Garden Diary

Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Christmas Pudding

is waiting in the refrigerator, developing its flavors and asking for nothing more, as it prepares itself to be the piece de resistance of our dinner tomorrow, than a few drops of brandy now and again to refresh itself.

I had hoped to have the pudding ready for Christmas day itself, but it took weeks to track down some suet, my local butcher being of no help to me at all, and once I had finally found it, I didn't have the time prior to Christmas to spend at home while it steamed away.

Finally on Wednesday this week I did get that chance, and so while the pudding will be a bit young, I did reserve enough suet to make next year's pudding, and perhaps even enough to make a nice Spotted Dog for Carnival.

The pudding recipe I used is from Grossman and Thomas' Lobscouse & Spotted Dog, a link to which can be found on the right. The recipe follows below.

1 Cup flour
1 Cup sultanas
2 Cups soft, fresh bread crumbs
Zest of 1/2 lemon, coarsely chopped
1/2 Cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1/3 cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 Cup candied citron, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 Cup slivered almonds
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/4 pound suet, finely grated
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 Cup brandy, plus 1/4 Cup for flaming (optional)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 Cup raisins
1 Cup dried currants

In a large bowl, combine the flour, bread crumbs, sugar, salt and spices. Stir in the fruits and nuts (the flour and bread crumbs will coat the fruits and prevent them from sticking together). Mix in the suet, then add the eggs and 1/2 cup of the brandy. Work the mixture thoroughly with your hands.

Scrape the batter in a greased 6-Cup pudding basin (I used a small stainless steel bowl). Tie a well-floured cloth (cheese cloth works for this), allowing a little room for expansion. Place the pudding in a pot of boiling water, cover, and steam for 5 hours or longer. (Explanation: I put a small ceramic plate, face down, on the bottom of the pot, to raise the pudding basin, i.e, the steel bowl, over the bottom of the pot to keep it from burning. You don’t cover the pudding basin...have the water 1/2 to 3/4 up the side of cover the pot, to keep in the steam.) You will almost certainly need to add more boiling water as it cooks. (Hint: Keep a tea kettle full and simmering along on another burner so you have the water to add to the steam pot.)

Take the pudding out of the water and let it cool. Remove the cloth and pour in the remaining 1/4 Cup of brandy. Cover tightly and store in a cool place for 3 weeks or longer.

To prepare for serving, uncover the pudding, tie it up again in a floured cloth, and steam it for at least 2 hours. Remove it from the pot, untie the cloth, and unmold onto a serving dish.

Decorate with sprigs of holly, and serve flaming as follows: Warm 1/4 Cup of brandy in a small sauce pan, pour it over the pudding, set it alight, and serve it forth accompanied by Hard Sauce.

Serves 6 to 12.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Celebrating the feast days of the Church

with food made especially for the occasion is one of the reasons I started this blog. For those who have checked out A Continual Feast which I described earlier (see the sidebar for a link), the riches of Christian festal celebrations are obvious.

I recently came across another cookbook, this one an online version of a 1950's book entitled Feast Day Cookbook in the EWTN library. Like A Continual Feast, this book has lots of recipes for individual saint's days, as well as seasonal recipes, along with background information on the seasons and days.

The only problem with the book is that the formatting is a little primitive; while that wouldn't be a problem for an individual recipe, the plain ASCII file would be tough to print in full. I'm hoping to clean it up and make a PDF version to post here, but as an appetizer, as it were, I have made up a PDF of most of the December recipes, which you can download.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A coffee hour brouhaha

has erupted over at the Mere Comments blog. While the original post had a very negative view of them, the majority of responses (37 at the point I looked in) were positive. It seems to me that the possible abuses (cliques forming and some people being left at the sidelines) can be avoided by becoming aware of them, and then striving to eliminate them.

In addition, if it is a problem that some people might be left on the sidelines at such events as after worship receptions, I don't see how banning such receptions will solve the problem. People who are shy and who don't easily break into exisiting social networks are not going to find it easier to do so if there are no opportunities provided to meet with people. Such folks will simply attend to worship and then go away. If fellowship outside of worship is something they need, they won't get it by banning receptions. The cure is the harder task of making receptions truly welcoming to the newcomer and the shy.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Two of the legacies that I have from my dad

are a love of fishing and of gardening. Many of his friends would readily recognize the first and be astounded at the second. But for several years as a kid my dad and we kids maintained a large garden at home. Large enough so that my Mom took up canning, putting up dozens of jars of pickles and tomatoes and spaghetti sauce. It was from Dad that I learned about composting, about putting a fish carcass under corn and squash hills (which we of course got from the local lore descended ultimately from Squanto, that Catholic-Indian savior of the Pilgrims).

