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i don’t have the stomach for this

4

One of my morning rituals is to listen to The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, which plays at the end of Morning Edition on WGBH, one of our local NPR stations. Each day, he makes note of significant birthdays in the literary world and then reads a poem. He closes each segment by saying, “Be well, do good work, and stay in touch.”

Today’s poem was one by Robert Frost:

A Time to Talk

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

Tonight at church we face a different kind of time to talk. This is the night of the big meeting with the mediator. The phone and email chatter has grown quiet over the last several days; I’m not sure anyone knows quite what to expect.

Normally, I do not know of an emotion that does not make me want to eat. If I’m elated, I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a meal. If I’m depressed, I can bang my way through a bag of Cape Cod Sea Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips without even blinking. This week has been different. Whatever I have eaten seems determined to work it’s way out of my body as though it was competing for a medal.

I am finding little comfort in food.

One of the working theories of my life is we could work most anything out if we could sit down and discuss it over a meal. If you need to ask someone to pass the potatoes, you’re going to have to figure out a way to talk about other stuff as well. Therefore, I’m a bit weary of a meeting that makes it difficult for me to even think about eating. How are we going to break down the walls that need to be broken down so we can create a time to talk — and listen?

I wish I had an answer to that question going into the meeting tonight.

How I hope we could get to the end of the time tonight and have found enough healing for someone to say, “You want to grab a bite to eat?”

Peace,
Milton

PS — As you can see from the format change, I’m trying to learn a bit more about HTML and setting up the blog the way I want it to look. Since Ginger and I live in Green Harbor, just 600 feet from Cape Cod Bay, this template seemed appropriate.

pearls in the pantry

1

I don’t even think I knew what couscous was until about ten years ago.

One of my first encounters was hearing a three-year old’s answer to his mother’s question of what he wanted for dinner: “Couscous.” Next thing I knew, she had pulled out this container of microscopic grains, poured boiling water over them, let them soak up the water, fluffed them a bit, and handed them to her kid.

What I have since learned about couscous is it originates from Morocco and is made from semolina flour (or a mixture of semolina and durum), which is what is used to make pasta. Making couscous from scratch is hard and arduous work; I don’t know anyone who does it. One article I read said even in North Africa only the poorest people still make it by hand. Thanks to the French occupation of North Africa, the dish traveled across Europe and into Palestine and Israel.

About two years ago, I was in Whole Foods and found “Israeli couscous,” which is a much larger size, though also a pasta. It is also called pearl couscous. I like that name: I’m keeping pearls in my pantry. The pearls are much more versatile and easier to handle. It has become an important part of my diet on the what-do-I-want-to-eat-that-won’t-take-long- and-is-good-for-me days.

Like today. My lunch looked something like this:

3/4 c water, brought to a boil
1/4 c craisins (dried cranberries) added to cold water before boiling
1/2 c Israeli couscous, added to boiling water

Cover, lower to a simmer, and let cook for about five minutes, or until most of water is gone; turn off heat and let sit for another five minutes. While it’s resting, dig through your fridge and figure out what you want to add. Today that was:

a handful of fresh spinach leaves, torn
some diced pieces of leftover pork tenderloin
some mandarin orange segments
some Gorgonzola cheese crumbles

I put the couscous in a mixing bowl, stirred in the spinach leaves to let them wilt a bit, and then added the rest of the stuff when the couscous had cooled a little.

It tastes even better when you share a few of the pork chunks with your favorite schnauzers.

Who knows what any Israelis might think of what I did with my bowl of little pearls, but it tasted like manna to me.

Peace,
Milton

you will get your due

8

I got my last Christmas present Saturday night. It was the best one.

Over the past few years, Ginger has given me gifts that are to be experienced rather than collected. Two years ago, she gave me an icon painting class, which led to my friendship with Christopher Gosey, as well as bringing new layers to both my artistic and spiritual journeys. Last year, it was a mosaic class. In early December, she told me she couldn’t find any good classes this year and she was going to have to think of something else.

She did – and she gave me one of the best gifts ever: tickets to a house concert to hear Diane Zeigler.

