Even if you’re overall a friendly, open person, and even if there’s no one you’re openly warring with or frostily snubbing, there are people whose name makes a shadow cross over your sky. Whether it’s their fault or yours – or, most likely, some combination of the two – these are people with whom you are not at peace. When they are around, your peace is disturbed. You know who I mean.
Ash Wednesday is just a week a way! Valentine’s Day is just a week a way! WHAT TO DO?
Our long-suffering American bishops felt compelled to clarify that Ash Wednesday does, in fact, Trump Valentine’s Day, even if overpriced teddy bears are a very important part of your spirituality. So you push up V-day to Tuesday, or to the weekend before. Easy peasy, shift your squeezy.
Or, you combine them. YASS. Both/and; so Catholic. Here are a few ideas for how to combine romance and suffering, sweetness and pain.
GIFTS OF FINEST CAROB Remember carob? It looks like chocolate that’s been sitting in a dusty corner for a while, and it tastes like a chocolately dusty corner. Fasting just got that much easier! Give your significant other a satiny, heart-shaped box packed with an assortment of carob truffles, and you will be transmitting a powerful Lenten message: we must not be seduced by the passing allure of temporal things, for the sweetness of this world is but a ackkkk, blech, ptui, what is this?
QUEEN VICTORIA’S SECRET We’re required to abstain from meat, but other kinds of abstinence? Not obligatory. On the other hand, you don’t want to start your Lent too carnal-like. So try this easy trick: pick out something satiny or lacy, but at least four sizes too large. As the lucky lady opens the box, you can wiggle your eyebrows suggestively while explaining, “You really put the “gras” in Mardi Gras this year, Marty!” (This works better if your wife’s name is Marty.) I guarantee you, no sins of fleshly excess will threaten your evening. Unless you count “stabbing” as a sin of fleshly excess.
SEASONALLY APPROPRIATE FLOWERS Take a leaf from liturgical decorators around the country: go out back where the dumpsters are, pull up some dead grass, and add a few twiggy things and maybe a really scuzzy looking cattail. Stick it in a pot, preferably one that looks like grandma got into the clay again. Voila — Lent flowers! In a similar vein, if you know your wife or girlfriend was hoping for perfume, you can substitute sand, because sand is symbolic and whatnot.
HEIRLOOM JEWELRY Any unimaginative bozo can stumble into Zales and pick out a diamond this or a ruby that. What you want is something that is not only decorative, but also saturated in spiritual significance. So go ahead and rummage through the lost and found box on the radiator at the back of the church. Maybe you’ll find a nice, broken-in scapular, already “seasoned” with the holy emanations of countless fervent necks. Or maybe you’ll really luck out and find a miraculous medal that’s so well-prayed-on, it’s gone full manatee. Jackpot!
A LOVE LETTER TELLING YOUR BELOVED HOW YOU REALLY FEEL. . . about the state of his or her soul. True love doesn’t sit by and let other people wallow in sin. Consider a hand-penned, calligraphic examination of his or her conscience. Or you might assemble a “dream team” of hand-selected patron saints which you will be assigning to the cause of your beloved’s salvation (St. Drogo, St. Fiacre and, of course, St. Jude spring to mind). Or simply borrow some lyric lines from scripture. I suggest Jeremiah. There are also some really exquisite passages in Hosea.
Good luck, hot stuff. You’re gonna need it.
On Saturday, we went to confession. Mine was a pretty standard operation: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last confession. I did that thing I always do, and that other thing I always do. I also did that other thing I always do, except more so than usual. And I stopped doing that thing I usually do, but then I started again. And I was mean on the internet. For these and all my sins, I am truly sorry.”
And the priest said what this particular priest always says: “Thank you for that beautiful confession.” He says this when I have a long and sordid list, or a short and sordid list, or when he can barely understand me because my nose is running from the sordidness of it all. The point is, I am not aware of ever having made a confession that any normal human being would consider “beautiful.”
But the confessional is not a normal place. It’s the one place that no one would ever go for normal, worldly reasons. No penitent goes to confession to get ahead in life, or to make money, or to get a full belly, or to impress anyone; and no priest goes to confession to be amused or entertained. It’s where we go to unload our miseries, to show our wounds and our infections, to take off the disguises that make us appear palatable to each other.
So, not beautiful. No, not especially.
Or is it? If the ugliness, the squalor, the sordidness, and the running nose were all that happened inside a confessional, then it really would be an ugly place — just a latrine, a ditch, a sewer. But of course, the part where we lay out our sins is only the first part.
