Noe.

The organizing committee for the schooner race did a marvellous job and made sure that there were all sorts of activities for the schooner crews. There were concerts and shanty-sings, and a dinner at the Latin Palace restaurant. As an after-hours bonus, the crew of the Martha White, who had performed a dockside concert, continued with an impromptu jam session that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Banjos, guitars and fiddles were handed around and many of us who had shown up to listen to the music ended up leading songs ourselves.

On Wednesday, there was a parade of sail through the harbor. I understand that this was the largest fleet of schooners that has assembled for the race and is, quite possibly, the largest group of schooners since the end of the age of sail. Whether this is so or not, it was an impressive sight as they made their way past the USS Constellation.

On Thursday, the schooners gathered south of the Annapolis bridge for the beginning of the race. With light air, Amistad had every stitch of canvas set and, at the sound of the starting horn, we were off! Almost immediately, the schooners Virginia and Pride of Baltimore II took the lead, their longer waterlines and greater spread of canvas giving them a definite advantage. Throughout the day, we sailed along with Lettie G. Howard and Lady Maryland, jockeying for position until sundown. Around midnight, the wind began to pick up and Captain John called all hands to strike the t'gallant, which involved lowering the sail and its yard to the deck, a process that proved to be much easier than it sounds.

Throughout the night, we made our way down the bay, watching the running lights of the other schooners and keeping a lookout for the frequent barges with their attendant tugboats. As the sun rose, we could only make out two schooners ahead of us, with several more on the horizon astern. We continued to plow on, passing the USS Cole as she made her way up the bay. Around 11:00am, we crossed the finish line in fourth place and began to take in sail as we made our way up the Elizabeth River into Portsmouth, Virginia, passing aircraft carriers and destroyers docked at the Norfolk Naval Base. When we arrived at the boat basin in Portsmouth, we came alongside the A. J. Meerwald and rafted up with her. That evening, the crews of the various schooners had their own informal festivities.

On Saturday morning (!), several schoolchildren came to visit the vessels and I helped demonstrate the use of mechanical advantage on the ship as the children hauled me aloft using a bosun's chair with a four-part purchase. At noon, shortly before the pig and oyster roast that was put on by the race committee, the Virginia hosted their own gathering in loving memory of their main gaff, which had broken during the course of the race.

With the race over, it was time for me to return to life ashore in New Jersey. I take with me memories of a great race and hopes for more sailing opportunities in the next season.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Connecticut decides for equality!

"Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Amos 5:24

This morning, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in favor of recognizing equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian people. The article in the New York Times gives details about the 4-3 decision of the justices and the history of how Connecticut was the first state to grant civil union status to same-sex couples in 2005.

Of particular note is the reference to the "separate but equal" status that Jim Crow laws imposed upon African Americans and the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that stipulated that separate, though allegedly parallel structures, are inherently unequal. Today's article stated:

The ruling went to the heart of the question of whether civil unions and marriage can be viewed as separate but equal institutions. In the majority opinion, Justice Palmer wrote that they could not be, because the difference between marriage and civil unions was not just that of nomenclature.

“Although marriage and civil unions do embody the same legal rights under our law, they are by no means equal,” Justice Palmer wrote. “The former is an institution of transcendent historical, cultural and social significance, whereas the latter most surely is not.”

While some such as Peter Wolfgang, of the right-wing Family Institute of Connecticut, are whining about the court's decision and saying “We thought all along that the court would usurp the democratic process and force same-sex marriage on Connecticut,” Justice Palmer's reference to the foundational civil rights decision places today's ruling in the context of the need for judicial protection of civil rights, especially when those rights are threatened by a popular appeal to tradition.

Connecticut is now the third state to recognize equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, joining Massachussetts and California. Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii all have some sort of domestic parnership legislation, which is at least a step in the right direction.

Within the United Church of Christ, we have been speaking out for many years in favor of equal rights for LGBT persons, with General Synod 25 passing the "Eaual Marriage Rights for All" resolution in 2005. I celebrate today's decision with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Connecticut who can now enjoy the same rights that my wife and I do and I look forward to the day when every state will recognize the equal rights of all people.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Barbecue!!! (!!!!!!!!)

