Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

The 10th installment of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series has finally arrived this side of the pond (U.S. version at the left; the Brits got theirs, at the right, six weeks ahead of us). The wonderfully titled Tea Time for the Traditionally Built continues the charming saga of Mma Precious Ramotswe; her husband, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni; and her irrepressible secretary and assistant detective, Grace Makutsi.

Will the lady detectives be able to solve a football crisis? Will Grace lose her fiancé to a scheming, lying rival? Will Mma Ramotswe have to give up her beloved little white van? Such predicaments keep the story rolling along, but they aren't why I come back to Botswana, book after book. I adore Mma Ramotswe: she is a good woman, in the best sense of the word, and a big part of her goodness is her respectful, no-nonsense concern for others. I also love her love for Botswana--its traditions, its people, its geography.

Now I've made the books sound saccharine, and that's just wrong. They couldn't be, or Mr Neff would not read them so avidly. Sweet, sometimes, but never artificial. Gentle, but funny. On a scale ranging from Patricia D. Cornwell to Jan Karon, they're somewhere in the middle. They are especially satisfying when you're exhausted or brain dead or grumpy (i.e., in the evening after work).

If you've read any of them, I need say no more. If you haven't, start with the first. The Wikipedia article gives more background and lists all ten titles. Alexander McCall Smith has written several other series too. They're all good.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Review: Evening

Here's another novel that crawls into the mind of someone whose life is quickly receding (for mention of two others, see this post). Like Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness, Susan Minot's Evening is a literary novel, which means that people who like to know exactly what is going on, and in what order, will find it a struggle (at times I wished I'd been taking notes). But then the dying protagonist, Ann Lord, is also struggling with memories and meaning, so the novel's difficulties are appropriate.

The setting is Cambridge, Massachusetts, where 65-year-old Ann is so near to dying of cancer that her children and friends are gathering around her bedside. Her entire life is not exactly passing before her, but she is reviewing a memorable weekend in Maine that happened 40 years earlier and how its events affected the rest of her life, especially her relationships with a series of men. That's enough of a review for now, except to mention that chapter 12, "The Wedding Night" (pages 189-201), is amazingly beautiful erotic writing with hardly a mention of body parts.

And I should probably also add that there is nothing redemptive in this novel.

I liked the original paperback cover (left) better than the current one (right)--but when a book has been turned into a star-studded movie starring Claire Danes, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave (and her late daughter, Natasha Richardson), and Meryl Streep (and her daughter, Mamie Gummer)--to name only a few of its high-octane actors--your marketing department is going to want the world to know.

Unfortunately, the movie got terrible reviews (read more about it here). Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote, "Stuffed with actors of variable talent, burdened with false, labored dialogue and distinguished by a florid visual style better suited to fairy tales and greeting cards, this miscalculation underlines what can happen when certain literary works meet the bottom line of the movies."

The film isn't even a good shortcut: its stories and characters are so different from those in the novel that you might as well just start with the actual book. Except for one thing: Vanessa Redgrave is Ann Lord.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

When does an individual human's life begin?

Yesterday the FDA approved Plan B—the morning-after pill—for over-the-counter sales to 17-year-olds (though not until certain labeling changes are made). Web information about Plan B stresses that the method "isn't effective if you're already pregnant, and it won't terminate an existing pregnancy." According to the prescribing information document, it works "principally by preventing ovulation or fertilization.... In addition, it may inhibit implantation."

Does this mean Plan B is an abortifacient? Can there be an abortion without a pregnancy? And when does an individual human's life begin?

Last August Tom Brokaw asked Nancy Pelosi when she believes life begins, and she has been widely criticized for her answer: "I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition."

Pelosi was half right: theologians have indeed differed widely as to the exact time of "ensoulment," that is, when the soul enters the body and the fetus becomes human. Nevertheless, as Michael J. Gorman has shown in Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World, from its earliest days the church has opposed abortion, even though abortion was frequent in the Greco-Roman world. And the Catholic catechism is clear about what the church teaches today: "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception"-- which the church defines as the moment of fertilization.

Conception, however, can mean implantation rather than fertilization, and that is the meaning used by writers of Plan B's ad copy.

After the human egg is fertilized, from eight to eighteen days go by until it completely implants in the uterus and pregnancy begins. According to the definition used by many in the scientific community, until a fertilized egg has implanted in a woman's uterus, she has not conceived and is not pregnant, even if the fertilized egg is in her body. And if she is not pregnant, abortion is not possible. Therefore, it is reasoned, Plan B pills do not cause abortions.

