Saturday, January 31, 2009

That necessary measure of irrationality

"Homer may have been blind, but his taste buds were alive to wine, and he reserved his richest adjectives for it: heady, mellow, ruddy, shining, glowing, seasoned, hearty, honeyed, glistening, heart-warming, and, of course, irresistible." So writes English teacher Alexander Nazaryan in "The Tipsy Hero," an op ed piece in this morning's New York Times.

Nazaryn, noting the extensive role of wine in ancient literature, admires "how open the Greeks were about to the role of alcohol in their society (unsurprising, perhaps, for a people whose highest ideal was 'the examined life')." Moderation was in, debauchery was out--but unrelieved sobriety was also out.

"Today," Nazaryn writes, "'irrational exuberance' means bankruptcies and foreclosures; for the Greeks, a measure of irrationality checked the rule of reason."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Trader Joe's or Aldi?

If we're going to eat cheaply during Lent, I decided, it might be a good idea to find out how much food costs. So yesterday I went to Aldi and Trader Joe's, conveniently owned by the same family of German billionaires and conveniently located on the same stretch of Roosevelt Road in Glen Ellyn, IL. (To go directly to my downloadable chart comparing several dozen items at the two stores, click here.)

I'm a big fan of Trader Joe's. Prices are often better than at Jewel, the quality is usually excellent, and they carry the kinds of food we like to eat. My few previous trips to Aldi, however, had not impressed. Shopping carts that have to be liberated with a quarter, involuntary self-bagging, stacks and stacks of junk food . . . put off by the environment, I'd never made the effort to see if good deals on good food lurked down some of those aisles.

Well, yesterday I learned something.

Three cheers for Aldi
Clearly breakfast is cheaper at Aldi. Look at this:
  • oatmeal, $1.79 for 42 oz (A) vs $2.29 for 18 oz (TJ)
  • cinnamon, $1.09 for 4.25 oz (A) vs $1.99 for 1.5 oz (TJ)
  • milk, $2.29 (A) vs $3.29 (TJ) for a gallon
  • bananas, $0.45 a pound (A) vs $0.19 each (TJ)
  • tea, $1.69 for 100 bags (A) vs $1.99 for 48 bags (TJ)
Dinner can be cheaper at Aldi too, though the meat may be less humanely raised and may contain more fat:
  • beef stew, $2.99 (A) vs $4.99 (TJ) a pound
  • chicken thighs, $1.29 (A) vs $3.99 (TJ) a pound
  • frozen salmon fillets, $3.99 (A) vs $7.99 (TJ) a pound

Three cheers for Trader Joe
You won't find masa mix (for making corn tortillas) or queso fresco at Trader Joe's; but then TJ's stocks quite a few things aren't available at Aldi: whole wheat flour, for example, or ground flaxseed, or unhydrogenated peanut butter. TJ's wine and beer selection is vastly better and often cheaper than Aldi's. And TJ has better prices on some food items:
  • little white mushrooms, $1.49 (TJ) vs $1.69 (A)
  • extra virgin olive oil, $7.49 for 1 liter (TJ) vs. $4.29 for 1/2 liter (A)
  • shredded parmesan cheese, $4.69 for 12 oz (TJ) vs $2.39 for 5 oz (A)
After spending an hour going up and down the aisles taking notes in my reporter's notebook, I noticed that my cart was strangely empty. So, having bought a few frugal supplies at Aldi, I succumbed to temptation at Trader Joe's. Hey, it isn't Lent yet. Tonight we're having a TJ simple feast:

Insalata Caprese
  • large ovaline fresh mozzarella, $2.99
  • small fresh tomatoes on the vine, $3.24
  • 2 oz. beautiful fresh basil leaves, $3.49
Season with TJ's coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Drizzle with TJ's extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle some of TJ's bulk pignoli (pine nuts) on top. Serve with crusty bread and red wine.

Seize the day. Ash Wednesday is a whole month away.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Uh oh

"The best way to gain weight in America is to go on food stamps."

--Dr. Mehmet Oz on Oprah this morning

So, if we do this Lenten Experiment, will we need to get Easter outfits in a larger size?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lentil soup

Thanks to Jana Riess for this extremely easy, cheap, and tasty recipe. I plan to serve this soup regularly during the Lenten Experiment, along with homemade bread and perhaps a salad. Maybe we'll even be able to afford fresh fruit for dessert...

