Tuesday, October 28, 2008

running scared

We took Ella walking in the middle of the night last night, so I didn’t get my daily dose of Jon Stewart, so, when I got home tonight, Ginger and I watched last night’s episode of The Daily Show, which included this report from John Oliver at both McCain and Obama campaign rallies.

The clip made me laugh (“Oh, that was an unfortunate time for a slip-up.”) and it made me sad; sad, because Oliver is right that our biggest commonality as Americans appears to be our fear and we appear to be mostly frightened of each other.

I don’t know what to do with that. So I guess I have to say it got me riled up a bit as well.

2 Timothy 2:7, as I learned it years ago from the King James, says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That doesn’t sound like much of anyone I hear talking about this election, Christian or otherwise. We seem to be running scared to the polls, afraid of what the other side is going to do to America.

The problem is we seldom make good choices when we’re scared, election year or not.

It’s news to no one, unless you’re here for the first time, that I’m going to vote for Barack Obama. But I’m not voting for him because I’m scared of John McCain or Sarah Palin. I disagree with them on many things, I don’t see them as the best choice we have this time around, but I’m not scared of them or of what they might do. Things are going to change, regardless of who wins. The government is going to do some things I like and some things I don’t regardless of who wins. America is going to have to cope with its changing place in the world regardless of who wins. But America is not who gives us a spirit of power and of love and of a sound mind. To allow fear to control our votes is not to vote for, but against. We rarely say, “Yes” out of fear; we say, “No,” hoping it will keep us safe.

When we go vote, may we do so with a spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. May we be mindful that those who are voting differently are not enemies to be feared, but fellow citizens to be regarded, regardless of how they choose to see us. May we not run scared, but move with intentionality and resolve. And may we never run into John Oliver when he’s doing interviews.


Monday, October 27, 2008

where everybody knows your name

Every so often, I come across a Cheers episode on television. For all the years between now and the days when it set my Thursday night schedule, the show holds up pretty well. My favorite scene is Norm walking in and heading to his usual perch.

Woody: How are you doing, Mr. Peterson?
Norm: Woody, it’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing Milkbone underwear.
What has weathered time the best is the theme song:
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name
and they’re always glad you came
you want to go where people know
their troubles are all the same you want to go
where everybody knows your name
The song holds up because it’s true, or at least it’s true for me. I love feeling like I belong. Friday night, my friend Lindsey and I went out to celebrate the Fall Festival of the Durham Chapter of the Pastoral Partners’ Support Group (the New England Chapter is chaired by my friend Doug, now in Mystic CT) since our partners, Ginger and Carla, were away on a church trip. Lindsey has been great about taking me to places in Durham I’ve yet to go, so we ended up at Bull McCabes, a great little Irish pub downtown. While we were eating and talking, two people I know – that’s right, TWO – stopped by the table to say hi.

Two people. In a bar I had never been in before.

“It’s how you know you’re home,” Lindsey said.

And it’s why I cook. Yes, I love food and looking at recipes and coming up with stuff for menus that is cool and interesting, but that only takes me so far. For me, the meal is not, ultimately, about what’s on the plate but who’s picking up the fork. It’s not for nothing that Jesus put a meal as the central ritual of what it means to follow him. When you eat and drink, he said, remember me. Though I certainly don’t claim to spend all my days in such deep theological thought, meals are a way to re-member – to put back together – what the day has torn apart, or at least disassembled. What I hope happens at the tables where our food is served is the eating and drinking is metaphor for deeper sustenance and nourishment shared among those dining together.

The restaurant at Duke has been on a slow burn. We have not been inundated with customers since the beginning of the year, but things have improved a little each week. And we have a strong group of regulars who come in at least once a week. In my role as the evening chef, I get to step out from the kitchen several times during the night and talk to people at their tables, which has also allowed me to get to know some of our repeating diners, and even to learn their names. A couple of them have even come to church.

