We were made for hope

The morning news is rarely uplifting. Even less so, the morning news that includes an interview with the man who recently headed the government agency on biomedical and public health research.  But not too long ago I heard just such an interview, and quite unexpectedly, it gladdened my heart.

The man is Francis Collins, and until recently, he headed the National Institute of Health, one of the agencies tasked with combating COVID in the US. He is also, as the public radio host pointed out in her introduction, a Christian.

I guess I’ve been hiding under a rock for several years, because I haven’t been aware that an evangelical Christian who used to be an atheist has been head of this agency for the last 12 years. Now, this isn’t a tidy story. He has apparently been a thorn in the side of the “haven’t we outlawed this religion nonsense yet” crowd, but at the same time, under his leadership, the NIH has gone full steam ahead on some grossly unethical research

His personal faith is not really what this essay is about, though; although it was pleasant to hear a man so humbly describing his conversion story, and a public radio host listening so respectfully. If you haven’t heard it, here is how he told it to the host, Rachel Martin:

It was medical school. It was that third year of medical school, where you’re not in the classroom anymore. You’re on the hospital wards. You’re sitting at the bedside of good North Carolina people whose lives are coming to an end, sometimes with a great deal of pain and suffering. And you’re realizing your medical tools are inadequate to actually help them very much.

And I had a moment where a patient of mine, who I’d gotten kind of attached to – an elderly woman kind of like my grandmother – who shared her faith with me and then turned to me one afternoon and said, you know, Doctor, I’ve told you about my beliefs, and you haven’t said anything. What do you believe? What do you believe? Nobody ever quite asked me that question. And, Rachel, at that moment, I realized, I have no idea. I have settled on atheism because it was the answer I was most comfortable with, and it meant I didn’t really have to look into this. But I’m a scientist. I’m not supposed to make big decisions without looking at evidence. I’ve got to look into it.”


What he did next was to ask a pastor friend some challenging questions, and the man directed him toward the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which led him to understand that science is meant to answer one kind of question, and religion is meant to answer another. You don’t have to choose one or the other, despite what so many on both sides of our deeply divided society believe, or want to believe.

The host asked him about that divide, and about how he finds hope. He responded that he finds it in his faith. Then he said:

“I also have hope that human nature, despite all of its foibles, is basically put together in a way that over time we find a way to do the right thing, even after making a lot of mistakes along the way.”

This struck me as a message from Heaven. And this is the part I really want to focus on.

Here is a man who believes that God made us. And how did God make us? To be good. Maybe not all the time, and maybe not perfectly, and maybe not right away, but eventually, stumblingly, partially, or even just as a race: That’s what we do. That’s what the human race is: It is good. I guess I had forgotten that!

It’s become commonplace, in these dreadful, exhausting times, to look backward through history and to see plainly the fruitless cycles we seem doomed to walk through, over and over again. We struggle, we gain ground, we flourish, and then we come to ruin, over and over and over again. This is the story of mankind, on every continent, in every age, sooner or later, in big ways and in small. It seems like a story of constant, inescapable ruin. Fruitless, pointless.

But here is a man who saw this cycle as a story not of repeated failure, but of repeated hope. He is 71 years old, and he still thinks that people are basically put together in such a way that they are oriented toward the good, at least to try. This is a thing he’s saying in the beginning of the year 2022, after leading the fight he leaded, and after seeing what he’s seen.

I do believe, as we should all believe as Catholics, that there will eventually come an end to the world. There will not just be endless cycles to human life. Human history as we know it will someday cease, and a new age will begin, and we don’t know what that will look like. But I think that, right up until that time (which, Jesus insists, we do not know), it’s our job to keep turning and turning over the soil to find the next harvest.

It’s been a deeply discouraging few years, for countless, cascading reasons. We may have allowed ourselves to half believe that we’re just plain run out of goodness, as a human race.

But that’s not how we’re made.

What do you believe? What do you believe? I believe we were made by God to be good. We were made by God for constant conversion. There’s always the possibility of conversion, always the chance to try again to do good. If an atheist doctor can decide to ask hard questions about existence, then I, who already know about God, can decide to look for Him in my fellow fooling fumbling humans. We can ask God for help, and we can find that goodness, one more time. 

 

Photo by Kumaraguru via Pixahive 
A version of this essay was originally published on March 8, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

What’s for supper? Vol. 294: Ya burnt!

Another Friday! We have arrived. We really launched our warm weather cooking this week. We also had our first “oh yes, that skunk is definitely rabid” situation, so I guess spring is officially fully here. I made some berry pies and only partially roont them. 

Here’s what we cooked and ate this week: 

SATURDAY
Indian food!

The kids had an assortment of frozen foods, and Damien and I went back to Royal Spice, where we had the same vegetarian appetizers as last time, because they were so appetizing, and then I had goat biryani and Damien had goat vindaloo. Superb. So delicious, I forgot to take pictures.  I need to get back to some Indian cooking. Gotta break in the new mortar and pestle Lucy got me for mother’s day! 

SUNDAY
Hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, grilled corn, blueberry-strawberry pie 

We had our elderly neighbor over. I’ve been meaning to have her over, ever since we moved in, uhh, sixteen years ago. Listen, we don’t like to be pushy in these parts. We did have a nice time, although she is fairly deaf and the conversation kept circling back to a reliable topic, i.e. her roasting me for buying vegetable plants for the garden instead of starting seeds.  The dog thought she was absolutely incredible, and she thought the kids were absolutely amazing for swimming in the pool even though it was a little chilly. She dug up some of her bleeding hearts for me, and I gave her some pie. A good visit.

Damien cooked burgers and hot dogs and corn on the grill, always tasty. He cooks the corn right inside the husks, which makes it super sweet and juicy. You just peel and eat. I will admit, at least 50% of the reason I like this method is because it looks so dramatic. 

I made a couple of pies for dessert, and let me tell you, I was worried the whole time that the filling would turn out too runny, and guess what? It did. Not that I took any steps to prevent that from happening; I just worried about it. I sprinkled a good amount of corn starch in with the fruit and sugar, and let it sit for a while before baking; and I let it sit for a while after baking and before cutting. But it was still runny. I guess I should add even more corn starch? Anyone? It tasted great, just sweet enough, and they were very pretty. Just runny. 

I just mixed together strawberries and blueberries, sugar, a little salt, what seemed like a good amount of corn starch, and some fresh lemon juice. 

Here’s the unbaked pies:

and baked, with an egg wash and a little sugar on top, sadly somewhat burnt:

but still pretty

Here’s my recipe for pie crust, which is reliable and easy to work with.

Jump to Recipe

The main secret is to freeze the butter and grate it into the dry ingredients, and then just barely handle it after that.

We made some fresh whipped cream to top it with. Then the kids cleared the table and put the whipped cream away in the fridge. In a ziplock bag. I know that this is technically better than the other way they were likely to put it away (in an open bowl, with some old meatloaf on top), but somehow it didn’t feel better. 

MONDAY
Chicken caesar salad, grapes

A decent meal (if one that I’ve been eating a little too often for my liking in one form or another these days, in an effort to shed my Covid Ennui weight). Chicken breast with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and olive oil, grilled and sliced, served on romaine lettuce with dressing from a bottle and freshly-grated parmesan cheese, and buttery homemade croutons. (FYI, the dressing and buttery croutons are not included in the Covid Ennui weight shedding plan, sadly.)

We did bat around the idea of getting ducks this year. Maybe next year. I do love duck eggs, and I would abase myself for homemade caesar salad dressing made with fresh duck egg yolks.

Jump to Recipe

Maybe next year! Quack.

TUESDAY
Honey mustard drumsticks, homemade tortilla chips, corn and bean salad

Sweet, colorful, mostly finger food. I thought this was going to be a super kid-pleaser meal. This despite that fact that I have met my kids.

