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Sunday, August 31, 2008

New Orleans and Hurricane Gustav

I first went to New Orleans when I was a teenager, traveling with my parents and my brother on a vacation. My memories of that trip center around visits to historic cemeteries, the rowdiness of Bourbon Street, the food we ate, and a side-trip we took on an airboat through one of the bayous. On that airboat trip, I learned three things:
  1. Alligators like to eat marshmallows.
  2. Bay Leaves come from the Bay Laurel tree, which grows wild in the bayous of Louisiana.
  3. If you ask nicely, the airboat driver will maneuver so you can cut off a few bunches of bay leaves to take home.

My second trip to the Big Easy was when I was in seminary. I was attending a seminar at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and was only going to be in the city for a weekend. On Saturday night, the seminary dining hall pulled out all the stops and had “Cajun Night.” I wasn’t interested in dining hall food, even if was allegedly Cajun, so I hopped a bus and went into the French Quarter, where I wandered around until I found a bar that had zydeco music and the scent of jambalaya wafting onto the sidewalk. After a fantastic meal, I ended up at Café Du Monde for café au lait and beignets, then found myself strolling through the Jackson Square in front of St. Louis Cathedral, where I listened to some street musicians before taking the bus back to the seminary.

The third time I went to the Crescent City was a year after Hurricane Katrina had decimated the city. I was there for a week, working with the National Disaster Ministries of the United Church of Christ, gutting houses that would later be renovated by their owners. The French Quarter was back in business, though much of the rest of the city was still uninhabitable, with the Lower Ninth Ward still looking like a war zone. After several days of working on houses, I took off my respirator and hardhat and put on my Disaster Response Coordinator T-shirt, touring the area and taking part in a training session on natural and technological disasters.

Having gotten to know the pastors and congregations of St. Matthew’s United Church of Christ and Central Congregational UCC, who have been worshipping together since Katrina, I feel as though I have family in New Orleans, so I am particularly anxious as I hear all of the reports of Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the city. Like everyone else, I worry about the levees holding and about the pumps working. I think about New Orleans being deserted, once again, as Mayor Nagin has ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city. I think about the people who are displaced as they take prudent action to get out of the path of category-three storm.

There seems so little we can do. In church, this morning, we prayed for the people along the Gulf coast as they prepared for the storm. I received an email yesterday from Rev. Jerry Foltz, the Central Atlantic Conference’s staff disaster response coordinator, inviting churches and individuals to give to the American Red Cross to help displaced people with groceries, travel assistance, cash assistance for gas or other evacuation expenses and replacement of medications and/or medical devices. We can pray and we can prepare and, if the worst happens, we can respond. “But,” I wondered, “is there something else we can do?”

Today, I was reminded of the “Hurricane Parties” that are so famous along the Louisiana coast. I thought of people getting together to ride out past storms with friends and families, with food, conversation and music. I’d like to believe that, perhaps in some magical way, those parties and their “laugh in the face of danger” attitude even helped to keep people and property safe. Today, though, there’s nobody in the Big Easy to have a party, so I’ve fried up a batch of beignets, brewed a pot of chicory coffee and put on a BeauSoleil CD.

Be safe, my friends.

Cheese, Bread and Magic

"So, Dad," my son asked at dinner last night, "What's with all of the salads and flatbreads?"

I guess he's noticing a pattern. Honestly, though, there haven't been that many salads, except for the garden salads that have always been a part of our regular diet. My guess is that, after two weeks away with his grandparents, Ian has forgotten how we usually eat at home.

He's right about the flatbreads, though. I've sort of fallen in love with them. The first breads I ever made were the chapatis that I mentioned in my blog on August 17. Since then, chapatis have appeared again alongside a chickpea, paneer and cauliflower curry that I found in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, (p. 623) both on the curry's first night and again as leftovers. The curry was a success, though I'm not sure I see any advantage to baking it, as Bittman's recipe directed, instead of simply stewing everything together.

I enjoyed making the paneer, an Indian cheese made by bringing milk to nearly boiling and stirring in lemon juice, then draining off the liquid when the milk cracks and pressing the curds so that they form a solid cheese, similar to a farmer cheese or queso fresco. It feels rewarding to be able to create such a satisfying food practically ex nihilo. "And Paul said, 'Let there be cheese' and there was cheese..."