And both activities, fishing and planting have often given me what I hope are decent insights into many of the parables of Christ, and a definite feeling of closeness with the original disciples and apostles, who were, for the most part, men of the earth and seas.

But gardening is a topic especially appropriate for this blog. This year I added yet another vegetable bed to our gardens. One bed has pole beans and bush wax beans (and so far the pole beans have escaped the scourge of the Mexican bean beetle, which devasted my crop the last time I planted them), another to herbs and cucumbers.

In the front yard, an 8 x 8 bed holds tomatoes and peppers. Another bed has purple eggplant and a rainbow of Swiss chard. A third bed has tomatillos, and spaghetti, crookneck and zucchini squash, as well as sunflowers. And this year I dedicated two boxes to corn.

I've always thought that it was a great waste to own property, but not raise food. Aquinas posited that property is proper to man, and that because it is necessary to the maintenance of human life, at least of the civilized variety, and good order among men. And that so directly contributes to the maintence of life than the provision of food. In America today, where less than 2% of the population is engaged in farming, it can be far too easy to forget that food is the product of human labor, and not just a commodity to be purchased with money.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Not much blogging time lately,

as I have been very busy with the rest of my family laying my dad, Ron Cavanaugh, to rest. Dad died on June 2, 2006, while preparing to leave Florida to come back to Massachusetts for the summer.

The only food related item from the past few weeks worth thinking about was my sister Laurie's work. Following my dad's death, I flew down to Florida to help mom out, and my sister, who also is in Mass., was calling several times a day. Like most of the family, she was upset by the sudden death, and also by her inability to do anything. Finally, I gave her some assignments, to prepare food for the Friday before the planned funeral so that the family, the six of us children, plus spouses, children and Mom, would have plenty to eat.

This calmed her down somewhat, and she set to work planning a meal of baked ziti, chicken divan, meatballs, etc. It was, on one level, just something to do, but on the other, it is very satisfying to be able to feed people. No matter what is going on, people need to eat, and providing the kind of staple foods that my sister came up with, foods both familiar and nourishing, was just what was needed as we gathered together, in the biggest get together we've ever had as a family. Preparing this meal was ministering on not just the physical plane, but on the psychological as well. An example of ministry and therapy combined.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Another group that spends lots of time feeding the hungry are the Catholic Workers. They have houses of hospitality throughout the world. The "St. Joe's" column from the most recent The Catholic Worker paper from the New York houses of hospitality begins with the following:

by Matt Vogel

People sometimes joke that everything that happens at St. Joseph House has to do with food. And well, there is quite a bit of truth to that. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, we get up, cook the soup, serve the soup and clean up from the soup. Everyday, we cook lunch, eat lunch, clean up from lunch, then cook dinner (for both St. Joe's and Maryhouse), eat dinner and clean up from dinner. Sundays, we even have a wonderful brunch. (We, naturally, don't want to look out of place amongst the hip restaurants in our increasingly gentrified neighborhood!) In between, we spend time hauling around crates of food--usually donated vegetables, bread and sometimes canned goods. When we do sit around talking, playing cards or watching TV, there is usually food involved. And, of course, food is always a central ingredient at all our parties--birthday parties, holiday parties, etc There is no question, food is a major part of life here.

Anyone who works with the poorer of our neighbors could probably write much the same thing. Once shelter of some kind is secured, the biggest item of the day, every day, is securing food. A week ago our St. Vincent de Paul conference participated in the annual Postal Workers' Food Drive. It is a long day, that ultimately nets our conference around a 1000 pounds of food. That doesn't last very long (about two weeks) but it is a big help. This year several of our new members took part in the food drive, and our pantry is still full of boxes, with literally everthing from soup to nuts!

And a good thing too, as my van is in the shop (and has been for most of the past week) with some strange problem with the back axel. The mechanic finally asked if I do much hauling in the van, and when I replied, why yes, once or twice a month I fill the back with 1400 pounds of food or so, he looked rather shocked! He suggests that that could be a problem. Well, it has done a number on the shocks, that's for sure. But with the extra food from the Postal Workers, I don't have to worry about not being able to make a second food run this month.

The Catholic Worker is not available online, else I'd provide a link. Some Catholic Worker houses are online, however, such as Bob Waldrop's Oklahoma City CW house. Bob's Better Times Almanac has several great sections on food, from how to be a more frugal shopper to a great book of recipes. Parts of his Family Food Security and Casino Shopping pages were made into a brochure called "Better Shopping" which you can download from our District SVDP site.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The New York Times has taken notice of the family meal

and notes that at least some some surveys indicate that the number of families sitting down for a meal together several times per week has been increasing over the last few years. That's great news! As I blogged earlier, that's something we do often, and it's perhaps the one thing I miss most from our children's younger days, when all five of us gathered around the table. No, it was not always a calm, relaxing time, but it has been formative, for both parents and children, and has been one of the principal forges of the bonds between us. Now that my son Patrick is away at school, we have fewer meals with everyone together. And while we eat together nearly every day, it's sometimes only two of us.

