Friday, January 6, 2012


This blog has moved to, where I can add pages and have a more extensive website. I will miss the traffic I get from "nextblog," but hope some of you will follow me over there.

You can get to the new blog here:

Or simply at

Hope to see you there!


Monday, January 2, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

We started the new year by watching a really wonderful movie that somehow didnt' make it on my radar until I saw it on Euan Kerr's Top 10 list on Minnesota Public Radio's website. Technically, the movie came out in 2010, but I'm glad he included it.

It's a Western directed by a woman, Kelly Reichardt, which in itself is unusual. There was not a word of dialogue until minute six, and for a small budget film it has wonderful cinematography. It also has some major acting talent, namely Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson (I love her!) and Will Patton. It's no Days of Heaven, but it's aspiring to that same elemental, beautiful, contemplative vision of America.

The film is really a deeply affective and effective exploration of otherness. The families are lost in the Oregon wilderness with a guide, Stephen Meek, who is all bluster and bravado and has also clearly lost his way. They are all supremely vulnerable and at each other's mercy. When they encounter an Indian and forcibly make him a part of their party, thinking he can lead them to water, they are at the mercy of a being that is completely other.

There are nice touches-- Meek's face is completely obscured by facial hair, making you want to claw your way to the bottom of him-- is he for real or is he a fake? Can you trust him? The Indian, bare-chested and with an utterly blank yet open face, is other in a different way that is also, in some sense, the same. It is "the West" that is other, the landscape that is impenetrable.

Some people might find the way the film treats gender a big heavy-handed, but I liked it. When there are discussions to be had about the settlers' predicament, they are had by the men, while the sound man and we spectators watch with the women from a slight distance. This adds to the sense of being lost and dependent, without a sense that the women are oppressed. They are just in their roles, as are the men. The main couple, the Teatherows (Williams and Patton), speak intimately at night and he asks her opinion, shares information and engages her in the drama of the journey then.

The film is based on real accounts of the journey of a wagon train guided by Meek via a "short-cut" in 1845. The larger wagon train broke into two parties, and Meek accompanied the smaller, led by Teatherow. However, it was likely not this small, just three families and their wagons. Meek's wife was also in the actual party. But the small ensemble allows for the meditative feel of the film while no character gets short shrift. Also, a wide variety of responses to the situation can be given by these characters.

All in all, it was a very compelling film, and I highly recommend it. It does feel, too, like we are starting the winter film viewing off right! 

For a good overview of the historical wagon journey in 1945 across Meek's cutoff, click here.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Braciole for the New Year: Fancy Peasant Food

 My favorite Christmas gift this year was the book Frankies Spuntino: Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual, a cookbook that is more a "how to make your own fine Italian restaurant" by Peter Meehan and the two Frankies (Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo) behind Frankies Spuntino restaurants in New York. It was a gift from Steve's daughter Catherine and her boyfriend Homer, who enjoy my cooking and garden. Homer's mother, a native New Yorker now living in Brooklyn, is famous for her Saturday market routine, which involves rising very early to get to the farmers' market by 6 a.m. and then traveling all over the city for various goods. I'm not an early riser, but I'd like to think that the next time I'm in New York, if things align, I could accompany her.

My own two years in Brooklyn (1989-91) were very important to me in terms of my food experience. I was in my mid-twenties, in graduate school, living in Park Slope above a video store on 7th Avenue. I'd walk to 4th Avenue to the first real fish market I ever encountered (as a Midwesterner, not surprising). It had a screen door that slammed shut behind customers with a slap like a summer cabin in the Catskil

I tried to recreate dishes I had at the local restaurants, including the pasta primavera with seafood at an Italian restaurant down the street. My friends Frances Storey and Jim Mindnich introduced me to more good food and some tucked away places that were cheap, ethnic and delicious. They lived in Carroll Gardens, and I could ride my bike to their loft, where we often had Sunday dinner and a movie. I particularly loved riding my bike home afterward through the quiet but still active neighborhood streets.

Shortly after I began reading the book, I became fixated on one particular dish: the braciole (pronounced bra-JOEL, with joel pronounced like a French name with a soft 'j'). It's peasant food, a cheap cut of pork tenderly prepared and cooked in simmering tomato sauce for three hours. It's the Italian brisket, that other great peasant food, that makes a masterpiece out of a fatty piece of gristly meat. I couldn't wait to try it, and set my sights on New Year's Eve.