In 1995, Diane released The Sting of the Honeybee, an album (OK, a CD) I picked up at Tower records because she covered “Millworker” by James Taylor. I had no idea what a gem I had found, and how fortunate I was the music had found me.

In 1995, we were living in Charlestown, an urban neighborhood of Boston. I was teaching English at Charlestown High School. I loved the kids, but the bureaucracy and the burned out lifers in the system were taking their toll on me. In those days, I described how it felt in these words: everyday, while I was in the building, part of me died; when I came home, I had until the following morning to bring myself back to life, but not all of me was revived. I was also struggling because I had been saying for a long time I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t finding – or making – much time to write. In those days, I was co-writing songs with my friend, Billy Crockett, but we were half a country apart, so I couldn’t give myself fully to that either. Knowing what I know now about my depression, I can look back on those days and see I was sinking and did not know it. I was a man with dreams that felt as if they were mostly on life support. And then, on this wonderful record, I found this song:

YOU WILL GET YOUR DUE
(diane zeigler)

there’s a man that I don’t know well
but I’ve seen the way he cast his spell
straight across a room until the people had to listen
he was singing from a quiet place
and you could only hear the faintest trace
that he wonders if he’ll ever taste the kiss of recognition

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it’s not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I want to call him friend
because I love the way he works that pen
and spinning stories seems to be his true devotion
but he says he’s gonna pack it in
because he doesn’t see it rolling in
he thinks that ship is somewhere lost out on the ocean

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it’s not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I know you want to leave it behind
but it’s all there in your mind
and you can no more stop the songs
than stop your breathing
I can’t tell you how it’s gonna end
I know the lucky ones sometimes win
but not before they’ve paid a price
for all their dreaming

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it’s not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I don’t know how many times I have listened to her sing those words, or I have sung them myself. A decade later, I’m working two jobs, still working on being a writer, and am somewhat of a survivor of my own Great Depression. So when a random mailing came from Diane, based on a list I signed at a concert about seven years ago, Ginger did some very cool detective work and gave me an amazing gift of love: an evening of hope and healing.

I had never been to a house concert before. Laura and Neal, who run Fox Run House Concerts, basically tore apart their home and put it back together again where forty or so people can gather and share an evening of music together. We all brought snacks and stood around in the kitchen and dining room until it was time to be the audience. Seated on couches and dining room chairs, we listened, laughed, and sang along. After the show I even had a chance to tell Diane how her song had accompanied me. She, Ginger, and I talked for a long time and found a resonance that went well beyond a decade-old recording.

One of the most insidious lies depression tells is no one understands and no one is really listening: you are all alone, so there’s no point in speaking up.

I touched the truth Saturday night, hearing Diane sing the song in a living room full of people who came to be reminded that we are not by ourselves. The real gift for me was more than being at the concert. It was being there sitting next to the woman who has told me to believe there is so much more everyday I have known her and who incarnates Love to me more than anyone I know.

It was a great Christmas.

Peace,
Milton

P.S. Dave Crossland opened for Diane. He’s got some great stuff!

the souper bowl of caring

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Fridays and Saturdays are my long days at the Inn. I’ve get twelve hours of cooking ahead of me today, so I decided to use my time to point to some folks who are doing good stuff: The Souper Bowl of Caring.

Here is how they describe their history:

A simple prayer: “Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat” is inspiring a youth-led movement to help hungry and hurting people around the world.

This prayer, delivered by Brad Smith, then a seminary intern serving at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, gave birth to an idea. Why not ask parishioners to give one dollar each for the needy as they leave worship on Super Bowl Sunday? Young people could receive the donations then send every dollar DIRECTLY to the charity of their choice. Participants would only be asked to report their results so that the totals could be determined.

The senior high youth of Spring Valley Presbyterian liked the idea so much they decided to invite other area churches to join the team. Twenty-two Columbia churches participated that first year, sending $5,700 to area ministries that help needy people. That was 1990. The effort went statewide in 1991 and national in 1993.

