Good Food Days

Hi everybody.

I’m still here. Among other things, it’s the beginning of the growing season, so I’ve labored really hard clearing out lots of garden space and giving birth to a yardful of baby plants who still need some guidance but certainly have lives of their own… 

Anyway, I’m here, and have been having a lot of tough days, and see a lot of tough days ahead. And I’m not the only one. This is a tough place and a tough time, and I work hard and “turn the engine, but the engine doesn’t turn.” Everyone I talk to around here about everything — even our gardens — is having a hard time. Slugs, weeds, money, family, sickness, chipmunks, cats, work troubles, accidents, cutworms, cancer… It pains me. It pains others, which in turn pains me again! And that can be a tiring cycle. 

I came home last week from a long work weekend and was so tired I went to clean out my immersion blender with an index finger, forgetting that I didn’t need to hit the ‘on’ button, but I did anyway, slicing to the bone. I have had other accidents since — I slipped and twisted my back which is now in a lot of pain. I cut another finger. One of our dogs got diarrhea on the good, deep-pile carpet. And with work — I just have a lot going on and am a little overwhelmed. I won’t talk about that here.

But we’ve been eating really well. I was making delicious chickpea burgers when I cut my first finger, and rhubarb ginger preserves when I cut the other one. Kale and onions and tempeh sauteed over polenta-style semolina… stir fry… spicy egg dishes, green salads, fresh roasted red pepper hummus (with my own roasted red peppers!), and crunchy, toasty, homemade granola every morning for breakfast. Right now, I have the remains of a really special lunch hanging out on my desk: mozzarella, olives, and a fresh crusty roll; and I have a pot of vegetable barley soup simmering on the stove for my Bible Study tonight, which I’ll serve with fresh greens from my garden. 

We don’t eat fancy, but we eat happy, healthy, delicious food. And I think, if I chose to base my day on what I ate and less on what happens to and around me, I’d have more ‘good’ days. If we’re eating good, simple, whole food, then that can have a larger reflection on our lives, which I want to be good, simple, and whole. See, I choose to eat what I eat. I don’t choose a lot of the not-so-good things that happen to me. So, I ought to focus more on the things I chose – the good food! — and pass on the junk. 

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I am an Amazing Cook.

I know I can’t take any credit, but between the gift of my mom’s kitchen skills and good taste and my dad’s resourcefulness, and Amazing Food, Amazing things happen in my kitchen. 

I inherited a few (20lbs) of tomatoes from our local food pantry. They had over 200lbs and didn’t know what to do with them. Since we can’t give out preserved or processed fresh fruits and veggies, I took a box home. I’d rather see them be made into catsup and sauce than get tossed. And I don’t mind the work. 

I know that I really and truly am a hands down decent cook. I made an entire Thanksgiving feast with my sister-in-law, using a recipe for the turkey only (which I had never made before in my life, and which ended up being the best turkey any of us have ever had). I make a lot from scratch and much of it is locally-grown. Not most, but a good amount. We can’t find anywhere to go out for a nice date, particularly because we eat far better at home than we can out. It is true!

I am my whole self in the kitchen. Imaginative, playful, practical, ambitious. It is freeing and creative and cathartic all at the same time. I use all my senses smelling, stirring, chopping, watching, listening. It is physical and if I’m cooking more than a few hours my body starts to ache a little. I don’t have a lot of special gadgets – or even a lot of knives. I have three knives I like a lot and one big one I use over and over every day. I don’t use a lot of recipes, even though I love reading cookbooks. I know how to cook and I know what things go together and I get the art of cooking. Like a painter who knows how to use certain brushes and types of paint. Except with food. 

Well I’m actually not bragging. I have a serious need to create in the kitchen. It is literally my favorite thing to do. Cooking, I mean. I’m not an inspired baker. Here is reason I’m writing about this: I made tomato sauce from underripe tomatoes grown in Florida and not in my backyard and it wasn’t fun. The color was off, the peeling and seeding (which I usually love doing) was difficult and dull. It didn’t have the normal sweet, sharp, earthy smell of tomato sauce. It was just sharp. It didn’t taste very good. 

