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.   

Monday, December 5, 2011


We've got our first long blast of cold weather. It's been discouraging to see open water still on the small lakes around here. When it's cold, I want ice! Time to skate!

On Friday night, we went to some friends' house for a festive dinner party. When we were leaving, our headlights shone on what looked like a major construction site in the backyard next door. "Wonder what's going on there," I said. Steve responded, "They're making an ice rink!"

This is a great Minnesota tradition, though I hadn't seen it up close before. Steve has made them before; all it takes is plastic sheeting, 2x8s and some concrete blocks to hold the plastic in place. Then you flood the ice with a hose.

There are, of course, some very nice amateur videos on YouTube that show you how to make yoru own rink in your backyard. Some are quite elaborate. Most are made by teenage hockey players, and as such, the music over the videos is very loud and there's much profanity used in describing the ice rink construction and final product. I did find this lovely family rink video.

There's also an excellent documentary about amateur ice rinks in Minnesota, Canada and other cold places, called Pond Hockey: There are advantages to frozen ground!

I grew up ice skating three blocks from our house on Farragut Street in Park Forest, Illinois. The grade school (Illinois School, on Illinois Street, not to be confused with Indiana School on Indiana Street about 12 blocks away) had an outdoor rink every winter. You never knew when it would be flooded (it seemed done by elves, but I do believe some firemen came out and opened a fire hydrant onto it once the weather was going to stay below freezing). The rink was actually carved into the ground, with sloped sides and a mound down the middle that separated the figure skating side from the hockey side. This was, in my day and my neighborhood, a gender line: boys on the hockey side and girls on the figure skating side.

I also took figure skating lessons at a large indoor rink in Park Forest South. I took a bus to get there, and I always was a little nervous when I came out into the dark (it was probably 4:30 or 5 p.m.) and had to find my bus. I had no idea where I was but it felt like a long way from home. I truly valued this kind of independent experience even then. I became a good skater: figure eights and backward and some spins, but nothing elaborate. As good a skater as I was, I was always impressed by boys and how they could skate. Hockey demanded a kind of athleticism I would never have, a confidence and ease on skates. It was like they were on solid ground and I was doing the same thing on a balance beam, precarious.

The last time I was at that grade school rink, the older brother of one of my childhood friends was there with his toddler daughter. He was clearly a hockey player. She was on little double-bladed skates and completely enveloped in a snowsuit. This man, who was in his 20s, skated around and around the rink, holding onto her all the way. She must have felt like she was flying. All you could hear was her laughter, pealing out of that snowsuit. When they came my way, I could see her face-- one gigantic smile. It was one of the purest portraits of joy I've ever seen.

So every day I watch our pond, waiting for the day it will ice over, then freeze completely. It's nice if it happens before there is snow, but if there is snow, Tim will get out there and blow it clear. In the old days, Paul used to string up lights around the pond, but now we skate in dark or moonlight.

It's one reason we live in Minnesota.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Come in from the Cold

I think the best thing that could happen for the Occupy Wall Street movement at this time is to come inside. This first phase of the movement has been a total success-- with encampments in cities throughout the country, a developing and more and more clearly defined message, supporters from many segments of the population and a growing student movement. It has been felt internationally and, according to the New York Times, "We are the 99 percent" has officially entered the lexicon.

It is time to use the winter to focus efforts, build programs and platforms and prepare for summer. With the NATO and G8 meetings set in Chicago in May, the possibilities of a 1968 atmosphere of protests in the parks is quite possible. City officials have even said that they see dealing with the Occupy protesters as a "test run" for what they expect will happen this summer. Everyone would like to keep it peaceful, and I hope that is the case. In fact, government officials nationwide seem for the most part supportive of Occupy Wall Street, and seem to be going out of their way to be civil and negotiate. Hearing the mayor of Portland, Oregon on The News Hour along with a spokesperson from the Occupy movement there reflected well on both the protesters and the mayor-- especially on the mayor.

But now, it's cold. And no good can come of protesting 24/7 in the cold parks of the U.S. I have felt that way for a while, but especially when I heard some kind of audio diary produced by a woman who occupied the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, during the legislature/Scott Walker standoff several months ago. In her diary, she talks about being exhausted, becoming increasingly unfocused and unable to concentrate even on what was going on around her in the halls of the capitol.

There is a very good reason to occupy-- it gets attention, and it provides a forum not just for expressing outrage and solidarity but also talking through issues and hearing a variety of opinions and of bonding. But in the end, people who lead really good chants become the leadership when you're outside for months in the cold. And ultimately, there's no future in it. So I'm not unhappy to see the parks getting cleared. I think regular monthly one-day actions throughout the winter like the one in New York on October 21 should be organized. But also, groups should continue to meet, identify leaders and continue to clarify both positions and programs for change.

I have a specific hope for the students who have begun protesting increases in tuition. When I look around at the colleges in this country, I see a system that promotes privilege and greed and that is unsustainable. Building LEED-certified facilities that cost millions of dollars is not the answer to what college students need. What is at the core of a college education? What do the students value? And how can they demand the universities and colleges provide them with an education-- without frills and perks that have become standard expectations-- at a reasonable cost? Is that something the students are even willing to do? 

There is so much good going on in this country right now-- people growing their own food; living simply; moving their money to small, local banks; making good choices about how they will participate (or not) in credit and debt and even purchasing. People are going "back to the land" literally and figuratively, building community and volunteering. I truly hope that Occupy Wall Street will be able to grow as a movement and consider real solutions-- solutions that involve changes made by all of us, not just the "1 percent" (though I believe nothing good will happen if the banks aren't held accountable for their actions against the public interest and until those entities too big to fail are dismantled). I hope the movement will have integrity and reflect the values it espouses. I am looking forward to summer and the election season and the possibility of continued dialogue and a commitment to the common good. 

