Holy chicken soup with matzoh balls

Today I am making chicken soup with matzoh balls. One of my kids requested it as a birthday meal, and even though we usually reserve this soup for Passover, I couldn’t say no. I’m also making two giant challahs, because it’s not Passover and we can have yeast! My goal was to have the house smelling wonderful by the time the birthday girl woke up, and I achieved that goal. 
 
Let me tell you about this soup. When I was little, my mother would cook and bake for a full week before Passover, one or two dishes a day, slowly filling the freezer with tinfoil-wrapped packages. We kids would help with simple tasks like washing the sprigs of parsley or chopping the nuts for charoset, but my mother still did the actual cooking and baking: tzimmes and pot roast, charoset, spinach pie, latkes, garlic-studded lamb, chocolate sponge cake and lemon sponge cake, and of course a vast pot of chicken soup with matzoh balls. By noon on the day of the feast, the air would be shimmering with schmaltz, the kitchen windows steamed up against the cold spring air outside. This golden soup was the first course, and it was glorious. 
 
 
Shortly after my father died this past spring, I was hunting through my email archives for something, and I came across an old letter my mother sent to my sister Sarah and me, in which she describes how to make soup. It may have been the first year we split up the cooking and baking duties.  Maybe she wasn’t feeling strong enough to turn out an entire feast by herself;. or maybe we had done it before, but she still thought of us as little girls with yarn bows in our hair (notice the part where she thinks we may not own a whisk). 
 

Anyway, here is her recipe (and I’ll put my challah recipe at the end). Who couldn’t use a big pot of wonderful soup on a random Tuesday in this difficult, comfortless year? It’s easy and rewarding, and if you haven’t met my mother, this is a good way. 

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Oh, I didn’t mean you should do the sponge cakes and ALSO the soup and matzo balls! I will be eternally grateful if you can find the time & energy to make the soup and matzo balls. The cakes and the rest I’m so used to doing every year that it’s really no trouble at all. I was mainly hoping you would do the soup & matzo balls. If somebody is taking care of that, nothing seems difficult to me!

Here is how I make chicken soup:

You start early. You fill up two big pots with water and start heating it up. You wash and cut up the chicken, one very big one or two small ones, complete with fat and skin but take out the raw livers and put them aside to saute for Reggie or Abba or whoever likes it, and you heat up the water and put everything into it–I can bring you big pots–along with cut-up onions, a big bunch of carrots, peeled & sliced, a few sticks of celery, salt and pepper, and if possible fresh dill and parsley–it’s a good idea to get those early, especially the dill, because not all stores have it. (Fresh dill is what makes the soup taste so home-made, and also it’s pretty. You rinse the parsley and dill, shake it out, and put it in closed jars or plastic bags or a big container till you need it.)
 
You put everything in the big pots and bring it to a boil, and let it simmer and after a while there will be all this yucky stuff at the top, which you carefully skim off with a big, flat spoon, till most of it is gone. Then cover the pot and let it simmer for a long time, enough to cook everything and get all the flavor into the broth. You cook it for a few hours, leaving the top on the pots most of the time so it won’t get boiled down very much, and check it every once in a while–it should be at a nice simmer or a quiet boil.
 
When it’s all done you put the soup through one big or two regular colanders (I should have gotten you a bigger one!) and the soup back in the pots, and let all the vegetables and chicken and everything cool down so you don’t burn your fingers. Then you separate out the carrots, the chicken, and the other vegetables and as much of the dill and parsley as you can find and cut up a bit. Put the carrots (sliced), the dill, and the parsley back into the soup, cut up in pieces, and maybe a few pieces of chicken too (watch for little bones!).
 

You can save the cooked chicken and vegetables but they will be pretty much tasteless and if you serve them in a recipe it will need spicing up. The soup, meanwhile, you can refrigerate and the next day the fat will have risen to the top and hardened and you can take some of it off easily, but leave enough in to give it a good taste and to have those nice shiny circles of fat floating in the soup. Save the extra fat, because you’ll need some of it for the knaidlach (matzo balls).

The soup together with the matzo balls in it freezes very nicely, and it can be thawed and heated under a low heat on Passover day (that’s Holy Saturday for us).

If you know an easier way of making chicken soup, you should use it, because any kind of home-made chicken soup is yummy and holy and special. I hope I explained it right.

Matzo Balls (k’naidlach)

After the soup, this will be easy. How many to make I can’t tell you, only The More the Better. They will be delicious even if they turn out rubbery. This recipe says it makes 8:

You will need: eggs, matzoh meal (kosher for Pesach), chicken fat (melted) from the soup, and some salt.

First heat up a big pot or two of water and get it simmering, covered. Beat up 2 eggs (with an egg whisk if you have one) with 2 tablespoons of chicken fat from the soup and maybe some salt but not too much. (If for some reason you don’t have enough fat you can use vegetable oil). Add half a cup matzo meal and mix with a fork. Chill in refrig for about 15 minutes. Wet your hands and make 8 matzo balls (about one inch in diameter each) for each recipe, and put them into the boiling water.

Cover tightly, reduce heat, and simmer till done–about 20 minutes, maybe a little more. Sometimes they stick on the bottom a little bit and have to be gently dislodged with a spoon. Usually they just sink and then float up by themselves. They should be fluffy but if they’re not they’ll still be loved by one and all.

You can cook more than 8 at a time. The big pots can hold many matzo balls at a time.

I have reason to believe that some recipes call for 2 Tbs. of soup broth along with the eggs, fat, and matzo meal. I’m not sure which recipe we’ve been using all these years, or if there really are two recipes. I always just took the recipe off the matzo meal box and never noticed if there were two versions. You might want to call Simmy and see what she uses.

Do you still want to do all this cooking?? Now that I write it all down I remember why I’ve been trying to get out of doing it every year, mostly by foisting it off on Simmy.

Love,

Ima

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5 from 1 vote
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Challah (breaded bread)

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups warm water
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 6-8 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • 1.5 tsp yeast
  • 2 egg yolks for egg wash
  • poppy seeds or "everything bagel" topping (optional)
  • corn meal (or flour) for pan, to keep loaf from sticking

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve a bit of the sugar into the water, and sprinkle the yeast over it. Stir gently, and let sit for five minutes or more, until it foams.

  2. In the bowl of standing mixer, put the flour (starting with six cups), salt, remaining sugar, oil, and eggs, mix slightly, then add the yeast liquid. Mix with dough hook until the dough doesn't stick to the sides of the bowl, adding flour as needed. It's good if it has a slightly scaly appearance on the outside.

  3. (If you're kneading by hand, knead until it feels soft and giving. It will take quite a lot of kneading!)

  4. Put the dough in a greased bowl and lightly cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap. Let it rise in a warm place for at least an hour, until it's double in size.

  5. Grease a large baking sheet and sprinkle it with flour or corn meal. Divide the dough into four equal pieces. Roll three into "snakes" and make a large braid, pinching the ends to keep them together. Divide the fourth piece into three and make a smaller braid, and lay this over the larger braid. Lay the braided loaf on the pan.

  6. Cover again and let rise again for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 350.

  7. Before baking, make an egg wash out of egg yolks and a little water. Brush the egg wash all over the loaf, and sprinkle with poppy seeds or "everything" topping.

  8. Bake 25 minutes or more until the loaf is a deep golden color.

If you’re still taking this seriously, you’re not alone

Tonight I am making a huge amount of manicotti with fresh herbs, garlic bread and salad, and a fancy cake decorated with melted candies meant to look like flames. Three of my daughters have new dresses and shoes, and there are wrapped presents waiting for them. What’s the occasion? Oh, nothing.

