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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010

Halloween is probably my favorite holiday. From the liturgical angle, there's All Saints Day, which is always very meaningful to people as we remember those saints who have departed in the last year. My real love, though, is the creative craft of Halloween.

From the time Ian was little, I loved making him costumes. One year, he was a violin. Another, he was the Statue of Liberty. Another, he was a winged dragon. All of the costumes were, of course, hand-made by me. These days, Ian takes care of his own costumes, more or less. This year, he had planned on dressing as Neo from The Matrix, but we couldn't find him a black trenchcoat (and he and I both refuse to buy a costume...), so he's opted for a reprise of last year's costume, which is just Ian in a kilt.

And then there are the Jack o' Lanterns! I just love carving the things. Over the years, I have carved scary ones, silly ones, fanged ones and freckled ones. When we lived in New Jersey and were forbidden by town ordinance to have political yard signs, I used to carve political pumpkins, including the 2008 masterpiece 6-pumpkin set : (Vote) (O) (b) (a) (m) (a).

This year, I found a wonderfully warty pumpkin that just wanted to be carved into a grumpy old guy (probably a Tea Party supporter) who would yell at someone to get off their lawn.

Happy Halloween.
(and don't forget to vote on Tuesday)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Church Newsletter Column: November 2010

Every so often, the Christian church is faced with uncomfortable realities when we realize that we’ve been on the wrong side of an issue. In 1632, Galileo was placed under permanent house arrest for his “heretical” view that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice verse. At the same time, our Congregationalist ancestors were busy burning “witches” in Salem. As Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution, many Christians dug in their heels, preferring to believe that all of those fossils found in layers of rock were not evidence of biological change, but that they were placed there by Satan as a way to tempt people away from faith. Over the years, the church has supported anti-Semitism, defended slavery, and relegated women to second-class status – and used the Bible as the justification for all of these things.

The good news is that, despite periods of ignorance and denial, we have been able to come to terms with reality and to adjust to new understandings of science, culture, society, and faith. Each generation of the church has been able to look at the mistakes of the past, overcome them, and move forward. Having a strong, mature and honest faith requires that each generation continue to do so.

The current struggle within the Christian church is to come to terms with issue of homosexuality, a topic which has come to the front of our consciousness in recent weeks, with the suicides of six gay young people as the end result of their having been bullied by their peers. In my sermon on October 10, I reflected on the tragic deaths of Justin Aaberg, 15, Billy Lucas, 15, Asher Brown, 13, Seth Walsh, 13, Tyler Clementi, 19, Raymond Chase, 19, and how their sense of despair stemmed not only from the acts of individual bullies, but also from a wider social isolation and the sense that they couldn’t even find a safe place in the church. In my sermon, I went on to ask:

And where would they get that idea? They get it from churches like Westboro Baptist Church that famously pickets the funerals of AIDS victims, carrying vile signs declaring whom they believe God hates. They get it from televangelists who blame natural disasters on gays. They get it from groups like “Focus on the Family” that oppose anti-bullying legislation because they believe that it will promote what they call, “the homosexual agenda.” They get it from churches that declare “All are welcome,” on their sign, but indicate otherwise by their actions when a same gender couple sits down together. They even get that idea from churches like ours where, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning folks would, and do in fact, find welcome, but where the church has yet to stand up, speak out, and declare boldly to the world that “These doors are open to you,” doesn’t have an asterisk and a list of exceptions. [The front doors of the church have large signs declaring "These Doors Are Open to You"-- ed.] I believe that there’s no asterisk – and I believe that you believe that there’s no asterisk – but how will they know if we don’t tell them?

After worship, I was mobbed by people who offered their support, many saying that it was time for the church to complete the Open and Affirming process that the church had begun prior to my arrival. They are, of course, right. It is high time for us to get around to formally deciding what we already know to be the case about our congregation, and then telling the world. After all, it doesn’t do anybody any good if we keep God’s inclusive love a secret that we only whisper within our church’s walls.

