Table Triumphs

I recently finished a book called Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, which is a history of several flavors that have become uniquely American. It covers several of my favorites, including vanilla, garlic, and chili powder. (I highly recommend the book. It’s written in a conversational tone, gives lots of stories, and provides surprising information.) Learning about the history of food helps me to appreciate the long, or surprisingly short, histories of the flavors that make up my favorite dishes. It got me to thinking… what are the flavors of my own history?

Honestly, the book has me pegged as far as flavors go. Vanilla has always been used in my house. Now, some houses use vanillin, the artificial extract which, scientifically, does work better in cookies. Growing up, my mother had discovered Mexican vanilla during her trips to Texas and visits to Progresso, Mexico. There is something unique about vanilla produced in Mexico that provides a depth of flavor that makes any dessert truly special. In fact, this stuff is so precious to us that any member of the family that goes near Mexico is charged with bringing home several bottles. To this day, I have a bottle of Mexican vanilla that I bake with, and I am looking forward to sharing this flavor with my little girl once she gets here.

Butter. Scoff all you like, butter was and still is a flavor in my house, as it was growing up with my parents. During the “oil is better” craze in past decades, my parents still believed in butter. Butter added a richness to grilled cheeses, a presence to mashed potatoes, and provided a weight to scrambled eggs that is unmatched in my opinion. Butter was a topping on popcorn, a way to fry food, and a lubricant for pans and baking sheets that did more that create a non-stick layer – it added flavor. Today I live differently by using unsalted butter, but the butter is still ever-present. As I grow and cook more, I’m beginning to truly appreciate butter and how it behaves in the pan and in dishes. My family has never been able to make good friends with margarine, but butter has always been welcome.

Sage. Why sage? It seems like such an odd herb. To me, this herb has just the right about of bite, savoriness, and sharpness to create something magical – see breakfast sausage. Sage is one of the primary flavorings of our breakfast sausage (or at least the way I make it.) Sausage was something that we ate often growing up – Tennessee Country Pride, if I recall the brand correctly. We’d usually go for the mild, but every once in a while we’d accidentally grab one of the hot ones and have quite the surprise at the breakfast table. My dad prepared sausage – and was up earlier than the rest of us, so he made breakfast every morning for us. Sausage and egg days were the best. And then, on the weekend, that same sausage would be crumbled up and made into a cream gravy that would cover our biscuits in a goodness so rich, you’d have to take a mid-morning nap after eating it. Sage’s sharpness would shine through at each stage of that process, providing a lightness to the gravy that might not have been there otherwise.

Banana. And here’s where we take the turn into left field. There is one dessert that will cause me to go out of my way – banana pudding. Call me simple, that’s fine, but even an adequate banana pudding is ambrosia and joy to me. My mother would get a wild hare every once in a while and make these banana puddings, layering pudding with bananas and nilla wafers that I still remember. We’ve always talked about driving over to the Banana Pudding Festival (yes they have one, and it must be a beautiful sight!) near Memphis, but we usually have something else going on that weekend. If you ever go, eat a second helping in my stead. Or, really, whenever you eat banana pudding, go ahead and eat a second helping in my stead… Or better yet, bring me some?

Mint. I love mint. Put it in just about anything and I will be exceedingly happy. My dad and I share this flavor – and it all started for me when I ordered mint chocolate chip ice cream like my dad. My tongue fell in love, and has been adoringly enamored ever since. We both put mint jelly/sauce on our cuts of lamb, and enjoy it in candy bars. To gripe for a second, who at Hershey’s decided that getting rid of the mint chocolate cookie bar over a decade and a half ago was a good idea? No, seriously, and the nasty white chocolate cookie bar survived that purge? Did someone mistake one for the other, because I have been a touch bitter about that ever since – and yes, it was over 15 years ago at this point. I still remember spending the night at my friend Aaron’s house in high school and we would brew tea with fresh mint from his garden. Sure, maybe we were weird, but sweet tea with freshly crushed mint is a delicious treat on any day, especially those hot summer days.