This is kind of a big deal. I don’t make things that don’t taste good. Once in awhile I get intense on garlic bread or overestimate the sharpness of a cheese and it isn’t exactly what I’m going for. But I got a dose of reality this week:

So my catsup that is on the stove right now. That’s not going to taste Amazing. There are plenty of people who know how to cook just as well as I do. But Amazing Cooks need Amazing Food, or it is like trying to paint the a mural on the wall with children’s fingerpaint. For some of you, maybe none of this matters. But if you want to be an Amazing Cook, and if you know some basic kitchen skills, all you have to do is grown your own tomatoes.

See, I am my whole self in the kitchen. And I am an Amazing Cook. But only when the food I am working with is Amazing Food. And that really only happens when you have a pretty deep relationship with that food — like when my husband brings home a few gifts from our friend Kate – garlic scapes! garlic! greens! eggs! – from the farm. They are so good and so beautiful and we think of our friends when we eat them. But I’m not able to be an Amazing Cook when the flour I have is bleached and stale, or when my cumin seeds are too old and bitter, or when all the fat has been processed out of my dairy products. 

So all you have to do is grow your own tomatoes. Or get them at the farmer’s market. Or join a CSA. And if you do decide to grow your own, please watch out for blight and for feral cats and donate some to your local food pantry, so they aren’t stuck eating second-rate food. Maybe you’ll inspire a budding Amazing Cook. 

A Blessing for Gardens

I was asked to write a blessing for farms and gardens for early May – when we really start turning over more than just the pea and onion plots and start the growing season. I’d like to share it with you all. There might be some of you who would like to use it — maybe in your congregation or maybe in your backyard! If you do, it would be great if you can let me know that you do (and please cite me as author.) Thank you!  

 

A Garden Blessing for Early May

Use this garden for your blessing – you, our Creator

Who gave us our identity:

We are mud

We are water

We are soil

We are Spirit

We are words.

 

We are altars to your grace,

Our labors in the soil are insufficient and

Our hopes for our daily bread rest in you.

 

Bless this land and those who labor in it,

Blessings so that the labor does no harm:

To mud

To water

To soil

To spirit

            Blessings so that the toil is balanced with grace-gifts, the Mother’s milk:

Of rain and sunshine,

Of restful nights

Of fruitful harvest.

 

Blessings so that in a growing season, we come to understand you more,

 God-who-sows-seeds-in-the-mud.

Amen.

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The Finch Feeder

We have started giving them nicknames — but ‘Chubby,’ which used to be an identifying aspect of one of our little yellow friends is starting to become much more common.

Our perky bird friends come to visit us at our living room window all day, every day to gorge themselves on thistle feed. House sparrows, chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, rock doves, juncos, all come to visit us every day and have a meal or two at our big feeder in the side yard. The birds go through about 4lbs of food a week, and I’m sure they’d eat more if we put it out. 

We started our feeders one grey Monday in January. This winter didn’t give us a lot of snow, so we wanted to do something to bring life into our cold, wet, muddy days. After a few weeks, a few juncos discovered our big feeder, and would come for a few minutes every few days after that. 

We were so upset! Our hopes were that we’d put out this feeder and it would call all of God’s little bird friends from all over town to come hang out in our yard every day. I mean, isn’t that what we say, “feed them and they will come”? So we got another feeder — this time a little thistle feeder — and hung it right up less than a foot away from the living room window. And we waited.

And waited… And waited… And now, we have birds (and squirrels) from all over town hanging out in our yard! But what is really remarkable is that finch feeder. It has six places for finches to get seed from, and nearly all of them are used, nearly constantly! What used to be skinny little, weak-looking birds are now plump and strong. No longer timidly pecking and flying away with each seed, these fatties hang out on the feeder, rain or shine, fighting each other off for a spot to gorge on their favorite treats. The male goldfinches who were once a pale yellow are now getting some brilliance in their feathers. Maybe that’s not what’s happening. Maybe the big fat brightly colored birds are just taking over the feeder and the scrawny, dull ones are hiding off in the bushes. I honestly know very little about birds. But I like to think we’re helping them out by feeding them.