Really, nothing. Three of our kids were supposed to be confirmed tonight, but one of them has a cold. Probably. Or maybe it’s COVID. The protocol for school is to stay home if you have fever, congestion, cough, sore throat, nausea, diarrhea, or basically any other symptom, and then either get a negative COVID test, or else stay home for ten days after onset of symptoms, as long as no other symptoms develop. Come to think of it, Damien and I both have colds, too. A confirmation Mass is definitely long enough for us to pass along whatever it is we have to someone else. Even if it is not COVID and it’s just a cold, we might give it to someone who then feels the need to stay home from work for ten days or fourteen days until they find out if it is COVID, and maybe that would be a huge burden for them. So we’re staying home, and no Fisher kids will be confirmed this year.

But I’ve been confirmed, and so has my husband. The gifts of the Holy Spirit we received are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, and we’re calling on at least three or four of those to make this decision. We don’t really think we have COVID, but if everyone made decisions based on letting themselves wiggle out of protocols, then we’d  . . . uhhh . . . we’d have a pandemic on our hands. Yeah. 

I’m not trying to persuade anyone to take the virus seriously. I see people in town claiming no one’s really sick, that touchless thermometers are frying your pineal gland, that masks are part of a satanic ritual, etc. etc. You can’t talk to people who believe this stuff, and I’m not even going to try.

Instead, I’m talking to people who do take the virus seriously, and are starting to feel insane, because they feel all alone. The sourdough togetherness fest is all over. No more evening balcony concerts; no more friendly baskets of sanitized books and treats for the housebound. People are wearing masks when they’re absolutely forced to, and they’re not COVID deniers, but they sure aren’t acting like anything much has changed. They’re going to parties, sneezing on produce, having sleepovers, hugging friends. I see it every day.  That waitress who sent our son into quarantine for over a week was spotted hanging out in crowded bars while she waited for her test results to come back. Maybe she heard that people her age are just hard wired to be sociable, and it’s just not reasonable to expect people in their 20’s to modify their behavior for the sake of others. And anyway, she eventually got a negative, so what’s the big deal?

You see and hear enough stuff like this, and you can really start to doubt yourself. Is it really necessary to miss out on so much? Are we being a little bit paranoid?  Are all these efforts even doing anything worthwhile?

Hello. I see you, as they say. You are not alone. You are doing the right thing. I don’t even have any great words of encouragement for you, because I’m feeling pretty beaten down, myself. But I’m here. We’re making these assessments every single day, and we’re missing out on all kinds of stuff, because we think it’s the right thing to do, and we’ll keep on doggedly doing it as long as we think it’s necessary.

So if you’re making these wretched, unpopular choices and feeling completely alone, you’re not. There’s always the friggin’ Fishers doing it, too, feeling stupid and paranoid and discouraged, but still doing it. So there’s that. I’d make you some garlic bread if I could. 

And that’s all I got. Come, Holy Spirit. Come get some garlic bread, because I made plenty.

What’s for supper? Vol. 222: Back to Zuul

Sorry, there will be no follow-up Ghostbusters reference in this What’s For Supper. I just ran out of title ideas. We did go back to school, though. 

If you look closely, you’ll notice that all the food photos this week were taken either outside, or in my bedroom. This is because I’m spending half my time pining for the kids because they’re at school, and the other half hiding from them because they’re home.

Here’s what we ate this week:

SATURDAY
Pork ribs, mashed potatoes, corn

Damien made his lovely sugar rub for the pork ribs, and cooked them on the grill. Scrumptious as always. Great little char, great caramelization, a little sweet, a little hot, nice and juicy inside.

You could make a big batch of this sugar rub and have it on hand in a baggie for just about any kind of meat, and it really makes it special. 

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I made seven pounds of mashed potatoes, and it wasn’t enough. Next time, a full ten. I also remembered too late about garlic parmesan mashed potatoes, where you boil the garlic cloves right along with the potatoes and then mash them in, then embarrass yourself with how much cheese you add.

 

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Next time! 

SUNDAY
Spaghetti carbonara

Always popular.

Damien made dinner while I languished or something. Oh, wait, I was doing school supply shopping! Really down to the wire this year. I remember the first year I did school shopping, when we were SO broke and having SO much culture shock after years of home schooling. I remember being so heartbroken and outraged that I was expected to buy a thumb drive for my innocent sixth grader. It seemed like they were trying to turn her into a faceless drone, enslaved to technology and commercialism. So, this year, Corrie got a P.J. Masks backpack and Frozen II water bottle and a shiny gold Wonder Woman dress and Lion King socks and whatever the hell else she wanted. And all Crayola, no Rose Art at all. You can judge for yourself if that’s progress or not. Anyway, Damien made dinner.

 

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MONDAY
Aldi pizza

For the first day of school, a nice, easy meal was in order, especially since I had somehow made myself believe school was still a full week away, so we had zero acclimatization to the new bed times. 

School is . . . okay. The kids are okay with masks. The school has set up tents for outdoor classes and lunch, and the kids sit on yoga mats, and no one spends more than 45 minutes in a room with other people, and they have fans going all the time. They do temperature checks every morning. They ask my five-year-old if she’s been out of the country (and I always listen closely for her answer, because you never know). It is okay. I have no idea if they’re learning anything. Corrie has learned a dinosaur song and a fishie song and has a friend named Greta. She has a classmate named Oliver who is silly. We have no idea how long this all will last, but for now, it’s okay. 

Mirabile dictu, no one in the school has life-threatening allergies this year, so we can pack whatever we want for lunch, so there’s that. In a few weeks, we’ll add in hybrid public high school and Catholic high school, and eventually the college kids will go back to college. Moe is in quarantine. It’s been several days since anyone called Clara “Hitler” for enforcing mask rules in the store.  Walmart is selling unscented hand sanitizer again, so you don’t have to go around smelling like fermented cranberry fart. It’s okay. How are you?

TUESDAY
Grilled ham and cheese, carrots and hummus, broccoli salad

I cleaned out the cabinet and discovered I’ve been diligently stocking up on sunflower seeds and dried cranberries, for some reason. So I poked around and found a recipe that uses both of them, along with broccoli and a basic dressing (mayo, white vinegar, sugar, pepper). 

Everyone liked it well enough, and it was a nice change from coleslaw. Vaguely autumnal. Some people also add bacon, but I was trying to pretend it was a vegetable. You could also put minced red onion.  Maybe a little blue cheese. But it was nice in its simple form. 

WEDNESDAY
Steak teriyaki stir fry, white rice

Feeling unambitious, I bought two bottles of ginger teriyaki sauce. I’m often unhappy with my stir fries because they are watery and the vegetables are overcooked, because I crowd the pan and overcook some ingredients while others are catching up. So this time, I cooked the food in batches and in stages. I heated up some sesame oil and cooked the strips of beef in batches until just barely not pink, then took the meat out of the pan. Then I cooked the broccoli in the meaty pan until just barely done, and then I added the red peppers and cooked them just a little. Then I put the meat back in and added the sauce and just stirred everything up quickly so it was heated through, and served it over rice.

Good results! The vegetables were crunchy, the meat wasn’t chewy, and the sauce did not get watery. I made a bunch of rice in the Instant Pot, and it was a tasty, pretty meal. 

Steak continues to be cheap, and I’m running out of ideas! We’ve had steak and cheese, steak salad, steak steak, and tortas. What else do you make with steak? Never thought I’d have this problem

THURSDAY
Carnitas with guacamole, corn on the cob

Not the very fine carnitas from J.R.’s Art Place that you cook in a pot until the meat’s all lacquered and lovely, but still not bad. I put a giant bone-in pork picnic in the Instant Pot with a can of Coke, some cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, orange quarters, salt, pepper, and oregano, and cooked it for 35 minutes on high. It wasn’t really tender, so I gave it another 35 minutes. It still wasn’t as tender as I wanted, but I was out of time, so I pulled the meat out and shredded what I could, and cut the rest off. Then I spread it in a pan and sprinkled it heavily with chili powder and salt, and crisped it up under the broiler.