The question remains, of course: does Plan B take human life? Is the fertilized egg a human person before pregnancy occurs? This is a question of faith, not science. For Christians who believe that human personhood begins with fertilization, Plan B is morally wrong. Other Christians, who also consider themselves pro-life and anti-abortion, argue that human personhood begins with implantation; for them, Plan B may be morally neutral.

As one who has favored the first group, let me give a few arguments on behalf of the second. In some ways, implantation may be a better model than fertilization of when embodied life--the union of dust and spirit--begins.

First, human beings are more than genetic codes: we require community and nourishment in order to live. Implantation brings the developing cells into community with their mother and provides them with food and hormones and everything else they need.

Second, each human being is a unique and unrepeatable individual. Until implantation is achieved, the developing cells may split into twins or triplets. Individuality is not assured until the cells attach to the uterus.

Third, fertilization can occur in a laboratory, but--so far, at least--no baby will result unless at some point implantation occurs.

And yet the fertilized egg has its very own DNA, and perhaps this is reason enough to consider it fully human. To some, though, that sounds rather disembodied. Does a cell with a DNA code have infinite value, the same as cells that have burrowed into their mother's womb and established a relationship with her that she feels in every part of her body? Is human nature based in a code or in a relationship?

These are important questions with implications not only for the morning-after pill, but also for assisted conception and embryonic stem-cell research. The answers to these questions are not as clear as some of us would like. They can't be found in the Bible or in scientific journals, though both sources contribute to our understanding of the issues involved. Christians of good faith disagree. As human beings who thrive in community, we need to keep our voices down and listen to others, as we would have others speak softly and listen to us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Home: excerpts

Two paragraphs I liked from Marilynne Robinson's Home. Different approaches from mother and father:

How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, or with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what. (252)

All bread is the bread of heaven, her father used to say. It expresses the will of God to sustain us in this flesh, in this life. Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home. (102)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Home: a review

I confess: I did not especially enjoy Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 novel about the Ames and Boughton families. Maybe the build-up was too great: some of my friends thought it was life-changing, the best novel they'd ever read. I thought it dragged. I kept waiting for something to happen. And by the time it did, I had lost interest, though (because I was reading it for a book group) I plowed on to the very end.

So when, out of a sense of duty to Literature, I checked out Home, I waited until it was almost due to begin reading. And then, much to my surprise, I got hooked.

Both novels are set in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, in the mid 1950s. Gilead's narrator is the Reverend John Ames, a semi-retired Congregational minister; Home's narrator is Glory Boughton, the youngest child of the Reverend Robert Boughton, a retired Presbyterian minister and Ames's best friend. Both books focus on Jack Boughton, Robert's ne'er-do-well son, though Gilead takes care of a lot of Ames family business before finally getting around to Jack.

I liked Home because in some ways it reminded me of my parents' home: Like Rev. Boughton, my father was a dignified, kindly, and reasonable man who spoke in stately cadences and shared Boughton's moderate--but oh, so wrong--views on the nascent civil rights movement. My home, like the Boughton household, was a
scene of utter and endless probity, where earnest striving so predictably yielded success, … the kind amenable to being half-concealed by the rigors of yet more earnest striving.
Like Jack, I broke my father's heart. Like Jack's father, my dad struggled to be gracious while disapproving of my religious choices. Like Glory, I dutifully cared for my parents in their final illness; like Glory, I dreamed of escape.

I'm not trying to turn this review into a memoir; I'm just warning you that if you didn't care for Gilead and don't have a history something like Jack's or Glory's or mine, you may not like Home either. On the other hand, there are many good non-biographical reasons to like this book. Robinson's writing style is wonderful: spare, never fussy or pretentious, never calling attention to itself; but sharp-eyed, deeply aware of human foibles, often wryly humorous. Her characters, no matter how flawed, are sympathetic. These are people we know and love.

Here is Glory describing her behavior toward her wayward brother:
Dear Lord. She had tried to take care of him, to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him.
Indeed Jack does not want to be rescued, at least not on the terms the good citizens of Gilead would prefer--or if, on some level, he does wish to come home (he often plays "Softly and Tenderly" on the piano), he believes he is unable to do so.

If you decide to read this book and are not immediately smitten, keep going for at least 30 pages; 50 or 80 would be better. The book starts slowly, and there's a lot of rumination where I wouldn't have minded some action (I am so shallow). Eventually you'll find yourself in the kitchen or the back garden with Glory and Jack, absorbed in their conversations, involved with the two old gentlemen, wondering what Jack will do next.