This summer, my family made several trips to Virginia. Usually, while we're there, we'll manage to get at least one meal of barbecue, often at The Smokey Pig in Ashland. For some reason, this year's travels managed to be barbecue free.

A week or so ago, my son mentioned that he would really like some barbecue, so I've had the thought banging around in my brain ever since. Yesterday was the day to do something about it. I rolled out of bed, ready to make diner.

By 9:00, I had the grill lit. I've always been a traditionalist when it comes to grilling, choosing charcoal over gas any day. I love my 22.5" Weber Kettle! When I was a kid, I remember watching my father grilling. he would pile up the briquettes in the middle of his Weber, douse them with lighter fluid, toss in a match and then stand back as a column of flam whooshed into the sky. When I started grilling on my own, though, I discarded the lighter fluid in favor of a chimney. I put two pieces of newspaper in the bottom, fill the top with charcoal (hardwood lump charcoal, please, not briquettes), and light it. Before long, the coals are ashed over and ready to go and there's no lighter fluid flavor to taint what I'm cooking.

Once the grill was lit, I went back inside and filled a stockpot with hickory chunks, which I covered in water and left to soak until later. Then, it was time to start putting together the dry rub for the meat: minced garlic, cayenne, paprika, dry mustard, salt, pepper and brown sugar went into a bowl together and then got slathered all over the two pork shoulders (7lbs each) that were going to provide the day's entertainment.

By 10:00, the coals were completely ready to go, so I poured them into the grill and banked them all on one side, directly over the bottom vent so that they would have unobstructed airflow. I placed an aluminum drip pan on the other side to catch the grease that would come off of the pork as it cooked. Then, I shook the water off of a big handful of the hickory chunks and placed them on the coals so that they would smolder. The grate went on the grill, with the hinged section over the fire, the cover went on for a minute or two, then I cleaned and oiled the grate and put the meat on, skin side up. Finally, the lid went on the grill, with the vent positioned above the meat to draw the smoke over (and into!) the pork.

Every hour or so, I would check the fire, adding coals and hickory chunks as needed. The UPS delivery guy came by the house and complained that it wasn't even lunch time and the smell of the barbecue had already made him hungry. My son had a friend come over and they spent several hours hanging out, then they went pumpkin picking with the friend's family. Still, I kept tending the fire and the smell of cooking pork filled the neighborhood.

Before barbecue is done, the meat needs to reach 190° F or it won't shred properly. The outside gets all crispy and turns a color that I affectionately call "golden black." When the meat was approaching that point, I set to work back in the kitchen, making the sauce. I started with a recipe from Steven Raichlen's book, so Apple cider vinegar, ketchup, cayenne, brown sugar, dry mustard and pepper went into a bowl together, but the tast and consistency just weren't what I wanted, so I started improvising. I put about half a head of garlic and two small onions went into the blender with a bit of olive oil and pureed them, then sauteed the paste. Then, I added the sauce from Raichlen's recipe to the pot, along with some tomato paste and a bit more brown sugar and cooked it all down until it was thickened up nicely.

By 5:00, the meat had reached 190° F was ready to come off of the grill. The next step was pulling the pork off of the bone and shredding it into bite-sized bits. Some restaurants chop their barbecue, and I guess that makes sense if you're making it on an industrial scale, but I much prefer the texture of hand-pulled pork. It took a half hour or so to pull the pork off both of the pork shoulders I had cooked and the process yielded a big bowl full of meat, to which I added the sauce that I had been simmering.

Finally, after having smelled the barbecue cooking all day, it was time to eat, so the family sat down to a dinner of pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw and sweet tea, with rice pudding for dessert. Of course, we had plenty of leftovers, so I've already packaged up two quarts of barbecue for one of my Yankee friends who doesn't know anything about barbecue. We had leftovers for dinner and committed the rest of the barbecue to the freezer for later, though I doubt that it will be very long before its siren song calls to us.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The dinners this week

After being away for much of the last two weeks, I'm back in the saddle, culinarily speaking.