Tonight, two students came in (not together) whose names I have had a hard time remembering for some reason. Tonight, I got them both right: Stacey and David. Stacey was with her friend Haley. They come in at least once a week and always get the chocolate chip pan cookie (with caramel ice cream and hot fudge sauce) for dessert. David is usually alone, but tonight brought his friend, John. Last Wednesday, Evan, Jim, and Matt came in and said, “Since we’re regulars now, we think we ought to take good care of our chef,” and gave me a bottle of wine. Yes, I’m planning a little something special for them when they come in this week.

I’m not under any illusions that we are all somehow becoming close friends because I call them by name when I bring out their entrees. What I am saying is I was reminded again tonight that the reason I love to cook has more to do with who is eating than what is being eaten.

Years ago, my friend Jeter Basden was leading a Sunday School Teachers’ Workshop for my youth Sunday School teachers in my youth minister days. He wrote this sentence on the board:
I teach young people the Bible
and said, “You tell me the direct object of the sentence and I’ll tell you what kind of teacher you are.” He went on to say, “If you think you teach the Bible, you can talk all day and miss them all; if you think you teach students, you can read from the phone book and change their lives.” Though there’s not a corresponding sentence for life in the kitchen, the premise holds up. I do my best work when I’m in touch with who I’m cooking for over what I’m cooking. Both matter a great deal, but only the former makes real strides towards re-membering. Stacey loved her meal. She told me so. But it mattered more that I remembered her name. I saw it in her smile when I got it right. I’ll bet she could see it in my smile, too.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

that reminds me of an old joke

Over the past several weeks I’ve had to learn how to send text messages because it is my boss’ preferred way of mobile communication. By accident one day, I pressed a button on my phone that read, “T9word,” and discovered my choice enabled my phone to anticipate the word I was typing, thus speeding up the process. When I finish a word, my phone automatically throws up the word that followed it the last time, assuming (it seems to me) that I am a man of very few sentences, or at least amazingly predictable. What began as a convenience has become quite claustrophobic.

As the election draws near and the volume continues to rise from all directions (though, I suppose, in our polarized culture that should read both directions), it seems we are living in a T9 world. When one side speaks, the other fills in the words before they are finished, not because they are listening but because they are readying their response. For all the rallies, press conferences, punditry, analyses, interviews, and whatever else fills up our twenty-four hour news cycle, it’s been a long time since anyone said something that mattered – even longer since anyone listened.

In the introduction to her sermon this morning, Ginger talked about the twenty-five years her mother ran a day care in her home. Rachel has an amazing way with wee ones. One of my favorite stories is one Ginger told this morning. Rachel went to the group playing outside and said, “OK, people, it’s time for lunch.”

One three-year old turned to another and said, “Her called us people.” Even at three, the little girl understood what it felt like to be respected, regarded, and taken seriously as a human being.

Over the quarter century, every child who came through that house learned this verse, almost before anything else:

Ginger then turned to the old joke about the preacher who preached his first Sunday before his new congregation and was well received. When he preached the same sermon the second Sunday, the deacons were a bit befuddled, but cut him some slack since he was still getting settled. When he preached the exact same sermon a third time, they confronted him.

“I’ll be happy to move on,” he said, “as soon as you get this one right.”

Her words took me back to one of her sermons that has hung with me for almost two years, in which she quoted Philo of Alexandria:
When I wrote about it then, I was working for an erratic and eccentric man who seemed to thrive on making the people around him miserable. Taking her words to heart was a challenging spiritual journey for me. I would love to say I have mastered the art of kindness and have moved on, but it is not so. I need to hear the same sermon again and again, as I did this morning.

Our NPR station was having their fundraiser this week, so I changed stations just to hear something other than the appeals for money. I landed on the local talk radio station, which is a world into which I seldom venture. I felt as though I had crossed into a parallel universe. That they presented a view farther to the right of NPR or me was not a surprise; the level of volume and vitriol was, however. These are guys who command huge audiences across the country, or at least that’s my perception. How can anger that severe be so popular?

