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sweet cream biscuits

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One of the things I learned when we moved to Durham, North Carolina is that making a good biscuit is a practiced art form. I worked in restaurants there alongside of some amazing biscuit makers before I felt like I could say I knew how to make a good biscuit. In particular, I want to call out my friend Mike Hacker of Pie Pushers who taught me the most about biscuits and still makes my favorite one.

To say biscuits take time is to state the obvious. But a few years ago I learned that when I wake up on Saturday mornings like this one and it is cloudy and chilly and you wish you had a biscuit, these sweet cream beauties do the trick. They are simple and good. Start to finish they can be on the table in a half an hour. That’s hard to beat.

They also serve as a reminder that you should always have heavy cream in your fridge.

sweet cream biscuits

2 cups flour (10 oz.)
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat your oven to 425°.

Whisk the dry ingredients together and add the cream. Fold with a spatula until it mostly comes together and pour it out on to a piece of parchment and use your hands to shape it into a rectangle. Roll it to about a half an inch thick, keeping the shape, and then cut it into squares. We like them small,
so I cut twelve pieces. Move the parchment on to a rimmed baking sheet and separate the biscuits.

Bake for 15 minutes. Paint the tops with the melted butter when they come out of the oven and serve.

Peace,
Milton

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saturday night chicken

2

In my book Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal, the chapter called “Signature Dish” begins with these words:

My first date with Ginger, who is now my wife, was a Lyle Lovett concert in a tiny club in Fort Worth, Texas. On our second date, I cooked dinner for her. It was a Saturday night and I put together a mixture of fettuccine alfredo and cajun-spiced chicken that she thoroughly enjoyed. We fell in love with one another rather quickly, so we ate together most every Saturday night that spring and she asked for a repeat performance of the dish so often that we named it “Saturday Night Chicken.” Though we do eat a variety of food, that is our signature dish: the one we most associate with us.

Over the years, I have changed a few things as our tastes have changed or as I learned new things, but it is still pretty much like I made it that first Saturday night.

1 pound boneless chicken breast cutlets, cut in small pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
adobo seasoning (see note)
Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning

fettuccine pasta

1/2-1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup heavy cream
pasta water, if needed

Put a big pot of water on the stove to boil for the pasta. If you are using dry pasta, it will take longer to cook than fresh. The trick is to time it so the pasta finishes with the chicken and the alfredo sauce.

Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces–at least that is what we do. It also works to cut them in strips. Put them in a bowl and toss with the two seasonings. I use about a tablespoon of both because we like it spicy. Experiment to your own taste, or use other spice mixes. You can also add more as you are cooking.

Get a sauté pan or a skillet good and hot and then add the butter and olive oil. When the fats are hot, but not smoking, add the chicken pieces and cook until they are cooked through and a little crispy. Don’t overload the skillet. Put in just enough to kind of cover the bottom of the pan. Do it in batches if you need to. Then set the chicken aside for a minute to make the sauce.

When you know the pasta is close to being done, start making your alfredo sauce. Take another sauté pan and melt about 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the cream. Then stir in the cheese. If you are draining the pasta through a colander, save about a half a cup of the water. If you are using a pasta fork (I think that’s what it’s called), put the pasta in with the butter, cream, cheese and stir it all so the pasta is covered. Stir over medium low heat until the cheese melts and it thickens a bit. If you need more moisture, add a little of the patsa water. You can also turn the heat up under the chicken for a minute to let it warm up.

Divide the pasta between bowls and top with the chicken.

Open a nice bottle of wine and feel the love.

NOTE: I used to buy my adobo seasoning, but now I make my own, adapting this recipe.

3 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground turmeric

You can pulse all of these in a coffee grinder, or just leave the spices as they are.

Peace,
Milton

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small mercies

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I know. I haven’t been here in a while.

I’ve missed it. And I’m working to change that pattern for the days ahead. I’ll start with my sermon for today. I am preaching in two places this morning: remotely at United Churches of Durham CT and in person at First Congregational Church of Guilford, which was also recorded earlier in the week since not everyone can get into the sanctuary. Here is what I had to say.

“Small Mercies” Exodus 13:12-23

Back in the days of Blockbuster Video and VHS tapes, Ginger and our friend Cherry rented the movie Casino. It was so long that it took two tapes. They popped one in the VCR and were a little puzzled that the movie just started without any titles or credits, but they chalked it up to Martin Scorsese being a creative director. Still some things didn’t make sense. When they got to the end of the tape and the final credits began to roll, they realized they had started in the middle of the movie.

Our lectionary passage this morning is the beginning of the second tape, as far as the story of the Hebrew people goes. It will make more sense if we give it a larger context. The Book of Exodus is telling the story of how the Hebrews became a people, a nation, and a community of faith. It is also the story of their learning to live in relationship to God in new ways. It began with their Exodus from Egypt. Then the wandered in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula for forty years.