Last night, I made herb crusted salmon, with brown rice and peas for dinner. The salmon recipe came from Bittman's "The Minimalist Cooks at Home" and proved to be quite good. I try to fix fish on a reguar basis and my son loves the "Emma's favorite salmon and potatoes" from the same cookbook, but I find that we have it a bit too often. This was a great alternative.

Tonight -- or should I say "all day today" -- I'm fixing barbecue and coleslaw. For those of you who might not understand such things, barbecue is a noun, not a verb. It is pork, not beef. It has a tomato-based sauce, not vinegar or mustard. All else is heresy. I'll be blogging about the barbecue in a separate post.

Tomorrow, we'll have minestrone and a garden salad with fresh Italian semolina bread. The minestrone recipe comes from the Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook and looks like it'll be quite good.

Thursday and Friday will be leftovers of barbecue and minestrone, respectively. On Saturday, my son will be off with friends, so I'm starting to think about maybe making scallops, which my wife adores and my son loathes.

Monday, September 29, 2008

UCC runs "Steeples" ad

Today marks the beginning of a two-week ad campaign by the United Church of Christ, showing the "Steeples" ad (above) on BET, Bravo, CNN and TV One.

I think that this is a good thing, basically. Really, though, I don't much care for the "Steeples" ad. The message is great, but the content is just a bit too saccharine for my taste, sort of like the ads the the Mormons used to run back when I was a kid. As a member of Generation X (albeit a rather senior member) I prefered the edginess of the "Bouncer" and "Ejector" ads, which show how churches DO reject people and then proclaim an extravagant welcome within the United Church of Christ.

Back before the "God is Still Speaking" campaign began a couple years ago, I showed the "Bouncer" ad in church and heard from people who didn't like it because they couldn't relate to the notion that people often feel rejected by churches. Later, when I showed the humorous "Ejector" ad, I heard similar complaints, but those complaints, again, tended to be from the more venerable members of the congregation, not from the younger generation to whom the advertisements were targeted.

I like "Bouncers" best, but I know that I'm only one person. Perhaps you feel differently. I've set up a poll and I'd love to know which one of the three ads most speaks to you. let me know.

UCC "Bouncers" Ad

UCC "Ejector" Ad

"From Amistad to Guantanamo" at Trinity United Church

Yesterday was the final installment of an adult education program that I have been teaching at Trinity United Church in Warren, NJ. The series, "From Amistad to Guantanamo: Justice Ministries in the United Church of Christ" detailed the development of justice work in the UCC, moving from the grassroots organization of the Amistad Committee, through the efforts for equal rights for women, people of color, LGBT people, and a host of other issues. Finally, we discussed ways that individuals and congregations could integrate the Bible's call to do justice into the daily practice of our lives.

I enjoyed being at Trinity these last few weeks. It is a smallish congregation with a warm heart. The choir is very good and the sermons were all inspiring. As an added bonus, each week that I attended, I got to hear from a different preacher. The pastor's father, The Rev. Dr. Richard Armstrong preached the first week. The pastor, Rev. Elsie Armstrong Rhodes, preached the second week, and one of the interns, Jared Stephens, preached yesterday. I particularly enjoyed hearing the voice of the next generation of pastoral leaders as Jared and the church's other intern, Joy Klingeman, led worship.

One of the added benefits to leading the program at Trinity is that my son traveled there with me each week. With our busy lives, it is sometimes hard to find time to spend together, so the hour's drive each way has been a great way to connect with him and, as an added benefit, he's a terrific roadie, setting up the computer and digital projector for me, making photocopies and collating them, dismantling everything after the program and schlepping things back to the car. I think I'll keep him. Next week, Ian and I'll be back worshipping in my home church, so the whole family will be back together again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Washington D.C. with Amistad

I spent much of this past week in Washington, D.C. with the Freedom Schooner Amistad. This is the second occasion since my return from my sabbatical that I have been able to spend time aboard.

I arrived in D.C. on Monday night, arriving at just the right time to get caught in the traffic jam on I-95 that resulted from the opening of the new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge to let Amistad through. Rumor has it that this is the first opening of the bridge for a vessel since the new bridge opened, so I am particularly pleased that Amistad got to inaugurate the bridge and am sort of ironically pleased that I got to get caught in the backup, especially since I still made it to the marina in time to catch docklines.