This recipe makes at least 10 cups of soup. If you need only one or two servings, you can freeze the rest. Or throw a party.

  • one pound of lentils,
picking out the bad. Into a crockpot, place the lentils and
  • 6 cups water, chicken broth, or vegetable stock
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 tablespoons minced dried parsley
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon marjoram
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
Cover and cook on low for 7 - 8 hours or on high for 4 - 5 hours, until lentils are tender.

Notes from LaVonne: I followed this recipe exactly, and I ended up with a lovely thick lentil stew. Because I wanted soup, however, I added
  • 1 quart (32 oz) low-sodium chicken broth
and heated on low for another four or five hours.

It's OK to substitute other dried beans (though you'll need to presoak them overnight before throwing them in the slow cooker) and other seasonings.

You can also toss in other mild-flavored vegetables for variety: potatoes, spinach, squash, yams... If you want to use up last night's fully cooked leftovers, add them to the pot 1/2 hour before serving--enough time to warm them up and absorb some flavor, but not so long that they turn to mush.

Garnish with celery leaves (or shaved parmesan cheese, yogurt, fresh parsley, or chives).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

10 reasons to try the $6-a-day food experiment

1. It might help with your blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, or body-mass index

2. You only have $6/day to spend on food anyway, so you may as well feel righteous about it

3. You'd like to reduce your spending to $6/day so you can buy more books

4. You'd like to reduce your spending to $6/day so you can give an equal amount to your local food pantry

5. You're a misunderstood ascetic in a hedonistic world

6. You like a good stiff challenge you can be obsessive-compulsive about

7. The Easter feast is so much tastier when you're really hungry

8. You would like to show solidarity with the poor (without having to live on less than $2 a day, like nearly half the world's population)

9. You'd like a family project that will make your kids realize how lucky they are

10. You're no good at fasting or dieting, but maybe if you think of this as a game...

The rules

OK, you want to play the game. For a day, a week, a month, six weeks--you decide--you're going to try to eat tasty, healthy food without spending more than suggested in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's thrifty plan, which is the basis for food-stamp allotments.

To calculate how much you can spend, you can click the link in the previous sentence and work out a precise amount based on your household's number, ages, and genders. Or you can go by these fairly generous approximations:

  • For one adult: $6/day, $42/week, $180 month
  • For a two-person household: $12/day, $84/week, $360 month
  • For each additional person in the household: $4/day, $28 week, $120/month
In Illinois, these are the rules:

Food stamp benefits can be used to buy:

  • any food or food product for human consumption,
  • plus seeds and plants for use in home gardens to produce food.

Food stamp benefits cannot be used to buy:

  • Hot foods ready to eat,
  • Food intended to be heated in the store,
  • Lunch counter items or foods to be eaten in the store,
  • Vitamins or medicines,
  • Pet foods,
  • Any nonfood items (except seeds and plants),
  • Alcoholic beverages, or
  • Tobacco.
(Not that there will be enough money left over to buy those things anyway...)

Cheap food as a spiritual discipline

My friend Jennifer read my January 18 post, "Please advise us on our Lenten plans," and wrote:
I would love to do this, but I confess it would be for material, not spiritual reasons--I need to save money!
I answered:
The whole point of my blog is that the material and the spiritual are inextricably linked--so your reasons are fine.
With unemployment rising and salaries being frozen or reduced, many of us have considerably less to spend on food this year than last. Can we still eat meals that nourish body and soul?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Canned food from Target

Thanks to all of you who have responded to the post about Lenten plans. Several have sent recipes for cheap, tasty, nutritious food, and with your permission I'll post some of these.