And then, if you happen to be reading this with a friend or for a book club, you can talk about any of the book's big ideas: Grace. Depravity. Predestination. Forgiveness. And, especially, Home.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Lenten Experiment: analysis

Years ago I started keeping a list of every book I read, because when people ask me what I've been reading, I can never remember. Now I can at least say, "I'll get back to you."

When people ask me what we eat, I draw a similar blank. "Uh... let me look in the refrigerator and see if I can find any clues..." But now, thanks to the Lenten Experiment, I know what we've been eating recently.

I just went through nearly 50 Lenten posts and listed the meals I'd recorded. Subtracting meals out and our week off, I ended up with 31 meals to consider.

Here's what I found out.

About 2/3 of our meals were vegetarian (not vegan). The other 1/3 included small amounts of fish (salmon, tilapia, fish sticks), turkey sausage (in soup or stew), or--once--chicken. We followed St. Benedict's advice to eat no quadrupeds.

We ate a lot of Italian-inspired meals: risotto (twice), gnocchi (twice), whole wheat pizza, whole wheat spaghetti (twice with ratatouille, twice with vegetarian meatballs), lasagna (twice), and beer-flavored pasta & cheese that no self-respecting Italian would get near even though the pasta were gemelli.

We had cheese tamales once and variations on the tostada four times (once with beans, once with potatoes, twice with fish). Once we had omelets, with ratatouille.

Despite our daughter's claim that we eat nothing but lentil soup, we had lentil soup only once--but we did have black bean stew three times.

I baked lots of bread.

We ate lots of vegetables and fruit: artichokes, arugula, asparagus, avocado, beans (black, green, and white), beets, berries (blackberries at least seven times!), brussels sprouts, cabbage, garlic, lettuce, onions, oranges, peas, peppers, ratatouille (eggplant, zucchini, onion, tomatoes), spinach, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.

And all that good food was only for main meals: we had more fruit with breakfast and lunch, and yogurt and flax seed and cereal and bread and peanut butter ...

It would have been difficult to eat meat or to buy fresh (instead of frozen) fish and maintain the thrifty budget. There was little room in the budget for junk food: most desserts were fruit, and snacks were usually peanuts or cashews.

I knew that a thrifty diet would be likely to increase carbs and decrease protein--not necessary a bad thing in a country where most people eat more protein than they need. I used whole grains whenever possible. Most of the bread I baked was whole wheat, sometimes mixed with oat flour and corn meal. Most of the pastas I used were whole wheat. The arborio rice for the risotto was white, as was the flour in the quiche crusts. I imagine masa harina--the tortilla ingredient--is also processed.

Fish. Cheese. Yogurt. Nuts. Beans. Vegetables. Fruit. Whole grains. If we keep this up, we can save enough money to go live in Azerbaijan, where people live to be 120. Though apparently their longevity requires more than a spartan but healthy diet--it also requires years of back-breaking labor. Not sure I'm ready for that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Scarpetta and the God's-eye view

I have now listened to 12 of Patricia D. Cornwell's 16 Scarpetta mysteries. Though my two worst high-school classes were home ec and driver ed, I spend much of my life in the kitchen or behind the wheel. Keeping a long series going is a great way to keep myself going as well. But I'm done with Scarpetta for now.

I had been warned that the Scarpetta series is graphic and gruesome. "Oh well," I thought, "I'm a big girl. I can deal with it." And it really wasn't all that hard to deal with--the bloodiness was mostly in the forensics lab where Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia, explored the body cavities of the dead. Not lunchtime material, maybe, but technically interesting. Besides, the plots moved right along, and the characters--feisty Scarpetta; her conflicted niece, Lucy; bigoted, vulgar, but good-hearted Pete Marino; enigmatic Benton Wesley--quickly became my friends.

In The Last Precinct (book 11), however, Cornwell made a big change: she switched from the previous books' past-tense narration to a breathless present tense. Essentially a retrospective on Black Notice (book 10), The Last Precinct deals more with Scarpetta's inner turmoil than with outside events, and present-tense narration can be an effective way to get into a character's mind. Still, I thought, the story suffered--but maybe Cornwell would find her footing in the next book.

And then in Blow Fly (book 12), the tone changed entirely. Still using present tense, Cornwell began writing in the third person with an omniscient narrator. For me, that was the coup de grâce. This book, though dealing with the same characters as the two previous books, had become almost unlistenable. I listened anyway, feeling sick. Why, I wondered, should the narrative shift make such a difference?

And then I understood: from the God's-eye view, everything is visible and everything is present. I could see Scarpetta (though not as often as I wished), but I could also see murder, kidnapping, torture, and dismemberment taking place on stage, from the viewpoints of the people committing these acts. I could enter into the minds of several sociopathic, narcissistic, thoroughly evil characters as they plotted new crimes. I did not feel terror--I knew Scarpetta would emerge relatively unscathed to star in the next books--but I felt extreme revulsion.