Our relationship with food doesn’t stop just at how we feed our selves, or even other people. It extends into how and what we feed our pets and other animals. It extends into how we relate to wild animals, (including feral cats if you live in a village hit with floods like we do), who dig up our yards and gardens and eat things we’re growing for ourselves. I’m saying this because I am a pastoral minister trained in theology who has spent quite a bit of time in the Bible, and I’ve come to understand that our belief system’s discipline (practice/process/discipleship) is based on interdependence. 

There is a lot more to say about this subject, but for now I’d just like to leave it here: watching the birds eat the food we offer them brings us a lot of joy. It’s much more fun than watching a movie. It’s something my husband and I share together — at dinner, we let each other know what birds we saw eating their meals. We run to the window when we hear a new bird call. Even though we had to wait for it, our bird feeders really are life-giving.  So I’ve been thinking… instead of getting frustrated with the feral cats who dug holes in my freshly-planted radish beds, maybe I’ll try planting them a cat grass garden. You know, away from our human food gardens, which we’d prefer to have free from their toxic poops…

The Luxury of Gardening

Home gardens, community gardens, rooftop or terrace gardens: these things have become almost a fad in the last five or ten years. ‘Vintage’ books my father gave me as I started some gardens at Sky Lake Camp, where I worked for a number of years, are now being reprinted in revised editions. People like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman are writing bestsellers with ideas taken from the pages of Wendell Berry and the World Community Cookbook More With Less.

It’s nothing new. I’ve had books like this passed down to me by people like my 7th grade science teacher, who helped lead my hometown in participating in the first Earth Day, in 1970. Friends who happen to be older than me sent me extra copies of guidebooks on the theological imperative of caring for all of creation through our consumer choices. But that’s not even the point.

When I was in Elementary School, we were asked what we thought the new millennium would be like. We thought everyone would wear gender-neutral, high necked suits out of space material and would fly around from place to place on our jet packs. In middle school, we thought we would be able to get all our nutrition from packaged food products. In high school, we thought the year 2000 would cause a computer crash that would stop civilization in its tracks. And then we went to war, thinking the world might be ending in the not-so-near future, whether we got our jetpacks or not.

But here we are in the new millennium, getting nostalgic and taking ‘old-looking’ photos with an iPhone 4S. Learning how to crochet and can and … garden. The thing is, in the current culture of the people who are probably reading this blog, these are luxuries.

Actual farming for a living is terribly hard work and even if farmers use the ‘factory farm methods’ prescribed by corporations who purchase said food (which requires immense amounts of land and money just to start!), they typically hardly profit at all. I have friends who are farmers. It is grueling. No one does it for the money.

Now, I do intend to write a post on how great it is that we are tapping into our natural connection to agriculture. But I accidentally opened an article today. It was hanging out in my Word files, which are slightly jumbled right now. And it was an article that I wrote when I was spending time at the Asian Rural Institute in Japan. This article was on a woman* who lived in India in very poor tribe. Between her poverty and her Christian beliefs, she and her family were risking their lives simply staying in the country. At 15, she had to run away in the middle of winter to avoid a bloody conflict in her community. The houses were burned to the ground. She told me, “Nobody supports the poor tribes. There are people who donate rice, but what I want most is a neutral mediator. I want that more than food.”

She is one of the bravest people I ever met. But her words haunt me: “If there is no peace, agriculture is of no use.” My husband and I spent a few hours clearing out our garden plot and I got upset because we were losing some top soil in the process. We really want to be able to grow our own food. But even that is a luxury. Because if there is no peace, agriculture is of no use.

I am not saying all agriculture is a complete luxury. But I am saying that when I go out before visiting parishioners in the hospital tonight and plant some seeds and hoe some weeds, I’m going to be really, really thankful. I’m going to be thankful that if my potatoes and tomatoes get the blight, I won’t go hungry. I’m not going to feel guilty when I remember my friend in India who wishes for peace more than food – I’m just going to remember her, and be proud of her and of her community. As I garden, I can pray for them and hope for the day when everyone can grow their own food.