I flirted with the notion of beans and rice, but it seemed hard, so we just had the meat with guacamole, and cheese, sour cream, salsa, lime wedges, and cilantro. 

I made some rather tomato-heavy guacamole with the few avocados that didn’t turn out to be all sad and grey inside. What the heck is wrong with avocados lately? They’re not overripe, they’re just blighted or something. What do you expect: These are Joe Biden’s avocados. Ask yourself if you’re really prepared for four more years of Joe Biden’s avocados.

FRIDAY
Tuna burgers, cheesy tomato soup

This may just be a fantasy. Most likely, people will request plain tuna with mayo. But I will offer the option of tuna burgers.

 

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And I will offer tomato soup from a can, and they can put cheese in it. Or they can act like it’s not even exciting that it’s finally almost soup season. But it is exciting! It is. 

 

Smoked chicken thighs with sugar rub

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups brown sugar
  • .5 cups white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp chili pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 20 chicken thighs

Instructions

  1. Mix dry ingredients together. Rub all over chicken and let marinate until the sugar melts a bit. 

  2. Light the fire, and let it burn down to coals. Shove the coals over to one side and lay the chicken on the grill. Lower the lid and let the chicken smoke for an hour or two until they are fully cooked. 

 

Garlic parmesan mashed potatoes

Ingredients

  • 5-6 lbs potatoes
  • 8-10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 8 Tbsp butter
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 8 oz grated parmesan
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Peel the potatoes and put them in a pot. Cover the with water. Add a bit of salt and the smashed garlic cloves.

  2. Cover and bring to a boil, then simmer with lid loosely on until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

  3. Drain the water out of the pot. Add the butter and milk and mash well.

  4. Add the parmesan and salt and pepper to taste and stir until combined.

 

Spaghetti carbonara

An easy, delicious meal.

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs bacon
  • 3 lbs spaghetti
  • 1 to 1-1/2 sticks butter
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • lots of pepper
  • 6-8 oz grated parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. Fry the bacon until it is crisp. Drain and break it into pieces.

  2. Boil the spaghetti in salted water until al dente. If you like, add some bacon grease to the boiling water.

  3. Drain the spaghetti and return it to the pot. Add the butter, pieces of bacon, parmesan cheese, and pepper and mix it up until the butter is melted.

  4. Add the raw beaten egg and mix it quickly until the spaghetti is coated. Serve immediately.

White Lady From NH's Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 4 avocados
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 medium jalapeno, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 limes juiced
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, diced

Instructions

  1. Peel avocados. Mash two and dice two. 

  2. Mix together with rest of ingredients and add seasonings.

  3. Cover tightly, as it becomes discolored quickly. 

 

Tuna burgers

Ingredients

  • 1 can tuna
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • seasonings, minced onion, etc.
  • oil for frying

Instructions

  1. Drain the tuna.

  2. Mix tuna thoroughly with egg, bread crumbs, and whatever seasonings you like. Form into two patties. 

  3. Heat oil in pan. Fry tuna patties on both sides until golden brown. 

How to act when you’re downstream

Guess how I spent my morning? Making phone calls, and worrying.

Well, first I got up, got dressed, made coffee, fed the cat, woke up the kids, crammed breakfast into them, and accounted for everyone’s backpacks and lunches and shoes and masks and reminded the kids at home that they had a dentist appointment later. Then we piled in the car, I dropped off one kid at work, and I dropped off one kid at one school. Then we drove to the other school with the other kid, and then . . . I had doubts. 

Last night, my son said a co-worker at his restaurant casually mentioned she had had COVID symptoms for four days, and she had also been exposed to someone who had tested positive. And she kept on coming to work! So my son told his manager and then went straight into isolation at home until we get more information. 

It’s a fairly distant level of exposure, and there may not even be a virus. No one in our family has symptoms. So I read a few guidelines and I thought it was okay to bring the kids to school? But then I started tracing a hypothetical in my head: Server takes her mask off to vape, and breathes a virus cloud at my son; son comes home and grabs some crackers from the family box; other kids also eat crackers, then go to school and accidentally drool on a class ruler or something;  classmates use the ruler, then go home and kiss their parents; parents need toothpaste and go to Walmart, where they paw through the $2.88 DVD bin without wearing a mask because last they heard, they woke up in a free country . . . yeah, that’s what a pandemic looks like. Even with hand washing and sanitizer and masks and temperature checks. Some people are responsible and some are not. Some get away with it and some don’t. 

So, holding my masked kindergartner’s hand, I stood on the playground six feet away from the school’s director and described the situation, to get her verdict. Then I called the dentist; then I called the pediatrician, where we are supposed to be headed for check-ups with three kids tomorrow; then I texted another mom, whose house one kid was supposed to be going to after school for an outdoor, socially distanced birthday party this afternoon.

I can’t even tell how worried I’m supposed to feel right now! I can’t tell if I overreacted or under reacted. At least I work from home and don’t have to deal with daycare or complicated commutes, so it could be much worse. We just have to wait and see whether the gal at work actually has COVID or not.

But it’s almost noon and I haven’t gotten a damn thing done today, except make a bunch of phone calls for what may or may not be a problem, just because some waitress I’ve never even met apparently just opted out of taking a pandemic seriously. She wasn’t even going to tell anyone she had symptoms! She happened to mention it to my kid, and he’s the one who had to tell the manager. She was completely irresponsible, and that means that all the rest of us have to go into responsibility overdrive. I guess I still have to call the health department and make a report. I can feel myself returning again and again to a well of annoyance at her, and at everyone like her who isn’t taking this stuff seriously. That’s what a pandemic looks like: People who are PROBABLY NOT EVEN BAD PEOPLE are also PROBABLY RESPONSIBLE FOR PEOPLE DYING. And I can’t even tell how worried I’m supposed to feel.

So. What we have here is one of those “two job” situations. The first job we have is to be as responsible and sensible as possible, according to our abilities and circumstances. Make all the phone calls, change all the appointments, disclose all the situations, wash all the hands, etc. This is going to be everyone’s lives for the foreseeable future: Doing the best we can after someone else didn’t.

The other job is to guard our hearts. This is the hard part. This is always the hard part. 

We can keep ourselves and everyone we meet as safe as possible, but still allow our hearts to be completely overcome with resentment, rage, and disgust for the people who put us in this position. And it’s reasonable to do so! And it’s so easy! But it’s the part that can really hurt us. This is the part that will linger with us forever, making us weak and compromised long past this virus season. 

I can’t control anyone else’s behavior. I can’t make people take something seriously if they don’t want to take it seriously. All I can do is control my own behavior to try to mitigate the spread caused by careless and selfish and foolish people. In a pandemic, all I have is my own little portion of the river that runs through my property, as it were. I can’t control what kind of risk and contagion come to me and my family from upstream, but I can control what goes downstream from us.

And while I do it, I can control what I allow to happen in my heart. I have a choice to be as safe as possible while being angry, or to be as safe as possible while . . . being like Jesus, a little bit.

That’s really what it comes down to, you guys. This whole original sin thing? And all the actual sin that happens every minute of the day and night? Not His fault. Not His deal at all. All the muck and disease and pollution and contagion that came to Him from upstream was from other people. None of it was His. It was all from careless and selfish and foolish people like you and me. He was absolutely safe in Heaven from contagion. But He deliberately parked himself mid stream and let himself be exposed. Then, being Immaculate, He not only purified what came out of Him, He looked with pity and kindness on the people upstream, the ones who screwed everything up and hurt Him. That’s what He did. That’s who He is. 

THIS IS THE HARD PART. And . . . this is what we’re supposed to do. 