My question is not an ideological one. I’m not asking why those right wing talk show hosts can’t be as thoughtful and quiet as their liberal counterparts. My impression is there is plenty of anger on both sides to go around. I’m not looking for an Us vs. Them scenario, either, though that seems to be the most American of perspectives. We cannot afford, however, to let ourselves see it as the Christian perspective.

When they asked Jesus what mattered most, he leaned back into the old joke Ginger told and preached the same sermon:
Regardless of our political preferences, our fundamental allegiances are to God and to one another. Not to country. Not to party. Not to ideology. Not to personality. Not to stock portfolio or hedge fund. Not to class or race or even religion.

To God.
And to one another.

As we sang in our service today:
We are called to be God's people,
showing by our lives God’s grace,
one in heart and one in spirit,
sign of hope for all the race.
Let us show how God has changed us,
and remade us as God’s own,
let us share our life together
as we shall around God’s throne.
We are all wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and we are all wounded. What was said of Rachel by the little one can be said of God: “Her called us people.” May we bear the grace given to us in a way that shows kindness to one another.

And may I keep the old joke close because I’m going to need to hear this again.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

lessons from the kitchen

Lesson One: Remember What It Feels Like.

Sunday nights I work at the Durham restaurant. The guy who is my second at Duke works there also, after doing the brunch shift on campus. When he got to work, he told me our Duke dishwasher had not shown up, which meant the cook got to wash all the pots and pans and plates and glasses and, well, everything. Neither of us had phone information for the dishwasher, but my cook knew where he lived and was going to stop by and make sure he was coming to work on Monday.

We need all hands on deck the first day of the week because it is the big preparation day: everything has to be made. I go in about eleven to get started and to do my part for the lunch shift. My second is due in at two. About one the phone rang and he told me, first, that the dishwasher was coming in. Then he told me he was in Greensboro and wouldn’t be in until three-thirty or four. At two,, he called back to say he wasn’t going to be in at all.

Thanks to the dishwasher, a Duke student who wants to learn more about cooking, and anyone else who happened into the kitchen, we got the prep work done and the meals cooked and served. I got out of the kitchen at nine-thirty, rather than eight o’clock. I drove home wondering how the guy who got stuck with the dishes on Sunday could turn around and do the same thing to someone else on Monday. I don’t know what kept him in Greensboro; he didn’t tell me. I do know, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” feels particularly poignant this morning.

Lesson Two: Ask for Help.

The dishwasher and the student are a study in contrasts. The dishwasher has been in this country for a dozen years, has worked as a landscaper since his teens, and is always looking to learn more. The student was born in this country, has not really had to work for his station in life, and wants to learn, but begins from a position of what he thinks he already knows, rather than what there is to learn.

When the dishwasher started working for us, he came to me one day and said, “I want to learn how to cook. Will you teach me?” Each shift, my second and I have brought him up on the line and taught him one of the dishes. He both listens and remembers well, down to the details. He has become our go to guy on the pasta dishes when things get busy.

The student loves food and cooking and does know a good bit about it, but more from books and meals he has eaten rather than those he has cooked. He has no restaurant cooking experience. Yet, when I ask him to do something, I have yet to hear him say, “I don’t know how to do that. Will you show me?” Last night I asked him to julienne some red peppers, which means to cut them into long thin strips. I think I could have grown peppers faster than he cut them. When he was done, he asked if they were all right, and then said, “I’ve never done that before.”

I wish he had started there.

Lesson Three: Be Willing to Learn.

The glue that holds our operation together is a guy who makes deliveries between the two restaurants and the catering kitchen. We all have his mobile phone number and you know you can call and say, “I need (whatever it is),” and he will bring it expeditiously. When I called to tell my Chef I was playing shorthanded, she called back to say she was sending him over to help, which was great news to me because he’s a pleasure to have around, even beyond his willingness to work and do whatever needs to be done. He showed up around four-thirty and stayed for about an hour and a half.