What happens afterward is more obviously beautiful. The priest reaches out and picks up the ugly little load you’ve laid in front of him. And right then and there, he pours the living water over it until the parts that are worth saving are healthy and whole again, and the parts that cannot be salvaged have been washed away entirely. What is useless is gone; what was dead is alive again.
This is beautiful!
And the beauty of absolution does one of those neat Catholic tricks where eternal things reach back in time and impart beauty wherever they want, regardless of chronology. The beauty of absolution makes the confession itself beautiful. Even though my sins are ugly, the very fact that I’m bringing them into the confessional has something beautiful in it: the beauty of trust that I will be forgiven; the beauty of believing that something real and life-changing will happen; the beauty of being willing to accept forgiveness even though I know that I don’t deserve it; and the beauty of knowing that, whoever’s turn it is to sit behind the screen, it is really Christ who is waiting to meet me.
If that isn’t beautiful, then nothing is.
This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2014.
Maybe you’re wondering what is the big deal about the Instant Pot. Is it really so great? Why does everyone go so cuckoo over it? Should I be worried that my spouse has bought a pair of spotless doves and is sharpening a knife?
And why does Simcha insist on making these embarrassingly chimpy images with very primitive software and a crying toddler on her lap?
I have the answer. To the first question, not the second.
It’s because of risotto.
Risotto, risotto, risotto. I love risotto with my whole heart, but it is a pain in the neck to make. Hovering over the pan, stirring, adding in a little broth, stirring, waiting, simmering, waiting, stirring, adding some more broth, stirring, waiting, and it smells divine, but your entire life is passing you by while you wait for it to be done.
In the Instant Pot, it’s easy. Truly easy, and fast. And it tastes just as good as the difficult kind. This, in itself, is a reason to own an Instant Pot. All the other stuff is bonus. Now you know!
Here is the obligatory reminder that all my links to Amazon products are Amazon Associates links, and I get a small percentage of every purchase made using my links. Amazon is restructuring its pay scale soon, to the detriment of people who mostly plug books and toys; so I would be very, very grateful if you could bookmark my link and use it any time you shop on Amazon!
I’m gonna come right out and tell you: we rely on Amazon for our car payments. My husband has a 1.3-hour commute, and absolutely needs a reliable car. So! Please use my links, so my husband doesn’t have to drive to work in the Instant Pot. It’s good, but it’s not that good.
And now, back to risotto.
Last Friday, we had tuna fish patties and butternut squash risotto. I used this butternut squash risotto recipe from Good Housekeeping. I used onions instead of shallots, ground sage instead of fresh, and regular old white rice instead of arborio. It was fabulous. Creamy but not mushy and packed with flavor. Amazing.
I spent a good half hour wandering around the house, taking people by the shoulders, holding them with my glittering eye and quothing at them, “Do you even realize the possibilities?” Risotto with fresh tomatoes. Risotto with bacon. Risotto with scallops or garlicky shrimp. Risotto with asparagus and gorgonzola. Risotto with lemon, mint, and peas. Risotto with hazelnuts. Risotto with saffron and fennel. I don’t even know what fennel is! But I will!
The other reason for having an Instant Pot is because venting the steam is fun. Some days, it is the most fun you will have all day.
Cousins over again. They responded very positively, with shrieking, to the idea of hamburgers and chips. So let it be written; so let it be done. I had planned sweet peppers and hummus, but there were just too many runny noses and double dippers in the population, so, in the interest of good health, we skipped the veg.
Chicken cutlets with basil; mushroom risotto; salad
Farewell to cousins and hello to my parents. Here is my niece with one of her favorite playthings: My father’s beard.
Damien made one of his absolute most magnificent dishes, the late lamented Deadspin’s chicken cutlets. You pound the chicken flat, bread it (Damien used panko crumbs), fry it (Damien used olive oil and butter), then top it with a fresh basil leaf and a slice of cheese (Damien used mozzarella, but provolone is great, too), and ladle some homemade tomato sauce over that.
This meal makes me go absolutely insane. It’s so good, you can’t imagine. As I ate it, I thought of starving people in the third world and then thought, “TOO BAD.” With these chicken cutlets, you could — dare I say it? Rule the world.