Nevertheless, I went to the library and checked out book 13, Trace. It too uses present tense and an omniscient narrator. Soon I was in the mind of yet another psychotic criminal, one described by a reviewer as "one of the creepiest villains to come along since Silence of the Lambs." Enough! I said, and pulled the cassette out of the player (our car is very old).

The God's-eye view is not for the faint of heart. Even God got tired when he looked down and "saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (Gen 6.5). According to the biblical tale, that's when he decided to drown nearly the whole lot of us.

I'm going to return Trace to the library in a few minutes. I'm thinking I'll trade it in on an audiobook by Lisa Scottoline. I'm hoping her point of view is restricted. Sometimes one should avert one's eyes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Harrowing hell, and the hell of Alzheimer's

Holy Saturday--Jesus may have rested, but everyone in DuPage County is out buying groceries. Jesus may have been busy too. According to ancient tradition, he spent his down time in hell, or the world of the dead, or wherever Adam and Eve were hanging out in hopes that he'd show up. Orthodox icons show him lifting them out of the depths, offering them back the life they so badly messed up the first time.

I've been thinking a lot lately about a variation of hell--the living death that is Alzheimer's disease. My mother, my father, my mother-in-law, and my best friend's mother all died of it, so when I learned that two new novels feature a main character with Alzheimer's, and that both books tell the story from the point of view of the person with Alzheimer's--an almost impossible task, I thought--I felt driven to read them.

And then this week while I was writing a review of the two books, I heard from my friend Evelyn Bence, who has just posted "Receive My Memory" on the Image blog. I love her beautiful essay about visiting her dear friend John Breslin, SJ, a brilliant man whose memories are leaking away.

I'm not going to post my review here unless the magazine I'm writing for decides not to accept it. I'll just direct you to two realistic, emotionally shattering stories, both by first-time novelists in their thirties (how do they know so much about this disease?). If you like well-defined linear stories about women and their relationships--"hen lit"--I recommend Still Alice by Lisa Genova (Simon & Schuster: Pocket Books). If you prefer literary fiction that brings up philosophical questions about human nature and leaves you wondering what really happened, read The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (Random House: Nan A. Talese). P.S., June 1: The full review is up at the Books & Culture web site, .

Both books are brilliant but draining: perfect for Lent and a great antidote to the Easter bunny. Alzheimer's disease is one of an infinite number of reasons why hell needs to be harrowed.

Holy Saturday is almost over. Soon the Easter candle will be lit.

The last Lenten meals

Just a note to finish the food log (="flog"):

To the left is Thursday's meal, a homemade corn tortilla topped with a package of fresh spinach lightly cooked in olive oil, tilapia (bought frozen at Aldi and cooked in microwave with butter and lime juice), Wednesday evening's leftover beans, 4 oz colby jack cheese ($1.29 for 8 oz at Aldi), and a mixture of diced fresh tomato and diced avocado (69 cents at Aldi). Dessert was fresh blackberries (TJ) and a dollop of yogurt.

Friday's meal
is to the right: wild arugula salad ($1.99 at TJ, enough for six generous portions) with half a tomato and a slice of quiche made from the other half of the colby jack cheese, about 2/3 of a can of artichoke bottoms bought at Caputo's last month, 3 eggs, and 1/2 cup milk, on a crust made with 1 cup flour, a bit of salt, 1/4 cup olive oil, and a few drops of water. Dessert was blackberries and yogurt again.

Saturday's meal
was identical to Friday's, except that dessert was a square of chocolate from a bar Mr Neff bought at Aldi last week.

And that's it for Lent 2009. Lively dust can wax philosophical again, or perhaps turn to book reviews. Though at some point I will have to figure out just what the Neffs eat. I've been wondering for years, and "whatever's in the refrigerator," though true, is not an entirely satisfactory answer.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Lenten Experiment: final grocery bills

We did it!

The only shopping I'm going to do tomorrow will be a couple of items for Easter Sunday, and I've decided that doesn't count--it's a celebration and should not be part of the Lenten Experiment.

So, here's the bottom line for 5 1/2 weeks--39 days--from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday (tomorrow). Lent, of course, is a week longer than that, but we took a week off in March to celebrate our anniversary and visit our kids and grandkids.

Our aim: to spend an average of $11/day for the two of us and any guests we might have during Lent, which is roughly what the US Department of Agriculture thinks a thrifty older couple needs for a healthy diet (thrifty: $11.17; low cost: $14.36; moderate cost: $17.69; liberal: $21.23).