The news tonight featured a story on decreases in the amount of money going to provide heat to low income families. The administration has requested even less for this program than most political leaders are willing to approve (or maybe just in northern states like Minnesota!). I'm not sure what that means, but I do know it's one more way in which the "safety net" is being stripped away to cover our nation's debts because we won't/can't raise taxes. I look forward to a time that "safety net" is not pejorative, and when we care for everyone in our society.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

New Translation of the Mass

Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
The Damsel of the Sanct Grael
I arrived in Central Minnesota and began interacting with the monks of Saint John's Abbey back in 2005-06. In the spring of 2006, Bishop Donald Trautman gave a lecture on the proposed new English translation of the Roman Missal, a translation that changed again here and there as it made its way to approval in 2009 and was implemented in its final form for the first time today.

Bishop Trautman, and most of the monks at St. John's, as strong advocates of the Vatican II Church, have been greatly dismayed by the new translation. (For a good article on Bishop Trautman's critique, click here.) It is an attempt to translate the Latin text more literally, and one of the arguments for this is that it unifies the text with other translations throughout the world. They all begin in Latin and, if they are faithful to the Latin, should have more in common with each other. It is a great aspiration of the Mass that one can worship anywhere in the world with the same prayers and texts.

The English translation that was done in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (and never meant to be permanent), was done according to the prinicple of "dynamic equivalents." In other words, it used language that people in the pews would be familiar with rather than obscure Latin terms. So we get in the Creed the phrase "one in being with the father" rather than "consubstantial with the father." Since full participation of the people in the pews was the objective of having Mass in the vernacular, the translators went for clarity and, perhaps, simplicity. Father Godfrey Diekmann of Saint John's Abbey was an important part of the original International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) working on that translation.

In the decades that followed, ICEL worked further on the texts and submitted a "final" translation. There are various opinions about what this group came up with (finished in 2000 and published in 2002), but in the end (although approved by the bishops) it was rejected by Rome. Among other things, there was an attempt in this translation to use more gender inclusive language. Given the Roman Catholic Church's fear of anything that might lead to women's ordination, including removing some of the male pronouns for God in favor of gender neutral pronouns in the Mass, these suggestions were resisted. In the end, ICEL was directed to prepare a translation not by "dynamic equivalency" but as literally as possible, even preserving where possible the word order from Latin.

Today was the first day we used the new prayers and responses in Mass. From my perspective, the "people's parts" don't seem terribly changed. It is not difficult or onerous to respond when the priest says, "The Lord be with you" with the words "and with your spirit" instead of "and also with you." There are a few more "holy"s here and there. The prayer used for the Penitential Act, much like the former Act of Contrition prayer, now includes beating one's breast as we say "my fault, my fault, my  most grievous fault." But there are two alternatives to this prayer and I don't see us continuing with the current one for very long. (It will become, I predict, an occasional occurence, much like the prayer I knew as the Act of Contrition was at Mass before today.)

In all, the only thing that bugged me was the word "chalice" instead of "cup" in the Eucharistic Prayer. As we reenact the Lord's Supper, we hear that Jesus first took the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, "Do this in memory of me." Then Jesus took "a chalice," and repeated the direction. Hmmm. This part of the prayer comes directly from Scripture, and I know of no translation of the New Testament that says Jesus took a chalice at the Last Supper. For me, it changes the scene-- from a vision of Jesus in the upper room with his disciples celebrating that fateful meal, to King Arthur in search of the holy grail, that most famous of chalices thought to be the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper possessed of magic powers. We certainly don't want to go there, do we? I will say that I felt very conscious, for the first time in a long time, on that gold cup in the priest's hands, and the fact that it was gold and a chalice.

The words are not very different, but there was a big fight and many years of argument before we got here. For many, it is a question of the direction of the church. Do we want to go in the holy grail direction? Or do we want to go in the ceramic cup of wine and a single loaf of bread direction? I don't in the end understand the primacy of Latin. In scholarship and in liturgy, it seems to me healthy that the imaginative moment of the liturgy has gone to the early church (as in the 1st-3rd century church) more than the Middle Ages church. I don't think it's merely a matter of aesthetics, but I'm also not going to protest the changes.

NOTE: One of the more striking protests about the new language, though more about the integrity of the process than the actual end product, came from Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, a monk at Saint John's Abbey. Click here to read his open letter to the bishops published in America Magazine last February.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Two Good Books about Nuns

In my search for contemporary novels about American nuns, I've found only two. Both of them are fantastic books I'd recommend to anyone. They both share a strong message about religious life, as well as some other key similarities. The two novels are Mariette in Ecstacy by Ron Hansen and Lying Awake by Mark Salzman(Hansen also wrote Exiles, a novel based on the story of the Wreck of the Deutschland and drowning of eight nuns and the poem Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about the incident, but it's a different, much more historical and in many ways less accomplished, book.)

Both books have a mystic at their center, and both of these women live in cloistered communities. Mariette, though published in the 1990s, is set in the first decade of the 20th century, when all Sisters who were not on active missions were cloistered. Lying Awake, published in 2000 and covering the years 1969 to 1997, deals with a Carmelite Sister living in an enclosure in Southern California.

By building in these restraints on the Sisters' lives (habited, cloistered), the authors are able to deal with the central issues of a nun's life: community living with other Sisters and the quality of the spiritual life. What is clear immediately is that mystics, who seem both closer to God and richer in spiritual experience, are disruptive to religious communities. In Mariette, set in 1904, the mystic has the experience of stigmata and her experience, though doubted as self-inflicted, is treated seriously as a phenomenon recorded throughout history. Her wounds come and go and don't act as normal wounds or cause the permanent damage one would expect. The priest and Sisters experience other inexplicable signs of S. Mariette's special status. The experiences of Sister John in Lying Awake result in visions and writings which find popularity in the world outside the cloister walls. Both Sister Mariette and Sister John gain noteriety for their spirituality outside the convent.