Of course you can tell with an introduction like that that they mostly ate cereal. One proudly showed me the dusty can of chicken noodle soup she had discovered in the back of the cabinet. Oh well. I still thought it was a pleasant warm-weather meal.

I roasted about 24 drumsticks with olive oil, salt and pepper, and then rolled them around in a honey mustard sauce, made with probably a cup of honey, half a cup of mustard, and the juice of a large lemon. Then let them chill in the fridge for the rest of the day.

The corn salad was made with 3 ear’s worth of corn leftover from the cookout, a can of drained black beans, a can of diced tomatoes with chiles drained, the juice of one lime, half a red onion minced, a small bunch of chopped cilantro, and salt and pepper. I kept it bland so the kids would eat it, ho ho ho. 

The tortilla chips, I made by cutting flour tortillas into triangles, tossing them with oil, and sprinkling them heavily with Taijin powder a few times, then spreading them on a pan and baking them in a 350 oven for about half an hour, stirring them a few times so they wouldn’t stick. They don’t turn out completely crisp, but some of them are a little bit chewy.

Here is my helper, performing a crispness test:

You could probably avoid this by baking them longer at a lower temp, and giving them more space, but genuinely I like them a little chewy. I honestly have the palate of a sickly Victorian child. I want at least some of my foods to be milky and the consistency of tapioca. I also like more exciting foods, but my first love will always be the diet of an invalid. And now you know my secret.  

WEDNESDAY
Tacos, pineapple and papaya

I optimistically planned the menu this way, with tacos on Wednesday rather than Tuesday, thinking we’d have leftover corn salad and tortilla chips to go along with the tacos. Which we did, but (see previous day) nobody was happy about it. They were happy about the tacos, though, so there.

I sweetened the deal with some fresh pineapple and papaya. Boy, papaya sure is, it sure looks, boy. I feel like I ought to have someone else in the room when I cut it up, just so there’s no misunderstandings. 

THURSDAY
Pizza

Something weird happened with this pizza. Maybe a weird batch of dough, I don’t know. Maybe I used too much sauce. It just clung to the pan and didn’t act right. It was okay, just kind of heavy. I also forgot to buy olives.

I made one plain, one pepperoni, one garlic and onion, and one ham and pineapple.

Plenty of fresh parmesan on all of them, which was nice. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

A couples Fridays ago was supposed to be mac and cheese, but I ran out of steam and just bought some Aldi pizzas. We have SO much stray cheese in the house, though, so I really want to use it up this time.

Oh, last Friday I did make the seafood lo mein

Jump to Recipe

with the mixed frozen seafood pouch from Aldi, and it turned out just great. It had all kinds of great stuff, mussels, scallops, a little octopus, wonderful. I threw a little fish sauce in there, plus some asparagus and some scallions, and it was a very tasty little meal. 

My wish now is to make empanadas. It just came into my head and I can’t think of a reason not to do it. I am thinking of buying the dough disks, if I can find them, so I can get the hang of it; and then if people like them, I can always try making my own dough next time. Any empanada advice? I think I have a press I bought to make dumplings, so I can probably use that. 

caesar salad dressing

Ingredients

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 12 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about two large lemons' worth)
  • 1 Tbsp mustard
  • 4 raw egg yolks, beaten
  • 3/4 cup finely grated parmesan

Instructions

  1. Just mix it all together, you coward.

Basic pie crust

Ingredients

  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1-1/2 sticks butter, FROZEN
  • 1/4 cup water, with an ice cube

Instructions

  1. Freeze the butter for at least 20 minutes, then shred it on a box grater. Set aside.

  2. Put the water in a cup and throw an ice cube in it. Set aside.

  3. In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Then add the shredded butter and combine with a butter knife or your fingers until there are no piles of loose, dry flour. Try not to work it too hard. It's fine if there are still visible nuggets of butter.

  4. Sprinkle the dough ball with a little iced water at a time until the dough starts to become pliable but not sticky. Use the water to incorporate any remaining dry flour.

  5. If you're ready to roll out the dough, flour a surface, place the dough in the middle, flour a rolling pin, and roll it out from the center.

  6. If you're going to use it later, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. You can keep it in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for several months, if you wrap it with enough layers. Let it return to room temperature before attempting to roll it out!

  7. If the crust is too crumbly, you can add extra water, but make sure it's at room temp. Sometimes perfect dough is crumbly just because it's too cold, so give it time to warm up.

  8. You can easily patch cracked dough by rolling out a patch and attaching it to the cracked part with a little water. Pinch it together.

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 5 tsp sesame oil
  • 5 tsp sugar

for the rest

  • 32 oz uncooked noodles
  • sesame oil for cooking
  • add-ins (vegetables sliced thin or chopped small, shrimp, chicken, etc.)
  • 2/3 cup rice vinegar (or mirin, which will make it sweeter)

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

  2. Boil the noodles until slightly underdone. Drain and set aside.

  3. Heat up a pan, add some sesame oil for cooking, and quickly cook your vegetables or whatever add-ins you have chosen.

  4. Add the mirin to the pan and deglaze it.

  5. Add the cooked noodles in, and stir to combine. Add the sauce and stir to combine.

The news is important. Try turning it off.

I wrote the following essay shortly before the Roe v Wade leak happened, and now this is all truer than ever. 

When I was young, I liked listening to the news just because I liked hearing different accents from around the world. And this is one of the reasons I will often play the news on the radio when my kids are around.

But it’s a risky choice. We may end up hearing a neat, entertaining story like this one about long-lost wax cylinders, which we all enjoyed on the way to school.; or at very least, they may be passively gleaning some awareness of the world around them, which is a good thing.

But of course current events are mostly not kid-friendly, and pretty often I have to quickly change the channel because there’s a story about something kids don’t need to know about — or it’s presented in a way that is antithetical to our worldview, but it’s too hard to give a cogent counterargument while we’re driving along making five different stops.

And then sometimes the news is just . . . too real. It’s too real to be entertainment, and I have to admit that that’s how I’m using it. I’m using a flow of information about the lives (and often the deaths) of real people as a kind of auditory wallpaper to make a pleasing background for our own life, and we chatter over it as we will, no matter what kind of thing is being reported. This is something to think twice about — not only when I’m choosing what to expose my kids to, but when I’m choosing what I listen to, myself.

News isn’t entertainment. When we treat it like it is — keeping it on constantly, having it on when we’re not really attending to it, hearing the same stories repeated endlessly throughout the day — we run the risk of trivializing the things that are being reported. It’s almost inevitable. We’re training ourselves to hear words like “mass shootings” and “atrocities” and “famine” and “sexual assault” and not blink an eye, but just continue buttering our toast or flipping through Twitter or updating our spreadsheets.

It has a second effect, too, because we can’t tune it out entirely: Even if we don’t listen to some hyperpartisan purveyor of shock headlines, but instead choose some mainstream, middle-of-the-road objective reporting source, some of the emotional content of the news will filter into our consciousness. And it will make us feel bad.

It will feed our anxiety, our dread, our sense of helplessness and rage and doom. It will give us the sensation that the enemy is outside the walls, and we will always hear its muffled roar as we go about our day. How could that fail to affect our mental and emotional state? 

So we’re crafting ourselves the worst of both worlds: We’re simultaneously deadening our sense of empathy, and heightening our sense of personal grievance. No wonder people are at each other’s throats when they actually meet in person. We feel like we’re in constant danger, and we feel like no one else is completely human. A guaranteed recipe for conflict, if not outright violence.

There is a lot amiss in the world, but one thing we can easily change right away is to change how we consume the news. If we want to know what’s going on in the world — and we should! It’s important — we can find that out deliberately, in a limited, controlled fashion: say, once or twice or three times a day.

