Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Soup and Stones. It's What's For Supper.

The big cast iron pot sits on the stove, its contents gently simmering, a savory aroma wafting in tendrils of steam. Whiffs of garlic, onion and other scents, not quite definable, fill the kitchen. My husband comes home after a long day of work, walking in from outside where the temperatures are once again sinking to below zero. “Mmmm something smells good. What’s for supper?”

“Potato soup,” I call out, checking a chunk of potato to see if it’s soft yet.

He utters a happy moan that lets me know this is just what his hunger is craving.

There is something about making soup that speaks to my heart. It’s more than the convergence of ingredients to provide sustenance. It’s about the basics of provision, comfort, economy, and health.

When I was little, one of my favorite folk stories was the one about stone soup. It begins with two strange men entering a village, hungry and asking for food. The town is poor and has nothing to offer them, so the two men set out to make soup using their magic stone. Curiosity soon drives the villagers to watch. The strangers slyly suggest just a few extra ingredients might really make the soup delicious. One by one, the townsfolk remember a few carrots, onions, or potatoes they just happen to have tucked in cupboard. Finally, a delicious and satisfying soup emerges, able to feed the whole town, and the legend of the magic stone is born. The moral of the story, of course, is cooperation in a time of scarcity can work for the common good.

In times when my own economics are lean and the cupboards are bare, I think of that magic stone and can almost always come up with enough of "this and that" to create a hearty meal. A can of tomatoes here, a couple partial bags of frozen peas or corn there, left over chicken, and a half a bag of whatever noodles I have in the pantry, add water or broth, and voilĂ ! Dinner! And I have the satisfaction of provision in the form of a tasty, hearty and nutritious soup.

Nobody knows the comfort value of food like a church congregation. If a church doesn't know how to throw a good potluck, I would strongly encourage you to question their spiritual validity and run. Run far away, to the nearest pie-baking, casserole-cooking congregation you can find. Truly, these kind will be God’s people. I love my church family: they are good cooks! In times of illness, death, or birth, someone can be counted on to deliver a nice pot of stew or soup. Nothing speaks comfort and health like someone’s homemade touch of love in the form of vegetables and broth, the steam touching your nostrils and calming your spirit even in the midst of personal crisis.

Soup is the perfect dining out selection too. Big city menus are especially suspect. Filled with fishy options that aren't quite cooked (seared tuna anyone?), or cream and butter laden pastas I know I will regret, or skimpy cruditĂ©s that some snooty place is trying to pass for a meal (please), I can always count on a bowl of soup to fill my stomach without making me feel stuffed and yet offer tasty satisfaction. Every small town worth its weight in diners has a place that still sells a good bowl of beef barley soup with a hunk of crusty homemade bread on the side. 

What's for your supper tonight? Small villages and towns all over know the secret to a good soup. Find a clean stone and get ready. A little kitchen magic delivering comfort, love and provision is about to happen.

Vegan Potato Soup (cooking time 30 min.)

5-6 medium sized potatoes, diced
3-4 carrots cut into thin chunks (you can use frozen corn too for variation)
½ onion finely diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp of oil
½ cup-  ¾ cup almond milk (if you don’t care if its vegan, just use regular milk, or half and half)
Salt, pepper, garlic salt, onion salt, smoked paprika or other spices to your taste.

Place diced carrots and potatoes in pot and just cover with water. Slowly simmer until they are soft.  Meanwhile, lightly brown onion in oil and add to soup. Throw garlic in oil and just lightly brown—careful so it doesn’t burn. Throw it in the soup too. Sprinkle in your spices to your taste. Simmer and let your house fill with the fragrance of love. When the carrots and potatoes are soft, scoop out a couple of cups and blend in blender or food processor until smooth, toss back into soup. Let the rest of the soup stay in soft chunks—adds nice texture. Mix in the milk and stir until just heated. Enjoy! (Serves 5-6 depending on how hungry you are!)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Flight Nostalgia

I’m finally on my way home, glad I went to my brother’s wedding and was able to be a part of his special day, but I’m gritty-eyed weary. Flights were delayed, canceled and rescheduled. My sister and I—my travelling partner this trip—spent the night, or more accurately four hours, at a hotel chain, The Red Roof Inn. In its day, it was considered a respectable, clean, family place to stay. But, trust me, that era is long gone, a fact they easily share with flying these days as well. (You can tell when someone is old and waxing nostalgic when the expression “these days” is bandied about.)

When I was young, my father once took our family to the Pittsburgh airport to eat lunch. It was a rare treat, one that required a little bit of driving and planning. But the payoff was a mediocre meal by a big window, watching planes take off and land to the delight of us kids and my aviation enthusiastic dad. 