I loved everything about making this meal, including gathering the ingredients. I went to our local fine grocery, Byerly's, for the white pepper and the Italian tomatoes. I used two cans of LaValle tomatoes, which at $2.59 a can were a luxury-- and were the most luxurious, sensuous canned tomatoes I've ever had the pleasure of crushing between my fingers. I added two jars of my own canned tomatoes, draining off a bit of the water. The tomato sauce consists of olive oil, 18 cloves of garlic (13 but I used 5 more), salt and the tomatoes. I started it cooking at 2:30, thinking I needed four hours, but really I should have started even earlier. As soon as I finished the chocolate tart at noon I should have started it simmering, but I'll know better next time.

I bought the pork roast, a boneless butt, a while ago from Newmans farm, a couple who sell their meat at our farmer's market. Not sure it was the same as "boneless pork shoulder," I stopped by the meat market and asked for just that. They said, "Oh, you'd want a boneless butt roast," looking kind of dubious about it. I told them that I had one of those, bought some local Gruyere (the recipe called for aged provolone, but I just love this Gruyere, and it is locally made), and left. I realized the butcher's puzzled look when I cut into the roast. It's a cheap cut of meat, quite fatty. The Newmans sold it to me along with a finer cut of pork, suggesting I roast them together. The fat from one would help keep them both moist. I'm glad I found a better method of cooking it than throwing it in a pot with some liquid and hoping for the best.

You cut the roast in 6 filets, butterfly them and stuff them with cheese, parsley, salt, pepper and garlic, then roll and tie them with kitchen twine. After the tomato sauce has simmered an hour or two (in my case, 45 minutes) you "tuck them into the sauce" and simmer for three more hours. You skim the grease off the top (a combination of pork fat and the olive oil) and let the meat sit a half hour before putting it over pasta, slathering it with sauce, and serving it.

The only question-- the big question-- is, will it be worth it? For me, it was a lovely afternoon. I proofed the galleys of the book while making trips to stir the sauce, breaks to prepare the shaved raw Brussels sprouts  and dressing, have a little wine, stir the sauce again, have a glass of Pellegrino, etc.

Tim and Annie came for dinner, and I have to say, yes, it was worth it. I will make this again, definitely. As peasant food goes, it's the fanciest, and it was tender, flavorful, and really not difficult at all. Fun, even. With some dinner rolls, the Brussels sprouts and chocolate tart, it was a wonderful meal, and we all left the table stuffed and satisfied. My brother had provided the wine from Portugal, a 2008 Quinta de Infantado, full-bodied and smooth.

For me, this meal was the perfect end to 2011. It captured so much of what I've tried to incorporate into my life this year: my garden tomatoes, organic Brussels sprouts from the Minnesota Market Co-op in St. Joseph, local meat and cheese from the meat market and farmers' market. It was slow-cooked with love and delight and served to family in my warm and festive kitchen, preceded by some homemade cheese and crackers.

My goal for 2012 is to visit the actual Frankies Spuntino in Carroll Gardens and check out the braciole in person. They say the biggest compliment they get from Italian Americans is "it tastes like mine," which means it is as good as mama made it back in the day. Perfection would be to have Frances and Jim come with me, but that is mostly a New Year's wish, with thoughts of old friends and good times in places far away. 

Happy New Year, everyone. May it be a good one for us all.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Chicken Thighs, Sausage, Kale and White Bean Stew

I've resisted putting this recipe up, mostly because it's just slightly adapted from where I found it, on the blog "My Communal Table." Here's the original post. It's a great blog, where the author not only has tons of great recipes, but she also gives you a monthly rundown on how much she spent on food that month and how many people she fed with the money.

I am not a slowcooker person, but I made this on the stovetop in November and immediately knew I wanted to make it for Christmas Eve. Our tradition is to have the folks who live on the farm over for Christmas Eve dinner, something hearty and warming. In the past Steve's made deep-dish pizza, lasagna and his amazing gumbo, but all of these take quite a bit of time to prepare. With this dish, all you need is some good bread and butter and you have a great meal. Add a salad, cheese before dinner and a big plate of Christmas cookies after, and you've got a real winner of a dinner party.

The other major change I made was to switch out the pasta for white beans. I also added mushrooms, just because I love mushrooms in stew. I also have not been able to find smoked turkey necks, and the mushrooms might add a bit of something to the broth. Mostly, though, the smoked hot Italian sausage is what rocks the broth.

The Heymans family has gotten so large and multi-generational, that Christmas is becoming difficult. There were rumblings about not all getting together on Christmas Day this year, and it looks like those will continue. This dish would actually work even on Christmas Day, though I wouldn't want to make it for 30! Even for 10, I had a little "overflow" pan which has become the leftovers. You're going to want leftovers.