It won’t be easy. We’re very used to the idea that the news is just on, all the time. It’s everywhere, in waiting rooms and lobbies and on all of our phones and computers and social media feeds, always. It’s hard to get away from. But we may be more in control of it than we realize. We may be able to limit it, and be more deliberate about when we consume it, than we want to admit.

We may have internalized the idea that we have a duty to keep up, to stay current, to the minute, with the news. That there’s some virtue in retweeting a headline first. Who do you suppose gives us that idea? Clearly, it’s the people who make money by keeping us tuned in. They have a vested interest in making us feel like we’re actually doing something wrong and irresponsible by turning the news off. And in turn, they feel the pressure to amp up the novelty and shock value in what we hear, whether there’s actually something new and important and shocking happening or not. It’s an almost entirely artificial cycle, fueled by money.

But once we recognize it for what it is, we can opt out of it. Decide how much news we really need, and then otherwise, simply opt out. Don’t retweet it. Don’t chase down every headline. Don’t have the radio or TV on in the background all day. Just opt out. 

We don’t have to become hermits or live in stony silence. We can choose to listen to music. Listen to someone explain music. Listen to podcasts. Listen to stories. Listen to audiobooks. Listen to interviews with interesting, knowledgeable people. Listen to wild birdsong.

If something important happened, it will still be important in a few hours, I promise (and if something life-shattering happened, it will make its way through to you, I promise). But we can make the choice to nourish our humanity, rather than eroding it with a constant stream of news-as-entertainment. Because we really have to acknowledge that that stream is not making us more informed. It is one of the things making us less human.

 

***
Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on April 8, 2022.

Your legs will hold you, and other lessons from yoga

Yoga has been so rewarding psychologically, as well as physically. No doubt you are imagining a middle-aged mom putting on expensive Lycra gear to meditate on the wisdom of “live laugh love.”

It’s not quite that! It’s more that the things that yoga demands of my body are instructive, and I can’t help extrapolating them into larger ideas about life. (Laughing and loving are on their own, however.)

Here are some of the more useful ideas that yoga has been helping me internalize, even during the last few weeks when I’ve been too sick to do anything more physically challenging than open a cough drop wrapper: 

It’s okay to take up space. This addresses two struggles: Being okay with taking up space, and being okay with finding value in an idea so clichéd as “it’s okay to take up space.” Every single female friend I have needs to learn both these things. This is where shavasana comes in handy. My goal is to lie there until the dog feels uncomfortable, and at least temporarily not to care about the crud on the rug, the grime on the ceiling, or the floaters in my eyeballs. It’s hard. But it’s made it easier to sit in adoration and do nothing. 

Your life is more interrelated than you realize. Very often, we’ll be holding a pose and the instructor will suggest turning your toes up, twisting your quads outward, or just looking up. And darned if it doesn’t turn on some entirely other, apparently unconnected part of your body. You can almost see the anatomy chart with the affected area traced out in red, all connected. And this happens in life, in general, more often than you may expect, if you have enough mental stillness to recognize the connection. Change one little thing — how you respond to some habitual irritant, whether or not you challenge thoughts that come into your head, what you do first thing in the morning — and it may light up whole, apparently unrelated areas of your life. It’s our own life and our own bodies, and our own mind/body connections, and yet so much of what goes on is mysterious to us. It’s worth it to do some experiments and see what seemingly small adjustments you can make. You may have more control than you realize. 

Transitions don’t have to be graceful. A lot of yoga is about getting from one position into another, and the instructor makes it look easy, but I do not, because it is not easy for me. But why should it be? Transitions are the hardest state to be in. They are inherently unstable. It’s too much to ask of yourself that you should be changing from one thing to the other and also look good doing it. Just focus on getting there without getting hurt, and you’re doing well.

Shaking is normal and functional. The instructor I follow often says “you may feel shaking and quaking,” either when we’re in a difficult balance pose, or when we’ve held a pose for a long time and it’s starting to be a strain. Then she says, “This is good news. It means your muscles are doing their job.” It’s always a relief to hear this. The shaking and quaking is your muscles rapidly compensating for you almost falling over. It’s not actually a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of functionality. It’s your body catching you, over and over and over again. Sometimes that’s how staying up happens: By almost falling over, over and over and over again. 

Relatedly: Balance comes from strength. I used to associate things like compromise, composure, and moderation with weakness and a lack of passion. Sometimes that’s the case; but sometimes it’s much more about strength, and about having built up a whole set of little, interdependent muscles which work together to maintain balance. Sometimes part of that strength includes knowing that other people see you as unfeeling, but continuing on in what you think is best, because it’s how you can maintain balance in your life. That also comes from strength.

Sometimes you push, sometimes you pull, sometimes you just let gravity do the work. When we’re in a pose or in a stretch or release position, the instructor will give us various directions for how to get the results we want, based on what we’ve been doing, what kind of shape we’re in, and how it feels. She acknowledges that, for some people, simply sitting in a certain position is an achievement, and should be honored. But for some people, or on some days, you can add more pressure, and there are various ways of doing this. It’s not about getting into a certain position; it’s about what’s actually happening in your specific body. This in itself is a useful lesson, especially as I recover from covid, and things that were easy last month are very hard again. And I appreciate the reminder that, sometimes, if you want to feel a stretch, you don’t have to exert effort or pressure. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but wait, and circumstances will stretch you. (Catholics sometimes talk about working on accepting difficult circumstances they can’t change, rather than taking on new penances for Lent, but it’s a principle that can be applied anytime.) 

Flexibility comes in stages. I’m not very naturally flexible, in any way: physically, mentally, or otherwise. But I’m often more flexible than I realize, as long as I take it slowly — and I don’t just mean “over the course of months, with practice.” For instance, if I bow over my legs and breathe with that for a few breaths, then maybe I can creep forward a few inches, then breathe, then gain a little more ground, and so on. I’m more flexible than I think, as long as I don’t try to get there instantly. If there’s somewhere you need to get (or somewhere you need someone else to get!), you likely need to let yourself do it in increments, gradually, patiently, a few breaths at a time, with rest in between.

You can try again next time. The first time I tried crow position (standing on your head, with your knees balanced on the back of your arms), I couldn’t do it at all, and I was so upset and discouraged. But it kept turning up, and I kept trying it, and . . . I’m still pretty terrible at crow, but I’m much better at being okay with not being great at crow, which is a much more useful skill than standing on my head. There are very few things that we truly only get one shot at. There are many, many things that we can get better at if we accept that it will take time and practice and patience and a sense of humor to learn. 

Strength comes from endurance, persistence, and resistance, not violence. I used to think cardio was everything, and if I wanted to be strong and fit, I had to throw myself around and end up sweaty and exhausted, or it wouldn’t count. That never worked, but I kept trying. Well, I think I have built stronger muscles in six months of yoga than at any other time of my life. And I do sweat, but it’s been mostly a matter of carrying my own body weight, maintaining poses for longer than I want to, and pushing back against the ground and the wall in my own living room. Make of it what you will. 

Your legs will hold you. Frequently, when we’re in a difficult pose and want to get out of it, the instructor will reassure us that our legs will hold us. Raise your hand if you’ve had a rough year, and a rough other year before that. Yeah. More than once, I’ve had this phrase come into my head: Your legs will hold you. It acknowledges two things: That what I’m doing right now is hard; and that I am already strong. I can look down and see that, indeed, I have not fallen down. Sometimes just seeing that is enough to keep me going a little bit longer. 

***
I have tried several different yoga instructors, including the fabled Adriene, and I vastly prefer Julia Marie Lopez. I talk more about her approach here. I did her 30 Day Yoga For Weight Loss course twice, which is on Amazon Prime, then her Couch to Confident 14 Day Yoga Challenge, also on Prime, which hones some yoga skills, and smattering of a few other courses, and then, after  sampling several other free yoga instructors, I started paying the monthly fee to subscribe to Wellness Plus by Psychetruth so I could do her 30 Day Power Up! For Strength and Confidence. These are mostly longer classes, some almost an hour, and I was doing great until I got covid, boo. I’m slowly, shakily starting up again and taking lots of breaks. She’s a very good teacher. 