We had company three times during Lent and were company three times. We attended two soup suppers and provided all the bread for one of them. I believe I ate in a restaurant twice and Mr Neff did once. Maybe I've forgotten something, but that's what our records show. And we were maniacal about recording grocery purchases.

Our results: Counting only groceries, we spent an average of $9.39/day. (Compare with the $12.00/day we spent during the month before Lent, when we were already tightening our belts but not quite as seriously.) Counting groceries plus restaurant meals, our daily average during Lent was $10.02 (two of those restaurants were really cheap).

I hadn't planned to include wine in the calculations, since wine is an extra that is neither covered by food stamps nor included in the USDA's figures. Also, I didn't keep track of how much we drank during Lent (it wasn't much), and my wine purchases are mostly undrunk or given away. But just to find out how wine might affect the total, I added the amount we spent on Chianti and Dolcetto at Caputo's Cheese Shop March 7--$43.53 for seven bottles--and am hoping that's somewhat accurate. If so, counting groceries plus restaurant meals plus wine, our daily average was $11.13.

Next week I may analyze the Lenten Experiment a bit. What exactly did we eat? What did we miss? What did we learn? What will we be eating as soon as it's over? But for now, just one observation: The Lenten Experiment was really easy. If you want to do an experiment worth blogging about, try keeping an Orthodox Lent. Here are the rules, which the web site says are "not widely known or followed in our day." I can see why.

The Lenten Fast

Great Lent is the longest and strictest fasting season of the year.

Week before Lent ("Cheesefare Week"): Meat and other animal products are prohibited, but eggs and dairy products are permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday.

First Week of Lent: Only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. (Few laymen keep these rules in their fullness). For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. On Saturday of the first week, the usual rule for Lenten Saturdays begins (see below).

Weekdays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: The strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil.

Saturdays and Sundays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: Wine and oil are permitted; otherwise the strict fasting rule is kept.

Holy Week: The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat on this day. After St. Basil's Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.

Wine and oil are permitted on several feast days if they fall on a weekday during Lent. Consult your parish calendar. On Annunciation and Palm Sunday, fish is also permitted.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Doggerel for Maundy Thursday

Are you old enough to remember Arch Books, paperback Bible stories in doggerel illustrated with cartoons? I wrote three of of them back in the 70s. Concordia published the first two, but the third was too much for them. It was always my favorite, so I offer it here, somewhat updated, for Maundy Thursday.

Thirteen men around a table, something obviously wrong.
Though their heads are wrapped in halos, twelve men wear their faces long.
James is signaling to Simon; Philip looks the other way;
Thomas shakes his fist at Matthew; John has not a word to say.
Big Bartholomew, exhausted, yawns and pushes back his chair;
James the Lesser, scowling broadly, with his finger carves the air.
Judas grimaces profoundly; Andrews scratches for a flea;
Thaddeus bumps into Peter--oh, what can the matter be?

Soon the Lord will claim his kingdom. Rome approaches zero hour.
In his new administration, who will wield the greatest power?
Peter, chief of staff, barks orders; Judas, hedge-fund king, dissents;
Thomas hopes to be Chief Justice; James and John opt for Defense.
Intrigues stir Simon the Zealot (why, is anybody's guess);
He will head the Secret Service; Matthew wants the IRS.
Heads of this and that department keep the ship of state on course.
Who will be the most important when God's kingdom comes in force?
Twelve men ready to be leaders, generals, great men of might,
Department heads and cabinet members: twelve men itching for a fight.

Thirteen men around a table, thirteen men about to eat.
There's the basin, where's the servant? Thirteen men have dirty feet.
Andrew, closest to the basin, quickly chooses not to budge:
Next year's military hero can't be this year's common drudge.
Cleaning dirt from people's toenails nauseates Bartholomew.
He nods at John, then at the basin; John misapprehends his cue.
Simon, cloak-and-dagger honcho, rises, drops back in his seat:
What a blot upon his record: "This man's good at washing feet."
James the Lesser squirms and reddens; Judas stares beyond the doors.
Talented administrators should not stoop to lowly chores.
Peter talks, though no one listens; Philip's overcome with heat;
Twelve men yawn and scratch and wonder, who is going to wash our feet?

Twelve men eager to do battle, all impatient for the coup--
But Jesus looks a bit disgruntled. What is Jesus going to do?