One of the planned highlights of the week was that Amistad was to play host to the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the Congressional Delegation from Connecticut, but the intense legislative schedule generated by our country's financial meltdown made it impossible for our legislators to visit the vessel while we were docked at the Capital Yacht Club. I am, however, grateful for their diligence in their work and trust that they may find other opportunities to visit Amistad when they are able to carve out a bit of free time.

Since our schedule of visitors ended up being lighter than expected, the crew was able to tackle a variety of maintenance tasks: the usual scraping, sanding and varnishing, as well as inspecting and maintaining rigging in preparation for next month's Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race.

The members of the yacht club were very kind to the crew. We were invited to participate in the Tuesday Night Spaghetti Dinner and got to know many of the folks who make the yacht club their home. I never had the opportunity to puchase a beer with my own money while we were there, and I expect that the other crewmembers had similar experiences.

It was particularly nice to have my father visit the ship while we were at the Capital Yacht Club. He came aboard on Wednesday morning and I got to give him a tour of the vessel. Then, as it was my "duty day," he joined me in the galley for a while, washing dishes while we caught up on the events in each other's lives for an hour or so before he had to go back ashore.

As the the weather forecast was anything but encouraging, the crew ended up dragging out the jury-rigged awning that we had used in Sierra Leone to keep the sun off the deck. It was a dubious affair when we put it up in Africa and hadn't improved with six months in the lazarette, but we managed to get it hung up over the main hatch, adding two other tarps and duct tape to creat an "elegant" arrangement that managed to perform its function without looking too prissy. That evening, we hosted a birthday party for the captain's sister-in-law and the boat was full of very interesting folks, who huddled under the awning to stay out of the sometimes torrential rain.

On Friday, we moved the ship a few hundred yards downstream to the Gangplank Marina. The U.S.S. Sequoia, which served as the Presidential Yacht for Presidents from Hoover through Carter, was docked at the next pier over. (see photo) We opened, in the rain, for visitors from the public and had a steady, though light, stream of guests throughout the day.

In the evening, my cousin, Jeff, and his partner, Terry, came to visit the ship, then they whisked me away to their home, where I spent the night. We watched the presidential debate and stayed up way too late discussing our thoughts about the candidates, then the next morning was a late-waking, coffee-drinking, lounging-about pajamafest, with lunch out at about 3:00, and my departure for home soon after.

It is good to be home, but I'm definitely looking forward to meeting Amistad in Baltimore in a couple weeks for the schooner race. Maybe we'll even win!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dinnertime in the City of Brotherly Cheesesteaks

While driving home last night from a meeting in the Baltimore area, I was talking on my cell phone. I was being safe and using the headset, but I guess I was distracted enough to miss the split where I-95 goes up to Philadelphia and the I-295 heads up to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Jersey Turnpike. Rather than turn around and go back the way I came, I decided that it made just about as much to continue up I-95 and cross into New Jersey up near Trenton.

As I was approaching Philadelphia, a thought ocurred to me. Here I was, entering the City of Brotherly Love right at dinnertime. What serendipity, seeing how one of my favorite foods is the Philly Cheesesteak!! Whenever I see a cheesesteak on a menu, I stop reading, since I'm on something of a quest for the Holy Grail of Cheesesteaks. Of course, it might be that I stop reading the menu because my eyes kind of glaze over as I drift off into Cheesesteak Anticipatory Fantasyland. Sadly, I find that, more often than not, I'm disappointed with the cheesesteaks that I end up with.

So there I was, cruising into Philly. I called home and asked my wife to check the internet and let me know where I needed to stop for the best Philly Cheesesteak in Philly and she quickly gave me directions to Pat's King of Steaks, (click here for other people's reviews) on Passyunk Ave and 9th Street. My first problem was parking. The narrow streets were full of parallel-parked cars and I had to drive around for several minutes until I found a spot I could squeeze my little station wagon into before walking a couple blocks back to the restaurant.