In 1997, youth groups in congregations across the country broke the million-dollar barrier, generating $1.1 million that year. Later that year an ecumenical Board was formed to take over the guidance and governance of the Souper Bowl. At the end of 2001, the Souper Bowl of Caring achieved another milestone when the Council of Stewards hired Brad Smith as the first full-time person devoted to fostering the growth of this grassroots movement of God’s love.

Since the Souper Bowl’s inception, ordinary young people have, with God’s help, generated an extraordinary aggregate of $28 million for soup kitchens, food banks and other charities in communities across the country. In addition, tens of thousands of youth have learned that God can use them to make a difference in the lives of others.

In 2005, people around the country raised over $4 million dollars through the Souper Bowl. This is great stuff. And you still have time to get involved.

Peace,
Milton

where two or three are gathered

10

I’m working two jobs right now: one as a cook at the Red Lion Inn and the other as part-time associate pastor at a UCC church in a nearby town. Together, the two jobs take up most of my evenings. In the past few days I have been a part of gatherings related to both my vocations, and both gatherings related to church life.

Monday night our church cabinet — about twenty-five folks — met to go over the budget for the coming year, but what erupted through the budget discussion was the ongoing hurt and anger that is swirling through our congregation — or parts of it — right now. The flashpoint is that some members are withholding their pledges for the coming year because things aren’t going the way they want, which has created a $45,000 gap between pledges and what we need to spend next year to be the church we want to be. The gap makes all of us edgy; the meeting moved from finances to frustration. Though the angry folks are in the minority, their venom is viral: the whole room was infected. I don’t think anyone slept well Monday night.

Our UCC area minister is coming to mediate a meeting next week to help us figure out where to go from here.

Last night, I got to be the chef for a “Cooking Class” for the women’s association of another UCC church in another nearby town. About twenty-five women gathered at one home, I cooked and talked about what I was cooking, and they — OK, we — ate and drank and told stories. When I told Robert, the chef I work for, I was doing the class he cautioned me that only about a third of the folks who come to such an evening are coming to learn; most come to eat and hang out with their friends. He’s right.

I had put together a menu I was proud of:

Winter Salad
Curried Squash Soup
Molasses Marinated Pork Tenderloin
Three Potato au Gratin
Maple Glazed Brussel Sprouts
Sheet Apple Pie with White Pepper Ice Cream

I also made recipe booklets for each of the participants. They brought the wine and the stories.

Most of them listened as I introduced the evening and put the salad together. Most were still listening while I put the soup together. By then, the house was full of good smells and good conversation; by the time we got to the entree they wanted to eat and be together. I had fun just watching the friendship swirl around me. I filled my plate and sat down to listen to them tell me where the meal took them.

In two nights I got to see church at its best and its most difficult. It makes me wish we were having a pot-luck dinner next Wednesday. At least it would start to tear down the walls. When you start to think about an upcoming meeting and you can’t eat because of the feelings, you know you’re in trouble.

Other than the food, the fundamental difference between the two gatherings was in the first meeting people kept talking about “not being heard”; in the second, people were mostly interested in listening. Therein lies the difference between community and catastrophe.

Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo speak and he said, “You have two choices in any relationship: you can respond in power or in love.” As simple as it sounds, his statement has held up in my experience. We either do what we do to get our way, or feed our fear; or we create the possibility of deeper relationship by trusting one another.

Faith is a team sport (even though there is an “i” in faith). There are always two or three gathered when it comes to figuring out how to be the people of God. We are called together to love and be loved.

Like Andrew Peterson sings,

After the last disgrace
After the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician
After the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison

There is love, love, love, love
There is love, love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales

I trust the anger of Monday night’s meeting is not the last word.
I believe with all my heart that the joy of last night’s meeting is the best word.

Peace,
Milton

i wanted to think of that

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My friend Gordon has taught me most of what I know about blogging.

He’s taught me a bunch of other stuff, too.

He has a blog called Real Live Preacher, which has some great stuff, not the least of which is a recent posting entitled, “Unmade Children and Never Written Words,” and it’s one of those ideas I hoped I would think of one day, even though it hasn’t really crossed my mind so far.

Go read it.

Peace,
Milton

food for thought

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I’m ten or twelve posts into this blog and I’m staring at the screen this morning in a bit of a crisis: I don’t have a recipe.