What’s for supper? Vol. 292: All the ingreediants you need

Happy Friday! It’s been a weird week and I’ve picked up a number of new readers. Welcome! I look forward to grievously disappointing you all.  

But not today. Today, and most Fridays, we just talk about food, and nobody in the history of the world has ever been disappointed by food. Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY
Buffalo chicken salad

Quick and tasty. Carton of salad greens, bag of shredded pepper jack cheese, some cherry tomatoes, some blue cheese crumbles, some of those crunchy fried onions that come in a tub, and buffalo chicken from frozen. Blue cheese dressing on top. All the speed of a frozen dinner, all the salad of a salad. 

Please enjoy the dead dog in the background. (He got better.)

SUNDAY
Ragù on fettuccine

Damien made an outrageously delicious ragù using the Deadspin recipe. It comes out different every time. He starts with ground pork and and beef and sometimes adds veal, but this time he bought a hunk of pancetta and ground that up with a meat grinder — a whole pound of it! — and whoa, it was amazing. If you think pasta must always have a tomato or cream sauce on it, you must try this recipe. 

It was . . . well, I’m not proud of this, but I just googled “what does pancetta taste like,” because I stayed up late watching The Mummy and can’t think of a word for what pancetta tastes like, besides “salty.” One of the results that turned up was “unctuous.” Literally, unctuous means “oily” (think “extreme unction” when a priest anoints someone with oils), which has been extended to mean an oily, ingratiating, flattering manner. I’m trying to think whether pancetta is in some way gastronomically ingratiating or just literally oily, and I have decided that The Mummy is one of the best movies ever made, especially if you are drinking margaritas. (See below)

Also, I don’t know if you do this, but Damien has two pasta tricks: He salts the hell out of the water he cooks the pasta in, which makes it much more flavorful; and he saves a bunch of the water out before he drains it, and then he adds that back into the drained pasta, to keep it from sticking. I always used to use oil for this purpose, but pasta water works much better. 

MONDAY
Vermonter sandwiches, strawberries

A very fine sandwich. I broiled some boneless, skinless chicken breasts with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and cut them into thick slices. Then plenty of honey mustard, and layers of bacon, thick slices of sharp cheddar cheese, and thick slices of granny smith apple. I usually make these sandwiches with ciabatta rolls or sourdough, but this time I used baguettes.

A VERY FINE SANDWICH INDEED. My only sadness was I couldn’t find the lemon juice, so the apple slices got a little brown before supper. Still good. 

TUESDAY
Tacos, tortilla chips and salsa

Taco Tuesday, nothing special. We just had jarred salsa, shredded cheese, and sour cream for the tacos.

I’m always amazed at how excited the kids are to have tacos if it’s Taco Tuesday. I would appreciate it if people could make up other exciting food days, when cheap and easy meals would be transformed into special treats just because of alliteration. I guess there’s Fish Friday, but somehow that never inspires cheers. I guess people just like tacos. 

WEDNESDAY
Korean beef bowl and rice

Old faithful. I used fresh ginger and fresh garlic, but you can totally squeak by with garlic powder and powdered ginger. Soy sauce, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, a little sesame oil but you can use whatever oil, and boom. This is a great dish to make ahead of time, and then you just need to cook some rice and dinner’s set. 

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Sometimes I transfer the beef to the slow cooker and make some rice in the Instant Pot and then, get this, I wipe down the stove top before dinner.

Would have been good with some scallions and sesame seeds on top, like in this picture from another week, but I forgot. (I also forgot to take a picture this week.)

Also would have been nice with a vegetable side — I like sesame broccoli for this meal — but whoever was in charge of shopping (me) did not buy any vegetables. 

Here’s the sesame broccoli recipe, anyway:

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THURSDAY
Chili verde, rice, plantain chips, margaritas

As we know, Cinqo de Mayo is Mexican for Thanksgiving. Or something. I don’t know, I was absent that day. All I know is it seemed like a good excuse to make chili verde, which I love doing. I love every step of the process.

First you char the peppers and tomatillos

and cover and cool them a bit, and then you pull the skins off (I decided to leave all the seeds in to keep it pretty spicy)

then you purée the peppers and tomatillos with onions, garlic, and cilantro

then you sear the pork (and you know how much I care about this dish because I took the trouble to cook the pork in five batches, so I didn’t crowd the pot for once in my damn life)

then you add the pork and the puréed vegetables to the pot and let it cook for the rest of the day. My goodness, the smell. 

I added a few cups of chicken broth at one point, and while I was out of the house, someone helped the pork collapse into lovely tender pieces.

I had my chili over rice and topped with more cilantro, plenty of sour cream, and a little squeeze of fresh lime juice, with plantain chips on the side.

Heaven help me, I would murder someone for this meal, I love it so. 

Later in the evening, Damien made a pitcher of margaritas

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which I forgot to take a picture of, but I had two, out of respect for Mexican Thanksgiving. Also people had been mean to me on Twitter all day, so. 

Oh wait, I did take a picture. A strange picture of our strange house, including a list of INGREEDIANTS for a delicious sammicth. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

Shoot, that reminds me, I have to make supper. Wish we still had some of those margaritas left. 

 

Korean Beef Bowl

A very quick and satisfying meal with lots of flavor and only a few ingredients. Serve over rice, with sesame seeds and chopped scallions on the top if you like. You can improve the flavor by using fresh garlic and fresh ginger, but powdered works fine, too. The proportions are flexible, and you can easily add more of any sauce ingredient at the end of cooking. 

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (or less if you're not crazy about sweetness)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tsp sesame oil (you can skip this, really, or use olive oil, but it adds flavor)
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger (or 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed (or 3/4 tsp garlic powder)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • scallions, chopped, for garnish
  • sesame seeds for garnish

Instructions

  1. Heat the sesame or other oil in a skillet. Lightly cook then garlic, then add the ground beef and cook, breaking into bits, until the meat is all browned. Drain most of the fat. 

  2. Mix together the brown sugar, ginger, soy sauce, and pepper flakes, and add to the ground beef. Or you can actually just chuck everything in the pan and stir it up right there. Cook a little longer until everything is combined and hot. 

  3. Serve over rice and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds. 

 

Sesame broccoli

Ingredients

  • broccoli spears
  • sesame seeds
  • sesame oil
  • soy sauce

Instructions

  1. Preheat broiler to high.

    Toss broccoli spears with sesame oil. 

    Spread in shallow pan. Drizzle with soy sauce and sprinkle with sesame seeds

    Broil for six minutes or longer, until broccoli is slightly charred. 

Spicy Chili Verde

You can decrease the heat by seeding the peppers, using fewer habañeros, or substituting some milder pepper. It does get less spicy as it cooks, so don't be alarmed if you make the salsa and it's overwhelming!

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs pork shoulder
  • salt and pepper
  • oil for cooking
  • 2 cups chicken broth or beer (optional)

For the salsa verde:

  • 4 Anaheim peppers
  • 2 habañero peppers
  • 4 jalapeño peppers
  • 4 medium onions
  • 12 tomatillos
  • 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
  • 1 bunch cilantro

For serving:

  • lime wedges
  • sour cream
  • additional cilantro for topping

Instructions

  1. Preheat the broiler.

  2. Pull the husks and stems off the tomatillos and rinse them. Cut the ends off all the peppers. Grease a large pan and put the tomatillos and peppers on it. Broil five minutes, turn, and broil five minutes more, until they are slightly charred.