View Larger Map

When I got there at about 5:30, the place was already mobbed, with a line wrapping around two sides of the triangular building. The open-air restaurant claims to be the birthplace of the cheesesteak, so it wasn't a huge surprise that it was so busy on the last Saturday of the summer, particularly with the St. Padre Pio festival going on just a couple blocks away. During the half-hour wait to get to the order window, I got to do some people-watching. A crowd of motorcyclists came roaring through. A family with a small boy stood behind me and the parents did their best to keep thier child from coming unglued as his patience wore thin.

When I finally made it to the window, I ordered a "Provalone pepper steak with onions" or "wit," as the sign spelled out phonetically. From there, it was on to the second window for french fries and a rootbeer, then finding a spot to sit so I couldenjoy my cheesesteak.

I've had better cheesesteaks. (The best ever was in Stroudsburg, PA, at a now defunct lunch counter in the back of an appliance store, with a sandwich made of New York Strip steak, gruyere, and exotic mushrooms!!!) but Pat's was tasty. The steak, itself, was quite good; thickly shaved (or is that thinly sliced?) top round, not the formed and pressed beef like I've often found. The onions were very lightly grilled, and were still rather crunchy, which was unfortunate. The peppers were placed on top of the meat, rather than being mixed in, and the provalone was in the form of several slices that formed the bottom layer of the sandwich. The bread was nice and chewy. In retrospect, though, I should have gotten the Cheese Whiz instead of the provalone, as the processed cheese goo seems to be the "traditional" version of cheese for the sandwich. Maybe next time. Unless, of course, I make my own, in which case, I might have to use gruyere and maybe some exotic mushrooms.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kimberly in the Kitchen

I'll be away for much of this coming week, eating shipboard chow while the Freedom Schooner Amistad visits Washington DC for the Congressional Black Caucus, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the US Congress' Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves so my wife has returned to the kitchen, with the following plan. Thanks, Kimberly!
  • Wednesday, September 17: Roast chicken (How to Cook Everything) , steamed green beans, baked sweet potato
  • Thursday, September 18: Matzo ball soup (Vegetariana)
  • Friday, September 19: pinto beans, cornbread, salsa
  • Saturday, September 20: leftovers
  • Sunday, September 21: Barbecued chicken (Jane Brody), cole slaw, mashed potatoes
  • Monday, September 11: leftovers

Friday, September 19, 2008

What to get the man who has everything?

I recently celebrated a birthday. Fortunately, or unfortunately if you happen to be a gift-giver, I've reached the stage in life where there are few things that I really need. I've also reached the point where I'm picky about what I want, which makes me really difficult to buy for.

So, as my birthday was approaching, my wife asked me what I wanted. I had a couple thoughts spring to mind. First, I wanted an épée, but that's not the kind of present a woman should give her husband. Well, maybe there's nothing wrong a woman buying one for her her husband, but I decided to spend the birthday money my mother gave me on one.

What did I tell Kimberly that I wanted? A skillet. Now I know that giving your husband a skillet for his birthday seems like almost as bad a mistake as giving your wife a vacuum for Christmas, but that's what I really wanted, but not just any skillet. I wanted a big skillet. Make that a B I G skillet, made of cast iron. Our sauté pan has gotten to the point where its nonstick coating doesn't work, so we needed to get something suitable and I love cooking in iron.

When iron is properly seasoned, it's nonstick. It doesn't give off any gasses like teflon coated pans do. It adds healthy iron to our food. It doesn't contribute to Alzhimer's disease like aluminum. It heats well, distributes heat beautifully, lasts forever and makes a formidable weapon in the event that I should ever have to face down a burglar.