Also, I had some mushroom left over from last week, when I accidentally didn’t make soup. So I went with this mushroom risotto recipe from This Old Gal. This Old Gal discourages using plain old regular mushrooms, but I did it anyway, and it was good. I didn’t have fennel or parsley, so I went with sage again, and really peppered it up. Completely delicious.
Leftovers with spaghetti
Damien had made 38 chicken cutlets, so we put the leftovers in a pan, spread the rest of the sauce over it, added a layer of sliced cheese, and warmed it up in the oven, then served it on spaghetti.
There was no leftover risotto because I devoured it for lunch.
I feel like there was salad.
Korean beef bowl; rice; steambed broccoli and cauliflower
I just noticed that I wrote “steambed” instead of “steamed,” but I think the “b” expresses how lightly I didn’t steam them.
Have you tried Korean beef bowl yet? You won’t regret it.
It’s so easy, and it’s just spicy enough to be warming and comforting, without assailing your mouth. Wonderful use for ground beef. Also a wonderful use for immortal zombie scallions, if you happen to have any haunting your kitchen.
I used, you’ll never guess, the Instant Pot for the rice. This really is easier than stovetop rice. It comes out slightly sticky, which we like, and you just put in water, rinse the rice and dump it in, and then press a button and walk away.
Oh, I thought of another advantage for the Instant Pot. InstantPot.com has plenty of useful, simple recipes, like the rice one above. It also has a slew of completely bonkers recipes that were apparently written by a malicious robot who flunked out of ESL. Here is one of my current favorites: Beer Potato Fish!
“The Beer Potato Fish would be a challenge for a non-professional cooker,” it muses, shaking its head in empathy for the old, dark days so tragically rife with amateurish attempts at beer potato fish, “But it is now a different story with Instant Pot Programmable Pressure Cooker.”
It calls for a pound of fish, some oyster flavored sauce, a cup of beer, and a tablespoon of rock candy. Doesn’t that sound tasty? It also instructs you to push the fish button, which does not exist. I suppose someone is making money off this in some way, and I kind of feel like they deserve it.
Oven-roasted pork ribs; mashed potatoes; mixed veg
The Instant Pot had acquitted itself so well this week, I thought maybe I’d try one of the many, many pork rib recipes that are available. But then I remembered that I could also sit on the couch and tell my son how to some pork ribs in a 450 oven on a roasting rack with a little salt and pepper, and I knew they would be scrumptious. And so I did, and so they were.
If there’s a better way to prepare pork ribs, I just don’t care.
I also considered making Instant Pot mashed potatoes, but the recipes all looked more complicated than stovetop recipes. So I just went ahead and boiled them in a non-instant pot and mashed them. I left the skin on, which I almost never do. To me, this adds excitement and piquancy. To others, it’s like hanging around with that weirdo who keeps on harping on the idea that, in many regions, apple cores, corn cobs, and chicken bones are considered a delicacy.
The vegetables were that good old supermarket blend of frozen peas, carrots, corn, string beans, and lima beans. This makes me feel six years old, in a good way.
English muffin pizzas
Since our bishop has given us a St. Patrick’s Day dispensation to eat meat on Friday, we did our meatless meal on Thursday. Except I forgot, and had leftover Korean beef bowl for lunch. For my penance, I had massive heartburn all night, and dreamt I was endlessly editing and re-editing a blog post about best and worst dresses of the Oscars; only I had to do it on taped-together paper with sidewalk chalk and then take photos of it with a Kodak disc film camera.
So, I am all caught up on Lent.
Corned beef boiled dinner; Dublin coddle
So, St. Patrick is, like, the second-tier patron of our regional arch-diacistry, or something; and my husband is tremendously Irish, so we prayerfully discerned that have no choice but to eat three different kinds of meat today.
The kids love boiled dinner, so I’ll be cooking up some corned beef with red potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and adorable little onions, and serving it with gobs of mustard, as St. Patrick himself did. It’s how he drove the snakes away.
We’re also trying a new dish, Dublin coddle (recipe from Southeast Missourian, for some reason) which is a nice little thing with bacon, sausage, sweet and russet potatoes, herbs, carrots and apples. No argument from me. The two other recipes on this page actually sound way better. Maybe when I win the lottery.
Nobody likes soda bread, because it is terrible. Last year, I looked up authentic irish desserts, and quickly discovered why people usually just go with, like, brownies with green frosting.
If God is so great, eternal and omnipotent and omniscient and all, why the heck does He care about a few ounces of processed animal protein? What difference could it possibly make? What kind of infinite deity even notices stuff like that? And how in the world can you say that God is love if He cares about hot dogs?