In the months ahead, our church will begin formulating a vision statement, looking at what we believe to be the unique ministry that God has called our church to undertake in this place and time. Part of that will certainly be making a formal statement about our belief in God’s boundless love and how we envision embodying that love with radical welcome and inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, national origin, physical ability, age, gender, socio-economic status, or any other factor. I’m looking forward to it!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pig Redux: Pozole Rojo

Back in August, when I celebrated my 40th birthday, My church's Fellowship Commission and I hosted a "pig pickin'" at church. I enlisted the help of Bill Solder from the Norwalk Exchange Club (who had been a Barbecue Pit competitor at last year's Oyster Festival) and he provided a 100lb hog (which he stuffed with hot sausages!!!) for the occasion, which attracted visitors from as far away as five hundred miles.

There's a "pound of pig per person" rule that generally applies to such events and we ended up with 98 people showing up for dinner. There were lots of pot-luck side dishes and a tray of fried chicken for those who might find it daunting to look their dinner in the face, so we actually ended up with a couple pounds of pork left over. I took the leftover pork and a bunch of the bones home, cubed up the pork, made stock from the bones, and froze the lot in a pair of gallon zip-lock bags, with a plan to make pozole rojo at some point in the future. After two months of waiting for the right time, the future arrived yesterday! I took out the two bags that had been filling our freezer and started making dinner.

The pozole, itself, is whole-kernel white hominy (corn kernels that have been soaked in lye and, if dried and ground, become the Southern US staple, grits). When prepared as pozole rojo, it is a festive stew made with some sort of meat (traditionally pork or chicken) and red chile peppers. There are also pozole verde (green) and pozole blanco (white) variants. I have this recipe printed out and saved in our family's recipe box but, as my mother always taught me, "Recipes are merely suggestions." Having been so well instructed as a child, I played fast and loose with the recipe.

I ripped open the bag of pork stock and started melting/simmering it in the big cast iron dutch oven, then diced up five good-sized onions and sauted them in olive oil, along with about a half a head of peeled and minced garlic, thinking the whole time that lard would be a tastier and more traditional choice than the olive oil but, alas, I had no lard.

A Word on Lard: Contrary to what you may have always been told, lard is no worse for you than butter. Anyone who tells you differently would probably also tell you that red wine, dark chocolate and sunny days are hazardous to your health, too. All lard is not equal, however, and you need to choose your lard carefully. American style lard, which is easily found in any supermarket in boxes that look identical to one-pound butter boxes, is the product of overengineering. The pork fat is rendered and then all of the good bits are filtered out, leaving behind pure fat that I'm sure is good for making pastries or something, but that doesn't really have any flavor that is useful for Mexican cooking. Mexican-syle lard (manteca), which you will have to search out in your local mercado is the real deal, made from rendered pork fat, but without the filtering that removes all of the piggy goodness from American lard. If you can get good manteca, which has a brownish color and contains bits of crispy pork from which the lard was rendered, then you'd be a fool to not use it. Either that or a vegetarian. Or both.

Though my recipe called for using some chile powders and some whole chiles, I stuck with dried chilis, using three different kinds: anchos (5), a couple chipotles (2) and some chiles de arbol (5), with each one providing a different flavor. The anchos, which are dried poblano peppers, gave some sweetness to the pozole, with just a bit of heat. The chipotles (which may be my favorite pepper on the planet and without which chicken quesadillas would be a sad shell of what they should be) are smoked jalapeños and impart a rich smokehousey flavor, and the chiles de arbol had a bit sharper heat. Rather than toasting them and grinding them to a powder as some recipes call for, I just de-stemmed them and threw them in, seeds and all. As they cooked, they broke down just fine.

I set the stock, onions, herbs, peppers, cumin and garlic to simmer in the big stock pot and added four 12oz cans of hominy to simmer and then realized that I had two major problems. First, I didn't have enough hominy to balance out the amount of pork that I was going to use and, second, I didn't have enough dutch oven to hold everything. Problem one was solved with a quick trip to one of our neighboring Mexican markets and the second problem was remedied by a trip to the garage, where I rooted out the big 20quart stock pot that I had bought a few years ago for brewing beer.