  3. Take the pan out and cover the peppers and tomatillos with plastic wrap or tin foil for ten minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, pull the skins off the peppers and tomatillos. At this point, you can remove the seeds from the peppers to decrease the spiciness if you want.

  4. Put the skinned tomatillos and peppers in a food processor or blender with the onions, garlic, and cilantro. Purée.

  5. In a heavy pot, heat some oil. Salt and pepper the pork chunks and brown them in the oil. You will need to do it in shifts so the pork has enough room and browns rather than simmering.

  6. When all the meat is browned, put it all in the pot and add the puréed ingredients.

  7. Simmer at a low heat for at least three hours until the meat is tender. If you want thinner chili verde, you can add chicken broth or beer. At some point, if you don't want the pork in large chunks, press the meat with the back of a spoon to make it collapse into shreds.

  8. Spoon the chili verde into bowls, squeeze some lime juice over the top, and top with sour cream and fresh cilantro.

 

Damien's margaritas

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar for simple syrup
  • sugar for glasses
  • kosher salt or sea salt for glasses
  • white tequila (we like Lunazul Blanco)
  • triple sec
  • lime juice

Instructions

  1. First make the simple syrup, and allow time for it to cool.

    Combine the sugar with a cup of water in a small pot and simmer, stirring, until it is clear. Let cool. Damien puts it in a mason jar and refrigerates it.

  2. Prepare the glasses. Mix sea salt or kosher salt and sugar in a saucer and add a little lime juice to wet it. Rub a lime wedge along the edge of the glass and roll it in the salt and sugar mix.

  3. To make the margaritas, put some ice cubes in a cocktail shaker or mason jar. Add three parts tequila, two parts lime juice, one part Triple Sec, one part simple syrup. Shake until the lid gets cold. Pour the liquid into prepared glasses.

A beautiful morning here at St. Bambino

It’s a beautiful morning here at St. Bambino parish, folks.

Our celebrant, Fr. Shep, looks to be fresh and well-rested, the altar servers are limber and alert, we’re ready to begin another 9.30am Mass in a healthy and thriving parish that is absolute chock-a-block full of babies.

And they’re off! With an opening chord from the organ, Fr. Shep is proceeding down the aisle at a good pace and now he’s made it halfway, but the eighteen-month-old twins have already pulled ahead of him. It’s hard to see how anyone with such short legs could move this quickly, but they’re speeding toward the altar like they’ve been eating rocket fuel. Their mother must be so proud!

And yes, here’s she is now, and she’s looking a little red in the face, really pushing herself in her long skirt and mantilla, but not moving nearly as quickly as those little guys. She’s moved up from behind and has managed to edge around the procession and scoop up one of the boys and is lunging for the other but no! He’s made it to the Easter candle and is shaking it with both hands while screeching maniacally.

What an amazing spectacle. That thing is really wobbling, folks, it really looks like it’s going to fall over, but just in the nick of time, Fr. Shep has made it to the altar and he’s grabbed twin #2, pivoted halfway around, and returned him to his mother just as the entrance hymn came to an end. That was a really smooth maneuver; I don’t think the old ladies in the front row even noticed what was happening. Maybe no letters to the bishop this Sunday, eh, Father S.? Let’s hope not.

And now we’re moving through the Gloria. Always a popular time for babies of all vocal abilities to show their stuff, and today is no exception. Some of them are shouting, some of them are hooting, and that one kid with the one big eyebrow has jammed her head under the pew and discovered a really resonant spot for guttural growling. Man, that kid sounds like a wild animal! I wonder if Fr. Shep can hear — oh yes, he seems to be snickering into his missalette.

Now everyone is seated and the lector begins the first reading. Good thing it’s the lector with the booming voice, because Baby Unibrow has gotten her head unstuck and is now singing– yes, she appears to be singing ‘Poker Face’ and we’re getting a classic doppler effect as her dad hurriedly carries her down the aisle. It’s taking a while because these parents have made the classic rookie mistake of sitting way up front so the kids can watch what’s going on, which just means it takes longer to drag ’em out when they go out of their gourds, folks. When will they ever learn.

And I see the child has grabbed a sheaf of holy cards from the end of the pew before she was evicted, and she’s strewing them over her dad’s shoulder like confetti as she’s dragged away. Poker Face is right! That man should win an award.

Folks, the liturgy of the word has just about come to an end and we’re headed into the second half. The narthex and vestibule are absolutely bristling with extremely short Catholics and their slump-shouldered moms and dads, and I think I can make out –yes, that crunching sound definitely signifies that the twins have found the collection baskets, and have sat in them. What a spectacle. At least it’s not the holy water tank again.

Well, the sun is streaming through the stained glass windows here at St. Bambino, folks. It’s just streaming in, and it’s lighting up the tired faces of so many parents who are probably wondering why they even bother to show up, when they spend their whole Mass chasing their kids up and down the aisle, wrestling them out from under the pew, taking them to the bathroom and back, and pulling half-chewed collection envelopes out of the mouths. It’s a spectacle, it’s a sporting event, it’s a three-ring circus. It feels more like an ordeal than a time of worship and prayer, that’s what they say.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been doing this for forty seven years, and I’ll tell you one thing. Every single time a priest says Mass, I hear him say “This is my body, which will be given up for you,” and I know it’s Jesus talking, folks. But it’s all those parents, too. All those moms and dads — yes, especially the moms, but also the good dads — who gave up sleep and gave up sitting down and gave up peace and quiet, gave up doing what they liked and gave up looking how they liked, all for a stubby, wild little child who runs them ragged, and won’t even let them kneel and pray because they have to go potty, again, even though they just went potty.

It’s a beautiful sight, folks. It’s a beautiful sight and a beautiful noise, and every single time a baby comes to Mass, it’s a beautiful thing, a good thing, the best thing a parent can do for the Church. The Church needs them and they need the Church. Keep coming, folks. Keep coming.

Just . . . look out for the little guy, there, I think he found the matches.

 

**
**

Related:
They said my kids don’t belong at Mass. Now what?

So how DO you make kids behave at Mass? 

Is the Mass a private time with God?

What does it mean to be present at Mass?

**
Image: Christ Blessing the Children – by Lucas Cranach the Younger and Workshop Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

This essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on March 31, 2022.

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 291: C-O-V-D in the U.S.A.

You’ll notice there is no “I” in COVID. This is purely wishful thinking. Eight of the twelve of us got it this week, and two of them are waiting for test results right now. The spectacle of twelve people trying to carefully isolate from each other in a 1500-square foot home was downright three stoogic. (I know some families just bowed to their fate when one member got sick, but we had our reasons to try to contain it.) Anyway, nobody seems to be getting dangerously sick, and some of the kids barely feel sick at all. 

The sad part is, this was supposed to be spring vacation. Which was good, because nobody was missing school and we could all sleep in and not get too far behind. But also bad, because the most exciting thing we managed to do all week was watch The Aristocats.

But someone who shall remain nameless got us a cake:

And that has made all the difference. And Damien and I spent five days quarantined in a small bedroom together and we still like each other. 

I was the sickest on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and started to slowly recover on Sunday. At this point, I’m mainly just tired tired tired, and have a lingering cough, and this itchy rash won’t leave me alone, but all the other symptoms have cleared up. As you can imagine, we ate very simply this week, and I’m recording it mainly for posterity. I’m sorry about all the complaining. 

SATURDAY
Italian sandwiches, chips

Dora went to the store for us and Damien made sandwiches, but then he got symptoms and joined me in quarantine. 

I attempted to read to the kids remotely, but it quickly devolved into kitty cat and alien filters, which is exhausting even when you don’t have a virus trying to take over all your cells.

SUNDAY
Hot dogs, fries

On Sunday I put together a big Instacart order, took a big nap, and then sat in the yard with the little girls for a while, attempting to get birds to eat birdseed out of our hands,

and then took another nap. One of the kids made hot dogs and fries and brought us plates.