I've made cheese a second time this week, too. Lebneh (which has lots of variant spellings) is a middle-eastern yogurt-based cheese that is a snap to make and is also really good. Basically, all there is to it is stirring a bit of salt into yogurt and then hanging the salted yogurt in cheesecloth to drain for a day or so. Then, the lebneh can either be served as a soft spread or rolled into balls to dry out a bit, like fresh mozzarella. We found that it was really good with fresh sliced tomatoes. I served the lebneh and tomatoes as an accompaniment to a lentil, rice and sultana salad from Flatbreads & Flavors (p. 57) and a Pebbled Persian Bread that the authors featured on the preceding page. The salad wasn't bad - it was today's lunch and we'll probably finish it up at dinner tonight - but it was sort of underspiced. I've been adding cumin to it at the table, which seems to be working well.

The bread, on the other hand, was wonderful. Unlike Chapatis, the Pebbled Persian Bread is a raised yeast bread that is made with LOTS of water. It starts cooking in a skillet on top of the stove and then moves to the oven for a few minutes, giving it a typical flatbread shape, but with a rough textured top and a delightful chewiness inside.

So what is up with all of the flatbreads? I think it is really all about magic. Like making cheese, or brewing beer, baking bread is elemental in a way that few things in our world are anymore. The flour, water, salt and yeast interact in ways that are almost supernatural. Living yeast transforms a heavy blob of dough, literally inspiring it to become something greater than it once was. That lifeforce then energizes us as we share it together as companions in life's journey.

THE MENU FOR AUGUST 29-SEPTEMBER 3

  • Friday - Broiled Salmon and potatoes, steamed broccoli and a garden salad.
  • Saturday - Lentil, rice and sultana salad, fresh sliced tomatoes with homemade lebneh and pebbled Persian bread
  • Sunday - Leftovers
  • Monday - Grilled Teriyaki steaks, baked potatoes, grilled zucchini-kebabs and garden salad. (It is Labor Day, after all.)
  • Tuesday - Yucatecan shredded beef tacos, homemade tortillas, sliced avocado, pinto beans, fruit and coffee flan (Kimberly is fixing all of this for me as a late birthday dinner!!)
  • Wednesday - Leftovers

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An evening with Grandpa Pete and friends

I remember the first concert I ever took my son to hear. Ian was only a few weeks old and my wife's union at Yale University was on strike. Had she not been on maternity leave, Kimberly, too, would have been on the picket lines. As it was, we were in the crowd, holding our baby in our arms, as Pete Seeger gave a benefit concert to support the workers.

I grew up listening to records (that's 33s, not 78s, thank you) of Pete Seeger's music. My family would sing "Turn, Turn Turn" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," among other songs, on long car trips. It wasn't until I went to college that I started to really learn about Pete Seeger as a person and about his work during the depression, traveling the country to preserve America's folk music. It was later still that I came to understand Pete's persecution by Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When I started playing guitar, I got a copy of Rise Up Singing, the folk music anthology that was Pete's brainchild and I keep a copy of it in my banjo case.

Back in 2001, my family made our first trip to the Clearwater Festival, the environmental and cultural festival that Pete Seeger hosts each June in Croton on Hudson, NY. I've chatted with him about renewable energy and his little red pickup truck that is 100% electric. Two years ago, I was a guest crewmember on Seeger's environmental education sloop, Clearwater, when she and Amistad were both sailing out of Poughkeepsie. Pete has signed -- and played!! -- my banjo.

Tonight, my family went to see Pete perform in Paramus, at the bandshell behind the public library. He was joined by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and by bluesman Guy Davis. At 89, Pete's voice is strained and his banjo picking has slowed down a bit. He lets his fellow performers do the heavy lifting, but there's no questioning that the show is still his. Both Rodriguez-Seeger and Davis made frequent references to Seeger as being family that they are glad to be able to share with us. In many ways, Seeger has become something like a grandfather figure to me and I'm indebted to Rodriguez-Seeger and Davis for making in possible for Grandpa Pete to keep making music.

The concert was a brief one, just an hour long, but it had the feeling of classic Seeger performance, with a the audience joining in to sing on "This Little Light of Mine," and almost all of the songs. As with Seeger's other performances, current events and social concerns were evident for those who were paying attention. The three musicians kicked off the music with the Huddie Leadbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, song "Midnight Special," with an updated verse:

If you ever go to Washington, you'd better walk right.
You'd better not scuffle and you'd better not fight.
For the sherriff will arrest you and he's gonna take you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar, you're Guantanamo bound.