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Okay, I think that’s all the blog business, except a reminder that the weekly podcast went out last night. It’s password protected for subscribers only. To subscribe, pledge $1 a more through Patreon. I know, I know, it’s kind of involved, but once you get it set up, it’s easy peasy. I do the podcast with my husband, and it’s fun and stupid and drinky, and often has sound effects, offensive jokes, and poetry, all for less than 25 cents a week. WHAT A DEAL.
Now for the food.
This week’s food post has no food photos.
Holy reason: It’s Lent, and tempting images of food would not be in keeping with the spirit of the liturgical season.
Real reason: Can’t find my iPad. Instead, please enjoy this photo of Dan Brown being allowed to be in front of a microphone that is turned on. That should be suitably penitential.
And we’re off!
Sliced ham, fried eggs, raw peppers
Because Jesus is coming, ham is on sale, so I bought a big ‘un. Here is my genius idea: You slice it up first, early in the day, and put it in a pan with a little water and cover it with tinfoil. Then you can throw it in the oven and heat it up quickly before dinner. I fried up a few dozen eggs and sliced up about a bushel of red, yellow, orange, and green peppers.
We still had my nephew and three nieces on Saturday, and this dinner was a big hit with all the kids. Very bright and pretty.
I rate this meal zero Dan Browns, because it was easy, cheap, and well-received. Not penitential at all.
Bò Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew), French bread and butter
The big disappointment of the week. On the penitential food scale, it rates a full three Dan Browns, which is not good.
This Instant Pot recipe from Nom Nom Paleo calls for all kinds of thrilling ingredients. Lemongrass! Curry powder! Fresh ginger! Star Anise! Fish sauce! I followed the directions pretty closely for once, and it smelled wonderful. But the taste was harsh and metallic, yet boring. I just didn’t like it at all. It was like regular old ‘Murkin beef stew, except angrier. What a waste of meat. I felt overwhelming Fleischenttäuschung.
Happily, we also celebrated Corrie’s birthday on Sunday. We had chocolate cake (box mix) and cream cheese frosting using this recipe, except I used about half the sugar they called for. I made a heart-shaped cake, frosted it yellow, and pushed fancy jelly beans into the frosting all around the edge. Then we remembered a pack of little candy hatchets with blood on the blades that I got on clearance after Halloween. They seemed about right for Mama’s widdle axe murderer, so we stuck those in, too.
Suddenly becoming the other kind of two-year-old, she ran away and hid in her crib when we brought the cake out. You guys. It is so hard being two.
Hot dogs, baked beans
Nothing to report, nothing to regret. No Dan Browns, because we like hot dogs.
Carnitas with guacamole and chips; hot fudge and butterscotch ice cream sundaes
Taco Tuesday was, of course, Fat Tuesday or Carnevale, which literally means “farewell to meat,” so I thought carnitas make a good send-off. And they were good. I’ve made pork carnitas a few times, but it somehow escaped me until now that you are supposed to fry the meat after slow cooking it; and then you douse it with its own oniony gravy while you fry it. So carnal.
This meal gets half a Dan Brown, only because the salsa turned out to have fermented, and not in the good way.
Sorry you got the half with most of his chin in it.
I used this Instant Pot carnitas recipe from Paint the Kitchen Red. This is a good site if you’re new to the Instant Pot. It really walks you through each step, with copious photos of the Instant Pot buttons and screen, and it warns you how long everything will take. Tasty meat, too.
Now I’m really suffering. I took such gorgeous pictures of that guacamole. There is no more attractive kitchen rubble than guacamole rubble, n’est pas? The shining avocado pits, the papery garlic skins, the feathery cilantro, the gleaming limes. OH WELL. I hope all the souls in purgatory appreciate what I’m going through.
Spaghetti, bread and butter, salad
Spaghetti from a box with sauce from a jar with bread from a bag and salad from a pouch never tasted so good. No D.B. at all.
Broiled chicken breast, salad with croutons, pinkaroni salad
I made a marinade of olive oil, lime juice, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and basil. Not terribly coherent, but it tasted okay. You let it marinate for a couple of hours and then slide it under the broiler, turning once. Slice it up and serve it over salad for a Meal of Great Virtue.