MONDAY
Roast beef sandwiches, pizza rolls

Through a series of increasingly unreasonable circumstances, Damien ended up masking up and cooking some steaks outside, and we had steak sandwiches with a side of pizza rolls. I ate outside partially for safety, partially so I wouldn’t murder anyone, which I guess is also a safety issue.

TUESDAY
Chicken burgers, hot pretzels, salad

I was released from quarantine and was able to do some extremely slow, cautious, shuffling errands out of the house, and then came home and took a nap. 

Benny made dinner Tuesday. Very proud of herself. 

WEDNESDAY
Pizza

Benny and Corrie packed a lunch and I masked up and took them on a short, chilly picnic by a pond,

where we were promptly swarmed with springtails,

and then it hailed. Did I mention this is their spring vacation? I did buy them some Silly Putty, so.

A kind soul PayPal’d us some cash and we ordered pizza for dinner. 

THURSDAY
Ravioli

The only other exciting thing that has happened this week is that I’ve been waging this slow motion battle for many months to get someone to figure out what is wrong with our heating ducts. We haven’t super duper had heat in our bedroom for quite some time now. It’s not hard to get someone to say they will come to your house, and occasionally they actually drive out and sort of gaze at it, but then the part where they do any kind of actual work is a whole other story. 
 
So on Thursday, suddenly the guy actually turns up! I couldn’t believe it! The dog basically turns inside out with joy, and banging noises come up through the floor vents for a while, and then he says he has FIGURED OUT WHAT THE PROBLEM IS.  There is a booster fan that is supposed to push the air from the main duct into the addition, and that fan is burnt out. That’s it! But he can’t fix it, because he’s a duct guy, not an HVAC guy. So I made a bunch more phone calls, in which I learned that ducts are . . . old fashioned, in some way? And people don’t really have them anymore? I am dangerously close to making jokes about how I guess people must just heat their homes with the CYBER these days, but we’ll skip that.
 
So I made a few more phone calls and eventually found myself on the line with an honest-to-goodness HVAC guy, who said he could definitely send a tech to pop a new fan in there, but it would take two trips, because they would have to come and find out what size everything is.
 
By this point, you can tell I was feeling quite a bit better. I was so very very tired of being in my room and being home and not getting anything done and having to say no to any kind of project, because it would just be too exhausting. So I said, “Well heck, I know right where the fan is. I’ll get some measurements and save you a trip. Hang on, I’ll text you some photos.”
 
Five minutes later, I’m down in the basement, and this is what I saw:
 
 
And you know what, it gave me COVID all over again. 
 
 
FRIDAY
French toast casserole
 
This is something I’m going to have to actually cook. I think I can do it. My poor kitchen is such a filthy wreck. The whole house is such a wreck. The yard is terrible. The garden is a wasteland. One good thing, I think of myself as such a lazy bum who never does any kind of cleaning or maintenance, but it turns out . . . I do. And you can really tell that I’ve been lying down for a week! 
 
Anyway, thanks for listening to my complaining. Here’s what my onions have been up to. 
 
 
 
So, happy spring, regardless! The daffodils I planted by the road have come up, too. A squirrel seems to have stolen my tulips, but the daffodils are there. 

Prayer makes things worse. Now what?

I had a baffling prayer experience several weeks ago. I have zero training and I’m not a spiritual director of any kind! I’m just offering this up as my experience, in case you’re facing something similar. Here is what happened when, for once, I wasn’t mad at God or feeling alienated or anything like that, and yet my prayer life was still a disaster.

For once, I had gotten a decent amount of sleep, I had a manageable amount of work ahead of me, and I had just dropped the kids off at school, and so, feeling fresher and more ambitious than I had in some time, I realized that the 20-minute drive home was the perfect time to say my morning prayers like a good Catholic for once in my life. So I launched in, starting with a morning offering and then working my way through a rosary, offering up a Hail Mary for each of my family members. Now what could be wrong with that?

What was wrong was that by the time I was done, I was a wreck. My heart was pounding, my breath was ragged and shallow, and my stomach was in painful knots. Every time I said a Hail Mary, I brought my intentions to the Blessed Mother, and that meant putting into words my worries and fears about everyone I loved. And I have a lot of worries and fears, lately. So putting all of it into words was like diving into a pit. I made a few feeble attempts to say, ” . . . and I offer all of this up to God!” but it was too late. By the time I got up to the final “amen,” my peace of mind was absolutely shattered, and it had come about through prayer, of all things.

This does not usually happen to me. Usually, prayer is the one way I have some shot at grounding my day and finding some peace; and usually, intercessory prayer is my main form of prayer that leads into all other kinds of prayer. I start with intercessory prayer because, yes, it helps me know I’ve done my job and brought other people to Jesus, but it also because it brings me to a place of peace where I can dwell on God’s goodness and mercy, and ask forgiveness for my share, and thank him for the gifts He has already given us, and I can make acts of hope and faith and all kinds of salutary virtues.

 

For me, for better or worse, all kinds of prayer naturally begins with intercessory prayer: Just telling God what I need, for myself and for other people, and asking Him for help, in simple conversation, like I’d talk to anyone. That’s always worked for me, or at least it hasn’t hurt. But not this time!

It was alarming, to say the least. It was like finding out that fruits and vegetables are actually poisoning you, or a good night’s sleep will make you weak and exhausted, or oxygen is damaging your lungs. If prayer was going to make me fall apart, now what was I supposed to do?

The first thing I did was to allow myself to take this problem seriously, and not just yell at myself to snap out of it. While it’s true that the purpose of prayer is not to elicit a specific emotional response, and you’re not guaranteed a sensation of peace when you pray, it’s also true that emotional distress is real distress, worth paying attention to. If prayer does elicit a powerful emotional response that’s harmful to you, you shouldn’t just ignore that. It’s worth taking seriously.

One way of taking it seriously is to simply to not do much intercessory prayer right now. There are lots of other kinds of prayer, and just because I’ve always done it a certain way doesn’t mean I always should. I can focus on prayer of adoration, I can meditate, I can pray the Psalms or the Liturgy of the Hours, and so on.

Another solution would be to simply mention the names of the people I want to pray for, or even just descriptors like “my family” or “my online friends” and make an act of childlike trust that God knows exactly who I mean and exactly what they need. This is probably actually a better approach than trying to direct the Holy Spirit to pay attention to exactly the issue that I think is most important. Less yackity-yacking, and more quiet resting in Jesus, cannot possibly be a bad thing.

Another approach is to stop, take a breath, and take a closer look at why I’m having such a strong emotional response to articulating the needs of everyone around me. Obviously it’s because I care about them, but it may also be a sign that (like so many people right now) I’ve reached some kind of breaking point.

Maybe I’m feeling guilt over how I’m responding to them, or feeling like I’ve caused some of these problems; maybe I’m just overwhelmed at how much need there is. Either way, this distress is a real kind of suffering, and it means I need healing, too. So I could present my shattered, anxious self to the Holy Spirit and ask for guidance and healing for myself, along with the people I’m praying for. Ask to meet Jesus right there, in the suffering of anxiety and vulnerability.

I do know that the answer cannot be to stop praying. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but this year I did decide that I was going to spend some time in prayer every single day, even if it was literally only for a few seconds.

Sometimes bad things happen when we pray, but we can learn from it. Nothing good can come from deciding not to pray. So that’s the one thing I’m not going to do. 