Chicken Thighs, Sausage, Kale and White Bean Stew

1 medium onion, diced
1 8 oz package mushrooms, sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 package of chicken thighs
1 package smoked, hot Italian sausage links/brats
white wine
chicken broth
2 cans white beans (canneloni, great northern, etc)
2 bunches of kale
dash of red pepper
generous helping of rosemary
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Begin by browning the chicken thighs and brats and put them aside. In a small amount of the chicken/brat grease, saute the onion, garlic and mushrooms with red pepper and rosemary 8-10 minutes, until translucent and giving up their juices. Layer the chicken thighs, sausage and half the kale, add the white wine and chicken broth (to cover the chicken thighs or less if you want less broth) and bake in the oven for 2+ hours. I'm paranoid about chicken so end up turning the heat up at the end just to make sure. Add the beans and the rest of the kale in the last 15 minutes or so, salt and pepper and more rosemary to taste. The broth is so tasty, you'll want bread to sop it up.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Bible

This week a friend engaged me in an online conversation about an art exhibit at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh by an artist who explores sacred objects. The artist, Jeffrey Vallance, has made reliquaries in which he's enshrined decidedly non-sacred objects (a bone from a grocery store chicken he named Blinky). He's also made The Vallance Bible, which runs to 28 pages, leather-bound and, for $50, includes a sweat cloth, a piece of silk he's worn close to his skin while exercising. The sweat cloth is a take on relics like St. Veronica's veil. The legend has it that she wiped the face of Jesus with a veil while he was on his way to the cross and it left the image of his face on the veil. Saints and mystics are also said to give off particular scents-- for example the scent of roses-- and he was drawing on that tradition.

The quotation from his bible was sort of a "God created the big bang" story, well written, succinct and, well, fine. The show doesn't seem very interesting and its tone is ironic and flippant in a way that doesn't hold my attention. The appropriate response seems to be "Ah, how clever;" not "Wow, that moves me;" or "Wow, I never thought of it that way before." I do like the territory it is covering, and the fact that the Warhol Museum is using it as an opportunity to get people out into the city to see great sacred art in some of the local churches.

Our discussion did catch me at a time I've been thinking about bibles. With the recent completion of The Saint John's Bible, a monumental, 13-year project to hand-write and hand-illuminate the Bible on vellum, and the completion of my third volume on the art, The Art of The Saint John's Bible, I was struck again by my own history with bibles.

I've always had (well, since junior high) a sort of "working bible" that is paperback and kind of ratty. For years and years it was a New International Version that I got when I attended an Intervarsity Christian convention at the University of Illinois as a sophomore in college. This was one of those stadium deals with thousands of college kids and lots of speakers and a convention hall of freebies that culminated in a keynote by Billy Graham. Over the years, the cover (which promoted the convention) faded, but I continued to use that as my bible. I never had tabs on the pages to find the various books (that's just cheating) or put it in a fancy leather carrying case. The back cover came off, then the front. I had other bibles, but they weren't as comfortable for me-- I always reached for that one.

When I started taking classes at Saint John's School of Theology, I needed a Catholic translation-- the New American Bible (NAB) or the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The press I did freelance work for used the NAB, so I got a nice red paperback copy. I got to know its language and more than that-- its verse numbers and paper thickness and the lie of the print on the page. It's hard for me to explain what it means to get comfortable with a bible.

The Saint John's Bible uses the NRSV, so I needed another working bible, to move around in more easily while doing research. One of my husband's daughters had left a copy on a shelf, so I started using that one. The back cover was already missing and it is marked in places with brackets around verses. I like to read the passages and imagine what lesson brought her to that place and what she might have made of it. It now has post-it notes sticking out of various places. I think part of its particular appeal is that it is not new.

For me, the Bible is both a sacred and everyday item. I never get tired of going to it and welcome every opportunity to read and experience that text. When I am going to away to write, it is the first book I pack, though I wouldn't say I exactly "use" it in my writing. And I certainly don't read the Bible every day (as I should as a Benedictine Oblate).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Tree Video

I've written about our Christmas tree before, but each year it does fill me with total pride and unearned nostalgia. The tree came from Steve's grandfather's hardware store in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, brand spankin' new in 1965. That is also the year that A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired, vilifying exactly this kind of Christmas tree. And, of course, introducing that iconic jazzy Christmas music by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

In my house in Park Forest, where my parents moved with me from Pennsylvania in 1965 when I was a year old, we were listening to The Sound of Christmas, the Ramsey Lewis Christmas album that came out in 1960 and was re-released in 1962 with added tracks. My parents, who married in 1963, may have bought it for their first Christmas together, along with the Kingston Trio and Bing Crosby Christmas albums.