The crisis is self-induced, I suppose. After looking at a number of food blogs, I’ve let myself feel the pressure of falling into their pattern. My posts can’t just be about what I have to say; I have to have a recipe. Well, I’m writing this morning to talk myself out of that perspective. The primary point of creating this blog — fro me — was to write. Writing about the way food, faith, friends, and family wind in and out of each other in our day-to-day existence is what fascinates me. When, along the way, I come across a recipe that is worth bringing to the table, I’ll pass it along, but I am feeding another appetite here.

The last week in our lives here on the South Shore of Massachusetts has left me keenly aware of difficult life is. Several people we know are in deep pain: one is in the hospital dealing with heart problems; another is at the end of her rope after a year and a half of undiagnosed illness; another is in a fierce custody battle over her two boys; and several have been bitterly hurt by the way some things have played out at the church I serve. None of the situations can be solved by a kind word and a box of cookies, regardless of how good the recipe is, and yet, “how can I help?” seems like an important question — even if I can’t answer it well.

Whether the pain attacks us or is self-inflicted, it’s still pain. Like Michael Stipe sings, everybody hurts. That’s stating the obvious. The struggle deepens when the wounds are open and the nerves are exposed. Too often, we recoil into isolation, which only makes things hurt worse. I’m hurting from some things said to me last night, and from watching the way people beat up on each other in a church meeting that didn’t have to be such a train wreck. And I know I’m not the only one.

When the apostle Paul gave instructions about Communion to the church at Corinth, he told them not to come to the table until they had forgiven those with whom they would share the meal and asked for forgiveness. What he knew was you can’t be filled with bitterness and expect to make room for grace. One of them has got to go.

We take Communion the first Sunday of every month, which means I have some work to do between now and February 5, which actually brings me back to plates of cookies and banana bread. The best peace offerings travel best with food as a companion.

When I figure out what I’m making, I’ll share the recipe.

Peace,
Milton

bring the family

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We started a new menu at the Red Lion Inn this weekend, the centerpiece of which is family style dining. You get a choice of lobster corn chowder, Caesar salad, or Red Lion fondue to begin; a choice of pork tenderloin, chicken, or London broil for entree; and a choice of creme brulee, Bailey’s cheesecake, or lemon tart for dessert — all for $14.95. Everyone at the table can order what they want, but if they do order together, then it gets fun. Instead of individual plates the food comes out on wonderful platters for everyone to share. Robert, our Head Chef, is great at making the food both taste good and look good, so when the platters went out, people gasped.

Now that’s what meal time should be.

But “family style” is becoming an anachronistic term — at least, when we use it to describe the kind of meal where people actually sit down to eat. Today, as people rush to games, practices, play dates, and whatever else is on the schedule, family style eating means driving through some fast food joint and eating in the car. It’s not about the meal, it’s about survival.

When I was growing up, meal time meant we sat down at the table and ate together, whether we were eating pork tenderloin or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother always made a point of putting things in bowls, rather than putting the jars on the table. We were sitting down to do more than eat; we were eating together.

One of my favorite novels is Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Ezra, who grows up in a family that leaves him with little idea of what family is, opens a restaurant in order to create a feeling of home for those who come in, even though he knows little of what home really feels like. That image is part of what attracts me to restaurant work and a great deal of what attracts me to cooking and making meals. When I sit down at the table with friends I have a shot at feeling at home. When we send out the beautiful platters to the folks at the Red Lion, we are offering them a moment to really be together. I like that.

Beats the hell out of pulling up to the drive through window.

My contribution to the table was getting to make the stuffing to go with the pork. Robert said he wanted some sort of cranberry-apple stuffing and left the rest up to me. I cubed some of the baguettes we had; sauteed some chopped bacon, onion, and celery; added chopped apples, dried cranberries, chopped fresh sage, salt & pepper, melted butter, white wine, and enough water to make it moist, and then baked it until it was firm. (When I can be more specific about amounts, I’ll post it on the recipe page.) It went along with the pork, and mashed butternut squash. I got hungry every time one of the platters went out.