I should back up and add one thing: he started to work about seven yesterday morning and was due to get off around four.

One of the tasks I had for him was to pound out the boneless chicken breasts so they would cook evenly for our dishes. “No problem,” he said. “Just show me how to do it.” (He obviously has already mastered Lesson Two.) I showed him how to put the chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap and how to use the side of the mallet, rather than the end with the points, so the meat stayed intact. He made short work of the rest of the chicken and moved on to other things. As he was getting ready to leave, I thanked him for his help and he said, “No problem. And thanks for showing me how to do the chicken. I learned something new. If I can learn something, it’s a good day, no matter what else happened.”

By the time I got to the end of my day, I had three lessons worth learning and re-learning (and probably re-learning again). The day was long and I was tired on the drive home, but he was right: it was a good day.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

render unto caesar

“Whose picture is on the money?”
he asked, before there was paper money
peopled with presidents. I’ve got a Lincoln,
Hamilton, and a couple of Washingtons
bunched up in my pants pocket; wait –
lucky day: there’s a Jackson in there, too.
Not too many Benjamins around our house.

“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's,”
he said, centuries before rendering had
anything to do with cooking. Still, for
centuries chefs have rendered the fat from
ducks and pigs, cooking it long and slow until
the impurities burn away, and straining it to leave
a clear , pure fat that holds heat and flavor.

I can burn through a pocket full of money
as well as the next person, without even looking
at the pictures, turning presidents into
groceries, gasoline, and a coffee or two along
the way. The long, slow flame of intentionality
is harder to feed, and wait on. My purchasing
doesn’t necessarily point to purification.

“Render to God what is God's,” he said.
If the picture of a president points to possession,
the same is true of the image of the Creator.
I own nothing and owe everything; I’m not
the renderer, but the one being rendered: purified,
clarified, flavored (if you will), in a refiner’s fire,
down to the obvious inscription: “In God We Trust.”


Friday, October 17, 2008

never never never give up


Thursday, October 16, 2008

I am a pilgrim

Tuesday morning I went hiking.

I’m not sure I’ve ever written that sentence before because I’m not a hiker, particularly. But Bob, a fellow Pilgrim (as we, at our church, like to identify ourselves) asked me if I wanted to walk the trails along the Eno river, which he likes to do, and so I did – in order to get to hang out with Bob as much as anything.

He picked me up about eight and we drove to the entrance to the park. The Eno River Association is a local group that has intentionally bought up the land along the river over the years so there would be walking trails rather than McMansions along the banks. The trails are well kept, but nothing fancy: mostly the places where the ground has been kept clear by the footprints falling one after another. The river runs small, meandering through the trees and rocks, creating a thoughtful and inviting environment. Whatever they spent to buy up the land was well worth it.

I suppose to say I hiked might lean to the hyperbolic. We walked along the banks for an hour or more along the Bobbitt Hole Trail, wondering aloud as we walked who might have lived along the banks, or stacked the stones that looked as though they might once have been dams, or cut down trees, or planted them. In one place, we found what once must have been a clearing because the surrounding trees looked to have about a fifty-year head start on the ones growing closest to the river. Almost every step along the way provided a view of almost every aspect of the cycle of life, from new shoots to dead wood, decaying logs to thriving grasses. Autumn is still more anticipation than actuality here, so the leaves have not yet tipped their hands to warn us of winter. We walked on an October morning that was full of sunlight, with only a hint of chill in the shady spots. We walked down to the end of the trail and then walked back.

Our conversation meandered as much as the little river, moving from family memories to church to random thoughts on any number of subjects. Bob also told stories about hikes he and a dear friend have taken all over the country, the last being in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. As cool as it was to hear about the landscape of places I’ve never been, what was more fascinating was to hear part of the over thirty year journey these two friends have been on together.