I used up the old hamburger buns for croutons. These are so good if you don’t burn them, which I did. Cube the bread, drizzle it with melted butter or olive oil, and then toss them with whatever seasonings you like. I just grabbed some adobo powder, which was fine, if a bit too salty. Then you put them in a shallow pan in a 300-degree oven for forty minutes or so, stirring them up occasionally, until they are toasted all the way through. You can make a ton at a time and store them in an airtight container for a long time. Or, you can just burn them and then eat them all up.
There wasn’t as much green salad as I thought, so I made some macaroni salad, more or less following this recipe. But instead of peppers, I used chopped beets, which turned the mayonnaise dressing pink, which delighted the kids. Two Dan Browns for the burnt croutons and some expired Thousand Island dressing.
Fish sticks, chips, broccoli(?)
If you find my iPad, please tell me. Thanks.
Beep beep. I am here to tell you that, sometime after that seventh time (or maybe after the seventy-times-seventh time) a light bulb will click on in that dopey son’s head. After being rescued without comment one more time after time after time after time, that son is very likely to decide on his own that this is no way to live, and he’d rather face the jeers and yucks of his stupid friends than the quiet patience of his father one more time.
Not because he’s scared of his father, but because he’s not. Not because his father is mad at him, but because his father loves him, and it finally feels like it’s time to live up to that love.
What a shame that Ash Wednesday comes but once a year. For many of us, that’s the only opportunity we have to experience what many people consider the lyrical poet Thomas Conry’s masterwork. Let’s take a closer look.
The first lines are something of a ruse, are they not? Listen:
We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
We are lulled by the conventional rhyme scheme, ABABABB, into expecting that the theme will be conventional, as well. The speaker cannily completes the rhyme by using the same word, “ashes,” three times, as if to signal, “Nothing new here, no particular reason to pay attention.” Even the finial sounds of the words, “ashes,” “do,” “ashes,” “anew,” and once again “ashes,” followed by “true” and “you” — do you hear it? the “sh” followed by “oo” . . . it almost sounds like the soft, untroubled breath of a sleeper. “Shh . . .ooo.” Our narrator appears almost to be snoring, does he not? He is deliberately lulling us to sleep.
But a surprise awaits us in the second stanza.
We offer you our failures,
we offer you attempts,
the gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
Gone are the soft sibilants of the previous lines, and instead, we are confronted with deliberately jarring plosives (/b/ /p/ /t/ /d/) in “Gifts not fully given, / … dreams not fully dreamt.” Not fully, indeed. The very percussive violence of the sound is a statement: the speaker has awoken, and he is in distress, perhaps stuttering and spluttering like a confused patient who was supposed to be etherised upon a table, but they ran out of ether. “Give our stumblings direction,” he haltingly pleads – but then subsides again into the inarticulate vagueness, perhaps experiencing a swollen tongue: “give our visions wider view,” he mouths with a wagging jaw, in an achingly poignant parody of the semi-conscious man struggling to make sense of a world where significance seems always to be verging on the horizon.
Notice that in this second stanza, the rhyme scheme has subtly shifted from the pedestrian ABABABB to the chaotic and freewheeling ABCBDEE. This indicates that the speaker is confused.
The third stanza seems to find the speaker in a contemplative mood, lapsing again into what appears, at first, to be conventional, even clichéd imagery: rising from ashes, sunshine turning to rain, and so on:
Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain,
though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
But what are we to make of those troublesome conjunctions “then” and “though”? They can’t merely be metric placeholders, can they, with no intrinsic significance? Don’t you believe it. Every syllable in this concise little jewel of a work is freighted with meaning. Some of the meaning is so subtle, it would wither under the strong light of scrutiny, much like a seedling which is brought to light in the springtime which, in an unprecedented meteorological event possible only in poetry, turns to winter, and then is sunny, and then rainy, and then becomes ashes, or possibly used to be ashes. Delicate seedlings just can’t take that kind of abuse; and so it is with conjunctions in the hands of the poet Conry. Exquisite.
And now the tour de force: the final stanza. Here we discover at last the full blown expression of the hints and murmuring suggestions sprinkled like so many ashes throughout the rest of the poem. The speaker proclaims in triumph:
Thanks be to the Father,
who made us like himself.
Thanks be to his Son,
who saved us by his death.
Thanks be to the Spirit
who creates the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
Do you see? Do you see? It was the ashes all along. Ashes!
Next thing he knew, he was lying in a pool of his own blood, and in his ear was the voice of his beloved wife, softly whispering, “How do you reload this damn thing?”