These are just a few of the flavors I love, and that my parents passed on to me. These flavors make up a part of who I am, and are flavors I will hopefully pass on to my kids. See, to my family, food is something to be celebrated and shared… unless it’s unbearably good, and then you stash it and hope no one finds it. Seriously, though, we tend to tell long stories about the meals we’ve eaten, while eating a meal. We reminisce about trips we’ve taken, and the restaurants or snacks we found on the way. My grandfather always said, “All you get is what you wear and what you eat.” And we take the second part of that statement and run with it… right to the kitchen.

Consider that food is important, especially in the Bible, as a way to remember. Don’t forget that God commanded a yearly meal to remember the Jewish family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt. Jesus instructed his followers to eat part of that same meal to remember his family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery to sin and death. Food tells a story. What story does your dinner tell your kids?

What flavors make up your history? What flavors have you shared with your kids? What are your food stories? What places can you take your family that you went to as a child?

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When All You Want Is a Sandwich

Yesterday was one of those days that we all dread: the day where the schedule is so packed lunch becomes a faint, dying glimmer of hope. I managed to scarf down a peanut-butter sandwich before my voice lessons started, but it was a close thing. Warm-ups get a lot harder when you’ve got peanut butter residue all in your mouth.

Lent starts tomorrow. Did you remember? Originally, it was a time for those preparing for their Easter baptism to fast, pray, and prepare themselves for the majestic, terrifying, glorious, difficult journey of following Jesus for the rest of their lives. We tend to do baptisms year-round now whenever anyone makes that incredible decision, and so Lent has become a general period of fasting, prayer, and preparation for the Easter celebration.

Fasting happens quite a lot in the Bible – and why not, it’s a religious practice that goes back millennia. In particular, I think about Jesus. In the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, after a period of fasting, his first temptation is always turning stones to bread. The temptation is a nuanced one encompassing satisfying oneself selfishly, abuse of power, relying on the self instead of trusting God. Jesus realizes the nuance and responds to the temptation like so, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus cuts right to the heart of the temptation by reciting a passage that directly states that there is more to life than worrying about what we will eat or drink, and that we should “seek first the kingdom” and then “all these things will be given.”

Thinking further along in Lent, though, is the remembering of Jesus’ last Passover meal and Passion that follows. There, Jesus institutes a new meaning to the Passover symbols. He hands his friends and followers bread, and wine, and says that they are his body and blood that are broken and spilled out on behalf of the world he loves. There is something profound about such simple, common foods being used. Jesus didn’t use the bitter herbs, or the charoset. He didn’t use a mixture of spices or a complicated recipe. He used baked grains that are served at nearly every meal across the world and said, “Remember me.”

I am no longer completely confident I understand Jesus’ phrasing in choosing, “This is my body.” I have attended Mass and felt the Spirit move at the moment of consecration. I have also felt the Spirit move while dipping bread into a cup with fellow students. I have felt the Spirit present in the quiet or celebratory sharing of a piece of Matzah and a thimble of grape juice. I have shared this moment with people from all over America, and across the world. I say all that to make this point: every meal we share with those who believe, be they family or friends or new acquaintances, can become a celebration of Jesus, his life, resurrection, and Kingdom.

So as we prepare, some fasting, some not, stop and reflect when your stomach grumbles. We do need food, but we also need God’s life and His breath to sustain us. We need His Church, our fellow disciples, as we follow our King together. We need daily what God provides through His Word.

Whether you break your fast with toast and jam, or a magnificent smorgasbord, take a moment and pray. Be thankful, be joyful, be solemn, be reverent. Wherever you happen to be in life, give your worship and thanks… even over a peanut butter sandwich.