It’s funny, sometimes, making meals for people we never see. We send the platters out to people we do not know, hoping to make a meal happen for them: that they don’t just fill up on food, but they find a way to be together, to make a memory, or have time to tell a couple of stories. Sometimes we hear a few things: they loved the food, they were very impressed. Occasionally, the server will say, “They won’t leave; they’re still sitting and talking.”

That’s my favorite.

Peace,
Milton

a taste of something fine

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Wednesday nights are usually a work night for me at The Inn. I like the place, I like the people I work with, but between the cooking gig and my church gig, I’m out of the house six nights a week, which means my wife, Ginger and I, don’t get to eat supper together very often.

Last night we did. The chef called to say he didn’t need me to work and all of a sudden Ginger and I had a dinner date.

Though I do love food, meals are what matters most. It’s not about the tastes as much as it is the experience: the chance to stop and share a meal with someone you love – and, of course, cooking what they love. I asked what she wanted as she headed out to work.

“Polenta!” she exclaimed.

Ginger had to work fairly late, so as the sun set on an already grey day, I poured myself a glass of wine, put Jackson Browne’s Saturate Before Using in the CD player, and began to work on dinner as he sang:

The papers lie there helplessly in a pile outside the door
I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t remember what they’re for
The world outside is tugging like a beggar at my sleeve
Ah, that’s much too old a story to believe

Polenta at our house means I make it (adding lemon juice, green chiles, and cheddar cheese), pour it into a 9-inch square Pyrex pan and let it cool, and then slice it and sauté it. I also pounded out a couple of chicken breasts, marinated them in Dijon mustard, rolled them in Ritz cracker crumbs, and then sautéed them as well. Ginger asked for green beans, but I had different plans for myself. A friend mentioned to me the other day he had been served asparagus with proscuitto and fresh cranberries, so I thought I would see if I could make that happen. I cut the proscuitto into thin strips and cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces. I put the proscuitto in first; when it was starting to crisp I added the asparagus and the cranberries and sautéed all of them until the berries began to pop. It was excellent.

And you know that it’s taken its share of me
Even though you take such good care of me
Now you say “Morocco” and that makes me smile
I haven’t seen Morocco in a long, long while
The dreams are rolling down across the places in my mind
And I’ve just had a taste of something fine

Every meal is a memory, a chance to lean into all that it means to be together and savor what it feels like to belong. When we reduce it to feeding, we miss the stuff that matters, the chance to be truly nurtured. I realized how badly I need the connection as we ate. I miss being at home for dinner.

When I was growing up, my family sat down to dinner together every night. The conversations around the table were informative, though not always deep, but in the years that followed when distance developed between my parents and me, the memory of those meals kept me from walking away. I had a place at that table. So did they.

I don’t belong anywhere in the world more than I belong with Ginger. And I remember that best when we sit down to dinner together.

And you know that I’m looking back carefully
”Cause I know that there’s still something there for me
But you said “Morocco” and you made me smile
And it hasn’t been that easy for a long, long while
And looking back into your eyes I saw them really shine
Giving me a taste of something fine

Peace,
Milton

food for friends

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First thing: the soup came out great!

Second thing: in my continuing journey through blogdom, I decided to set up another blog with just the recipes, rather than trying to make them fit into the narratives. You will find them at don’t eat alone: the recipes (creative, huh?).

There’s no such thing a good soup recipe for one because soup tastes better when it’s shared. Any food does, for that matter.

I have a big container of pumpkin apple soup (Check the link; I tweaked it a bit) just waiting for someone besides me to enjoy it. And I know exactly who needs it today. There’s a couple in our church who have been lifelong members and who have both been sick over the holidays. They, like many of us, don’t receive help easily, yet, somehow, they will receive it from me. It’s like that scene in The Breakfast Club where Molly Ringwald’s character is putting make up on Ally Sheedy’s character.

“Why are you doing this,” Ally Sheedy asks.

“Because you’re letting me,” answers Molly Ringwald.

The husband loves the lemon bars I make, so I just took a batch out of the oven to go along with the soup. When they cool, I will be off to make my delivery. That’s what friends do.

Food heals when it comes from the hands of a friend.

Peace,
Milton