But by the time Sister John is having her mystic experiences, there is a diagnosis and a cure for her particular troubles. She is recommended to receive surgery for epilepsy and has to decide whether or not to have it, knowing it will mean and end to her visions and possibly a return to a spiritual dryness that plagued her earlier in life. What makes up her mind is an experience with her community. It is not good to stand out in a convent. The idea is not to be special but to seek God together in daily life and prayer and work. That is the life, and the life, both books seem to decide, doesn't work without the Sisters subverting their own desires to the life and needs of the community. It is ultimately a much more "big picture" view than most of us can take. It's a big-picture view of time (aren't all spirtiual experiences by nature fleeting, if we continue to grow?) as well as one's place in a community.

As in MarietteLying Awake handles this action without diminishing the veracity of Sister John's spiritual experience. In the end, a holy, older Sister, helps S. John to understand the meaning of the experience. "God showed you what heaven could be like, and you shared it with others. ... God must think you did enough with that gift. Now he wants you to do something else."

Sister John is also helped by the glimpse she gets of her surgeon's vocation and its challenges. He also faced a period of disillusionment, realizing he went into medicine "for the wrong reasons." But he remained a doctor when he realized "everybody gets into medicine for the wrong reasons. It seems to come with the territory."

Quite a bit comes with the territory of being a nun. Struggling with the large questions all the time, and with the limitations of the church. For the Sisters who entered in the 1940s and have lived this life in its changing forms until today, there are myriads of questions, challenges, and also, I believe, joys. And each one is special and "stands out," even as they do what it takes to live together.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

To the Chicken Soup Factory

Chickens from the same flock who didn't even make it to the laying stage at the scene of an earlier slaughter...
Tim and Annie's seven chickens, who have entertained us for several seasons and lived peaceably and productively on the farm, are nearing their end. There's been a sudden decline in egg production, from six eggs a day to three, and so they've been deemed unworthy of winter care.

We're chicken-sitting this weekend while Tim and Annie are out East for the holiday, and today Steve brought in the three eggs. One is puny, another is thin-shelled, and the third is quite large. It's too bad you can't tell which one is still laying the large eggs! Their fates are inextricably joined, in the same way they move together in a small flock throughout the day.

It's actually pretty good timing on their part. It saves Tim a winter of feeding them and keeping their water from freezing, and they don't have to be cooped up all winter in the barn. Not that the barn is a bad place-- they'll miss the full renovation to a furniture-making shop. And Tim did build them a glassed-in porch for sunny winter days.

Of course, since they've been freely ranging for three years now, they are no longer worth eating. Once killed, all they will be good for is chicken broth or soup. I was offered the chickens for this purpose, but I'm not really willing to prepare them. Too many feathers!

I'm glad at times like these for civilization: cartons of organic chicken broth and the Kuebelbecks' eggs at the local co-op market. Next spring, along with all the other new stuff, we'll have another batch of chicks on the farm, and with them, an abundance of fresh eggs again.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Big Projects

Last year, it was the kitchen rehab. But this year, Steve could barely contain himself in finishing the last of the landscape projects before he got to his Big Project-- renovating one of the hog barns into a furniture-making shop. The day after his last job (Saturday) he began by putting a big hole in the roof. Sunday he rented a masonry saw and took out a large chunk of the wall. All this was in preparation for today, when his "consultant," Dwayne, who built our house, and his brother Tim joined him in raising the roof enough to make room for the glass garage door that will go in the opening.

He's been thinking and talking about that glass garage door for about a year. I remember when we saw one at the restaurant Joe's Garage in Minneapolis. It will be a lovely thing, sort of like a greenhouse wall, and will bring good light into the working space. Good light is the opposite of what this place currently has.

The custom wood stove is ordered, as is the garage door. The insulation guy has been out to look at the place and is working up some bids. What started out as buying a few tools on Craig's List has become a truly awesome endeavor.

I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't rather use the money for a trip to Italy or Paris... but it is inspiring to see someone dig into something so ambitious. A place to spend the Minnesota winters making mid-century modern style furniture. The plywood will be bent. The metal will be soldered. Other local furniture makers and woodworkers will be consulted. A sectional couch the likes of which have not been seen before will be installed in our living room.

And me? I'm working on small pieces, daily, writing out bits of what I know, imagining myself into worlds I want to explore, in the hopes of making a whole book out of it, at least a draft, over the winter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Garden to Bed

4 new beds make a total of 12, and the dock for my pump out of the water

The newly landscaped garden includes a long
plowed bed  for potatoes, beans and onions.
I am officially a garden addict, something I never thought would happen to me. On Saturday afternoon while Steve bought some useful stuff at Menards for building his furniture shop, I found myself wandering the aisles of the empty garden center and bought three bags of cedar mulch. I ran into a friend who was buying Christmas lights, which in that moment seemed more rational (though much too early!). In my defense, I was going to put the mulch over the newly transplanted perennials, but when I gave it further consideration, it does seem obvious that leaf mulch is about as heavy as I should apply this late in the fall. All those wood chips will only make it more difficult to plant things in spring if I spread it now.

Just like this time last year, I'm really ready to begin again, to the point where I'm thinking-- If only I lived in a warmer climate, like Southern California. Yeah, if only I had a few acres in Southern California, I could just plant more seeds now! Then I realize that I have what I have because it is where it is, and that I'm glad about that.

garlic bed covered in grass
I spent my "extra hour" from falling back to daylight savings time on Sunday out in the garden, turning over the last of the weeds, cutting back the asparagus and trying to get the weeds out from around their stalks, and heaping on the last of the cut grass over them. I also heaped more grass onto the garlic beds, where the late freeze has meant the bulbs are sending up shoots through the 4-5 inches I already put down. "Go to bed!" I feel like yelling at them. "You aren't supposed to come up until April!" It's good for them to get going a little bit, so they can develop a root system under the snow during the winter. Or so I understand from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is still my favorite bedtime reading.