In one of the early chapters of this story, the people complained because they didn’t have enough to eat. No–they didn’t just complain. They whined. “Why did God bring us out here to die? We would be better off back in Egypt.”

In response, God rained bread every morning like dew–manna–which inspired our hymn for today: “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.” In the evening quail flew into the camp and just sat there. Though this part of the story is told only once, the food supply chain was never broken. I want you to remember that the meals didn’t stop for forty years. Hang on to that detail.

One more piece of this prelude: the chapter of the story we are reading today begins with Moses going up the mountain to get the Ten Commandments. He was gone so long that the people began to think he was never coming back and they got anxious. Their pleading makes me think of the line from the chorus of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”—“. . . just give me one thing that I can hold on to.”

So they melted all their jewelry and built a Golden Calf to give them that one thing: something they could see and touch—a god they could grasp. Moses came down the mountain with the Tablets, saw the calf, got mad, threw down the tablets and broke them, and then burned the calf to ashes, mixed the ashes with water, and made the people swallow the consequences of their actions. Moses was mad, God was mad, and they people were distraught.

The Hebrew people, as I said, were in the process of becoming a people. They had spent generations in Egypt being defined by who they were not and as they physically wandered in the Sinai, they were spiritually wandering as well, trying to figure out who they were. To see themselves as God’s people meant they had to come to terms with God. For all the parted seas and giant gestures of deliverance, the Hebrews lived with a basic insecurity that God was not going to hang around. They wanted constant reassurance. They wanted a god they could touch, a god they could understand. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says,
“We now understand the entire drama set in motion by the making of the Golden Calf. Moses pleaded with God to come closer to the people, so that they would encounter [God] not only at unrepeatable moments in the form of miracles but regularly, on a daily basis, and not only as a force that threatens to obliterate all it touches but as a Presence that can be sensed in the heart of the camp.”

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, Moses pitched his tent outside the camp. Both he and God kept their distance from the people, who wanted presence most of all, but didn’t know how to ask for it. From the camp, they could see that God came to Moses in the form of a “pillar of cloud, and that Moses and God were in conversation in a way the people had not experienced: it gave the appearance of two old friends talking.

Moses was a man acquainted with powerful revelation. God first spoke to him through a burning bush that never burned up. When Moses raised his arms, the sea parted and the people escaped Egypt. The Torah records more than one conversation between God and Moses where Moses bargains with God. In this passage, Moses asks to see God face to face and God says,

See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.

I want to go back to the detail I asked you to hold on to earlier: the manna and quail had never stopped. Morning my morning, God had showed up and the new mercies had continued, but Moses and the Hebrew people had lost sight of them somehow.

The Hebrew people wandered for forty years across an area about the size of the state of Maine. When they left Egypt, they thought, I’m sure, that everything was going to be okay. They were freed from their enslavement. God was with them. But it was just the beginning. What they thought would end quickly dragged on for generations. They didn’t know when it was going to end. They didn’t know what to expect. They built the golden calf so they could have a deity they grasp. They wanted a quantifiable life and a quantifiable god. They wanted certainty. They wanted another grand gesture on God’s part to give them a sense of presence and what they got was breakfast every morning.

In one of my favorite movies, Miss Firecracker, Carnelle Scott is a woman who is well-acquainted with grief and tragedy, and who is also in the last year of her eligibility for the Miss Firecracker Contest in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her cousin Elain had won it years before when Carnelle was a child, and Carnelle is sure she can do the same and that winning the title will change everything. She places fifth.

Later, she says to Mac Sam, the come-and-go love of her life, and also one of her biggest encouragers, “I just want to know what I can reasonably expect out of life.”

“Not much,” he answers, laughing and coughing at the same time.

“But something,” she persists.

“Eternal grace,” he says.

We are wandering into the eighth month of distance and isolation connected to COVID-19. In many ways, we are less sure about when this will be over than ever. We are a little over two weeks away from an election that will answer some questions but leave much of our cultural turmoil and division still in play. We are struggling to deepen and widen our understanding of what it means to be a people as we come try to come to terms with the structural racism and bigotry baked into our systems. We, too, want some certainty about what is coming next. We, too, pin our hopes too easily on grand gestures. We, too, want to know what we can reasonably expect out of life.

But, like, the Hebrew people, we will find our hope and our humanity in the small merices. We find our faith in the stories we tell that give us a sense of God’s presence, not in a full-on, in your face kind of way, but in how we remember what God has done in our midst. The cliché says that the devil is in the details. No. That’s where God is.

Micah 6:8 is a verse we quote often: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” The oldest translations read “love mercy” instead of “love kindness.” The manna on the ground each day was an offering of God’s kindness. With that in mind, listen to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

In the musical Godspell, one of Jesus’ followers sings, “Day by day, day by day, O, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly day by day.”