When Seeger led "This Land is Your Land," we sang all of the verses, not just the ones we all learned in school:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
by the relief office, I saw the people
as they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tresspassin'
But on the other side, it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

Nobody living can ever stop me
as I go walking that Freedom Highway.
Nobody living can make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Davis offered the evening's only "performance piece," a truly impressive harmonica and vocal number he called "Railroad Story," where he wove together vocal sound effects such as hounds barking and pigs grunting with the music of his harmonica. Rodriguez-Seeger led the final number, Guantanamera, (person from Guantanamo), which brought us full-circle. The lyrics of one of the verses, written by Cuban poet Jose Marti in 1895, translate to:

And for the cruel one who would tear out this heart with which I live,
I do not grow nettles nor thistles, I grow a white rose.

We need more white roses in the world, especially in places like Guantanamo, where our government imprisons "enemy combatants" from the "war on terror" and uses interrogation techniques which, if they were used on our military personnel, we wouldn't hesitate to label as torture. If we could learn to respond with roses instead of thistles, as Seeger sings, or even learn to love our enemies, as Jesus taught, we might even be able to break the cycle of fear and violence that breeds terrorism in the first place. We might even finding ourselves living in what that old Peter Seeger song called "a time of peace. I swear its not too late."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Visiting The Cloisters

I've lived just outside of New York City for years, but had never been to see The Cloisters until today. You'd think that my love of history, coupled with the professional connection to the medieval liturgical art and architecture at The Cloisters would have drawn me in before this. You might even think that someone who cared about me would have insisted that I go before now, but nobody ever did. At least not until my friend, Eric Anderson, suggested that Kimberly and I meet him and his two teenagers at the museum.

So, today, Kimberly and I drove across the George Washington Bridge and into Fort Tryon Park, arriving at the museum just as it was opening. We parked (for free!!!!) directly across the street from the front door and walked in, paid our admission, and were immediately immersed in one of the loveliest museums I've ever visited.

Back when I was newly married, I read through Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries. Sitting in the museum's recreated cloisters, looking at the gardens and listening to the water flow from the central fountains, it wasn't difficult to imagine the Welsh monk and his Benedictine brothers rising at midnight for Matins, then gathering again in the chapter house to hear the Rule of St. Benedict read to them. I could almost see my monastic friends going about their day's activities of quietly tending the gardens, picking leaves and berries to be used in illuminating manuscripts and harvesting herbs for medicine until their day ended with Compline.

The stained glass, stonework, statuary, paintings, and artifacts at The Cloisters brought the religious practices of the medieval era to life, but I was most impressed with the unicorn tapestries. I have seen their images many times on coffee mugs and totebags, but was really surprised at their size and at the quality of these 600 year old works of art, which depict the hunting of a unicorn as an allegory for Christ's death and resurrection.

Perhaps even more than the tapestries themselves, I was surprised at their history. During the French Revolution, these tapestries, which were already 400 years old at the time, were looted from the house of a French noble. These priceless treasures weren't stolen to be hung in the homes of the people who took them, though. Instead, in that era when books were burned, churches disbanded, and intellectuals and artists persecuted, the tapestries were used to cover stacks of hay in a barn. They were treated like common tarps until they were rescued more than a half century later by someone who could see their real value.

The tragedy of the tapestries brought to mind another medieval story: that of Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), the mystic who ministered to the people around her during the time of the Black Death with an assurance that God was present, even in the face of tragedy. She wrote in her Revelations of Divine Love, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Eric, and I often sing those words as we perform the Sydney Carter song, "Julian of Norwich." Those words have helped many people through difficult times and I've often offered them as a musical blessing for people who can see no way out from their troubles. It is a message we all need to hear from time to time: All will be well. We are not alone. God is with us.

A week with nothing on the menu

Why is it, Gentle Reader, that projects always seem to start out with a couple false starts while the rest of the world whizzes by? I started this blog with the intention of blogging about the food that I prepare for my family and my ongoing efforts to provide healthful, flavorful and earth-friendly meals. So, with my son spending the week in Virginia with his grandparents, what do my wife and I do? We either eat leftovers or eat out.

When I cook, I usually try to cook enough to have leftovers the next day. Frankly, a lot of the food tastes even better after having an extra day or so for the flavors to meld. This week, we had spaghetti with sauce that I made and froze when my niece was visiting two weeks ago. We also had a second round of the coconut-lentil soup that I mentioned in my last post. With a fresh batch of chapatis, it was wonderful.