On Wednesday morning, I saw Bob again at our bi-weekly men’s breakfast at Elmo’s. The gathering was able to move beyond intention into actuality because of the persistence of another Pilgrim, Mark, who sends a reminder email message every other week asking how big a table he should reserve. Five of us made it yesterday and sat at the table about as long as Bob and I walked through the woods.

Almost a year has passed since we left Massachusetts and drove south. After almost two decades there, we knew the trails well and those who walked them with us. In a new place, global positioning systems aside, there is no way to learn the trails without walking them, and there’s no way to walk them without taking time, well, to walk them, over and over. Bob knew his way through the woods because he had been there before with his daughter, or a friend, or even by himself. When we go again, I, too, will be able recognize a few things, but I won’t know the trail until I’ve tramped it again and again. I’ve sat at breakfast now six or eight times with the guys who take time to eat together and am beginning to find some familiarity there. We have shared enough coffee and conversation to begin to wear a path to friendship, which also much be tramped again and again before the path is easily found.

The dictionary defines pilgrim as “a traveler or wanderer,” an “original settler,” and a “newcomer.” Both those of us who know the trails and those of us new to the landscape fit the definition. Across the centuries, what remains true is we travel better in bunches. Chaucer found his premise for The Canterbury Tales by having each of the pilgrims tell stories to help pass the time and distance. Our little band of Pilgrims is no different here, whether we are stepping over stones or passing the syrup. Those who have settled here have been gracious enough to include me, the newcomer, in their traveling band as we walk and talk (and eat) up and down the trail. Norman Maclean wrote:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
Surely, the words underneath it all are, “Thank you.”


Friday, October 10, 2008

an exercise in faith and futility

To get up at five-thirty on a Thursday morning in the middle of a week where, thanks to presidential debates and baseball playoff games, I’ve not gotten enough sleep anyway seemed like a ridiculous idea. To spend a couple of hours walking from Chavis Park to the State Capitol in Raleigh when I had a new menu to finish and errands to run before work, not to mention an eleven hour day ahead of me, seemed a less than prudent choice on my part. And yet, when Ginger told me of the email invitation she had received from People of Faith Against the Death Penalty to join in the NAACP “Pilgrimage” to kick off its sixty-fifth state convention, making meaning felt more important than making sense. So we set the alarm, got up, and drove across the triangle to join the other early morning pilgrims.

By the time the sun had risen, we were about fifteen strong standing in the parking lot, with six or seven camera people and reporters hovering around us. A car pulled up and an older African-American woman emerged wearing a purple suit with clergy collar. She had a booming voice and a powerful personal presence. She stepped into the middle of our circle and, without saying a word, began to sing:

O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.
She welcomed us, gathered us, and then launched into a prayer that managed to encapsulate much of the biblical call to justice and the history of civil rights in our state in her four or five minute entreaty. She then explained we were part of a pilgrimage that began in Wilmington NC several days ago. Across the state, groups had gathered to walk a total of sixty-five miles, one for each year of the NAACP’s existence in North Carolina. Then she said, “I know we are a small group, but that doesn’t bother me. Jesus began with just twelve.”

Just twelve.

And with those words we began our quixotic march to the Capitol. In the tradition of those who had marched before us for similar reasons, we chanted:
No justice – No peace.
No justice – No peace.

What do we want? JUSTICE
When do we want it? NOW

And we sang:
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round
turn me round turn me round
I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on talking
walking on to freedom land
We were young and old, black and white, strong and weak, pounding the pavement in our quest for justice. One man in his eighties walked the whole way leaning on his cane. When we got to the state house, we gathered for a brief rally – more prayer, more singing, and some brief words of encouragement. We had not been there long when five or six of the State Capitol Police came to tell us the old man with the cane could not sit on the steps of the Capitol because we didn’t have a permit. I’m sure you will all be glad to know the Capitol Police are so diligent in keeping the building safe from domestic terrorists armed with canes, banners, and songs.