I also feel that it's important that the family meal consist of food prepared by the family. Take out isn't the same. This past week we had mostly restaurant meals and takeout for five days straight because of skating competitions, church events, and the usual run of music lessons and skating practice. I was notably more grumpy than usual!

Last night we got to have a (late for us) sit down meal that Laurie and I collaborated on. Finally! It makes a difference to have food prepared in the house by a member of the family. I've been happy to see my daughter Molly start making meals on Thursdays, the one day she doesn't work or have to go to her college class, not only because it gets me off the hook : ) but because she's gradually learning an important skill that will be a blessing for her own family some day.

Here's last night's recipe, Lenten fast appropriate:
Italian-style Shrimp

1 large bell pepper, chopped in bite-sized pieces
1 large yellow onion, chopped as above
6 asparagus spears, cut into 1-inch lengths

2 Tbs. peanut or canola oil

1-2 pounds shrimp, shelled

2 tsp. crushed red pepper
2 tsp. oregano

1 pound angel hair pasta

Set a pot of water to boil. Heat a wok or large skillet and when hot add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the peppers and onions, and stir for 4-5 minutes. Add the shrimp, crushed red pepper and oregano, and stir. Add 2 Tbs. water. Cover for 2-3 minutes. Uncover and stir, then cover again.

Now, add some salt to the boiiling water, then cook the angel hair pasta in the boiling water. After 4 minutes or so, drain the pasta, arrange in a pasta bowl, and spoon the stir fry over the pasta. Serve with Italian or any crusty bread.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Yesterday we set up our St. Joseph's Table

at the parish church. This is the third year that our St. Vincent de Paul Society has sponsored the St. Joseph's table.

Several of us spent the week baking, and piled the table surrounding the icon of St. Joseph high with cakes, breads, cookies and candies. Most of what we bring is sold after the blessing, and that money is used to buy food for the poor of the parish; and the rest of the food is saved for the poor as well.

The blessing of the table is found in the Book of Blessings (and the Shorter Book of Blessings).

Today we honor the memory of Saint Joseph,
husband of the Virgin Mary and patron of the universal Church.
We rejoice at this table,
which is a sign of God's generous blessings
and of our call to serve the poor and hungry.
We pray that through the intercession of Saint Joseph
we too might join the saints
at the banquet of the Lord in the heavenly kingdom.

Let us pray,

All-provident God,
the good things that grace this table
remind us of your many good gifts.

Bless this food,
and may the prayers of Saint Joseph,
who provided bread for your Son and food for the poor,
sustain us and all our brothers and sisters
on our journey towards your heavenly kingdom.

We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Father David O'Donnell blesses the St. Joseph Table at Christ the King Church, Brockton

Friday, March 17, 2006

Well, enough about abstinence and fasting.

and time for recipes. Our St. Vincent de Paul Society is getting ready to host our annual St. Joseph's Altar at Christ the King parish in Brockton this weekend. So, I've been baking all week. Last night after bringing my girls home from their catechism class I made a couple of loaves of soda bread. Here's the recipe:

Irish Soda Bread

4 Cups unbleached white flour
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbs. kosher salt (or 2 tsp. regular salt)
1 Tbs. caraway seeds
3/4 Cup dried currants (or raisins)
1-3/4 Cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Stir all the dry ingredients together. Add the buttermilk and mix together, adding a bit more buttermilk if needed. Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead for about 2 minutes. This can be formed into one large loaf or two smaller ones. Place loaf (loaves) on a greased cookie sheet, cut a cross in the top, and bake for 35-40 minutes (large loaf) or 25-30 minutes (smaller loaves). Let the soda bread cool on a rack for a while before cutting. Or go ahead and tear into it. Spread with butter, jam, or eat with your dinner in honor of the Saint himself. Here are some items you can put on the menu, courtesy of G. Thomas Fitzpatrick's Recta Ratio blog.
The Corned Beef Dispensation

is a topic of raging concern in St. Blogs these days. Amy Welborn's Open Book is a good example.

It would do a world of good for many of the bemoaners of our too loose discipline to read Romans chapter 14 and apply that to today.

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.
One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So each of us shall give account of himself to God. Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.
For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.
The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God; happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves. But he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.” Romans 13:14-15:3

While in Boston we get this respite from the fasts of Lent today, Archbishop O'Malley has requested all Catholics to attend daily Mass and fast every day during Lent. How much support he has received from his clergy I don't know (Have there been sermons where fasting and daily Mass was suggested to the people? Have pastors scheduled early morning or evening Masses so that workers can attend Mass?) but the Lenten discipline being suggested is certainly far more rigorous than you would suspect. But because it is suggested rather than demanded, some folks think it too easy.