Can we do this? I am trying. I fail every day, even while the stakes are relatively low, and we’re mostly just dealing with hassle and anxiety, not ventilators and organ failure and financial ruin. I still get so mad. But I am trying. When I start to ruminate on other people’s lousy attitudes, I can take a breath, let it out slowly, and come up with something else to think about, because other topics besides COVID are still important. When the news is making me dig my nails into my palms with frustration, I can turn it off and put on Schubert, instead, because Schubert is real, too. When I realize some rando on Twitter is not interested in having an honest conversation, I can step away and mute him while there’s still some whiff of civility in the air. And I can pray, not only for health, but for peace. And I can make an act of faith that prayer is efficacious even when I don’t see it. 

This is the hard part. Trying to be like Jesus is always the hard part. But when you consider the alternative, what else can we possibly do? We can’t step out of the stream, but we can stand with Him.

 

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 221: You can count on food

Gah, I missed another week! So first, here are the food highlights from last week:

Oooh, bibimbap!

I cooked some sliced pork in a gochujang sauce 

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and made a big pot of rice, and set out the pork, pea shoots, crunchy noodles, spinach, and whatnot, and everybody put together what they wanted and then reported to me for a fried egg. I like to put the spinach under a layer of something hot, so it wilts a bit. The egg seeps down and the meat sauce seeps up, and it’s pretty great.

I also sprinkled something called “balsamic crispy beets” on top of mine, along with hot sauce and sesame seeds. They were maybe a little too sweet and balsamic-y for this dish, but I liked the taste in general, and will probably get them again. They would be great on top of a salad with chicken. I always felt like I am destined to enjoy beets, but I never do, so this beet form is a little bonus.

Uhhhhh clams steamed in beer, chicken and pepper fajita deconstructobabs, bread, and more spinach

An incoherent but tasty meal 

I sautéed some onions in lots of butter, then added red pepper flakes and a few cans of beer and then the clams, and let them simmer for a bit until the shells opened, then squeezed some lemon over them. Yum yum yum. 

The plan was to make fajita chicken kebabs, but when it came down to it, I did not feel like threading anything on skewers, and Damien did not feel like grilling. So after I marinated the meat and peppers for a few hours, I just spread them on a pan and broiled them in the oven, and it was most definitely good enough.

The marinade was, I don’t know, oil and lime juice, chili powder, cumin, garlic, salt, etc. Just standard “weakly Mexican.” Served with salsa and sour cream to dip. 

Drumsticks, potato salad, and peach salad
Two salads, no greens! The kids were very impressed.  Or possibly they were mocking me. 

So, here we have an odd duck: a recipe that didn’t really need the prosciutto. It was sliced peaches, chopped fresh mint, crumbled feta cheese, and torn up prosciutto dressed with a honey lemon sauce, and it was super summery, fresh and full of vivid flavors.  

So vivid that the prosciutto didn’t really stand out, and therefore wasn’t necessary. What do you know about that.

I thought the potato salad was also nice, not too gloppy. Potatoes with the skin on, hard boiled eggs (which I cooked in the same pot as the potatoes, much to the amazement of one easily-amazed kid), and scallions, with a dressing of mayonnaise, cider vinegar, salt, and plenty of pepper. 

Dora was supposed to stop by for dinner, but she had car trouble and Damien had to rescue her, so she got here. She’s no longer in our bubble, and we needed to keep the visit outdoors, so to prolong the outdoorness of the evening, I made a fire and we toasted marshmallows, which I have apparently been buying every week for the last five weeks, intending to someday have a campfire. 

Here is Lena telling Corrie a ghost story. 

Just the right amount of funny and scary. This particular spooky story was about a green, hairless gorilla who lives in the sewer.

And Friday was pizza with fresh basil and slices of garlic, and ricotta, and red pepper flakes, WHICH. I. RECOMMEND. I want to make this same pizza except with also eggplant, or possibly even broccoli. 

And now for this week, here’s what we ate:

SATURDAY
Party!

Irene’s birthday was back in April, right when everything started closing down, so we finally had her party last weekend at the town pond before school starts and everything closes down again.

I did not cover myself in glory with birthday cakes this week. She wanted a Gravity Falls cake with Bill Cipher made of rice krispies. I got off to a bad start by referring to him as Cyber Bill, even though I am not 67 years old. Then his arms kept falling off, and then it was kind of downhill from there. Please don’t give me any advice on how to do it better. I know how to do all things well, and sometimes I just choose to do them poorly, for personal reasons.

But she liked it! And there were thunderstorms right up until an hour before the party, and then the sun came out. The party kids had deli sandwiches; I forget what the people back home had.

SUNDAY
Party!

Lucy’s birthday was back in July back when everything etc. etc. so we finally had her party while etc. She asked for a cake with All Might from My Hero Academia on it. This was pre-doomed to failure even before I discovered we don’t own any food coloring and I would have to color everything with sugar and leftover icing. All Might is a weird looking dude and this was a weird looking cake, so, there you go. 

But, she liked it, and there were thunderstorms that stopped before the party.  

And they got their parties in before everything gets locked down etc. etc. etc.  The party kids just had snacks; I forget what the people back home had.

MONDAY
Koftas with yogurt sauce, pita, Jerusalem salad

The first time I made koftas I thought they were SO tasty, but they kept falling off the sticks when Damien grilled them. So this time I just made a bunch of big meatballs and broiled them, with yogurt sauce to dip them in. Good stuff, with the added bonus of not looking so much like giant turds.

Oh, I also made a big bunch of Jerusalem salad while tomatoes are still king. Cucumber, tomato, red onion, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, salt. A cooling, easy side dish to lighten up a savory main dish.

If anyone makes koftas on the grill and knows how to keep them from falling apart off the stick, I’d be glad to know it.

TUESDAY
Chicken and salad, fruit

I got home soooo late from shopping. I just sprinkled the chicken with olive oil and Italian seasoning and broiled it, then served it in pieces over greens with Caesar salad dressing from a bottle. We had strawberries and blueberries, plus some pineapple that I forgot to serve last week. 

WEDNESDAY
Dino nuggets, chips, veg and dip for kids, restaurant for adults

Many months ago, maybe even a year ago, Damien was out of town and my car was in the shop and OF COURSE somehow Lucy ran out of insulin. So we had to call Dora and get her to leave work and go the pharmacy for us, and bring the insulin home, and then it was somehow the wrong insulin (“somehow” meaning CVS, which we briefly used because it has a 24-hour drive thru; but also does stuff like gives you the wrong insulin and then lies about it), so she had to leave work again and get the other insulin and bring it home and then go back to work, and she was very nice about it. So, we said we would take her out to dinner. 

And we did!

Like a year later.

I myself had an insane amount of food: Fried calamari, minestrone soup, and veal piccata, not to mention a bit of Dora’s bruschetta and a bit of Damien’s gondola bread; and some kind of cocktail with bitter orange. It’s actually getting nippy here at night (hence the soup), so they had these neat patio heaters among the tables with a giant flame enclosed in a glass pillar. I guess I’m a country mouse; I was impressed. I’m not saying I would follow it into the desert, but it was a very nice flame. 

THURSDAY
Philly cheesesteak

I don’t know what is going on with cows, but steak is still $2.99 a pound. One of the fringe benefits of my kitchen reno (which is still not done. I have to finish painting and then install the ceiling tiles, and then I will take pictures!) is I finally found the little column that holds up the disc cutter on my food processor, so I sliced a ton of peppers and onions and then the steak. 

IS there some way of shredding steak in a food processor without having to constantly stop the motor, take the top off, and drag out the meat that gets wrapped around the central pin thingy and caught between the blade and the cover? I did freeze the meat a bit first, but it was still very soggy going. It took a long time, but the results were good. Nice and shreddy, just like in Philly, as far as I can recall. 

Honest to goodness, I took pictures of my sandwich, but they look gross. You all know what a good cheesesteak looks like, so picture that. 

FRIDAY
Eggs migas with refried beans

Here is a picture of the migas I made last time. SO GOOD. 