Complex Solutions in a Microwave Culture (or, Inaugurations and Marches)

If you didn’t keep up with the news this past weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt like you woke up out of a coma to some kinda of fever dream made of political nightmares. (Well, I would say one nightmare for each side of the aisle, but that’s coming from someone who’s somewhere in the middle and maybe up, or down, not sure which direction you start using for adamant moderate.) Anyway, there was an inauguration that gave a sizable chunk of the population a sense of relief, and another a sense of horror. And there was a march that gave a momentary reprieve from horror, and transferred it to the first group. So, really, no one walked out of the weekend happy. So much for that pursuit of happiness thing. (Cue sad trombone.)

Anyway, our culture has a problem. It has a disease. It has a sickness so deep in its core that there is no easy cure… It’s the desire for quick, easy fixes. (Whatever you were probably thinking I was going to say after the ellipses is probably going to be addressed here, just not the way you were thinking.) We live in a (cliche incoming) “microwave generation.” We want a duct tape or WD-40 solution to everything, regardless of the complexity of the problem. And while the Mythbusters have pretty much shown that duct tape can fix or build just about anything, it doesn’t make it the appropriate solution for every problem.

Food is just a symptom of the problem. Consider the sheer amount of microwaveable meals and foods available at your grocery store. Now, think about the number of times you have cooked a homemade (or semi-homemade, no judgment) meal. How do these compare with your growing up years? Honestly, my generation (millennials, I say with a sigh) is beginning to take notice and change things. We’re living in a time of the “slow food” movement, which seeks to further causes like sustainable farming, local produce and meat, and good cooking techniques. It values flavor, sustainability, and the local community. This is interesting when compared to a certain period in American history where everything seemed to be moving toward automation, fast-food, and instant meals. I don’t agree with everything in the slow food movement, but it’s something I can get behind because I see the value in it, as well as how it’s attempting to tackle complex issues in complex ways and taking its time developing those solutions.

Compare that with recent protests and reactions against the government. (And, as a white man, I will be approaching this issue carefully.) Consider the women’s march. (If you want to read a well-pondered opinion piece that is probably more thorough than mine, and from which I will be using some ideas, check out this article by David Brooks.) Brooks points out that the Women’s March, and “progressivism” (whatever that means now) missed an opportunity to define what it means to be a patriot, and to tackle a complex problem by presenting a comprehensive, long-term solution.

The idea I’m getting at is that a silver bullet solution isn’t available in the complex world we inhabit. (And why are all problems werewolves?) Consider abortion rights, which, arguably, was a major point of protest, which left many pro-life persons feeling shunned or unwelcome during the lead-up to the march. And, there were real issues to be dealt with: energy, equal pay, equal job opportunities, basic rights for all, and immigration reform, to name a few. And, truly, we could spend days just discussing what one of those issues means at its most basic level and how it would actually work in America and globally. These aren’t easy, simple problems.

So let’s take the pro-life stance. (Bias awareness: pro-life is my point of view, but please listen, as you may be surprised by the conclusion.) Pro-life seems like an easy viewpoint: protect the rights of unborn children. Pass a law, make it illegal, and done. Except that it hasn’t ever been, and never will be that easy. Consider that the early church was known for walking through the streets and gathering up abandoned and exposed newborns and nursing them back to health with their own resources. Consider that this was a fairly radical idea when it started, as the Greek ideal was to dispose of those considered weak, frail, or unwanted. Moving this forward, what does it look like the church’s (and the general population’s) role needs to be in lessening abortion? Sounds like the church, along with other individuals, has a lot of work to do, huh? Is the church willing to pay for hospital visits and delivery fees and to compassionately care for mothers carrying their children to term? Is the church willing to educate young people and really talk about sex in an open, frank way? Are individuals willing to give up their prejudice against single moms and love and provide for these children as God does? And that’s just the beginning of the pro-life argument.