I’m going to be thankful that there is peace here and that among the worst things I have to worry about in my garden are the feral cats pooping in it and someone getting lost and thinking that my painstakingly pruned Romas are theirs. And I’m going to bask in the luxury of having a garden.

*The woman I write about asked me to not use her name in publication because she fears for her life. I respect her wishes, and only give the information which she allowed me to use.

Things I Eat Thursdays

I have an amazing sister in law who has a really awesome blog which photo documents the life of her family. Every Thursday, she has a post which is called, “Things I love Thursday.”

As a lady with a weird schedule married to a man with a weird schedule, I often find myself eating weird things at weird times of the day. And since I don’t have anything more interesting to say, I might as well tell you all, adoring fans of gardencommunion, my meals for one day every week.

Disclaimer: My relationship with food is less than ideal, but mostly because my relationship with my schedule is less than ideal. I tend to eat better when I’m eating with others, generally refuse to make recipes with ingredients I have to buy special, and am mostly inspired by what happens to be hanging out on my pantry shelves and in the fridge. So. Here goes nothing:

Thursday, April 5, 2012. Maundy Thursday AND Printing the Newsletters. Jack has an evening event. I am at the church until 8:30pm. 

7:00am. Two giant mugs of hot, black equal exchange breakfast blend coffee.

9:00am. ‘Post-dog-walk-brunch’ with Jack = Omelette made with eggs and scallions from our friends (see their farm here), feta from Vermont, and mushrooms from Northeast PA. 

2:00pm. Salad with greens, again from Dan and Kate’s farm, with more feta and more scallions and some dressing Kate made when we had them over the other night. I topped that with some sliced roasted red peppers I canned last summer – peppers from my childhood neighbors. And a big bowl of leftover spaghetti with sauce made from homegrown tomatoes! No. Seriously. This is how I live. And that only took me 5 minutes to make and bring back to the church with me. 

6:00pm. This is getting weird. Crackers – which we rarely have, but keep around for snacks in really busy seasons like the end of Lent. I did a happy dance when I found them in our microwave -to keep the mice away, of course. I slathered some tangy sweet red onion marmalade (canned this fall) on them and topped them each with a slice of NY cheddar. And ate them while having a conversation about the service with my organist.

8:45pm. Um. Popcorn. With nutritional yeast. I think I’ve covered all my bases today. Goodnight. 

Ready, Set, Rhubarb!

It’s been awhile, I know. I wrote a post or two that didn’t make it up due to computer issues. They were about eating locally in mid-winter, which is a difficult thing. Eating in early spring is also a difficult thing, so the concept is still applicable, but what’s gone is gone, so I’m moving on… to RHUBARB!

A few weeks ago, in the beginning of a warm spell, our good friends Anna and Garrett dropped off a bucket of rhubarb plants. Even though around here, it seems like everyone knows how to plant rhubarb (it is really one of the easiest plants to grow), I’ll outline the facts for those of you who might not have experience with it:

Rhubarb should never be purchased. It is a perennial plant which ought to be split and shared with friends every few years, or it will overrun whatever section of your yard you put it in. So you dig a great big hole and fill the hole with some dirt and compost and put the rhubarb in and let it grow for a full year before you harvest a single stalk of it. The second year, you can harvest for two months. The third year, it should be established enough that you can go ahead and harvest ‘as much as you need,’ which, by this time will probably be far more than you could possibly NEED, and so by the fifth year, you probably ought to split it in half and let someone else have some of the … joy.

The thing is: I love rhubarb. As a kid, I used to take rhubarb stalks from the plant in our yard and suck the sour juices out of the stalks. If you don’t love rhubarb, or have never tried it before, I really don’t advise doing that.

It seems to be the case that not everyone loves rhubarb. Rather, it is one of those nuisance plants that no one is willing to really throw away, but is really glad to give ‘a friend’ if they want some. It is rarely used in full, the leaves are toxic when eaten… it makes excellent jam and pie filling and works in muffins, sometimes. But it is terribly sour and tends to taste grassy. So a little rhubarb plant goes a long way.