Walking through the concourse to get to the restaurant was also a unique people-watching opportunity. Young men and women draped in robes or Indian style clothing were stationed throughout the airport handing out brochures for their religion or seeking financial contributions, a fact that might elicit a “damn hippies” from my dad or hushed conversations between my parents about so-and-so’s cousin’s son that was brain washed. It’s hard now to even imagine such open and casual proselytizing ever existed. Thankfully, the opportunity to observe the quirky personalities of humanity is still plentiful.

The flight attendant just came by and offered me a beverage. I could have purchased a Fresh Meal for $8 or a CafePlus for $6 or even a Cafesnack for $4.50. But I declined and opted for just my “complimentary” Diet Coke. Back in my day (there it is again), a hot breakfast would have been served. Perhaps two discs of rubbery pancakes with a drizzle of fake maple syrup, a potato cake or plastic-like scrambled eggs and chunks of tasteless fruit. But the food wasn’t the point. There was something about peeling back the foil on the tray and digging in that felt like a treat and welcomed diversion—like a TV dinner in the air.

I even kind of miss stewardesses, although I fully appreciate the overt sexism blindly accepted as the norm, back in th’ day. Okay, maybe a few things have changed for the better.

It’s easy to feel a sense of mourning for the days of flying that are no more and will never be again. I grumble at the excessive government intrusion at the airports. I miss the casual ease and fun of flying. And the reality of what bad people can too easily do, puts an edge on travel I never used to realize I should feel. Fortunately, I don’t fly often and at least this trip, the purpose was worth it. I got to spend time with my sister, dance with my sweet nieces, meet my brother’s delightful wife and have a piece of wedding cake for all my efforts.

But just to prove I can buck the system a bit, I exercised a little rebellion. You know those safety information cards in the pocket of the seat in front of you that you’re not supposed to remove? Let’s just say, I’ll be able to really study the proper protocol for securing my seat cushion and hugging it closely in front of me in the case of a water landing. 

Now, don’t even get me started on modern euphemisms like water “landing”…

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Grown Up Snow Day


When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh during the winter, we used to watch the snow falling from the early morning sky with great anticipation. Maybe today would be a snow day! Dressed and ready for school, but crossing our fingers and toes, my siblings and I lounged in the living room, usually off-limits to us kids, and listened to the stereo cabinet console tuned to KDKA, the station for information, hoping the DJ would read our school district's name. And not just a delay. We wanted the full day, free and clear. If by a miracle our school was announced, a feeling of jubilation settled on us—like a Get Out of School Free card in the game of life. 

We were fortunate while growing up to live in a suburban neighborhood on a steep hill.  If the snow remained, we could haul out the sleds and use the slope to our full, joyful advantage. Out east the snow was wet enough to make forts, snow balls, and snowmen. There was never a lack of outdoor activities, much to my mother’s great relief, I’m sure. At some point, a snow ball inevitably smacked my face or oozed down my back with its icy claws leaving me in tears—a victim of malicious snow assault.

On frigid weekends, my parents sometimes packed our ice skates and took us to Canonsburg Lake in nearby Washington County. The ice moaned and creaked beneath our blades adding to our thrill. My mom called us in only if it was a) time for lunch
b) word reached the shore that someone fell through the cracking ice or c) the frozen lid began to undulate too much for her comfort. That’s the way it was back then. We didn't know to wear bike helmets or bother to fear the ice until there was something to be afraid of. We just skated for joy.

Sadly, I no longer listen to the radio in eager hope. I now live in a little mountain town well accustomed to five or six months of winter. My kids have never experienced the delicious joy of an official snow day. Snow is just a way of life. 

But I still get a thrill with the first heavy snow—the one that covers my long driveway in creamy frosting layers and coats the peaks with vanilla whip. Snow still means play. With the fresh layer of snow neatly laid, I break out the cross-country skis, anticipating that first click of my toe-clip into the lock and the silent gliding of my skis over a trail. Fresh powder is the ultimate temptation for kids to impose their own snow days and head for the resort.
Sure I have to shovel the driveway, and it’s long…and steep.  But it’s great exercise and fun excuse to get out and watch my dog bury his nose in the snow, on the scent of a deer or bunny.  And the view of snow capped peaks against a bright, azure sky is one that takes my breath away, even after 20 years.