Did I share a recipe for simple migas? I cut a bunch of corn tortillas into strips and fried them in oil until crisp, then scrambled a bunch of eggs into them, and served them with hot sauce and standard taco fixings. I love this meal. You know who would have loved it? My mother. Heck, maybe I can actually make it for her at some point, once the nursing home stops being locked down, etc. etc. 

And there it is. School starts on Monday. We’ll see how long it lasts, etc. 

Gochujang bulgoki (spicy Korean pork)


Ingredients

  • 1.5 pound boneless pork, sliced thin
  • 4 carrots in matchsticks or shreds
  • 1 onion sliced thin

sauce:

  • 5 generous Tbsp gochujang (fermented pepper paste)
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 5 cloves minced garlic

Serve with white rice and nori (seaweed sheets) or lettuce leaves to wrap

Instructions

  1. Combine pork, onions, and carrots.

    Mix together all sauce ingredients and stir into pork and vegetables. 

    Cover and let marinate for several hours or overnight.

    Heat a pan with a little oil and sauté the pork mixture until pork is cooked through.

    Serve with rice and lettuce or nori. Eat by taking pieces of lettuce or nori, putting a scoop of meat and rice in, and making little bundles to eat. 

 

koftas

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 3 onions
  • 1 head (head, not clove) garlic
  • 2 bunches parsley
  • 5 slices bread
  • salt and pepper
  • 1.5 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 2 Tbsp zataar

Instructions

  1. Put the wooden skewers in water to soak for about thirty minutes before you plan to form the kebabs.

  2. Put the onions, garlic, and parsley in a food processor and chop it.

  3. Put the meat in a large bowl and add the chopped onion mixture to it.

  4. Toast the bread, then put it in a bowl with warm water to soften it. Squeeze the water out and add that to the bowl with the meat.

  5. Add in the seasonings and squish it up with your hands until all the ingredients are well combined.

  6. Using your hands, form logs of meat around the skewers. They should be about an inch and a half in diameter.

  7. Grill over coals if you can. If they fall apart too much, you can cook them on a hot oiled griddle, or broil them. Turn to brown all sides.

 

Yogurt sauce

Ingredients

  • 32 oz full fat Greek yogurt
  • 2 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • fresh parsley or dill, chopped (optional)

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients together. Use for spreading on grilled meats, dipping pita or vegetables, etc. 

 

The wrong kind of random: My time with the U.S. Census

Did I ever tell you about the time I worked for the U.S. Census? 

This was back in 2010, and it didn’t last very long. We were pretty desperate for money, so, despite the fact that I once mistook the border between NH and VT on a map for a shortcut — and I once went to visit my sister and only realized how far off course I was when the road in front of me stopped because I had reached the ocean — and I experience the frequent, inexplicable, and irresistible urge to turn left even when I know I’m supposed to turn right — despite all of this, I say, I thought I could work for the census.

I thought maybe if it was literally my job not to get lost, I could keep it together. And I’ve met people who work for the government before, and I felt that I could easily slip into that crowd without being dominated too heavily by anyone’s intellect.  How hard could it be?

It really wasn’t that it was hard.  But it was the government, so it was dumb.

For instance, we were 26 hours into training before they would tell us what our job was going to be.  There were twelve of us being trained, and nobody knew what for. Our supervisor used a kind of radical version of the Socratic method:  rather than asking questions that guided us toward the truth, he would allow us to ask the questions.  He would then stare at us blankly with his mouth open, gaze down at his manual, gaze at us again, and then continue reading aloud as if nothing had happened. He did this so often, people eventually stopped asking him anything, so I guess it worked. 

I clearly remember the moment when we finally got to set aside the training materials and get our actual materials, and it turned out the things they’d been referring to as “binders” were . . . three-ring binders. I was amazed. Everything about the census so far had been so back-assward, I assumed they were calling them binders just because they weren’t. 

Then, actual binders in hand, we found we were going to be “Dependent Quality Control Enumerators,” which meant that we were to look at the maps drawn up by the first round of enumerators, compare them with the lists of addresses and their descriptions, and then compare that to what we actually see on the ground. If we discovered a too-high percentage of certain types of mistakes within a randomly-chosen sample of one area, then the whole area would have to be re-canvassed.

So this was how it worked out. I’m driving down the road, and I see a house.  It’s not on the map.  I add it to the map.  I assign it a map spot number, and add it to the “address add” page.  I transfer numbers from one book to another, I draw a line through certain things and erase others, according to protocol, and I give a questionnaire to the newly discovered residents. 

Except sometimes I couldn’t get to the house because of all the enraged dogs. Sometimes I got shouted at and threatened, and sometimes I got people who refused to even to look at me, as if even briefly lending one’s eye beams to a *ptui* government employee would dilute their purity of essence. 

And some of the people were friendly enough, but . . . .

Numbahs? No, there ain’t no numbahs out heah.
Hey, don’t let the cat owt, friggin coyotes comin’ around.
Census? No, we don’t want none.
We’re both learning disabled, hon.
I got a nail infection. 
Come on in, you kin sit on the love seat, watch the ashtray, don’t knock over my oxygen tank. 
Census, eh? You gonna check up on ME, heh heh heh heh heh? 
Numbahs? No . . . 

Nevertheless, I was a proper government employee. I was finishing my shift with a binder bristling with some kind of information that was surely useful to someone in some way, or if it was actually useless, at least it wasn’t my fault. I was doing it. I was really doing it!

But then we hit a snag.

Every so often, I was supposed go down a particular highway, go down a particular road, turn right, and choose a house at random, and then verify the information that is already on the books about this randomly-chosen house. This was supposed to add an extra layer of certitude that the information wasn’t being manipulated by rogue mapmakers who might send Dependent Quality Control Enumerators to the trailer parks they wanted to be counted, rather than the trailer parks they didn’t want to be counted, or something.

So I did what I was told. I went down the highway, I went down the road, I turned left, and I chose a nice house that looked especially random to me, and I marked everything down just like I was supposed to. Random house all accounted for. 

Then I went back to turn in my day’s work, and the supervisor reviewed it. He traced back through everything I had done, and then he said, “But why did you turn left?” 

As previously explained, I don’t know why I turned left. Sometimes I just turn left, okay? You’re just lucky we didn’t all end up in the ocean this time!

But I didn’t say that. I did say, “Well, it’s supposed to be a random house, and this was definitely random, so I guess it doesn’t really matter, ha ha.”

I swear, a quiver went through his body. He looked down at the binder as if he were gathering his strength, and he said quietly, “You were supposed to turn right.”

I said, “I know, but it’s random, so . . . ”

SO NOTHING. It was the U.S. Government, and it had to be the specific kind of random in the protocol, not the other kind of random! You can’t just randomly be random! You have to be the authorized kind of random, or else it ISN’T AUTHORIZED, AND YOU HAVE TO GO BACK.

So I had to go back, and this time I turned right. I randomly chose another house. I wrote everything down in all the books. And then I quit.

And that’s what happened what I worked for the census. 

 

The grotto behind the church

I told a priest I was so tired of the Catholic Church. I told him I wasn’t leaving, and I wasn’t apostatizing. (Where the hell else would I go?) But I was so tired.

Every encounter I had with Catholics lately seemed to have nothing to do with anything Jesus taught us. I was really rattled. It was murderously hot, and I was sweating and agitated, and full of righteous anger. Sick of the Church, and with good reason.

And he laughed at me. This old, old man with brown, placid eyes waved away a mosquito that floated by his face, and he laughed gently. Birds sang and tears leaked into my mask. We were sitting on benches outdoors, where a safely socially distanced confession could be heard, in front of a grotto for Mary. It was a place I had forgotten existed.

The grotto is a cool, dim spot behind the church, surrounded by trees. It smells of pine, and there are weathered benches grouped around, so you can sit and pray. It turns out they built it because a young boy insisted he saw Mary there. Did he? I have no idea. There is no record that I can find, other than a plaque mounted on the little stone shrine below the statue of Our Lady.

