Simple Feast

The Joy of Letter Writing

For quite a few winters now, I have watched a great joy of mine turn slowly into sadness: No one writes letters anymore, a fact that is especially noticeable at Christmas card time. Is it that friends—as they have graduated from school, acquired jobs, gotten married or not, added children—are just too busy for such things? Has the art of letter writing been usurped by e-mail? Is it that many people never really liked writing letters in the first place (although everybody likes receiving letters)?

I'm guessing that people who say "I'm too busy to cook" are the same ones who don't make the time for letters either. Many of the reasons for why I cook mirror my motives for writing letters.

Just as hot-out-of-the-oven bread gives wondrous pleasure to anyone lucky enough to be within nose-shot of that kitchen, so finding a plump, hand-lettered envelope after opening the mailbox and rifling through the junk is an equally exquisite pleasure. Like bread, letters are a tactile pleasure unduplicatable by the ring of the telephone or the blinking neon of a computer: Paper comes in all thicknesses; ink has a smell and a way of changing appearance as the mood or speed of the writer changes; even the lowly postage stamp adds a colorful and festive air to a letter.

The act of cooking often is as pleasurable as the eating. Just so, writing a letter can be as cathartic as receiving one. Your life takes on color and shape when its events are spun out onto paper. Patterns emerge. You discover things you didn't know were going on in your head—there they are coming out at the end of the pen. You find you can make others laugh at the crazy things you saw people do that day; things seem to get funnier by the very act of telling.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
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Tolerating Food Intolerances

"No thanks, it makes me sick." "Let’s see, if I leave the milk out of these rolls Sheila can eat them." "Will Dad eat birthday cake tonight (and go off his wheat-free diet) because it’s a special occasion?"

In many homes, food allergies have added an extra twist to decisions that go on in the kitchen. While the official number of people with serious allergies is low—2 percent of adults and 8 percent of children—considerably more people have what is known as a "food intolerance." In fact, as many as 25 to 28 percent of us have reactions to certain foods. Does cantaloupe give your stomach a workout? Does chocolate give you a migraine headache? Do strawberries give you a skin rash? Do you avoid shellfish? Then you already know what I’m talking about.

Parents often have to educate themselves quickly on the intricacies of the body’s immune system when a child develops a milk or a peanut allergy. (A certain protein found in peanuts has caused more food allergy deaths, usually by anaphylactic shock, than any other type of allergy, because peanuts often are hidden in baked goods, candy, ethnic food, i.e. as when a Chinese restaurant seals its egg rolls with peanut butter.)

Food allergy symptoms can take the form of hives, headaches, gastrointestinal distress (cramps, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting), asthma, worsening of arthritis or eczema, or oral manifestations where the lips tingle, itch, and swell, or your throat tightens.

Reactions such as these can be caused by a genuine triggering of the immune system by the enemy substance, or it may be merely an inability to metabolize or break down certain foods because of a sensitivity to a naturally occurring chemical contained in that food, i.e. lactose in milk. (It has been estimated that 80 percent of African Americans are lactose intolerant, as are many people of Mediterranean or Latin American origin.)

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1997
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Splurge on a Dozen!

Someday when I see the sale card announcing "12 Lemons for a Dollar" at the grocery store, I’m going to buy all 12 instead of just two or three. Then I will fix all the lemon dishes I can think of. Or maybe if it’s summer, I’ll turn them into a big pot of lemonade—as one elderly gentleman told me he was going to do when he saw

me watching him bag up about 24 lemons during a recent lemon sale. Some year, I may even go a step further and plant a lemon tree; our part of Texas is almost far enough south to risk the occasional freezes.

A lemon is such an unlikely food with its pure and sunny color, indestructible wrapper, intensely sour juice, and even more intense, fragrant zest that is full of volatile oils. And lemons are loved and available worldwide. Greek and Lebanese cuisines, for instance, are especially beholden to the spice of the lemon. (Native to Asia, lemons were introduced to the Christian world when the Crusaders discovered them in Palestine.)

So distinct is lemon’s flavor and aroma, and so easily obtained, that makers of everything from furniture polish to candy to powdered drinks use the actual oil, essence, and citric acid of the lemon instead of relying on chemical substitutes, something that cannot be said of most other fruit and flower flavors. Lemon was the first flavor to be used in soda water in the 1840s.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1997
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A Second Chance for Sandwiches

The loaves and fishes in the Bible story of the "feeding of the five thousand" (a major sandwhich-making operation) should spring to mind whenever hungry people congregate.

Why do sandwiches always taste better at someone else’s house? My own inclination when searching for something to fix for lunch is to do "anything but sandwiches"—leftover supper from the night before, a quick pot of macaroni ’n’ cheese, a salad. But whenever I eat one someone else has made, I

realize what a complete and tasty meal a sandwich offers. Obviously, I need to overcome a certain lack of imagination when making these layered gold mines.