Now that I'm thinking about the Lenten Poverty Experiment, grocery shopping is turning into a challenging brain exercise. Monday, while at Target, I decided to pick up some canned goods to take to the People's Resource Center. I spent $19.21--about 25% of the weekly food allotment for two (I had no idea how expensive fruit is!)--and here's what I bought:
  • Progresso chicken gumbo soup (on sale), 2 cans, 8 servings, 28 grams of protein
  • Diced tomatoes, 2 cans, 7 servings, 7 grams of protein
  • Corn, 2 cans, 7 servings, 14 grams of protein
  • Green beans, 2 cans, 7 servings
  • Chili beans, 2 cans, 7 servings, 56 grams of protein
  • Applesauce, 12 lunch-sized portions
  • Sliced peaches, 2 cans, 7 servings
  • Pear halves, 2 cans, 6 servings
  • Pineapple, 2 cans, 9 servings
If I were buying this for myself and my husband, I'd have just bought
  • about a day's worth of protein
  • about a day's worth of grains (corn)
  • enough fruits and veggies for four or five days (but nothing fresh!)
Still to buy for the week, and $57.79 to buy it with:
  • milk, yogurt, cheese
  • breakfast foods, bread
  • meat, beans, eggs
  • more vegetables
Looks like a week like this could be balanced, but not very tasty. Fortunately I'm still in the planning stages. My bag full of canned goods goes to the food pantry this afternoon, and I hope it will supplement someone's food stamps so they can buy fresh vegetables and fruits, meat, and good brown bread. Nobody should have to live on canned vegetables.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Please advise us on our Lenten plans

The good news: I'm old enough now that not even the Catholic church requires me to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (scroll to Canon 1252).

But I want to do something meaningful for Lent, and I'd like it to be more significant than just giving up something (sugar? wine? whining?) or adding something (daily Mass? optimistic blog posts?).

So here's my idea. I think I'd like to try limiting our food budget to the amount we'd get if we got the maximum amount of food stamps in Illinois. For a family of two, that would be $323 a month, or about $74 a week.

Mr Neff suggests that we be more generous and allow ourselves the amount the USDA thinks is sufficient for a couple aged 51 - 70. The most recent figures (November 2008) suggest $79.80. So say we split the difference and make it $77 a week, or $11 a day.

This would cover home-cooked food only--no other grocery store purchases like detergent, no restaurant meals, no alcoholic beverages. Which is not to say we couldn't buy those things, though it would seem like cheating to say we were getting by on $75 - $80 a week if we were actually eating half of our meals downtown.

So, how hard could this be? Well, that means maybe $1.25 for breakfast, $1.25 for lunch, and $3.00 for dinner for each of us. Lots of dried beans, onions, potatoes. Not a whole lot of goat cheese and arugula.

Do we want to do this? If we do, will our diet be balanced and our meals tasty? Can we invite friends over? Would you consider doing it with us? (Then we could get together for amazing potlucks...)

Friday, January 16, 2009

"Honoring the Body" by Stephanie Paulsell

Here's a story believed by a lot of cradle Christians:

Once upon a time God created Adam and Eve with bodies and souls. Right away they gave in to a bodily desire--hunger--and fell into sin. Then they gave in to another bodily desire--lust--and conceived Cain. From then on, spirit and flesh have been at war in the human body. Spirit is good, flesh is bad. The Christian must subdue the flesh through the work of the Holy Spirit, and then, when the body dies, the person will waft into a state of spiritual bliss unencumbered by a body. In some versions of the story, the Christian will eventually be given a spiritual body (whatever that is), presumably one that will no longer cause the problems that bedevil the physical body. And they all lived happily ever after.

If you find yourself agreeing with any part of that story (or if you recoil from a faith with such a negative view of the body), try this book: Honoring the Body by Stephanie Paulsell, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister and a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Paulsell believes that the body is good, and she invites us to explore with her "how we might honor the body in activities that punctuate our daily lives: bathing, clothing, eating, working, exercising, loving, and suffering."

Students of scripture or theology might study the human body in light of, say, St. Paul's spirit/flesh dichotomy or the church's doctrines of incarnation and resurrection. Paulsell's book, a volume in Jossey-Bass's Practices of Faith series, takes a different path: seeking "wisdom from "scripture, history, and [especially] contemporary experience, in story and song and poetry." It's a fine introduction to Christian thought on the goodness of the body, a refreshing corrective to legions of Christian writers who favored asceticism over paradise, and a helpful embodiment of interpretations now being taught by biblical scholars and theologians.

Here's a sample story from chapter 6, "Blessing Our Table Life":
Diana is in the midst of seminary education, learning to be the minister God is calling her to be. She is smart and funny and an exceptionally good listener, and so she has done very well. But she began to get a little tense, a little nervous, before her field education, her year of supervised ministry in a parish, began. She finally admitted that what she was anxious about was her role as cupbearer during the Eucharist, a task her teaching pastor had asked her to assume. Having been born with cerebral palsy, Diana jerks a bit when she walks and drags one leg. She was afraid, really afraid, that she would spill the cup on the floor or, worse, on someone she was serving. But, being Diana, she didn't ask to be relieved of this duty; she gave it a try. And things went well. Nothing spilled, but she remained extremely vigilant.