In the messy details of our lives, in our hunger for assurance, in our trust that we are held by eternal grace, and in all that is uncertain about what lies ahead, our daily kindnesses are our best reminder of God presence and our connectedness. Morning by morning. Evening by evening. Sorrow by sorrow. New mercies we see—day by day by day by day by day. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

7+

trustable

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I’m not sure whether this poem works, but it seemed worth a shot.

trustable

was the word I heard
the syllabic rhythm sent

my mind dancing into
the past to find

uncrustable

a made up word for
a prepackaged PB&J

designed to say the artful
care of cutting off crusts

takes too much time

care however takes time
so does trust or listening

the prepackaged politics
that polarize us make it

too easy to cut each other off

we are more than a blue-red binary
better than agreeing to disagree

for too long we have pretended
the hard parts aren’t there

pampered ourselves with privilege

but if we are to be trustable
to those we have cut away

life must become more riskable
complicated conversational

don’t talk with your mouth full

Peace,
Milton

5+

scattered

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One of my Facebook friends here in Guilford posted this picture of the sunset blurred by the ash of the fires on the other side of the country.

scattered

the east coast sunset
looks like the west
african haze of the
harmattan but our
sun is not muted
by the desert dust
but by the ashes
of trees and homes
the remnants of
incinerated lives
carried cross country
ashes of remembrance
scattered shadows of
solidarity that say
we are connected
by wind and land
by fire and death
by loss and life
tell me why then
is it that I am
caught
by surprise

Peace,
Milton

7+

all is not lost

2

all is not lost

the art of losing
isn’t hard to master
bishop said
and that got her
anthologized
and awarded
but not listened to

we have so much
more to lose
life is losing
we all go out
empty-handed

just this year
we lost hugs
and handshakes
happy hours
sacred gatherings
live music and
grocery stores

not to mention
john prine john lewis
boseman and rbg
add your names
I will too

lose your life
Jesus said and
we went straight
for the you’ll
find it part
but not until
all is lost

Peace,
Milton

5+

my letter to you

4

my letter to you

I woke up to an e-mail message informing me of a new Bruce Springsteen record–always good news. The introductory single gave me both the title for my post tonight and a lift in my spirits.

‘neath a crowd of mongrel trees
I pulled that bothersome thread
got down on my knees
grabbed my pen and bowed my head
tried to summon all that my heart finds true
and send it in my letter to you

Summoning all that our hearts find true is no easy work these days. As we move from summer to fall, Robert Earl Keen has letters of his own and honest words about weariness.

my bag is full of letters unopened and unread
I’m sure they’d tell the story of worry and of form
my heart is beating heavy with all we left unsaid
I swear to you I never meant you any harm
but sacrifice and compromise could never stand the strain
it’s been a long hot summer, not a drop of rain

But weariness is not the last word. I was talking with my spiritual director about all that is swirling around me in these days, focusing mostly on the grief when she said, “It feels like your life is filled with God. Peter Mayer put her words to music in a song I have carried with me for a long time.

when holy water was rare at best
it barely wet my fingertips
but now I have to hold my breath
like I m swimming in a sea of it
it used to be a world half there
heaven s second rate hand-me-down
but I walk it with a reverent air
cause everything is holy now
everything, everything
everything is holy now

I had forgotten about this Warren Zevon gem until it showed up in a playlist the other night. Feels like a COVID anthem to me.

don’t let us get sick
don’t let us get old
don’t let us get stupid, all right?
just make us be brave
and make us play nice
and let us be together tonight

Jeff Tweedy wrote this song for Mavis Staples to sing, but here he is singing it himself. As we live at a distance, let us sing it to each other.

you’re not alone
I’m with you, I’m lonely too
what’s that song
can’t be sung by two?

a broken home, a broken heart
isolated and afraid
open up this is a raid
I wanna get it through to you
you’re not alone

I’ve posted this one before, but how could I get to early September and not play “Summer’s End”?

the moon and stars hang out in bars just talking
I still love that picture of us walking
just like that ol’ house we thought was haunted
summer’s end came faster than we wanted
come on home
come on home
no you don’t have to be alone
come on home

I’ll close my letter with an old gathering hymn from James Taylor. Sing along, people; we’re all we’ve got.

shower the people you love with love
show them the way that you feel
things are gonna work out fine if you only will
shower the people you love with love
show them the way you feel
things are gonna be much better if you only will

Peace,
Milton

11+

uncle milty’s mildly famous tomato-peach marinara

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When I worked at the Roobar restaurant in Plymouth, Massachusetts, I learned how to make a marinara sauce from Tim Miller, the executive chef and one of the best people I ever worked for. I learned a lot of things from him.