I can't wait to receive my first "yearbook" as a member of Seed Savers. This is the master book for ordering from individual farmers who save heirloom seeds. I am very happy with the Seed Savers stock I bought, as well as the seeds I bought locally at Woods Farm and Nursery, but I can't help but want to buy a few seeds from the big book o' seeds! Mostly, I just need more reading material.

All this reminds me of the movie Into the Great Silence about a Cistercian community in France. One ancient monk walks around in the middle of winter looking at his raised beds covered with snow, then stands in a shed looking through seed packets. He seems quite out of his mind. The poignancy, of course, is wondering if he will live to see another planting season, and the nonverbal way he demonstrates he is thinking about spring, new life, there in the winter. But for me, that's where I turned off the movie. I was starting to doze already, but the crazy old seed monk just seemed like kind of an indictment of a life of total silence, although that's not what was meant at all. I found myself wondering, "Is anyone watching out for this old guy?"

So I will have to find other things to occupy my mind. The forecast is for snow tonight in some areas of the state, although not here until maybe the 18th. But once we hit Thanksgiving, there's no turning back. And certainly the beds are done until after the snows. Then again, maybe tomorrow I'll drive out for a few more bags of mushroom compost and dig them into the beds...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Saints Sans Priest

The All Saints Day Vigil Prayer Service at the Sisters' cemetery on 10/31/11
Yesterday, the Feast of All Saints, was a holy day of obligation according to the Roman Catholic Church. For me, it was a good excuse to go to the 5 p.m. Mass with the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. Mass was a bit more well-attended than usual. Although "day of obligation" is basically a guarantee that college students will not come to Mass, there were still a good number, and a large number of the Sunday crowd. We started in the Gathering Place. The worship aids were printed and well prepared, the schola was in its best finery and also well prepared. The one thing we were lacking was a priest.

The priest, who had e-mailed earlier in the day to confirm he was on the schedule, never arrived. After frantic phone calls and some shifting of readers, one of the Sisters put on a simple white robe to preside over the Liturgy of the Word. We began our procession with the Litany of the Saints. The music was lovely. The readings were also wonderful-- that great cloud of witnesses in Revelation, the Beatitudes during which we reflected on those who have gone to their rest after so much service to the world.

There was a lot to reflect on this year. Yesterday afternoon Sister Giovanni Bieniek died at the age of 101. She was the 19th Sister to die from that community this year. Last week there were two funerals. One of my reasons for attending was to have some time to reflect on Sisters Suzanne and Rosemary, who I have been missing. Looking around, many of the Sisters looked tired. Some of them looked sad, strained, annoyed about the priest situation. The Sister who was presiding was very gracious and asked us to reflect on our solidarity with the many communities that, because of an increasing priest shortage, are not able to have daily Mass or even weekly Mass.

One man attending got up and went to complain when the presider read the Gospel. "Only a priest can read the gospel!" he told the Sister in the Gathering Place. "What are we supposed to do? We don't have a priest or a deacon," she answered. I would like to answer: Are we to be denied the Word as well? Sister Helene had already prepared a reflection on the Beatitudes, which she gave. Were we to have the reflection without the reading? He stormed out before the closing hymn, which is a shame, because the hymn, by Sister Delores Dufner, was a beauty, as was the organ postlude she had prepared.

I did not hear any criticism of the priest. One Sister said, "I'm worried about him. He did confirm, so maybe something happened to him. Maybe he fell or got in an accident."

There is also, however, always the spectre of a day when there will not be priests to come over from Saint John's Abbey for daily Mass. Last year, the College of Saint Benedict, a Catholic women's college that shares the campus with the Sisters of Saint Benedict's Monastery and has joint classes with the men of Saint John's University (SJU) five miles away, lost its regular priest for the campus Mass. This is a diocesan appointment, and the bishop said he would not appoint anyone. He said the college students have ample opportunities: the two Saint Joseph parish Masses (and one Saturday) less than a block from campus, the Sisters' Sunday Mass, the SJU student Mass at 9 p.m. He has a point, but it's a Catholic college. There was talk of trying to recruit a retired priest from another region. Having been at a Mass last Spring at the far end of the diocese, where a retired priest had driven the two hours to preside at morning Mass for a cluster of churches, I had a suspicion those retired priests are otherwise fully engaged.

The obvious solution is to ordain women and married men. I wrote a blog entry about a year ago about attending the Roman Catholic Women Priest Mass at St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Cloud. The congregation, The Church of the First Apostle Mary Magdalene, meets at 1:30 p.m. every second Sunday of the month. I removed that post when it was co-opted by the conservative author of another website in an effort to discredit the Sisters (for whom I was working then as communications director). It didn't work, removing the post, because he just found a cached version to link to his site. It did point out to me the "third rail' nature of this issue.

That someone could be offended by a woman acting as "gospeler" truly shocks me. I really would have liked for us to share some unconsecrated bread, passing it to each other through the pews, as an alternative. Instead, the students who had processed in with the bread and wine in the hope that the priest would arrive, simply carried it back to the sacristy afterward, untouched.

It was a lovely liturgy, and liturgy is something the Sisters do very well. And we were all prepared. We were all present. God and the Holy Spirit were in our midst, and we, the assembly, were the Body of Christ. The only thing we were missing was a priest.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Five Months of Fresh Produce

Last year was my first real attempt at growing food. This year, with more garden space and an obsession with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, I set out to eat from the garden longer and preserve more for the winter.

We began eating produce from the garden June 1, with the first regular harvests of lettuce and radishes. And here it is November 1 and I have this lovely salad for lunch! the lettuce is "Tennis Ball Lettuce," a variety grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The idea of seeds passed on and saved for 300 years makes me very happy. It's mixed here with radish greens, radishes and carrots, and topped with an egg from the farm.