To put that in perspective, it's worth noting that the more rigorous Orthodox (and Eastern Catholic) fasting rules are (to quote the pirate captain in Pirates of the Carribean) "not exactly rules; they're more like guidelines." As Rev. Thomas Hopko writes:

The Orthodox rules for lenten fasting are the monastic rules. No meat is allowed after Meatfare Sunday and no eggs or dairy products after Cheesefare Sunday. These rules exist not as a Pharisaic "burden too hard to bear" (Luke 11:46), but as an ideal to be striven for; not as an end in themselves, but as a means to spiritual perfection crowned in love. The lenten services themselves continually remind us of this.

Let us fast with a fast pleasing to the Lord. This is the true fast:
the casting off of evil, the bridling of the tongue, the cutting off
of anger, the cessation of lusts, evil talking, lies and cursing. The
stopping of these is the fast true and acceptable.
(Monday Vespers of the First Week)

The lenten services also make the undeniable point that we should not pride ourselves with external fasting since the devil also never eats!

The ascetic fast of Great Lent continues from Meatfare Sunday to Easter Sunday, and is broken only after the Paschal Divine Liturgy. Knowing the great effort to which they are called, Christians should make every effort to fast as well as they can, in secret, so that God would bless them openly with a holy life. Each person must do his best in the light of the given ideal.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Communion Fast

as all Catholics know is that no food or liquids other than water can be consumed for one hour before communion. However, this a greatly mitigated form of the communion fast that was in place until the 1950s. Prior to that, the fast was from all foods and drinks, water included, from midnight until the communion. Father William Saunders, in an article writing in the Arlington Catholic Herrald gives a good short history of the communion fast and the reason for it.

As he notes, the communion fast is regulated in canon law. The canon reads in full:

Can. 919 §1 Whoever is to receive the blessed Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from all food and drink, with the sole exception of water and medicine.

§2 A priest who, on the same day, celebrates the blessed Eucharist twice or three times may consume something before the second or third celebration, even though there is not an hour's interval.

§3 The elderly and those who are suffering from some illness, as well as those who care for them, may receive the blessed Eucharist even if within the preceding hour they have consumed something.

For most Catholics, it is section 1 of the canon which regulates our behavior. Note that the fast is to be for at least one hour before communion. In other words, the Church has allowed each individual to make a determination about how long the fast should be given his condition.

A person with a full night's rest, no unusual physical needs, etc. should have no problem following the ancient discipline of fasting from midnight on. Those engaged in work overnight might be placing their work and even their lives in jeaopardy by doing so, as hunger could lead to faintness and accidents, and so a shorter fast would then be appropriate. But the received tradition of the church is to fast in order to purify ourselves, and to stir up a holy hunger for the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Each person is allowed to judge for himself, but as with any other decision, we should be informed by the practice of the Church which is not only the living but also those who have gone before.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Abstinence on Fridays and the reasons thereof

With St. Patrick's Day quickly approaching, the question of "Do I have to abstain from meat?" has been raised at least across the United States. This article in the Washington Post notes that the bishops of at least 60 dioceses in the U.S. (out of 200) have granted a dispensation allowing the eating of meat on Friday, March 17 this year.

At our after Vespers coffee klatch on Sunday, one of the congregants just couldn't understand this. She was vehement that she wouldn't be serving meat on a Friday in Lent. Why not just translate the feast day to another day. I began to explain that it couldn't be moved, but as a discussion began on that I realized it was just, barely possible that my fellow congregant didn't find the minutiae of the ranking of liturgical days nearly as interesting as I do ;) So we got off that topic.

The Post article quotes one fellow who says:

If Dolan hadn't granted the dispensation, O'Leary, director of Milwaukee's St. Patrick's Day parade, said he would stick to the rules _ meaning he wouldn't prepare his corned beef brisket. But with the bishop's blessing, he plans to put a brisket in his slow cooker early Friday morning and slather it with mustard and other condiments come dinner time...

"It is being done in honor of St. Patrick," O'Leary said. "It's not as though I'm having something I would normally have. It's a special thing."...

In exchange for his corned beef meal, O'Leary said he plans to give up something else, such as chicken wings or beer on a weekend when he's watching sports on television.

"I will deny myself something and pay it back," O'Leary said.