Sleep safely tonight.

At the restaurant at Duke, I have a student who wants to learn more about cooking who works with us a couple of nights a week. On Monday I asked him if he was taking any interesting classes and he began telling me about a philosophy/logic course he was taking where they were discussing the Prisoners’ Dilemma. The term was new to me. As he explained it, if two people get arrested for a crime, are separated, and offered the change to make a deal, the dilemma is whether or not to cooperate with the police. The consequences, as far as jail time, change depending on whether both remain silent, both talk, or one or the other capitulates. What my student took from the discussion was cooperation was basically illogical and unscientific. The most logical course was to get the best deal you could get for yourself and let everyone else do the same.

In the midst of searing salmon and grilling steaks, we talked about whether life is best, or even most logically, measured by acquisitions or relationships. What I took away from our discussion was his premise was trust is an illogical act. It doesn’t make sense.

It does, however, make meaning.

“This is what the Lord requires of you,” Micah said: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Those magnificent words are an invitation not only to life, but also futility and pain, because they call us to incarnate trust as a fundamental human trait, regardless of logic. We are called to hold each other accountable; called to choose to live redemptively rather than logically; called to follow in the steps of a God who dreamed up falling stars and falling leaves, peacock feathers and peonies, prophets and protest marches. Our faith is an exercise in fundamental and fantastic futility.

With each day’s (hour’s) new of the deepening financial crisis around the world, we will be faced with the logical temptation to make sure we get what’s ours. Cooperation doesn’t make sense; everyone for his or herself. Who had the time or energy to make sure we’re doing justice or loving kindness when life feels so unsure?

On the drive back to Durham it was daylight and we could see the banks of wildflowers along either side of the interstate. I couldn’t help but hear the wonderfully illogical words of the One who tramped around with his band of twelve as if they could change the world: “Consider the lilies . . . .”

It was as if the flowers themselves were singing:
Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

gigi in jail "for good"

Ginger is headed to the big house -- MDA jail, that is.

She was notified recently of her plight, though she was not told who snitched on her, since that person is now in "witness protection." Though the actual charges remain unclear, the long and short of it all is she has to raise $2000 for Muscular Dystrophy and ALS research to get out of "jail." As Ginger said in her own plea for funds, she needs help to get "from the big house to the coffee house."

If you would like to be a part of the Free Ginger Movement, you can do so by following this link and making a donation. Ella and I offer our gratitude in advance.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

the best button ever


food, for a change

This coming weekend is Fall Break at Duke, something universities have added since I was in school. The students get an extra two days off next week, which means I do, too. The short break is a natural segue to a new menu for the restaurant, and a chance to try some new things.

The prospect of a new menu also raises the question of why we need one. We’ve had a slow start this year. I’ve gotten to know a good number of regular customers who come in to eat quite often, yet we are not doing the kind of business we need to do. My reasons for making up a new menu go farther than just hoping for more customers, however. We work hard to use seasonal vegetables and fruit, so it’s time to say goodbye to tomatoes and hello to root vegetables. I’m also ready to cook some different things, though that, on it’s own, is not reason enough for change.

I think there’s a second question that rises up: what kind of change do we need?

Last night I was talking with two of our regulars who, when told about the coming change, said, “Don’t change the salmon.” She was happy for a new menu as long as we didn’t take away her favorite fish. As I thought about her comment later, I wondered how different the view of change is from the dining room as opposed to the kitchen. I’m thinking produce and process and she’s thinking food on the plate.

Oh – I’m now to a third question: what passes for change?

Is it really change if I simply trade in the vegetables for one season for those that naturally come next? If I still serve salmon, but this time with potatoes rather than risotto, have I done a new thing, or simply repackaged what was already there? When I move from the light dishes of summer to the comfort foods of winter, Is that change or just the natural progression of things? Is “We should do something different” automatically synonymous with substantive change?