Summer is an easy time to create a sandwich marvel. Crisp cucumber rounds, rings of bell pepper, juicy slabs of red tomato, slices of mild onion, romaine lettuce leaves are all in season, and such vegetables almost make the cheese and bread irrelevant. Add jalapeño peppers, a squirt of oil-and-vinegar dressing, salt, pepper, and a few olives, and you will wonder why you ever bother to cook hot food.

If summer vegetable season has not quite arrived, you can perk up a tired turkey breast or ham sandwich with pineapple chunks, or cranberry sauce, or a hot-sweet mustard.

When is the last time you had a fried egg sandwich? Or took the time to make an egg salad sandwich, with its focus on that most ubiquitous of sandwich ingredients—pickles? Again, an egg sandwich of toasted bread, creamy mayonnaise, and sliced ripe tomato may have you swearing never to eat an egg with a fork again. (I have seen a breakfast variety of egg sandwich that features jelly and buttered toast with an egg between, but I still prefer the lunch version best.)

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1997
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Celebrations Large and Small

Yesterday I learned that a friend will be moving far away. And my thoughts have turned to planning a good-bye party, i.e. what kind of food we should fix and eat together our last time. This train of thought is totally appropriate in her case, as Katie herself always seemed to whip up wonderful celebrations at the drop of a hat.

She would welcome a friend home from a summer trip with a three-salad luncheon. Her solution to post-Christmas blues? An Epiphany potluck. Birthdays at her house meant balloons, candles, a banner, and favorite foods. To her notion, a hard day’s work deserved tea, scones, and strawberry jam in the afternoon. A surprise picnic would emerge from cloth bags when you thought we were all just going for a swim at the river.

Not a bad way to keep the everyday miracle of being alive at the forefront of your mind. Truly, most things, large or small, are worth celebrating. Even having family supper together should not be taken lightly—there is no guarantee that you will all be together again tomorrow.

Marking small accomplishments, as well as milestones and rites of passage, is an important tool in overcoming discouragement. For celebrants, a little pause in the daily grind brings welcome refreshment. So much of our work and home lives can seem like an endless battle with entropy—the stack of unanswered letters and bills overflows its folder; you just replaced the car battery and now the radiator needs flushing; the missing buttons are no sooner sewn back on their respective shirts when you notice your favorite socks are getting holes in the heels; audacious bugs leave spit marks on the newly washed curtains (not to mention the curtain rod bracket that keeps losing a nail, sending the same clean curtains down onto the floor).

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1997
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Oh How We Love Chocolate

Would it be cruel to extol the virtues of chocolate these dark, cold days of January and February, months traditionally reserved for dietary resolutions and abstention from such temptations? I say now is when we need it the most.

For instance, consider that a cup of Mexican hot chocolate—with its frothy milk foam and fragrant cinnamon—warms stiff limbs much faster in the morning than the ponderous wood stove. (Best of all would be the hot chocolate and the wood stove together!)

Hazelnut-chocolate spread frosted bite by bite onto a banana makes a great breakfast. Coffee break? Brownies, or devil's-food cake, or mocha chip cookies, of course. At the noon meal, you can pop a few chocolate morsels like so many vitamins, for dessert. Supper could be an exotic Mexican dish: chicken, turkey, beans, or a protein-rich grain smothered in molé poblano—a piquant blend of chilis, chicken stock, sesame tahini, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, tamarind, or dried apricots...and chocolate. Scrumptious.

Thumbing through my file of newspaper recipe clips, I find (predictably) many that feature chocolate in some form: handmade truffles, mocha pecan pie, warm and gooey individual chocolate cakes, homemade English toffee, chocolate silk pie, espresso baked custard with bitter chocolate glaze, chunky caramel squares, devil's-food cake cockaigne, chocolate walnut fudge.

In this fondness for chocolate, it seems I am not alone. About 50 studies of food cravings have been published over the past five years, and they all list chocolate as one of the major munchies of choice in the United States, especially among women. The reasons why have a lot to do with hormones and brain chemicals.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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Eating More of It Wouldn't Hurt...

What time-honored edible has all of the following: the warmth and comfort of hot bread; the fragrance of a baking cake; the staying power of potatoes and gravy; the beauty of a painting in creamy whites or vivid hues and accent colors? Clue: Half the world's human population is sustained on a daily basis by this food.

Rice. We know it in stir fries, stuffings, pilafs, puddings, salads, soups. Even served plain as it comes out of the pot, rice is not a boring grain. Consider basmati (meaning "queen of fragrance"), jasmine, or popcorn rice, three examples of aromatic varieties savored for their rich smells. Medium-grained Italian rices (arborio, carnaroli, padano) are valued for their chewy centers. Long-grained rice, glutinous rice, converted rice, instant rice, rice bran, rice flour; all have their uses.