The only problem with this otherwise admirable willingness to follow the rules is that it insinuates that the only reason to abstain from meat is to follow a rule. And of course that is not why we do it. The rule is to remind us to identify, through personal sacrifice, with the sacrifice of Christ. It's not something we do because we owe that we can deny ourselves some other treat. It's that we are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." (Romans 13:14)

Another person, Jim Wharton, spokesman for the Sioux City Diocese, quoted in the article stated:

"For the most part, I think people understand it's really why we are who we are as a Catholic family and that's to observe some of the traditions of the church."

Again, it's great and wonderful that we have traditions that bind us and unite us, but that is also not the reason we abstain; it's a reason we all abstain on the same day, instead of being told "abstain once per week, you pick", and it certainly has value as a means of identifying with the community. But I wonder: have we, through our general abandoment of fasting and penance in the Latin church, forgotten the meaning for it to the point where even the observant are not benefitting from this ascetical practice?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Fasting Season

of the Church has begun. And confusion reigns. On the bulletin board of one local parish where I went for daily Mass today I read a notice from the pastor which read, in part, "Abstinence (i.e, no meat) is required of everyone over 14 on the Fridays of Lent, and fasting for everyone 21-59."

Well, no. Fasting is required only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the ages are 18-59.

I also picked up a copy of a letter from Archbishop O'Malley.

The text is below:

By virtue of the power to dispense as granted by Canon 87.1 and Canon 88,
I, the Archbishop of Boston, hereby grant a dispensation from the
obligation of abstinence for all the
Faithful of the Archdiocese of Boston on
Friday, March 17, 2006 in honor of the
Feast of St. Patrick,
the Patron Saint of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Now, Canons 87.1 and 88 do give the ordinary the power to dispense from universal disciplinary laws and from local laws. Canon 1250 establishes the basic law for abstinence thus:

All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church.

Canon 1251 makes this more specific.

Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, for some background, when Archbishop O'Malley was bishop of the neighboring diocese of Fall River, he was challenged on the rule of Friday abstinence for St. Patrick's Day. He initially held firm, but faced such a loud cry of opposition from people unwilling to do penance by putting off for a day their corned beef and cabbage that he issued a decree similar to the one above.

Here in Boston, there was no controversy that year, because, as the Archbishop noted, St. Patrick is the patron saint of the Archdiocese. That means that in this Archdiocese, St. Patrick's Day is a solemnity, the solemnity of the proper patron. And as Canon 1251 notes, it is therefore not a day on which abstinence is required.

What this all means is A) the rules change too often even for many pastors to keep up with and B) people are so unaware of the Church's canons and the reasons for them that they have to be dealt with more simply, such as the Archbishop's letter above (no doubt influenced by the ruckus in Fall River years ago).

And for those who are fasting in some way throughout Lent, there are two other solemnities that ought not to be days of fast/abstinence: March 19, the feast of St. Joseph and March 25, the feast of the Annunciation to Our Lady. So, from Friday March 17 until Sunday March 20 there are only 5 days when fasting need be done, since Sunday is also not a day for penance. A bit of a break mid-Lent, to remind us of the joy that awaits.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Dinner at home

last night was late. My youngest daughter had her usual Tuesday afternoon figure skating practices, and my wife was working her Tuesday night shift at the library, so when we got home about 6:45 pm I started in on preparing dinner. I have, so far, managed not to give in to the temptation to use "instant foods" and lots of takeout, and so dinner took about 35 minutes to prepare. We finally got to sit down about 7:20, and my two daughters and I worked our way through a typical family meal: saying grace, listening to "that's the weirdest thing I ever saw", talking about school and people we know. Near the end, I leaned back and thought how nice it was that neither of my daughters was in a rush to go off somewhere else.

Each tried a bit more food, then we finally broke things up, started unloading the dishwasher so that we could load it with the dinner dishes, putting away food, etc.

Family meals don't seem strange in the least to me. We have always had them almost every evening since my wife and I first married; my parents did the same, as did my wife's family; and so did our grandparents. But I know from talking with my daughters that many of their friends encounter family meals as an unusual event. Maybe that's why some of their friends have eaten with us so often. (As it turns out, one of the friends turned up for tonight's dinner.)

One of the rules we have about dinner is that we don't answer the phone while at table. I remember a minister's daughter who was a friend in high school had that rule, and I thought that it was, having a family I realize it was prudent on the part of the minister/father. We can hear any number of complaints about how family life is intruded upon if we look in the papers or magazines or surf blogdom. But no one makes you pick up the phone or turn on the TV. Leave these electronic servants where they belong: in the background, ready for our commands.

It reminds me of the many eating scenes of the officers' mess aboard ship in the Patrick O'Brien Master and Commander series. While the officers ate, each had an attendant stationed behind, ready to fill a glass or otherwise come to the aid of an officer. While few of us in the U.S. have servants like this, we all have the mechanical servants which we too often allow to rule instead of serve.