One summer Saturday after we moved to Durham, North Carolina, I came home from the farmers market with both peaches and tomatoes. I’m not sure what got me to thinking about combinations, but I decided to play with what I had learned from Tim and use them both to make a sauce for a Thursday Night Dinner. As I remember, I poured it over eggplant parmigiana.

It worked.

A couple of weeks after I made up my signature cookies for Cocoa Cinnamon in Durham, I walked into the shop to see them labeled as “Milton’s Famous Cookies.” When I asked my friend and the co-owner about it, he said, “They are famous here.” My sauce has remained a little bit more of a secret, but it’s pretty damn good, so I will settle for

uncle milty’s mildly famous tomato-peach marinara

Like any good sauce, it’s all in how it tastes, so I am not giving specific amounts, other than to say use equal amounts of tomatoes (I prefer paste tomatoes–Romas, San Marzanos) and peaches. Even better if both are fresh, though canned tomatoes will work in a pinch. Don’t use canned peaches. Those are ready for pies. Frozen ones would work, however.

This recipe is designed to make a bunch of sauce, but you can make a small amount as well.

tomatoes, blanched and peeled
peaches, blanched and peeled
garlic
basil, chopped
olive oil

Bring a pot of water to boil. Score the tomatoes and the peaches across the bottom: make an “X” with a knife, that is. Drop the tomatoes in the boiling water for 1-2 minutes and then lift them out on to a sheet pan. Bring the water back to a boil and blanch the peaches for 3-4 minutes and lift them out.

Empty the water out, wipe the pot dry, and return it to the stove. (Or use a different pot; I just like to have less cleanup.) While the tomatoes and peaches are cooling a bit, crush enough garlic to pretty much cover the bottom of the potand then pour enough olive oil over the garlic to cover the cloves about halfway. Put it over medium heat and put a lid on the pot. Stir it occasionally. Cook for 6-8 minutes, or until the garlic begins to brown a bit on the edges.

While the garlic is cooking, peel the tomatoes and peaches (the blanching makes it easy) and put them in a big bowl. Use your hands to crush everything together. Pour the mixture–carefully–into the pot with the garlic and oil and stir to mix well. Lower the heat a little and then let it come to a simmer. Don’t put a lid on it; you want it to reduce a bit. Cook for at least an hour–longer if can. Low and slow always makes a sauce taste better. Season the sauce–add salt and pepper, or maybe some crushed red pepper flakes–towards the end of the process.

Take the basil leaves off of the stem and chop them. When the sauce is nearly done, add the basil and stir. Then purée the sauce using an immersion blender until it’s smooth. Taste and season again.

If you want to can the sauce, add one tablespoon of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of salt to the bottom of each pint jar (double for a quart jar), and then fill with sauce, seal, and process in a water bath (more boiling water) for 45 minutes (55 for quarts).

Yes, it’s pasta sauce, but it tastes so good you could eat it like soup.

Peace,
Milton

3+

distance learning

2

distance learning

the word distance
has its roots in discord
and disagreement
another way of
saying something has
come between us
we stand apart

before we masked
and measured ourselves
the strife simmered
under our skins
we want to blame
the virus but our
disease runs deeper

long ago we learned
to live at extremes
makes it easier to be
right even righteous
why give even an inch
to let them too close
is to risk infection

I learned a folk
song as a kid that
wondered where the
flowers had gone
a light apocalyptic
melody that carried
the question when
will they ever learn
when will we

Peace,
Milton

8+

finally comes the poet

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My friend Nathan Brown is a poet. For a living. And he’s good.

At the beginning of the pandemic, he began something called the Fire Pit Sessions on his Facebook page, which grew out of his invitation for people to commission poems about life in these days. He then began to come on every night or two and read some of them and then sing a song—usually a cover, but often an original.

He did his forty-eighth Fire Pit Session last night and they just keep getting better. After he finished his poetry, he cited a few lines G. K. Chesterton’s “The Deluge” from memory

Though giant rains put out the sun,
Here stand I for a sign.
Though earth be filled with waters dark,
My cup is filled with wine.
Tell to the trembling priests that here
Under the deluge rod,
One nameless, tattered, broken man
Stood up, and drank to God.

and sang John Moreland’s “Gospel,”

I wanna ask all the questions with answers we’ll never know
I wanna find my faith in records from long ago
I wanna set fear on fire and give dreaming a fair shot
And never give up whether anybody cares or not

and I felt compelled to write a response to my friend, and so I sent him this.

night light

I have to stay up
late to catch sight

of the sparks you
let loose out west

I have had to train
my eyes to find

the wisp of our
friendship rising

on the horizon
the promise of

warmth I can’t feel
but still I trust

you saved me you said
right back at you

You can be a part of the Fire Pit Sessions by following Nathan’s Facebook page. You can also go back and watch the archived ones, should you so choose.

Join me at the Fire Pit, won’t you? It is life-giving.

Peace,
Milton

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