Last night, on our way back from the shore, we stopped at one of our favorite places to eat on the drive home, Neelam, in Middletown, NJ. Previously, we've been to Neelam on Thursday nights, when they have their dinner buffet and everything has always been wonderful. Last night, we ordered from the regular menu. My wife ordered the lamb vindaloo and I had the vegetable thali. The vegetable thali came with papadum and soup as an appetiser. The main meal featured a thick, spicy lentil curry which I could have been happy with all by itself. Along with the dal were a saag paneer and a creamy mixed vegetable curry that had a hint of sweetness and was the perfect foil for the dal's heat. Naan and raita rounded out the meal and left me thinking about my long-standing joke that someday I want to move to India and become a real vegetarian. Though, in all honesty, I've got to admit to really enjoying the lamb that Kimberly traded me for samples of my dinner.

We planned on having dinner in NYC tonight, but our plans ended up changing at the last minute and we were faced with the prospect of Supper Without Ingredients at home. Instead, we chose to get dinner from A Taste of Greece, which is one of our standard answers to the question of what to eat when there's nothing in the house. As always, the food was fantastic. I've never had anything there that wasn't delicious (I love their french fries with lemon juice and oregano!!) and, tonight, Kimberly and I both opted for the lamb souvlaki. As always, it was delicious, though I was forced to pick on Kimberly just a bit for ordering lamb twice in two nights.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Food in the Balance

I am not a vegetarian.

Though I have the deepest respect for vegetarians, I just couldn’t be one. While I certainly enjoy a nice salad, a diet consisting entirely of “rabbit food” has never had the least appeal to me and the whole genre of 1970s style “fake meat” recipes leaves me cold. As a Southern boy, something tells me that pulled tofu barbecue doesn’t even bear thinking about. Still, I’ve got to admit that there is a lot behind vegetarianism.

First, there are the obvious health benefits. Nobody needs all of the cholesterol that goes along with a meat-heavy diet, especially not those of us whose families have a history of heart disease. Then there are the ecological arguments against eating meat. The folks at goveg.com make a compelling argument, pointing out that it takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat. It really makes you stop and think about not only how we can be better stewards of the earth, but also about the ethics of eating meat when there are still people starving because of lack of food. Finally, there’s the economic perspective. Ever-increasing grocery bills sure make me want to eat less expensive food and vegetables are a lot cheaper than meat. Since I become the primary cook in my home a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on becoming less dependent on meat and have been trying out new recipes.

Last week, my mother in law gave me a copy of Mark Bittman’s new cookbook, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (Thanks, Chris!) Bittman has a food column for the New York Times and I have used his cookbooks for years. I have a thoroughly dog-eared and food-stained copy of his first major cookbook, How to Cook Everything, which I reach for before any other cookbook. I also enjoy two of his other cookbooks The Minimalist Cooks at Home and The Best Recipes in the World. My new cookbook has proven to be interesting reading and I’m looking forward to working my way through Bittman’s recipes, especially since he and I have similar attitudes toward food.

For me, food is all about the senses. It doesn’t matter too much to me if food is healthy if it tastes like sawdust or if it leaves me with the feeling of having skipped a meal. That’s why I’ve been so selective in the meals that I prepare. This past week, for example, I have served broiled open-face sandwiches made with tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella, as well as a stick-to-your-ribs lentil soup with coconut, zucchini and okra, served with homemade chapattis. Tonight, though, we’re off of vegetarian food, with mushroom, ham and gruyere filled crêpes and a garden salad.

I invite you to follow my cooking adventures at my new cooking blog at http://www.foodinthebalance.blogspot.com/ [Note: Food in the Balance was discontinued 1/25/09] as I plan menus and try new recipes that try to balance nutrition, taste and ecology. This entry is cross-posted there to get the ball rolling.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sunday, August 10, 2008

An evening with John McCutcheon and other loved ones

My apologies for letting time slip by without a post, but this has been an extremely busy week! My niece, Emily, came up from Virginia to visit with my family and I spent the week as her tour-guide. Emily arrived at Penn Station in Newark, NJ, after the milestone event of her first solo train trip. We had a lot of fun in New York City on what my son dubbed "The NYC Dim-Sum Deathmarch." During the week, we also went cycling and spent a day at the Newark Museum, which has a special exhibit on Yoruba Sacred Art.

Emily, who is going into 11th grade, is quite an adventurous young lady and was game to try everything, especially food. She ended up trying sushi (which is one of my favorites), pad thai, falafel, dolmades, pho, several Ethiopian tibsis and a couple other foods that aren't part of her daily life. Today, we drove her back home to Virginia and handed her off to her parents. I'm sorry to see her go.