Jesus Christ, their Lord and teacher, famous healer, son of man,
Son of God, God's own Messiah, is picking up the water pan.
With one hand he takes a towel, tucks it in his belt, and then
Rolls his sleeves above his elbows, walks by twelve astonished men,
Pours some water in the basin, puts the basin on the tile
Next to open-mouthed Thaddaeus, takes his sandal with a smile,
Dips his feet into the water, washes well between his toes,
Pats them dry, refills the basin, tucks the towel back in, and goes
To Andrew, Thomas, John, and Philip, Simon and Bartholomew,
James the Greater, James the Lesser, Levi Matthew, and Judas too.

All the feet are washed but Peter's. Jesus takes the basin now,
Moves toward Peter, kneels beside him. Peter jumps. "I can't allow
You to do the servant's labor! You are not the slave of me.
You're my rabbi, friend, and master! Go away and let me be.
Dirty feet I've seen quite often. Dirty feet I've washed before.
If you'll let me have that basin, I can wash my feet once more."
Peter grabs, but Jesus dodges. "Peter, listen for my sake.
Here's a lesson you must study: when to give and when to take.
Give your all, but not for glory. Give as long as there is need.
As a servant in my kingdom, you can plant the gospel seed.
Take from me the right to enter heaven's kingdom come to earth.
Wash your soul in heaven's fountain: take from me the second birth."

Jesus sets aside the basin. Peter clutches him in dread.
"Master, stay and wash me fully! Wash my feet, my hands, my head!"
Kneeling, Jesus washes Peter's feet, and then says to his friend,
"One who's bathed is clean all over, when just his feet are washed again.
I, your master, played the servant. Each of you should do the same.
Servants all, serve one another when you gather in my name."

Thirteen men around a table, one alone is devil-led.
Twelve men, clean in soul and body, ready now for wine and bread.

Matthew doesn't ask the question; Luke is silent, as is Mark;
Likewise, John forgets to mention (scholars thus are in the dark):
Who washed Jesus' feet?

Copyright 1978 and 2009 by LaVonne Neff; all rights reserved

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fair frugal fare

Frugal food tastes better if it looks good. This poverty meal was too beige, so I inserted a strip of warmed-up leftover spinach (Trader Joe's) down the middle. And leftover food tastes better with butter, so I stirred a pat of same (Aldi) into the spinach before serving.

On top, a quarter bag of gnocchi (Aldi) seasoned with a splash of olive oil (TJ), half a cut-up tomato (TJ), and a handful of asiago cheese (Aldi).

Below, nearly half a can of white beans (Caputo's), drained and rinsed, cooked in olive oil with half an onion (Aldi), a sprinkling of dried parsley, and a small spoonful of prepared garlic. Salt and pepper too.

For dessert we shared half a container of blackberries (TJ) and a dollop of plain yogurt (Mountain High from Jewel, on sale for $2.50 a quart, really good).

Three days to go. I shopped at TJ and Aldi this afternoon. I'm already starting to pick up items that we'll still be using after Easter. That's fair, though, since I didn't start Lent with an empty pantry. For $11.46 at Aldi I got 8 oz colby jack cheese that I'm going to use in tostadas and in a quiche, three avocados (69 cents each, and they're lovely), six bananas, four lemons, four tomatoes, a pound of butter, and a gallon of milk. For $7.40 at Trader Joe's I got peanut butter, wild arugula (enough for six to eight servings), and 12 oz of wonderful blackberries--our Lenten treat.

I'm going to have to shop once more before Easter, mostly to pick up items needed for Easter Sunday. My conscience has not yet told me whether or not to include that shopping trip in Lenten expenses.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Eating and cheating

Temperature in the lower forties, a bit too much wind, quite a bit of sun... so a friend and I met at the Morton Arboretum just before 11:00 this morning and walked through the woods until 1:15. Plenty of mud, no foliage to speak of, but good conversation and exercise.

We had lunch at the Ginkgo Restaurant by the big window overlooking the pond, where an egret was flying back and forth. It's the perfect place for people who are trying to eat cheaply but desperately want a restaurant meal: ask for a half portion of whatever salad attracts you. Mine was an ample plateful of romaine lettuce, goat cheese, dried cranberries, and walnuts, with poppyseed dressing and a roll on the side. All for $3.75.

Tonight Mr Neff and I were invited to a dinner in honor of a guest speaker at Wheaton College: green salad, whole wheat roll, chicken in lemon sauce, potato fingers, lightly cooked broccoli, chocolate cake, coffee.