Rice is inexpensive, but people eat rice not because they can't get anything else, says one Chinese cook, but because of their satisfaction with its flavor and texture.

A typical Burmese eats 416 pounds of rice a year, a Thai 329, a Chinese 243. Americans consume on average only 22 pounds a year-with four of those pounds accounted for in the brewing of American beer. However, consumption is on its way up as the rice-based cuisines of Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, and others gain popularity here. We are just now learning what others have known for about 7,000 years: Rice is delicious and life-giving.

A fair source of protein, rice contains all eight amino acids. (It is low in the amino acid lysine, which is found in beans, making the classic combination of beans and rice particularly healthful.) Rice, especially brown rice with its bran layer still intact, is an excellent source of B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, and others.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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Food Snobs Beware

An article on breakfast about did me in for reading any more words on what's new, healthy, or chic in the food world. Dismissed out of hand as never appropriate was the classic American morning meal of eggs, bacon, pancakes, coffee. I felt a certain amount of proletarian ire: Perhaps some of us need those kind of calories for our work, or maybe some of us really like that kind of breakfast.

Then, not long after, I found myself alone at the table with a tuna fish sandwich, cherry Kool-Aid, and Oreo cookies. "Would you look at this. Where is the arrugula salad with olive oil?" sniffed the New York Times food section fan inside me. "Comfort food," answered the inner child.

The spectrum of people's food preferences runs from gourmet to ordinary, from high fat to low, from health food to junk. I suspect many of us travel back and forth between the extremes. I also suspect that when life gets tough, we return to foods that are familiar to us.

Earlier this year, a cooking school in Austin, Texas, invited famed Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme to give a demonstration based on his new book about low-fat hot and spicy cooking. But at the end of his presentation, the inquiry that drew loud and instant applause from the crowd of 500 had nothing to do with vegetable-based, low-fat food preparation. Rather it was: "How do I get the coating to stick on my chicken fried steak?"

Obviously, a lot of us want to eat and cook interesting, healthy fare. But we also want to continue the food traditions of our families. We don't want to spend an arm and a leg on exotic ingredients, at least not very often. We want to please our eaters, which may occasionally mean Velveeta cheese, meatloaf, or white bread.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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New Workers on the Farm

Life before white sugar probably was pretty good. To those without access to processed sugar or molasses, honey must have seemed like a precious gift, and the bees who made it, magical creatures. I am concluding the same things myself after a recent leap into the world of beekeeping.

For years, my husband and I depended on the neighbor’s beehives to pollinate our vegetable crops. We enjoyed seeing the bees wing in and out of squash and cucumber blossoms early in the mornings, but we took their presence a bit for granted. Until this year.

Spring came and there was silence. Neighbor Richard’s colonies all died during the winter, and at age 88, he decided not to start up again.

As we began checking around for how to obtain bees, we learned that in fact many beekeepers lost bees this winter, either from harsh weather or from two new mites that are sweeping through U.S. apiaries. Nationwide estimates put losses at 90 percent for wild honeybees and 80 percent for domestic ones. (The raw honey price has doubled in the last 18 months.)

All the bee-supply companies we contacted said the same thing: “Sorry, we’re sold out.” We began to have visions of scarce, crooked cucumbers this season, but finally we obtained bees from a hobbyist in a city 100 miles from us who needed to move two hives away from a new bike path behind his yard.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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Back to Basics

When blizzards closed down cities on the East Coast this past winter, the media reported on some strange meals people were eating. Empty supermarket shelves and slim pickings at home led to creative but stomach-churning experiments: deep-fried marshmallows on soda crackers, popcorn and pickled beets, beef tongue.

It doesn't necessarily take a snowstorm to put on a desperate meal. The other night, hungry, grumpy, and too tired to cook, all I could come up with for supper was a boiled sweet potato and a can of pork 'n' beans. ("And this woman writes about feasts?" I could hear my husband thinking.) State of mind and the state of the kitchen cupboards strongly influence either how much fun, or how frustrating, it is to get a meal on the table.

I have learned to milk my in-love-with-food days for all they are worth, madly scribbling ideas and hints, clipping recipes, folding down page corners in cookbooks in preparation for the inevitable days when the kitchen is the last place I want to be. (Those times come more frequently as summer heats up, the days get longer, and working outside in the garden seems much more appealing than being inside the house.) The scribblings also come in handy when company arrives unexpectedly and I want to cook something worthy of the honor of their visit. With little time or quiet to think clearly, I can rely on the lists I made when alone with plenty of energy to think creatively.

One sheet of notes is titled "Mainstays." It lists all the tried-and-true dishes I can make with one hand tied behind my back...meals I know people will like whether they are vegetarian, carnivorous, on a diet, or timid about spicy ethnic foods. Most of the items take about 30 minutes to make, so I also use this list to prod my memory when I can't think of what to cook on an ordinary night.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1996
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