I know. I’m moving out of the kitchen and into a larger room.

Some years back I became acquainted with a magazine called DoubleTake, which was founded by Robert Coles, among others. It was a wonderful mix of art and thought and culture and conversation. Unfortunately, it went out of publication a couple of years back. Before it did, it ran an interview of Bruce Springsteen by Will Percy, Walker Percy’s grandson. The connection was that Springsteen had corresponded with the elder Percy when the singer (and the author, I suppose) had been much younger. The interview brought things full circle. One of the exchanges stays with me and came back to mind as I began writing:

WP: Do you think pop culture can still have a positive effect?

BS: Well, it's a funny thing. When punk rock music hit in the late 1970s, it wasn't played on the radio, and nobody thought, Oh yeah, that'll be popular in 1992 for two generations of kids. But the music dug in, and now it has a tremendous impact on the music and culture of the nineties. It was powerful, profound, music and it was going to find a way to make itself heard eventually. So I think there's a lot of different ways of achieving the kind of impact that most writers and filmmakers, photographers, musicians want their work to have. It's not always something that happens right away-the "Big Bang"!

With the exception of certain moments in the history of popular culture, it's difficult to tell what has an impact anymore, and particularly now when there's so many alternatives. Now, we have the fifth Batman movie! I think about the part in the essay "The Man on the Train" where your uncle talks about alienation. He says the truly alienated man isn't the guy who's despairing and trying to find his place in the world. It's the guy who just finished his twentieth Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason novel. That is the lonely man! That is the alienated man! So you could say, similarly, the guy who just saw the fifth Batman picture, he's the alienated man. But as much as anyone, I still like to go out on a Saturday night and buy the popcorn and watch things explode, but when that becomes such a major part of the choices that you have, when you have sixteen cinemas and fourteen of them are playing almost exactly the same picture, you feel that something's going wrong here. And if you live outside a major metropolitan area, maybe you're lucky if there's a theater in town that's playing films that fall slightly outside of those choices.

There's an illusion of choice that's out there, but it's an illusion, it's not real choice. I think that's true in the political arena and in pop culture, and I guess there's a certain condescension and cynicism that goes along with it -- the assumption that people aren't ready for something new and different.

We, as Americans, don’t do much to dispel the cynicism Springsteen articulated. We appear to be poster children for the path of least resistance, or at least the path of convenience, or the path of I’m-going-to-do-what’s-good-for-me-period. I wonder if that’s who we really are, or who we play on TV. Conventional wisdom says ife is usually easier when we know what to expect.

Now we’re back to defining terms and asking questions: What do we mean by easier? Is easier really the point?

The menu of faith offers us the vocabulary we need to change in ways that are nourishing and substantive: repentance, conversion, new creation. The sad irony is, in many cases, those are not the words we choose. We, as people of faith, have bought into the convenience and cynicism of the culture and are starving and stagnating. We need more and we need to offer more to our world than the same redundant and ridiculous rhetoric that passes for cultural conversation. We are called to more profound words and actions than the level of discourse promoted by most of our media.

Now I’m stating the obvious.

Let me try it another way. We belong to a God who is the source of creation and creativity, of nourishment and nuance, of community and connectedness. We are called to love the world – to feed the world – with all the resources available in the divine pantry, and with all the imagination that can grow out of our conversations.

As I work on my menu for the restaurant, I’m working to remember the girl that wants the salmon to stay, asking questions of the other chefs, and scouring for menu ideas anywhere I can. The point of the change is to better meet my mission, if you will, to stand (to paraphrase Frederich Buechner) in the intersection of what I most want to cook and what the folks most want to eat.

It’s a moving target, calling me to live in a state of change.