This evening, my wife, son, in-laws and I went to a concert by John McCutcheon in Ashland, Virginia, where I grew up. I have been a huge fan of John's music for many years (He's one of the musicians who have signed my banjo) and I perform several of his songs as half of the folk duo Boys in Hats, so I was delighted to have a chance to attend the concert, where we were able to spread out on a blanket only a couple yards from the stage. In fact, it was kind of a nostalgic event as one of the first things that I ever did with the Bryants, back when I was a high school student, was to attend an outdoor John McCutcheon concert at the Innsbrook pavilion in Richmond.

At tonight's event, held on the grounds of the Hanover Arts and Activities Center, was part of Ashland's 150th Anniversary celebration and the Bluemont Concert Series, the stage was set up right in front of the train tracks that run through the center of town. John began his solo performance with "Reuben's Train," just as an Amtrak train passed by. The train theme kept recurring, as he played "City of New Orleans" as a freight train passed by a few minutes later. Two more trains and a brief rainstorm interrupted the evening, but this was a great show, with "Christmas in the Trenches" and "The Red Corvette" being played as requests. John performed several selections from his new album "Sermon on the Mound," which I bought and am looking forward to listening to in the morning. As always, John performed on several instruments, with tonight featuring banjo, guitar, hammer dulcimer, fiddle and piano. His music, humor and spirit are real inspirations for me and it was a delight to see him perform again.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Benefits of a Beard

Back when I was first ordained, in 1992, I was a clean-shaven young man with nary a whisker to mask my boyish good looks. People often commented on how young I looked and how they couldn't believe that I was old enough to be a minister. I even had a couple elderly church ladies actually pinch my cheeks.

Then, in 1995, something happened. At first, I thought it was an accident. Kimberly, who was pregnant at the time, and I went home to Virginia for Thanksgiving and I forgot to pack my razor, so I came home with a week's worth of... well... to call it "beard" would be generous, but humor me.

Please.

My beard doesn't really grow in that fast, or that thick, but I had always kind of wanted to grow a Grizzly Adams beard and getting a week's accidental jump on it galvanized me to leave the razor in the drawer, despite the ribbing I took at church about "trying to grow a beard." Eventually, though, I had to admit the pitiful state of my facial hair. The razor came out and I shaved everything down to a nice little goatee.

A couple weeks later, Kimberly and I were taking a Lamaze classes at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the nurse midwife who was teaching the class noticed that every single dad-to-be in the room was sporting some sort of facial hair. "How many of you guys started growing your facial hair since your wife has been pregnant," she asked us, and every single one of us raised our hand. "That's perfectly normal," she told us, "many men feel the need to grow something themselves when their wife is pregnant. Some take up gardening. Others grow facial hair." I guess since it was winter, none of us had opted for setting out flats of tomatoes, but maybe my leaving the razor at home at Thanksgiving hadn't REALLY been an accident at all. Maybe it had been a subconscious drive to create!

Over time, the goatee thickened up and became pretty respectable, though I always chose to wear it fairly small. Still, even with the goatee, people would comment on how young I looked and would, at least metaphorically, pinch my hairless cheeks.

I wore that goatee for 13 years and every child who drew my picture, whether it was my son or a kid from church, portrayed me with a brown circle around my mouth that made me look like a toddler that had thoroughly enjoyed a fudgsicle. My goatee became something of a trademark. One Halloween, some of my parishioners (a dad and his two young sons) came to a church party dressed as me -- with paper clerical collars and paste-on goatees.

Still, I longed for more. Every time my family went on vacation, I would decide to give the full-beard another try, but each time, my wife would "suggest" that I go ahead and shave back down to the goatee so as to avoid public ridicule. Such spousal wisdom is hard to ignore.

This past Christmas, though, I finally got my chance! With three months of sabbatical -- on a schooner -- in Africa -- I figured I just might be able to pull off the beard growth I needed, without having a congregation chuckle at my attempts. I could look as ratty as I wanted and be able to pass it off as "salty." It was the perfect time to forget the razor!

So, just before Easter, I came back home furrier than I left, still no Grizzly Adams, but with fuzzy cheeks to match my furry chin. My wife likes it. My son told me that I should definitely keep the full beard. What was even better is that nobody made any comments about how young I looked, anymore, not even visitors to church. The cheek-pinching was over! Life was good!

Then I went to the mailbox.

As I sorted through the mail, setting the bills aside, tossing the fund-raising letters in the recycling and separating out credit card offers to shred, I came across a piece that didn't fit any of my ready categories. The envelope had red lettering on it and I opened it with a certain trepidation. It proved to be just what I had feared: proof that my new beard does, in fact, make me look older. I had received an AARP membership application, along with my own little plastic card with an authorization code! Alas, I guess the beard works a little too well.

Now, all I'll have to do is wait another dozen years until I'm old enough to become a member.