I am certainly cheating. If I were really on food stamps, it is unlikely that I would have an Arboretum membership (without it, I would have had to add the $11 admission to the price of my lunch), and I probably wouldn't have been invited to tonight's dinner either. The Lenten Experiment has not shown me what it's like to be poor. I can cheat whenever I want to. I can take a week off like I did last week. I can get interesting, inexpensive ingredients at stores that aren't available in low-income neighborhoods. And I only have to keep this up for four more days.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mac and cheese for grown-ups

For 2 big servings or 4 little side-dish servings:

Cook 4 oz of your favorite dried short pasta, whether macaroni or some other kind. I used some of the gemelli we bought at our Caputo's expedition a month ago. Boil up some salted water, drop the pasta in, and cook until it doesn't crunch--usually 8 - 10 minutes depending on the shape of the pasta.

Meanwhile, make the sauce:
  • Melt 1/4 C oil (butter is nice) and
  • Add 1/4 C flour and 1/2 tsp salt, stirring until the mixture is smooth.
  • Pour in a bottle (about 12 oz) of beer. I used Warsteiner Dunkel because we had some, but I would have liked the results better with a light-colored beer: a pilsner or just plain old American yellow beer. Mr Neff, however, liked his bitter mac and cheese.
  • Stir the mixture over medium heat until it starts to thicken.
  • Add about 4 oz grated cheddar cheese, preferably sharp or extra-sharp. Keep stirring until the sauce is smooth.
  • Finally stir in a teaspoon or more of something to add zing. I used some leftover adobo sauce. You can use mustard, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce--whatever sounds good to you.
Drain the pasta, stir it into the sauce, and serve. Garnish if you like with parsley or chopped tomato, or sprinkle on some coarsely ground black pepper.

It's quick, it's cheap, it's nutritious, it's Lent!

I served this tonight along with the last of the mâche lettuce, tomato wedges, and those eight carefully counted Brussels sprouts I bought Saturday. For dessert we had blackberries with a dollop of yogurt. We drank water. And if you're in the mood for water too, and would like some music to go along with it, click here and listen to Mrs Olive Coberley of Wheatland, Missouri, singing the old temperance song "Away, Away the Bowl." This recording was made 50 years ago.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Grocery shopping under duress

I'm tired of Lent.

It's no fun having to think about every penny when I shop. No, probably shouldn't get those 49-cent gala apples at Trader Joe's. Guess I'll get the $1.00/lb yellow delicious apples at Jewel. Don't like 'em as well, but they're cheaper.

Except they turned out to cost exactly the same.

OK, we'll try the $1.59 yogurt, fillers and all, at Aldi's. Got two of them, then discovered my very favorite yogurt, Mountain High, which is usually about $3.99 at Jewel, on sale for $2.50. Bought two of them anyway. Refrigerator is now full of yogurt.

Do not look to the right or to the left while passing the fresh fish counter. Aldi's cheap frozen fish is at home and needs to be used. $1.00 avocadoes are good for Jewel, but since I didn't get the 69-cent ones at Aldi, guess I'll pass.

TJ applesauce is better, but it's $1.99 for the cheapest and Jewel is having a sale on applesauce for $1.50. We'll save a dollar or two and buy eggs from tortured chickens. Brussels sprouts too expensive in the 1-lb bag at TJ; I'll get eight--count 'em--little sprouts at Jewel.

Yeah, we're saving a fair amount of money. And the food isn't bad. Wednesday we had breaded tilapia with an arugula & avocado salad. Thursday we had whole wheat spaghetti with vegetarian meatballs in tomato sauce topped with asiago cheese, along with green beans tossed with potato gnocchi ("too much starch," said Mr Neff, but starch is what poor people eat). Tonight I made a quiche that involved Aldi frozen salmon, TJ cheap goat cheese, and cheap onions, eggs, and milk from Aldi. With it we each had half a tomato and a few greens. We also had soup that involved frozen spinach, an onion, a little oil and butter and garlic, and imitation chicken broth. Tomorrow we will have leftovers, and probably Brussels sprouts.

One week till Easter ...

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lent with Charlie Trotter

A funny thing happened back in 1981-82 when mortgage interest rates were 18% and inflation was rampant and we changed to lower-paying jobs and we ended up accidentally owning two houses. On a budget so tight that if I found a dollar I rushed out and bought potatoes, I began dreaming about dressing like Princess Diana.

With only a week to go in our Lenten Experiment, and with the automobile industry crashing and burning and unemployment soaring, I'm having a similar kind of dream. It's Friday afternoon, and I want to go out to dinner. Not to Adelle's or Pad Thai etc or Cafe Galicia, though I love them and can't afford them on this regime anyway.

No. I want to go to Charlie Trotter's.