I continue to have kale and spinach in the garden. For at least one more week of fresh greens. Having somewhat made my peace with butternut squash (thank you Vidalia Chop Wizard for making dicing so much fun!), I have a good supply of soups in our future. And I've been spending Sundays the past few weeks chopping vegetables and doing a big 2-pan roasting. During the week we scoop out the roasted veggies and add to whole wheat pasta and parmesan for a tasty dinner. Which is to say, November finds us still well within the fresh veggie zone.

To prepare for next year, Steve did some real landscaping of the garden area, including isntalling FOUR MORE raised beds (I now have a dozen) and plowing up a bed for onions, potatoes and beans. Grass was planted in the rest of the area to help control the weeds. Everything looks much more defined and ready to go! Now I just wait for the seed catalogues to arrive, as we eat down our store of food.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween is for Kids

I enjoyed Halloween until I was 12, although it was never my favorite holiday. I loved fall, with its pumpkins and colored leaves and early dark. I liked the candy and especially the time spent after trick-or-treating trading candy with my siblings. We gave 2/3 of our haul to the charity bin at the elementary school, so quantity was our aim. Luckily, there were enough peanut butter taffies, Mary Janes and Tootsie Rolls to put in the charity pile that we didn't have to go into our candy bar collection. Also luckily, my sister was a fan of 3 Musketeers and not a fan of nuts, so I could build up my Snickers collection.

Park Forest, Illinois, had a haunted house when I was growing up. It was in a small, brick two-story house that was built to provide training to the fire department. A few times a year they'd set it on fire and practice navigating the narrow hallways, tricky stairways and small rooms. For the haunted house, they replaced the limited bare lightbulbs with colored or strobe bulbs. I vividly remember going through that place one year, being pushed into a hay bale that housed a monster of some sort and fleeing through the back door-- terrifying. I think I was expecting fake haunted house carnival ride monsters, not real people dressed up and hiding, reaching out and grabbing us.

Mostly I associate Halloween with discomfort. The costumes, of course, but also plunging my head into a bucket of water and apples. My sticky face and hair after struggling to bite through a layer of caramel and into an apple. Although I loved being in plays, I never liked wearing costumes for parties or Halloween. It felt like too much pressure to come up with something good, and I was never satisfied.

My favorite Halloween as an adult was the year I lived in Brooklyn. I had successfully avoided all costume parties, and came home from work to a gorgeous fall evening, stopping at Happy Pizza for a slice. I went up to my apartment over the video store, only to be roused by the sound of a parade a half hour later. In 1989-91, when I lived in Park Slope, 7th Avenue was a major parade route. Beginning the first Saturday morning after I moved in with bagpipes and a parade of all the park district baseball teams, the were almost always led by bagpipes, and they were almost always a complete surprise to me.

I came down to watch the parade, what seemed like hundreds of kids in costumes marching down the street. Adults gathered on the sidewalk and called out and applauded the kids: "Hey, superman! Hey, hi there, ninja turtle!" Some kids worked the crowd, while others seemed surprised by the attention. All the store owners (except the new Korean noodle place that was also taken off guard) had candy at the ready to hand out to the children. It was almost like a mirror version of a 4th of July parade, with the crowd throwing candy to the marchers.

I have friends in Cold Spring who go to an annual adult costume party for Halloween. They look forward to it and go to great lengths to put together costumes. Last year they won the best costume prize for Thing 1 and Thing 2, and this year the plan was to go as the sexy cable repair guy and a "Real Housewife" of Cold Spring. Their three children-- yeah, they have costumes for Halloween too.

My Facebook feed is also full of photos of adult friends at various Halloween parties. I love the gnome and vampires and superheroes and all of it. But I thank the Lord I don't have to dress up. The last costume party I attended was in 1987, if I remember correctly. I came home from work to find the law students I lived with had spent the entire day preparing costumes. I dissolved in tears, until my friend Bob took me in hand and said, "Susan, there's always the hobo!" A flannel shirt, ripped jeans, bandana bundle on a stick and some charcoal and I was good to go. But I do remember how much that charcoal itched all night and made my face break out.

Friday, October 21, 2011


tamarack and pine trees I pass on my way to work

Throughout my adult life, there have been times I have been criticized for not being more engaged with nature. The harshest came from Denise Levertov, who thought it was the ultimate reason that I should not be a poet. I remember a conference with her when she said, "Susan, your interest is in human relationships. Poets care about nature. Why don't you write fiction?" I said to her, almost plaintively, "I'm going on a backpacking trip for four days starting tomorrow." She came very close to patting my knee, as if to say, "That's nice, dear, but it's not going to make you a poet."

Such a pronouncement is silly, of course, but Denise Levertov loomed very large and we students gave her a lot of power. In fact, she did have the power to make or break us, recommending her favorite students' manuscripts to publishers. When my poetry manuscript was a finalist for the National Poetry Series a couple of years later, she was one of the judges.

I grew up in Park Forest, a suburb of Chicago, a place defined, if by anything, but culture, by sociology, by human relationships. It is the subject of the book The Organizational Man. There was a forest preserve, and we walked in it, but in its deep recesses there was danger-- smoking and drinking and sex and violence. We stayed on the path and didn't go there at night. On a camping trip with the Campfire Girls we got deluged and ended up twelve whimpering, sodden girls in the back of station wagons driving home in the middle of the night.

I knew the names of a few trees: locust, maple, oak. Firs and pines were all "evergreens." The truth is, I didn't know anyone who knew the names of any plants beyond the most common. I loved summer storms and October weather, especially the early darkness and wind in the piles of leaves. I loved lilacs in June. I loved snow on the giant pine outside our kitchen window, framed by the carport.