Life, on a larger scale, feels much the same way.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

what makes the meal

I’ve never really thought of myself as a scientist, but I’m learning more and more that I often play one in the kitchen. Much of why we do the things we do with our food comes down to basic science. If I don’t want my balsamic vinaigrette to break, for example, then I must be conscious of the ratios between the vinegar, the oil, and the acid (lemon juice in our recipe). If those are not correct and the oil is not added slowly so the mixture can emulsify, then the dressing is not going to hold together.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t learn something along similar lines that helps explain something I was taught to do, or even something I do intuitively without knowing much more than my method is what makes the recipe work. Right now, for example, on my menu I have a New York Strip steak (about 10-11 oz.) with white cheddar mashed potatoes and our seasonal vegetable and a pork tenderloin (6-7 oz.) with a poblano pan sauce, served with a cornbread-apple-sausage-mozzarella pudding and seasonal vegetable. Both pieces of meat are cooked on the grill.

And the pork takes twice as long as the steak – every time.

I said that to one of the other chefs with whom I was working at a catering event and who has been cooking for thirty years. “You know why that is, don’t you?” he asked.

I didn’t.

“The steak is cut off the whole strip, so the grain is exposed. The tenderloin is cut in half, so the grain remains intact. The heat can pull the moisture out of the steak, so it cooks quickly; the grain of the meat insulates the pork, so it takes longer.”

It makes sense. A full strip is about twelve pounds when it comes to me. I trim off a good bit of the fat and then cut the individual steaks, slicing across the strip and exposing the grain. The pork comes in two pound packages, two tenderloins in each one. They have much less fat on them, but they still need a little trimming, and then I make one diagonal cut to get two servings out of each tenderloin. The grain is only exposed on the end I cut.

I loved learning something new, but I’m still not a scientist. I am, however, a poet, so I moved on to metaphor and have been thinking about how we cook when our grains are exposed or when we manage to stay insulated.

I thought, at first, about the experiences of life that cut across the grain and leave us exposed: grief, fear, change, tragedy. I decided, however, things weren’t that clear cut. For some, the death of a loved one does open them up to the world, leaving them feeling lonely and vulnerable, but open nonetheless. Others choose to deal with the grief by pulling inside – insulating themselves – and not open at all. You can’t force the latter folks to open up anymore than you can successfully cook a pork tenderloin by cutting it into small pieces so it will grill faster. All you will end up with are little porcine hockey pucks. The pork, which is drier than beef, needs the insulation to cook well.

The metaphor that has spoken most to me did so by surprise because it had less to do with cutting across the grain than it did looking at the variety of things we have cooking at once in our kitchen. Part of it may be that, though the metaphor of cutting against the grain appeals to me over insulating myself, I’d pick a well-prepared piece of pork tenderloin over a steak most any night. But every piece of pork I cook during dinner service happens in the context of what else was on the ticket.

When I get an order, the server might write something along these lines:

fried calamari
hummus plate
macaroni and cheese roll

strip (medium)
pork (medium rare)
chicken parm

The line in between the mac rolls (I make a mac and cheese mixture, wrap it up like an egg roll and fry it) and the steak separates the appetizers from the entrees. My task, on both sides of the line, is to have all of the items ready to go out at the same time. For example, knowing how long the pork takes, I would put it on the grill before I started any of the appetizers. I can wait until the first dishes leave the kitchen before I start the steak. I’m at my best when I give everything the time it needs to cook on its own terms.

Life butchers us all, my friends; no way around it. Yet, however we have been cut, we must work to see ourselves as part of the larger meal, if you will. The point is to prepare ourselves – and one another – so we come through it together.

Tomorrow is World Communion Sunday, a tangible reminder that we, as Christians, share a meal as one of the central metaphors of our faith: take and eat. Jesus passed the bread and said, “This is my body; as often as you eat this bread do so in remembrance of me.” We, as the Body of Christ, are called to feed one another, both literally and spiritually, and to prepare one another to feed the world. Some of us are ready, some have been burned, some still need some time. All of us are a part of the meal.