One more thing: What I experienced was relatively mild, manageable, easy to get over; and I was pretty sure that my problems had to do with how I was dealing with my own life, and not so much to do with my current relationship with God. But it gave me a little window into something I’ve heard about often enough, but maybe haven’t taken seriously enough: Christians who have such painful associations with being in church that the whole thing feels unendurable. I don’t mean the “boo hoo, I had to learn the definition of original sin and now I have religious trauma” crowd; I mean people who genuinely thirst for God but have been given gall over and over again in His name. I’m not in a pastoral position and it’s rarely my job to figure out how to directly help someone in this situation; but I do know that I can do my part not to create situations like this. If I’m going to be known as a Catholic, I am always, to some degree, speaking or acting on behalf of the Church. That’s just a fact. And it should make me careful how I speak and act. The person in the pew next to me may be just barely hanging on, so I can at very least refrain from shoving them further away.

Anyway, this is by no means the first time my prayer life has been bitter and unpleasant; but it’s probably the first time I’ve resolved to see it through anyway, rather than just quitting and running away. My prayer life has gotten much quieter and stiller, but at the same time more persistent, and that feels like a very good thing. It’s definitely what’s right for me right now.  I think many of us wildly overestimate how much we need to do and say in prayer, and wildly underestimate how much we need to just be there, be available, and be patient. 

 

***
Image: pxfuel.com

A version of this essay was originally published March 1, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

What’s for supper? Vol. 290: The secret ingredient is Manischewitz

WELL WE HAVE COVID. Pretty mad about it. Feels like the flu. Not pleasant, but nobody’s going to the hospital. Two of the other kids had it last week and another one has it now, plus me. Feeling very lucky we were able to cancel a bunch of stuff and lay low so we can just collapse like bunches of broccoli and ride this out. And feeling very glad for the vaccines, without which this would have certainly been a lot worse.

We did have some good meals this past week. Read on!

SATURDAY
Passover!

We had a great Passover. We had three guests and everyone worked together to put together a pretty seder table

and the food was great.
Gefilte fish, chopped liver

Jump to Recipe

chicken soup with matzoh balls

plenty of charoset

spinach pie bites

and I didn’t get pics, but cinnamon garlic chicken and roast lamb 

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–both very easy and tasty. 

And then we washed up real quick and went to the Easter Vigil! Did not get many pictures. Benny and Corrie wore matching yellow dresses with frilly shoulders, and Clara put their hair up in crown braids, and I put yellow flowers in their hair. I sure wish I had gotten pictures. 

Here’s my Facebook status from when we got home:

Before Mass, we ran to the basement to go to the bathroom and saw the pastor, wearing his vestment with the gold thread and the big red gems, coming out of a utility closet with an armload of toilet paper for the women’s bathroom. Mass was 2.5 hours. Lots of adult catechumens. Beautiful chant of the exultet. Candles. The creation story. Ludicrous music from the guitar choir, complete with bongo drums. Babies squalling. Baptism, bells, incense. That one couple that clings to each other the whole time like they’re on a lifeboat from the Titanic. And at the end, the pastor announced that that nice guy from youth group is entering the seminary. More bells. My feet are killing me. The Church is such a mess, but from here, it looks to be thriving.

SUNDAY
Easter!

Easter dinner is wonderful because we can get another crack at all the delicious Passover food, but I’m not stressed out and exhausted with the seder and Easter Vigil plans. A lovely plate, as you can see, with plenty of horseradish. 

MONDAY
Pizza

Monday I went shopping, and started packing up all the special Passover plates and fiddly little wine glasses and whatnot. Aldi pizza was called for. I took a chance on a bacon chicken ranch pizza, and it was fine.

TUESDAY
Taco Tuesday! 

Damien made tacos and they were delicious. 

WEDNESDAY
Leftover lamb, horseradish, maztoh, fresh mozzarella, chopped liver, string beans, roast beef, chimichurri

Seemed like the last day I could reasonably try to set out any Passover food, so I made a this-and-that dinner with plenty of roast beef and a big bowl of chimichurri. 

Chimichurri is fantastic. Spring in a bowl. I made it with Italian parsley and regular parsley, basil, dried oregano because I couldn’t find fresh, plenty of garlic, salt and pepper, red pepper flakes, and olive oil and wine vinegar. 

The roast beef turned out great, nice and rare and tender. Damien made it, and I asked him not to season it too heavily, because the chimichurri was pretty intense.

We also had fresh mozzarella, raw string beans, horseradish with beets (which just tastes like regular horseradish, but it’s a startling disco color), and matzoh. I briefly considered making bread, but just thinking about it made me tired, so I skipped it. (In retrospect, I was starting to get sick on Wednesday, but assumed I was just a bad person who fails to make bread for her family.)

And it was perfect. 

Perfect!

Before I went to bed, I marinated the big fatty pork picnic I bought so we could have Chinese pork roast the next day, and that was a good idea. 

THURSDAY
Char siu, rice, raw broccoli

So, so the marinade for char siu is very easy. You can add garlic or ginger if you want, but you can keep it super simple and just use these liquid ingredients and have it done in no time. 

Jump to Recipe

I looked up my recipe, and it just said “wine,” which is not helpful. Red wine, white wine, sweet, dry, rice wine, what?? Then it occurred to me that we had half a bottle of Manischewitz lurking on the counter, and I certainly wasn’t going to drink it. It’s heavy, sweet, and sticky purple, and I realized it would be perfect for this pork roast, which wants a nice glossy, glazy, dark red exterior. 

So the meat marinated about 14 hours, ant then I put it the oven at 11:30 — actually, I asked Damien to do it, because I was suddenly feeling an irresistible urge to go lie down. I had a nice argument with myself about whether I was just pretending to be sick and refusing to work because I’m terrible, but eventually I fell asleep, so that settled that. The meat cooked for five hours, and then for the last hour, you add the marinade back into the pan and baste it every ten minutes. It’s a pain in the neck but SO WORTH IT.

Look at my beautiful grisly glossy char siu with the Manischewitz marinade!

Look!

Look.

And it was so moist inside, and so tender it just absolutely collapsed. 

We used the basting marinade as additional sauce for the meat and rice. Just so good.  

Just about the whole family enjoyed this dish, which was very gratifying. 

Then I started getting unmistakably sick, and I retreated into the bedroom and that’s where I’ve been ever since, except for going out to get a COVID test.  So I guess I need to isolate until Monday. Damien’s been bringing me tea and vitamin C drops and taking care of everything. Please pray no one else gets sick! We now have four people isolating in our little house, and that really is the maximum amount of isolation we can physically manage before it becomes meaningless. 

FRIDAY
Hamburgers, fries

‘Tis meat Friday, because it’s within the octave of Easter. We did eat a lot of large hunks of meat this week, so we’ve got that going for us. 

Next week is vacation, which is kind of good because we can all safely be sick and not miss school, but kind of a bummer because there goes our vacation. OH WELL. Somehow we’ll manage. 

 

Chopped liver (chicken liver pâté)

A very rich, pungent, velvety pâté made with cheap and humble ingredients. Spread it on crackers with a little horseradish, or add it to your banh mi. It freezes very well (but takes a while to defrost, as it is dense).

Ingredients

  • 2 to 2-1/2 lbs chicken livers, rinsed and trimmed
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 onions
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • oil for frying the onion
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Put the livers, the raw eggs in their shells, and one onion into a pot with the chicken broth.

  2. Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered, for an hour. (This part looks very weird, but don't lose heart.) Drain off the broth and set aside the livers, onion, and eggs. When the eggs are cool enough to handle, peel them.

  3. Chop the other two onions. Set one aside and fry the other one in oil until crisp.

  4. Using a meat grinder or a food processor, grind up the livers, the boiled eggs, the boiled onion, the fried onion, and the raw onion.

  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and chill. It should be moist and spreadable. If it's too dry and crumbly, add a small amount of oil.

 

Tom Nichols' Grandmother's Leg of Lamb

Ingredients

  • boneless leg of lamb
  • olive oil
  • garlic powder
  • garlic salt
  • oregano

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 325.