One spring Sunday, Diana served again as cupbearer and walked from person to person kneeling at the rail at the front of her church, offering them a drink. "The blood of Christ," she said to each one, "the cup of salvation." And as she raised the cup to each person's lips, taking the utmost care not to fall, she saw her own reflection in the shiny silver chalice. Over and over again, she saw the reflection of her body in the cup. This is my broken body, she thought, serving this church. This is my body, teaching people what we do with brokenness in the church. Here in this cup is new life, and here is my body, expressing the truth of what this new life means!

We are not disembodied spirits, nor ever will be. We are Christ's body, taken, blessed, broken, and given. His body, and our bodies in his, are honorable.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Another medieval gumshoe

I was telling my friend Sharon about Margaret Frazer's medieval mystery series featuring Dame Frevisse, and she asked if I'd discovered Candace M. Robb's medieval sleuth, Owen Archer.

Now I have! Book 1, The Apothecary Rose, was a delight, and Sharon tells me it's only a warm-up for the rest of the series. I'm looking forward to many pleasant winter evenings with the next six books.

Unlike Dame Frevisse (early 1400s) and Brother Cadfael (early 1100s), Owen (late 1300s) is not a member of a religious order. St. Mary's Abbey (York) is, however, significant to this story, and its resident herbalist, Brother Wulfstan, plays an important role.

Like Frazer and Ellis Peters, Robb mixes actual historical characters--in The Apothecary Rose, that would be primarily John Thoresby, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York--with invented villagers, monastics, miscreants, victims, and villains. All three authors show meticulous attention to historical detail without allowing it to overwhelm the story.

And what is The Apothecary Rose about? Well, of course, someone has been murdered. Two people, in fact. And more before the story ends. As the story unfolds, people undergo terrifying events. Someone falls in love. Eventually the truth comes out and justice is restored. This is a medieval mystery, after all.

The puzzle is important--I suppose it's the mind of the mystery. The mystery's body is equally important. In this case, the body includes a comfortable inn next to a well-stocked apothecary, an archbishop's furs and a medicine woman's rags, monks and highwaymen, mud and cobblestones, home-brewed ale and herbal potions, a wise pariah and an evil churchman...

Time to quit writing and go to the library. Book 2, The Lady Chapel, is on the shelf.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Garrison Keillor's "Liberty": a woeful Wobegon novel

If, like me, you laughed your way through Garrison Keillor's Pontoon (2007), you might be thinking about grabbing Liberty (2008) off the new-books shelves just as soon as I return it to Wheaton Public Library. Let me save you some time.

The first-sentence test is instructive. Pontoon begins thus: "Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that."

By contrast, Liberty's first sentence is a flatulent, overblown description that runs on to page 2 before sliding to a halt. At least it's cheerful--unlike Clint Bunsen, the book's protagonist.

Sure, the book has plenty of funny moments. But mostly it's the story of a 60-year-old man's late-life-transition crisis, which involves a lot of grumbling and a good deal more, um, explicit writing than Keillor usually indulges in. I appreciate a comment left on the web site goodreads: "If I were married to Garrison Keillor, I'd be a wee trifle concerned by his sudden fascination with adultery."

By the end of the book, small-town values reassert themselves (I think), but not too convincingly. Irene Bunsen's sudden gutsiness fails, not only because it's out of character, but also because she stops short of sending Clint to the Promised Land. As a 60-year-old woman, I was cheering her on.

Especially when girl-toy Angelica sententiously proclaims, "I love your husband. I don't need to own him, I believe that everything we do for love enlarges us and makes us free."

And Irene, who is holding Clint at gunpoint, cuts in and asks him to choose: "Butt, foot, or ear?"

Friday, January 9, 2009

Stanley Fish on Roland Burris and St. Augustine

In today's "Think Again" column, Stanley Fish refers to St. Augustine and the Donatists in arguing that Roland Burris deserves to be seated in the U.S. Senate.