In my dream, Mr Neff will have the Grand Menu and I will have the Vegetable Menu, or vice versa. We might as well share and taste everything. In addition, we will each order the Wine Accompaniment. The website avoids telling me how much this is all going to cost, but from readers' comments scattered across the internet, I gather that it will be at least $600, tip and tax included. In other words, more than my entire Lenten Experiment budget.

Maybe I can save money by borrowing one of Princess Diana's old dresses...

Thursday, April 2, 2009

CSA time again

It's April, and soon the CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes will start to arrive. Click here to learn about our experience with Genesis Growers, the small Illinois farm that supplied us with excellent produce in 2007. Thanks to John and Wendy Wilson, who introduced us to Genesis Growers. And thanks to John for directing me to a funny and oh-so-true article in Slate magazine, Catherine Price's "The Locavore's Dilemma: what to do with the kale, turnips, and parley that overwhelm your CSA bin." Price writes:
...Each year, toward the end of winter, I run into the Turnip Problem.

Ordinarily, I would never eat turnips. I managed to go 30 years without buying one. But now every winter I'm faced with a two-month supply, not to mention the kale, collards, and flat-leaf Italian parsley that sit in my refrigerator, slowly wilting, filling me with guilt every time I reach past them for the milk. After three years of practice, I've figured out simple ways to deal with most of these problem vegetables: I braise the turnips in butter and white wine; I sauté the kale and collards with olive oil and sea salt; I wait until the parsley shrivels and then throw it out. The abundance of roughage is overwhelming.
Alas, Mr Neff and I were so overwhelmed by our CSA boxes (they were excellent, but how many vegetables can two people eat?) that we elected not to renew our subscription. Instead, last year we spent a lot more time and money at the farmers' market, trying to find locally grown produce that we knew we'd enjoy eating. This meant that we threw out less, but we also learned less. There's nothing like a giant daikon radish to challenge one's ingenuity. Even our little terrier was baffled.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Challah on Wednesday

Challah is the traditional Jewish Sabbath bread eaten with the Friday evening meal. Back in 1973, when we lived down the street from an excellent Jewish bakery, we started buying challah every week. Mr Neff passed for Jewish (little did he know, back then, that he wasn't just passing) until one Friday afternoon when our neighbor Arthur J. Balderman saw him across the bakery and hollered, "Happy Sabbath, Reverend!"

To do it right, you need two loaves and a challah cover and candles and prayers in Hebrew. Gefilte fish is nice too. We never did it right. We just enjoyed the bread along with cheese and fruit and grape juice. It became our Friday night tradition. So in 1975, when we moved far from our bakery, I had to learn to bake challah.

Here are the proportions I use. You can do this by hand, in a food processor, or in a big old mixing machine. You can even mix it in a bread machine, but you'll have to shape the dough by hand.

For one big loaf
3.5 C (=1 lb) bread (or all-purpose) flour
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1.5 tsp yeast
1/4 C butter or vegetable oil [Note: If you will serve your challah at a meal where meat will be eaten, do not use butter. At least not if you want to be Jewish.]
2 eggs plus most of the 3rd egg--leave out about half the yolk for glazing
3/4 C hot tap water

Etc., etc. Mix, knead, let rise, shape, let rise, bake at 400 for about 25 minutes or at 350 for about 45 minutes or whatever.

To shape the loaf, divide dough into three balls and roll out into three long strands. Starting at the middle, braid out to each end. Tuck ends under and seal. Just before baking, lightly brush top with the reserved egg yolk which has been diluted with about a teaspoon of cold water. If you like, sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds.

Alternately, divide the dough in half. One "half" is always larger than the other, right? Don't try to fix it. Take the larger portion, divide in three, and braid as above, except don't seal the ends. Then take the smaller portion, divide in three, braid, and plop the braid on top of the larger braid. Seal all the ends together. This produces a beautiful loaf (see the picture for how it should look), unless the top braid slides to one side, in which case it still tastes good.

You can make two loaves from this recipe, but they'll be pretty small. If you do that, shorten the cooking time by 5 or 10 minutes. Or you can increase the proportions. Try 5 C flour, 2 T sugar, 1.5 t salt, 1 pkg (2.5 t) yeast, 1/3 C oil, 1 C hot water, 4 eggs.

Tonight we attended the last Lenten Loaf and Ladle supper at St Barnabas. I brought challah--inappropriate for Wednesday, but everyone liked it--and whole wheat bread. Matt Rodman brought apple and brie soup, the Swansons contributed cream of tomato--an old family recipe that has nothing whatsoever in common with Campbell's--and the Pelches brought Italian wedding soup. Mr Neff, who tried all three, reports that all were excellent.