Oh, and the menu. Inspired in part by the title story from Theresa Lust's collection of writings from the kitchen Pass the Polenta, we had a bowl of polenta, with a tomato/mushroom stew along with a loaf of Italian bread I picked up at the supermarket bakery. Recipes below:

Tomato and Mushroom Stew

2 Tbs. oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
12 oz sliced mushrooms
1 14-16 oz can diced tomatoes
2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. basil

Heat oil and add onions and garlic, until onions are limp and garlic browned. Add bell pepper and mushrooms and continue to sautee. Finally add entire can of diced tomatoes and herbs. Allow to "stew" on low heat for 20 minutes.


4 cups water
2 cups corn meal (a nice whole corn meal like Hodgson's Mill is good)
1/2 tsp. salt

Add corn meal to cold water is sauce pot. Bring to slow boil, stirring frequently. Once this the mixture is thickened, turn the heat down and let cook for 10-15 minutes.

Optional: you can add 1/2 cup shredded cheese (mozzarella or cheddar or paremsan) to this if you're not avoiding dairy products for Great Lent.

Scoop some polenta onto a plate when done, and ladle tomato & mushroom stew on top. Serve with a crusty bread (to help sop up the stew).

Friday, February 24, 2006

After Church Coffees

Catholic parishes are not known for hosting after Church coffee hours, although the two parishes I usually go to, Holy Trinity in Boston's South End and St. Athanasius in West Roxbury, both host coffee hours.

The social benefit of the coffee hour is obvious. But does it serve any evangelical purpose?

I think so. Particularly when we have evening services, which attract more non-parishoners, the coffee hour (well, it's more of a sherry hour in the evening, but heck, it is an Anglican use parish) gives the excuse to pause and converse, but also the chance to meet new people and give people the opportunity to ask questions. We're urged in Scripture to ever be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and it certainly doesn't hurt to create situations where that reason might be inquired into.

The community-building afforded by a coffee hour is also more than social. It is a time when we learn of the burdens our fellow parishoners which we can then help bear, at the least in prayer, and when we learn of their joys, which we can lift up as well.

While some churches may find the logistics of putting on a coffee hour difficult, such as having no facility other than the church building, or offering back-to-back Masses all morning long on a Sunday, there are many more that will not have these kind of roadblocks, but instead just need to get going.

What's a good way to start? I think the following formula will help:

1. Have a sexton or other person actually prepare the coffee each week. Some people find percolators difficult or just out of their experience.

2. Buy decent coffee!

3. Have another person be in charge of the cups, napkins, plates, etc. Multiple people in charge will likely result in shortages.

4. Have a rotating schedule of people to bring something to eat and drink (such as juice and cream for the coffee). If it is a large parish, have two or more families scheduled each week.

5. Commit to a regular, weekly schedule. If coffee hours are once a month, or on moving dates, people won't know about it, especially new comers.

6. At coffee hour, look for new comers and invite them into conversation. Don't keep to the same groups of people. This isn't high school--no cliques!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Feeding the Hungry

I've been a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at the local parish since July of 1999. And a major part of what we do is bring food to the poorer families of the parish. Some of the families we'll visit in the next month or so are families that I visited in 1999; and some of them were being visited by Vincentians from the parish for many years before that.

When we go on a visit to one of these neighbors, we might bring 4-6 bags of groceries: pasta, rice, instant mashed potatoes, canned soups, macaroni & cheese, canned beans, fruits and vegetables, boxes of cereal and oatmeal, canned tuna and chicken, frozen hamburger and chicken, bread, etc. We aim to provide at least 4-5 days of meals for the family, but are constained as to what we give by what's available at the Greater Boston Food Bank of which we are members, and what we collect in various food drives at the parish.

Last night we had an information meeting for people who are interested in becoming part of the group. Among the things we told them is that taking on this apostolate is going to be an emotional experience. There will be times when we feel we have made a real difference in people's lives; where we have been empowered by God to go beyond giving a handout and established some real fellowship with the people we visit. There will be other times when we are heartbroken--where our best efforts are unable to help someone, whose situation might even become worse.

But we struggle to maintain our covenant with these poorer neighbors. We continue to visit. And bring the groceries. If we can do more, help one person get their citizenship, help another find work to sustain himself and his family, we are happy to do so. But we have also learned that while it is better to teach a woman to fish than to give her a tuna sandwich, the tuna sandwiches are greatly appreciated by a mom until her catch is sufficient to supply her children's needs.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Happy Ending

At the end of The Wonder Worker Alice has overcome her food addiction; finding confidence in her abilities and respect and love within her social circle has made the need for anesthetizing herself far less urgent. The healing she wondered about in the quote below had, of course, only begun; by the end of the novel, it was greatly progressed. Healing, such as she experienced in Howatch's story never finishes of course--it is a lifelong process in which God makes right what has gone wrong, where the mountains are leveled and the valleys filled in. The seemingly bottomless valley of self-hatred and despair for the future which Alice tried to fill with food and its comforts has been made a straight way by a healing.