If you’re from the tropics, you can keep your lemons and make your lemonade. Me? If the heavens give me snow, I'm going to make ski tracks. And if you happen to be in town, think about taking a snow day. I have a few sleds and that steep driveway is wicked fast! Afterwards, when our cheeks are red and stinging with cold and our mittens wet with snow, we can come inside and cozy up next to the wood burner. I’ll make us some hot chocolate spiked with a little adult liqueur and even offer you a few sweet marshmallows to top it off. It'll be the best grown-up snow day ever.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sparkling Ducks, Snow and Fine Company

I held my son’s hand as we walked up from the parking lot with the crowds and entered the college stadium.  My husband walked ahead of us and paid the Rotary member collecting the entrance fees. My son wasn’t quite four and I hoped the splash and booms of fireworks wouldn’t frighten him. Along with hundreds of others—the whole town it felt like—we slowly ambled along, looking for the best place to sit and watch the show. 

From somewhere on a grassy slope someone hollered, “Hey! How you guys doing?” I looked up. It was a coworker smiling and waving a gloved hand.

I waved back and smiled, “Wow—it’s chilly tonight!” Small-talk, but for July, the air really did have a nip to it. I wasn't used to this. The coworker smiled and laughed and the people in between us smiled and gave each other a knowing look, a secret they shared. We kept walking, finally finding church friends who patted the grassy slope next to them, inviting us to join them and their kids.

A few of the experienced folks—people who had been a part of this even for years—brought pieces of cardboard the kids so they could slide down the hillside. No one seemed to really mind the little feet trampling over the blankets, and all the parents kept an eye out as the kids slid and tumbled down the hill. My husband and I sat down on the blanket, pulling hats and gloves on. People milled by, offering a hello, asking after families, smiling wryly at the night sky and commenting with a chuckle on the chill. 

It was 1994 and our first Fourth of July in the small mountain town we had moved to for my job at the local college. Already we had been baptized into the waters and spirit of the community. It was an immersion I was still trying to decide if I fully embraced. 

Soon the stadium lights lowered. The night sky was finally dark enough. Little ones playing and squealing nearby found their way back to parents and snuggled in with excitement and trepidation as the first loud crack burst forth and the announcer welcomed people to the annual Rotary Fireworks Show. A barely understandable narrator talked about the history of the mountain valley over a muffled loud speaker as various hand built, framed shapes lit up and sizzled on the field. People around us chattered and laughed good-naturedly waiting for a “real” fireworks to rain down. 

They were not disappointed. With a loud boom, a fizzy rocket shot in the air exploding in a rainbow of sparkles and whistles. Obliging “ooos and ahhs” emanated from the folks around us. A gloved hand reached from behind me holding a cup. “Want some hot chocolate?” I gripped it gratefully, blowing on it a bit before I offered my son, huddled in my lap, a sip. Hot chocolate. These folks were prepared.

Soon another ground display lit up with yellow sparkles. My son anxiously asked, “What is it? What is it?” 

“Is that a duck?” I leaned over and asked my husband.

“Sure looks like it.” 

The duck burned bright to the cheering and laughter of those around us. Newcomers and tourists stood out in the crowd. We were the ones asking in befuddled tones, “Are those ducks? Why are there ducks?” 

A couple locals around us chuckled, offering varying explanations. I didn't get it, but a couple fireworks later, when a row of ducks lit up, I cheered and clapped as loudly as anyone.

As we sat on the blanket, swapping stories with friends, watching each other’s kids, something else started falling from the sky. Not fireworks. No. I looked up. Unbelievable. It was snowing.Yes, white flakes, softly falling. In July. On the fourth. The locals looked up, shook their heads and gave each other knowing smiles.  Like the brightly burning ducks, it was an insider’s joke only they really got.

That was almost twenty years ago. I've lived here long enough to be part of the inside jokes and not be surprised by the occasional middle-of-summer light snowfall that never really accumulates. The venue for the fireworks display has changed to a city park, but lawn chairs and blankets are still set up an hour before show time. Now we are among the locals who walk around, chatting and greeting folks, commenting on how big the kids are getting and answering questions about our son who is getting ready to graduate from college and a few inquiries about the daughter who is off wandering with her high school friends… somewhere.

We’re not worried about her though. While we sadly realize no place is immune from the risks of the world, this place is pretty, darn close. We know there will be plenty of familiar parental eyes keeping a look out on her and the other kids, a fact that both keeps her safe and is not always welcome, at least by the teenagers. Like Santa, we’ll know if either of our kids have been naughty or nice—the word will get back to us.

In spite of the rare summer weather anomalies and the 7700 foot altitude, our small town isn't really all that different from other small towns across America. Sure it has its quirks and characters, but it also has its love and friendship. We've been baptized in community, after all.  A sense of camaraderie and yes, inside jokes, remind our family that we are indeed in fine company.