See, being pro-life means more than just arguing for beginning of life rights. It also means defending the rights of the aged, the disabled, the poor, the refugee, the immigrant. Each of these individuals has a right to life as well. Is the pro-life movement willing to pull them under its wing as well? Oh, and what about being a vocal opponent of torture, war, and other violence? Can we really say, “Save the life of this child,” while calling for the deaths of enemies? And one step further… can one claim a pro-life stance if in favor of the death penalty?

When it comes to these issues, the complexity comes to rest at home. Will a law truly change the situation, or is it just treating a symptom? Will compassion, generosity, and education do more? The solutions rest in our own hands and depend on whether or not we begin to take action. Our time, talents, and resources show your priorities. Our words and actions illustrate the content of our hearts.

Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done for me.” Liberty bears this inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Isn’t the American (and Christian) ideal to take the long, hard road toward a collectively decided goal? Despite its mistakes in the past, when America is unified toward a worthwhile goal, very little can stand in its way. And when the church is unified toward a godly goal, nothing can stand in its way.

Let’s look ahead toward more complex, long-term solutions than easy, short-term fixes. Pray for America. Pray for your leaders. Pray that you will see opportunities and take them.

Photo Credit: Statue of Liberty, NY.jpg via wikimedia commons

Dad’s Food

Food

If you have not guessed yet, food is a big deal to my family. For some people, vacations are about seeing the sights or experiencing some new culture. In a way, we agree, but for the most part we’re more interested in the food culture of a place and which restaurants we get to try.

My father has always been a big proponent of eating healthy. He was always a great balance to my mother’s love of homey, Southern food. My dad found ways to balance flavor, nutrition, and hominess all in the same dish. I still remember his pot roasts, in particular with the potatoes and carrots mixed in.  My mother had issues with some of his taste in herbs, though, and would often request that “the green stuff” be left out. Regardless, my dad’s food was always healthy, nourishing, and dependable. See, my dad, and mom, were adamant about nightly family meals. I know it is difficult for many families to accomplish this, but I remember the act of sitting down and eating more than I do the food, sometimes. Those are good memories, and reminded me each meal that I had a group of people who loved me enough to take time and create a meal to share together.

My father has always loved Ethnic cuisines. I most often associate my dad with Mediterranean food – black olives, goat cheese, lamb, gyros, Taziki sauce. He loved those flavors, with their earthy boldness, much the same reason as he probably loved good Southern cornbread and pinto beans. I’ve come to associate those flavors and textures with home, with my dad. Every once in a while he’d make pinto beans, collard greens, and cornbread for supper. It has taken me years to finally love that combination, but sometimes I will sit bolt upright on the couch at 9 o’clock at night and declare that I will be making cornbread right then. And, yes, it is worth it every single time.

We also share a love of sushi. We discovered sushi right about the same time, if I recall correctly. Sometimes for lunch after church on Sundays we would drive by the Fresh Market and pick up some smaller things like sushi, bread, cheese, and meat to make a kind of smorgasbord at our dinner table at home. I enjoyed these little trips, and my dad and I began to sample to sushi. A particularly funny experience came when we went to Las Vegas for the western Optical Convention. We were exploring the area and found a sushi place that had a very low price, and so my father and I excitedly dragged my mother and brother along with us. My dad and I ordered some, as I recall, delicious rolls that had a great combination of flavors, spice, and texture, while my mom and brother looked on in disgust as we ingested raw fish. To this day, they still tell that story and how they left the restaurant early to find a ham sandwich or something recognizable.

My father is nothing if not consistent, and one of those points, beside family dinners, was breakfast. My father believed in sending us to school in the morning with a full belly so we could focus. Some days we would have cereal, others would be grits, or oatmeal with fruit, some days eggs and bacon or sausage. My father never let breakfast get old or boring. To this day, I get up and have at least a little something to make sure that I have energy and can focus in the morning. And his constancy may be the reason that breakfast, and breakfast food, remains my favorite type of meal.