  2. Slash the meat several times, about an inch deep.

  3. Fill the cuts with plenty of garlic powder.

  4. Slather olive oil all over the meat.

  5. Crust it with garlic salt. Sprinkle with all the oregano you own.

  6. Cover meat loosely with tinfoil and cook three hours. Uncover and cook for another 30 minutes.

 

Chimichurri

Dipping sauce, marinade, you name it

Ingredients

  • 2 cups curly parsley
  • 1 cup Italian parsley
  • 1/4 cup dried oregano (or fresh if you have it)
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 cup olive oil

Instructions

  1. Put all ingredients except olive oil in food processor. Whir until it's blended but a little chunky. 

  2. Slowly pour olive oil in while continuing to blend. 

 

Chinese pork roast

Marinate the meat overnight, and leave six hours for cooking. Serve over rice

Ingredients

  • 10 lbs pork
  • 3/4 cup soy sauce
  • 3/4 cup hoisin sauce
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup sweet red wine
  • 1 Tbsp Chinese five spice

Instructions

  1. Mix the marinade ingredients together and marinate the meat overnight.

  2. Drain the marinade and put the meat on a pan with a lip. Cook at 300 for five hours. Cover with tinfoil if the meat is cooking too quickly.

  3. After five hours of cooking, pour the reserved marinade over the meat. Every ten minutes for an additional hour, baste the meat.

  4. Let the roast rest for ten minutes before carving.

 

 

Final quick Lent Film Party Movie Reviews! THE SECRET OF KELLS, I PREFER HEAVEN, and THE MIRACLE MAKER

Man, I really dropped the ball with movie reviews this year. Sorry about that! We did end up watching a few more movies, but not as many as I hoped. Here’s some quick reviews:

The Secret of Kells

It was such a beautiful, such an interesting movie, just visually ravishing.

but I came away unsatisfied. The kids didn’t start the movie knowing that the actual Book of Kells is the Gospels, and they didn’t know it by the end, either. Which is weird! It’s weird to have a whole movie about a powerful book, but never mention what the book is about. It’s okay for a movie not to teach religious things, but the whole lynchpin of the story is that the book, and what preserving it represents, is what chases out evil and darkness. They explicitly say so. And yet they never tell you what kind of book it is. That is a major flaw in the story. There’s also some suggestion that art itself, or the creative process itself, or possibly just uncurtailed creativity, is what conquers evil. But they simply don’t develop this idea. 

I wanted to like the movie, and the images in it were very powerful. But I don’t know what it was about; and for a film that’s absolutely drenched in portent, that’s a problem. Normally I’m not a fan of voice overs, but in this case, I would be in favor of someone recording a simple explainer to tie together all the themes that someone apparently thought were speaking for themselves.  Anyway, I’d like to watch it again, because I’m sure I’m not catching everything, but I was disappointed in how glib it was. 

Audience suitability: Kids ages 7 and up watched it at our house. It’s not gory or anything, but it’s fairly intense, with lots of scenes of violence and war, as well as scary, threatening magical creatures. So not suitable for sensitive kids. (I found the portrayal of war upsetting, myself.) It does portray supernatural powers and creatures as factual, but that’s part of the plot: It’s the struggle between the old pagan world and the new Christian order. So we talked to the kids about how that actually happened (if not exactly as portrayed); and we also talked about how, exactly, Christianity brought light into the darkness. I just wish this movie had demanded a little more of itself.

***

St. Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven

It’s a long ‘un, and we have only watched the first part, right up until some prostitutes show up and one of our kids asked what a prostitute was and my husband said he would tell her tomorrow, and then he claimed that he said “we” meaning the royal we, meaning me. And then some of the kids went on a class trip to DC, and left their fanny pack of insulin in the Botanical Gardens, and everybody’s alive, but somehow and we haven’t gotten around to watching the rest of the movie yet.

That being said, this is one of the most winsome, appealing, entertaining portrayals of a saint I have ever seen. Also some of the best child actors I have seen in a long time. 

There aren’t many clips available online. Here’s the end of the scene where he has to get the kids together to try to impress the pope, so he’ll be allowed to have his oratorio. 

This is one of the hokier scenes of the movie, but in context, it was also deeply sweet and moving, and they pulled it off, slow motion and all. The way he so humbly and strenuously appeals to the crucifix on his wall, clearly fully expecting to get some response, was really striking. I don’t know anything else about Philip Neri, so I don’t know how accurate the movie is, but the character is a wonderful portrayal of holiness, which is saying something. The actor did a great job of portraying a man with a specific personality, including flaws and bad habits, but also a holy self-forgetfulness, single-mindedness, and joy that really rang true. He also had the most blindingly white chompers I’ve seen in ages. 

It is in Italian with English subtitles. They are pretty easy to read, and the dialogue is not terribly complicated, so everyone got into the swing of it pretty quickly. The story moves along briskly and it has lots of funny parts and plenty of bathos. It’s not a sophisticated movie, but it avoids gooey sentimentality by letting the characters act like real people, even if the situations they are in are painted in pretty broad strokes. 

I also enjoyed seeing the costumes and hairstyles and food of Renaissance Italy (a real breath of fresh air while folks are learning history through, augh, Bridgerton). The whole family enjoyed it, which almost never happens. We streamed it through the Formed app. 

***

The Miracle Maker

A stop motion animation movie from 1999. Kind of a strange movie. 

I don’t disagree with anything Steve Greydanus wrote in his review of this movie, which he recommends every year. They did several tricky scenes extremely well; they used various kinds of animation to great effect; they were very clever in how they framed the whole thing, making Jairus’ daughter a full character who actually knew Jesus and spent time with him. And they more or less pulled off showing Jesus as someone with supernatural power and also as a magnetic man you would want to be friends with. That’s a lot!

But I’ve seen this movie three or four times, and I always find it mildly off-putting. Part of it is that Ralph Fiennes sounds so unlike Jesus to me. It’s partly just the timbre of his voice; but it’s also his delivery. Anyone would have a hard time figuring out how to deliver the mega-familiar lines from the Gospel, but he largely decides to go full Charlton Heston, all sweat and megaphone. Yes, the material is dramatic, but the constant sturm und drang approach just washed over me and didn’t leave a mark. As someone who’s heard those words a thousand times, a more subtle and thoughtful reading might have caught my attention. 

But at the same time, if I were completely unfamiliar with the life of Jesus and the basic tenets of Christianity, and someone showed me this movie as an introduction, I would come away thinking it was an incoherent mess. It’s very episodic (which, admittedly, the Gospels also are; but if I were making a 90-minute movie, I’d keep the themes and structure very tight, and they did not), and Jesus doesn’t appear to be following any discernible plan, but just sort of chasing his moods. He comes across as a little bit nuts, honestly. The writers lean too much on the viewer to connect the dots and make sense of who Jesus is and what he’s trying to achieve. It should have been six hours long, or else they should have been much stricter about what belonged in the movie. It’s hard to say why they chose specific scenes and left others out. 

I also struggled with the faces of many of the characters who were supposed to be appealing. Jesus himself was mostly good to look at, so that was a relief; but the child Tamar and several others were goblin-like and unpleasant to watch. 

But, the rest of the family liked it. I did like many scenes, and the crucifixion sequence was very affecting. My favorite scene is the miraculous catch of fish, which shows Jesus laughing as they struggle to drag all the fish into the boat, which I guess he would have done! 

I think it’s a good thing to see lots and lots of different portrayals of Christ, so that the ones that ring true for you get lodged in your head, rather than just the one someone happened to show you that one time you saw a Jesus movie. So this is a more than decent choice for one among many. 

***

And I guess that’s all we’re going to manage this year! We want to finish I Prefer Heaven, definitely.

Here are my previous Lent movie reviews from this year:

The Jeweler’s Shop

Fiddler on the Roof and The Scarlet and the Black

Ready or not, here comes Easter!