I had to admit, it was a place of unusual peace; a good place to calm down and recollect myself. I had forgotten it was there.

“You know, Jesus said the Church will last until the end of time. The gates of hell won’t prevail, you know,” Fr Bill said, smiling.

And do you know, I had forgotten this. I had fallen into thinking that Jesus was sort of trapped at the center of a clotted tangle of Catholicism, and that as long as I wanted Jesus, I would need to prove myself by fighting my way through that ugly, irrelevant tangle to be with him.

But that’s not really how it is. Jesus doesn’t just sort of put up with the Church, the way you or I put up with pointless rules and regulations before we can get our license or our permit or our degree. He’s not just with the Church because the Church is the hoops you have to jump through. The Church isn’t going anywhere, and its deep and ancient goodness, truth, and beauty are unchanged, changeless.

But sometimes we forget what we have, when we have the Church.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Shotgun Stories (2007) is downright Shakespearean

About ten minutes into Jeff Nichols’ 2007 movie Shotgun Stories, I asked my husband, “Am I crazy, or is this, like, Shakespeare?”

Check it out: In rural Arkansas in the heat of summer, a woman knocks on the door of a shabby house. Her son opens, and she announces, “Your father’s dead.” The three brothers inside respond to this news in various ways, according to their natures. They next turn up at the funeral held by the dead man’s newer wife and his four newer sons, who enjoyed comfort and security after their father gave up alcohol, took up religion, turned his life around — and abandoned his first family entirely. The oldest son interrupts the eulogy to tell the world “You think he was a good man. But he wasn’t,” and he spits on the coffin. The upgraded family doesn’t take kindly to affront, and they take their revenge — and the bitter feud inevitably unfolds from there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdVw3_FclyY&feature=emb_title
 

“He made like we were never born,” says the oldest son; and then he spends the rest of the film showing the world that, now that the father is dead, the first son is here, and he will not retreat. It is as if he cannot. Later, when his estranged wife finds out that there was a fight at the funeral, she asks him, “You think that was wise?” and he answers, “Doesn’t matter.” All the men in the movie are caught up in a violent drama that rolls out inexorably, as if it’s beyond anyone’s control. It is very hard to fault them for any of the choices they make, even when they will clearly lead to suffering, because they are behaving as one must in their world. It is as if the death of their father abruptly demands a higher, more elemental way of responding to the world — acting, rather than just enduring. (At the same time, at least some of the sons want the next generation to have something different.)

The three sinned-against sons are drawn in a few deft strokes that make fully-realized characters: One ambitious but prideful, one passive but single-minded, and one meek but intensely loyal. They are, you gradually realize, named “Son,” “Boy,” and “Kid,” (even the family dog has a more human name), while the upgraded family of sons are named after the father and after apostles. There is even a “fool,” a meth cooker named “Shampoo,” who cruises in and out of scenes delivering news, badgering, and instigating more drama. We never even see the father, dead or alive, but we know him well, through the memories of the seven sons he left behind.

There may possibly be an Old Testament/New Testament story being played out between the two families, working through themes of fathers who abandon us and yet somehow ordain our every move. I need to watch it again, because I know I missed a lot the first time around. Here’s a trailer that gives a pretty fair overview, although it doesn’t include the other two brothers, which is a shame:

 

What’s extraordinary about Shotgun Stories, and what also blew me away in Mud, also directed by Jeff Nichols, is the sense of place. Rarely, rarely have I seen such a true and real and immediate world through the lens of a movie camera. When the three brothers slump dejectedly in the street of their cracked, tired old town, I feel like I’ve lived there all my life and I’m sick to death of it. When Son reaches down to clear out the drainage pipe in the fish farm where he works, I feel the mindless weariness of it my sore elbow and my damp shirt cuff. I see exactly which parts of the tract home were fixed up by Son’s fed-up but not heartless wife, and which parts have fallen under the fate-haunted influence of the three brothers. The movie is clearly filmed on a shoestring, but it doesn’t look cheap, just true. 

What I haven’t mentioned is how funny the movie is, in unexpected spurts. The third son, Boy (Douglas Ligon), a gentle, pudgy, part-time basketball coach who lives in a van down by the river, tries at one point to hook up a full size air conditioner to his van; and ever since his attempt, his radio will occasionally start blaring cheesy power ballads, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He endures this several times, at the worst possible moments, and it is only after the fourth time that he thinks to turn the volume down. But it is Boy who eventually becomes the center of the action after Son can’t protect his brothers anymore.

The casting is, as in Mud, impeccable, and the acting is flawless. Michael Shannon as Son is tremendous, infuriating and heartbreaking at once, his face conveying three layers of emotion for every word he tightly utters. Like the dead father, the shotgun of the title barely makes it on screen. Instead, you see scars of the past, and are waiting throughout the entire movie to see whether or not it will go off again, and what will come of it all. You will not be able to take your eyes away.

Shannon is also great in Boardwalk Empire (a flawed but fascinating show) and Knives Out. If you read his IMDB page, you’ll be amazed at how many and what varied things he’s been in.  

Rated PG 13. Some violence and fleeting foul language; very intense in mood; suitable for teenagers. Highly recommended!

Where to watch Shotgun Stories

Was Fr. Damien of Moloka’i a white savior?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was at the National Statuary Hall Collection in DC on Thursday, and she shared a photo of the statue representing Hawaii on her Instagram account, commenting that “when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told – and virtually no one else.”

(You’ll have to excuse me for not linking to her story directly. I don’t understand how to use Instagram.)

As often happens with AOC, she wasn’t wrong, but she also managed to say something true in a way that you have to work to defend. The statue representing Hawaii is of Fr. Damien of Moloka’i, a Belgian priest who ministered to Hawaiian lepers and eventually died of the disease. 

“This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like! It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture & how it impacts the present day,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

She is, as I say, not wrong. She was saying that, when history is written by white people, it tends to present the world in terms of the wise, just, bold, important things white people have done. It makes it seem like white Europeans are the heroes of history, and everyone else is supporting characters at best, villains and savages at worst.

This is what she means by white supremacy, and she’s right. It’s not just a matter of skewing our perception of the past. Learning a white-dominated history makes it easier for white people to continue seeing themselves as realer and more important than dark-skinned people right now. A history that populates the past with white heroes and dark-skinned savages informs the thinking of people like the men who hunted and killed Ahmaud Arbery. They saw a black man in a white man’s world, and they got rid of him. 

She wasn’t even criticizing Fr. Damien specifically, although she chose his statue to feature with her comment. Her office told CNA

“it’s the patterns that have emerged among all of the statues in the Capitol: virtually all white men. Each individual could be worthy, moral people. But the deliberate erasure of women and people of color from our history is a result of the influence of patriarchy and white supremacy.”

Her office later added that “Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling. It is still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii in the Capitol over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.”

But, she did feature the statue of Fr. Damien in her commentary. She apparently didn’t realize that the statue wasn’t chosen and donated by white Europeans; it was chosen and donated by the Hawaiian people, who presumably wanted Fr. Damien to represent them.

Why would they chose a white man rather than a native? If you read about Fr. Damien’s life, it was not because he was a white savior, but because he imitated Jesus the savior. 

It’s a touchy topic to compare any man to Christ, especially when contemporaneous accounts of Fr. Damien’s life did explicitly paint him as a white savior descending from above to minister to utter savages living in squalor, helpless until the beatific European man came to the rescue. That is not what happened. This skewed version of his story helps cement the bizarre idea that Christ Himself was white.