My father gave me the gift of food and cooking. He gave me a passion to reach out and explore new flavors, to make mistakes in the kitchen, and to refine each dish until it became a masterpiece. The food may not have lasted, because we ate it, but the memories and the feeling of home that comes from a shared meal certainly did.

Honesty Can/Will Get Me Killed (or at least blocked on Facebook)

Can I be honest for a moment? I mean, really honest? The kind of honest that makes people uncomfortable and you can hear the tense silence of thousands of people’s angry reaction building instantaneously as they read?

I have dreams of being a parent one day. I work in children’s ministry so I often joke about having 25+ kids, but we all know their parents are putting in so much more time and energy to raise those children the best they can. And, really, those parents are heroes in their own right: parenting is a challenge, but a blessing all the same.

And, truly, I have much respect for parents in today’s world. Maybe it’s the fault of history books, but I feel like life used to be less complex. Or maybe in the past many people were more concerned about survival than the details. Hearing about my family’s past and reading a fantastic book My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg points out that many folks struggled just to put another meal on the table. I guess, then, we should call it a blessing that new issues have begun to come to the forefront.

I have to chuckle a little at the change in mindset even in myself. There are people in our towns and cities today wondering where there next meal might be, and there are some reading this post wondering where wild-caught, organic fish might be on sale for dinner tonight. The issue of food has been one of my personal thought experiments for a while now. I have been doing some peripheral research (shallow and reductionist at best) and have decided that sugar is the enemy to fight in my own home. Others have decided to battle against genetically modified foods, or added chemicals, or to go vegetarian, or go organic. I think it is wonderful that our society has become so affluent that these options are available and, mostly, financially tenable.

Now here’s where I’ll be honest, I don’t get the reason for shaming other parents for what they are doing differently. I don’t understand why we cannot consider that some families do not have certain financial or time resources others do. Perhaps they have not become the enlightened paragon of purity to which some have achieved, and they are simply trying to put food on the table and provide the best life possible for their children.

At the risk of sounding cliche: some people live to eat, and others eat to live. We all eat, but some eat also because of the pleasure of flavor, texture, and origin. (I put myself in that category, all things considered.)  Others eat to stay alive one more day in the hope of making a better tomorrow. Some even go without.

Keeping with honesty, there are so many other issues that this applies to. Before posting one more article or blog post in the hopes of convincing that one person to come to your side, stop and thank God for your situation in life and your freedom and ability to advocate for a particular viewpoint.

Remember, as always, that as a parent and adult, others are always looking to you to be a model and example of how to behave. One day, your child will have social media. One day your child will be a parent. One day your child will meet their first vegan. How do you want your child to interact with others?

So, everyone, I have stopped and thanked God for my situation and for all of you. Now, please make sure that your toilet paper rolls under, your peas sit cozily in a bed of mashed potatoes, and you call it a buggy and not a shopping cart.

Though, if you happen to have a different opinion, I suppose you can continue doing whatever it is you are accustomed to doing.

Giving What You Have

What do you do when you’re faced with over 5,000 hungry people miles away from any town? If Jesus’ response is any indication, the answer is to ask politely for a small child’s lunchbox and then proceed to hand it out enough to where multiple Bi-Lo sacks are left over.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking: this is where we call in the Dinner: Impossible guy and have him yell at us for several hours until we can cater this thing correctly. But then, again, that kind of misses the point, really.

In the story, the disciples are faced with the monumental, seemingly impossible task of, “You feed them,” from Jesus. Completely flummoxed, the disciples stare at him in disbelief until he asks the question, “What do you have?” There’s the key. Jesus doesn’t point out the disciples’ inability to handle the situation, he asks what resources they do have. Once they hand the meager offering, Jesus breaks it, blesses it, and gives it back for them to share.

NT Wright pointed out something cool here. When we are faced with some nearly impossible task, Jesus invites us to go through this process ourselves. Instead of pointing out our weakness and lack, Jesus asks, “What do you have?” Then, when we hand over our meager talents, abilities, and resources, he breaks them, blesses them, and gives them back for us to use.