Anyway, A & G dropped off a bucket of rhubarb plants which reminded me to check up on the rhubarb plants we got last year from my in-laws, which reminded me: I still had a 5 lb bag of rhubarb from my in-law’s garden in my freezer. So, with the bucket of brilliant hot-pink sprouts out on the back patio, I took the frozen bag of now grey-pink-greenish chunks out and let them thaw.

I’ve been eating a lot of brownish-colored rhubarb jam lately, and with one more batch of rhubarb muffins, I think I’ll be done using up last year’s rhubarb. And then, we’ll really be ready.

 

 

… So if you need any rhubarb, you know who to call…

 

Daily (or weekly) Bread

If you happened to be in church for a Christmas Eve or Christmas morning Service of Lessons and Carols at any given church in any given place, you may have heard a version of Genesis 3:19, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food, until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

I’m using this text for a workshop on Faith and Food in about a month. I also read it on Christmas morning at an emotional closing service for one of the rural congregations I lead… or led. So when I read the King James Version of the quotation in this article in the December Smithsonian (note: in the magazine, the title of the article is, “An Amber Wave”), I am certain that I had an exclamation point drawn above my head.

“… in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”

Of course. Bread.

If you Google ‘daily bread,’ the top of the search heap has nothing to do with food. Well. I suppose if you are a person who considers thoughts, which cannot be eaten, to be Spiritual Food, then maybe. Daily Bread, as in, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ a line from “The Lord’s Prayer,” a common prayer in liturgies of Holy Communion, has become separated from any actual practice. Rather than talking about literal daily bread, and a literal meal, we refer to ‘spiritual thoughts’ as our Daily Bread, symbolizing the spiritual nourishment God gives us each day, and a few crumbs of bread a sip of grape juice symbolize … an actual meal.

But Actual Food, can both be eaten and has deep spiritual meaning. And if you look at the Very Beginning, you’ll find that one of the creation stories says that in fact, human survival is hard work.

Childbirth – hard but necessary work.

Farming – hard, but necessary work.

Many people think that the age of Supermarkets and Wonderbread are both super and wonderful. But in the meantime, we’ve managed to separate the spiritual aspects from the actual spiritual practice. What I mean is this: Instead of having an actual meal with actual people who actually don’t ‘fit in our circles of comfort,’ we take the spiritual aspect out of the actual practice and just … think … about it. Instead of putting forth toil out of which we receive ‘our daily bread,’ humbly thanking God, knowing that despite our best efforts, we still do not control the universe, we take the spiritual aspect out of the actual practice and just … think … about it.

In the New Year, I resolve to write a weekly post regarding bread. And so I don’t get caught up in just … thinking … about it, I want to let you know that I am also resolving to start baking my own bread. I guess, weekly. I don’t do it much now because, well. . . it’s hard and time consuming, and I don’t have to: Heidleberg supplies us with relatively local loaves baked with NYS flour. I suppose that’s why most people in our culture don’t do it more. But our eventual goal is to grow our own grains and mill them ourselves (although with this machine, I’m sure to have no trouble getting Jack to do it!)

So since gardencommunion is all about healing the relationship we have with our food, about retrieving the ACTUAL and getting it back together with the spiritual, I thought a good place to start would be with our Daily (or Weekly) Bread. As always, your thoughts are greatly encouraged!

The Friendly Beasts

I have been eating meat during Advent. 

If I ate a typical American diet, that might not be such a big deal. But I don’t, and it is. 

I wrote my first essay on Eating Vegetarian in fifth grade. Among my motivations: a) trying to rationalize with my classmates who teased me for bringing soup, yogurt, hummus on a pita and an apple for lunch almost every day while they were packed with ‘Lunchables’ or sent to school with a package of cookie dough or cream cheese, and b) hoping that in my rational and strategic demonstration of the personal and social health benefits of various degrees of vegetarianism, my classmates would join my enthusiasm and eat beans instead of pepperoni. It might be a surprise to hear that I didn’t convert anyone.

I have read lots (and write lots) on eating meat, not eating meat, ethical meat eating, high protein diets, etc. I am not about to write you a dissertation on sane eating. But I will share a few thoughts on eating meat during Advent.