But Fr. Damien was so beloved not because of some supernatural ability to appear from on high and single-handedly transform a people, but from a willingness to work and live with them, learn their language, eat their food, and even contract their disease. His mission wasn’t to bestow salvation on them, but to help restore them to a life of dignity that they had been denied, by teaching them about Christ, by helping them to take care of themselves, and most of all by becoming one of them when no one else even wanted to think about them. 

Every saint’s story reflects the life of Christ in one way or another; but the biography of St Damien of Molokai, whose feast day is May 10, is full of unusually striking parallels that have nothing to do with whiteness and everything to do with Christlike-ness.

His sacrifice was entirely voluntary. After the Hawaiian government isolated its lepers on a peninsula to contain the disease, the Church realized that there was no one to tend to their spiritual needs. But the disease was so fearful and so contagious; the Bishop did not insist that any of his subordinates go there to serve. Young Fr Damien, a Belgian priest, willingly volunteered as a missionary, even though he was afraid.

The Son of God was utterly complete before the Incarnation. The birth, works, suffering, and death of Christ were all entirely voluntary, asked for by the Father and willingly accepted by the Son, even though He was afraid.

He was a substitute for his brother. His brother, a member of the same religious order, was originally slated to travel to Molokai, but became sick; so Damien took his place.

Christ took on human flesh and suffered and died to pay the debt of humanity. He became our brother so that He could take our place.

He tended to the body as well as the soul. St Damien’s mission was to preach and bring the sacraments, but he also cared for the lepers’ physical well-being, helping them upgrade their living quarters, organize schools, farms, a legal system, and even a choir.

Along with teaching, forgiving sins, conferring grace, and granting salvation for our souls, Christ healed the blind, made the lame walk, fed the multitudes, and even cooked a breakfast of fish for His friends, because even a mortal body is precious, and our physical needs are true needs.

He didn’t keep himself apart, but lived his life alongside his spiritual children.  Fr Damien didn’t isolate himself out of fear, disgust, or a sense of superiority, but lived with the lepers intimately, eating communal poi with his fingers, bathing corrupted limbs and dressing wounds. He clothed them with his own hands, shared their pipes, and dug their graves, until he finally died of their disease.

Christ did not save us from Heaven, but confined His immensity into a mortal human body, to live alongside the ones He came to save, and even accepted human mortality. 

He was slandered, accused of depravity and dirtiness; and even his own superiors gave him only faint praise, calling him a “peasant” who served God “in his own way.”

Christ was hounded by slander and abuse, culminating in a trial and execution full of insults and false accusations, which He bore without defending Himself.

His good works were not confined to his life span.  When Fr Damien died, he left behind a community that was transformed.

Before He died, Christ established the Church, so that His work would continue after the Resurrection.

 

I can’t help thinking that Fr. Damien himself would have chosen someone else to represent Hawaii, had he been asked. Nothing in his life indicates that he sought fame or recognition. He is the patron saint of outcasts, including HIV patients, a population many Catholics continue to see as untouchable, unworthy. 

Maybe it would have been better to represent him with a statue showing how he looked toward the end of his life, when the disease all but destroyed his white skin. If there is a lesson to draw from finding a Christlike white man representing Hawaii, maybe the lesson is this: Christ was not white; Christ was human. 

***

A portion of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in May of 2017.

Photo of Fr. Damien by Henry L. Chase / Public domain 

14 family movies we streamed and liked this summer

With museums and movie theaters and amusements parks out, we decided to lean into watching movies — a continuation of our mandatory Friday Lent movie party, but this time, anything is fair game. Damien and I pick something the kids at least might enjoy and appreciate, but that they probably wouldn’t pick on their own. Every few weeks, we let the kids pick what we watch. The idea is to expand their palates a bit and also to have some regular time together, which definitely doesn’t happen on its own.

Our definition of “family movies” may differ from yours! We have a lot of teens and older, so we tend to err on the side of movies that are a bit too old for the minority. We watched a few of these without the youngest kids. In this post, “little guys” refers to kids ages 8 and 5.

We streamed all of these movies, and paid a few dollars for most of them. The information about where to stream movies changes so often, so I just linked to their pages on ReelGood.com and it will show you where you can currently stream them.

I’m gonna cheat and include summaries stolen from various sources:

The Music Man 

Where to watch

When Harold Hill (Robert Preston), a traveling con man, arrives in River City, he convinces the locals to start a band by purchasing the uniforms and instruments from him. His intention is to flee as soon as he receives the money. Librarian Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones) suspects Harold is a fraud, but holds her tongue since her moody brother, Winthrop (Ronny Howard), is excited about the band. As Harold begins to develop feelings for Marian, he faces a difficult decision about skipping town. (Wikipedia)

What a weird movie! Dancing great, music great, really funny stuff. It’s one of those movies you can just enjoy for the syncopation and the choreography and the spectacle, or you can think a bit about who these people are and how they got to be there. I’ve seen it before, but the line “I always think there’s a band, kid” made me cry this time. This was also the first time I thought, “Wait, is Winthrop actually Marion’s secret son?” He could be a change of life baby, but he could also be a secret grandson. Marion tells her mother that the problem isn’t that her standards are too high; it’s that she falls in love too easily, and what she really wants is for someone to stay. There is an awful lot of unacknowledged frenetic sexual energy in this town, as you can see by how easy it is to get everybody dancing like lunatics, but there’s also a heavy layer of refusal to acknowledge it, which amps up the tension.

Anyway, solid, entertaining movie. Some of the kids liked it; some acted like they hated it more than I think they actually did. 

All ages.

North By Northwest

where to watch

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm which contains government secrets. (Wikipedia)

This is one of Damien’s favorites.   I’ve definitely come to appreciate Cary Grant more over the years. I used to find him so slick and repellant, but he’s much more of a comic actor than I ever realized. This character a man whose life was in trouble long before he accidentally got caught up in foreign intrigue. 

All ages, but younger kids will struggle to follow the plot. 

Young Frankenstein

where to watch

Respected medical lecturer Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) learns that he has inherited his infamous grandfather’s estate in Transylvania. Arriving at the castle, Dr. Frankenstein soon begins to recreate his grandfather’s experiments with the help of servants Igor (Marty Feldman), Inga (Teri Garr) and the fearsome Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). After he creates his own monster (Peter Boyle), new complications ensue with the arrival of the doctor’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn).(Wikipedia)

The most perfect movie ever made. About 40% of the things we say to each other in this house are quotes from Young Frankenstein. If you have seen this movie and didn’t think much of it, I don’t know what to say to you. If you’re one of those, “Oh, I love Mel Brooks! Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men In Tights are the best things I’ve ever seen!” people, you can just leave. The best Mel Brooks movies are the ones where he’s satirizing genres he knows intimately and loves ardently; the worst ones are the ones where he’s clearly just cashing in on a popular trend. 

All ages, although it’s bit risqué for the younger kids, but I think most of the naughty stuff went over their heads. Younger kids may find it scary.  

Galaxy Quest

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A parody of and homage to science-fiction films and series, especially Star Trek and its fandom, the film stars Tim AllenSigourney WeaverAlan RickmanTony ShalhoubSam Rockwell and Daryl Mitchell. It depicts the cast of a fictional defunct cult television series, Galaxy Quest, who are visited by actual aliens who think the series is an accurate documentary, and become involved in a very real intergalactic conflict. (Wikipedia)

The kids chose this one. I’ve seen it a few too many times, but it’s entertaining and solid and ultimately very sweet. Great casting, and nice to see a movie where nerdy kids aren’t dunked on. Same plot as The Three Amigos, which I also wouldn’t mind re-watching. 

All ages. There are some scary scenes of chasing and torture. 