These would become mainstays of our Christmas listening, with few additions-- the Muppets' Christmas album and the Carpenters' Christmas album are the only two I remember as vividly in the mix. On a Saturday between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day (our official Christmas season), My mother would prop up the 4-6 albums in the morning, and one by one they'd drop and play. When they had finished, she would turn the whole stack over and play the B-sides. While they played, we'd make Christmas cookies and crafts for presents for teachers (my favorite, the Christmas diorama in a baby-food jar with cotton snow, white glitter, and tiny wooden figures).

Each album had a distinct character, and listening to them in halves like this, instead of individual songs on a mix tape or ipod shuffle, had a strong effect on me. I never tired of them. By the time one was over, I was so ready for the next. The rolicking fun of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" by the Kingston Trio was always welcome, and the groove of Ramsey Lewis was a welcome counterpoint. Bing Crosby's "Mele Kalikamaka" could certainly try one's patience, but it was worth listening to for the delight of those background singers on his version of "Jingle Bells."

This year when we put up the Christmas tree, I got out my camera and made a little video. I was initially motivated by showing the individual steel branches in their original paper sleeves. However, it is also quite a production to put up the thing, so I just kept picking up the camera. In a way, this tree is the embodiment of Steve's aesthetic-- midcentury modern and somewhat minimalist. No lights go on the tree, or ornaments (so I've been instructed). Just these small colored balls, glass, of which a surprising number remain intact (I broke one this year). Since presumably Charlie Brown wouldn't approve, I went with the Ramsey Lewis soundtrack instead.

The video turned out much better than I expected. The muted original sound and the light sort of makes it feel like an old-fashioned 8mm family film. There's one clip where I forgot to mute the sound, and you can hear the football game in the background.

Enjoy the video, and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 8, 2011


A laundromat is such a good civic business. I was a patron of these establishments well into my 30s. When we were finally in a place where we could have a washer/dryer, my first husband said he'd rather skip it; he didn't mind going to the laundromat.

The first one I frequented after college was in Midtown Atlanta and was frequented by transvestites. I was not familiar with this subculture and I enjoyed washing my clothes with these flambouyant, gentle folks. This prepared me for my laundromat in Brooklyn, which was a hub of activity, always. It was across from a subway stop in Park Slope and attracted all sorts of characters. I've always thought there is some irony to the commercials that feature laundromats as places to meet people to date. It makes sense, but laundromats always have a bit of danger about them. It's not a place I've ever gone looking for a date.

One memorable day after hiking in the rain for a few hours, I spent some time in a laundromat near Arcadia National Park in Maine with some male friends drying our clothes. My suitcase was in the trunk of the car, so we all wore my spare clothes while we waited for our own to dry. Definitely a flashback to Atlanta.

St. Joseph just opened a laundromat a few months ago, and I didn't think I'd ever use it. But our washer at work has been acting up, and while I'm waiting for the repairman, I needed to wash two loads of sheets and towels. So off I went to the laundromat.

It's a beautiful place-- all the shiny, new machines, super-efficient and quick (27 minute cycles!) and able to hold loads up to 30 lbs. The dryers are the same gigantic machines sunk into walls. There were two television sets playing bad reality talk shows, but the volume was quite low. This made it possible to listen to the Christmas music from a local station that was playing a mix of country and traditional favorites.

When "Same Old Lang Syne" by Dan Fogelberg came over the speakers, I had to chuckle. At first I wasn't sure it was a Christmas song. It takes it's place with other hard-luck holiday songs, like "Christmas in Prison" by John Pryne, and "Merry Christmas from the Family" by Robert Earle Keene.

I love these songs, because they capture the kind of universal dinginess of Christmas which is thanks to the American consumerism that has devolved the holiday from oranges in stockings to blow-up Santas on the front lawn (why are they deflated during the day?). I'm as nostalgic as anyone for the giant light bulbs of my youth that would burn your hands when you accidentally brushed it trying to get a candy cane off the tree. But I didn't know I'd become nostalgic for the current mini-lights as they get overtaken by garish LED lights.

It was good to be in a laundromat a couple weeks before Christmas. A young dad came in with two giant hampers and started filling machines, and one other woman came in with her modest load and asked if I knew where the remote was for the television. Mostly we minded our own business, reading the recipes in Women's Day or watching the horror show on television. Or humming along to good old Dan Fogelberg.

If you haven't heard it in a while, click here. Just realize it might be a while before you can get it out of your head.