Think ex opere operato, history buffs. Your priest may have been ordained by a heretic or scoundrel, but he's still a priest and the sacraments he administers are still valid. (Heave a sigh of relief, loyal Catholics.) As Fish points out,
The legitimacy of an appointment can be either a procedural or a moral matter. If it is a procedural matter, authority is conferred by the right credentials, and that’s that. If it is a moral matter – only the good can be truly authoritative (this was John Milton’s position) – authority is always precarious, and the structures of government and law are always in danger of being dissolved.

Fish does not tell the rest of the Donatists' story, however. Though St. Augustine acknowledged the validity of their appointments, he also called for civil penalties against them. The Donatists were wrong, he wrote, and if they could not be persuaded to return to the true church, they should be forced to do so. With his encouragement, churches were closed, adherents were fined, and leaders were exiled.

Presumably St. Augustine, while supporting Roland Burris's appointment, would have no objection to impeaching and imprisoning Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

2008 Books: The Ten Mosts

Here are some books I enjoyed in 2008. I've listed 10 categories but over 20 books: anytime books get together in my house or on my computer, they multiply. Some titles are new, but most were published before 2008. The links will take you to their Amazon pages.

I read mostly for fun, though occasionally a serious book sneaks by my inner censor. I think you'll enjoy these, unless you're seriously committed to that kind of literary fiction where depressed characters relentlessly and interminably examine their inner states of being. I didn't include any of those.

I often choose books that friends recommend. Please let me know your Mosts!


Most significant: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
Sprawling yet sensitive novel set in Nigeria during the Biafran revolution in the late 1960s. PW's starred review calls it "a dramatic, intelligent epic," characterizing it as "a searing history lesson in fictional form, intensely evocative and immensely absorbing."
Most surprising: Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
It's an Oprah choice, but it's not depressing. It's a potboiler, but it's full of interesting historical detail about cathedral architecture, 12th-century English political and military struggles, and the daily life of common people in the high Middle Ages. Oh yes, and it's a page-turner.
Most hilariously (and intentionally) bad: Mark Schweizer, The Baritone Wore Chiffon, The Alto Wore Tweed, The Soprano Wore Falsettos
A friend got Mr Neff started on this series because the protagonist is organist/choirmaster at a St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. There the resemblance ends. If you are Episcopalian and have a juvenile sense of humor, you'll love these dreadful books, of which there are now at least six.
Most fun to read on the beach: Elizabeth Buchan, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, Wives Behaving Badly, The Good Wife Strikes Back
Buchan's hen-lit is not as vindictive as it sounds. Her characters--British women of a certain age--have been hurt, but the emphasis is on how they put their lives back together. Pleasant and life-affirming with just the right touch of schadenfreude.
Most prolific and always my favorite author: Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, Love Over Scotland , The World According to Bertie
McCall Smith writes almost faster than I can read. These are from four series: Professor von Igelfeld, Isabel Dalhousie, 44 Scotland Street, and of course The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Three of the books were published in 2008. I was happy to learn that the 10th Mma Ramotswe book is due in April 2009: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.


Most significant: Peter Brown, The Body and Society
The reissue, with lengthy and important new introduction, of Brown's magisterial 1988 work. What did early Christian writers believe about the human body, especially about sex? And how could they be so different from us?
Most reassuring: Brian Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light
You don't have to read even half the book to get the point: Mother Teresa's life involved a whole lot more duty than rapture. Most of the time she didn't feel God's presence at all. Critics who confuse faith with feeling have suggested this means she was a fraud. Another interpretation: her fierce obedience shows that feelings are but a small part of real faith. I'm guessing I'm not alone in seeing this as good news.
Most disappointing: Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me
I like Norris, though perhaps not as devotedly as the 95% of first-time memoirists who write in their cover letters that their manuscripts are a lot like hers. This book should warn them that even Norris may not be as good as Norris. Here are interesting glimpses of her difficult marriage along with helpful thoughts about acedia (sloth), but I was hoping she would help cure me of acedia rather than induce even more of it.
Most good sense: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. How hard can this be? A good (and quick) read for people who loved The Omnivore's Dilemma or who are feeling mildly guilty about the aftereffects of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Most fun: Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, Love by the Glass
She was a black Christian. He was a white Jew. Both were newspaper reporters. They fell in love with each other and, soon enough, with wine. But not just the drink--they love the role wine plays in enhancing everything from daily meals to marriage proposals. Nowadays they write the wine column, "Tastings," for the Wall Street Journal. This is their story. And if you want to meet them before reading it, click here.