Key Largo

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This classic film noir by John Huston stars Humphrey Bogart as World War II vet Frank McCloud. Visiting Key Largo to pay his respects to the family of his late war buddy, McCloud attempts to comfort his comrade’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), and father, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), who operate a hotel. But McCloud realizes that mobsters, led by the infamous Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), are staying in the hotel. When the criminals take over the establishment, conflict is inevitable. (Synopsis by Google)

This movie makes you feel like you’re going cuh-razy. Such fantastic tension and atmosphere and sense of place. Apparently Clare Trevor’s wretchedness and nervousness when she’s forced to sing for her drink were only partially her acting, because she wasn’t given the chance to practice beforehand, and they just filmed a raw take, which was mean but effective. It’s a noir film that shows gangsters as gross and pettily cruel rather than glamorous. It’s so unfair that Frank McCloud has to fight at home after he’s done fighting in the war, but evil be like that. Very satisfying ending.  

All ages, but younger kids may be a bit bored. There is a lot of action, but much of the tension comes from characters having to face interior choices. The kids were, for some reason, fascinated at Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall essentially wearing matching outfits. 

Knives Out

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The circumstances surrounding the death of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey are mysterious, but there’s one thing that renowned Detective Benoit Blanc knows for sure — everyone in the wildly dysfunctional Thrombey family is a suspect. Now, Blanc must sift through a web of lies and red herrings to uncover the truth. (Google synopsis)
 

The best new movie I’ve seen in years. I had no idea what was going to happen, right down to the last drop, and it worked out so much better than I could have hoped. So funny and weird and exciting. Immensely satisfying and original. Everybody liked it. Totally earned all the accolades it got. It was very tense and fairly violent, so the little guys didn’t watch it, but its moral compass was right on.

This is a movie to own and re-watch. 

Night of the Hunter

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The Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a religious fanatic and serial killer who targets women who use their sexuality to attract men. Serving time in prison for car theft, he meets condemned murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who confesses to hiding $10,000 in stolen loot. Released from jail, Powell is obsessed with finding the money, and he tracks down Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). (Google synopsis)

Watch it just for the sheer beauty. If your kids are resistant to watching black and white movies, this might be a good intro. Unforgettable. We had some good conversations about the sort of surreal stylized aesthetic and how some of the characters delivered their lines. It occurs to me that one of the main themes is responsibility: What do you take on and what do you shuffle off on other people? Maybe the real villain is Ben Harper, hmmmm? The preacher, who thinks of himself as some kind of willing vessel of God’s will, is not entirely wrong about being just an agent. There are lots of villains of different degrees in this story. 

All ages, but haunting and may be upsetting for youngest kids. It shows a drowned woman and includes an execution, and the whole movie centers on kids in terrible peril. Those child actors were SO GOOD.

District 9

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Thirty years ago, aliens arrive on Earth — not to conquer or give aid, but to find refuge from their dying planet. Separated from humans in a South African area called District 9, the aliens are managed by Multi-National United, which is unconcerned with the aliens’ welfare but will do anything to master their advanced technology. When a company field agent (Sharlto Copley) contracts a mysterious virus that begins to alter his DNA, there is only one place he can hide: District 9. (Google synopsis. This isn’t a very good synopsis, fyi.)

Just for the high school kids. Quite violent and disgusting and upsetting, but also one of the most thoughtful science fiction movies I’ve seen. It really worked through how modern people might behave under the circumstances; and they did a wonderful job showing emotion on entirely alien faces, and showed a persuasive change of heart via ordeal. Also very funny. But, I must stress, disgusting. 

Shazam

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We all have a superhero inside of us — it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In 14-year-old Billy Batson’s case, all he needs to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam. Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do — have fun while testing out his newfound powers. But he’ll need to master them quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities. (Google synopsis)

This movie was a little messy, but we all really liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie focused on the foster care system before. As such, it was a bit precious, but it is also a kid superhero movie, so I think they earned some wiggle room to portray people in a somewhat cartoonish way, though the lens of an immature person (and in this, they achieved what I think Jojo Rabbit tried and failed to do, and it definitely nailed the way two teenage boys would explore the sudden acquisition of superpowers. The opening scene is pretty violent and shocking, but the rest is scary and tense but not inappropriate for younger kids. We all agreed that, while the seven deadly sins were neat, most of them were just portrayed as generically creepy, when they could have been vividly individual. We loved the scenes where the two boys are testing out the limits of the superpowers, and we liked the very realistic crisis of conscience Billy faces. The kids picked up on how his memory of his mother differs subtly from her own memory, and we talked about people doing their best when their best just isn’t very good. Not a perfect movie, but thought-provoking and entertaining. Definitely worth a re-watch.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

where to watch

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are high school buddies starting a band. However, they are about to fail their history class, which means Ted would be sent to military school. They receive help from Rufus (George Carlin), a traveler from a future where their band is the foundation for a perfect society. With the use of Rufus’ time machine, Bill and Ted travel to various points in history, returning with important figures to help them complete their final history presentation. (Google synopsis)

Although I was 14 when this movie came out, I have somehow never seen it. Unexpectedly sweet and funny stuff, and I know it’s not just the nostalgia factor that made me laugh out loud. Some mildly naughty humor, and of course the heroes are not exactly role models, but they kinda are. Really cute.

Yojimbo

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A nameless ronin, or samurai with no master (Toshirô Mifune), enters a small village in feudal Japan where two rival businessmen are struggling for control of the local gambling trade. Taking the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake, the ronin convinces both silk merchant Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) and sake merchant Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura) to hire him as a personal bodyguard, then artfully sets in motion a full-scale gang war between the two ambitious and unscrupulous men. (Google synopsis)

This is another one of those movies that makes you feel like you’re going crazy when you watch it, in a good way. You feel like you have grit in your clothes and you feel like a murderous wind is blowing on your sunburned cheeks. Also, I could stare at Toshirô Mifune all day and I don’t care who knows it. Anyone who wants to make a “complicated hero for complicated times” movie should watch this first. Just watch the way he’s always scratching himself, and his posture. 
I kind of wish I could re-score it, though. The music is so dated, it became intrusive after a while. 

All ages. Some of the kids found it just too foreign – not just because it had subtitles, but that is one heckin different culture. I think most of the kids found it at least interesting.

Cast Away

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Obsessively punctual FedEx executive Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is en route to an assignment in Malaysia when his plane crashes over the Pacific Ocean during a storm. The sole survivor of the flight, Chuck washes ashore on a deserted island. When his efforts to sail away and contact help fail, Chuck learns how to survive on the island, where he remains for years, accompanied by only his handmade volleyball friend, Wilson. Will Chuck ever return to civilization and reunite with his loved ones? (Google synopsis)

This is another movie that had more on its mind than I remember from last time I watched it. Rare to see a movie where there aren’t any bad guys, just reasonably decent people who could be better, and decent people in bad situations. The island is his ordeal, but his main struggle is, of course, actually with himself . . . or, you know, with life itself; and the same is true of his wife. Really interesting stuff.

We watched this with kids age 9 and up, and they found some scenes terrifying, but not unmanageable. Some left the room during the tooth scene, but everyone liked the movie overall.

True Grit

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After an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders her father, feisty 14-year-old farm girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a boozy, trigger-happy lawman, to help her find Chaney and avenge her father. The bickering duo are not alone in their quest, for a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also tracking Chaney for reasons of his own. Together the unlikely trio ventures into hostile territory to dispense some Old West justice. (Google synopsis)

Well, this movie is just heartbreakingly good. Maybe the Cohen brothers’ best. So many appealing and appalling characters, such gorgeous camera work, such impeccable pacing. GOR-GE-OUS.Thrilling and funny and unforgettable. Fairly violent, so probably for middle schoolers and up.

Hamilton

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It was . . . good. We let all the kids watch it, despite the cussing and the plot that includes adultery and whatnot. I thought it was good, really. Well, probably I should write up a separate review just for Hamilton. 

Okay, that’s it! I know I’m missing some, so maybe I can do a part 2 by the end of the summer. I feel better about the c r a p the kids often watch when I know they’re also watching things I think are worthwhile. 

How about you? Seen anything remarkable lately?