During my two stints in California and my year in Reno, I worked very hard to absorb the natural world. Backpacking was just the start. The fact is, it was foreign terrain. In Reno, attached to the Literature and Environment program at the University, there was so much talk about the various ecosystems. Basin and range. Watersheds. Elevation and its effects. Lake Tahoe and its clarity and fragility. Walking in the public lands, which seemed barren to me, I have to admit I loved the rusted out shells of old cars people had pushed over ridges and the sound of people shooting tin cans. But I worked hard to pay attention to the plants as well.

Which brings me to the tamarack tree. This fall it has made an impression on me. Two weekends ago we were out at the Kluesner log cabin, which was built on our property and moved to a lake near Wadena, Minnesota. It was a gorgeous, unseasonably warm October weekend, so we went kayaking both days on the lake. On one shore was a large tamarack grove, right along the swampy edge of the lake, backed by black-green pines.

Tamarack is a pine tree whose foliage turns yellow in the fall before it loses its needles. They're feathery and I'm sure I thought they were just drought-stricken, sickly trees in the past (not noticing they grow in or near water). But this year I saw them along that lakeshore in all their glory, and now I see them on my way to work, small stands sometimes glowing in the morning sun or stark against green pines. They only grow in northern climes, mostly in Alaska and Canada, also in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut and Maine, dipping down as far south as the "extreme northern end of Illinois." 

I remember standing with my sister on a corner in Atlanta when she helped me move there after college. She wanted to know what kind of tree we were looking at, a large tree with smooth bark, gnarly branches and large, waxy green leaves. It hadn't occurred to me to wonder. It turned out to be a magnolia, and then I started seeing them everywhere. I wish she could have been there to see them in bloom. Later I learned about dogwoods, from a poster for the annual dogwood festival, and started looking for them. I learned what azaleas were.

I read about jacaranda trees in a poem, and then looking for them in Southern California after living there two years. They bloom in April, and if you look for them they are everywhere. But you have to look-- amid the shopping centers and concrete. You have to go into the neighborhoods and slow down. In fact, you can see them best from an airplane at that time, making a light-purple canopy over the area. They are native to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They are exotic, like the bamboo, birds of paradise and lemon trees in my Long Beach neighborhood.

Nature is a tricky business, and mostly, it is local. In Park Forest, I loved the rattling seed pods of the locust trees, the helicopter seeds of the maple. More than anything I loved the weeping willows that grew along a creek behind the public library. I loved Queen Anne's lace with its black dot at the center. When I was very young and living by that forest preserve,  I thought the black dot was a baby ant, the queen. I loved black-eyed Susans, with whom I shared a name. To share a name with a flower seemed quite magical.

Now I live with and love the purple aster, droopy cone flowers and bergamot. I look for the sumac and, now, the tamarack groves.   

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thai Curry Butternut Squash Soup

I apologize for not having a photo of this one, as it was a beautiful soup, but my camera battery is dead!

I do want to make this soup again (Steve says is up there with gumbo and potato leek as the top three), so I'll get the recipe down even without a photo. Also, it is a unique soup. I couldn't find a recipe quite like it and ended up improvising a bit.

I'm not a fan of butternut squash, which I think is bland and takes way too much preparation work. However, they're REALLY easy to grow and I have a lot of them. In past years they've gone mouldy and soft in the basement, so this year I am determined to do a few things differently. First, I will cut up two at a time when using one and freeze the leftover squash for later recipes. Second, I resolved to find a butternut squash soup I liked.

I knew I wanted a curry soup, but couldn't find one with Indian curry powder that sounded very complex or interesting. The curry powder seemed like an afterthought, and the recipe couldn't help adding nutmeg as well. I know nutmeg is used in Indian food, but I really wanted to avoid the whole pumpkin pie squash thing. Having used the technique of throwing in curry powder to spice up a potato-cheese soup, I didn't want to go that route.

I did find an interesting curry squash soup recipe in Asparagus to Zucchini, a cookbook produced by the Madison, Wisconsin area CSAs. It was too complex, with kaffir limes, curry leaves and lemongrass, which I don't generally have, but it was a start. Here's what I made in the end, and it was really exceptional-- beautiful, tasty and not difficult once the squash was diced.

Thai Curry Butternut Squash Soup
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 Tbs red curry paste
5 cups diced butternut squash
1 can chicken broth (or vegetable) plus 1/2 cup water (approx 3 cups)
1 cup coconut milk (my coconut milk was pretty separated... I used maybe 1/2 cup and then 1/2 cup regular milk)
1/2 cup fish sauce (Don't leave this out! I am squeamish about it, so gave a first good shot, then tasted and added another long squeeze of the bottle.)
salt to taste
cilantro (for garnish)

Saute the curry paste in the vegetable oil for 30 seconds in a soup pot and add diced onion. Saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling water, boil the diced squash for 8-10 minutes until soft. Drain. Add squash, broth and coconut milk to the pot. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, then puree with an immersion blender (or in batches in a regular blender) and add fish sauce. Simmer another five minutes and add salt to taste. I did also add a few shakes of a "Thai seasoning blend" I got on clearance when World Market went out of business in town. I believe it has ginger and red pepper mostly, maybe also some lemongrass powder. Lemon grass powder (or whole) and ginger would be good additions to this soup in small measure.

The color of the soup is light, creamy and golden, and it has just the right kick and just the right tang of Thai food. It's still somewhat delicate, so we took the opportunity to open a good Pinot Noir. With good bread, this could easily be a meal. (We had no bread, so I served it with rice, which we dipped in spoonfuls into the soup.)

The best thing is, I have 9 cups of cubed butternut squash in the freezer, so next time I will cut most of the prep!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


I didnt' have much interest in seeing Moneyball in the theater until a friend told me about his experience seeing it in a major metropolitan area (not Oakland). At the end of the movie, the audience stood up and gave it a standing ovation.