It takes humility to hand over what little we have as far as our abilities go, but it takes much more to receive back something broken and seemingly less. Think about it, each disciple probably didn’t receive 5 loaves and 2 fish worth to start off with. Each one would have received 1/12 or less of the starting quantity. Let that sink in for a second. Jesus says, “All right, Thomas, you’ve got that section there near that tree, and Philip, you’ve got the section near that rock pile,” and you’re sitting there staring at your small handful of food thinking, “It’s official, he’s lost his mind.”

But think of the renewed spirit when that meager bit of food begins to seem like more and more as you give away more and more. You could say our abilities and talents are similar – they may seem small, but the more we give away in Jesus’ name, the more we seem to have to give.

In my weakness, he is strong. His grace is sufficient for me. No matter what you face, hand it over to God. It may not come back in the same shape,but it will come back blessed, and ready to do more than you could ever have thought possible.

Meals

I like food. Most people who spend any amount of time around me know I like food. I like making food, eating food, sometimes sharing food (if people ask first or I offer.) Food is one of those great things that can bring people together in a way most other events or things can’t.

So I guess it’s no surprise just how much eating is in the Bible. Many of the big key moments of the biblical narrative happen at a meal or around food of some sort. Just to name a few:

* Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
* God announcing Isaac’s birth to Sarah
* The Exodus beginning with the Passover meal
* David beginning his flight from Saul, eating the bread of the presence
* David welcoming Ish-Bosheth
* Esther saving her people from treachery happened at a banquet
* Daniel and his friends choosing veggies over unclean foods in Babylon
* A majority of Jesus’ ministry (parties and feasts – no really, go check)
* Jesus’ final Passover meal before his crucifixion

I guess I like having people over because I figure something big’s gonna happen during the meal. There’s plenty of precedence, after all.

But seriously, two meals stood out to me when I was reading up on the Easter story (yes, it’s early, but I plan ahead) for a lesson this April. I was reading the story of the Road to Emmaus. This story centers on two followers of Jesus who are heading to Emmaus, presumably their home, after the Passover week. They are distressed and discussing what had happened to Jesus when Jesus himself starts walking alongside them. They don’t recognize him, of course, but Jesus begins asking questions and ends up explaining about himself starting with Moses and the prophets and how he had to die to fulfill what was written. The followers were impressed at his knowledge and invited them to their house, and Jesus broke the bread and blessed it. Suddenly, the two travelers recognized Jesus and he vanished. They ran back to Jerusalem and told the Eleven apostles what had happened.

One phrase I left out makes a world of difference, along with a detail I had never considered. One of the commentaries I read suggested that Cleopas’s (one traveler’s name) companion might have been his wife. Which would make sense if they were headed home after Passover. The phrase is: “and their eyes were opened.” We see this several times in the Bible as a way to say someone has received understanding. Here, the two travelers received understanding that their companion was Jesus, in the flesh!

There’s another couple who receives this phrase in their story: Adam and Eve. When they eat from the tree, Genesis says, “their eyes were opened.” Suddenly, they understood disobedience and shame. They wanted to cover themselves and hide. Their understanding was pain itself.

But now fast forward to this passage in Luke: a couple has their eyes opened to the new life Jesus talked about. They see Jesus and recognize him as the Messiah, the Savior, the King. They recognize that the fear, shame, pain, and death that came from that first meal has completely changed. At a table so far separated by time, a new recognition dawns and this couple understands Jesus’ mission and victory!

So when people like me say that meals are important for the family, the biblical narrative seems to support that. Big things happen during meals. Understanding between members is fostered, and knowledge and wisdom pass from generation to generation. Laughter is shared, pain is shared. A regular family meal is something that should not be ignored, no matter how fast life moves.

May your family meals be impactful, fun, and a place of love.