With all of life's major problems solved, I transferred my pozole to the big pot, added the newly acquired extra big can of hominy, and the gallon-bag-full of cubed Wilbur and left things to simmer for a couple hours while Ian was at band practice.

Since we've got the pozole simmering, let me tell you about the first time I made pozole several years ago. Pozole was one of those dishes that I had encountered maybe on a menu or on a cooking program on television, but had never eaten. Said I to myself, "Self, you should make some of that allegedly yummy pork and hominy stew," so I did. The problem was that I had failed to realize that, as good as pozole is by itself, it shouldn't be served by itself. It NEEDS mix-ins. Traditionally, these mix-ins include things like diced radishes, cilantro, slices of jalapeño peppers (fresh, not pickled), finely sliced cabbage, white onion, lime wedges and avocado pieces. These items add layers of texture and flavor that transform the pozole from a rather nice stew and turn it into a spectacular one.

So, last night, while I drove to school to pick Ian up from band practice, Kimberly got out the chef's knife and started chopping. On the way back from getting Ian, he and I stopped at a second Mexican grocery to buy a pound of queso fresco as an additional mix-in for our pozole rojo. After all, I didn't want to stop in at the same mercado and have everyone talk about "the gringo who couldn't get his shopping done in one trip," did I? Finally we made it home. I poured a nice black lager for myself and the whole family finally got to eat what turned out to be a fantastic meal.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Restaurant Review: Mexican Road Food in New Haven

This past Friday, I picked Ian up at the bus stop after school and we hit the road for North Stonington, CT, where my friend Eric and I were playing a gig at the North Stonington Congregational Church as a benefit for the United Church of Christ's Neighbors in Need offering.

As luck (and a little bit of planning) would have it, we reached New Haven at 4:00 with enough time to get off at Long Wharf Drive (Exit 46), where we stopped for lupper (you know, like brunch, only later...). Not only is Long Wharf the home of New Haven's information center and the pier where the schooners Amistad and Quinnipiack dock, but it has two parking areas where a variety of food trucks do a brisk business. I've always been a fan of lunch trucks, probably because we never had an ice-cream truck drive down the country road I lived when I was a kid or some similar deprivation.

New Haven has an embarrassment of riches, when it comes to trucks lining the harbor and, during the summer months, the food vendors are joined by trucks selling flags, kites, oriental rugs, and just about anything else that could be sold from a truck. Even on this cold and windy October day, there were no fewer than four trucks in the parking area waiting to sell us food, and another several trucks in a second parking area just about 1/4 mile east of where we had stopped. Ian and I passed the hotdog truck and two apparently identical "Ixtapa" trucks (who were selling tacos for $1.50 each) and made our way to the bargain truck, "Santa Apolonia," for the $1.00 tacos.

Ian ordered three tacos de res (beef tacos) and I got an assortment of four: one beef, one enchilada, one chorizo and one pork, with a couple tamarind Jarritos, of our favorite Mexican sodas, to wash them down. Prep time was longer than seemed reasonable, but that may have been due to the cold wind and little spits of rain that kept Ian and me literally holding on to our hats.

When we were given our food, it was carefully wrapped up in a single styrofoam container, with the plates neatly stacked inside, along with some lime wedges and two salsas - one red, the other green.

Food in hand and jackets zipped up to the collar, Ian and I walked across Long Wharf Drive to a picnic table by the water. As we unpacked the food, the wind caught Ian's plate and nearly blew it off of the table, tacos and all. Somehow, my son, the taco-ninja, managed to snag his plate full of beefy goodness before it went completely airborne. The four-inch tacos were delightful, especially the chorizo, accompanied with the salsa verde and lime juice.

Next time we pass through with a bit of time on our hands, I expect that Ian and I will stop to try some of the other offerings, either from Santa Apolonia or one of the other trucks. It is a great way for some comparatively quick and tasty eats and, at just a dollar each, there's no reason not to try a bunch of new things.