Standing ovations are odd things in themselves. They have become expected, ubiquitous rituals at a theater, and I square it by telling myself that I'll happily stand up and clap for anyone willing to entertain me in person for two hours. In a movie, it doesn't make sense, except as the audience affirming an experience shared with the others in the theater. Moneyball, then, was about something that could make people rise to their feet and applaud rolling credits. Perhaps, I thought, it has something interesting to say about America and about this moment in our history.

It turns out, it does. The movie is wonderfully entertaining, with excellent acting performances and a cast of characters that clearly includes many real athletic scouts (their acting is not excellent, but it's always fun to see real people in a movie). But what is the story? What kind of American hero is Billy Beane?

He's a failed professional baseball player who chose the major leagues when he wasn't ready, when he should have gone to Stanford on a scholarship. He looked like a great player to the scouts, who analyze players in a certain, romantic way, and who are looking for stars. In that system, he failed miserably.

As a general manager for a team that has one of the worst budgets in the Major Leagues, the Oakland Athletics, the game as it is played also isn't working. He can't win with the best players he can buy. It doesn't work to identify young stars and develop them, because as soon as the stars help the A's get close to a championship, they're bought off by teams with bigger budgets. As he says, he doesn't want to be a farm team for the Yankees.

So he changes the questions he's asking and changes the way he plays the game. He enlists a Yale economics graduate and they assess players differently. According to the system they're using, they choose players according to their ability to get on base (as determined by their stats). Rather than saying, "We need a star first-baseman to replace Johnny Damon," they say, "We need three players, and they all need to be guys who can get on base a large percentage of the time." They find undervalued players and recruit them.

However, they also (according to the movie) train and change these players to provide strengths that others didn't see in them. They get the players not to look at their shortcomings but to see themselves realistically and play from the strengths that they have. They teach a catcher to play first base, because they need his hits. Beane wants them to stop doing the thing they were originally assessed for and supposed to be great at and concentrate on what the statistics show they actually can do.

More than putting together a budget team, Billy Beane puts together a team whose parts work together to produce wins. Lots and lots of wins. According to the film, it's this change in thinking that leads the Red Sox to finally win a World Series in 2004.

It's an odd thing, really. In one way, it's a cold, heartless system, based on mathematics and statistics. On the other hand, the current system of player analysis seems just as cold and heartless. It is more romantic, building young men up with lavish praise of their talent and skills, and it provides the stories we hear in baseball commentary and tell each other over baseball cards and fantasy baseball leagues. But when they don't live up to the hype or promise, they're discarded and, the movie suggests, real damage is also done to their psyches.

The movie is not romantic, especially for a baseball movie. It embraces its inner geek, and although Brad Pitt is beautiful, charismatic and chews tobacco, there is surprisingly little baseball action in the movie. The games are mostly played out in documentary-like fashion. They are collections of hits, runs and scores, not feats of superhuman ability or "heart."

So what would make an audience get to their feet? Maybe it is Billy Beane's desire to do things totally differently when facing a situation he can't win, the big money market of professional baseball. Maybe there is a recognition that we, America, are not the high-budget team of all-stars we once were.

Our budget is low and we're not living up to our potential as stars. We need to change the game. We need to be realistic about what we can do as individuals. We also need to nurture new skills, the things we can do, and play our parts so we can get the most runs. Not every time, but enough times to be in the winning column. The truth is, this movie is not about the big winner. It is a movie trying to convince Billy Beane that falling short of the big win doesn't make his whole season and its successes meaningless. What he does counts. What he does turns baseball on its head and yet serves up a game that is wonderful for the fans to watch and satisfying for the team to play.

In the end it's surprising that the movie is offering people hope on a grand scale. It might be a good sign.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ten Years Later

On September 11, 2011, I woke up in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was visiting friends on my way back from a visit to Chicago. You couldn't escape the day, the anniversary, if for no other reason the media had turned over an entire week to commemoration, follow-up, analysis, revisiting, and basically any story they could come up with related to 9/11.

After Mass at Holy Wisdom Monastery, just three miles from where my friends lived, I headed home to central Minnesota. At noon, I turned off the radio and observed a couple minutes of silence, the landscape rushing by, my mind of course still fully engaged with driving. I couldn't stop-- and this feeling of hurrying forward seemed to me somehow related to the country's response to 9/11. Ten years of hurrying forward.

When I got home, I jotted down a draft of this poem, which I've returned to a few times since. I have a sense that it is already not timely, that events keep moving forward almost too quickly, without enough reflection or, more importantly, connectivity between them. I think that's what I like about the poem-- that it captures the sense of rushing on, and in this particular historical moment ten years later, of our fragmentation as Americans, our inability to come together and make sense of our country and our world situation.

Ten Years Later

by Susan Sink

I’m driving through Wisconsin
as fast as I can, watching for troopers,
annoyed by those too close behind, those
too close in front, when I shoot
under an overpass and standing there
is a woman with a blond pony tail
holding a large American flag,
alone, her head down, looking at nothing.

In Minnesota, passing under another bridge,
a more exuberant group—adult chaperones
and ten or twelve children with flags waving,
children who weren’t even born then—
make this a day of victory more than mourning.

In the rush of traffic, I think about the quiet skies
in the days after that day, the two wars,
the children growing up in a curious wartime,
the young widows, alone, with flags,
and like the many stranded years ago,
I want only to get home.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

House of Prayer

In mid-September I started a new job. I moved from being the communications director for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, the largest community of Benedictine women in the United States, to the part-time administrator of a 13-room, 17-bed retreat house, the Episcopal House of Prayer. The distance between these two places is only 10 miles. The Sisters' monastery is in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and the House of Prayer is on the campus of Saint John's University and Abbey in Collegeville.