And of course, it happened without directly attacking her eating habits, which were only a minor part of her problem, and were more in the line of symptoms than causes. This is not unusual; the way to solve a problem often lies in addressing a deeper problem that may not be obvious at all.

But what of the food that is, in a novel with a Cordon Bleu cook as a central character, a main feature? All that talk of roasts, puddings, has me wondering where to find the recipes for these dishes. When I find them, I'll report back.

I read a different series of books, by Patrick O'Brian, last year, and food was a staple in that narrative as well. If you haven't read these books (20 finished and 1 left unfinished at the author's death) do so...they are marvellous. Someday I'm planning on going back through to make a note of all the times Maturin (a Catholic amidst a mostly Anglican crowd) turns into a church or monastery to listen to and rhapsodize on Gregorian chant. The movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is also great. The burial at sea scene, with the crew reciting (in toto) the Our Father is a moving moment.

Fortunately, for those interested in things culinary, a pair of authors decided to track down the recipes for all of the dishes mentioned in the Aubrey/Maturin books like Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World (despite the movie title, these are two different volumes, 1 and 10 respectively) and have published them in the book Lobscouse and Spotted Dog. This past weekend I decided to make the eponymous Spotted Dog, which is a boiled pudding. The resulting pudding (which is nothing like what we Americans call a pudding) is something like a sweet raisin bread. It has something in common with Irish Soda Bread (which was originally cooked in a pot over a fire, but without the boiling). We enjoyed it at home with creme anglaise, and I brought some in for my coworkers who also enjoyed it. Here's the recipe:

4 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup currants
1/2 pound beef suet
2 eggs (slightly beaten)
1 cup milk

Mix the dry ingredients together, making sure to separate the currants. Grate the suet (cleaned of any connective tissue or meat) and mix with the other dry ingredients. Add the eggs and milk, and stir together, finishing with a light kneading on a floured surface. Put in a greased pudding mold (I used a stainless steel mixing bowl) and cover with a floured cloth (a bar towel would work, although I used cheesecloth) tied tightly with a string. Put in a pot of boiling water (with a plate at the bottom so the mold or bowl doesn't come directly into contact with the heat), cover loosely and cook for about 2 hours. Turn out on a plate and serve slices with creme anglaise, sweetened condensed milk, dulce de leche or hard sauce.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Wednesday Fast

A couple of years ago, when I first started reading about Eastern Christianity's distinctive penitential discipline, I came across the practice of fasting and abstaining on both Wednesday and Friday. This brought to mind immediately the parable of Christ about the proud Pharisee who complimented himself on his twice per week fasts. Of course, Christ himself said that when the bridegroom had been taken from his friends, that they would then fast. In the Western Church, however, this traditional weekly fast on Wednesday has fallen off the charts; most people would probably be amazed to learn it had ever been part of the regular routine of Western Christians. Yet this fast is found mentioned in the Didache and is still kept by the Eastern Church.

However, the Wednesday fast has never entirely been forgotten in the Western Church; it is remembered in those ancient fast days of the Embertides, when fasting was enjoined on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays four times yearly; and it is remembered by some liturgists and spiritual writers.

I suppose that as I learned about the penitential customs of the past, I was drawn to take a closer look at them and try to institute them in my own life. It seems the more eager some of my peers in the contemporary Church to abandon traditions, the more eager I am to take them up. And so, as a sort of New Year's resolution for 2006, I'll begin trying to keep the Wednesday fast. Using as a model the Eastern fast, this will be a day with only one meal, observing abstinence of meat, dairy and eggs. I suppose if I'm going to write about food and eating, I better keep some perspective and fasting should help with that.

The earliest reference to the Wednesday fast is in the Didache, following its teaching on baptism and the necessity of the baptismal candidate to fast for a day or two prior to his baptism. At the head of the eighth chapter we read:

Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.1

The fast of the hypocrites on Mondays and Thursdays would have been the twice weekly fast of pious Jews, which the Pharisee of the parable got so mixed up about. Perhaps the hypocrites mentioned are the Ebionites, Jewish Christians of the first two centuries who continued to keep the Law of Moses and in some instances, insisted on the necessity of conversion to Judaism prior to baptism.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, Wednesday as a penitential day along with Friday is listed when deciding when and how often the monks may eat:

From holy Easter till Pentecost let the brethren dine at the sixth hour and take supper in the evening. From Pentecost on, however, during the whole summer, if the monks have no work in the fields and the excess of the heat doth not interfere, let them fast on Wednesday and Friday until the ninth hour; but on the other days let them dine at the sixth hour. This sixth hour for dinner is to be continued, if they have work in the fields or the heat of the summer is great. Let the Abbot provide for this; and so let him manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brethren do, they may do without having a reasonable cause to murmur. From the ides of September until the beginning of Lent let them always dine at the ninth hour. During Lent, however, until Easter, let them dine in the evening. But let this evening hour be so arranged that they will not need lamp-light during their meal; but let everything be finished whilst it is still day. But at all times let the hour of meals, whether for dinner or for supper, be so arranged that everything is done by daylight.2

And more recently, The St. Dunstan Psalter mentions the Wednesday fast in passing in its Introduction to the Office:

Then, there may be said the Exhortation and General Confession (p. 243-244), especially on the penitential days (e.g. Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year; ferial days in Advent, Lent, Passiontide; Ember Days; etc.).3

1. Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson, editor. Macmillan Publishing Company. "The Didache" p. 174.
2. The Rule of St. Benedict,, accessed on January 18, 2006.
3. Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter, copyright 2002, Lancelot Andrewes Press, p. 232.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Wonder Worker

I’m currently rereading The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch. This is the first of her trilogy (thus far) of St. Benet’s books, which are a continuation of her six Starbridge novels.

This particular book, which narrates events in 1988, has several sections, each narrated from the point of view of one of the major characters. The main character of all three of the St. Benet’s books is Nicholas Darrow, an Anglican priest who is the narrator of one of the Starbridge books (set in 1968) who is the son of an Anglican priest, Jonathan Darrow, who was the narrator of another of the Starbridge tales (set in 1944). The Wonder Worker begins from the point of view of Alice Fletcher.

Alice has a problematic relationship with food. While she holds a Cordon Bleu and has continued to hone her skills as a cook, she also uses food as a crutch. At the beginning of the book we meet Alice as her Aunt, who has raised her since she was quite young, lies dying after a stroke. Nicholas Darrow and a doctor from the Healing Centre at St. Benet’s have visited Alice and her Aunt, and her aunt, after rallying to say a crucial farewell to Alice, which is the occasion for a deep emotional healing for both, dies the next morning. Shortly thereafter this passage occurs, and gives an snapshot of Alice’s dilemma at the opening of the novel.

Apparently my healing, such as it was, had left my compulsion to eat untouched. But what had I expected? A craving for a liquid diet of a thousand calories a day? I might fantasize about losing four stone and winding up with the ideal husband, but at heart I knew this was just a romantic dream which hadn’t a hope of coming true. I did feel a little better about myself now I knew Aunt had genuinely cared for me, but how could I ever feel more than a little better when I was still repulsively fat and likely to remain so? Stress always drove me to binge, and although I no longer had to cope with Aunt I still had to endure the strain of making a new life for myself.
I knew I needed the help Mr. Hall had suggested, but still I hesitated to phone Francie. I had taken a perverse pride for so long in struggling on alone; the struggle had given me a flicker of self-esteem, and besides, I had a horror of being a burden or a bore and putting myself in danger of further humiliating brush-offs. When I was much younger I had hoped to make friends but there seemed to be no place in the world of the thin for someone like me, and in the end I’d retreated into isolation. Loneliness was painful but at least it was silent, devoid of snide laughter and barbed comments. I was used to loneliness now. I thought of it as a chosen solitude and was only occasionally aware of being unhappy.
But this was a time when I regretted not having a friend. Picking up Mr. Hall’s card I stared at Francie’s number and told myself she wouldn’t want to hear from a fat nonentity, particularly a fat nonentity with all sorts of tiresome problems.

Alice’s problem with food is unfortunately far from rare. Her addictive pattern of binging on food is a way to deal with stress, as she recognizes in the passage above. Food can be so comforting: certain foods remind us of home or are associated with particularly happy memories, like cake with birthdays. In times of stress we can cease to regard food as the God-given gift it is to sustain life and to make us aware of the infinite beauty of the world (in the tastes, texture and presentation of food) and instead use it as a pain-killer. Alice uses food in the same way many drunkards use alcohol or many people use sex: as an analgesic.

Our society today idolizes and idealizes the thin and trim (the world of the thin in the passage above), just as it now frowns on excess drinking and smoking. If those are signs of a well-integrated, balanced personality, then they are indeed admirable. But lack of obviouis physical problems is not a guarantee of such integration. As the opening quote of chapter 1 in The Wonder Worker puts it:

We all have our favourite addictions to which we turn when we are under stress. For you it is food, while for others it can range from chemical substances to spending money or constant contact with others in order to avoid alone-ness.

Gareth Tuckwell and David Flagg
A Question of Healing