So what did she get me? She got me a Lodge 15 1/4" cast iron skillet. It is simply amazing. I love it. Can you tell?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Last week's eats

This past week's cooking was fairly sporadic, with my wife being away in Virginia, transplanting daylilies to her parents' property. Somehow, cooking for my son and me is never quite as much fun as cooking for the whole family. The menu for us guys was, therefore, fairly simple:
  • Wednesday, September 10: Roast chicken (How to Cook Everything, p. XXX), steamed green beans, baked sweet potatoes (Roast chicken is one of my son's favorite meals, so it tends to roll around fairly often.) Stock made from chicken bones, oninons, carrot and garlic and frozen for later use.
  • Thursday, September 11: Leftovers
  • Friday, September 12: Red Beans and Rice (Saving Dinner, p. 16), garden salad
  • Saturday, September 12: Leftovers
  • Sunday, September 12: Leftovers
  • Monday, September 13: Broccoli and Pasta
  • Sunday, September 14: Latkes (Joy of Cooking (1997 edition) , p. 410) and garden salad

My wife and I got the Joy of Cooking when we were first married. The 1997 version is a significant revision of the previous edition, in that it included many of the foods that had become available in American groceries in recent years. At the same time, the 1997 Joy of Cooking also omitted many of the 1950s recipes that included ingredients like canned cream of mushroom soup. We love this edition and were saddened to see that the even 2006 75th anniversary edition has gone downhill. We ran right out and bought a copy of the 1997 edition to give to my son when he's old enough to need his own cookbooks.

One of my first memories of latkes (potato pancakes) was when I was an adolescent and my family had some friends who fell on hard times and needed a place to stay for several months. One of the side benefits to this arrangement is that, since Sally was Jewish and didn't go to church with my family, she would often have a meal ready for us when we returned home on Sunday afternoons. Often, she would make latkes, served with applesauce and sour cream. Yum!! Since then, I've had lots of varieties of potato pancakes, some made with mashed potatoes, as Sally made them, and others with shredded potatoes. I've decided that I like the shredded best, but I've still never met a latke I didn't like. Also, making them this week gave me a chance to put my new skillet to good use.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I'm NOT dead

I expect that you remember this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

After his obituary had been published by the New York Journal on June 2, 1897, Mark Twain wrote, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Twain managed to hang on until April 2, 1910. Last month, Apple founder Steve Jobs was the victim of a seventeen-page premature obituary sent out by the Bloomberg Financial Newswire. It seems that it isn't that uncommon for living people to have their obituaries printed by mistake. There's even a fairly extensive list of premature obituaries at Wikipedia.

It shoudn't have come as any great surprise to me, then, when I went to the mailbox the other day and found a letter from the United Church of Christ addressed "To the Family of Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith." I was curious, so I made the self-serving determination that, since I am a member of my own family, I was entitled to open the envelope. What I found surprised me.
The letter read, in part:
Dear Friend,

Please accept our deepest sympathy on the passing of your loved one.

We would like to pay tribute to the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith in the 2009 Yearbook of the United Church of Christ, available next spring.

Please take a few moments to fill out and return the enclosed form. Your assistance will be greatly appreciated and will give all those who read this section of the Yearbook the opportunity to remember and celebrate your loved one's ministry...

I could hardly belive what I was reading. Me?? Dead?? I've often given a polite smile when people trot out the old saw about reading the obituaries every morning and then getting out of bed if they don't see their name, but this had me worried. Maybe I was dead.

After all, it is has been a difficult couple months and the aging process seems to have jumped into high gear. I've celebrated a birthday. I've received an AARP card AND I've gotten new glasses. They aren't bifocals, but the prescription is stronger than my old glasses. Maybe the people at the denomination's headquarters knew something I didn't. I called the phone number on the letter to check out what was going on, but ended up having to leave a message on voice mail. Since it was a Friday, I knew that it would be several days before Cleveland could verify my life status.

I was delighted when my son came home from school, because he took one look at me and told me that I was definitely alive. What a relief!!

"But maybe the yearbook office is just really efficient and they just sent the letter out a day or two early," he suggested helpfully. "Maybe you're going to get hit by a bus tomorrow."

Now I was really worried. I didn't mind being dead so much, as long as it meant that I had gotten the dying part over with already, but I wasn't particularly looking forward to meeting my end beneath the wheels of a runaway bus. By exercising extreme caution, I managed to live through the weekend and was ecstatic when I received a phone call from the Yearbook Office on Monday morning, informing that there had been a clerical error and that I was, in fact, alive and, as far as they knew, am scheduled to remain so for the forseeable future.

So I guess I'll have to come up with another reason why I haven't written anything for two weeks.