I am right down the street from where I started in this area, in 2005, when I moved here from Southern California to be a scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. After that year, I worked for two years as an editor at Liturgical Press, which is also on the campus of Saint John's and a ministry of the Abbey.

The House of Prayer came out of the great ecumenical spirit of this place, a collaboration between Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota Bob Anderson (1934-2011) and Abbot Jerome Theisen 21 years ago. It builds on the great beauty of this part of the state as well.

One of my misgivings about not working for the Sisters anymore was a sense that I'd be moving away from the deep German Catholic heritage of this area. I'm really taken by the culture, particularly the old farmers and those who grew up on farms, hard-working and completely engaged even in their 70s and 80s.

I need not have worried. The first person I met here was Dennis, one of our two house cleaners. He turned 78 years old last year, having had a long career as a dairy farmer and another as a college custodian before retiring 11 years ago. He tells charming stories about "the wife," and "the boy" and "the girl," his children. He has one of the thick German accents I love to hear and am quite aware are not going to be heard in another 10-20 years.  He reminds me of my own grandfather, who was too social to retire and went to work in a produce department in his 70s just to stay active and continue to interact with people. 

Today, though, while the women of St. Victoria's Parish held their retreat in our fireplace living room, an older man came in from the parking lot. I met him in the lobby and asked if he'd just stopped in to take a look. He said he's often passed the sign, "House of Prayer," and thought today would be a good day to stop. I saw he had a rosary wrapped around his hand. "I'm not far from Albany, where I'm going, but it's such a nice day, I thought I'd see this house of prayer."

"Let me open the oratory for you," I said, taking him down the hall. I explained that we're a retreat house and that he was welcome to pray in our prayer space for as long as he liked. I unlocked the space and explained that we usually take off our shoes before going in. "That's fine," he said. He looked in curiously at the circle of chairs, the meditation mats and cushions on the floor. I have to say that the light in there at that time on this October day surprised even me. It made the whole place glow orange.

I asked him his name, and he said, "Norbert. Norbert Overman."
I told him mine, and he looked quizzical. "Zink?"
"Sink, like the kitchen sink," I said, and he chuckled.
"Stay as long as you like," I told him. He started to take off his shoes as I left.
"Thank you," he said, his rosary still wrapped tightly around his hand, the light from the open door flashing off his purple shirt.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Squash Stew with Cornbread Dumplings

At the dentist's office yesterday, I was looking at some Better Homes and Garden 30-minute recipes. The one that really got me was for butternut squash. The recipes promised to go from fridge to table in 30 minutes or less. The first instruction was: peel, seed and cube the butternut squash. Uh, 30 minutes are up!

It might not take that long, but at least 20 for a good-sized squash. I'll admit my squash came in at about 4 lbs each, but they're no more difficult to peel and dice than any other. Luckily, I thought ahead on this recipe, knowing I wanted to make it mid-week, and cut the squash up while watching the Minnesota Vikings collapse in the second half for a third straight week on Sunday. So I had a big bowl of cubed squash ready to go.

The recipe is from the book Sacred Food for Soulful Living compiled by the Reverend Ward Bauman. He's my new boss, the director of the Episcopal House of Prayer. If you order the book on the website, I'm the one who will process your order and send it to you!

Ward learned to cook from his mother in California, but he honed his skills and developed his culinary art while living in Iran for 4 1/2 years. He then got a job as the cook at a retreat center in California, where he got very good at cooking for large groups. Now he cooks for many of the retreats at our facility, tasty, vegetarian dishes that are complex and use a lot of cumin and cinnamon.

I have been looking for butternut squash recipes, and decided to try this one because it used so many ingredients I still have from the garden, including the last of the zucchini and poblano peppers. The only thing I didn't have was the basil, so I left it out. I love how the dumplings turned out, baking on top as the zucchini stews. I set the timer for 20 minutes and they were baked perfectly. I do think I should have let it cool a bit more before serving to avoid burning my tongue!

This could use a bit more heat, red pepper maybe, or just more of the spices it calls for. I did put extra cumin in it. It blends wonderfully with the cinnamon. The corn is great in the dumplings, and I might even add some to the stew as well next time. This one is good enough for company, but takes about an hour even with the squash already diced. Also, I didn't realize until just now it should have baked the last 20 minutes. I just left it on the stove with the lid on. However, it did burn a bit on the bottom, not really sticking or giving a bad taste. That wouldn't have happened if I'd baked it like I was supposed to! Also, we ate it with sour cream, which was excellent.

Squash Stew with Cornmeal Dumplings

2 Tbs vegetable oil
5 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
2 large poblano peppers, seeded and diced
2 1/2 lbs Roma tomatoes, chopped (I used one quart jar of canned tomatoes)
3 lbs butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 Tbs ground cumin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp oregano
1 1/2 lbs zucchini and summer squash, thickly sliced
1/2 cup basil, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 Tbs sugar
1 tsp salt
1 large egg
3/4 cup milk
3 Tbs butter, melted
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (thawed)

Saute the onion and garlic in oil until translucent and beginning to brown. Add the chiles, tomatoes, butternut squash, cumin, cinnamon, oregano and stock. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until squash is tender, about 30 minutes. (Cut up the summer squash and make the dumplings while waiting.) Add the zucchini and summer squash, basil and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer again.

Spoon the dumplings over the hot vegetables in 8 mounds. Cover tightly, tenting if using foil, avoid touching the dumplings, and bake at 400 degrees until dumplings are firm and dry, about 20 minutes. Do not over-bake or the dumplings will be dry.

Dumplings: Mix together the dry ingredients. Mix together the egg, milk and butter. Mix the two mixtures together well. Stir in the corn kernels. Let stand until the batter is thick enough to hold its shape, about 5 minutes. Drop onto stew as directed.

Serves 12 (I'd make this for 6-8 as a good one-dish meal. As you can see above, we polished off about 1/3 of it easily.)