First, let me come clean: I am not ‘A Vegetarian,’ and haven’t been for some time. I do happen to be married to ‘A Vegetarian’ which is kind of nice, seeing that I rarely eat meat (there were a few years I ate it about once a week, now it is closer to once every month or so.) “Meat” here means meat. Fish, chicken, beef, etc. If it is the flesh of an animal, it is meat. It is also nice to be married to A Vegetarian because I am not confident with my meat-preparation skills. However, I did happen to make a turkey for Thanksgiving and it happened to be the best-tasting turkey I have ever tasted (it just so happens).

I am not ‘A Vegetarian,’ but tend to eat vegetarian. One benefit of eating vegetarian is that it is really easy to lose weight! Unfortunately, if you are a person like me, with a relatively high metabolism, who doesn’t eat a lot of sweets (or a lot of anything, in general), you may find yourself losing lots of weight without wanting to. And then, once underweight, feel so weak it is hard to walk up the stairs. At that point, you might find yourself craving steak in your sleep.

Everyone needs a certain amount of protein, and really, despite the trendiness of eating protein bars and shakes, there is rarely any reason to eat more than a normal amount of protein. If you’re trying to build muscle in the beginning of training for something you’re not used to doing, then you might need it. If you’re really overweight and making your body use its fat for fuel (which is dangerous, but less dangerous than obesity), then you might need it. If you’re underweight (which can be more dangerous than even obesity), then you definitely need it – to gain muscle mass. Anyhow, it’s probably best to consume protein in the form of God-given whole grains (yes, real, actual whole grains in the form of grains!), beans, eggs, dairy, nuts, and lean meat before reverting to a totally unnecessary Man-made processed and packaged snack.

Well in our diet we’ve been running very short on protein. I’ve doubled the protein we eat, but I am unable to build muscle mass on it. So I’m eating meat, too.

I keep thinking about the old French Christmas carol, “The Friendly Beasts.” In the song, the animals of the stable each give something to the baby Jesus. The donkey carried his mother, the cow gives him his manger, the sheep gives him wool to keep him warm, and the dove sings him to sleep. I have eaten meat about twice a week during Advent. And I think about the Friendly Beasts, and about our friendly beasts, the dogs that share our lives with us, whose personalities sometimes seem so human… I think about how each animal has something more to offer than just his meat, just like each person is worth so much more than simply what’s in his bank account. Okay, the song is often sung by little kids, and seems a little cutesy. But I am being completely sincere and am not wearing a little donkey tail while I sing it. I’m moved by this carol, which reminds us that God is with us and that even the animals know what reverence is. So, we can afford  to be a little reverent, too.

I am eternally grateful for the leftover beef I just ate for lunch, and for about the fifth time I have prayed for this animal: wishing health and happiness for the cattle whose body is helping my body to heal and grow. I am grateful for the rice and lentils we’ll eat tonight, but I can’t help but feel humbled and honored when I eat meat during this Advent season.

 

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Advent Compost

In this season of Advent, we’re focusing on letting go; so in my life I’m trying (emphasis on trying) to live each day as though it is an apple going in to sauce. One day at a time, I’m cutting off the bruised parts, picking out the tough cores and processing out the seeds and peels. In my house, none of these things go to waste because they are food for the worms out back in the compost pile.

Since I believe that God is supposed to be our light, that means I believe that I am not the light. I believe Advent is a time of preparation, and that if Jesus was born in a stable, I certainly don’t need to clean up for him to find my home acceptable. If Jesus is the light, then we don’t have to prepare the runway – he’ll find us, and he’ll bring the party.

So during Advent, I’m cutting out the stuff I don’t want to preserve. If I don’t want to keep it on my shelf to eat later on, then I’m giving it to the Great Composter, who with light will turn those rotten parts into soil. From soil we are made, and to soil we return.

I’m not saying I’m rejecting part of myself. I’m saying I’m choosing to keep what I want to preserve: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. And the hopelessness, the hatred, the anger, and the fear – those bitter tastes don’t need to get put in the sauce. I don’t want to keep revisiting the negatives all winter long.

So that’s why it goes in the compost – to await the light of Christ. We let go of it and over time, God’s light will turn it into something a little more useful.

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